Diversity in children’s literature has become a prominent topic lately. The We Need Diverse Books campaign – spearheaded by authors such as Ellen Oh, Aisha Saeed and Chelsea Pitcher – has roared into the public eye last week, with prominent authors and publishers tweeting under the tag #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
So here’s my two cents.
As a lifelong reader, I always inserted myself into the stories I read. I was the main character. I was the saucy sidekick. I was the cool cat. The romantic interest was the guy I liked and the MC’s best friend was my best friend. I created a new physical reality for the book, and if an overly descriptive passage didn’t match my imaginings it would be jarring, and oftentimes kicked me right out of the story.
As a librarian I’ve encouraged reluctant readers to use this tactic, to cast the book with themselves and their friends (or enemies!) in order to make it more real, more enjoyable, a more palpable experience of an alternate reality that they can truly participate in. I see it working more often than not.
Every now and then I see reviews of NOT A DROP TO DRINK where people say they wish I would describe my characters more so that they could visualize them. The truth is that I purposely resist in-depth physical descriptions because I want the reader to have perfect freedom to visualize the characters in any way they choose.
This includes skin color.
In short, we need diverse books because everyone assumes Lynn is white.
One of the aspects of the We Need Diverse Books movement is to encourage readers to diversify their shelves. Whether by reading books featuring POC or LBGT characters, or books by authors who are the same, you can help Diversify Your Shelves. As a librarian I see some excellent titles come and go, so here are my suggestions for how you can diversify your shelves – and be very happy in the process.
THE GREAT DEATH by John Smelcer
Sisters Millie and Maura are the only ones to survive when their Alaskan village is visited by white men who bring with them a camera, a notebook, and the pox in 1917. Young and alone with the worst of winter coming on, they travel downriver taking with them only what their small backs can carry. Each village they come to is the same – empty, except for the dogs who are eating the dead.
The girls use what their parents have taught them to face dangers from the weather, wild animals, and strangers in the woods. With only each other to depend on they keep going, despite the fear that they may be on the only people left alive in a world filling with snow.
HOW I BECAME A GHOST by Tim Tingle
Isaac is a Choctaw boy on the Trail of Tears, and he knows before he even sets out that he will not survive the journey. Premonitions of death have been coming ever since the soldiers burned his villa, and he saw the village leaders in flame and ash before the fires had reached them. The warm shivers that ripple through his body warn him when a vision is coming, and he knows that soon he too will be a ghost.
Death comes quickly, and even though he’d warned his family that he would no longer be with them soon, they mourn him as much as possible in the little time allowed before the soldiers push them along. Isaac remains with them, along with legions of ghosts who have been lost along the trail and continue to push on with their tribe and help their loved ones make the treacherous journey.
In death Isaac is reunited with a very young girl who died on a cold night after rolling from her blanket. Though she misses her family, her death lifts a threat from them. Her older sister was taken by the soldiers and held captive and at the beginning of the trek, with the promise that the same fate or worse would befall the younger child if they tried to get her back. Now that she’s a ghost, the little girl is free to help rescue her sister, enlisting Isaac’s aid and the help of their shape-shifting Choctaw friend who can become a panther at will.
THE BURNING SKY by Sherry Thomas
Iolanthe is the greatest elemental mage of her generation, and she doesn’t even know it. The Realm needs a savior, but her guardian has kept her safely tucked away in a remote area where she happily practices non-elemental magic, just like everyone else. With the Bane searching for the mage prophesied to destroy him, Iolanthe’s guardian had his own memories of her past and keys to her nature removed from his mind, so that the Inquisitor would never be able to use him as a tool against Iolanthe, not matter how horrible her methods.
But the memory spell has taken its toll over the years, and her once sharp guardian has slipped into insanity, needing her constant care and unable to warn her of her own potential. When she accidentally calls down lightning, alerting the Bane and the Inquisitor of her existence, her guardian throws her into a trunk during a moment of clarity — the only problem being that the trunk on the other end of the portal exist is locked… and there’s no way back for Iolanthe.
Luckily, Prince Titus arrives at the lightning strike as well. The puppet ruler of Elberon, Titus wears a facade of pomp and bravado at odds with his inner-self. Titus knows what the lightning indicates, and he’s spent his entire life preparing himself to die in the service of the Elemental Mage, as his dead mother had prophesied he must. As Iolanthe slowly suffocates inside the trunk located real-world Victorian London, Titus tracks her down.
Once she is released, the two team up to defeat the Bane. But the only place to hide Iolanthe is in plain sight. The Realm knows that Titus is enrolled in a all-boys prep school in London, and if he were to suddenly show up missing they would know he’d found the mage. Instead, Iolanthe’s hair comes off and she is enrolled as his roommate — a boy. As he teaches her to command all her powers and prepares himself to die in her defense, the two fight off a mutual attraction that can only end badly.
CHARM & STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn
Andrew Winston Winters shuts everyone out at his private boarding school. Prone to long walks and solitude, his is the first name that comes up when a dead body is found in a stream on a remote part of the grounds. Having alienated his roommate and best friend long ago, Win has few defenders… maybe not even himself.
He can’t deny that there have been moments in his past when he lost control. His violent impulses set him apart when he was younger, but his older brother was always there to shield him… until one day he wasn’t. A family tragedy landed Win in the Vermont boarding school where he was supposed to find time to heal. But he can’t begin to heal until he admits the truth about what caused the original wound.
With his mind breaking and his sanity slipping, Win takes a chance on friendship with a new girl at the school. Rediscovering what it’s like to be cared about takes him closer to the truth, and one night in the woods after a party will bring him face to face with the truth of his past – whether he is able to cope with it or not.
DUALED by Elsie Chapman
West Grayer is the last of her family.
In a world where teens have a window of opportunity to kill their Alt – a genetic copy of themselves – she’s lost her brothers and sisters through violence. Even being a complete – someone who has successfully killed their Alt – didn’t save her brother Luc when he went along with their mutual friend Chord for his assignment.
Now Chord is complete, and West is left in a house by herself when she gets the text – she’s now Active… and her Alt is looking for her. Although she’s been training her whole life to be the killer and not the killed, West doesn’t have the confidence she needs to take out her Alt. She joins an underground group to become a Striker – a killer for hire who will eliminate someone else’s Alt for a fee.
Strikers aren’t well-loved, and West’s strikes aren’t the cleanest ever performed. The marks on her palms that distinguish her from the rest of the population of Kersh disgust Chord, who tries to help her see that every strike she accepts is killing time in her window of opportunity, something that her Alt isn’t taking chances on.
West waits for her Alt to come to her – and finds herself face to face with a better version of herself, with colder eyes and a Striker of her own who loves her. West’s bullet misses its mark, and she’s left wondering if life in Kersh is a massive game of survival of the fittest… is she really the one who is supposed to live?
HOOKED by Liz Fichera
Fredericka “Fred” Oday is only too aware of how much she stands out on the golf team at her predominantly white school… especially since she’s the only girl. All she wants to do is play- it’s the only outlet that fits well with her alcoholic mother’s lifestyle and her dad’s schedule as the country club’s greenskeeper. But being one of the few Native Americans on this side of the Pecos Road means she can’t just keep her head down and her chin up anymore.
Ryan Berenger is less than thrilled to be paired with Fred for their tournaments, even if Lone Butte High School is suddenly winning again. His best friend was cut from the team in order to make room for Fred, and his molded blonde girlfriend is less than pleased about where his gaze is roaming these days. He’s been checking out more than Fred’s perfect swing… and Fred can’t ignore the fact that her concentration slips every time Ryan looks at her.
But there’s more separating them than the barbed-wire fence that lines the reservation. Fred’s brother can’t forget the silver Jeep that nearly ran him off the road one night, and Ryan’s best friend will never forgive the Native American drunk driver who killed his father when he was only a baby. Ryan & Fred’s aren’t the only passions running hot in a situation fraught with tension, romance and the emotional showdown between the girl with the killer swing and the boy with the killer smile.
PROPHECY by Ellen Oh
Kira has always known what it’s like to be hated.
Since her birth, her yellow eyes have marked her. Even though she is royally born, the taint of demons follows her. The villagers call her kumiho – nine-tailed fox demon. Little do they know that far from being a demon herself, her eyes give her the ability to see demons writhing under the skin of the people they’ve possessed. And she is their only protection.
Scorned by common people and court ladies alike, Kira is accustomed to a lonely life. When the King is murdered in a demonic plot to pitch the Seven Kingdoms into chaos and war, Kira vows to stay by the young prince’s side, and protect him always.
Her young cousin the Prince is supposed to be the savior predicted by the Dragon King Prophecy. His courage and nobility all attest that he could be the one. But according to the bloodlines dictated by the prophecy, Kira’s brothers could be the Dragon King as well.
Or it could be Kira.
Only mythical treasures, long missing, can reveal the identity of the true Dragon King. Kira’s family must evade predators both demonic and human as the race across the wilderness in search of a ruby that can control the tides – and reveal which one of them can fulfill the prophecy.
VENGEANCE BOUND by Justina Ireland
Cory loves chocolate, just like most teens. Unlike everyone else, the reason she eats is to keep the Furies under control. The mythological trio bound themselves to her when she was a child in a desperate situation, open to any opportunity to escape. As a teen, she follows their lead when the sins of a passing man seem worth of judgement. The only thing that seems to stem their urge for blood is the occasional dose of chocolate, something Cory has learned through the years.
But for the first time, Cory has met someone who doesn’t raise their ire. She’s the new girl at school, and mysterious Niko seems to be the only guy who they don’t want to kill. But as her feelings towards men start to change, Cory finds the Furies harder and harder to control. Their need for blood starts to outstrip the availability of guilty men… but they don’t seem to care.
Cory’s mind becomes a battlefield as she attempts to control them in order to protect the innocent – and herself.
GOLDEN BOY by Tara Sullivan
Habo has never been accepted, not by the villagers he lives with, and not by his own family. An albino in Africa, his father left soon after he was born, believing him to be the bastard son of a white man. His older brothers resent the skin condition that makes him burn easily, which means his only chore is to watch the family goat grazing under the shade tree, while they toil in hot coffee fields. Even his mother jumps when he enters a room unexpectedly, as if she’s seen a ghost.
The family farm is failing, which sends them all into the arms of distant family living in an urban area. Living removed from society means they have no idea that albino body partys have become a hot commodity in the black magic market. Albino skin, teeth, and hair can all fetch high prices. But most valuable are Habo’s legs, which supposedly will bring great wealth to a mine if one is set on each side of the entrance.
A local ivory hunter who helped them cross the Serengeti knows the value of Habo’s body. Although they try to hide him, Habo knows he is more useless now than ever. While his very presence is a danger to his brothers and sister, he is unable to work at all or even be seen in the streets. Tired of being a weight, Habo sneaks away one night in the hopes of reaching a part of the country where albinos are not killed for their very skin.
Days of journeying on foot brings Habo to the compound of a blind sculptor who cannot see Habo’s oddly colored skin. After one evening of sharing supper, Habo is offered a bed for the evening. Days turn into weeks and Habo finds himself learning how to sculpt, seeing shapes in wood that he can free with a knife… and learning to unsee his own skin as what defines him.
ARISTOTLE & DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Aristotle depends on the summers to help define himself in 1987 El Paso. The youngest child in a family of much older siblings, Ari is constantly reminded that he cannot become what his older brother is – a jailbird. The summer after his fifteenth birthday he meets Dante at the pool, who offers to teach him how to swim. Dante’s open and easy going manner immediately attracts Ari, who keep his own emotions as closed off as his father, a Vietnam war veteran. Dante’s love of everything spills over into animals, and he is nearly killed in the street while attempting to save an injured bird. The only reason he lives is because Ari shoves him out of the way, breaking both his legs in the process. Dante’s family goes to Chicago during the school year, following a job lead for his professor father. Though Ari is reluctant to open himself up in the letters they exchange, Dante has no problem confessing his sexuality, and his feelings for Ari. As the next summer approaches, along with the return of Dante and his family, Ari is left to question if he can continue being Dante’s friend, and if there was more than just friendship in his own feelings as well.
Shorty is a child of the slums in Site Soleil, a Haitian city torn to pieces by gang wars and daily violence. A gunshot wound lands him in the hospital the day before the earthquake of 2010 obliterates the city, bringing the building down around him. His only solace in the pure blackness is a voice that speaks to him of courage, and visions of a different time. Shorty is a twin, which is sacred in Vodun. His sister was stolen from him during the gang wars and he is now considered a half-soul. Touissaint L’ouverture, the Haitian rebel who led a slave revolt two hundreds years ago was born a twin as well, but his other half died as a child. From the confines of his underground prison cell in France to the rubble of modern day Haiti, the two half souls converge for an ethereal conversation about the future of Haiti, and their own purposes in life.
AKATA WITCH by Nnedi Okorafor
Sunny is an albino Nigerian who was born in New York City. When her parents return to their home country Sunny doesn’t fit in for a lot of reasons. 1) She’s an albino 2) She’s perceived as an American and 3) She keeps seeing the end of the world inside candle flames.
Sunny is smart enough to keep this information to herself, but her odd qualities draw the attention of Orlu and Chichi, fellow students at her public school who are Leopard People (magical folk) and suspect Sunny may be as well. Although years behind in training and study, Sunny is distinct even in the magical realm of Leopard Knocks. She’s a “free agent,” a Leopard person born of two non-magical parents.
And no, Leopard Knocks isn’t Hogwarts. Not even close. Instead of flying around on broomsticks and throwing balls through hoops the adult champions of this magical realm fight each other to the death in a yearly entertainment spectacle. The winner is the winner, the loser is… a saint. And going to your next class isn’t as simple as looking at your schedule and manipulating moving staircases. The path to their teacher’s hut is a test in itself, one that could kill them if not traveled properly. This is a place where group work is rewarded by everyone surviving to the next day and your juju knife chooses you not by obeying your commands but by slicing your hand open when you reach into a bag.
So why are children being subjected to these tests? To drive them into a sacred bond, as they have been selected by fate to bring down a serial killer. Black Hat Otokoto has been kidnapping Nigerian children and returning them minus eyes and ears. He’s gathering black magic to him in order to call up a dark spirit whose power will unleash the vision that Sunny has seen in the candles. Sunny has a limited amount of time to harness the power she’s inherited through her Grandmother’s spirit line to stop him from succeeding and bringing about the end of the world.
Visit both Ancient Egypt and Rome as our main character, Cleopatra Selene, is forcefully removed from her homeland after her mother’s death. Cleopatra and her surviving brothers, sons of Marc Antony, are brought to Egypt to live with (of all people) Marc Antony’s Roman wife, Octavia, whom he had abandoned in favor of Cleopatra VII.
Yes, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Used as political pawns in Ceasar Octavian’s skillfully manipulated empire, Cleopatra’s children must learn to survive in a culture foreign to them. Cleopatra Selene remains fiercely loyal to her patron goddess, Isis, performing her rituals even under threat of death. Meanwhile, the siren song of Rome – wine and women – is calling her brothers away from their culture of birth.
Intelligent and attractive, Cleopatra Selene has to decide whether she will allow her body to be used to further the Ptolemy line in an advantageous marriage of Ceasar’s making, or if she will give in to the equally powerful pull of her own heart – which is headed in another direction.
MAGIC UNDER GLASS by Jaclyn Dolamore
A love triangle, a lost prince, a madwoman in the attic, possession, dark secrets kept quiet through murder and machinations, political intrigue, brewing war… and a living soul trapped forever inside the clockwork body of an automaton.
Nimira, a strong noble-blooded girl from the land of Tassim, has been cheated of a life of ease. Forced to play upon her skills as a dancing “trouser girl” in a second rate show, Nim catches the eye of Hollin, a man of money and an accomplished sorcerer who looks to fill the hole in his heart left by the death of his wife.
Nim agrees to his proposition that she come with Hollin to his estate, presumably to sing alongside an automaton he has recently purchased at an estate sale, and from whom other singers have run from in panic, claiming that it is haunted… or possessed. Nim stifles her own fear the first time she sings with the automaton and it looks at her with intelligence, and attempts to speak. Using the piano keyboard, she works out a way to communicate with the automaton, or rather – Erris, the faerie prince whose spirit is trapped within, bound by dark magic. Her own alienation and captivity serves as a cornerstone for their relationship, which blooms into the impossible.
Nim would risk all – losing her position and safety alongside Hollin, exposing herself and Erris to the roaming eye of a political figure whose scheming brought about the deaths of Erris entire noble family years ago, calling forth the spirits of dark magic – in order to bring Erris true life, or at least, a true death to escape his mechanical prison.