We Need Diverse Books Because

Some of you following my Facebook or Twitter feeds probably saw me post about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign yesterday. I’ve been really pleased to see so many people retweeting the topic and spreading the word. As an author of a book published by Tu Books (an imprint of Lee and Low, one of the publishing leaders in diversity), I’ve watched the conversation about diverse books with no small amount of interest over the last few years. I’m not particularly good at coming up with pithy statements that can summed up in a photograph–lengthy blog posts are more my cuppa. So going on the “a picture is worth a thousand words” maxim, here’s my picture’s worth of words for the campaign.

I’m continually surprised and disappointed that campaigns like #WeNeedDiverseBooks need to exist in this day and age, though I suppose I shouldn’t be. It’s just too easy to sit back and let the status quo stay right where it is.

When Vodnik was published, I’ll admit I had high hopes. Not that it would smash records in the US (though what author wouldn’t like to give JK a run for her money?) but that it would get published where it needed to be: Europe. Americans read the story of a part-Roma boy who moves to Slovakia and encounters racism first hand, and they have an easier time dismissing it. The sad truth is that for many Americans “Gypsies” are characters in fantasy books, not people in real life, and “Roma” might possibly be people from Romania? Maybe? (Then they go looking for a map.)

Why do we need diverse books? Because there are still plenty of people out there who are unable or unwilling to realize that we’re all the same at heart. That we’ve got the same desires and aspirations. The same dreams and the same nightmares. It’s ironic that we need diversity in literature to prove to people that we’re the same–and I recognize that we’re not all the same. But this was an issue as far back as you can go. I’m continually reminded of Shakespeare when Shylock says:

He hath disgraced me

and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses,

mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my

bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—

and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew

eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions,

senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same

food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the

same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed

and cooled by the same winter and summer as a

Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If

you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do

we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not

revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will

resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what

is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a

Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian

example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I

will execute—and it shall go hard but I will better

the instruction.

It’s the same thing, played out again and again over the course of history. The Other is less. The Other is wrong. The Other is Other. But one of the wonderful things about literature–something that sets it apart from other arts like film or music or painting–is that it can throw us into the point of view of someone other than us. You can try to get the same effect in other ways, but books help us see the world through someone else’s eyes.

If books let down diversity, then what else do we have?

I was disappointed by the response to Vodnik. Not disappointed by readers. You’ve all be genuinely lovely. The book has garnered great reviews from established institutions, book bloggers, and Goodreads alike. It’s won awards, and many people have written me to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Kids have sought me out at signings, coming just to see me and to talk to me about writing the book. I couldn’t possibly be disappointed by that.

But my agent’s taken Vodnik overseas. He’s gone to publishers in Slovakia, Czech Republic, Spain, France, England–and he’s been told the same thing. They see the reviews, they see the awards, and they get interested. Right up until they find out it’s about a Roma. Then the interest switches off, and that’s that.

“People won’t read a book about Roma,” is what they’re told. To which I say, “They won’t if no one will publish it.” That’s the only 100% foolproof way to make sure no one reads a book. Smother it. Stifle it. Never let it get out. Could I self-publish in Slovakia or Spain? Sure, if I could find someone to translate the book well. Publishing abroad is a fair bit more difficult than publishing here in America.

Vodnik might be a more extreme example than what you typically encounter in America, but I think that by going to that extreme, it illustrates the point more quickly and more effectively than it would by using some of the American examples. Because the same thing is certainly still happening in America. It might not be so blatant at times (or at times it is), but it’s still here. And that’s why campaigns like this are so important.

But do you know what’s even more important? Your pocketbook. I don’t mean to be crass, but it’s true. The publishing business is just that: a business. You vote with your wallet. Before JK came out with Harry Potter, common consensus was that school books were dead dead dead. People didn’t read them. And then came the Boy Who Lived, and suddenly you couldn’t print enough of them.

There are a ton of great books with diverse characters out there. A ton of fantastic authors from diverse backgrounds. But until we as a people start buying those books and sharing them with our friends, they’ll never be heard. Literature might have the power to equalize things, but it can’t do it if it isn’t read.

I’m not saying we all should read things just because it’s diverse or supports a cause. These books are awesome books. If you put one of them into a cage match with a “non-diverse” book, they’d totally go the full number of rounds. I’m a librarian. I don’t have time for bad books. But I also can’t afford to ignore good ones. Neither can you.

I’ve already gone above and beyond my thousand words, but I wanted to end on a positive note. A few months ago, I got a review on Goodreads that I really loved. It’s in Slovak, written by a Slovak, so I’ll just quote a snippet:

No jedna vec bola možno trochu moc. A možno to tak vnímam len ja. Rómska problematika bola podaná dosť drsne. Ja viem, že to je drsné, a viem, že ako našinec to inak vnímam, ale dve či tri scény boli fakt trošku moc. Otázka je, či by sa to tak mohlo stať aj naozaj. A najhoršie je, že by to nemuselo byť také neuveriteľné. A to ma dosť desí. A pre cudzincov to musí byť ešte horšie, keď netušia ako to tu je naozaj. (read the whole thing)

TRANSLATION: (Thanks to Google Translate. It’ll give you the general idea) But one thing was maybe a little too much. And maybe this is just me, I see. The Roma issue was made pretty rough. I know it’s rough, and I know how our people perceive it differently, but two or three scenes were really a bit much. The question is whether it could happen so i really. And the worst part is that it might not be so incredible. And it scares me enough. And for foreigners it must be even worse when they have no idea how it really is here.

Don’t get me wrong: my main goal isn’t to change the world. It’s to write a great book. One that entertains and captivates. But a review like that, by a Slovak, about a book like Vodnik?

It made the disappointment about the book not coming out in Europe a little easier to bear.

I’m Bryce Moore, and I believe #WeNeedDiverseBooks

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