This past week, various social media channels exploded over a controversy about the representation of marginalized children in literature. Some were saying that there are plenty of books out there about diversity, while many others decried that, despite what is out there already, there are not nearly enough. I won’t reproduce the arguments or participants here, as some of the links I provide will give you some background so you can decide for yourself how you feel about it. What I’d like to focus on instead is the concept of voices in literature and the rights of all readers to relate to someone in a story. This isn’t the same as banning books. Banning means stifling voices that are already out there. Today’s post is about voices that haven’t been heard yet, voices that often don’t appear on people’s radar to prompt a challenge.
Earlier this year, Myles Johnson, not finding quite the right story already out there, and instead of waiting for the world of literature to catch up, created his own story. Johnson led a successful Kickstarter campaign to publish his book Large Fears about a young African-American boy who loves pink and in an attempt to seek acceptance wants to journey to Mars. Many are finding this story a breakthrough because it’s a unique voice that hasn’t been represented (or if it has, it hasn’t been represented enough) in books. Blogger Crazy Quilt Edi was one of them and wrote an impassioned entry about what this book meant to her and her community at large. And she talked about voices and young people not having the tools to sustain themselves during tough times because books with relatable voices weren’t there to help them.
Voices in literature are important. Regardless of who they represent, they are the voices we cling to when we need comfort or need to see something of ourselves in the world when it seems like the world doesn’t recognize who we are. I’ve been extremely lucky in my reading life to have found voices that seem like they speak directly to me, or offer to take me away into a world where it didn’t matter that I was different because differences either didn’t matter or were celebrated in that book’s world. Sometimes those voices were from people just like me; other times they were from characters who were nothing like me, but still somehow seemed like they understood me just the same. These were the books that sustained me, the stories that helped me through the difficult times in my life and the voices that carried me across the threshold of difficulty into something more hopeful. I am fortunate because I found these voices and every bit as fortunate to know that these voices were already out there for me to find.
Not everyone is as lucky as I have been to find voices who sympathize, who understand or who simply echo some of your own thoughts. These are the voices that give us the tools to deal with some of the joys and hardships that life throws our way. The world is vast and despite technology making it smaller, that doesn’t mean that every voice has been heard. The world of literature is almost as vast, but that doesn’t mean that every voice has spoken. People are entitled to a vast array of opinions, but that doesn’t mean that every voice has been recognized. Readers have the right to find a piece of themselves inside a book. Children deserve to see a face they recognize in a picture book. Teens deserve to recognize their own problems in characters’ struggles. Adults deserve to recognize pieces of their life in literature. If that voice isn’t out there yet or isn’t spread far enough for people to hear it, then somewhere there’s a reader who hasn’t found their literary connection and that’s tragic. Not necessarily because that reader hasn’t found a favorite book (although that is heartbreaking to me) but because that reader hasn’t been able to find an emotional tool to sustain themselves when they truly need it the most.
Some of us are lucky to be sustained by voices in books that have already been heard or accepted, but that doesn’t mean that everyone can find relatable literature out there. We need diverse books because we owe it to ourselves and to everyone to encourage new voices to be heard. Literature doesn’t need to have an agenda to connect with readers. It only needs to have a voice that others can share or use for themselves when they feel like they have no voice of their own.
In the spirit of unique and underrepresented voices and diversity in literature, here are some selections to consider that are in no way definitive or exhaustive:
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
This 2015 Man Booker Prize-winning novel presents a different perspective in award-winning literature, becoming the first Caribbean writer to win the esteemed and coveted prize. James’s epic novel looks at Jamaica over the last three decades, giving a new, modern voice to to the Kingston of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson
In this collection of honest essays, Jenny Lawson becomes a new voice for mental illness, expounding upon her philosophy to live live “furiously happy” enjoying the moments when she can live life to the fullest and forgiving herself when that can’t happen. She looks unflinchingly at her problems in the hopes that others might benefit from her struggles and be able to “come out the other side” but does so in an irreverent, hysterically funny way that forces anyone reading it to reconsider the stigma of mental illness. In laughing and encouraging us to laugh with her she creates a safe, palatable space to consider some of life’s darkest thoughts.
Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman
This empowering picture book of a little boy who likes traditional “girl things” in addition to traditional “boy things” speaks not only to those who are gender nonconformists, but also to those who don’t understand some of the struggles they face. It takes a realistic look at those who want everyone to conform to their ideas of what people “should” be and those who want to be free to explore their individual tastes unencumbered by stereotypes.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
This heartfelt tale of identity tackles issues of family, homosexuality and Mexican heritage, while giving voices to those still struggling to find their place in the world. Saenz writes “to be careful with people and words was a rare and beautiful thing.” This is precisely why diversity in books needs to be encouraged and why this multiple award-winning book should be recognized for it.
This novel takes the view of two Navajo teens enlisted by the Marines to become Code Talkers, using their native, ancestral language that was disparaged throughout much of their youth, to send secret messages during World War II. Though this story is fiction, it’s based on the real Code Talkers who helped end the war in the Pacific with their uncrackable code.
This weekend, dear readers, I encourage you to seek out a book that has an unexpected or underrepresented voice. The recognition of diversity breeds understanding and compassion and those are qualities we can never have enough of. You never know, you may find something in that new voice you didn’t even know was within yourself.