Hi Virtually Readers! It’s 2017 and #WeNeedDiverseBooks is still going strong, three years after the movement started. Before you read the rest of this post, a disclaimer: #WeNeedDiverseBooks has done really good things for the book publishing world. I wrote a whole post about what I think about it here, but my approach to the matter has changed slightly recently. Rather, I have two big problems with the phrase, which is why I’m writing this. (Side note: I actually didn’t at all remember what I’d said in that previous post and I had to go and read it all again to refresh my memory.) (Other side note: this is the most effort I’ve put into a blog post for a while and I actually did research and stuff)(Final side note: I was kind of worried this was too controversial or I was just wrong but Shanti and Cait told me to post it which was nice of them)
I researched this and found out that We Need Diverse Books was started in 2014 by various children’s/YA authors after a BEA children’s author panel was announced to only have white males on it. Soon the hashtag went viral on twitter as bloggers were like ‘hey look! Most YA and children’s books star straight white cis teenagers who with no disabilities. But that doesn’t reflect the experiences of a lot of readers! We need books that are diverse and star lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds!’
Although this isn’t entirely true, let’s say that before #WeNeedDiverseBooks, the ‘norm’ for a contemporary YA book is a white straight cis character without mental illness or disability who was middle class, either Christian or agnostic/athiest and attended a high school in the US or other developed country.
Diverse means ‘showing a great deal of variety; very different’ (from the OED). We Need Diverse Books mission statement is: ‘Putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children’ (source: their website). It wasn’t like there were no books like that before the campaign, but in my experience (or maybe just the books I choose to read) YA has definitely diversified since then. (2014 was when I started blogging and We Need Diverse Books became a thing).
Here are my two problems with the way the phrase ‘diverse’ is used: One, it limits diversity to characters; and two, individual characters cannot be diverse.
Let me talk about the first one. WNDB defines diversity as ‘including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.’ (also from the WNDB website). I think this is a good umbrella for a ‘diverse’ character to fit under. This definition is mostly okay, except that a) it should advocate for main characters rather than side characters with the listed identities, b)it would be nice to see a phrase in there about intersectionality (e.g people who belong to one or more minority groups) and c) it doesn’t specifically promote #ownvoices, which I think is important.
These are only little things, though. My biggest problem with this definition is that it’s only talking about the identities of the characters, which isn’t the only kind of diversity a book can have. What about other experiences that are ‘very different’ from the YA norm? Couldn’t a book set somewhere other than the UK or Australia or the US qualify as diverse just on the merit of its setting? (Shanti wrote a whole post about this here) (Also, what about fantasy based on a cultures other than medieval Europe?). What about if a character is homeschooled or poor or has divorced parents or something else that is outside of the YA norm? These types of experiences aren’t an identity the way sexuality or gender identity is, but I think they also qualify as diverse. WNDB’s vision is ‘A world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.’, but for this to happen we need characters as well as settings and other experiences to be diverse. We don’t just need characters with the same skin colour or sexual orientation as us, we need characters with similar cultural backgrounds as well—whether it’s because they live in the country we do or don’t do school the ‘normal’ way.
I’m not asking for all of this in one book—if a book entirely reflected me then it would be pretty boring and too much like my life. But I think as well as characters with traits like ours, we also need characters with the same background in other ways. Diversity isn’t limited to the identity of the book’s characters.
Side note: Some people might say that the main readers in English live in developed countries, so books should be set there. But I know a lot of bloggers are from India, the Phillipines, South America, other Asian countries… all of whom read in English. The fact is that there is not very much of a YA genre in other languages. A lot of Indian writers, for example, write in English.
Point two: ‘diverse’ has two meanings: ‘very different’ and ‘showing a great deal of variety’. If you were the only human in the world, you couldn’t be diverse, because there would be no norm to compare you to. In the same way, a book can’t be different or show variety until it’s being compared to something else.
In my previous post, I said I was diverse. I now disagree with that statement. While my experiences being biracial and growing up in India diverge from many New Zealanders, I myself am not ‘very different’ until I’m comparing myself to an established norm. If I compared myself to a lot of classmates at the school I went to, I wouldn’t be different at all. I guess my complaint is that currently, books marketed as ‘diverse’ are being held in comparison to that cis-straight-white-middle class-not-disabled norm that is (thankfully) becoming less and less common.
A book isn’t diverse until you start comparing it to other books, and realising that it’s very different or shows variety.
The very definition depends on the idea that normal children’s books don’t have characters from diverse backgrounds. If we want this not to be the case, we need to stop treating diverse books as unusual. We need to make diversity in publishing the norm. This hasn’t happened yet. But I hope that one day soon, We Need Diverse Books won’t be necessary anymore. Rather, we have so many that it doesn’t feel unusual to have an Indian, transgender, Hindu, bisexual, non-binary, or wheelchair-using main character, and more people can see themselves in the books they read.
We Need Diverse Books has changed YA, allowing authors with a wide range of experiences to write about characters with experiences broader than the straight-white-kid cliché. I think the movement has done a lot of good. But the phrase is also problematic because it doesn’t encompass all kinds of diversity and also requires comparison to a norm that shouldn’t exist.
Was that post long or what? Do you agree or disagree with me (I really enjoy polite disagreement)? What’s your stance on We Need Diverse Books? Is there anything I’ve missed? Is this way too political and rant-y?