Why Kids and Teens Need Diverse Books and Our Recommended Reads

Why Kids and Teens Need Diverse Books and Our Recommended Reads
The Editorial Team September 8, 2018

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Think back to your middle or high school English class and the books you read. Great Gatsby? Lord of the Flies? Maybe 1984 or Les Misérables? While those are all important works, the literary canon has long been dominated by white authors, white perspectives, white characters — and those voices are often male. There are so many other voices we need to hear from.

In the last several years, the publishing world has seen a surge in diverse authors, characters, and stories. While many are leading the charge to bring diverse literature into our communities, it’s time to update the reading material in our classrooms, school libraries, and lesson plans to represent all of our learners at every level. Read on to hear from some amazing youth fiction writers, and to see our picks for books to add to your library this year.

Diversity and engagement

As long as public education has been alive in the United States, so too has the idea of a literary canon. While no such official listing exists, it’s widely assumed that “classics” belong in schools while more modern literature often gets sidelined.

Equal Read researches the need for more literary diversity and works with schools and libraries to build their collections. According to their organization, “The Handbook of Research on Literacy and Diversity, and others, clearly document that engagement is a key factor in determining literacy success. And, teachers and librarians repeatedly note that representative literature encourages engagement in learning. Indeed, engagement is a key predictor of overall academic success.”

Instead of perpetuating the idea that so-called “classics” are the only literature belonging in classrooms — and steadily distancing our modern students from the joys of literature — isn’t it time we ensure that the fiction we teach matches the world in which we live? In the last decade, the young adult and children’s markets have noticeably expanded their offerings of diverse authors, characters, and stories.

“I’ve been watching the YA landscape since 2006 and publishing since 2014, and it’s changed a lot in the last several years,” says Brandy Colbert, author of Finding Yvonne. “The industry has been publishing more diverse titles and writers, but I’d like to see more diversity within diversity so that we’re not just seeing one type of story from the marginalized communities who are finally getting a voice.” Continued efforts to deepen and develop diversity in books will undoubtedly help young readers more deeply connect with literature.

It’s logical to argue that students would be more engaged if they saw themselves represented in literature. After all, what is literature but a mirror of human experience? Reading the classics is wonderful, but solely providing stories about unrecognizable characters in time periods long past restricts the interconnection and inspiration our young people can and should feel from reading.

“It’s important that more books by authors of color featuring diverse characters make it into schools because all students (no matter their race, ethnicity, or sexual background) should be able to relate to the characters in novels and see that their culture is being represented in literature,” says Tiffany Brownlee, author of Wrong in All the Right Ways, a modern YA retelling of Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. “As a teacher, I always try to look for ways to include novels by authors of color in my curriculum to expose my students to different lifestyles and cultures that they wouldn’t normally be exposed to. And you’d be surprised at how high the level of engagement can rise when a student’s race or culture is being taught in class. Let me just say, it soars!”

“Reading engagement is the foundation for building successful readers and a strong literacy environment,” says Carrie Kondor, EdD, Associate Professor and Reading Endorsement Chair. “Diverse books are an essential component of increasing reading achievement for all students because of engagement. As humans, we seek out and enjoy connections. Students must have the opportunity to engage in texts that relate to their experiences, their cultures, and their interests.”

Empathy and representation

Studies have shown that reading fiction builds empathy. A 2013 study in the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts discovered that when readers visualize scenes while reading stories, there is an actual and measurable surge of empathy. Imagine then the impact if schools were full of diverse books — providing a literary peek into the lives of not only students themselves but of those around them.

“A great story featuring diverse characters can change the lives of students yearning to find themselves in a book, and it can help other students learn about experiences outside of their own,” said Nicole A. Johnson, Executive Director of We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit that provides grants to writers and works to change the publishing industry and provide more diverse books for classrooms. “Teachers and librarians are important champions of diversity in children’s literature. When they increase the number of diverse books available on their shelves, they signal to children and the adults in their lives that everyone has a story to share and that representation matters.”

“I think we need diverse books because we need to reflect the reality of our communities and that reality is a very diverse one,” says author John Green as part of the We Need Diverse Books Campaign. “While it’s important to see yourself in stories — and I think lots of people don’t see themselves in enough stories — it’s also really important to see the other. One of the magical things about reading to me is that it helps me to imagine the life outside myself. When you don’t see the lives of others in stories, it’s difficult to imagine them complexly. I think that contributes to the essentializing of the other.”

Relevant stories for teens

In the throes of adolescence, literature can deeply impact one’s emotional development and the way you see the world. “I think teen readers of realistic fiction want to read books where what is going on in the world is reflected back to them,” says Renée Watson, author of numerous books including Piecing Me Together, which received a Coretta Scott King Award and a Newbery Honor. “As an author, I want to create work that helps young people face and cope with reality, not escape it. I believe books that center around children who are often underrepresented in literature affirms their experiences and whispers to them, ‘You are not alone, your story matters.’”

In an era of technological devices and near-constant stimulation, diversity in literature may be a pathway toward keeping literature relevant. “Relatable topics and topics of personal interest get teens to put down their phones and pick up a book. Anything that appeals to their personal lives and interests (romantic/friend-based/familial relationships/fantastical worlds/the LGBTQ community/etc.) makes a teen want to read,” says author Tiffany Brownlee. “When the teen can relate to what they’re reading through the characters (with an emphasis on characters with diverse backgrounds), settings, or topics discussed in the book, it suddenly becomes so much more engaging for them. They get more out of a text when their diverse backgrounds are represented, and that’s what’s important. Not just getting them to read, but getting them to take something away from that experience, too.”

Suggested YA novels

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
Calling My Name by Liara Tamani
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L Sánchez
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson
The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
Wrong in All the Right Ways by Tiffany Brownlee

Suggested middle-grade novels

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed
Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan
Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Renée Watson
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye
Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
The House That Lou Built by Mae Respicio
The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez
The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

Eye-opening books for children

“All children need to see themselves and their peers in the stories shared and discussed at school. Kids of color need diverse books because so often they do not see themselves in literature and therefore feel marginalized, even invisible,” says The Center for Collaborative Classroom, a nonprofit that provides professional learning for teachers. “White kids need diverse books because they see too much of themselves in literature and this may lead them to feel that they are the center of the world.” Children’s books teach children about humanity, society, culture, and life. Diversity in children’s literature is essential toward building a more compassionate world.

“As a child, I remember being touched by stories with deeper messages,” says author and illustrator Arree Chung. “As a storyteller, I take ideas and combine them with the world around me. When Mixed popped into my head, I thought: color theory could be used to describe diversity. The heart of Mixed is love. Love brings Yellow and Blue together and creates a new color, Green. Children often bring divided families and communities together. I created Mixed to show how colorful our communities can be with acceptance, love, and diversity.”

Suggested books for young readers

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things written by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Get Ready for Gabi written by Marisa Montes, illustrated by Joe Cepeda
Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) written by Lisa Yee, illustrated by Dan Santat
Juana and Lucas written and illustrated by Juana Medina
Rickshaw Girl written by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Jamie Hogan
Shai & Emmie Star in Break an Egg! written by Quvenzhané Wallis and Nancy Ohlin, illustrated by Sharee Miller
The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe’s Very First Case written by Alexander McCall Smith
You Should Meet Katherine Johnson written by Thea Feldman, illustrated by Alyssa Petersen

Suggested picture books

All Are Welcome written by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman
Black Girl Magic: A Poem written by Mahogany L. Browne, illustrated by Jess X. Snow
Don’t Call Me Grandma written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Drawn Together written by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat
Hot Hot Roti for Dada-Ji written by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min
I Am Enough written by Grace Byers, illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo
Last Stop on Market Street written by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Let the Children March written by Monica Clark-Anderson, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Looking for Bongo written and illustrated by Eric Velasquez
Mixed written and illustrated by Arree Chung
Pink is For Boys written by Robb Pearlman, illustrated by Eda Kaban
The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter
The Name Jar written and illustrated by Yangsook Choi
Dreamers written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales

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