Originally published May 2014
There’s a reading movement afoot this month—a group trying to grow awareness for diversity in literature.
When I first heard of “We Need Diverse Books” just the other day, my knee-jerk reaction was this—that quite frankly, I just want people to read. If people get their kicks from Stephen King and Jonathan Franzen, what do we care? People gotta stop picking on the The Man and just pick up a book, damnit.
There’s a bigger picture here. It’s about expanding horizons and finding a home. About voices that are different than ours, and ones to which we can relate.
Fans of fiction are missing out on an even larger treasure trove when they limit themselves to favorite authors like John Grisham and Jodi Picoult. Don’t get me wrong—having a favorite is fabulous. But to stick to your safe zone of go-to authors would be like ordering the same favorite dish off the menu of your favorite restaurant. Over and over. All the time. Step away from the bestsellers table at Barnes and Noble and you’ll find there already exists an amazing array of diversity in books. It’s just time people start picking those books up.
Personally, when I look over what I’ve read the last few years, I do have a whole lotta girl power going on, with a healthy dose of white guy authors. That said, when I look at what some of my very favorite reads have been, they are the books I found off the beaten path. Consider these:
Claire of the Sea Light (Edwidge Danticat) Danticat’s quietly beautiful tale of a young girl looking for the meaning of home while her father tries to find her one takes readers to a Haitian locale complete with richly drawn characters facing their own destinies.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Mohsin Hamid) Not just one of my favorite books this year—one of my favorites ever. The setting is unnatural to this white bread American girl, and forces us to envision a culture and space that while unfamiliar to us, is reality for millions and millions of others. Haunting and exquisite.
Running the Rift (Naomi Benaron) Hutu and Tutsi are words we are used to reading off the world news page of our paper. Here, they are identifiers integral to the story of an African child trying to escape to a better life through the art of running.
The call for diversity isn’t limited to authors. People want to see more characters that represent themselves. Me? I’m covered—there are plenty of books that portray half batshit crazy mothers. I’m happiest reading contemporary fiction, where there’s a plethora of characters that mirror my lifestyle. But look to the We Need Diverse Books tumblr and you see the call for more characters of color, a stronger representation of the LGBT lifestyle, and definitely less stereotyping. Agreed. My youngest has been a strong reader from a young age, while my oldest struggles. Try finding YA books for tween girls that read at a high school level that don’t have the protagonist making her love life the be all, end all. Or YA books for teen boys that read at a grade school level that aren’t overly childish.
Tell me, readers. What’s the last book you read that didn’t take place inside the United States? Share your favorites with me and together, we can help spread the word—what makes a book great is when a story touches you and you tell others about it. We need more diverse books. I say they are there, we just need to tell people about them.