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February 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more Every Book Its Reader
A major benefit of reading is its capacity to build empathy, to allow us to vicariously try on the thoughts and experiences of others, in the process finding common ground on some issues or better understanding our differences on others. Although few would argue with the value of promoting diverse books to our diverse service audiences, in practice, we still need to approach diversity with grace and subtlety.
I’ve been perusing forms submitted by Williamsburg readers in our “Looking for a Good Book” suggestion service for more than a decade. Although there are patterns, the clearest finding is that one can’t profile when it comes to suggesting books. Our form states that readers can specify age, gender, or ethnicity if they would like these factored into suggestions, but demographics are not required. We get, appropriately, diverse responses: those who read mainly about people like themselves, those more curious about lifestyles different than their own, and those whose choice is governed entirely by appeals that don’t have much to do with diversity. These forms remind me when I talk to patrons that advisory is not just a matching game, where one automatically pairs authors or protagonists with readers. They also remind me that as an advisor, if I want to be effective, activism can’t govern every decision, pushing diversity on readers who need something else from their stories right now.
So what’s an advisor to do? We live in an age where every interest group has its own television stations and publishing imprints. Although advisors should be cognizant of them, these less diverse forums are good at preaching to their own crowd, providing lists of books, music, and viewing materials that fit the same perspective. Librarians can also help like find like with book lists, displays, catalog headings, and other finding aids. It’s one of the most basic functions of RA, but perhaps it’s time we go a step further, helping readers beyond the most obvious choices.
On the flip side, there are many great lists of works, new and old, that focus on diversity, tolerance, and appreciation. These “diversity lists” are important, and we should continue to compile them, but the battle for diversity can never be considered won until we integrate diverse choices into “regular” reading as well.
To that end, we must identify and advocate the growing selection of books that deal with the interplay of diverse lives but that work equally well to explore other themes or popular settings, to evoke desired moods, or as examples of beloved genres. Through these titles, advisors can satisfy both the desire for the familiar and the urge to explore difference in one suggestion. By mixing these works into more traditional suggestions, we can explore and expand a reader’s capacity to appreciate diversity. So begins a chain reaction in which we widen the audience for these authors, thus improving the economic viability of their product, in turn making more publishers likely to answer the call to publish diverse books.
Diverse readers are waiting to find (and spend money on) books that speak to them. With a little work, we can get them what they want and build a coalition of readers in which everyone is welcome.
Add new mystery writers to the list of those, such as Walter Mosley, Minette Walters, Naomi Hirahara, Joe Lansdale, and Val McDermid, who have long explored diversity and social justice. Suzanne Chazin delves into crimes and accusations against undocumented workers through Jimmy Vega, a cop who once fled his own Puerto Rican heritage. In her Toronto-set series, Ausma Zehanat Khan takes in the gamut of Muslim experiences through Detective Esa Khattak and his young partner, Rachel Getty. Jason Overstreet’s The Strivers Row Spy and Thomas Mullen’s Darktown successfully explore the roots of African American policing in, respectively, Harlem and Atlanta. Rachel Howzell Hall’s Lou Norton series brings her detective back to the same projects where she grew up.
Science fiction and fantasy are emerging from decades in which advocates urged more diverse authors and characters. These wishes are becoming publishing reality. We can see the resulting change in a readership that was there, waiting for books with which they could identify. At last, women are broadly represented as both authors and protagonists. Other populations—people of color, who are LGBTQ, elderly, disabled, and more—are on the rise. Reinforce this positive change by helping readers find books like Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, the first in a series in which a freed slave upends a Regency-era society of white male magicians from within. N. K. Jemisin has published three diverse series. The latest, the Broken Earth trilogy, casts a variety of outsiders as the protectors of a world devastated by apocalyptic earthquakes. Ken Liu, Nnedi Okorafor, Saladin Ahmed, Sofia Samatar, and Kameron Hurley are a few of the newer authors we can add to the list of standbys, such as Octavia Butler, Lynn Flewelling, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mercedes Lackey, and Lois McMaster Bujold, who explore diversity in the context of cracking-good genre stories.
I could highlight diversity in other genres and subjects (and fantastic choices are to be found throughout this issue of Booklist), but you’ll get more from doing the work yourself. Read and recommend books by diverse authors. Compare lists of diverse authors with the lists and displays you share in your library. If there isn’t overlap, build it in. Diverse readers are waiting to find (and spend money on) books that speak to them. With a little work, we can get them what they want and build a coalition of readers in which everyone is welcome.
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