Since the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Twitter and Tumblr campaign began a few days ago, the internet has been abuzz with literature-lovers talking about why we need diversity in books, especially young adult books.
Haven’t heard about this campaign? Well, here’s the lowdown.
Basically, the idea is to get people online talking about why we should be pushing for more diverse books for young adults (and in general) by posting pictures of themselves with signs that say why we need diversity in our books. And there were a lot of answers.
Many of the responses were about finding someone in literature who young readers can relate to (when many young readers don’t find books about people who are their own race, sexual orientation or have the disabilities they have). Other answers were that reading about people who are different from you is just as important as reading about people who are like you.
I think these responses get right to the point–books are about the human experience, which is inherently diverse–and also unifying. By only allowing certain types of peoples’ stories to be told, it messes up that unifying quality of literature. It’s saying these peoples’ stories are the human experience, and leaves a gap where other stories should be.
I also discussed this campaign with Talia Adry, who worked at Barnes and Noble for 10 years and now is working at a publishing house. Here’s her take on the campaign (which I just showed her before this interview) and the nature of YA literature and diversity:
Talia makes a really good point that because the YA genre is new, and has a different set of authors who tend to be primarily American so less cultural diversity tends to show through. But young readers are diverse, so their books should be as well.
While most people agree that more diversity in YA (and all) literature is important, it’s difficult to figure out exactly how to get there. Should white authors write about people of color? Can they accurately represent someone from a different culture? Does anyone want them to?
Should more diverse authors be encouraged to write more? Or are there plenty of diverse authors, but is their work is marginalized by the advertizing of companies, education pushing of the hetero-normative canon, and an obedient consumer demand?
It’s difficult to pinpoint an answer to these questions, because the answer is different depending who you ask–and it may be that the answer is some combination of these issues.
So what can people do from here?
I think it’s important to keep the conversation going. Part of the problem with underrepresented groups is that it’s sometimes people don’t even notice they’re missing because people aren’t talking about it. It needs to be asked for.
And I think this pretty much sums it up (especially the conclusion paragraph). I sort of half-heartedly ended my Twitter conversation above with the idea that if we keep talking about diversity and hope people notice, change will happen. But Léonicka is right–we can’t just sit around and talk and hope for change. We have to actively be asking for literature that is diverse in all sorts of ways. And we need to encourage people to write all sorts of diverse stories, and we need to read them and share them.
By reading and supporting the books we want to exist, I think we can help create the market that makes those books exist.
Jane Eyre wasn’t totally my favorite book – it took me a while to read because I found the parts without Rochester in it a bit dull – but I have to admit, I really liked Jane. Despite the plot sort of trudging along, I really respected her sense of self-worth, independence, and her intelligence. Here, I made an outfit that plays up her “plainness” with the beige tones and sort of frumpy sweater but still shows off her feminine side with the cute but modest skirt. The matching oxfords add a bit of a smart edge to the look, and the bun, carefully arranged with wispy pieces falling down, show her conscientious attitude but her softness toward others.
From the Book:
“Bessie, when she heard this narrative, sighed and said, “Poor Miss Jane is to be pitied, too, Abbot.”
“Yes,” responded Abbot, “if she were a nice, pretty child, one might compassionate her forlornness; but one really cannot care for such a little toad as that.”
“Not a great deal, to be sure,” agreed Bessie: “at any rate a beauty like Miss Georgiana would be more moving in the same condition.”
“Yes, I doat on Miss Georgiana!” cried the fervent Abbot. “Little darling! – with her long curls and her blue eyes, and such a sweet colour as she has; just as if she were painted!”
–Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
As any English major knows, it can sometimes be hard enough to find time to read the books you’re supposed to read for class. So extracurricular reading often gets pushed aside until you have a little extra time, meaning the summer. I’ve been accumulating books that I want to read over the summer (including ones I’m going to try to use for my Honor’s Thesis next semester), and here’s my list!
- Divergent, Veronica Roth – I’ve been hoping to read this for a while, and even started it this semester, but I just don’t have time to read the whole thing until classes are over. But maybe I’ll try to read all three books from this series.
- Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami – This author was recommended to me by a friend, so I decided to put it on the list. It’s a translation from Japanese, and has two intertwining plots – which is always something I find interesting in a book.
- The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood – Since I read Oryx and Crake, I’ve been dying to read more of Margaret Atwood’s work. She’s just amazing and I keep hearing about this book, so I’m excited to see what everybody’s been talking about.
- The Road, Cormack McCarthy – I’m doing my thesis on dystopian novels (as you might be able to guess I’m interested in from the line up so far), and people have been telling me to read this one for a while now. The cashier at Barnes and Noble said it was pretty bleak when I bought it from him, but he also said it was amazing. So we’ll just have to see, I suppose.
- The Dinner, Herman Koch – I bought the two books above this one in this list at Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago, and there was a buy two get one free sale, so I picked up this guy. It seems to be about a pair of parents whose children did something terrible (the synopsis didn’t say what), and because of their social class, don’t come right out and talk about it, but carefully broach the topic over the course of a high-class dinner. I’m pretty interested in this book because I love books where high-class people are forced to deal with the nitty and gritty but do it within the constraints of society – at least that’s my understanding of what this book might be.
- Les Miserables, Victor Hugo – I got this book for Christmas two years ago, and still haven’t gotten around to reading it, but I’m pretty determined. I want to see the movie, but I won’t until I read it, because I know it’ll have to be a big time commitment and I want to plot to carry me through.
- Anthropology of an American Girl, Hilary T. Hamann – I bought this book a long time ago, as well, and I can tell it will be a good one. I love the cover, the title, the way it feels – I know you’re not supposed to judge a book so superficially, but you can sometimes just tell when a book is going to be good–like, be something that you in particular can relate to–based on those things. I started reading it, actually, and I really like the style of it, but I didn’t have time to really focus on it, so I wanted to wait until I could give it enough time to really absorb it.
- The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri – I read The Namesake over winter break, and I loved it (possibly in large part because I love Gogol, the Russian author who was a big part of the book, but also because the writing was expressive and real), so I’m very interested in her new book, which has already been nominated for the Man Booker Prize.
I will hopefully have a lot of time to read, because these are just the books I can think of off the top of my head. I feel like my reading list is always changing, because some books catch your attention at some times more than others do. Do you have any good summer reading suggestions? What’s on your list?
Hamlet is generally speaking a very dark, brooding character, who is constantly soliloquizing about the essence of life, and what the point of it is. He’s also either crazy or crazy enough to pretend to be crazy, so I wanted to have a sense of discord in this outfit. That’s why the shirt is soft and feminine, paired with leather leggings and some shoes that could murder a uncle-turned-step-father. The skull necklace is an obvious connection since the iconic image of Hamlet always includes him speaking to the skull.
From the book:
“’Cannot you tell that? Every fool can tell that. It was the very day that young Hamlet was born, he that is mad and sent into England.’
‘Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?’
‘Why, because he was mad. He shall recover his wits there, or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there.’
”Twill not be seen in him there. There the men are as mad as he.'”
As a kid, I loved reading, and even though I read plenty of books for kids, including any one I could find which starred talking dogs, I also prided myself on reading above my age expectation. In middle school, I tackled The Once and Future King, and loved (almost) every minute of its 600-plus pages.
I also tried reading Wicked, which was way over my head at the time. Its philosophical reflection of the nature of evil, corrupt politics and references to the main character being a hermaphrodite both turned me off from “liking” the book, and sort of confused me. (Yes, I did ask my mom what a hermaphrodite was, but I was old enough not to actually say “mommy”). It was not the fun Wizard of Oz story with a simple change of perspective that I imagined it being when I picked it out.
And Animal Farm wasn’t exactly the fun book about talking farm animals that I expected either.
So why did I read these books? And should I have been?
I read them because I wanted to be a book snob at a young age, I looked up to my sister who was eight years older than me and was a good reader, and I felt accomplished to be reading a book I could hardly lift off the table.
And I think the answer to the second question is yes, I should have been reading those books – because I should have been reading, period.
Young people should be reading the books they want to read, regardless of “how much they get out of it.” First of all, you don’t know how much they might get out of it, and neither do they yet. And secondly, reading is good for them, and tackling difficult material shouldn’t be discouraged, or you may end up discouraging them from reading at all.
“But what about books with moral deficiencies, trauma, or things that are too mature or disturbing for kids?” you may ask.
I think this is a fair question, depending on what age the reader is. It’s also interesting to note that besides the general categories of Children’s, Young Adult, and (for lack of a better term) regular fiction, there aren’t any ratings on books.
You can’t look at a book and know whether it will have a million swears or none – and in what context that language is used.
While part of the answer depends on what the parents allow, obviously, reading a book about debauchery won’t make kids go do terrible things. If Grand Theft Auto doesn’t make kids go chainsaw a prostitute, then reading a book about people doing drugs won’t make them go do any.
The books I read at a young age affected me a lot more than I realized, but not because they told me what to think – they let me do my own thinking without expecting me to answer them right away, the way teachers, parents and other kids might. They let my brain slow cook some big questions and ideas without me really needing to explain to anyone my process, which has made me a deeper, more thoughtful person now, I believe.
I’ve noticed whenever I start a post about reading, lately, I look back to when I was discovering my reading identity, and I think that’s why this is an interesting question to me – my reading identity has created my overall identity in large part.
Animal Farm didn’t really teach me about communism, because I didn’t know the reference, but it did teach me about hypocrisy and damn good endings to novels.
There were some Young Adult novels I read secretly at the library because I was embarrassed that my mom might know, just by looking at the cover, that they had swears in them or talked about sex, but these novels stuck with me.
They embarrassed me at the time but they showed me perspectives I didn’t even know I didn’t know about, like a book I read about a transgender teen. That novel both showed me that people like that exist in the world, something which our public school sex education classes didn’t ever mention, and gave me immense empathy for that character.
And now, as a 21 year old college student, I read YA books and I eat them up. I love being brought right back to high school, and remembering feeling embarrassed at my locker, or walking through the halls trying to catch the eye of someone you liked.
But even these novels aren’t only “fun” or easy reads, they also handle big issues, questions of identity, and making a place for yourself in the world, which are things that I don’t ever think you totally outgrow.
So, I suppose, long story very very long, reading ages don’t really make sense. You should read that book that interests you now – and then read it again in 10 years. Read the novel you bought when you were 15 and never got around to cracking open. Read for nostalgia and then read something different to challenge yourself.
And I don’t think we should discourage younger readers from doing the same.
What do you think of age groups for reading? Should kids have free reign when picking what to read? Do you regret reading things that were above your head when you were younger? Let me know what you think in the comments!
This image is from an art project I did for my digital design class, but I wanted to share it because, of course, it’s book-themed. The assignment was to use Adobe Illustrator to make a cityscape that is panorama shaped, and I had the idea to make it look like a scene was sort of emerging from the pages of a book.
I chose Anna Karenina because I always get really strong sensory images from that novel, and I also wanted to make a Russian cityscape. So I copy and pasted in the text from the very beginning and the very end of the novel on the two pages you can see, and created the Moscow cityscape in between with the train, because the train is so central to the novel.
Hope you like it! Let me know what you think in the comments.