In a recent ruling by a Virginia court, five teens (described as two whites and three minorities) were sentenced to read one book a month for an entire year as punishment for defacing a historic black schoolhouse with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti. The books assigned were mostly works of literary fiction with diverse characters and/or racial themes like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Night by Elie Wiesel, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
Judging by the conversations I’d seen on the internet, most people thought it was a great idea. I think it’s genius. But could it be taken a step further?
The purpose of the sentence was to impart a lesson in compassion and empathy—the idea that you can put yourself in another person’s shoes and see things from the other person’s perspective. Reading about diverse characters gives these teens the opportunity to realize that even though circumstances and appearances may be different, we’re all the same at heart.
This is the magical part of storytelling, and what drew me to writing in the first place—the ability to cast readers into a thousand different roles in a thousand different places.
I’m often asked if choosing to make my young adult debut as an #ownvoices novel was intentional, as if they’re really asking whether I’d purposely set out to teach teens a lesson on diversity, empathy, and racial equality. My answer, in case you’re curious, is no. I wrote my Indian-American character Laxshmi Kapadia because it’s what I know. Who better than me, an Indian-American, to show a sliver of what it’s like to grow up straddling both cultures. It’s what the #ownvoices designation is all about—authenticity.
If a teen can relate to an elf going on a quest, they can surely relate to an Asian heroine going on one.
My novel, Soulmated, is a young adult paranormal romance about empaths and psychics—it’s the farthest thing from being preachy—but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, for most teens, genre fiction would rank quite a bit higher than their school’s required reading list. Part of me intuitively knew that setting my novel in a paranormal world might even attract someone who ordinarily wouldn’t have picked up a contemporary novel about an Indian-American girl because—let’s face it—some non-Indian-American readers might have looked at that book and thought they couldn’t relate.
That’s a learned response, because clearly, teen readers are connecting with hobbits, monsters, and vampires.
If a teen can relate to an elf going on a quest, they can surely relate to an Asian heroine going on one. (The Reader by Traci Chee or Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon.) And how is a werewolf trying to save her pack any different than a Latinx bruja trying to save her family from a spell gone wrong? (Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova.) Even in my own novel, Laxshmi’s empath abilities are emerging, somewhat like superheroes who are just learning to use their powers. The only difference is that I’ve peppered references to my Indian-American culture, portraying her as any other girl struggling against pressures from home and expectations she balks at.
So why might teens find characters from marginalized groups, like mine or any others, difficult to relate to? Maybe it brings up uncomfortable issues they don’t want to face or don’t think affects them, like racism, bullying, and bigotry. Maybe their family has unknowingly taught them that our differences are more important than our similarities. Maybe they’ve learned that “other” is equivalent to “less than” and therefore not worth the effort. It all comes back to empathy and using compassion and understanding to connect with a fellow human being despite our outward differences.
According to the Melbourne Child Psychology Journal, the ability to empathize is a skill that is still developing during the teenage years and is on the rise beginning at about 13-15 years of age. It makes it even more important to provide stories from different perspectives to these teens. It’s like exercising the emerging skill. From my own experience with my 16-year-old son, reading, paired with the appropriate analysis and discussion, is definitely worth the effort. The only drawback, however, is that he quickly loses interest when he sees it as a lesson.
No one argues that a diet high in vegetables is healthy, but as every parent knows, sometimes smothering the broccoli with cheddar cheese is the best way to get it to go down. While comparing this to reading is a bit oversimplified, it does illustrate the idea that some “lessons” are more effective if we make them more palatable.
Laura M. Jiménez, PhD, in an interview with the blog Reading While White, describes her experience teaching diverse children’s literature to a group of mostly white women who were studying to become teachers. She said that they had a difficult time connecting with stories outside their lived experiences, but she also observed that the more stereotypical and trope-ful the book, the easier they were able to connect with it.
If adults find diverse fiction easier to relate to when staged in commercial wrappings, it only reinforces an idea that we’ve already accepted: Sometimes it’s just easier to get a teen to enjoy reading if it’s genre fiction. And if it’s filled with characters written by #ownvoices authors? Even better.
Stories designated as #ownvoices provide an authentic view of what the “other” side looks like, and placing that fictional setting in a spaceship, a dystopian world, or one with psychics and empaths, might just be your handiest tool in creating a more empathetic reader.
If you’re looking for ways to support more #ownvoices genre fiction, here are some suggestions:
- Have your readers write and post a book review of an #ownvoices work in their favorite subgenre and have them show similarities to a more established work with comparable tropes or themes.
- Start a book club for #ownvoices genre fiction, and don’t forget to tell the authors and publishers that you’ve chosen their books.
- Contact #ownvoices authors and ask them to speak via video conference call to a class or a book club. Most authors would love the opportunity.
A far wider selection of diverse books and resources now exists compared to even five years ago, but finding a curated list of #ownvoices genre fiction has been difficult. One of the most helpful sites for diverse young adult fiction (including both literary and commercial) is Diversity in YA. Another site that’s a great resource for multiple age groups is We Need Diverse Books. You can also search Tumblr and Goodreads lists for #ownvoices works. Although the lists are unlikely to be curated, it’s a great place to start and familiarize yourself with what’s out there and meet bloggers who are passionate about promoting #ownvoices speculative fiction.
Shaila Patel is a pharmacist by training, a pediatric-office manager by day, and a writer by night. SOULMATED, her debut young adult paranormal romance won the 2015 Chanticleer Book Reviews Paranormal Awards in YA. A huge fan of epilogues, she also enjoys traveling, craft beer, tea, and reading in cozy window seats. She writes from her home in the Carolinas.