The impact of diverse books as mirrors is immediate, but their value as windows is largely dependent on the mindsets of readers and their willingness to engage with difference. Growing up biracial, I regularly experienced people shoehorning my family into their preexisting beliefs. As a child out in the world alone with my White father, we were positively received—him, as the benevolent, presumed adoptive parent and me as the “lucky one.” Once, when my father explained that actually his wife was Asian, the White speaker—originally gushing—grew hostile. Alone in public with my father as an adult, we were frequently treated with hostility and open-mouthed stares by White people who assumed I was his much-younger mail-order bride. If only people had questioned their own assumptions rather than projecting their mental maps onto my family.
Unfortunately, I’ve observed these same dynamics during discussions of books from literary traditions or life experiences other than the reader’s own. Readers from backgrounds less well represented in mainstream literature are already accustomed to code-switching in books (and in life), of course. But we can all benefit from author and world literature advocate Ann Morgan’s “Tips for reading outside your comfort zone,” which highlights unconscious patterns of approaching books that limit the transformative potential of reading diversely.
Naturally it’s fine to have personal preferences, but it’s something else entirely to forget that one’s judgments are culturally conditioned. Many non-#ownvoices works are wildly popular not despite their biases and inaccuracies but because of them: They allow mainstream readers to believe they are learning about the other while simultaneously reinforcing preexisting assumptions. Meanwhile, #ownvoices works that may require greater engagement (and, therefore, greater rewards) are dismissed by many as “hard to relate to.” This response influences which diverse titles are selected for publication, further skewing general perceptions.
Here are some YA books that will give many readers a chance to explore and grow beyond their usual parameters.
A range of voices and techniques distinguishes #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women, edited by Lisa Charleyboy (Tsilhqot’in) and Mary Beth Leatherdale (Annick, 2017). The many strong contributors to this groundbreaking work shatter widespread misconceptions.
The Japanese social context makes My Brother’s Husband, Volumes 1 and 2 by Gengoroh Tagame, translated by Anne Ishii (Pantheon, 2017, 2018), feel startlingly original to many Western readers who encounter these heartwarming graphic novels about confronting homophobia.
Simultaneously beautiful and gut-wrenching, Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert (Disney-Hyperion, 2018) highlights the tremendous diversity within one group of Asian American teens who are wrestling with sexuality, socio-economic inequality, faith, and family secrets.
Ghady and Rawan by Fatima Sharafeddine and Samar Mahfouz Barraj, translated by Sawad Hussain and M. Lynx Qualey (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 2019), presents charming emails between best friends: Ghady lives in Brussels, and Rawan is the girl in Beirut whom he misses between summer visits.
Set in a boarding school for biracial students in Swaziland,When the Ground Is Hard by Malla Nunn (Putnam, 2019) takes on familiar issues such as race and social class—but this quietly compelling novel requires readers unfamiliar with the setting to reframe their points of reference.
In Apple (Levine Querido, Oct. 6), Eric Gansworth (Onondaga, Eel Clan) uses his art and poetry to explore generations of cultural dislocation, thorny questions around belonging and identity, and some of the many ways there are of being Native today.
Here the Whole Time by Vitor Martins, translated by Larissa Helena (Scholastic, Nov. 10), tells the story of a gay boy in Brazil with a loving single mom as he struggles with body image and nurses a crush on his very good-looking neighbor.
Laura Simeon is a young readers' editor.