Why We Need Diverse Books: The Push for Diverse Literature Isn’t a Trend. It’s Activism.

As book bloggers, we all have one thing in common: we love to read. Genres, writing styles, trope preferences, book formatting, reading pace, blogging pace – these are all subcategories that vary greatly amongst us, but there’s one thing common for all of us, which is our love for literature. You’re amongst the few people in the world who took their passion for reading, and stemmed another passion (or hobby) from it – blogging. Most of you started blogging because you wanted to share your love for books, because books mean more to you than mindless entertainment. Books hold a value for you. Reading isn’t idle consumption; for many of us, reading is a way of life. And for many of us, we all have that one book that changed our lives, or a book that shaped us into who we are today.

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“Fun” is only one of the infinite benefits of literature; cognitive functioning improves, and in many cases, books have deeply impacted society.

Literature has never been passive; it has always served an active purpose in society past “just entertainment.” We read because it’s fun, of course, but we also read to educate ourselves. We read to escape, we read to absorb, form communities within other readers as well as connections with writers. We learn writing techniques, gather a better understanding of other people with potentially opposing viewpoints, different experiences. There is infinite value in reading, and these are not idle ramblings of someone who enjoys reading; the activity has scientifically shown to increase empathy, and brain connectivity. It’s an effective way to combat stress, improve sleep (and sleep improvement further improves basically every facet of your life), can aid in improving relationships, all while making you happier (Source).

But beyond personal improvements, reading has clearly impacted society to the point where books have been burnt, banned and prohibited by people all over the world all throughout history. Whether it’s by uber-conservative parents who believe Harry Potter carries Satanic messages that poison children’s minds, or dictators who want to squash revolutionary ideology, books have always posed some sort of perceived ideological threat. And it’s because of these instances across our history that you come to realize how real of an impact books can have on society. Whether it’s George Orwell’s 1984 forcing us to think about overly controlling governments and unchecked surveillance that brought numerous thinkpieces to the surface when Edward Snowden blew the lid off NSA’s practices, or if it’s Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451’s subtle take on censorship and free speech. Whether it’s Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and its academic value in studying colonialism’s permanent effects on African culture, or Toni Morrison’s Beloved that highlighted the ‘legacy’ of slavery – these are all books that significantly impacted our society, and contributed for an ideological change that caused at least some sort of shift in the population on a large scale.

Even in your personal life, there has to be a book that impacted you so deeply that it changed something. For me, it was The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky; I was a young kid living in Pakistan, and I had never been exposed to same-sex relationships before, or the fact of repressed memories and trauma. It was the book that made me decide that I wanted to pursue psychology in university, and here I am, one year from graduating with a degree in my hand. Sometimes I wonder what my life would’ve been like had I never read that book; would I be intolerant towards gay people like many in that society are? Would I have had an understanding or passion for mental health like I do now, since the society I grew up in still has a myriad of taboos against mental illnesses? Somehow, I doubt that I would be here right now had I not read that book. And ever since, I know that books have power beyond our wildest dreams. Most of us don’t even realize this fact.

One of these powers is the ability to increase, not only tolerance, but acceptance. And understanding.

Most of you have probably read and loved Harry Potter as a child, and though it’s definitely not a book without its glaring flaws, and I would never categorize it as a diverse book by any means, it’s still a series that has been studied widely because of its popularity and prevalence. In a study published in the Journal of Social Applied Psychology, three experimenters presented passages on discrimination from the series to subjects in the study, and found that the participants showed changed attitudes towards stigmatized groups, like gay people and immigrants (Source). The researchers write, “extended contact via story reading is a powerful strategy to improve out-group attitudes.” If a story has the power to improve out-group attitudes (meaning attitudes towards people you don’t immediately identify with, or people from outside your immediate community), then… this is a powerful tool.

We live in a world where fear-mongering has increased to the point where presidential candidates in seemingly ‘progressive’ societies are elected based on the promise of keeping people of a certain ethnicity, or religion, out of man-made borders. We live in a world where being gay, lesbian or trans can serve you a death sentence or give you second-class citizenship in your own country, where minorities in societies as advanced as the United States and the United Kingdom undergo systematic oppression, persecution, deep-seated prejudice based on color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, gender identity and religion. Police brutality and constant erasure from racial minorities’ own accomplishments in history is a relevant and persistent issue. We live in a society where mental illnesses are still used as plot points in horror movies, where suicides have risen to an unprecedented level, yet the collective population doesn’t want to do anything about it past tweeting hashtags. In a war-ridden world where children flee after losing entire families, as we become spectators in watching them die and drown, as politicians use them in their agendas, closing the gates to them because “refugee” has become a bad word. You may think, sitting in the safety of your home that times are better than they used to be, but they’re bad, and change doesn’t seem likely with how things are deteriorating.

Change begins with ideology; it always has, it always will. Women were largely believed to be inferior to men, which is why they were not allowed to vote and work. The ideology around this is far from perfect now and the fight is far from over, but it evolved, which is why change began. Ideologies do not change if you do not listen. Ideologies cannot evolve if you willfully turn away from the plight of oppressed individuals. And although I’m not naive enough to believe that books can fix all that is wrong with the world, they have proved that they can be used to change ideology, and push towards acceptance.

So, what’s the problem here? The problem is that marginalized peoples’ ideologies aren’t given a platform – change, thus, becomes impossible to achieve. The problem is lack of diversity in media, but for our purposes, more specifically literature. The very problem lies in the fact that marginalized voices and diverse stories can’t reach the audiences that can collectively inspire change. And the problem is also the deep-seated push against diversity – for whatever reason this is.

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I hear you talking about “diversity,” but really – what is it?

I’m no expert, but let me try and explain. In the context of literature, diversity means more than just one thing:

  1. It means giving marginalized authors a platform to write their stories. This applies to publishers, bloggers, etcetera, for giving marginalized people’s stories the chance to reach the world.
  2. It means reading books written by marginalized authors, whether they write about their marginalization or not – supporting authors of color, authors on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, disabled authors, neurodivergent authors automatically allows for their experiences to shine through in their stories. And it helps diversify literature by boosting voices that are otherwise repressed in areas of society.
  3. It means reading books with prominent characters with marginalizations. Reading books with casts of color, books with characters with disabilities, with characters on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. The world is not white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical and allosexual/alloromantic. The world is a diverse place, so diversity in literature means supporting the diverse make-up of our society.
23% of the US’s population is formed of people of color and First Nation peoples, and this percentage continues to increase. Only 10% of kidlit contains multicultural content.

A significant portion of our population (and keep in mind, I’m only talking about ethnicity here) is severely underrepresented in literature. Look around you; the push for diversity exists because there is a lack of it. We don’t ask for more white characters to exist in books, because there is a 90% mathematical chance that if you pick up a book in the bookstore, the book will be majority-white, most definitely spear-headed by white characters and authors. We don’t ask for more heterosexual characters because the vast majority of storytelling is heteronormative, meaning that we automatically assume romance is between a man and a woman; many people with different identities are thus pushed aside. And believe it or not, this lack of representation can have significant repercussions.

Representation in the media is significantly linked to self-esteem.

In my previous semester, I conducted some research, and wrote up a review for my Psychology class on how racial representation in literature can impact minority self-esteem and self-worth. The issue with lack of representation transcends beyond literature; a study conducted by USC Annenberg evaluated over 11,000 speaking characters in fictional films, TV shows and series. The study found that female characters only accounted for 28.7% of all speaking roles in film, despite females forming half of the US population. Moreover, of all speaking roles, only 28.3% were given to racial minority groups. Keeping these statistics in mind, consider that further research has shown that women and racial minorities have lower self-esteem the more they consume media. In black children, increased media exposure reduces self-esteem, while in white boys, increased media exposure increases self-esteem (Martins & Harrison, 2012). This is perhaps due to the fact that white male characters on television are given positive roles – the hero, the savior, the good guy, while black characters are far and few in between, and when they do exist, they are often reduced to negative stereotypes. Black children, the more they consume the erasure and/or negative stereotypes, are impacted deeply by them.

What is self-esteem, and what is the point of increased self-esteem?

We often hear words like “self-esteem” in day-to-day life without realizing that they are scientific terms with scientific research and study backing them up. Self-esteem is defined as how a person views themself, and how they perceive their own worthiness. Self-esteem impacts many portions of your life;

  • Having a low feeling of your own value can cause depression, or increased symptoms related to depression.
  • Low self-esteem can have an effect on interpersonal relationships; people with low social self-esteem have more problems in their relationships with family, friends and romantic partners
  • Higher self-esteem has been associated with improved academic achievement
  • Low self-esteem youth are at risk of abusing alcohol and drugs
  • Research further shows that low self-esteem is related to poor heath, delinquency, and limited economic prospects during adulthood
Underrepresentation or negative representation can thus have serious consequences.

People who call for diverse media, and representing marginalized groups in literature aren’t doing it to be petty. They’re not trying to take the fun out of your reading – they’re trying to use books, which we all agree are a powerful tool, to make a significant change in society.

L.A. Spears-Bunton (1990) theorized that racial minority students read at lower levels than their white peers because of a potential cultural disparity between their racial identity and the books they are given to read; if this disparity is decreased or eradicated, it can significantly increase reading (and think about the positive effects of reading outlined above) in marginalized groups. Arlene Barry (1998) asserts that through multicultural literature, minorities’ self-esteem can improve as they learn about the contributions their culture, or people who look like them, have made, and are making, to the U.S. and the world. Multicultural literature can form a much-needed balance between home and the outside world; this balance can prevent serious conflict from occurring, and children are not forced to choose between two environments; rather, they can feel a sense of belonging in both.

Enough of the academic talk; let’s get personal. Seeing yourself represented in a book is a priceless feeling.

Aside from self-esteem affects and the societal social value of diverse media, let’s talk about how seeing yourself represented in a book feels. More often than not, we love things that we relate to. I loved Hermione Granger as a character because I saw myself reflected in her – she’s smart, she’s bossy, she goes by the rules, she loves to read. And I also loved her because she was bad-ass; she could be fierce and heroic with the same qualities that I had, and it gave me the feeling that I could also do what she could. This harkens back to white boys having higher self-esteem than other groups; all the major superheroes, people in power, the “good guys” are mostly white males. It’s not a white male child’s fault that he immediately connects to these guys, which causes him to feel like he can be heroic, he can be powerful, thus boosting self-esteem. But it makes you think, doesn’t it? That we all connect to media we relate to, and if all the positive roles are going to white males, what about the rest of us?

Now imagine you’re me. A brown, Pakistani-Muslim, fat immigrant who has basically never seen herself represented in media. Beauty standards are white-centric and thin. Brown, desi heroines are non-existent. Pakistani-Muslims are typecast as terrorists, and that’s all I see when I turn on the TV, or read a book. It makes me feel alone. It makes me feel like I am not worthy, that my identities aren’t worthy of being shared, or seen in a positive light. It takes you to a dark place without you even knowing it happened. Imagine that you grew up with nothing to relate to. That’s how many people feel, and I still admit that I’m much more privileged than many others out there- people who have never seen themselves reflected at all.

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For a marginalized child or teen or young adult- to see your story, your experiences, your life reflected in the books you read, where you feel like you have a voice, where you feel like your life story is important enough to be written, published and read? That’s a priceless feeling. It makes you feel like people want to hear about you. It makes you feel like you’re an active part of this society, that people love and accept you as a part of their world, and that you can do whatever the privileged in the world can because your story is just as important as theirs. You can’t put a price-tag on that, which is why the fight is so important.

Diversity isn’t a trend. Wanting diverse stories shouldn’t be a phase – it’s activism. It’s a movement.

A movement that has infinite value. Reading stories about different experiences will not only help people from that particular experience feel valued and seen, it will also help you learn. It will help society grow collectively towards improved self-esteem in youth, as well as empathy, tolerance and equality. Having increased books by and/or about people of color will not make books with white characters go extinct. Having books by and/or about people on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum will not make books with straight relationships, or allosexual/alloromantic characters, or cisgender characters go extinct. No. The movement only calls for diversity – never erasure. And diversity can never impact anyone negatively.

Once you realize that diversifying literature isn’t just that one trend that people have been talking about recently, that it’s not just about the personal value of marginalized readers seeing themselves represented (even though that’s a massive, important, crucial component), but that it’s also about changing ideologies towards building a truly equal society, you realize the global value of the movement. And like you perform activism for environmental conservation, climate change, animal rights, charity… I hope you see the value in performing activism for this, and bringing about a change that is absolutely crucial on a large scale.

Writers: here’s what you can do to diversify your stories.

🌸 First of all, don’t believe it when people (or that voice in your head) tell you that diverse stories do not have a market. They absolutely do; the success of stories like The Hate U Give (which has spent six months on the top of the bestsellers’ list), When Dimple Met Rishi, and movies like “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” “The Night Of,” “Sense 8,” and “Get Out,” goes to show that the market exists. People are desperate for representation, so your diverse stories will sell.

🌸 Research to the best of your abilities. Read books, hire sensitivity/beta readers, talk to the communities online, read other books by people who share the marginalization that you’re writing about. Nothing is worse for a person who goes into a book expecting to see themselves represented than to come out feeling disrespected, tokenized and stereotyped. Utilize research, and make sure you stay in your respective lane. Make sure your characters aren’t caricatures who serve as plot devices, or who can be replaced by non-marginalized characters without changing anything (that’s tokenism!) Make sure you’re not using language that you’re not supposed to be using (such as slurs). Make sure you’re respectful, always.

🌸 Realize that this isn’t a personal vendetta against you. Nobody’s saying you cannot write white characters, for example. Instead, you should think in terms of world-building. As a writer, your novel should sound realistic, and authentic. Is the world all-white? So how can an all-white novel be realistic/authentic? Realize that you can diversify your world by including peripheral characters, side characters, important conversations, all while having a white main character. You don’t have to make sacrifices. You just need to improve your storytelling, and diversity improves storytelling by making it realistic and reflective of the world we live in.

Readers and bloggers: the brunt of it falls on you. You need to do better.

🌸 Demand diversity. Let publishers know that you support the movement, that you think it is important, and let them know that you will buy diverse stories. There is a clear distinction between attacking and letting your voice be heard – know the difference, stay within your bounds, but be loud, clear, and proud.

🌸 Actively promote diverse books. Buy them, and if you can’t buy them, find them at your library; if it’s not at your library, place in a request. Read them, and promote them on social media – Tweet about diverse books, take photos, promote them on your blogs in lists. Review them on your websites, on retail websites. Spread hype. People buy books that are hyped, and if you hype up diverse books, that ensures that more diverse books are published. Be aware of this.

🌸 Boost bloggers who are from marginalized groups, who are proponents of diversity. Boost them so their voices are amplified, which will cause a ripple effect throughout the community.

We have a long way to go, but improvement is already visible. Join the movement; it’s more important than you think.

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If you enjoyed this post, I would greatly appreciate if you would consider sharing and/or buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi.com. Thank you so much.

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R E S O U R C E S

We Need Diverse Books

The #DiverseBookBloggers tag on social media (Twitter, specifically).

The Brown Bookshelf

American Indians in Children’s Literature

Disability in Kid Lit

SLJ’s Islam in the Classroom

ALA’s Rainbow Booklists

Great Gay Teen Books

Diversity in YA

Rich in Color

Reading in Color

* If you have more resources, or blogs that post about diverse books and diversity in kidlit, please let me know and I’ll try to update the list as soon as possible.

Comments

  1. Well written, thoughtful post. I agree that there needs to be more diversity in literature. As an education major a part of our classes are centered on culture awareness and building a diverse curriculum. Color blindness can be just as harming to our society, and it is so important that we as a literary community celebrate our different heritages!

    Thank you Aimal, I hope you don’t mind me sharing this post on Facebook!

  2. This post is just incredible. Thank you so much for writing it. Everything that you’ve said is so true, and so beautifully written. I wish the whole of Twitter would sit down and read your thoughtful, considered words. It makes me think of this essay in The Good Immigrant, by Darren Chetty. He was a primary school teacher in an inner city school in London, and when he told his students to write about a character with their surname, and one of his students, a Nigerian kid, actually did so, another child in the class said ‘you can’t say that, stories have to be about white people!’ That such a young child believed that shows that the situation is totally dire.

    • Thanks so much, Lydia! I’ve had the Good Immigrant on my TBR forever, just because I’ve heard the talk for representation in it is intense and important. Your comment just makes me want to read it more, even if the example you provided is incredibly sad. 🙁

  3. Aimal! This is an amazing, articulated post. I agree with everything you say and it is 100% not a trend, it is activism. There needs to be changes, thank you for writing this and also explaining how too as bloggers we can help spread the movement.

  4. Thank you for this post. I agree with everything you’ve said here and seeing the Riz Ahmed gif reminds me that I still haven’t seen that video of his where he talks about this (adds it to the to-do list).

    I absolutely agree with you, I wrote a discussion post a few months ago where I also discussed how reading diverse books is activism. It’s also one of the reason why I decided to delete my activism twitter account and combine that area of my life with book-related activities. I just couldn’t separate the activism from the bookish-content.

    I love seeing how people start reading more once they discover diverse books, and that they find more enjoyment in doing so. It’s such a difference to see yourself represented. I do think that increasing the amount of diverse books, will increase the amount of people who read as a hobby.

  5. I totally agree with everything in this post! I am doing a topic in my english literature class at the moment called “writing in the margins” which is about books written by and about marginalized groups. That class is about adult literature, however diverse books are just as important (if not more so) for the YA age group. Many of the ideas you’ve brought up in this post are things we have talked about in class so I am totally with you on this.

  6. Damn Aimal this is so well written?? Have you thought of sending this in to some kind of magazine/newspaper/online newssite? I think this is a really important piece that should be read by everyone, whether they’re a part of the book blogging community or not!

  7. I don’t even know where to start. This post is so well thought out, researched, and written. I think it is so important for books to have accurate representation of people in a way that realistically reflects society. 23% of Americans are not white, so shouldn’t a books cast of characters reflect that? Mental illness and different sexualities/genders are so underrepresented in all forms of media, and that one is very personal to me. Also, why are so many books filled with characters from one culture? I want to see characters with cultural backgrounds from Bulgaria, Lithuania, Ireland, New Zealand, Korea. And we never do! It’s so sad.

  8. YES, YES, YES. This is an absolutely phenomenal post and I completely agree with everything you’ve said. Diverse books are so important, and you’ve highlighted so many great reasons why. Thank you so much for sharing this and, as always, fabulous post! <3

  9. Aimal, thank yo so much for writing this! Diversity in literature is so important for everyone to be thinking about/working for! I especially loved that you included ideas of ways that readers and bloggers can do something—it makes this issue feel like something that normal people can do something about, and your suggestions were super helpful for me. I will do my best to follow your advice, and also put this post into the hands of as many people as possible because it’s so important!

  10. Hi Aimal!!
    I really liked that you talked about the importance of self-esteem in its relation to being represented, and that you grounded it in research. (As someone doing research, this makes me so happy. T_T) One of my papers this semester is Intergroup Social Psychology, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how representation and reading diversely can minimize intergroup bias because of, in a way, increased intergroup contact. Like, this has been on my mind a lot.
    But anyway, AH Aimal, I love this post so much. Thank you so much for writing this. <3

  11. UM.

    WOW.

    PREACH IT GURL. This book is everything that needs to be said and more. I have a feeling that this is going to get A LOT of attention and if it doesn’t I will be gutted because THIS SI IMPORTANT!

  12. Any comment I write will seem quite small compared to the essay you just presented! I thought it was really well-written and interesting. I find it interesting how you utilize your academic pursuits when writing a post. Diversity is so sorely needed in the books we consume and I know I need to do a better job of actively seeking out books with diversity in them.

  13. This is such a good post! I agree with everything you’ve said – diversity is more than just a trend, and shouldn’t even be considered important. It should just be, ya know? And because it’s not, everyone needs to participate in making it such.

    I basically never see my family in anything and my sexuality isn’t something that is handled well very rarely. I want so much more from my books and the world they portray.

  14. *applause* Thank you so much for writing this, Aimal! I absolutely LOVED reading this post!! Diversity is SO important and I’ve heard people calling it a ‘trend’ and it makes me want to punch them in the face. It’s not a fidget spinner or highlighted tips, it’s something that should be considered normal because – well – it IS.

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