Saturday, May 3, 2014

#WeNeedDiverseBooks Pt. 1


The hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks has been trending for the last few days and has now become a movement that isn’t going to die down any time soon.  And for good reason.  The current literary landscape does not reflect the diversity of the rest of the world.  And it needs to change now.  Here’s my story.

I’m white and I’m middle class.  On paper, I’m the one the publishing industry thinks is the target.  But the world that they think I want to read is not the one I live in.

I’m Canadian, the child of an European immigrant.  Growing up in an upper class neighbourhood, the kids I fit in with were the other children of immigrants, and we all made up a very diverse group.  Fast forward, to the present and I’m married to an immigrant living in one of the most diverse cities in the world.  Myself, my husband, and my children represent 3 continents, 5 countries, and 3 races.  And we live in a neighbourhood where ALL of those are the minority.  This is the real world and this is the world the publishing industry doesn’t represent.  

My kids are three races - Black, White, and Arawak (Native.)  To them, it is normal that their parents do not look alike and that they do not look like either of us (or each other.)  In fact, it wasn’t until my daughter was 6 and one of her Afghani friends asked her why she was brown and I was white, that my daughter actually gave any thought to the whole issue.  She didn’t have an answer and she really didn't care that she didn't have one.  This is the real world.

Having kids has made me realize just how white the publishing industry is, because as we read more and more books we realize that very few of these characters look like my children and even less of the families in books look like our family.  It finally hit me when my mom was reading a book with my daughter, who was then 3, and my daughter pointed at the blonde mother and blonde child and said “that's not a mommy and a daughter, the daughter isn’t brown.”  This is the real world.

I’ve always thought of myself as a diverse reader.  I like my British chick lit, which is predominantly white, and I like my CanLit, which is mostly white, but I also like books that reflect my world.  I like to learn about different cultures and people.  So I looked back at my reading habits since I’ve started using GoodReads and I calculated the percentage of books I read that are diverse (writers or characters of race, religion, or culture that is different than mine).  Here is what I found:

2011 - 38% (33 books)
2012 - 33% (30 books)
2013 - 30% (30 books)
2014 - 34% (15 books, so far)

Of the books I have bought in the past year, 40% of them are diverse reads.


I honestly thought it was more.  But when I think about it, I’m one of those people who go out of my way to look for diverse reads.  And yet, this is what I found.  When I sit down at the beginning of the year and make my list of upcoming releases I want to read, this is what I find.  I’m not saying I’m reading ALL of the diverse books out there, but when it comes to knowing what is out there, I find it difficult.  So coming up next, I will be posting a list of every book that fits into the diverse book category I have reviewed on this blog, as well as a list of diverse kids books I have come across to help make it easier for you and I hope that we will all share, buy, and demand more diverse books.

6 comments:

  1. Such an interesting post, Shan. One of the big reasons I love to share books with animals as protagonists with my class is because it removes a barrier for the kids - we can all be a dolphin, cat, dog, horse, but when cultural labels (that's a clumsy descriptor, but I hope it fits!) kick in it can sometimes be harder for the children to find 'themselves' in the story. I share books from a variety of voices too, but animal protagonists are so great for little folk!

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    1. That's true. I notice the same thing with the books my kids get at school. It's nice to have books that have all kids at the same level, especially considering how diverse our classrooms are these days. Thanks for the response Claire!

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  2. I was so interested to read this post! My bookstore is one of the challengers for the #weneeddiversebooks right now. As a reader and as a buyer for my store's adult fiction section, I make an effort to support books that represent a wide range of races, cultures, economic classes, religions, sexual orientations, etc, despite living in an overwhelmingly white/European descent community. Maybe because I'm more familiar with the adult books than with the children's ones, but it seems like there are a LOT more choices out there for adults that reflect diversity than there are for kids. I look forward to your Part 2 post.

    P.S. Arawak--as in Caribbean?

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    1. I agree, I find it much easier to find diverse books for me than I do for the kids. It's great to hear what you are doing for your bookstore. It's unfortunate that they think that white people just want to read white people, most of us who read do so to learn.
      P.S. Yes, my husband is from the Caribbean and has Native ancestry on both sides of his family.

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  3. You and I are fairly evenly matched for diversity in our reading. But part of me questions what diversity means. In my calculations I usually mean people of color. But then I think about books like The Panopticon. It is by a white Scottish author and all the characters are white, but they live in care or foster homes, have seen abuse and violence that I can't imagine and have lived really hard lives. For me, reading this was an eye opening experience. I've lived a sheltered life and know it. So i think it is important for me to read things like this to expose me to the world beyond what i've lived.

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    1. You're right, I think that diversity has a very broad meaning. It may be different for everyone but most importantly for me is that all stories are told. It's easier in adult literature (though not perfect) but given how diverse our world is becoming (I like at my daughter's grade 2 class and all of the different cultures, religions and racial mixes in just 24 kids is extraordinary) it's very important in children's literature. Like The Panopticon, there are people who have gone through that same experience and being able to see it in books means that they're not being ignored and we do value their stories.

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