Without getting political, it’s safe to say the world would benefit from a little more compassion and understanding right now. The rise in hatred and intolerance across the globe is hard to ignore. I believe Martin Luther King Jr. correctly identified lack of communication as the root of the problem. However, tackling such a gargantuan issue is daunting. It’s difficult to see how one person can make a difference. But we can. YOU can. And it all starts with something as simple as reading a novel.
“We must promote, persuade, and provoke our young readers to pick up those books that broaden and challenge our understanding of what it means to be another and to be ourselves.”
---Alegria Barclay, excerpt from Building Empathy Through Reading regarding Black Lives Matter
Books have the ability to reach people and communicate ideas. Their influence is undeniable. Yet, for a long time there wasn’t enough accurate representation in fiction, particularly in books geared towards children and teens, to foster an empathetic outlook. Somehow the default settings in YA tended towards white, heterosexual, gender binary characters, often from middle-class backgrounds. I’m not suggesting stories with these characteristics aren’t or can’t be enjoyable, but constantly having to relate to them when you see nothing of yourself is tiresome. Moreover, if you do identify with some or all of these traits, failing to read stories about those who don’t can narrow your lens of perception.
Can books really have such a huge influence on younger readers? Absolutely! Sometimes fiction can be a young person’s only route into experiencing the lives of others with whom they have little in common. On the flip-side, some children and teens rarely see themselves represented in fiction, which poses another problem. When they’re continually presented with books in which people like them are secondary characters, or aren’t even there at all, they begin to perceive themselves as having the same relevancy. These youngsters don’t deserve to think of themselves as invisible or secondary characters in life. They have a right to see characters similar to them as the hero, adventurer, vanquisher of evil, and star in the spotlight. This isn’t purely for entertainment’s sake. It’s about giving kids a chance to feel as though they’re part of this world.
To see oneself in the pages of a young adult book is to receive the reassurance that one is not alone after all, not other, not alien but, instead, a viable part of a larger community of beings who share a common humanity.--- Michael Cart, Expert for children’s and Young Adult Literature, excerpt from The Value of Young Adult Literature
Thanks to movements like We Need Diverse Books and Ramp Your Voice this is changing, and diversity-deficient fiction is counteracted with multiple constructive campaigns. Now it’s easier than ever to find books featuring a wide range of cultures and backgrounds, and work by authors of different ethnicities. All you need to do is get your hands on one, read it, and if it’s good, recommend it to people. If you have the urge to do more than that, why not gift a copy to a friend or family member? It’s that easy. By doing this, you spread awareness and subsequently contribute towards culturing compassion and understanding in society. You become a transmitter through which the book communicates with the world.
If you’re keen to take that extra step towards diversifying your reading, here’s an idea for how you might go about it. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to ensure the next five books you read sit outside your usual scope. Avoid the temptation to select something from a genre you don’t read and instead look to switch-up the human element. For example, if you typically enjoy books by men, pick one by a woman. Find something by a transgender author. Choose a book with a POC protagonist if most of the characters you usually encounter are white. If you tend towards authors who are straight or gay, seek out work by openly bi, ace, or pan writers. Above all, actively hunt down work by writers from cultures and backgrounds that contrast with your own. These are just a handful of suggestions to which you are by no means limited. There are thousands of ways to diversify your reading, and the more you read and share, the greater your contribution to spreading compassion and understanding. In the meantime, if you’re unsure of where to start, check out this list on Mostly YA Lit. Or if you’re into sci-fi & fantasy, take a look at Diversity in YA’s list.
Next week, I’ll continue this topic by looking at how readers and writers can interrogate artistic decisions when it comes to diversity in fiction. Until then, happy reading!