I’ve been increasingly following and interacting with the author community on Twitter. It has been invaluable to me in terms of networking, and it’s also quite informative. One thing that I’ve learned is that agents are requesting to see more diverse books. In fact, there is a Twitter hashtag devoted to this topic aptly named #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It shouldn’t be only the literary agents that are seeking out books with main characters who aren’t white, straight, middle-class Americans. Readers need opportunities to get their hands on well written books with characters who live a different life than their own. The question is how to create these books effectively.
Thinking back to my own childhood, there were very few books with black characters. However, one of my favorite books from my early childhood featured three black sisters trying to save up for parasols. Looking at images from this book now, I see that some of the colloquial speech and the illustrator’s portrayal of the mother (drawn as a “Mammy” type) may have reinforced a negative stereotype. But for a book of its day (1941) written by a white author, it would be almost impossible not to find some minor fault with it using modern day standards to judge. The overwhelming takeaway from the book is that working together to reach a goal is possible with love and hard work. I think the overall message is genuine and positive. It would have been wonderful if my older elementary and teen years had provided me with more choices of reading material that included people of color.
Rudyard Kipling did portray a young Indian character Mowgli in his Jungle Books. I was drawn to this character as a child because of his unusual circumstances–being raised in a jungle by wolves isn’t exactly your typical fare. But I don’t think I ever gave his skin color a moment’s thought. It was just a well told story set in an exotic location with plenty of adventure. There was nothing not to capture my interest. I would consider this book to be a well-crafted diverse book.
I don’t recall any books with gay characters. Not one single book. If anyone else can think of one from the seventies, please comment. I do remember several books that had characters who were Jewish, and it always interested me because if a character went to a synagogue rather than a “church” it was something different from my own life. For the most part, I think most characters either didn’t mention religion at all, or went to a traditional Methodist or other mainstream protestant type of church.
Pretty much, as I review the parade of book characters from my childhood, I see only white faces: Pippi Longstocking, Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, Beatrice and Ramona, The Pevensie siblings, and on and on. It’s pretty obvious that we need more diverse books. But in my honest opinion, readers will only connect with books that don’t feel forced or preachy. So in some ways, authors need to figure out a way to just tell a really good story with main characters who just happen to fall outside of the typical WASPY mold.
If The Cosby Show was a book, it would be a perfect fit for many young readers. I watched The Huxtables every week living life on TV as a normal American family–who just happened to be a black family. They never tried to be anything else. The art that filled the house, the classic jazz music they listened to, the books they read…everything reflected their culture with a sense of pride. It wasn’t missed on me as young person. One of the most beautiful scenes I recall from that era of television was when the family gathered to watch Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I would love to see a novel that read like an episode of that program.
In the same way, I watched the show “Will and Grace” as an adult and it was the first time that I’d ever been exposed to a character that “just happened” to be gay. Will’s sexual orientation wasn’t the focus of the show. It never forced me to question my beliefs or conceptions about what the life of a gay man living in a big city might be like. He was just Will, and as I came to care about his character, it didn’t matter if he was gay or straight. To me, that is diversity done right.
The next thing that comes to mind for me is, “Who should write these diverse books?” Is it acceptable, for instance for a white person to write a book with characters who are Indian, African, Haitian, Hispanic, or any non-white race? How could I, as a middle class white woman understand the plight of someone who was raised a different race? Interesting enough, I find myself in this situation right now. My current WIP that I’m writing for NaNoWriMo is about a Hispanic girl that is called upon to save her older sister’s life through bone marrow donation. Why did I make my main character Hispanic? Was I just trying to write a “diverse book” to grab the attention of an agent? In fact, the reason that my character has to be of this particular racial background is because Hispanic Americans are much less likely to find a successful match on the National Bone Marrow Registry than their white counterparts. Therefore, the options open to the character’s family would be quite limited. My hope is that readers will feel drawn to Espy, and her racial heritage will not feel contrived or forced.
This isn’t an easy topic to resolve. It will take a concerted effort on the part of authors, agents and publishers. But it goes beyond that. The publishing industry is a business and it is driven by revenue. So if the American public doesn’t purchase these books no amount of effort by authors will make a difference. Have you ever thought about the books you read? I challenge you to consider what makes a story appealing to you. Maybe branch out a bit and try something different. You will probably be surprised at how much can be learned from viewing life through the lens of someone quite different from you. But most of all, hopefully you will find out how many ways you are similar.