Reading Outside the Box

Holly here – you may have noticed that Amanda has been pumping out the books reviews lately! I must again point out,  in case anyone out there is feeling inadequate, that my sister reads at a super-human speed. In the meantime, I  was slogging my way through a few long books, and happy to let Amanda drive the blog, but she said something to me yesterday along the lines of:  “hey slappy – you better post something soon or else I won’t take you to this place I just heard about that serves Korean BBQ tacos on naan when you visit next month.” Clearly she knows how to motivate me – here I am.

Since Amanda and I started this blog, I’ve been reading more, but I’ve also been reading more deliberately – that is, paying attention to what sort of books I am most drawn to. And, while I am sure that I read across different genres, and a mix of fiction and non-fiction, I’ve noticed a few articles lately about diversity, or the lack thereof, in popular fiction (particularly YA).

At the same time, I was listening to the NPR TED Radio hour podcast recently, and in the episode “Identities,” novelist Elif Shafak was talking about her writing process – writing in Turkish and English, writing as a woman from the Muslim world, and navigating different cultures – and one line about the power of literary characters really struck me:

In my mid-20s, I moved to Istanbul – the city I adore. I lived in a very vibrant, diverse neighborhood where I wrote several of my novels. I was in Istanbul when the earthquake hit in 1999. When I ran out of the building at three in the morning, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. There was the local grocer there, a grumpy old man who didn’t sell alcohol and didn’t speak to marginals. He was sitting next to a transvestite with black – long black wig and mascara running down her cheeks. I watched the man open a pack of cigarettes with trembling hands and offer one to her. And that is the image of the night of earthquake in my mind today.

A conservative grocery and a crying transvestite smoking together on the sidewalk. On the face of death and destruction, our mundane differences evaporated and we all became one, even if for a few hours. But I’ve always believed that stories do have a similar effect on us. I’m not saying that fiction has the magnitude of an earthquake, but when we are reading a good novel, we leave our small, cozy apartments behind, go out into the night alone and start getting to know people we had never met before and perhaps had even been biased against.

Yes yes yes. I think reading a book about a character who you can identify with is extremely powerful, but so it is reading a book about someone who is not like you.

So, as I keep adding to my ever-growing to-be-read pile, I want to make sure I’m seeking out reads that reflect the variety of cultural and ethnic and racial differences in the world. I grew up reading about Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, and their Pacific coast adventures seemed a world away. I’d like to think that I can do better than that now. And I’d also like to think that young readers from every country, creed, or color can find an accessible, published book with characters they can relate to as easily as I was able to.

If you too, are looking to diversify your reading, here’s a few lists to start from:

  • This post from American Indians in Children’s Literature covers a number of Young Adult books with American Indians. I’ve added If I Ever Get Out of Here to my TBR list.
  • Diversity in YA is a website that celebrates “young adult books about all kinds of diversity, from race to sexual orientation to gender identity and disability.” They’ve got a number of book lists archived here. Noughts & Crosses is one book that jumped out at me, especially because I remembered reading a review of it here.

And, just this week thanks to Cuddlebuggery’s list of Hot New Titles (of all YA releases), I added Gilded, about a Korean-American girl who suddenly moves to Seoul with her Dad. (“Then she discovers that a Korean demi-god, Haemosu, has been stealing the soul of the oldest daughter of each generation in her family for centuries. And she’s next.“) Who’s intrigued?!

Any other recommendations?

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