Thursday, January 1, 2015

Reading Diversely

This post is to notify everyone that I have officially joined the bandwagon on the importance of reading diversely in 2015 and for the rest of my life.

But first, I want to tell you about a little girl I know and love named Francie Nolan.  If you are not familiar with Francie, she is the protagonist of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  I first met Francie in 2011 and she quickly became one of my favorite people, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn quickly became one of my favorite books of all time.  I reread it about once a year, revisiting passages that I find particularly poignant or enjoyable more frequently. It is currently on my nightstand for a bit of comfort reading before going to bed.

I love Francie and this book because I find it so relatable.  Like Francie, I am white, from a lower middle class background, with a younger brother, two parents, and a large extended Irish family. I understand Francie’s love of the library, her outlook on life, and wanting to better herself through reading and education.  We are so similar in outlook and background that I was easily able to fall into the pages of this book, find myself and greater meaning, and become better for it.

However, this is not something that most people experience because books that are written by people of differing backgrounds that mine – in particular, nonwhite authors, are not featured in publishing or book stores or in the general literary world.  A majority of people cannot walk into a bookstore and find a novel to represent themselves the same way A Tree Grows in Brooklyn represents me.  This is unfair, and it makes me sad to think that not everyone can have the same reading experience as I did because the books that are written about them are not being published or featured in stores.
Diversity in reading was first brought to my attention when BookCon 2014 was announced, with a panel of 29 white authors and one cat, but no panels or speakers to represent anyone of differing ethnicity or race. From this, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign began and is now an established non-profit organization.  Despite having this knowledge thrust into my attention at every turn, I ignored it. I did not think diversity in reading was a problem and I kept reading through the year as if it didn't matter.

Towards the end of the year, I began to think more critically about what I was reading, who I was reading about, and the authors I was reading.  I owe a large part of this to Book Riot, and the content that is created on the website and podcasts each week. I also have to thank Daniel Handler for his comments at the National Book Awards ceremony for providing me with the abrupt realization that racism, and preference to white authors, is so implicitly and explicitly displayed in my daily life that I needed to make a change on how, what, and who I read.  This was exacerbated when I went into two stores on December 30 looking to purchase Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, which won the National Book Award for 2014.

Neither Target, one of the largest retailers in the U.S., nor Books a Million had inventory of this book in their store.  The lack of inventory wasn't due to recent popularity of the book either, because neither store had a location for the book indicating that it was sold out.  As I looked around these stores, specifically in the Target’s book section, I only saw a reflection of myself.  That is, books about white people and written by white people.  I was astounded.  The lack of diversity that I had been hearing about for the entire year was just thrown in my face, and I knew I needed to make a change.

I know I am not going to make large waves in the literary or publishing world alone. But I am going to make a change in myself and try to make a change in my area.  I first established some reading resolutions for 2015 in this blog post to ensure that I am reading diversely, to broaden my own perspective and experience.  I am going to continue to support Book Riot and I am dedicating more time to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and I am also writing to my local retailers to request diversity in their stores.

It is a small start, but a permanent one.  If you are reading this and you feel the same way, please let me know in the comments. I would also love to hear from you on Twitter @keepingheather, and I am always looking for good book recommendations.

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