The world is a big place. Each person is wildly complex on their own. There are scores of factors that affect people, including ethnicity, religion, economic status, physical and mental health, sexual and gender identities, and many others. Multiply that by 7 billion, and you get a nearly infinite number of life experiences.
While each person is truly unique, some factors of our lives may be quite similar to another’s. It is also important to note that when there is a difference, we can learn from them and learn to appreciate the diversity around us. Books are a fantastic way to do that for teens (or anyone else, for that matter). There is, in fact, an entire movement based on the principle of creating and promoting children’s and Young Adult books that feature diverse characters, led by the organization We Need Diverse Books.
MIRRORS AND WINDOWS
Librarians often describe books as “mirrors” and “windows.” Mirrors are books that reflects the reader’s life. Windows provide a view into the life of another person different from the reader in some way. Each experience is important for teens, as it legitimizes their own experience and broadens their view of the world around them.
As a child and teen, I grew up in a low-income household. Books like Eleanor and Park are easy for me to identify with because they portray characters struggling to make ends meet. They are mirrors that reflect my own life experience. For teens, mirrors are important to validate their identity, situation, decisions, or emotions. They may even find role models in the characters. Teens are empowered and comforted when they see characters like them represented in the books they read. This is especially true when the trait is not the defining challenge of the book, but simply a feature of the character.
Mirrors also provide guidance and can tease out potential consequences for teens. Any time a character is in a challenging situation or faces a difficult decision, it creates a learning opportunity for the reader. Did the character handle the situation well? Did their decisions create more problems? How could this be avoided? Through the use of books, teens can experience potential outcomes in their own lives from characters who are going through the same challenges in a safe environment. If it becomes too difficult, they can always put the book down and try again later.
Just as important are the windows. These are the books that teens do not necessarily identify with. Instead, windows provide insight into the life of someone different from themselves. For example, I have never been to West Africa and know almost nothing about daily life there. Set in the West African country of Cote d’Ivoire, Marguerite Abouet’s Aya would be a window for me. By exposing themselves to another way of life, teens gain a better view of the world and the diverse people in it. This can lead to greater acceptance and understanding.
Similar to the We Need Diverse Books movement, there is also the Own Voices movement. The Own Voices movement seeks to identify books written by authors who have experienced what their characters have. For example, Turtles All the Way Down is an Own Voices book. John Green and his protagonist both have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and he stated the experiences in the book are “as close to my experience as I could get.” But they don’t have to be realist genres to have realistic characters. Take The Empress of a Thousand Skies, for instance. This space opera features Rhee, an Asian heroin created by Rhoda Belleza, an Asian author. That’s still Own Voices even if Belleza has never cruised around the galaxy.
This is not to say that every book must be Own Voices. Not at all. Countless talented authors are able to write relatable and realistic characters in very different situations from their own. Sometimes, though, that little bit of insider perspective adds a layer of nuance and authenticity another author may have missed, making a more impactful story. One online blogger notes this in her review of Turtles All the Way Down. “Just reading the first few chapters felt like a relief, somehow. ‘Someone gets it.’”
GRAPHIC NOVELS LEAD THE WAY
Many librarians agree that graphic novels are a fantastic way to encourage readers to discover a whole host of diverse characters in a variety of relatable or eye opening situations. Despite a small sample size, a recent study by Robin A. Moeller and Kim Becnel confirms this, finding that Young Adult graphic novels featured noticeably more characters of color than traditional YA fiction. An astounding 70% of graphic novels sampled contained at least one prominent supporting character or background character of color. One marvelous (pun intended) example is the new Ms. Marvel series featuring the superhero as Kamala Khan – a Pakistani-American Muslim girl from Jersey City. The writer, G. Willow Wilson, is also a Muslim woman.
Our library offers a plethora of YA books featuring diverse characters in many different situations. Here is a tiny sample of those books. Some books could easily fit into several of these categories, but I list them only once in the category that seems most applicable to the story.
CHARACTERS OF COLOR
- Miles Morales: Spider-man Jason Reynolds
- Not Your Sidekick C.B. Lee
- Shadowshaper Daniel José Older
- Akata Witch Nnedi Okorafor
- The Marrow Thieves Cherrie Dimaline
- The Education of Margot Sanchez Lilliam Rivera
- When Dimple Met Rishi Sandhya Menon
CHARACTERS AND RELIGION
- The Messengers: Discovered Lisa M. Clark
- Ms. Marvel, vol. 1 G. Willow Wilson
- Marvelous Travis Thrasher
- Conviction Kelly Loy Gilbert
- Temple Boys Jamie Buxton
- Does My Head Look Big in This? Randa Abdel-Fattah
- Godless Pete Hautman
POVERTY AND HOMELESSNESS
- Eleanor and Park Rainbow Rowell
- We’ll Fly Away Bryan Bliss
- Winterfolk Janel Kolby
- Ship Breaker Paolo Bacigalupi
- Olivia Twist Lorie Langdon
- Munmun Jesse Andrews
- Burning Midnight Will McIntosh
MEDICAL CONDITIONS, MENTAL HEALTH, AND GRIEF
- Turtles All the Way Down John Green
- All That I Can Fix Crystal Chan
- Everything Everything Nicola Yoon
- Perks of Being a Wallflower Stephen Chbosky
- Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie Jordan Sonnenblick
- Jacked Up Erica Sage
- Release Patrick Ness
- If I Was Your Girl Meredith Russo
- Summer of Salt Katrina Leno
- The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue Mackenzi Lee
- The Handsome Girl and Her Beautiful Boy B.T. Gottred
- Tash Hearts Tolstoy Katie Ormsbee
- Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-fi Anthology Hope Nicholson
Morgan Gariepy, Teen Librarian