Shelf Reflection: The Important Role of Diverse Narratives

More and more readers are asking for diverse narratives, but is the publishing world listening?

Author's Corner Book Culture Diverse Voices Opinions
An open book serves as the focal point of the image, with diverse individuals from various ethnicities standing in front of it. Emerging from the pages of the book are a variety of objects, symbolizing exploration, discovery, and cultural exchange.

Despite the growing demand for diversity in literature, protagonists continue to predominantly cater to white audiences, sidelining the experiences and perspectives of individuals from diverse ethnicities.

Literature, with its ability to reflect the world around us and offer windows into unfamiliar experiences, plays a vital role in shaping our understanding of society and ourselves. Through diverse narratives, readers are not only able to see reflections of their own lives but also gain insights into the lives of others, fostering empathy and understanding. However, despite the undeniable benefits of diverse representation, the publishing industry continues to grapple with resistance to targeting audiences beyond the majority. This resistance perpetuates harmful stereotypes and limits the opportunities for people of color to be depicted as multifaceted individuals rather than caricatures.

Mirrors and Windows

Have you ever read a book and recognized one of the areas it takes place in? Or read about a character with a mom who acts exactly like yours and you think to yourself, “Oh, my mom would have probably done the same.”

An image portraying a chair and desk arrangement, with a mirror positioned to face the chair. Beauty products are neatly arranged atop the desk.

Just like in movies that are filmed on the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge or in a street in San Francisco it is exciting to be able to relate to what you see in popular media as it makes you feel seen and it enables you to see other people. Exposure to diverse points of view from characters whose experiences differ from ours provides a window into the lives of people who can relate to the characters being portrayed. Simultaneously, it offers them a glimpse into our own lives and experiences through media that reflects our point of view. Furthermore, finding resonance with these characters provides us with a mirror reflecting our endless potential.

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop introduced this reflection concept in her essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” where she explains that diversity in literature allows children to peak into the lives of other kids who are different from them like a window or a glass slide door that, once opened, allows them to immerse themselves in these experiences and develop a better sense of empathy towards those who don’t look like them and avoid falling into an ethnocentric mindset. She also explains the concept of mirrors and how being able to see ourselves reflected in characters can greatly influence us and what we believe our capabilities are.

The concept of mirrors is also exemplified greatly in “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” by Christopher Myers where he recounts his encounter with a fifth-grade kid in a public school in Southeast Washington D.C. Myers asked the kid what he wanted to do with his life and the kid replied that he wanted to join the NBA and use the money to record his first rap album. Meyers argues that this may not be his true dreams but rather the dreams that have been made available to him:

Looking at him, I think that these are not necessarily his dreams; they are just the dreams that have been offered to him…

His statement isn’t far from the truth, resonating with the reality we observe in contemporary media. Even today, characters representing particular ethnic groups are often constrained by stereotypes and relegated to narrow, predetermined roles or occupations. How can people dream big or have bigger expectations in life when their experiences are constantly invalidated, minimized, and constricted to harmful stereotypes? 

We Want Bigger Mirrors

“When the only stories told in a school library are white people’s, then the message to Black, Hispanic, Asian or Native students is clear: Your experience doesn’t matter.”

Flannery, Mary Ellen. Why we need diverse books.

According to data from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), in 2018, out of 3,134 books published, only 10% featured African American characters, 7% depicted Asian and Pacific Islander characters, 5% represented Latinx characters, and a mere 1% portrayed American Indian characters. Remarkably, depictions of talking animals and other fantastical creatures outnumbered these ethnic groups. Even more staggering is the fact that white characters comprised protagonists in a whopping 50% of the books surveyed.

An illustration depicting diverse children from various ethnic backgrounds standing alongside a bear, all gazing into different types of mirrors. Each mirror reflects a statistic from 2018: 10% for African American characters, 7% for Asian and Pacific Islander characters, 5% for Latinx characters, 1% for American Indian characters, and 50% for white characters in children's books published that year.

Although these numbers have improved since 2015 there is still a big gap in the number of books written for different ethnicities. Being immersed in diverse literature can foster open-mindedness and deepen understanding of viewpoints and experiences outside one’s own. In essence, books serve as maps that guide individuals through the complexities of the world and society. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that these maps are limited by their boundaries, only offering guidance within the realms they encompass.

An illustration depicting diverse children from various ethnic backgrounds standing alongside a bear, all gazing into different types of mirrors. Each mirror reflects a statistic from 2015: 7.6% for African American characters, 3.3% for Asian and Pacific Islander characters, 2.4% for Latinx characters, 0.9% for American Indian characters, and 73.3% for white characters in children's books published that year.

In bridging the gap between these statistics and their real-world implications, the importance of diverse literature becomes undeniably clear. As Mary Ellen Flannery articulates in “Why we need diverse books,” when the narratives dominating school libraries predominantly reflect the experiences of one ethnicity, it sends a resounding message to minority students: their stories are sidelined, their voices unheard. Yet, as Christopher Myers passionately advocates in “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” books possess the transformative power to reshape perceptions, broaden horizons, and foster empathy. These narratives serve as maps, guiding readers through the intricate tapestry of human experiences and paving the way for deeper understanding and connection.

Maps to Navigate the World

In “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” Christopher Myers delves into his profound encounters with young readers, illuminating their perceptions of literature and its profound impact on their worldview. Myers astutely observes that books serve as invaluable maps, guiding individuals through the labyrinth of life and stretching the horizons of their imagination. Through his reflections, Myers underscores the transformative power of literature in dismantling barriers and fostering empathy, ultimately empowering readers to navigate the complexities of the world with greater understanding and compassion.

“They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.”

In contemporary literature, a troubling trend persists where the experiences of people of color are often marginalized or relegated to historical narratives, leaving young readers with an incomplete map of the world. This oversight hampers their ability to effectively navigate the complexities of our society, hindering their imagination and limiting their perspectives. For people of color, this dearth of representation confines them to narrow stereotypes, perpetuating harmful misconceptions and inhibiting their sense of identity and belonging. Similarly, for white readers, it fosters a narrow worldview, reinforcing a comfort zone rooted in familiarity and overlooking the richness and diversity of the world beyond their immediate surroundings. As a consequence, the absence of diverse voices in literature not only stifles individual growth but also perpetuates systemic inequalities, making it imperative for authors and publishers to actively broaden the literary landscape to reflect the multifaceted reality of our global community.

An antique map lays spread out on a table, with an open and a closed notebook placed beneath it. On top of the map are a pencil, a camera, a magnifying glass, three photographs, and a pair of glasses.

At this point, you might be wondering why these maps aren’t being made. Myers encountered a simple answer: ‘the market.’ He was told that ‘the market’ doesn’t demand such books or that a specific audience wouldn’t buy books featuring people of color on the cover. Myers then shares his own experience with ‘the market’ and how it rejected his father’s book idea about a chimpanzee who matched kids with pets based on their astrological signs. Back then, the book was deemed unsellable due to its themes of astrology, witchcraft, and the occult. Later on, however, with the rise of a certain wizard, such themes became wildly popular among young audiences.

The intangible market often shoulders the blame for the lack of diversity in literature, with much media focusing on a specific segment of the population. This positioning has left publishing companies comfortably hesitant to take risks or offer opportunities for diverse characters. Hopefully, with the current 68% surge in demand for diverse books since 2016, ‘the market’ will finally grant people of color the chance to transcend stereotypical roles as just the funny friend, the first to die, the rapper, the drug lord, the NBA player, or the background character.

Me, Myself and I

As a person born and raised in Latin America, I can’t count the number of times I have rolled my eyes at the constant depictions of Latin American people as drug lords or gang goons for a cartel. It also becomes quite annoying when we are depicted as overly religious, tragic characters with abusive families or, my personal favorite, we all speak with Mexican slang terms. None of these stereotypes apply to me or any of the people I grew up with. I don’t wear giant hoop earrings, the word “wey” is not a term used in my country, and llamas are not part of my daily life. I live in an apartment complex with air conditioning and wifi, not in a dilapidated house in the middle of a desert. Overall, what I’m saying is that if people of color were depicted as people rather than a clump of stereotypes no one would be asking me if I went to school in a llama.

Diversity in literature serves as both mirrors and windows, offering readers the opportunity to see themselves reflected in characters and to gain insights into the lives of others. Through diverse narratives, individuals from different backgrounds can find validation for their experiences and broaden their understanding of the world. However, despite the importance of diverse representation, there remains resistance in the publishing industry to targeting audiences beyond the majority. This resistance perpetuates harmful stereotypes and limits the opportunities for people of color to be depicted as multifaceted individuals rather than caricatures. It is imperative for the publishing industry to embrace diversity and challenge existing narratives. By doing so, we can create a literary landscape that reflects the richness and complexity of our world, allowing readers of all backgrounds to see themselves represented and to gain a deeper understanding of others.

Do you want to know more about diversity in literature? Check out this article.

Find more diverse stories to add to your TBR list in our Beautiful Black Voices shelf on Bookshop!