Advice for Diverse Books Seekers

Rebecca Berlin Field
6 min readJun 26, 2023

If you’ve never tried to publish a book, you are probably not familiar with the term ‘Diverse Voices’. According to Harper Collins, a prominent US publishing company, Diverse Voices refers to “all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA+, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” I have been searching for a literary agent for my picture book for a couple of years, and I come across the term quite often. Because the publishing industry is predominantly white, there is a recent push to represent people who have historically been left out. I support this push with all of my heart. But its not enough. Asking for more underrepresented stories is like thinking you are going to to save the planet by asking for paper straws at restaurants.

On Twitter, agents are tweeting “Looking for the perfect #diversevoices murder mystery set in a small town” or “Desperate for #diversevoices picture book pitch about hair and self care” and although I am encouraged by the diversification of stories being solicited, trying to diversify your client list will not solve the systemic racism that has led to the whiteness of our creative output as a nation. I am a white public school art teacher who teaches in a segregated high school and I am a direct witness to the systems in place that prevent a more representative literary world.

My students are teenagers; hilarious, interesting, annoying, kind, and curious teenagers. All of my students also live with poverty and the trauma of being Black in America. Very few of my students will become published authors or illustrators. Its not because they are less talented, its because creative development is being withheld from the very kids that you hope will write the next #diversevoices romcom. If you want to equitably represent voices of all kinds, you have to work to change the experiences of students in schools across the country. Creative, imaginative authors and artists are born from creative, imaginative children.

There is no shortage of stories in my classroom. All of my high school students come in to class brimming with excitement to tell the latest “cap”, from cafeteria fights, to break-ups, and weekend escapades. My students are each eager to be the storyteller. They sit at tables and as they work on their art, they weave their stories together and I hear laughter and exclamations and I see head nodding, shocked faces, and occasionally the storyteller stands up to act out the tale that they are telling. The potential of these children is evident each and every day that I teach.

My students grow up with trauma caused by systemic and historic racism, structural and direct violence, abuse, and the struggles and daily work of living in poverty. Kids attend my school when they have no other choice. Although there are plenty of white families living in my school zone, there are almost no white children that attend my high school. Most that can afford it, go to private schools. Segregation and its effects is present everywhere. The building hasn’t been renovated since it opened in 1960 and we get little funding from the state or the school system. My students are isolated and do not often cross paths with people who are different from them. This school profile is very common in cities all over the country. And I can tell you from teaching here, not many adults at the state or local level care about our children becoming authors or artists.

Some of my students get to high school without having learned how to read. Many suffer from chronic absenteeism, eviction, lead poisoning, asthma from pest infestations, and pandemic effects that we haven’t begun to acknowledge. Many of my students are directly affected by gun violence, drug abuse, mass incarceration, and the school to prison pipeline. Most kids need support services that reach beyond what is available at school. Along with all of the burdens of being students in my high school, my kids are denied access to imagination. The children who enter my school are seen as graduation numbers and test scores. They are not seen as people with hopes and dreams for their future. My students can’t afford to think about long term goals. They have to focus on overcoming setbacks to school attendance and passing state-mandated tests. Most teachers are evaluated on the outcome of these tests. Imagination and creativity don’t help with test scores…so for the students in my school, art access is treated like a privilege rather than a human right. Dreaming and storytelling are threats when the system is racist.

I teach art in this environment and have learned may things about my students’ access to artmaking, creativity, and imaginative thinking. I believe my insights will help you understand the magnitude of the obstacles that prevent a lot of diverse voices from creative output. To be clear, I believe that every human has the ability and the right to tell their stories and I am writing this so that those that are in the publishing business recognize that asking for submissions cannot destroy the barriers put into place by generations of blockades. Diverse voices will be found when equity is present in regards to access to the arts in school.

I have taught in 5 schools in my 21 year career and have witnessed vast differences in resources and in expectations. While suburban, wealthier children have multiple opportunities for creative thought, Black and Brown students in high poverty schools are given almost none. The skills that my students have acquired in artmaking when they begin high school, are years behind the affluent students that I have taught. This is not because they are not talented, its because art-making has been withheld from them. Affluent, mostly white students, have taken trips and classes that improve their skills and knowledge even when they are in elementary school. When schools are worried about test scores and attendance, students don’t go on field trips. They don’t participate in school-wide art programs. They are taken out of elective classes to go to tutoring or credit recovery. And each time a child is prevented from practicing creative thought, they lose the ability to tell their own stories.

Those stories are definitely present in my amazing students. Stories spill out of them every chance that they can get. The tragedy is, that our public education system is preventing them from telling the stories. One of my colleagues who teaches 10th grade English told me that her students enter her class not being able to recognize basic parts of a sentence…like verbs; they are 15. How many of our 10th grade students have been asked to write something that they feel is important? Our curriculum does not create opportunities for creative writing. Nobody asks our kids to imagine different worlds or to write down their truths. If they had these opportunities, the kids would know how to use a verb; but instead, they are convinced by people of authority, that their stories are not worth telling.

And so this is why asking for more diverse voices authors and illustrators is not going to increase the diversity of the stories that we are all reading. The arts being withheld from major sections of our population is systemic racism. This is more than any one literary agent can fix. Asking for diverse voices is not really trying to diversify our literary world…most young people that will write the next brilliant diverse voices novel don’t imagine that writing is a viable path. They aren’t looking at your Twitter or your website. They don’t know you exist because no one has ever imagined a creative future for them.

If you want more stories from people whose stories are missing, you should be asking why there aren’t more creative opportunities for diverse children who are struggling with reading and writing. You should be demanding that Black and Brown children have access to arts electives in every school. Go to schools and introduce the world of publishing to kids that will not write that book without your access. Lobby your state for more funding for public schools and make sure that your local school districts make art a priority. It’s going to take more than #diversevoices. You can’t fix systemic gatekeeping by opening your query inbox. Breaking down barriers has to be a physical act. The stories from brilliant Black minds are waiting.