The Oxford English Dictionary describes diversity as ‘a range of different things’. When we mine this more deeply, we can interpret this as being fair representation of a range of ideas or issues. Applied to literature, we are looking at the books that represent characters from different backgrounds and ones that tackle issues including, and not limited to, race, sexual identity, culture and religion.
So why is diversity so important in Children’s and Young Adult literature? It’s important, not just in literature, but in music, film, TV and magazines to represent aspects of all of our world and everyone in it and not just the perceived majority. Growing up in a world where you don’t recognise yourself in anyone or anything you read, watch or listen doesn’t do much for the psychological well-being of children and teenagers. As a twenty-five year old man, I know too well how hard this can be; how hard it can be to ‘be yourself’. I knew I was gay from a young age but in the late 90s, there was very little in the media for me to see myself and make me a little braver, make the bullying a little more bearable and make the pain a little more endurable. Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, one of my all-time favourite books, was one of the first LGBT YA books I picked up. It taught me a lot about myself and my (LGBT+) community. It made me realise that I needed to own who I was. However, this was not a book that I discovered until I was in my early twenties. Published in the United Kingdom in 2005 by HarperCollins Publishers (and in 2003 in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf), it was, in my opinion, not widely publicised this side of the Atlantic. It took me years to become comfortable in who I am and consequently, start to open up to others and though Boy Meets Boy would not have cured my insecurities and anxieties and made everything happy-ever-after okay, it would have helped; it would have equipped me with knowledge and instilled me with that little bit of courage that twelve-year-old-me needed to get through the six year that would follow.
Growing up in a world where you don’t recognise yourself in anyone or anything you read, watch or listen doesn’t do much for the psychological well-being of children and teenagers
It’s 2016 now and we are lucky to have such rich diversity across a spectrum of issues and ideas in Children’s and YA lit but we still have a way to go. There are areas that are under-represented in YA lit and others that are plagued with clichés. If I asked you now to name a story featuring an asexual character, how many books do you think you could recall? I’m a book blogger and I can think of one which makes me think that (a) the publishing industry isn’t championing this or (b) they’re not publicising it. Despite this, I think UK publishers are gradually becoming bolder in the books they commission and in the issues that they are showcasing in the public arena. Clare Furniss (How Not to Disappear), Holly Bourne (Am I Normal Yet?) and Juno Dawson (Mind your Head) are just some of the finest UK YA authors that are shedding light on mental health. Lisa Williamson (The Art of Being Normal) and Liz Kessler (Read Me like a Book) have penned poignant works that represent different aspects of the LGBT+ community. There are some great books publishing this year that will further explore LGBT and mental health themes but I wonder, is this enough?
I recently met with one of my blogger friends for coffee in London. We chatted for hours, discussing books we’d read and publishing in general. My friend was curious how I pulled off the #YAtakeover and wanted to know more, so I told her. She asked me if I could recommend any authors and I, only too happy to do this, listed the names of many of my favourite authors. My blogger friend turned to me and tentatively asked if many of the authors were Caucasian. I replied yes, all of them in fact, and the cogs started to turn. She told me she wanted to represent authors from different background including sexualities, cultures, religions and ethnicities and for the first time, I looked back on every book I read in 2015 and asked myself, how many of these authors were Caucasian? Are their stories diverse or do I want them to be diverse? Am I one to shout about diversity but not fully champion all aspects of what diverse YA literature needs to be?
I need to make an active and conscious effort to read about characters from all walks of life. While I might not be able to identify with everything that these characters experience, I can learn. I can choose to educate myself… isn’t that what we are doing when we read diverse books? We are learning and growing.
Maybe it’s an unconscious trigger to choose authors that you identify with. I’m a gay, Caucasian male and maybe I unconsciously choose these books. I tend to choose books with gripping plots or unusual ideas but am I really reading wide enough? Again, as Juno Dawson stated on her blog, we have diverse books out there but we need to champion them. While I agree that we do have many incredibly diverse books, we need more but Juno is right; I need to make an active and conscious effort to read about characters from all walks of life. While I might not be able to identify with everything that these characters experience, I can learn. I can choose to educate myself and isn’t that what we are doing when we read diverse books? We are learning and growing. We are championing books that YA literature needs. I implore publishers to continue commissioning rich, diverse books, bloggers to champion diversity, bookshops to proudly talk about these books, librarians to fight for them and for you, yes YOU, reading this article, to support these books and authors. It’s all well and good to shout about “DIVERSE BOOKS” and leave them on the shelves. And so, I implore everyone that reads this article to pick up something different to read; something that will open up your eyes to a different culture; a different world. Read something different and learn through the power of compelling characters and beautifully-woven stories.
Christopher Moore is a co-founder of the YAfictionados blog and is best known as the YAblooker. He is a twenty-five year old book blogger who has previously worked in marketing and consumer insight for various publishing houses and writes in his spare time. Christopher spearheaded the #YAtakeover on Twitter, an event that saw literature trend for over six hours and that involved debates, discussions, interviews and give-aways. When he is not reviewing, or innovating in the field of children and young adult literature, Christopher enjoys swimming and travel.
The Youth Libraries Group North West are delighted to be hosting an evening with Juno Dawson and Lisa Williamson to tie with LGBT History Month, 2016. This will be on 23 February in the Geoffrey Manton Building, Manchester Metropolitan University. Tickets are free and can be reserved here.