We were living in Australia—first Sydney, then Thursday Island in the Torres Strait—when I learned to read, and my earliest memories are of A.A. Milne and Enid Blyton, stories set in an England that seemed exotic compared to my surroundings. After moving to Hawaii, I developed a passion for Marguerite Henry, whose books took me around the world to places I longed to visit—Morocco, Austria, Chincoteague Island. As a teen in the 1980s—by now living in Virginia and Wales—there was very little YA literature, and I delved into the letters and journals of Lord Byron, taken with his Balkan travels and openness to foreign cultures.
My daughter, Pippa, grew up grounded in one place, an upbringing I feared might give her a parochial outlook. Fortunately, by the time she was born there were more books available that explored other cultures and, critically, were not mediated by the views of outside, usually white, observers. Between Shades of Gray (2011), Ruta Sepetys’ YA novel inspired by her Lithuanian family’s suffering under Stalin, particularly gripped her, sparking an interest in the Baltics that continues to this day. Now a college senior, Pippa is eager to travel, and her pleasure reading is broad—lots of Harry Potter (and why not?!) but also, recently, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tove Jansson (who wrote about more than Moomins), and Nathalie Sarraute.
Entire generations of Western readers of color like myself grew up without access to books that expressed the voices of our communities and those of other marginalized people. Of course, white children and teens are done a grave disservice too if they are cut off from books that relate experiences different from their own. Authors who write for young people are reaching out across a generational divide, shaped themselves by the attitudes of another time and creating stories for those who know a world that is profoundly different. I have heard many writers of color say that they are writing the books they did not have when they were young, creating for today’s youth the mirror books they wish they’d had access to.
As a school librarian, I certainly did collection development with my younger self in mind—watched by the shadow of a girl thirsting for knowledge of the wide world who hunted through library shelves, often in vain, for glimpses of something different. The thrill on my students’ faces when they found a book that reflected their heritage or had a cover image of someone who looked like them and the curiosity that was sparked and the connections that were made across cultures never failed to bring a lump to my throat. When an Iranian-American student told me how much a Chinese-American story, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang, resonated with her, with connections to her own multi-generational family, I knew I was on the right track. When a kindergarten boy from an Indian family ran up to me hugging a book about Ganesh and shouted, “Thank you so much for having this book in the library!” I wished that every person who doubted the importance of diverse books could have witnessed his spontaneous joy.
There is still much work to be done, but we’ve actually come a fairly long way when measured against the span of one generation. I look forward to seeing how much we can do in another.
Laura Simeon is the young adult editor.