So you thought December was all about Christmas, snow, end-of-term parties, snuggling up by the fire with a book – right? Well, of course, it is – but it’s also been christened Diverse December in an attempt to get people who care about books to think about making them more diverse, and celebrating those that are.
That means books with more black, Asian and multi-ethnic characters, characters with disabilities, characters who are gay or bisexual – characters who represent the wide range of real people out there, rather than only a narrow range of white, straight, middle-class, average boys and girls. Books like Susie day’s Pea’s Book of Holidays, featuring a hemiplegic character, Ryan Munroe, who is, more importantly, a Scottish ghost hunter (Susie has written about the research she did for this book here). Or Frank Cottrell Boyce’s book, The Unforgotten Coat, about two Mongolian refugee boys and the impact they make on their classmates at a school in Liverpool – or Tanya Landman’s rollicking adventure, Hell and High Water, about a mixed-race boy in eighteenth-century Devon trying to save his father from being deported for a crime he didn’t commit. Or Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story, a lovely tale of family and friendship and loyalty and basketball, which hovers somewhere between London and the Philippines. And there are many others – if you’re interested, here is a great list of some of the best culturally diverse children’s books here.
One of the reasons that’s frequently given for writing and publishing more diverse books is that readers of all kinds need to see themselves reflected in the characters in books – they need to be able to see and identify with characters like themselves. If you are a wheelchair user, and you never see any characters that are wheelchair users in the books you read (apart from, as Susie Day points out, the ones who miraculously recover, like Heidi, or Colin in The Secret Garden), then it’s easy to feel you are invisible to others, that you don’t count in the same way, that you are ‘not normal’.
This is surely an important reason for making characters more diverse. But I think there’s another reason, equally important. When I read a book, I identify quite happily with the main characters (and even some of the minor ones) – I get inside their heads; I feel what they are feeling; I shiver when they are scared; I feel a rush of happiness when things work out for them; I agonise over their embarrassments. I don’t need them to be ‘like me’ in order for this to happen. As a child, I happily identified with adult men – big-game hunters (I’d find that more difficult now!), African long-lost tribal chiefs, knights from the Crusades, middle-aged pirates with one leg, outlaws in Sherwood Forest, an old king whose wife was having an affair with his best friend and most loyal knight (as well as identifying with the loyal knight, and the queen, and the knight’s abandoned lover who committed suicide) (and in case you think I was reading very adult novels, this is King Arthur I’m talking about!). I travelled inside the head of murderers, wise-cracking detectives, powerful wizards, small but feisty female cats, bumbling badgers, a whole group of rabbits, and a star who happens to have been turned into a dog.
I hardly ever actually identified with a girl ‘just like me’ – even when I got to live inside the head of a girl characters, they were as often as not at boarding school, or in the past, or a princess or witch. In fact, I mostly preferred male characters precisely because their lives were different from mine. And that’s another important reason why we need more diverse books. Part of the joy of reading is getting to see the world differently, or see different worlds – usually ones that are far more exciting and dramatic than your own one!
The experience of reading fiction has been shown to increase empathy (see a report on the study done by psychologists in New York, here). That’s not very surprising to those of us who read – since empathy is all about being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes, and that’s what readers of fiction do all the time. But if the range of people whose perspectives we get to try out is quite narrow – mostly white, English, straight, without disabilities, mostly not facing things like racism or prejudice – then we limit our experiences of the world, and of others. So let’s hear it for Diverse December – not just for those who aren’t seeing themselves reflected in books, but for all readers who aren’t getting the chance to experience and live as many different lives and perspectives as possible.
C.J. Busby’s latest book, The Amber Crown, was published by Templar in March.
Find out more at www.cjbusby.co.uk