Following the live tweets of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks panel at Book Expo America and reading some of the articles in Publishing Hub’s latest Diverse Words round-up has gotten me thinking a lot about diversity in books.
I was fortunate to grow up exposed to a lot of different cultures. Throughout middle school and high school I lived next door to a Chinese family, across the street from a Puerto Rican family and an Indian family, and down the street from a family that had immigrated from the Czech republic. My backyard bordered an African American family’s backyard. I took classes with Chinese, Japanese, Indian, African American, and white kids, and had both friends from wealthy families and friends who put themselves through college because their parents couldn’t afford to. I babysat for two women who were very open about the fact that one of them had undergone gender reassignment surgery. I have a Jewish mother and a Catholic father and have studied faiths from Buddhism to Baha’i.
I didn’t mean to turn this into a showcase of how diverse my upbringing was (although side note, a HUGE thanks to the parents and educators who made sure it was so diverse). My point is, I grew up with an understanding that some people had experiences that were different from my own. But more importantly I learned that despite our differences there were universal struggles we all faced. We all felt pressure from our parents. We all struggled to fit in at some point. We were all trying to figure out who we were and where we belonged.
Not everyone has the same opportunity to interact regularly with people from different cultures. I think we need diverse books for those children as much as we need them for the kids who don’t see themselves in the books on the shelves today. If kids aren’t exposed to diversity, they’ll fill in the gaps with stereotypes and misconceptions. And if kids don’t see heroes they can relate to in books, they’ll think the experiences those heroes have — and even the books themselves — aren’t for them.
I absolutely think that it’s important for the books on our shelves to reflect the variety of cultures and experiences in our diverse society. However, I also think it’s important that we promote and celebrate these books because they are good books that tell good stories, rather than because they are about people of color or feature LGBTQ characters or are “diverse” books. We should not have to have a separate “diverse” section of the bookstore or library; we should have mysteries and fantasies and biographies that feature characters as diverse as our society.
How do we get there? Right now I think we’re at the stage where people do need to make a conscious effort to read diverse books. There simply aren’t enough diverse books out there. But if we do make that effort, and keep this conversation going, hopefully the people who write diverse books (and the people who publish them) will listen. And hopefully someday we’ll reach a point where we don’t need to talk about diverse books as a label because books will just be books.
And with that, I’ll step off my soap box for a bit. What do you think of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks conversation? How do we get more diverse books to the readers who need them?