, , , , , , , , ,

by Philana Marie Boles

Philana Marie Boles

Since its inception in 2014, I have applauded the refreshing “We Need Diverse Books” initiative. Yet internally, as a multi-published author, I’ve also whimpered a weary cry whenever I see those words. I’ve wanted to remind anyone who will listen, “But we’re here. We’ve always been here. Diverse books just need to be seen and supported.”

Despite so often feeling invisible within the industry, I’ve spent my entire career believing that more and more of us will, eventually, be seen. In 2003, more than a decade before the “WNDB” campaign burst through the social media stratosphere, Leann Heywood, my acquiring editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, wrote in my first editorial letter that she loved that the characters in Little Divas were diverse but race wasn’t the subject or the plot.

I grew up in the Midwest and part of the reason that I, like millions of others, inhaled every Judy Blume novel was that she simply wrote about things that I could relate to. What might be surprising to some people is that children who are minorities aren’t always going through life thinking about, troubled by, or being adversely affected by their race. Sometimes—no, most times—we, too, are just being kids.

My editor’s letter confirmed my innate belief that, while rarely had a non-Caucasian character existed in books without reference to race, they could. They could be seen, and those books could be supported.

Unfortunately, when life intervened and my editor left the industry before my publication date, it was as if there was a silent question reverberating throughout the publishing house in her absence. A middle grade novel written by a woman of color that isn’t about race? How do we promote this? Regardless of that sentiment, in full support of my talent and knowing that the audience was there, my agent at the time—Mel Berger at The William Morris Agency—continued to propose further developing Little Divas as a book series. We were encouraged to wait to see how the reviews came in before the publisher would consider.

Cover of Little Divas, from the middle-grade novel’s original release in 2005.

In one of the many positive reviews, Little Divas was compared to the works of Judy Blume. It was also referred to as “The Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for the multi-cultural reader.” I was thrilled. My agent was thrilled. Readers were thrilled. Booksellers were thrilled. When I earned back my advance, which is such a rarity, I assumed my publisher, too, would be thrilled. But there was no offer for me to write the series.

So, we pivoted to Hollywood for a possible film or television adaptation. There, after a year of hearing the whisper of crickets as a response from the industry, one producer asked me if we could just make the characters Caucasian as it would make things “easier to sell.” The unspoken message was that without that change, there could be no further development. I understood that his intentions were to be honest about marketability from a business perspective, but I was quietly discouraged. Yet, I continued to hold onto hope. Though my journey in publishing has been long and, at times, frustrating, my optimism has never wavered.

Now it is 2023, and with the recent release of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret as a film adaptation with thoughtful and deliberate and effective choices for a semi re-imagined diverse cast, I am even more inspired.

Recently, I had the distinct honor of interviewing Judy Blume. After explaining how, from day one of production, she insisted that her book’s adaptation have inclusive casting, she added, “It’s showing people without making their skin color a part of the story.” Long exhale. I don’t think I’ve had anyone else directly say that to me since Leann Heywood. It felt like a resurrection to my bruised—but not broken—creative soul.

To add to the hope of a more inclusive world, Disney has cast Halle Bailey in the lead in this weekend’s live-action release of The Little Mermaid. On every level, this is all so amazing for writers of color and for anyone who wants to be inclusive in their writing. Why can’t all little girls and boys feel seen in books and on the screen? It’s exciting to watch producers and publishers really improve on that.

New cover design for Little Divas, which is being re-released this month.

In the spirit of these developments, I’ve re-released Little Divas to renew and extend my own contribution to diverse books. I have faith that more and more publishers and producers will see us and get that we are here. And now with increased visibility, my hope for the future is that it will no longer feel necessary to say, “we need diverse books.” We’ve always been here. Just help us stay.

For more fantastic content, community, events, and other professional development opportunities, become a member today! Not sure if there is a chapter in your area? Check here.

Philana Marie Boles is the author of Little Divas, a middle grade novel, as well the YA novel Glitz, and adult novels including In the Paint and Blame It on Eve. An in-demand presenter and keynote speaker, she loves to motivate and inspire audiences from school age to adult. She lives and writes in Los Angeles, California.

Images courtesy of Philana Marie Boles.