Making Better Representation in Literature

Other than “Joy Luck Club,” where’s the representation?

Independent Bookstore Day, April 29, is my favorite holiday. Barnes and Nobles is great and all, but there’s something classic about visitng a small, local, independent store. To celebrate this year, Trident Bookstore (one of my favorite places in Boston) held a scavenger hunt. Clue #4: (Find) “A young adult book with an LGBTQ main character.”

As I stood there looking at the YA section, I relized why this was a hunt. “My god,” I said out loud to the guy standing next to me, “They’re all straight.”
(I eventually found “Carry On” by Rainbow Rowell.)

As I stood in the YA section at Trident, I realized how monotonous it all was when I was growing up. A pretty young white girl falls in love with an equally pretty young white boy. Don’t even get me started on all of the reading we had to do in school, which was where it got really white. The great American and Western classics were all the same, and the only required reading. Anything “ethnic” was a different lit class that you may or may not have time for. Looking at most of the titles I see coming out now it seems slightly more inclusive, which is great for YA readers now. Because like I keep saying — representation matters.

How can students or young readers feel like they belong when their school and mainstream literature enforces the same narratives over and over again? Representation matters, so does literacy, and the two should not be mutually exclusive. For every great Disney princess movie, people should encourage and promote the same depictions in books.

That’s why efforts from girls who call out this nonsense in schools and the media overall are the best things ever. In 2016, Marley Dias, an 11-year-old girl from New Jersey, made news through her book drive #1000BlackGirlBooks. She told The Philly Voice last January that she was, “sick of reading about white boys and dogs,” and when her mom asked what Dias wanted to do about it she began her book drive to collect books where black girls are the protagonists. She’s been honored by “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” and Ava DuVernay.

And she’s not the only one. Mashable reported a few weeks ago about Kaya Thomas, a Dartmouth senior who created an app for finding more diverse books for young readers. Written by POC or starring POC, We Read Too is a library of book titles, descriptions, cover, and ways to share it on social media. Thomas told Mashable that as a teen, “I was feeling erased by the books I was reading at my libraries and at school. The characters were never anything like myself.” After raising $12,000 in the project’s Indiegogo campaign, Thomas can now expand the app as a much-needed resource for students.

I loved reading as a kid and still do when I have the time. But a major part of that is seeing myself reflected in the story, characters, and world. That’s why I seek out powerful POC writers, kickass female heroines, and accurate stories I relate to. And why I respect Marley Dias and Kaya Thomas for working to spread that joy for all readers.

In case you were interested in the full book scavenger hunt from Trident, here’s the full list. Let me know on Twitter @ThisBtchBlog if you complete it!

I also began a specific independent bookstore blog last year for a school assignment that I’ve been toying with bringing back. What do you think?