Last week, Slate published an essay by an 11-year-old reader that illustrates perfectly why I believe in the need for books with diverse characters. “This is Me” by Audrey Hall was a winner in the New York Public Library’s Summer Reading 2019 Essay Contest. In her essay, Audrey describes how the book Blended by Sharon Draper expanded her universe.
You can read the full essay here, which is well-written and even includes quotes from the book to support her thesis.
Audrey checked Blended out of the library and it quickly became a favorite. The book features a multiracial protagonist with divorced parents, which also describes Audrey. She describes how she related directly to the character’s experiences in the book, moving between households and debating how to describe herself. It was a revelation for her to know that there might be other kids who shared her own experiences. “This book made me feel like I belong,” she wrote.
I personally could not have written a better essay to describe why representation is important, especially in children’s and YA literature. Every child should have the same feeling that Audrey had when reading.
Of course, we will not relate to every character we read about, which also expands our minds. And of course, we can relate to characters who don’t look like us at all. For example, my pen name Mei-Mei was taken from a Chinese character in a Japanese anime. But I won’t pretend that I don’t automatically feel a sense of kinship with every redhead character that I meet. Being able to see ourselves so directly in characters is such a valuable thing that I want every child to be able to experience it as I have.
For this reason, I have been a fan of the We Need Diverse Books movement, which started as a Twitter hashtag and has become a phenomenon. I think we have seen a huge growth of diverse books in YA fantasy (my wheelhouse) over the past ten years, and I hope this trend will continue. I am personally making an effort to read more books featuring diverse characters and, just as importantly, by diverse authors to support the publishing industry following this trend.
Audrey’s prize for the essay was a trip to a NY Yankees game. I hope she has a great time! I also hope she grows up to be a writer of many more characters like herself.