Friday, January 30, 2015

The Way We Bared Our SoulsTo start the year, YA Diversity Book Club read THE WAY WE BARED OUR SOULS by Willa Strayhorn. (From Kirkus: “Five New Mexico teens undergo a soul-cleansing ritual, with varied results.”) We had a lively discussion about it, which you can read over at Gone Pecan. We also got to hear more from Strayhorn about how she came up with the idea and wrote the book, which you can read at Teen Lit Rocks. And at the Reading Date, you can get recommendations for some excellent Native American YA lit.

As for me, here, today, I actually wanted to discuss something I’ve been thinking about ever since I read a discussion between friends P.E. and Mari at the Sirenic Codex. A few highlights:

- “I will read what catches my eye and if I should start reading diverse books, then those diverse books better start working for my attention.”

- “Publishers will only promote books if they believe there is a market for them, and I think readers must be active in deliberately seeking out diverse books.”

- “I read to enjoy myself and if a book with no evident diversity offers that for me then that's where my ship sails.”

Both girls make fair points and gave me a lot to think about. Ultimately, my opinion is this: Diversity is real and unavoidable. It is the world we live in. Therefore, everyone — publishers, authors, and readers — has a responsibility to foster the success of diverse books.

But diversity will not automatically make a book successful.

Of course it won’t. Simply adding a character of color, or a queer character, or a handicapped character, or whatever — this will not magically ensure that a plot is interesting, prose is lyrical, or themes are resonant. 

But guess what? That’s no different than non-diverse books. No matter what book you pick up, there are no guarantees that you’re going to love it.

And maybe there shouldn’t be. In the words of Rainbow Rowell:

Non-diverse books have had a long history of possibly entertaining you or possibly not, and now diverse books should get that equal chance too. 

Whether or not you end up loving a diverse book is (somewhat) beside the point. Because that’s what equal chance means. A fair opportunity to succeed or fail. To be loved or loathed. To be cherished or thrown across the room.

Equal chance does not mean being diversity-blind. Think of it this way: Just like your body needs a balanced diet, so too does your mind. Actively seeking out diverse books is no different than making sure you eat something from each category of the food pyramid.

(Do they still call it the food pyramid anymore? Well, you know what I mean.)

I must add one more very important note: The most important criteria for a diverse book, in my opinion, is that the diversity within it be truthful. That means well-researched and accurately and respectfully represented. There will always be some degree of leeway, due to everyone's individual experiences being different, even within a group. But it’s usually pretty easy to tell when someone has appropriated diversity for their own gain. Or when someone has inserted diversity as a token gesture rather than something inherent and enriching to the story. Or even, unfortunately, when someone has simply not done a good enough job of researching and/or representing.

* * *

If you’re interested in reading more about why diverse books are important and what standards they should be held to, Book Riot is doing a great series on Reading Diversely.

And as always, you can find more (traditional) YA Diversity Book Club content here:


Mary @ BookSwarm said...

we definitely need more diverse books, books that show the world as it is, rather than all whitewashed. And I'd like to see more books where the "diverse" character(s) isn't just thrown in to make the book diverse but lives in that world, just like he/she would IRL.

We Heart YA said...

Totally agree, Mary! There's some concern right now that the diversity movement -- while overall a great thing -- may be causing some in the industry to view diversity as a "trendy must-have," versus a real, important, organic story element. In the long run this issue will probably resolve itself, but for now it's a bit bothersome.

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Stephanie, Ingrid, Sarah & Kristan — we read, write, discuss and celebrate Young Adult lit.



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The Crown of Embers
New House 5: How A Dorm Becomes A Home
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