Posts Tagged We Need Diverse Books

WNDMG Wednesday – Tracey Baptiste on AFRICAN ICONS

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around
We Need Diverse MG Logo

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado


Welcome to WNDMG Wednesday–we have quite a treat for you.  New York Times bestselling author Tracey Baptiste is here to talk about her newest book, AFRICAN ICONS, (Algonquin Books, October 2021) which has already garnered a Kirkus Reviews star: “empowering, necessary, required reading for all” and “game-changing.”   AFRICAN ICONS expands how Black History is presented by spotlighting the incredible achievements of ten awe-inspiring African innovators who have been too often ignored by history books.

“In African Icons: Ten People Who Shaped History, Baptiste engages in the hard work of unveiling the myths about the African continent to young readers. She pieces together the stories of ten people in a continent that fueled the world. This is a great beginner’s guide to pre-colonial Africa.”

–Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

(Kendi quote sourced from author’s websiteCover for African Icons book by Tracey Baptiste


MUF: We’re so excited about your new book …. Can you tell us a little bit about the origin story for AFRICAN ICONS?

TB: This started as a blog post called “Africans Before Slavery” which I wrote in February 2017 Africans before slavery – Tracey Baptiste ( It was a response to the then president of the United States saying some embarrassingly ignorant things at a Black History Month breakfast. A few kidlit writers responded with a series of posts directing educators to better resources about Black people in history. All of their posts though, highlighted Abolition, Freed Slaves, or the Civil Rights movement. This has long been a source of aggravation for me from when my kids would come home with their Black History Month projects and nothing pre-slavery was ever mentioned. So I did some quick research and posted it. My editor, Elise Howard, saw the post and asked if I would like to write an entire book about pre-slavery Black history. Of course, I said yes.

The Research Journey

MUF: Where did you do your research?

TB: I did most of my research in libraries and museums and using online searches for articles. was particularly helpful, but most helpful were professors in African studies, museum curators, librarians at African library collections. Most of my physical searches were in New York City, Boston, and Cambridge, MA.

Illustration from Tracey Baptiste Website

Illustration Sourced from Tracey Baptiste Website:

MUF: Following up on the research question: one of the most exciting/challenging parts of research is following threads of information to unearth new details and source material. Do you have any fun stories that illustrate this part of the journey? Were there any surprises?

TB: One of my favorite research trips was to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I met with one of the curators, Yaëlle Biro. She walked me through several pieces of art in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas exhibits which is where I got my first introduction to Queen Mother Idia of Benin. She brought many of the pieces alive for me, and I started to see the real people behind the artworks. The big surprise came with one of the pieces which was covered in Venetian glass beads. It was the first time I saw the real connection in trade between Africa and Europe. I had been looking to find the long-established relationships between the two continents, and it was right there in front of me. I was really excited about that. Then when I left the museum, there was a west African woman selling beaded wire sculptures on the street on the sidewalk. It was exactly in the tradition of the artwork I had just seen behind glass at the Met. So revered inside, but outside, this was street art. A total discard. There weren’t even reproductions of any of the African art pieces at the gift shop. It laid bare for me that despite the displays, African art isn’t valued.

Illustration from AFRICAN ICONS

Illustration sourced from Tracey Baptiste Website:

((Enjoying this interview? Read this archived MUF interview with Tracey about her book THE JUMBIES))

Favorite Icon

MUF: Do you have a favorite icon or part of the book?

TB: My favorite section is probably “Across the Golden Sand.” It was also one of the earliest pieces I wrote for the book. I can see the Berbers lined up and the caravans secured as they cross the dunes. It’s an exciting visual and was a lot of fun to write.

My favorite icon is probably Amanirenas. Imagine going toe to toe with a Caesar and winning! I had never thought of an African Queen being so formidable as to defeat Rome, because it was never in any of my history books. As far as I knew from what I’d read growing up, when Rome was in its heyday, Africans didn’t have anything at all, let alone kingdoms with warriors who would defend their borders against Rome, and diplomats who would negotiate with Caesar himself.

MUF: How did you narrow your list of icons to write about?

TB: The book started with a set of kingdoms and circumstances. When Elise read the first draft, she saw that there were ten icons, and asked me to focus on them. (Actually, there were eleven. We left off one, Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia, because it was after the period we wanted to cover, and because he didn’t have a lot of agency in his life.)

Biased and Incomplete Records

MUF: Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you want to share with us?

TB: The research was incredibly difficult in large part because of the bias and racism in the written records, and the bias and racism that kept things out of the written records. Often, I would go down rabbit holes of research and find dead ends because no one bothered to follow up on threads. There was one story about a European king who tried to marry his daughter off to an African king because of the wealth coming out of the country, but I could never find anything to verify that story, who the players might have been, or what eventually happened. It was one offhand remark. Maybe it was true, maybe it wasn’t. It’s frustrating not to know for sure.

MUF: We’re grateful that AFRICAN ICONS will now be available to other researchers to fill in the blanks you found. Thank you for your time and many congratulations!


Tracey Baptiste Author Photo

Photo Credit: Latifah Abdur Photography

About Tracey Baptiste:

I am the New York Times bestselling author of Minecraft: The Crash, as well as the creepy Caribbean series The  Jumbies, which includes The Jumbies (2015), Rise of the Jumbies (2017), and The Jumbie God’s Revenge (scheduled for 2019). I’ve also written the contemporary YA novel Angel’s Grace and 9  non-fiction books for kids in elementary through high school.

I’m a former elementary school teacher, I do lots of author visits, and I’m on the faculty at Lesley University’s Creative Writing MFA program.

My name is pronounced buhTEEST.

How to stay in touch:

Twitter: @TraceyBaptiste

Instagram: @TraceyBaptisteWrites

WNDMG Wednesday — The End of the #OwnVoices Era

We Need Diverse MG
We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

The End of the #Ownvoices Era

About a month ago, we saw the beginning of the end of the #ownvoices era when  We Need Diverse Books chose to stop using the hashtag #ownvoices. Since I am a self-defined #ownvoices author who has used that hashtag for years: querying, pitching manuscripts on Twitter, and even including it on my bio here at Mixed-Up Files, I began asking myself: am I ready — and is it really time?

WNDB Stops Using #ownvoices

Where #Ownvoices Began

To answer that question, I want to start with why we needed it in the first place. Back in 2015 when author Corinne Duyvis coined the term, it quickly gained traction as a shorthand way to tell agents, editors, and readers that a manuscript’s diverse main characters were authentic and drawn from a creator’s lived experience.

The end of #ownvoices

The force that is We Need Diverse Books propelled #ownvoices into the mainstream, accompanied by the clear message to the publishing industry: publish and promote marginalized creators rather than white authors writing diverse characters.

It was a breath of fresh air. #Ownvoices creators had spent such a long time feeling frustrated that our authentic viewpoint didn’t seem to be valued as much as the white viewpoint of who we were. Now maybe, things were changing.

Authors (like me) used the hashtag on Twitter pitch contests like #PitMad and #DVPit, and the industry responded. Agents, editors, and readers all embraced the tool that helped diversify their lists.

So, it seemed that #ownvoices was a win.

Where #Ownvoices is Now

It should absolutely have been a win. But as always, trends that go mainstream become susceptible to the battlefield that is social media. In this case, what should have been an empowering self-identifying label morphed into anxiety-promoting ugliness. In the wilderness of social media, where nuance and context go to die, identity can be and often is flattened by out-of-context reading, crushed, or judged cruelly by followers who insist on the right to define your identity and its authenticity.

The end of #ownvoices

In a brilliant essay,  author and bookseller Nicole Brinkley notes,  “… how intensely the notion of perfect representation had been weaponized—both by readers who didn’t consider representations authentic enough to earn the label, and by readers who dismissed as problematic any representation that wasn’t explicitly labeled ownvoices by its author.”

With this relentless scrutiny, #ownvoices began to create a litmus test for diversity that felt a lot like backlash and certainly wasn’t creating a healthy and safe space for marginalized writers to promote their work.

#Ownvoices Doesn’t Police Identity

But the external pressure on #ownvoices creators was only part of the distortion that ultimately dismantled it. The other came from creators who were eager to ride the diversity wave even though they already had the privilege of benefiting from an overwhelmingly white publishing industry.

When Beth Phelan launched Twitter pitch contest #DVPit back in 2016, she would host pre-pitch Q and A sessions. Because often participated in the contest, I would read these threads avidly and frequently observed these kinds of questions:

“Can I participate if I don’t identify with a marginalized population but my book/main character/secondary character does?”

Phelan’s answer was always the same: we don’t police your identity; that’s on you. But #DVPit is for marginalized creators only.

Whether We Still Need #Ownvoices

While #ownvoices began because of a clear need for authors to be able to rally around a common flag and support each other in that space, it needed to be able to grow and change along with the industry’s attitude toward diversity. To have shown that kind of growth, we needed to see two distinct characteristics: 1) continued unambiguous support of marginalized creators; 2) results.

We’ve seen how the support system that was #ownvoices crumbled. But what about whether #ownvoices actually helped get more marginalized creators published? That’s tough to quantify.

Data on books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. reveals that in 2020, about 58% of 3,115 books reviewed were written by or about: BIPOC, Asian, Latinx, and Arab communities. The distinctions between “by” and “about” show that while the number of diverse books published continues to rise, the number of diverse creators still lags.

That said, CCBC doesn’t distill those”by” numbers further into whether creators are #ownvoices. According to the CCBC website, “…  #OwnVoices is a term whose meaning is tied to culturally specific identity and experience, which is not captured in these broad categorizations. The information we document for each book regarding culturally specific content, and for book creators documenting their culturally specific identities, is necessary to determine if that book might be categorized as #OwnVoices. It is also important to note that the way in which individuals interpret the meaning of #OwnVoices may vary.”

((Want more on #ownvoices authors? Read this interview with MUF contributor Natalie Rompella))

Outlived its Usefulness

Ultimately, if you buy my assessment that #ownvoices needed two crucial supports and neither one of them held up, it seems clear that #ownvoices has outlived its usefulness.

I always have a hard time letting go though, and so I’m taking a moment to say thank you before I say goodbye.

Thank you to #ownvoices for:

  • giving me and other creators a space in which we could become a visible choice –a force, in fact — for publishers to consider as they diversify;
  • validating my lived experience as authentic material for the stories I write; and
  • providing a community for marginalized creators navigating the still overwhelmingly white publishing industry.

I have chosen to remove the hashtag from my bio, but I will continue to identify myself as a mixed-race author and hope that there will continue to be room under this tent for all of us.


Happy PRIDE Month

June is PRIDE month

June is PRIDE month, and we at Mixed-Up Files look forward to celebrating and amplifying voices from our friends and family in the LGBTQ + community. As always, books are a great way to create conversation and open up spaces for learning and community.

Pride Booklists

To start with, here’s an excellent book list.

Newer Titles from 2020-2021

THANKS A LOT, UNIVERSE (Abrans Books 2021), by Chad Lucas;

Thanks A Lot, Universe Book Cover

((Read Chad’s guest post on our series We Need Diverse MG here.))

KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES (Scholastic 2020), by Kacen Callender

Twelve-year-old Kingston James is sure his brother Khalid has turned into a dragonfly. When Khalid unexpectedly passed away, he shed what was his first skin for another to live down by the bayou in their small Louisiana town. Khalid still visits in dreams, and King must keep these secrets to himself as he watches grief transform his family.

It would be easier if King could talk with his best friend, Sandy Sanders. But just days before he died, Khalid told King to end their friendship, after overhearing a secret about Sandy – that he thinks he might be gay. “You don’t want anyone to think you’re gay too, do you?”

Pride Month

ANA ON THE EDGE (Little Brown 2020), by A. J. Sass

For fans of George and Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, a heartfelt coming-of-age story about a nonbinary character navigating a binary world.

Twelve-year-old Ana-Marie Jin, the reigning US Juvenile figure-skating champion, is not a frilly dress kind of kid. So, when Ana learns that next season’s program will be princess-themed, doubt forms fast. Still, Ana tries to focus on training and putting together a stellar routine worthy of national success.

Pride Month


THE DEEPEST BREATH (Houghton Mifflin 2021), by Meg Grehan

An accessible and beautifully crafted middle-grade novel-in-verse by award-winning Irish author Meg Grehan about Stevie, a young girl reckoning with anxiety about the many things she has yet to understand – including her feelings about her friend Chloe. Perfect for fans of Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the WorldStar Crossed, and George.


THIS IS OUR RAINBOW (Knopf 2021) edited by Katherine Locke and Nicole Melleby

The first LGBTQIA+ anthology for middle-graders featuring stories for every letter of the acronym, including realistic, fantasy, and sci-fi stories by authors like Justina Ireland, Marieke Nijkamp, Alex Gino, and more!


Want to Buy the Book?

You can find all of these titles conveniently through independent bookstores around the nation at our one-stop-shop Bookshop link: