When it comes to youth literature, I think you would be hard pressed to find someone nowadays who would say it’s a bad thing to have more books featuring diversity and/or diverse characters. Just take a look at some of the major movements that are currently taking the publishing industry by storm. I’m sure many of you have heard of either #ownvoices or “We Need Diverse Books,” just two examples of recent literary movements. As the great educator Rudine Sims Bishop put it, books are mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Not only do diverse books allow kids to see themselves reflected in the characters and stories they read, but they also serve as a window readers can look through to view life from a different perspective, or as a door for kids to use to step into experiences unlike those they’ve had and envision themselves in someone else’s shoes.
But it’s not enough to check an item off a list and confirm that a specific number or proportion of books meet certain “diverse” criteria, or even to try and assign specific qualities to define diversity. If we want our kids to become real readers, we need to work to get great books that they want to read into their hands. And this involves having a better understanding of the different ways diversity presents itself in books, especially those for younger readers.
So you want get some books with diversity into your kids’ hands. FANTASTIC! But where do you start? Well, the most common type, and probably the kind of book that most people first think of when it comes to books with diverse characters, are often referred to as “issue books.” Typically found more in realistic fiction, these are stories where the character’s diversity plays a central role to the plot. For example, the graphic novel New Kid by Jerry Craft (the first graphic novel to ever win the Newberry Award btw!) is a story about Jordan, a 7th grader, as he starts his first year at a new prestigious school where he is one of the few kids of color in his entire grade. Or Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, a story of the self-discovery and growth of a Black and transgender teen named Felix. Issue books also can take the form of historical fiction books, such as Ground Zero by Alan Gratz (reviewed earlier on this blog, be sure to check it out here!). There are many examples of issue books that can be found online and they are amazing ways for kids to learn about perspectives different from their own. They also hopefully provide a chance for kids to see themselves reflected in characters on the page. These stories can often be heavy and emotionally draining, though, and kids sometimes just want to read things that are fun and adventurous.
You probably don’t know me, but I am a huge fan of the science fiction and fantasy genres. My discovery of these speculative fiction genres at an early age understandably played an enormous role in turning me into the wild reader that I am today. But when it comes to the topics of diversity, these two genres have historically been pretty not-great. That may be an understatement as, for much of literary history, fantasy and sci-fi have often been exclusively written by and for white, cisgender, straight males. But in the last decade or two, that has been changing, and definitely for the better.
Can a boy attending wizarding school who needs to save his world from an evil power begin to fall in love with his best friend, who is also a boy? Absolutely (Carry On by Rainbow Rowell)! Can a Black girl who is next in line to be queen desperately wish to go off on a forbidden monster hunting adventure with her brother? Of course (A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying by Kelley Armstrong)!
This brings me to the second type of diverse storytelling, “incidental diversity.” Incidental diversity is when you have diversity in the cast of characters, but it is something that is only mentioned or secondary to the main, overarching plot. There are many realistic-fiction books that fall into this category, like the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series by Jenny Han, a high school romance story about a girl who is Korean-American. You can also see why this is a special place for sci-fi and fantasy to really shine! So if you have kids who love escaping into adventures, I’ve got some great recommendations for you at the end of this post.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!! Not only can sci-fi and fantasy stories have great diverse characters, but they can also have diverse settings as well. Ever notice how a lot of fantasy stories are set in medieval, European-type settings (Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, basically every popular fantasy world…)? Well, there are actually a lot of books that are set outside of that stereotype and use other cultures and histories to provide framework for the fictional worldbuilding. The first story I read with a world like that is called Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, which is a YA fantasy story set in a middle-eastern inspired fantasy world. I couldn’t believe how much of a breath of fresh air the setting was and how much of an impact a seemingly small shift like that had on a story. And it’s not limited to the fantasy genre—Warcross by Marie Lu is a YA high-tech sci-fi story that takes place in futuristic Japan. It’s pretty neat what authors have been able to come up when they harness the full potential of the fantasy and sci-fi genres!
All of this is to say that diverse books are amazing.
And while there are many fantastic diverse books out there that are educational and conscience-expanding, we also want kids to read things that they devour and that will foster a passion for reading to last them well beyond their childhood.
I’m here to say that you can have the best of both worlds, and if your kids love sci-fi and fantasy as much as I did growing up, there are lots of incredible options out there, and many more to be published in the coming years. I want you, as parents, grandparents, and caregivers, to know that there is the perfect book out there for your kids—ones they can fall in love with, ones with characters who look or act or feel like them, and even ones that can take them on adventures, all while also providing literary diversity. If you or your kids ever feel stuck in finding a book, don’t hesitate to reach out to your school or local public librarian for some recommendations! Learning how to help people find the right books has been one of the most fulfilling and exciting parts of my library school education, and I am sure there are lots of librarians out there like me. You can also reach out to me directly, and I would be more than happy to help you out as well! I’ll leave my contact info in the bio below (I can even help you, as adults, find your next great read if you are interested).
Here are some recommendations for the best books I have read over the last couple years which fall into my favorite genres of sci-fi and fantasy and have components of diversity to them:
A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat – A retelling of the Les Mis story, but set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world. Pong is an escaped prisoner who must decide whether his own freedom is worth fighting for the equality of the people in his corrupt city.
A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying by Kelley Armstrong – Rowan is next in line to be queen, but all she wants to do is to trade places with her twin brother, Rhydd, who is the next in line to be the Royal Monster Hunter. When Rowan sets off on an expressly forbidden monster hunt on her own, she sets off a chain of events that shakes the very foundation of their kingdom.
Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster by Jonathan Auxier – A historical-fantasy story about an orphaned Jewish girl who is raised as a child chimney sweep. When a mysterious creature rescues her from her dangerous job, Nan realizes she might just be able to change her corner of the world for the better with the help of her new friend and “monster”.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill – Luna has been raised by a witch named Xan her whole life, but when she suddenly gains magical powers as she approaches her 13th birthday, the local village feels threatened by their existence. In order to protect the world she loves, Luna must figure out who she is and her connection to the villagers before it’s too late.
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn – 16-year-old Bree stumbles into a secret order founded by the Knights of the Round Table and King Arthur while taking early college courses on UNC campus. As she fights to keep her own unique magical abilities hidden from them, she must also fight the systemic racism that is ingrained in the roots of both UNC and this top secret order.
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor – Set in a middle-eastern inspired fantasy world, orphan and junior librarian Lazlo has been obsessed with the mythical lost city of Weep ever since he was little. When he discovers that it is far more real than anyone could have imagined, he jumps at the chance of a lifetime to not only visit, but to help rescue the city from catastrophe.
The Beast Player by Uehashi Nahoko – Set in an ancient Japanese inspired fantasy world, Elin escapes to a mountain town when her mother is sentenced to death when the magical creatures she cares for a mysteriously killed. As Ellin grows up, she realizes that her love and special connection to the magical beasts of the kingdom is so unique that she is soon thrust into the center of a hostile political spotlight and only she can prevent or send the kingdom into war.
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell – Simon Snow is in his final year at Watford magical school, and he has to simultaneously grapple with his complicated feelings about his roommate, Baz, while also saving his universe from ruin by a magical entity called the Insidious Humdrum.
Warcross by Marie Lu – Centered around a futuristic Tokyo, Emika tries to make a quick buck by illegally hacking into the opening game of the World Championship of Warcross, a virtual reality platform and game. When she gets caught, she is shocked to be contacted by the creator of Warcross, and is offered the opportunity of a lifetime to use her skills as a hacker to help spy from the inside of the Warcross tournament as a player, launching her into a world of fame and fortune she has only ever dreamed of.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland – Set in alternate reality Civil-War Era America, Jane is training to be an Attendant, a personal body guard of wealthy white people, protecting them from the zombies that have started rising from the dead two years after the start of the Civil War. It’s the best position a Black girl like Jane can ever hope to achieve, but when she uncovers a conspiracy threatening to wipe out all of humanity, she has to fight for her life against some powerful enemies, the undead being the least of her
About the Author: Zach Reynolds is an almost-librarian and is set to graduate with his master’s degree in library and information science in May. With specializations in both youth and adult services, he is planning to work for a public library in the greater-Indianapolis area in the near future. He currently lives with his wife, Rachel, and his mini-dachshund, Brownie, just north of Indianapolis, and shockingly spends much of his free-time reading books for people of all ages. If you have any questions, or want any book recommendations, you can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on GoodReads at https://www.goodreads.com/zmreynol