We Need Diverse Books

If you’ve been around the blogging world in the last several years, you’ve seen the #WeNeedDiverseBooks or #WeNeedDiverseYA tags.  It’s an amazing campaign that’s much needed in a time where the book world is still whitewashed.

But when I see people talking about diverse books, it’s often something like this: “This book is so diverse!  The MC’s best friend is Chinese and uses a wheelchair.”

Before you all murderstab me, I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing.  It’s amazing that YA is broadening its horizons and including characters of various races, religions, sexual orientations, and abilities!  I’m especially excited to find a book where the main character has some kind of minority status–or, even rarer, where most of the characters can be classified as minority.

What frustrates me is two-fold.  First: tokenism is not representation.  Remember those college brochures, where they have a cutesy picture of one person of each major racial group smiling?  Black person, check.  Asian person, check.  Someone who’s vaguely Middle Eastern, check.  I’ve read books that read like that, and it’s irritating.  Slapping a few labels on characters to up the diversity quota isn’t the same as creating real, well-developed diverse characters.  It’s like Robin Talley’s amazing discussion of how she hates when people say their character “just happens to be gay” (summarized in this great post at Book Riot).  Diversity isn’t an accessory.  It’s an identity.

Second, and even more frustrating: most of these diverse characters are still being written by straight, white, cis authors.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with this.  No one who’s an avid reader can reasonably say that a person can’t write something outside of their experience well.  (I say this as a straight, white, cis woman, so take it with a grain of salt.  I know that my perspective still comes from a place of privilege.)

But when that’s the majority of what’s being published?  That’s a problem.  The privileged can–and should–magnify the voices of the unheard, but they cannot, should not replace them.  Yet, the number of authors of color is still depressingly low.  Low enough that the front-list YA fiction by black authors publishing in 2015 can be confined to a single list of 30 items.

I don’t claim to understand the problem from the same place as people in these underrepresented groups, nor do I claim to have all the solutions.  What I can say is this: broader representation is great, but let’s not get complacent.  We have power as consumers.  There are things we can do.  Make an effort to buy books with diverse characters, especially when those characters are central and not just sidekicks.  Make an effort to buy books written by diverse authors.  Prove to the publishing world that we want these books, and we’re willing to back it up with America’s favorite form of leverage: cash.

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What are directions you see as important for the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement?  What are books that do this well?  How can regular readers and bloggers work to increase representation in fiction?  Other thoughts?  Thanks for bearing with my rant.

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About C.J.

I’m a font of useless knowledge and an endless source of sarcasm. Oh, and I guess I read, too.

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32 thoughts on “#WeNeedDiverseBooks Is More Than Just Checking Off Boxes

  1. I totally agree with your points! It’s like the author puts in a stereotypical gay friend and goes like, “ayee minority representation!!11”
    Recently I’ve been gifting friends with books that have characters similar to themselves, whether they’re Indian (5 to 1) or lesbian (Starting From Here) or mixed race (Everything, Everything). Hopefully this can make them more aware that YES there ARE books like that out there! Too many people have been sucked in by the Hunger Games/Divergent/TFIOS franchise to actually search for themselves a (more) diverse book, imo. Great thoughts, CJ!

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    1. Yes, this really bothers me. I feel like the sassy gay friend is particularly prevalent.

      That’s such a great idea! I think a lot of people get disheartened because they don’t think there are characters like them. And that makes me super sad. Nothing wrong with the big franchises, but someday, I’d like for the big franchise of the year to be about different kinds of people.

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  2. *nodnod* Token representation is even worse than non-diversity IMHO, because stereotypes are the worst. I think it’s important to develop diverse characters just like any other characters — of course we should try to incorporate that diversity into their identity, e.g. I’m writing a Korean character right now and melding several Confucian ideals into her personality, but I also think about when she doesn’t conform to her own culture, or random little things like mannerisms or snark and so on. It’s just that diversity doesn’t define diverse characters per se.

    Regarding authors writing about their own diverse experiences — YES SO MUCH I CANNOT EVEN. But at the same time, it’s important that the book doesn’t become some sort of moral soapbox for the author — it’s a difficult but crucial balance.

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    1. I think that’s a great point. Creating a fleshed-out character of any kind requires considering how they’ve been shaped by their culture and their experiences. Lack of attention to that creates stereotypes that can be upsetting or harmful.

      True. No one likes to be preached at. But you can make a point without being preachy, too.

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  3. Yes, Yes, and YES! I am in love with this post. I was actually thinking a lot about this over the past week and considered writing about it, but I think you put it better than I could have. You make great points in this post I have to agree with. I don’t like that something is classified as ‘diverse’ just because there’s one Asian or one gay friend or one person who isn’t white and cis. I think that as a whole, all of us readers need to realize that tokenism, which this definitely is, is not the same whatsoever as diversity. Then we can use this knowledge to make educated buying decisions like you said. I noticed on a recent Top Ten Tuesday regarding diverse books that a lot of people classified books as ‘diverse’ because so-and-so is this and so-and-so is that. One character being one thing is not diversity. We are all different people with different and various characteristics. Like you said, “diversity isn’t an accessory”. It shouldn’t be used as one to prove a book’s diversity. In addition to different races, religions, ethnicity, sexual orientations, etc., I think we need to see characters from different socioeconomic statuses, hobbies, and assertiveness. I am happy YA is making strides though. Hopefully in the future we’ll see less accessory and more diversity in our books. Love the post!

    Claire @ Cover to Cover

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    1. Thank you, and thanks for the RT! That Top Ten was actually what got me thinking about this. Some people had great choices, and then some I was like, mmm, yeah, so there’s an Asian character in that book but I’m not sure that’s the point… Agreed about the different SES, etc. I want to see every kind of human experience!

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  4. Hey, CJ :) Let me just say that You so read my mind! I have read those kinds of books that have “diverse characters” but most of them are the sidekicks. As a consumer, we have the power to change things. Superb discussion topic!

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  5. I’ve read a lot of diversity this year, and very few are “stereotypical” This movement has come a long way, which is fantastic, but I find your claims ridiculous. I am all for diversity, be it author, character, ie everything, but now there is an issue with the diversity being written by WHITE WOMEN? What does the person writing the book matter, if they are able to accurately write and portray ALL characters? Or are you simply implying that the consumers are only buying books by white authors, so all non white authors’ books are not being purchased? I honestly don’t understand what you are trying to say.

    I don’t care who wrote the book. The author can be black, white, Asian, purple or billy joe down the road. Us as consumers cannot change what publishers pick up as A GOOD BOOK.

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    1. I don’t mean to say that white women writing diversity is problematic. The concern is that it’s almost all white women (or men). People of color, for example, still have a much harder time getting published and their books don’t sell as well. The problem is that publishers may be bypassing GOOD BOOKS written by people of minority status because they don’t see a black MC as marketable, for example. And as consumers, we can influence the market by buying books written by diverse authors and showing the industry that these books ARE marketable.

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      1. I fail to see how the ethnicity of the author has anything to do with your argument . The publisher does not see the person behind the manuscript until later, and please, correct me if I’m wrong.

        On the contrary, with the high demand for more diversity the team would be smart to accept any book with diversity and market the heck out of it. I just don’t see your point on why a publisher would NOT publish a book by someone that isn’t white. You’re implying that publishers would intentionally not publish a book because the author isn’t white.

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      2. This is true. However, I think this article about the movement says it better than I can. The people at the top of the industry are still primarily white. Authors of color often feel unwelcome and worried that their words will put these higher ups on the defensive. There are also numerous examples of execs telling authors that there just isn’t a market for books about POC.

        I do agree that publishers should buy and market diverse books! And I don’t think they’re explicitly trying to exclude authors of color. But despite that, most books (at least in the children’s world) about people of color are not written by people of color. And books by white authors tend to get more press. I’m not saying that anyone is explicitly, actively trying to exclude authors of color–but the numbers suggest that the industry isn’t doing a great job of actively seeking out and marketing their stories. At least not as well as it should be. But I’m only a naive observer, so perhaps the perspective of an agent or editor would be more valuable.

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  6. Oh yes! *NODS * I agree with this post so much! I was just thinking about this the other day that there are not enough diverse authors publishing YA. BUT, slowly I’m seeing some come around but STILL it’s not a ton of them. I’m a writer and come from a diverse background so I make it a point to add diversity into my novels.

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    1. The industry is definitely getting better, but it’s still frustrating how limited the representation is, for certain groups more than others.

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  7. This is such a fantastic and important post, C.J. I’m so glad you wrote it. I thoroughly agree, I hate it when a diverse character is just thrown into the book just for the sake of box ticking. I don’t want diversity to become a buzz word and an easy way for author to get credit. I want them to work harder to represent marginalised people. I also want to see minority authors getting more limelight so that they can share their experiences. I am so sick of seeing poorly researched books set in exotic locales just because it looks cool – that kind of representation is worse than none at all. But I am so happy to see posts like these and movements to bring more awareness to good diverse books.

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    1. Thank you! It’s something that’s been bothering me for a while, and I really just wanted to get it out there. “Exotic” is so problematic because I think that’s the motivation sometimes—to be different rather than accurate. I think it’s great that authors are making efforts to diversify their stories, but YA needs to get more diverse in its authorship. We’re missing out on so many great stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you say! I haven’t even thought about the fact that, even though diversity in the book is becoming more and more important, there are very little diverse authors. And it totally bothers me that usually, when there’s a diverse character in a book, he/she is just the sidekick or best friend or something like that. It just feels like “yes, I’m all for diversity, just please not the main character”. Great post! I will definitely pay more attention to these things in the future.

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    1. It’s something I’ve become more aware of as I’ve tried to seek out works by diverse authors. And the sidekick problem is a problem. On one hand, I love that authors are including diverse characters. That’s great! And I know that many white/cis/straight/able authors are afraid of making their MC different from them, because they’re afraid of misrepresenting or appropriating. But moving forward is about making mistakes too, and pushing the limits.

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  9. ” Low enough that the front-list YA fiction by black authors publishing in 2015 can be confined to a single list of 30 items.”

    That is seriously so depressing. And I like that you brought up that diverse characters are written by the dominate field authors. It isn’t only about diversity, but the VOICE of diverse authors.

    Lovely discussion – thank you!

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  10. This post is wonderful, and I perfectly understand what you’re talking about! Sometimes, more than diverse characters, we need diverse authors. I personally think that it’s tough for a white, American author to come up with accurate multi racial characters, or a perfectly straight one to understand and portray the feelings of gay characters. That’s why, we have a serious lack of these type of characters.

    Thanks for the thought provoking discussion, CJ!:)

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    1. Thanks! While I do think that majority authors can write great minority characters, there are always those subtleties that are missed–and, besides, what better than having diversity in the author population so we get multiple perspectives!

      Thanks for reading!

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  11. YESSS you said it all C.J.! It gets frustrating when people slap “DIVERSE” on a book and you read it and just realise it’s SHOUTING FROM THE ROOFTOPS JUST HOW DIVERSE THEY ARE but then not really addressing it in the way it should or that honours it you know?

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  12. If this isn’t the best thing I read today, I know nothing. C.J. Bravo! Brava! I feel you. I am not as well-versed in different sections of diversity as I want to, but I feel like I’m getting there. Especially this year. I’ve been paying more attention to the titles and authors I pick. I promote diverse books on my blog and I’m very careful about this, so I totally get where you’re coming from. In fact, I, too, touched the subject in a recent TTT post. There has to be more, right? Wider representations. Intersectionality. More gay or bisexual or pansexual authors getting published. More authors of color getting book deals. More publishers and agents explicitly and openly fishing for diverse authors.

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