Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Diversity in Fiction: A Window to the World

There has been a lot of discussion online about diversity in fiction lately, specifically with the WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS campaign on twitter and tumblr. One of the points that I have seen brought up many times is this: we need diverse books because kids need to see themselves in fiction. I'm not disputing that. It's certainly true that it can be healthy for kids to see themselves--that is, characters with similar backgrounds, ethnicities, and struggles--in the books that they read, and in those books' authors. But if that is our primary focus, we encourage division* over diversity. More important than kids seeing themselves is them seeing each other

Diversity wasn't an issue when I was growing up. I had white friends. I had black friends. I had friends from Poland, Vietnam, and Laos. I had an adopted brother who who was black, and two adopted cousins from Korea. I was a military brat, so we moved all over the U.S.A., and lived in a small town in Germany for three years. When my dad retired when I was in middle school, we settled in a predominantly black neighborhood. As a teenager I dated, and eventually married, a man whose parents were Mexican immigrants.

Diversity? That was the world. At least, it was my world. The world was full of people who were both alike and different. That's how I saw it.

And it wasn't just the world I saw around me. It was the world I saw in books. I read a lot as a kid. Fantasies about journeys through Middle Earth. Adventures about people who were six inches tall. Contemporary fiction about cliques and popularity. Stories about dogs and horses and cats. Books about Native Americans, Muslims, black kids, Jewish kids. I remember being intrigued by the differences I saw in those characters, while at the same time connecting with them and their stories.

Characters are more than their skin color or nationality. They are more than their religion or cultural background. They are more than their ability or disability. Characters, even when they are written as animals or hobbits or aliens, are people. People that readers connect with on a much deeper level than what shows on the surface.

Therein lies the true reason we need diverse books. We don't need diverse books so that kids can see people that are just like them. We need diverse books so that kids can connect with people who are different than them. So that they can see that, as my daughter Julia so eloquently put it, "our struggles make us way more similar than our skin color could ever make us different."

My children understand this basic truth because we have never made race (or "diversity") a big issue in our family, even though many would say they are diverse because they are mixed race. They haven't suffered as readers because they haven't seen themselves--that is, kids who have both American and Mexican heritage--in books. They have looked beyond things like skin color, culture, and physical ability and have learned to connect with characters on a deeper level.

Books aren't meant to be mirrors. They are meant to be windows. Sure, we expect to see ourselves reflected back, but the real miracle of reading is when we see past the "me" on the glossy surface and into the diverse world beyond.

* We shouldn't try to fit people into snug little boxes that only divide us further. Diversity isn't us and them. It's everyone.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You're right, Rebecca! Real diversity is natural and organic, not forced.That's why, when we experience integration, we no longer see the differences, only the similarities.


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