Tag Archives: YA

Why We Need the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign

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 tweeted a conversation with Twitter user, Léonicka, whose blog you can find here, about this topic–but we weren’t the only ones talking about it.

Here's an example of a conversation another Twitter user and I had about this topic. (Sorry for the very large tweet in the middle, for some reason I couldn't get it to show up otherwise.)
Here’s an example of a conversation another Twitter user and I had about this topic. (Sorry for the very large tweet in the middle, for some reason I couldn’t get it to show up otherwise.)

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.

“Mommy, what’s a hermaphrodite?” – The Question of Reader Age

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!