By: Wendy M. McDonald
In recent years, there’s been a strong push throughout the KidLit community to bring diverse books to readers. Perhaps you’ve heard of the grassroots organization We Need Diverse Books. Their goal is to put books with diverse characters into readers’ hands—books that aren’t always about diversity—though sometimes they are—but that embrace it as an accurate representation of the world we live in.
But the publishing industry is a cruise liner, and changes direction reluctantly. Consider this discussion on The Toast, where Linda Z. (an editor-turned- agent) talks about the recent trend of sacrificing the midlist for the blockbuster tier, leaving less room for all new authors, including diverse authors. Linda shares this observation:
I trust book buyers to read beyond their immediate experience, beyond their census box. This is what readers have done since literacy became commonplace, so I don’t know why that’s a great leap for our industry today. But I still hear it all the time: “Does this group buy books?” “Is this group enough of an audience?” I hear real fear in that question. Because if you’re looking for coloring book money or 50 Shades or Gone Girl or Rush Revere, a little novel centering a trans woman might only sell 5,000 copies, and it sounds too risky. When everyone is constantly afraid of losing their job, nobody wants to be the one who overpaid on a clunker.
Are publishers truly afraid that the only people who will buy a diverse book are those who see themselves reflected in the characters? But for how long have people of color found some way to identify with all the white characters in our classics? I agree with Linda—readers are in it for the story. We just want to connect, and there are as many ways for readers to connect with books as there are readers.
That’s where we come in—as readers. One of the joys of reading is the opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes for a while. Reading a book about someone from another culture, or with a physical or mental issue we don’t have firsthand experience with, is no different—but the resulting change in ourselves is much greater. By sharing a journey with someone who has lived a life with more challenges than we have, we gain compassion and understanding. We no longer stumble over what makes us different. We stop fearing. We begin to hear, to see, to embrace.
Especially now, when our country is deeply divided across so many lines, building these bridges—then crossing them—is crucial.
Over the past few years, I’ve increased my own exposure to diverse authors and characters. This year, I’m challenging myself to read even more diversely—at least 50% of the books I read this year will be by diverse authors or about diverse characters. As I read, I’m sharing my thoughts on my own blog. Most of my selections are Young Adult novels (because that’s what I write)...but not all of them.
For every book I read, I’ll talk about how I—a middle-class, white, enabled, straight woman—connect with characters who are, on the surface, not at all like me. I’ll talk about what draws me into each book, what keeps me reading, and what I learn. I’ll tell you when I stay up all night to finish, when I forego doing laundry or making dinner in order to read another chapter, when I laugh so hard I cry, and when I cry so hard I need to hug my beagle.
I’m buying every book I read for this project, but that’s not the only way to let publishers know that diverse books have a wide audience. Encourage your local library to purchase diverse books—give them a list of what you want to see on the shelves. Request diverse books through inter-library loan, if available in your area. Visit local bookstores when they host readings by diverse authors. Encourage your schools to arrange visits by diverse authors. And don’t forget to find these authors on social media and tell them how much you love their books!
Diverse authors and characters do have a wide audience—because a beautiful book is a beautiful book.
I’m part of that audience.
I hope you are, too.
At the top of this post are photos of some diverse novels I’ve read recently, but I’m always seeking recommendations for books to read. Let’s share notes. Leave a comment below, sharing a diverse book you love.
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Wendy M. McDonald
In the fourth grade, Wendy once got in trouble for reading in class. She spent her childhood wishing she could be Meg Murry, Lucy Pevensie, Harriet M. Welsch, or Turtle Wexler. Since that wasn’t feasible, she made up bizarre stories with her spelling words and wrote horrendously clunky poetry, instead.
Currently penning darkish stories in the garret of her New England home, Wendy is an active member of SCBWI and The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn. When not writing (or reading!), she watches science fiction and fantasy shows with her geeky husband and daughters, argues with her beagle, and knits socks. Her short stories appear in two anthologies: Chaosium’s ONCE UPON AN APOCALYPSE (“Mary Had a Little Limb” under the pseudonym Wendy Dabrowski) and FIRSTS: The Writers’ Loft Anthology (“First Comes Love”).