Yes #WeNeedDiverseBooks, But How Diverse?

July 8, 2014 Uncategorized 22

The recent #WeNeedMoreDiverseBooks movement has made certain that the lack of diverse characters in mainstream publishing is an issue most bloggers are aware of. It’s gotten many bloggers talking and one of the concerns raised by bloggers, such as Emily at The Loony Teen Writer, is that some characters are defined by their diversity. I think she makes a great point! A character should not constantly be referred to by their race/gender/abledness/sexuality or any other single feature. This makes for a flat character in general. In the case of a trait which makes a character a minority, the implication that a single trait defines who that character it completely defeats the purpose of diverse reading, playing to stereotypes instead of dispelling them.

However, I’ve noticed that I don’t typically remember a character’s race or appearance if it’s only mentioned once or twice. In a way, I’m happy about this and think it says good things about the importance I place on race. I don’t think race defines an individual. Unless a book specifically focuses on a racial issues, race often doesn’t affect how a character interacts with their world. I can slip into my lazy default of imagining the character looks like me – yes, white skin, but also hazel eyes and brown hair. So I may like to imagine I’m the heroine or hero, ok? 🙂 I also empathized with Nara at Looking for The Panacea who mentioned that she’s not a very visual reader. Most of the time, I’m not imagining what a character looks like at all. This is something I might personally want to work on (I don’t want to mentally whitewash the books I read!), but I think it also highlights a bigger problem – a lack of books which focus on experiences specific to minorities or which feature non-mainstream cultures, showing diversity in a way it’s impossible to ignore.


Although I’ve been focusing on how I ignore race when it’s not highlighted, I think this applies to other types of diversity too. Sure, it’s awesome to have books which treat being part of a minority as the norm. Everyone should be able to find themselves in books. LGBT teens should be able to read books like David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, where LGBT teens are accepted by their community. Black teens should be able to read books like Gone, Gone, Gone which BookRiot contributor Jessica Pryde praises for only mentioning once that the main character is black. Heck, other teens and the rest of us should be able to read them too, to remind us we should all be striving for a world where race and sexuality and other possible sources of discrimination are not a big deal any more. I just don’t want the message we’re sending publishers to simply be “have diverse characters, but don’t highlight their diversity too much”. I want publishers to know that I want both books where diversity is commonplace to give me hope for the future and books which highlight the difficulties being a minority can cause individuals or which highlight the history or culture of minority groups, books from which I can learn.

22 Responses to “Yes #WeNeedDiverseBooks, But How Diverse?”

  1. Cayce

    “I don’t typically remember a character’s race or appearance if it’s only mentioned once or twice.” THIS is me. In my mind, characters are all shapeless/colorless “forms” – lol.

    “I want both books where diversity is commonplace” SAME.

    Great post! I agree with all of the points you made 🙂 Btw, if you haven’t seen it, Cait (at the Notebook Sisters) did a thought-provoking post on diverse characters too:

  2. Briana

    I agree that this topic is a little more complicated than a lot of bloggers have been recognizing (or maybe that’s because you can’t always get too complex with a Twitter tag).

    Personally, I’m not too much of a visual reader either. I can never remember what a character is supposed to look like. I think a way of highlighting diversity, though, without “harping on” it (unless the book is really about growing up gay, growing up black in a white community, etc. or really ABOUT being diverse) may be occasionally slipping in mentions of culture or issues that the characters may face. Instead of emphasizing diversity by having the author just repeatedly tell us the protagonist is Chinese, there could be a scene where she cooks a traditional Chinese meal with her grandmother? Something like that.

    Proxy by Alex London is a pretty good “diverse” book in my opinion. The protagonist is homosexual, so there are a few side characters who mock him, and he sometimes thinks about which guys he finds cute. So, readers are reminded of the struggles LGBT teens can face because the insults occur fairly consistently throughout the novel, but the novel isn’t actually about how difficult it is to grow up gay. It’s a dystopian about overthrowing a corrupt society. 🙂

    • DoingDewey

      Ooh, I like your vision of what a book highlighting a character’s diversity could look like. As I wrote this, I was mostly thinking about books like Ari and Dante where the characters’ struggle to come to terms with their identity was the point. But I also really liked how the main character’s race is mentioned once or twice in relation to her using a katana, without being rubbed in your face all the time. It was a nice balance.

      I liked Proxy too! I haven’t reviewed it yet, but I read it before seeing Alex London speak at the Rochester Teen Book Festival. I also liked the amount the character’s homosexuality was brought up. It was just one part of his life, not the point of the story or the only thing that defined the character.

  3. Aylee

    Yes, well said!! I am a very visual reader and I like descriptions, but that does NOT mean that a character should be defined by their ethnicity. It’s not a big deal so it should be commonplace.

    • DoingDewey

      Exactly! I think there should be books which focus on sharing the experiences of diverse characters, but not by just constantly mentioning whatever it is that makes the character diverse and I think the distinction is important.

  4. Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf

    I’m also not a visual reader. Like Cayce, they’re kind of all shapeless/colorless forms to me. And I love the link she shared above, great thoughts there.

    I don’t look at a book and think, “ohhh this is a diverse book!” We need diverse bookS — plural. We need great books that someone, somewhere, can see themselves in, AND that someone else, somewhere else, can see another person in. I feel like I’m hitting on something I might want to blog about, I’ll need to chew on it some more… thanks for this thought-provoking post!

    • DoingDewey

      Ooh, if you do put together a post, I’d be excited to read it! You make a great point. A single diverse book isn’t enough. What we really need is a change in the frequency with which diverse books are published and the attention which they receive. I’m thrilled by the attention this issue is receiving among bloggers, so hopefully publishers and mainstream media will follow suit 🙂

  5. Jennine G.

    I agree, but I think part of this is because in life we define people by certain traits – people even define themselves by certain traits. To me, it’s almost like an identity issue. We think we are (fill in the blank), when really it is not as simple as that. It’s hard to write around something so engrained in the culture, so I’m happy to see the ones that do it successfully.

    • DoingDewey

      Oh, that’s an interesting way to think about! You’re right, I think a lot of us do define ourselves and others by these external characteristics. It shouldn’t be surprising then that authors use our previously existing notions of what different types of people are like to help them convey what their characters are like.

      I also think what you’re saying touches on the fact that problems with what books are published are actually problems with society. We don’t just need more diverse books, we need more acceptance of diversity. While diverse books can help promote that acceptance, a more accepting society will probably also publish more diverse books.

  6. Tanya Patrice

    I don’t always remember a character’s race either, but I do make an effort to make sure I read books written by authors of color, or that feature people of color on the cover. And to take it a step further – when I head to Barnes & Noble and look at the sea of magazines in the rack – I do notice that there is hardly ever any people of color on the covers. And that’s why it’s important for me to read diversely – and thus, with my dollars, let publishers know that I appreciate when they promote books by authors, or with characters of color.

    • DoingDewey

      I like it! Currently I almost exclusively buy books when I can get them signed by the author, but I think specifically spending your money on books that promote values you appreciate is a wonderful thing. I’ll have to try to do more of that myself.

  7. Leah @ Books Speak Volumes

    When I’m looking for “diverse” books, I usually focus less on the color of the characters and more on the author; I try to seek out more books by authors who aren’t white, anticipating a portrayal of life from a perspective different from my own.

    I really like your point about race/sexuality not needing to be a defining characteristic of characters. I really admired For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu for its portrayal of a transgender Chinese Canadian boy. Being transgender was just a part of his character, much like my gender is just a part of mine. I really appreciated that it wasn’t an “issue” book in which the main character was defined by this one aspect of his self. He was a full, rich character who just happened to feel like a woman on the inside.

    • DoingDewey

      I think that’s a really good idea. Reading books about diverse characters or characters with experiences very different from my own, I do try to make sure the author is someone who is likely to have an idea of what that character’s life is like. Surprisingly often, I read fiction to learn about true things, like the experience of someone with a disability or someone who is treated differently because of their race, and if the author is just making it up as they go, that doesn’t work for me.

      For Today I Am a Boy is sitting on my to-read pile right now and I’m excited to get to it! It sounds very well done.

  8. Anya

    As a reader of fantasy and sci-fi only these days, most of the time the books I read don’t focus specifically on a diversity topic, but I think that there are still good and bad ways to portray diverse characters. I agree that having the only thing we know about a character is that they are black is not at all what we are looking for, but that would be true for any character; characters are boring and flat if they are defined by a single trait. But I think there are ways of reminding a reader of a characters diversity or even revealing a non-typical trait of a character subtly. When I was reading The Waking Engine, it took me about a third of the book to be sure that the main character was gay since he never came out and said he was gay, there were references to him liking various characters or whatever, but for a while it could have been interpreted either way. It wasn’t until he was described as flirting with another male character that I was sure and of course delighted. I was happiest though specifically because his sexuality was difficult to determine at first since that sent the message that it doesn’t matter and he isn’t defined by his sexuality. I’ve also read books like Hungry where here and there there are references to a family member’s beautiful, tightly curled black hair or smooth dark skin. There is no need to specifically call out that the main character and her family are black because it isn’t relevant to the story, just occasional descriptions when appropriate. I like that kind of diversity :).

    • DoingDewey

      That’s a great point! I think you’re right that when a character isn’t immediately introduced as being gay since that does send the message that it isn’t a big deal either way. I think books that just mention race by describing characters’ features are probably good for the same reason, emphasizing that race doesn’t matter, but they are also books where I’m not likely to remember the characters’ appearances afterwards.

      Some fantasy books I’ve really admired for their treatment of race and stereotypes are Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and Way of Kings series. As I’m sure you already know, both have societies divided in ways that are obviously arbitrary (eye color, for instance) and which I think could help people realize that our prejudices based on skin color are equally silly.

  9. Wendy @ Wensend

    I totally agree with you. I sometimes imagine characters as being white and well, more like me, and then I have to redraw the picture I painted in my head when I read they’re actually black or asian. This isn’t a bad thing, because it makes you think about what you see as ‘normal’ or ‘common’. It’s just that we fill in the blank spaces with things that seem normal to us when we don’t have information contradicting it.

    • DoingDewey

      That’s true! Especially when we catch ourselves doing this, I don’t think it’s so bad. I know I do the same thing when guessing other grad students’ ages. Many grad students have come back after working and so are much older than I am, but my default assumption is that everyone is my age!

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