This is part three of my How To Read More bootcamp series (you can read part one here, and part two here), and this week I’m focusing on a subject very close to my heart: how to read more diversely. The idea of diverse reading is probably one you’ve encountered a lot in recent years, and that is a Very Good Thing. However, the downside of “diversity” being the buzzword du jour is that now people tend to switch off when you start talking about it… but I’m here to say switch back on, right now, because this is important. A little while back, I found a great explanation of the importance of diverse books in a letter from a primary school student to Scholastic:
“Diverse characters matter because if you were black and you just saw books with white people it is going to be boring! You will want mirror books and also window books at the same time.”
Chances are, if you’re a person of privilege, you haven’t thought much lately about whether the books you’re reading are “window” books or “mirror” books. Most books are probably mirror books for you. Most books won’t force you to peer into another person’s world, because historically the publishing industry has been dominated by people who look and sound like you. Even if you “don’t care” or “never notice” whether an author comes from a different background to you, you should recognise that not noticing in itself is a form of privilege, and that all things aren’t equal. So, I’m here to help: consider this your beginner’s guide to reading more diversely (and the good news is you can start today).
“What does diverse reading even mean?”
Officially, a “diverse book” is one written by or about a person of colour, an LGBTIQ+ person, a person with a disability, and/or a person of a marginalised cultural/religious/socioeconomic background. You could also include books from countries outside of the U.S. and U.K, and/or books translated from languages other than English. Personally, though, I prefer to think of a “diverse book” as one being written by or about someone who looks, sounds, and lives different to me.
And why do diverse books matter? Well, there’s scientific evidence abound to suggest that reading these types of books improves your empathy, teaches more adaptive social behaviours, breaks down stereotypes, and increases cultural awareness and sensitivity. I think we can all agree that these are all Very Good Things, too, right? Reading diverse books gives you endless opportunities to become aware of your own privilege, challenge your own biases and prejudices, and understand more about the types of systemic oppression that don’t personally affect you. If nothing else, you might just be surprised at how well you connect with plots and protagonists that don’t look or sound familiar.
If you’re already thinking it’s “too hard” to read more diversely, or you “don’t have time”, or this “doesn’t affect you”, I say: suck it up. I swear to you, honest to goodness, that it won’t be as difficult or unsettling as you think – and, even if it is, the benefits still outweigh the costs. Here’s how to do it…
Step One: Buy Books Written By Diverse Authors
See what I mean? It’s as easy as that.
Take a look at your bookshelves: if everything you find there is written by someone who looks like you and lives like you, you’re not reading diversely. And you can’t really be expected to read more diversely if you don’t have the books you need to hand. So, the solution? Buy some!
The benefit is actually twofold, because not only are you giving yourself the option of reading more diversely, you’re using your vote – in the form of your consumer dollars – to tell publishers and booksellers that books written by people of colour, LGBTIQ+ authors, writers with disabilities, and so on, are worthwhile. That they’re a safe bet. That they’re moneymakers. It’s a cynical train of thought, I know, but that’s capitalism. Even if you never actually open the book, just by buying it you are supporting the creators of these works and making sure that there’s more opportunities for them in the future (and you get bonus points if you make the purchase at a local independent or secondhand bookstore that needs your support).
If you can’t afford the outlay – which is a completely understandable problem, and heck, I can relate! – use your local library. If librarians see an uptick in the number of diverse books being borrowed by their patrons, they’ll buy more of them and promote them on their shelves. If your local library doesn’t have the type of diverse book you’re looking for, request it. The staff are obligated to seek it out for you. Plus, if you’re in Australia or Canada or the U.K. or any other country with a lending rights program, the author will still get the royalties they’ve earned even though you can borrow the book for free.
Step Two: Buy Tickets To Events That Feature Diverse Authors (And Show Up!)
Look at the events programs for your local library, bookstores, and any writers festivals in your area. Buy tickets to events that feature diverse authors, even when (especially when!) the theme of the event or panel has nothing to do with “diversity”. When you buy tickets and show up, just like when you buy the books themselves, you send a message that these authors are highly valued by their readers and they’re a safe bet for publishers and agents.
What’s more, you’ll get to learn – something they say will surely pique your interest or challenge you to think about something differently. They’ll probably tell you things about their work that you wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to hear, and it might entice you to check out their back catalogue or keep an eye out for their new releases. They might recommend other writers, who are diverse themselves or write diversity in a way that is respectful and engaging.
Plus, if nothing else, it makes the author feel good. There ain’t nothing worse than reading to an empty room.
Step Three: Share And Engage On Social Media
You might not be an “influencer”, but if your post or Tweet convinces just one person to check out a book from a woman of colour or a non-binary writer or a writer who uses a wheelchair, that’s another score in their column, and it will mean the world to them. Not only are these writers too-often overlooked by the publishing world, once their books are out there they’re likely to be underrepresented in marketing and publicity materials, not to mention by selection panels for literary awards. So, we turn to people power!
Leave a review on Goodreads or Amazon. Share pictures of their work on Instagram. Tag publishers and bookstores in anything you post, make sure they see it! Your voice, however small, will join with others to make a groundswell of people clamouring for more diversity in reading lists and new releases.
Bonus benefit: when your friends and followers see that you’re interested in diverse books, it’s likely that some of them will reach out to share their own favourite diverse writers and stories with you. Check out my Pride 2018 post on Instagram, using books to make a rainbow flag – I had a bunch of readers and followers reach out to suggest LGBTIQ+ stories and authors for my next reading list after that, because they saw that post and realised that I was interested in reading about diverse sexualities.
It’s been wonderful seeing so many #pride posts all over #bookstagram this month… I saved this, my first attempt at a rainbow #bookstack, for today – the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. I give my thanks and pay my respects to the LGBTIQ+ elders who paved the way for the liberation. Your sacrifices were never in vain 🌈 . On a lighter note, it was surprisingly bloody difficult to cobble together a rainbow from my book collection! 😂 I have a lot of white, black, and orange spines… and not much else! I guess it’s a sign I should be buying more books 😏 . Signal boost your favourite LGBTIQ+ authors and bookstagrammers by tagging them in the comments, I’ll show each and every one some love!
While you’re there, make sure you follow and subscribe to diverse authors, bloggers, bookstagrammers and booktubers. Writers often need to show publishing houses that they have a decent following on social media when their next book is under consideration, and every additional click and “like” helps! And diverse book bloggers (on every platform) are more likely to recommend and talk about diverse books, maybe even bringing some new ones to your attention. You should definitely check out browngirlsreadtoo and twirlingpages and violettereads who are all slaying it on Instagram, and search the #diversebookbloggers tag to find more. Twitter is also a fantastic place to find new diverse voices: search #weneeddiversebooks, #ownvoices, #1000blackgirlsbooks and #lgbtbooks to get started.
Step Four: Look For Alternatives When You Need To
Now and then, you’re going to read an ostensibly-diverse book that falls short in one way or another. Maybe it relies too much on tropes and cliches about the marginalised group it seeks to represent. Maybe it relegates diverse characters to the role of sidekick or exotic love interest. This happens often, so don’t beat yourself up for making a “bad” choice. Think of it instead as an opportunity to seek out an alternative that does it better.
How can you tell when the representation isn’t “good” or accurate, if it’s not your own lived experience? Google the book title and look at reviews from members of the community that the book seeks to represent. You’ll be able to tell pretty quickly whether something is “off” (or, at least, controversial).
A real-life example: I wasn’t a huge fan of how The Rosie Project represented Asperger Syndrome. It’s not a terrible book, but I hate to think that anyone would consider it an accurate or realistic portrayal of life with Asperger’s. When I looked at the Amazon reviews section, it was clear that I’m not alone in my concerns, and many readers on the spectrum have taken issue with Simsion’s efforts. So, I started looking for books written by and about people with Asperger Syndrome, and found plenty of alternatives: there’s Look me In The Eye by John Elder Robison, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, and Julie Brown even wrote a book about writers on the spectrum. I’m swimming in alternatives!
If you feel really strongly about a book’s failings in this area, you can contact the publisher directly to let them know about the problem (but for the love of all that is holy, don’t contact the author directly on social media! that’s just asking for trouble…). The publisher might not be aware of problems in the work, unless they employ “sensitivity readers”, because most of their reviewers and editors are likely straight, white, able-bodied, and of relatively good socioeconomic standing. It sucks, but it’s the current state of play, and the more often that we campaign for better representation – in the fictional world and the real one – the closer we’ll get to it.
Step Five: Set A Goal, Create A Checklist, And Stick To It
If this has got you fired up and ready to start reading more diversely, subscribe here to get an exclusive Keeping Up With The Penguins diverse reading checklist:
The first step to getting anything done is setting a goal, after all. Maybe you’re ready to commit to reading one book by a person of colour for every book you read by a white author, or balancing out your male/female/non-binary protagonist balance. Maybe you want to stretch yourself, and commit to an entire year of only reading women of colour, or writers with disabilities. Whatever you have in mind, set it in stone and go from there. Use my list (seriously, get it, it’s great!), or create your own – whatever will get you all the way to your goal.
If you need a little more inspiration, there are dozens of diverse reading challenges available online (especially at the beginning of the year, when we all make resolutions). Try searching your preferred social media platform for #diversitybingo and #diversityreadingchallenge, or other combinations – you’ll find a challenge that matches your goals and reading capacity, and probably also a community that wants to share in the experience with you.
Bonus points for bloggers and social media users who share a review, or leave a rating, every time they finish a diverse book (see Step Three!).
Some Final Thoughts on Reading More Diversely
I know I’m a bit of a hard-arse and these How To Read More guides are full of tough-love… but at the end of the day, reading more diversely should be fun! Don’t approach it like you’re eating a big plate of plain broccoli. Find a way to work diversity into your current reading life. If you’re a romance reader, pull up a few bodice-rippers written by (or about!) people with disabilities. If you love sci-fi, find some stories with protagonists that are people of colour. If you’re a die-hard YA fan, you’re in luck – there are a lot of fantastic diverse books published in your preferred genre right now (we’ve almost reached the point where it’s no longer “alternative” to have a main character from the LGBTIQ+ community or experiencing a mental health issue, which is just fucking awesome).
If you have friends and loved ones from marginalised communities, you’re probably more attuned to the importance of reading more diversely already. Have you tried asking them about their favourite books and writers? You might just discover something new that helps you empathise with their experience more, and find better ways to support them in fighting the good fight.
When you feel your reading world expanding and you’re ready to take the next step, seek out ways to support organisations that promote diversity in books. Check out We Need Diverse Books for starters. Ask at your local library (I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s really the best resource!) what you can do to encourage them to stock and promote diverse books. If you’re a student, look up your school’s policy on representation, and talk or write to faculty supervisors suggesting they add more diverse books to their reading lists. Check out literary awards that have strict diversity criteria, and boycott the ones that don’t. I’m pretty sure you’ll find, as I have, the more you prime yourself to see issues with diversity in your reading, the more you’ll notice them and the more you’ll notice ways to battle them, too!
What are you doing to read more diversely this year? Do you have any more tips for supporting diverse authors and books? Let me know in the comments (or share with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).