Thursday, July 14, 2016

Discussion: Why Diverse Books Matter To Me

Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts At Midnight host the 2016 Discussion Challenge.

Why Diverse Books Matter To Me


If you met me, the word “diverse” probably would not come to mind. I’m a straight, able-bodied, white, twenty-something woman who was raised in a middleclass, nonreligious household. Like many Americans, I’m the product of European immigrants who came to the US in the 1800-1900s. I speak fluent English with a General American accent. My first name is an English name and is one of the most common first names for US-born girls in my generation. I graduated from high school on time and have college degrees. When I enter a public place in my hometown, I can guarantee that the majority of the people there will look, sound, think, and act a lot like me.




As a young child, I never had a problem “finding myself” in a book. Most of the fictional characters I read about were white, middleclass kids like me. It was the same with movies and TV shows. I saw myself everywhere, and I never questioned why everybody in the media was so much like me. The lack of diversity never crossed my child-mind.





I first became aware of readers' desire for more diversity in books when I was studying publishing at a university in 2013. I started researching statistics about the lack of non-white main characters in children’s literature. It actually shocked me how little diversity could be found in children’s books. I thought I should help do something about it. I bought books about non-straight, non-white, non-middleclass characters and shared them with other children’s lit aficionados. I supported the diverse books movement, but I mostly felt like I was cheerleading from the sidelines because I’m not a part of any underrepresented group. As far as I know, the lack of diversity in children's books never impacted me personally. I didn’t even notice it when I was a kid because I was part of the majority group.

Diversity in books became slightly more personal for me in 2015. I posted a review of Becky Albertalli’s LGBT book Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda on my blog. Soon after, I got a message on a social media site. The message was from a man who’d left comments on my reviews before. He said that he’d been reading my blog for months, but he was unfollowing it because I had “given a positive review to a book that made homosexuality seem normal.” He told me to delete the review so that my blog didn’t lose any more followers. (For the record, my blog only lost one follower after I posted that review.)




I was a little shocked by the message. Like all blogs, mine had lost followers before, but no one had taken the time to tell me why. I promptly deleted his message and laughed it off, but then it started to bother me. The message felt like censorship. This random Internet stranger was pressuring me to alter my blog because he didn’t agree with it. That didn’t sit well with me. I have no problem with LGBT books, and I wasn't going to take down my review.

I wondered: If someone was trying to get a review removed from my ridiculous rinky-dink blog, then how much backlash do LGBT books face? If one person is trying to remove a review, then how many people are trying to get LGBT books removed from schools and libraries? Book banning is something that I’ve never understood. It’s fine if you don’t want to read a book, but is it really necessary to take the book away from everybody?

That message helped me realize that some groups of people—such as LGBT people—are still struggling to make their voices heard. That’s kind of devastating. I think everyone should be able to express themselves, even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying. I'm not part of any minority group, but I don't want to live in a world where only the majority group gets a voice.

It took a message from an angry Internet stranger to teach me that diversity in literature is about much more than just “finding yourself” in a book. It’s about giving a means of self-expression to people who have historically been silenced by society. It’s also about encouraging readers to see the world from someone else’s perspective. Diversity is never going away. No matter how much you rant and rave and try to censor book reviews, there will always be people who are different from you. Books are a way to help us make peace with our differences. The world would be a much nicer place if we all read diversely and tried a little harder to understand each other.

That’s why diversity in literature is important to me.


Random Spongebob meme because this discussion is getting too serious for this blog.





Let’s discuss: What does “diverse literature” mean to you? Do you ever read books written from perspectives that you don’t understand or don’t agree with? Why do diverse books matter to you?






19 comments:

  1. First wonderful post! I am like you in your background so I get all that. I love reading diverse books and didn't realize how important it really was and the lack of them until I started blogging. Second, I can't believe someone messaged you like that over a review! I am pretty sure you are better off without him as a follower.

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  2. I too am a fairly white bread American (although I belong to a minority religious denomination) and grew up in a very undiverse community. I love history, so I had read quite a number of books about diverse individuals; but it wasn't enough. I went to college in NYC and felt so ignorant since, while I knew the history, I didn't have a lot of day to day understanding of how other people's lives could be SO different from my own in today's world.

    I think we need diverse books in order to understand the world that we live in and the people who surround us. As a Christian, how can I claim to love people I don't understand?

    My Most Recent Discussion: Love It or DNF It: Living with Chronic TBR Overflow Pt 2

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  3. I love this post - you pretty much described my own early years. I 100% agree that diverse books are a necessity. For me they are a way of seeing life from a perspective different to my own. While most of what I read are books written by middle aged/older white guys, I'm always open to reading something by someone who would have a different life experience from what I'm used to.

    I really can't believe that guy sent you a message. I've never understood people like that - if you don't like/agree with the content of a book then that's your choice. It doesn't mean that you should go forcing your opinion on others; what you should do is just not read the book if you feel that passionately about it. Close minded people can be really horrible.

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  4. That poodle skirt is perfection. But on a more serious note, I can't believe that guy actually told you what to and what not to post on your blog! And I say that if he can't value everyone's beliefs equally, then honestly it's definitely a good thing that he doesn't follow you anymore. I am seriously outraged right now.

    That being said, I'm glad his statement brought you to your newfound conclusions to diversity - it's like the icing on a puddle of sludge. Great, well-thought out post!

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  5. This post is FABULOUS! I am so appalled that some jerk said that to you. It is infuriating, how someone can have that kind of hate. Why? What purpose does hate serve? I will never understand it. I am just like you in background as well, and it's hard to put into words sometimes why I think diversity is so important- I just want to scream "because it IS!" but your story is such a PERFECT example of why! Like, first of all, I want everyone to feel like they belong in this world and have a right to be here, have a right to be happy and live their lives, because they DO! And growing up, I saw very, very few examples of that, like you said. It was all... random white American kids everywhere- in books, movies, TV, music, whatever. Like, I think of "teen" magazines from back then, and nearly every face was white, straight, cisgender, and so forth. And I knew that the few kids I knew who were of a diverse background or sexual orientation had so, so much trouble, and I couldn't fathom why anyone would treat another human being that way. Still can't. And I feel like books are such an emotional medium, so if someone were to read a book and experience a little bit of someone else's perspective... that can only mean good things.

    Also, totally agree with you about banning books. How is that even a thing!? I don't tell anyone else what they should read, so I don't want to be told either. Like you said, if you don't want to read something, just don't!

    Wonderful, wonderful post!

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  6. OMFG. That is the worst thing ever. I cannot believe someone actually told you to take down a LGBT favoured review.

    I'm probably what you would call diverse - I'm a (not very staunch) Hindu and I'm Indian! I completely get wanting diverse books, because I could practically star in one, but REALLY? Being gay is ILLEGAL in my country, but I would NEVER EVEN THINK about telling someone how to live their life, or who to love. WHAT EVEN?

    Lovely post!

    Aditi @ http://athousandwordsamillionbooks.blogspot.in/

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  7. Diversity is an interesting theme for me. Personally, I divide 'diversity' into two groups--racial and ideological. Racial diversity is awesome--it's based on the principle that all people are people, no matter their looks (and who's going to say no to that?) I also think it's incredibly needed. The huge predominance of white protagonists in books, movies and tv shows is really just plain odd. It certainly doesn't reflect reality or serve any artistic purpose that I can see, and as far as the diversity movement wants to change that, I'm completely behind it.
    But I think ideological diversity is something different altogether. There's nothing wrong with it, per se--I certainly wouldn't want books filled with people who all think and act the same--but sometimes it can reach the point where it seems to say that how you think and act doesn't matter. That there are no right opinions and no wrong ones, and that worldview is nothing more than an extension of your personality. And that, I do have problems with--tell me I'm wrong or tell me you're right, but don't tell me right and wrong don't matter.
    So, there's my two cents on that subject...

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  8. I liiiiiike your thoughts on this! And I'm the same! I didn't even know there was a lack of diversity until I was like 17 or something. And I think that IS sad, because if books represented diversity with ease and quantity, then I think it'd help make the world a better place! WHICH WOULD BE GRAND. We humans need to learn to understand and accept each other for who we are without trying to change or censorship stuff. and omg, it's just stupid to try and censor who people are. Like wut even?!?
    That person who told you to take down your review was so so...garghghg. How horrible. That's their opinion, why on earth would they force it on you???
    A few months back, actually, I heard of a YA author who came out as gay and then had a school where he was going to do a presentation/book chat to the kids actually told him not to come because of this. I MEAN. WHAT YEAR IS IT. Omg.

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  9. AJ, this post was lovely and you are wonderful.

    I rarely saw myself reflected in the media I consumed as a child. This was so normal to me that I ALSO didn't question why almost everyone I saw on TV was white. I was perpetuating the erasure of my own identity and culture and I didn't even know I was doing it.
    My hope is that kids and teenagers growing up in this generation see the outcry for diverse representation of all groups and begin to demand it themselves. I'm fairly optimistic diversity in literature will become normal in the future. :)

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  10. Awesome post! :)
    I'm exactly the same as you in that I belong a majority group (I'm also a white, middle class woman, the only difference is that I'm British) and so as a child never really had a problem finding myself in books, and so had never really considered the lack of diversity. It was only really when I started blogging that I really began to think about it, and it definitely is an issue that has to addressed. Everyone should be able to find a character who is like them in a book, because books are supposed to reflect real life, and real life is full of lots of different sorts of people.
    That message that that guy sent to you is absolutely appalling, and I really do find it crazy that there are still people out there in the world who still think like that, and want to censor other people.

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  11. I really liked this post...and the story you told was so...well, I do see why you found it eye-opening. It's one thing to reject a blog for not agreeing with its contents, but actually trying to silence its owner about a topic you don't agree with?!? Sadly, it sounds like bigots are becoming more and more aggressive lately, which scares me to no end. This is exactly why we have to take action, even if the most we could do is spread the word or write a review.

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  12. My background is similar to yours. It was my college years that first opened up my eyes to diversity but it was when I started teaching that the lack of diversity and representation in books really hit me. The lack of diversity, of representation, in children's books is appalling. We need books that reflect people's lives and experiences, that show a variety of thoughts, beliefs, and ways of life. We're all better for it. Some of the children's books that have come out take a superficial, touristy approach and that drives me nuts. I'm also not a fan of books that are heavy on messages. I want the story to be about the person, what's happening in their life, etc. The fact that the lead character is a blind gay Muslim child of color should simply be part of who that child is and not the focus of the story. Now, books for teens and adults, I'm okay with the focus, in some books anyway, being more about their blindness or what have you because the older we get, the more those parts of us affect or define our lives and they should be reflected in our stories. I haven't had caffeine yet today so I may not be making any sense.

    Wonderful post!

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  13. Great post, and I was amazed by the man's reaction to your review...and what he said you should do about it. In fact, I am enraged. Yes, that is exactly how I feel. And not because I am a member of a minority group, because I am not. It all reminds me of our Civil Rights battles back in the 60s and the hatred that came to us from some who disagreed. Those of us who chose to join those fights had a feeling of empowerment. A good feeling.

    You must feel that way, too. Thanks for sharing.


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  14. Wow, someone unfollowed you for reviewing an LGBT book? It shouldn't surprise me, but it does. It always does because I don't understand the prejudices that people have. I state right under my bio and in my GR bio though that I review M-F and M-M romance because I know that, unfortunately, some people are like that. And I'd rather those people not even start following my blog if they're going to react the way that man did to yours. You're right though, I don't usually think about how much backlash diverse books might actually be getting, but I'm glad there are authors and publishers willing to fight for them!

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  15. I'm a lot like you. I grew up not really realizing there was much out there that was different than my lifestyle. When I went away to college, I was a Theatre major, and I have to tell you that I was suddenly exposed to a LOT of differences I was only peripherally aware of before. One of my closest friends was gay, and I learned a lot from him about what it meant to be a gay man in America. Now, I'm the mom of a black boy with special needs, and I see diversity even closer to home.

    As far as that follower goes, I say, good riddance! :-)

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

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  16. I love this post and I agree completely with your thoughts! I'm also not exactly diverse, but I do think that reading diverse books is extremely important. It won't fix everything, but it does make people a bit more empathetic and helps them to put themselves in someone else's shoes for a while. I can't believe someone messaged you to take down a review. I know there are still people out there who think like that, but it still always shocks me that people can still hate what I think is so normal.
    Thanks for sharing!

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  17. I totally thought I'd commented on this earlier, but maybe I read the post on my phone, which is not my preferred format for typing. YES. That is my comment, because everyone else has already said the more thoughtful stuff. I'm another one who finds a lot of characters "like me" in much of what I read, and didn't really think about it until I started teaching many kids who are Latinx, immigrants, dealing with poverty, and of other backgrounds that aren't as well represented in literature. We NEED mirrors, and we NEED windows.

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  18. Woah. I can't imagine how much hate someone would have to have to unfollow and then message you to explain why they'd unfollow and essentially warn you away from doing any more LGBT reviews. What on earth. Honestly. Thank you for this thoughtful post from it.

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  19. If it helps, I never noticed the lack of diversity either even being from a marginalized group. In fact, I would be shocked anytime someone of colour showed up, usually followed by disappointment when they turned out a stereotype. But because terrible people like that unfollower exist, it really is important to support diverse books so matter who you are. And I love how honest you are about all this in your post :)

    Liselle @ Lunch-Time Librarian

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