For most of us, diversity is part of our everyday lives. We regularly interact with people from different backgrounds as we go about our day and never think too much about it.
So why should what we read be any different?
That’s the question asked by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #DiversityinYA movement, which started in 2011 in response to conversations between authors Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo, who wondered why people thought they wouldn’t enjoy their YA fantasy books just because they were in fantasy Asian settings.
The conversation expanded on Twitter in 2014 to include author Ellen Oh, and the three questioned why major book conferences like BookExpo kept having panels made up of all white men.
Turns out, plenty of other people had been thinking the same thing (especially in the science fiction and fantasy worlds), and #WeNeedDiverseBooks was born, soon followed by other offshoots aimed at getting more diverse characters into the books we read—and especially the books kids read.
June is Pride Month, and so it’s a time when many of us are more conscious about issues of diversity and inclusion than we might be normally.
But when LGBTQ people, people of color, and others have to struggle every day to be accepted into mainstream society and simply treated like the ordinary folks they are, why does including a diverse range of characters in fiction matter?
Fiction Shows Who We Are
Simply put, fiction shows who we are.
Humans have been telling stories for as long as we’ve been able to communicate. It brings us together and it allows us to pass on knowledge, share wisdom, issue warnings, and relieve tension.
Storytelling is the essence of who we are.
And so stories themselves are capsules of who we are—they represent our hopes, our dreams, our fears, and our goals.
But when the stories that most people read consist of white upper-class characters, they don’t represent everyone doing the reading.
This is a particular problem in children’s and YA literature, because kids need to see themselves represented in order to develop healthy self-images and to feel comfortable with who they are. Teens, in particular, may struggle with accepting themselves—imagine being an LGBTQ teen in a small town, trying to come to terms with your identity. You may not see other folks like you out and about in town…and you’re not always seeing them in books, either, making you feel even more isolated.
By including characters from diverse racial, sexual, and other backgrounds, books can become more truly representative of the fabric of life in this big, messy, crazy world of ours—and therefore they can help us learn more about ourselves and others.
As Walter Dean Meyers, an author and publishing expert, has said, “As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.”
Reading fiction about the way the world around us really is, with its diverse tapestry of people, backgrounds, and ideas, helps us better deal with that reality and to celebrate it every day.
Fiction Shows Who We Want to Be
But fiction doesn’t just show us who we are—it shows us who we dream of being.
Science fiction and fantasy, especially, can give us glimpses of the best and worst of humanity as they present broad life lessons in parable form.
Think about Hunger Games or Divergent and the lessons they taught about embracing challenges, fighting oppression, and being the best you can be. Inspiring, right?
The call for more diversity in literature supports those messages by including everyone in their representation, urging writers to depict the world as it should be, with everyone coexisting regardless of race, religion, sexuality, etc.
There will always be conflict, because that’s part of human nature, but conflict is also a part of storytelling. We don’t have to sit around and sing “Kumbaya” to recognize that there’s more out there than a single viewpoint or a single cultural background—and to represent that in fiction.
The problem of a lack of broad representation of different people in fiction has been recognized since at least 1965.
That year, The Saturday Review published an article titled “The All-White World of Children’s Books” detailing how only 6.7% of children’s books published in the past three years had included black characters.
For 2013, the numbers weren’t much better: only 10% of children’s books included people of color, even though a full 37% of the United States—and most of the rest of the world!—wasn’t white.
There haven’t been many similar studies done on representations of LGBTQ people in children’s and YA books, but the numbers are probably very similar. For instance, author Malinda Lo compiles her own statistics on LGBTQ representation among traditional publishers, and found that 47 YA books with queer characters or themes appeared in 2014—not many, considering all the YA books published that year, but a 59% increase from the mere 29 books published by mainstream publishers in 2013.
Thankfully, the tides have started to turn thanks to the broader awareness brought by social media and the fact that people who care can now communicate and come together to promote change no matter where they are.
What Do We Mean by Diversity?
Diversity can mean many things to many people.
Often, diversity movements focus on race representation, looking to have more people of color turn up as fully realized characters in fiction.
But diversity is far more than skin deep. LGBTQ characters, disabled or differently abled characters, and people of different ethnicities, religions, and political leanings are all often marginalized in fiction.
Authors devoted to diversity are starting to bring these people into the mainstream in their writing. We’re seeing more and more autistic characters, physically challenged characters, deaf or blind characters, and characters with mental health issues turning up. Gay, lesbian, bi, trans*, and asexual characters are starting to appear in books, too—and not just as the token Gay Best Friend in a chick-lit book.
That’s the other key: diversity in books means writing real people as full characters, not giving a walk-on part to a half-Polynesian gay hairdresser who only appears for two pages to deliver a punchline for the protagonist.
Diversity means including real people throughout all levels of fiction (and nonfiction), representing real struggles and challenges—and the complete mundane ordinariness of life, too!
True diversity often means having a boring, normal life and just being an average person. Rather than highlighting how out of the ordinary a non-white, non-upper-class, non-straight, differently abled person is, diverse fiction just drops in a character who didn’t come out of a Barbie box and presents them as a real, complex person, not just a stereotype or a sidekick.
How to Get Involved
Publishing is a business, and so many of the Big 5 publishers will only start putting out books featuring diverse characters as anything other than token figures when there’s enough demand for them.
Small, independent presses and indie authors are churning out books featuring characters of all stripes, making them the leading lights in ensuring that fiction represents fact when it comes to who appears.
Here’s how you can get involved with promoting diversity in literature of all kinds.
Read diverse fiction!
It’s the easiest, most effective way to make a change. When more readers vote with their wallets, publishers will take notice.
Whatever your favorite genre, make it a point to pick up a book with non-white or non-heterosexual characters the next time you’re looking for a new read. Try something representing a different religion or cultural background from what you normally read.
You can find lots of lists and reviews of diverse books all over the internet. A few good ones include:
- Tiptree Awards recommendation list and honor lists
- Lambda Lit online book club
- We Need Diverse Books end-of-year book lists
- Diversity in YA book lists
When you read a book with a diverse character, speak out about it! Note it in a review on Amazon or Goodreads or your blog. Keep the conversation going and it will encourage others to get involved, too.
Request books with diverse characters at your local library or your bookstore. Creating demand for these books will encourage mainstream publishers to produce more of them and will help booksellers and librarians make the case for including them on the shelves as a normal part of business.
Writers, start thinking about who you’re depicting in your books.
Is there a particular reason that character has to be white? Could she be black, Thai, Filipina, Indian, First Nations, or anything else instead? Would it really make a difference to who she is?
Consider adding characters who have physical or mental challenges, or who identify as LGBTQ.
Sure, it can be hard to write such characters accurately and sensitively when you’re not a member of one of those groups yourself—but hey, female authors write male characters and males write female characters all the time. Think of it as stretching your skills as a writer!
Do your research, reach out to people in the community you’re writing about, and challenge yourself to start representing the world you see around you more accurately and completely in your books.
Check Your Cover
That includes making sure that if you have a diverse cast of characters in your book, they’re represented well on the cover. Many books with diverse casts have “whitewashed” covers that include either generic silhouettes or stock images of white people that don’t accurately represent what’s going on in the pages.
Indie authors have much more control over our covers than traditionally published authors, and authors who choose to work with small independent presses also often have a lot of influence over the final cover art. Just as it’s important that your cover represents your genre and the tone of your work, it’s important to pay attention to how your characters are represented.
Your readers will thank you!
There are vibrant communities both in person and online that are dedicated to promoting diversity throughout all fiction.
Consider getting involved as a way to learn more about the world and the people around you—and to develop your skills and range as a writer.
Some fantastic resources are available for writers interested in diversity:
- Lambda Literary: Lambda Lit holds that “LGBTQ lives are affirmed when our stories are written, published and read.” It publishes reviews of literature with LGBTQ characters or themes (you can submit your book here), promotes calls for submissions for queer topics and writers, and has an annual award program that recognizes outstanding books, writers, and publishers.Lambda Lit also offers a Writers Retreat for emerging voices in queer literature to come together, build relationships, and hone their craft, supporting the development of a more vibrant queer writers’ community.
- The Tiptree Award: The Tiptree Award seeks to recognize and celebrate authors and works of speculative fiction that go past standard definitions of gender and sexuality. The annual award is open to nominations and recommendations from anyone, not just a select jury, to broaden the field and include as many viewpoints as possible.The Tiptrees focus on the idea that there’s no such thing as “men’s fiction” and “women’s fiction,” but rather writing that appeals to all of us with its skill and immediacy.
- We Need Diverse Books: Founded by YA authors with a focus on increasing the representation of diverse backgrounds in children’s and young adult literature, We Need Diverse Books was the spark that touched off a fire of diversity thinking in the publishing world.The nonprofit offers awards, grants, contests, reading lists, and resources for both writing diverse literature and including diverse literature in bookstores, libraries, and the classroom.
- Diversity in YA: Another YA-focused initiative, Diversity in YA has been on hiatus since 2015, but it’s still a worthwhile stop for anyone interested in exploring diversity in youth fiction.Author interviews, statistics, discussions, and writing tips help authors and readers alike think more deeply about how what we read affects how we see the world and those around us.
Diversity in fiction isn’t just a feel-good campaign designed to be politically correct. It’s a movement meant to help ensure that what’s on our bookshelves better represents reality, as messy and chaotic as it can be.
By reading, writing, and engaging with diverse characters, we improve as writers, see the world more clearly, and share everyone’s stories.
For more on fiction’s place in our lives, check out these articles: