How can you start diversifying your bookshelf? And how can we encourage other readers (and even non-readers!) to pick up diverse books?
But before we delve into that, I’d like to raise a small point:
Online conversations about diverse books aren’t enough.
As someone who has been deeply immersed in the online book community for nearly five years, it’s easy to forget that online conversations aren’t necessarily representative of the larger conversations taking place offline. Likewise, it’s easy to forget that our ability to participate in the community is a privilege not afforded to many people, especially those who are on the less fortunate side of the digital divide.
Within the online book community, there’s hardly ever a need to explain what diverse books are and why reading diversely is important. However, my conversations with KB (Bookbed) and Salve (Cuckoo for Books) — as we prepared for our panel session in this year’s Literary and Publishing Trade Conversations (huge thanks to the National Book Development Board for having us!) — have sparked much reflection on my part as an advocate of diverse books.
Oftentimes, when we start conversations about diversity in literature, we tend to understate the importance of accessibility and affordability. For instance, in countries where reading for leisure is a huge privilege (like in the Philippines), many readers don’t have the luxury of reading diversely. This can be due to numerous factors, such as limited book selections, high prices (did you know that a $20 hardback is equivalent to my weekly food allowance when I was still in college?), large shipping fees, and lack of public libraries. This is a whole discussion that I’ll reserve for another time (or alternatively, you can attend our LitPub panel session on November 27 — wink, wink).
Conversations about diversity in literature are not accessible.
But for this post, in particular, I want to bring light to another form of inaccessibility. Specifically, the grim reality that the conversations surrounding diversity in literature remain to be really inaccessible to many, especially offline.
A lot of readers and non-readers alike don’t think twice about the value of representation, much less the ongoing call for diversity in literature. Many of them have probably never encountered the phrase “diverse books” or the hashtag “#ownvoices” in their day-to-day conversations. In addition, they likely don’t have the tools to easily navigate catalogs and identify diverse books.
As fun as it is to lovingly shout about diverse books on social media, I think that the next challenge for us is to bring these conversations offline and to make resources accessible to casual readers and non-readers.
- How can we encourage more people within our interpersonal circles to read more diversely?
- How can we invite casual readers and non-readers to rally behind marginalized authors from disenfranchised communities?
- How can we help others start diversifying their bookshelves?
Which brings me to the intended audience of this post: anyone looking to jumpstart their journey to reading more diversely. In this post, you’ll find a brief introduction to diverse books and starter recommendations of diverse books (kind of like the Pokémon starters that new trainers select from). I sincerely hope that this post can help you find your footing!
Diversity in Literature 101
First and foremost, what do we mean by diversity in literature? And what are diverse books? Personally, I think there needs to be a distinction between diverse stories, diverse authors, and diverse publishing.
- When we’re talking about diversity in literature, we’re referring to the actual text, that is, the stories within books.
- Meanwhile, when we’re talking about diversity in publishing, we’re referring to the working individuals (e.g. authors, editors, cover artists, graphic designers) within the publishing industry.
For literature to be diverse, there needs to be a wide range of available stories featuring characters from all walks of life, including those that we rarely encounter on-page. More often than not, these ‘rarely encountered’ stories are experiences and narratives from marginalized and disenfranchised communities. As such, diverse books pertain to stories that include people of color, people within the LGBTQIAP+ spectrum, disabled people, neurodivergent people, and other minorities.
Historically, media and literature have been predominantly white and western — and this is partly due to the composition of the publishing industry itself. Data from the 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey show that the industry’s majority is comprised of white, cis, straight, and abled personnel. The profile of publishing’s workforce has a fundamental impact on the gate-keeping process and on publishing as a whole. In fact, online conversations, such as #PublishingPaidMe, have shown the darker side of the industry where marginalized authors, especially those from Black, Indigenous, and POC communities, are consistently given less compensation and drastically less support.
Furthermore, systems can only reproduce iterations of themselves, as noted by Randy Ribay in one of his author interviews:
I think we really need to work on not just making sure diverse stories are being written but making sure that the industries themselves are diverse so that they make it out into the world and into readers’ hands. Systems reproduce themselves, so if we want to ensure the books on our shelves reflect the diverse reality of our world, then we need to ensure that our teachers, librarians, reviewers, agents, editors, artists, marketing professionals, etc. also reflect that diversity.— Randy Ribay
Thus, advocating for diversity in literature must go hand-in-hand with advocating for diversity in publishing. In other words, we need diversity both on the frontlines and behind the scenes. This isn’t just about seeing yourself on-page, but also, and perhaps more importantly, seeing actual changes in the system that produces these stories.
Thus, on a personal level, diversifying your reading means consciously consuming stories about marginalized characters, especially written by marginalized authors. However, the larger call for diversity is a call for equal accessibility and opportunity for stories that aren’t white and western, as well as a publishing industry that reflects the diversity of the world that we live in. This is why it’s important for us to read diverse stories and to actively support marginalized authors and creatives.
Starter Recommendations for Diverse Books
Back to the first question of this blog post: How can you start diversifying your bookshelf? And relatedly, what is the best way to start reading diversely?
I don’t think that there’s a right or wrong approach. Personally, however, I think a fantastic first step is to start from home, that is, perusing through local literature. For example, if you’re Filipino, you can look into Filipino authors who write stories within your favorite genres. Some of my personal favorites are Rin Chupeco (author of The Bone Witch), K.S. Villoso (author of The Wolf of Oren-yaro), Gail D. Villanueva (author of My Fate According to the Butterfly), and Randy Ribay (author of Patron Saints of Nothing).
Moreover, you can opt to start with books that are aligned with your personal interests or hobbies. Are you a fan of BTS and K-pop groups? Try out I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee and other K-pop romance novels written by authors of color. Was Mulan your favorite Disney princess growing up? You can seek out Chinese authors who’ve written stories with similar tropes and themes.
Finally, if you’re still struggling to figure out where to start, then read the rest of this post! I’ve compiled a hopefully helpful list of “starter recommendations” for various genres. Kind of like how there are different Pokémon starters for various regions. Enjoy!
🍃 Gamers and non-gamers alike, as well as readers who are interested in virtual reality and role-playing games.
🍃 YA readers who are in the mood for an uplifting, heartwarming story that celebrates identity, diversity, and Black excellence.
🍃 Foodies, aspiring chefs, and souls hungry for stories about hope, passion, and resilience.
🍃 Readers who are seeking “non-traditional” teenage experiences in contemporary stories. (With the Fire on High follows the life of an Afro-Latinx teen mom!)
🍃 Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: Legend of Korra (especially the latter!).
🍃 YA readers who like elemental magic, moral complexities, bodyguard romances (but make it sapphic), characters with a hard sense of justice.
🍃 Readers looking for a refreshing take on tired YA tropes such as found family, absentee parents, love triangles, and “chosen” ones.
🍃 Readers who greatly enjoy rich world-building, lyrical prose, and themes that tackle imperialism, historical revisionism, and generational trauma.
🍃 Curious minds who are fascinated by in-depth character studies and non-Western settings in fantasy stories. (Fun fact: The Wolf of Oren-yaro takes inspiration from pre-colonial Philippines!)
🍃 First-time readers who want to delve into adult fantasy without feeling overwhelmed by complex magic systems.
🍃 Big fans of enemies-to-lovers, star-crossed lovers, and deep-seated yearning.
🍃 Readers who have an interest in sociopolitical and economic history in the East, as well as Shakespeare. (These Violent Delights is a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet that’s set in 1920s Shanghai.)
🍃 Readers who enjoy historical fiction with elements of mystery.
🍃 YA readers who are in the mood for a gut-wrenching tale that thoughtfully intersects culture, politics, mental health, and religion.
🍃 Readers who are looking for a good, sensitive portrayal of mental illnesses. (Melati, the protagonist of The Weight of Our Sky, is a young Muslim Malay girl with OCD and anxiety.)
🍃 Adult readers who are fond of journalism and social activism.
🍃 Readers who are in the mood for a story about a Chinese girl growing up in the South. (The Downstairs Girl is set in 1890s Atlanta.)
🍃 Fans of evocative writing laced with humor, wit, and social commentary.
🍃 Fans of Asian horror films such as The Grudge (2004).
🍃 YA readers who are in the mood for a terrifying ghost story filled with murder and revenge. (Okiku is a ghost that hunts down child murderers.)
🍃 Adult readers looking for creepy, atmospheric writing and… reasons to hate mushrooms.
🍃 Horror fans who prefer their stories with Gothic aesthetics, historical elements, and hints of mystery.
🍃 Readers who enjoy stories that delve into motherhood, the nature of art and identity, and the weight of secrets.
🍃 Adult readers who are in the mood for an evocative narrative with plenty of food for thought.
🍃 Fans of decadent prose and retellings of lesser-known folklore. (The Hour of Daydreams is a contemporary reimagining of the Filipino folklore: The Star Maidens.)
🍃 Literary readers who enjoy unreliable narrators, dream-like sequences, and lavish language.
🍃 Contemporary poetry fans who also like spoken word performances. (In fact, Emi Mahmoud has performed her own pieces. My favorite is How to Translate a Joke.)
🍃 Readers who enjoy poems with social commentary and feminism. (Sisters’ Entrance features themes of sisterhood, genocide, racism and Islamophobia, and trauma.)
🍃 Readers who are looking for a modern entry point into Middle Eastern poetry. (Jess Rizkallah is an Arab-American poet.)
🍃 Readers who seek poems that deal with diasporic struggles, gender, sexuality, religion, and generational divides.
🍃 YA readers who are feeling lost and confused, particularly those who are struggling with who they want to become and what career path they want to take.
🍃 Souls who crave traveling and want to live vicariously in Japan.
🍃 Readers who enjoy awkward teen romance, clueless quirky heroines, and the idea of finding love where you least expect it.
🍃 Fans of Jane the Virgin, over-the-top telenovelas, and fun romantic comedies laced with sexual tension.
🍃 Romance readers who enjoy hidden/secret relationships, celebrities falling in love, chaotic family dynamics, and ambitious leading ladies.
🍃 Readers looking for a medical romance that thoughtfully deals with mental health. (In Ghost of a Feeling, Cris struggles with depression and suicidal ideation, which is exacerbated by the maltreatment she faces in medical school.)
🍃 Romance fans who want a respite from the fanfare and grandness of falling in love. (This novel does a phenomenal job in portraying the quieter, comforting side of romance.)
🍃 Fans of X-Men, Marvel, and other superhero franchises. (Except, you know, The Fever King is a whole lot gayer.)
🍃 Fans of YA dystopia but are also sick of most YA dystopia (circa The Hunger Games and Divergent) and want something refreshing and highly addictive.
🍃 Fans of Red Rising.
🍃 Readers craving to see a fierce, bad-ass Asian protagonist in YA science fiction. (Ia is a teenage criminal mastermind and unrivaled space pilot.)
🍃 Readers who enjoy found family, sibling dynamics, military academy settings, and enemies falling in love.
🍃 Readers who are interested in enemies who become unlikely allies and eventually grow into each other’s closest confidant. (Truly, the most iconic female friendship to date!)
🍃 Sci-fi fans who want insight into the brutal life under colonization, such as political unrest and cultural erasure.
🍃 Fans of memoirs about adolescence and childhood. (All Boys Aren’t Blue particularly tackles the trials and triumphs faced by Black queer boys.)
🍃 Novice readers who want to dive into non-fiction that’s accessible and non-intimidating. (Fun fact: This is the first memoir I’ve ever finished.)
🍃 Readers who seek enlightenment on the liberation struggles throughout our recent history, as well as the importance of feminism, intersectionality, and prison abolitionism.
🍃 Readers who are intimidated by scholarly text and prefer essays, interviews, and speeches.
Giveaway #1: Mirage by Somaiya Daud
I’m giving away a paperback edition of Mirage by Somaiya Daud to one winner from the Philippines! This will be conducted during our LitPub panel session on November 27, 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM.
More specifically, KB (Bookbed), Salve (Cuckoo for Books), and I are doing a “Repping in Reading” virtual panel where we will discuss diversity in literature and how readers can start diversifying their bookshelves. After our discussion, we will have a live Q&A session where we will interact with our audience. To enter the giveaway, all you need to do is to ask a question during our Q&A. My co-presenters and I will randomly select a winner among the audience members who asked a question.
Giveaway #2: Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan
If you miss our LitPub panel session, that’s okay! I’m also giving away a signed hardback edition of Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan to another winner! To enter the giveaway, you must submit your entries in the Rafflecopter widget below. The winner will be drawn after two weeks and will be contacted via email.a Rafflecopter giveaway
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I’d love to hear from you!
🌻 What are your thoughts on reading more diversely? How can you encourage other readers (and even non-readers!) to pick up diverse books?
🌻 Are any of these starter recommendations familiar to you? Did you find any new books from this list?
🌻 Do you think that accessibility plays a large role in a person’s ability to read diversely?