Books occupy a unique space in our lives. We turn to them for escape, to enlighten our minds, to revisit childhood friends and for that rare and precious time to ourselves. They are some of the first outside influences we interact with and have the power to shape our internal world. As a young girl, I devoured books but often didn’t see my reflection within those pages. I was more likely to find a dragon as the main character than a black girl. In recent years, there has been a call for more diverse characters in novels. Movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks, #1000BlackGirlBooks and #OwnVoices, have risen to create more opportunities for representation in storytelling. Some voices in the literary world believe that books with people of color as main characters don’t sell as well as white protagonists. The success of diverse books featuring and authored by people of color proves otherwise.
Diverse stories not only sell, they sell well and have been for years.
The most recent example is Angie Thomas’ book, The Hate U Give. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this novel has spent 17 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. Before the undeniable success of Thomas’ book, there were award-winning novels filled with diverse characters full of depth, such as Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. Diverse stories not only sell, they sell well and have been for years.
Despite this success, opportunities for books featuring and written by minorities are still few. In 2013, Publisher Lee and Low found that only 10% of children’s books published in the last 22 years featured a multicultural child. The need for these movements highlights a profound problem within the publishing industry. Some groups have answered the call to advocate for stories that highlight lives too often left in the shadows. We Need Diverse Books, for example, is a non-profit that connects readers with diverse books, gives resources to minority writers and gathers inclusive panels to create dialogue in the publishing industry about the need for representation.
It’s also important to note how this lack of diversity is being seen and felt most acutely by children. The creation of 1000 Black Girl Books is a direct response to the failure of the publishing world, and school reading lists, to include minority children. Its founder, 12-year-old Marley Dias, was only given books to read with Caucasian main characters. She began to seek out novels that showed her reflection. This act turned into a resource guide for educators, parents and students which files over 1,000 books featuring a black girl, further proving there is a demand for diverse stories.
Voices that have been historically silenced need to be heard.
People of color have long had trouble breaking into the walls of the publishing industry. The success of books written by white authors about people of color, such as The Help and Memoirs of a Geisha, has made that feat more difficult. Own Voices makes space for disenfranchised groups to write the stories they have lived. Since its inception, the hashtag has evolved. It’s now used by literary agents and editors seeking diverse stories and authors. Voices that have been historically silenced need to be heard. Giving people this platform expands the richness of the literary world by including a fuller breadth of human experiences.
Last month I had the chance to sell my novel at Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago. The book’s main character goes on a global journey to reclaim her life from fear. She visits Ireland, Uganda and India, but in each place, she encounters her deepest fear; prejudice. It becomes her challenge and her joy to live an abundant life filled with hope. I wondered how my book would be received and if it would be welcomed. Standing beneath that hot sun, I felt vulnerable and exposed.
My HuffPost article was on full display and in the title is the word “prejudice.” I watched as browser’s eyes caught the word. Mild interest soon turned to rapid avoidance. As the morning progressed, I noticed a heartening trend. A myriad of people began to purchase the book. A young black girl searched for her credit card, and when I told her I didn’t have a card reader, she left for 45 minutes and returned with money in hand. People want to see their own stories, and it’s equally important to be exposed to the stories of other people. As my book continued to sell, I saw the diversity of age, color, belief and cultural experience in those who came to the table. It affirmed that people want to read stories that highlight a range of human experiences.
In addition to there being a demand for diverse books, there is also a social benefit. Representation is crucial for identity formation, but it’s also imperative for creating empathy. The publishing industry and its gatekeepers have an opportunity to show the multifaceted lives that inhabit the world. Giving voice to authors who can speak about the issues faced by marginalized people around the world opens channels of communication, compassion and conversation. Truthful representation humanizes stories of the “other” and contributes to raising the social consciousness of society. As the literary world catches up with what readers have long been open to, we’ll be further exposed to the power novels have to be agents of change.