The windchill where I live in Wisconsin is -55F right now, and I’m on my 3rd day of being housebound with 3 kids and 2 dogs – what better time to FINALLY write this post that has been percolating for weeks??
I have long been on a mission to diversify the shelves in my school libraries – and by diversify, I mean including books by authors of color, Indigenous authors, LGBTQ+ authors, and also ABOUT characters of color, LGBTQ+ characters and Indigenous characters. The message has been loud and clear that we need to provide windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors for every single child. Every child deserves to see themself in the books they are reading and I have read countless essays by adult readers who were overjoyed as a child to FINALLY see themselves reading about a character who looked like them.
For sake of brevity, I will now be using “AOC and Indigenous authors” to refer to authors of color and Indigenous authors, to indicate my understanding that Indigenous/American Indian people do not consider themselves to be included in the “of color” group. I may also use POC/Indigenous = people of color/Indigenous. Diverse is referring to books/authors including both AOC/Indigenous and/or LGBTQ+ representation. Sometimes this also included differently-abled. I am well aware that the word diverse is not perfect, but with this definition I hope it will be acceptable. Please note that I almost always mean #ownvoices when I use this term, but that not all diverse authors necessarily write #own voices stories. If my wording gets awkward below, know that I am trying, but please do let me know if I have made missteps in terminology.
Largely through the work of the We Need Diverse Books organization and movement, the children’s industry has made strides in this area that are promising, and resources abound for teachers, parents and librarians to find and purchase books for today’s children that represent a much more diverse population than in the past.
What’s the problem?
However, I can’t say the same has been true in the adult market. The necessity for those same windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors has not been advertised in the public marketing of adult titles. Not at all. The publishing world hasn’t been doing the work needed to ensure that adult readers get that same joy at being represented in literature.
As a white, heterosexual, cis woman, I am ready to admit I only truly became aware of this issue 2 years ago, and only then began to work on diversifying my own reading and book purchasing. And even within that time, I have only made serious inroads within the past year. This is all to say that I am by no means an expert, but simply a reader and book professional who is trying to do my best to help other readers diversify their own bookshelves.
The Los Angeles Review of Books recently published a piece titled “Comping White” by Laura B. McGrath that does an excellent job of describing the issues in the publishing industry that lead to the scarcity of books published by the large houses written by BIPOC authors – I highly recommend reading it because it truly does put a part of the burden on readers. Especially white readers.
What can white readers do to help make a shift toward better representation?
We can do the work to FIND books written by AOC/Indigenous and LGBTQ+ authors. Yes, WE have to do the work because the publishing industry isn’t doing it for us. I desperately hope that the industry will work to make changes in the immediate future, but until publicists start actually sending me equal review copies of diverse titles as they do white titles and libraries start ordering equal copies of diverse titles as they do white titles, WE need to do the work. And yes, I admit that I need to do better as well. I am happy to say, however, that January 2019 has been my most successful month yet – 14 of my 28 books read so far have been written by POC/Indigenous authors. I highlight what white readers need to do because it’s only right that the burden be focused on the group that has been unfairly catered to since publishing began.
- White readers need to put purchasing dollars toward buying diverse books – these can and should definitely include ebooks since many self-published authors only publish in this format
- White reviewers need to give equal time to reviewing diverse books – see note about ebooks above
- White book influencers need to give equal space to promoting diverse books – see note about ebooks above
- White readers need to request that our libraries purchase these books. If money is an issue, please put your time into requesting that your library purchase books you want to read! Most systems honor a large portion of these requests, and not only will you be getting the books to read, but you will be benefitting your entire community. Ask a local librarian for help if needed.
- White readers need to shift away from reading books about mainly diverse characters written by white/straight authors – these are not their stories to tell. Focus on finding #ownvoices stories.
“Issue books” vs “Non-Issue Books”
A common issue that has been brought up in the bookstagram world on Instagram is that traditional publishers tend to only highly promote “issue” books by diverse authors. Young adult author Nicola Yoon defines this as a book “where a character’s differences make up the core of the novel”. She writes and talks so wonderfully about this in numerous places, but this piece does a great job of explaining the term, and why non-issue books, “where the characters just happen to be diverse” are just as vital in the world of reading. Hat tip to @wocreader on Instagram for pointing me toward this work! Children’s publishing seems to have gotten the message on this, but the big adult publishers are only starting to address it in their offerings.
Why does this matter? Well, lots and lots of readers WANT to read non-issue books! White readers and diverse readers alike! They want mystery and romance and rom-coms and lighter fare. Not all readers are up for a diet of ONLY issue books, because many readers read purely for escapism – adult lives and news can be exhausting and draining and if some readers only have 30 minutes a day to read, they want to sink into a fantasy world. This gets NO judgement from me since I’m big into escapism, especially during more trying periods of life.
How can readers find diverse “non-issue” books?
Well, in the world of romance and mystery, I now have some AMAZING resources to share with you! If you have a fabulous one-stop resource for science fiction and fantasy or historical fiction by diverse authors, please do share in the comments here or DM me on Instagram.
In addition, Book Riot does a phenomenal job of covering these books – I find most of their newsletters and podcasts to have great representation, and their roundups are incredibly diverse, especially in relation to genres on their Read Harder Challenges.
- Sign up for the Bawdy Bookworms Diverse Romance list. You’ll get a spreadsheet updated with new releases from diverse authors and can use these for your TBR or your new release coverage, review fodder, etc if you are an reviewer/influencer.
- Use the WOC in Romance site to search for your next read. The @wocinromance Instagram feed shares new releases by WOC every week as well.
- Go read the Ripped Bodice’s “The State of Diversity in Romance Publishing Report” – it’s a necessary read.
- Hard-core romance world folks – send me more, I know there must be some! I know the romance world on Twitter is on top of ALL of it.
- Use Frankie’s List to explore diverse authors in this category – this resource simply lists the author names by category – you all know how to use book seller websites and Goodreads to search authors and explore titles, right?
- Stop You’re Killing Me has a character index which breaks mystery titles down by diversity of the characters
- Thanks to @leighkramer for sharing the Crime Writers of Color Twitter account with me!
- And by no means extensive, you can also take a look at my WOC Mysteries story highlight on Instagram for the mysteries by BIPOC women that I have discovered.
Thanks a million to the fabulous mystery author Kellye Garrett for sharing Frankie’s List with me, as well as the following author suggestions – go and give all of these folks a follow on Twitter and explore their work! I just finished Kellye’s first book “Hollywood Homicide” and loved it and have already ordered book two.
That should get you started…
— Kellye Garrett (@kellyekell) January 30, 2019
Thanks to @talesfromthelibrary on Instagram for sending me the link to Queer Books Unbound! Please definitely send more sites focused on this area of representation my way. I’ll also totally admit to googling “LGBTQ Books” and finding some amazing round up lists. Give it a try!
I need YOUR help!
If you have any resource recommendations or other tips for sourcing and promoting works by diverse authors, please do let me know in the comments, via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or via DM on Instagram – I’ll update this post with all relevant suggestions.
And remember, I’m one white reader attempting to make a difference – I’m not claiming to be an authority. I’m simply trying to reach farther out from the epicenter of the book world where many authors/publisher/influencer folks are living in their bubble. Thanks for your help!