Tag Archives: diverse reads

2016 Racial & Gender Diversity in My Reading

I read a lot of books. That’s no secret.

I love the power of reading, but I also think we have to be intentional about the kinds of books we read. I’m a big fan of reading what you love, but I think it’s still important to pursue diversity in those choices.

I’ve learned from experience that you have to be intentional about that. So every year I track those diversity stats to see how I’m doing. It’s not a perfect system and it’s not the only thing I do, but it’s one step.

I base gender simply on the author, counting a book if any contributor is a woman. For race I count a book if a contributor or main character is a person of color.

Here are the results for 2016:

  • 54% POC books
  • 59% female authors.

Here’s how diverse my reading has been since 2001:

2016 diverse reading chart

Here are the actual numbers (with totals) for 2016:

2016 diversity tracking

Results

While the numbers are just numbers, I think the real results are showing up in my lists of favorite books for the year. Both my fiction and non-fiction lists this year were topped by writers of color, and my fiction top five is all writers of color. Those lists have been getting more diverse over the years.

It’s all pretty subjective, but in general I think it continues to push me toward hearing and responding to more voices, especially ones that are different from my own experience and perspective.

If you want to read more, check out my booklet 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading Again.

Gender Diversity in Books

Last week I looked at diversity in my reading  going back to 2001. I simply looked at racial diversity, assuming gender diversity wasn’t a big deal anymore.

Out of curiosity, I went back and charted gender diversity.

Turns out I’ve been lacking gender diversity as well:

Gender diversity among the books I read.

  • This is a little more straight-forward to chart than racial diversity. For books with multiple authors, I counted them if any of the contributors were women.
  • 2014 is the only year I’ve read more women than men (54%). The only other years that come close are 2008 with 45% (that happens to be the year I re-read the entire Harry Potter series, accounting for 7 of the 9 books authored by a woman) and 2013 with 42%.
  • Most years I’m sitting between a quarter and a third of my books written by female authors.
  • For a few years I only read two or three female authors. In my lame defense, I didn’t read many books that year. But the ratio was still around 10% or less. Ouch.
  • I’ve read a lot more YA and middle grade fiction recently, and I wonder if that has accounted for my recent spike in women authors. There tend to be a lot more women authors in YA and middle grade.

Clearly, more proof that diversity doesn’t happen by accident.

Why We Must Pursue Diverse Books

We Need Diverse BooksI believe diversity matters. We’re better when we hear from a diverse range of voices. But if we’re not intentional about embracing diversity, it doesn’t happen.

I got my We Need Diverse Books swag in the mail today, my reward for supporting their highly successful Indiegogo project.

I read a lot of books last year (203, not that I’m bragging), and I was curious how diverse my selections were. I made an effort to read more diverse books in 2014 (in part thanks to We Need Diverse Books), but I was also curious about previous years as well.

So here’s a chart of the diversity of my reading going back to 2001:

My total books vs. diverse books Continue reading Why We Must Pursue Diverse Books

Like No Other by Una LaMarche

Like No Other by Una LaMarcheLike No Other by Una LaMarche is a lovely Romeo and Juliet story between a Hasidic girl and a black teen in modern day New York.

Maybe even more than the original Romeo and Juliet, this story is truly about crossing family lines. Devorah sees something beyond her strict religious upbringing and wants to know more. But instead of just condemning her former life, she still sees value in it.

And the nerdy Jaxon who never quite fit in or connected with a girl, found a girl, well, like no other.

Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith

Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander SmithForty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith is one of the most thought-provoking and terrifying books I’ve read this year. That’s both a good thing and a disturbing thing. Especially as I’m reading it in the aftermath of Ferguson.

The Story

Martin is invited to join an elite group of black businessmen, but he discovers they’re part of a secret society that wants to repay the evils of slavery by enslaving whites.

Every evil committed by white slave traders and owners against black slaves is being brought to bear on the ancestors of those slave traders and owners. Literally abducted from the streets and taken to this stronghold that purposefully resembles a Southern plantation—except the slaves are white and the masters are black.

So we’re talking servants, manual labor, treating humans like cattle, rape, abuse and more.

In some ways the story is completely implausible—a secret slavery stronghold, hidden in the middle of the United States? But that’s not the point. In other ways it’s brutally realistic. Martin is forced with a terrible choice and he has to do the unthinkable to even stay alive. The story also avoids the Hollywood approach with perfect plans and a Jason Bourne style escape. That makes it all the more real.

The story is a fast-paced thriller, but it’s wrapped around this thought-provoking and terrifying idea.

Reverse Discrimination

It’s terrifying in the way you’d expect. Any time I’ve read about slavery the evil is so apparent, so gruesome and revolting. It’s hard to understand how anyone could justify it. But it’s a part of history. People did do those things. Society accepted it. People were taught that those things were acceptable.

So Forty Acres is doubly terrifying because you have a group of people enslaving another group of people knowing full well the terror of what they’re doing. There is no societal justification. Just their own brutal vengeance. It’s an eye for an eye taken to it’s own logical end. And it’s not a pretty place to be.

But as I read it, I felt a deeper sense of terror as well. This is what white people fear. Whenever anyone talks about reparations for slavery or affirmative action or trying to find some measure of equality, there are some people who ask when is it enough?

There’s an unspoken fear in that question of giving up power. Making society equal means someone has to give up their power. Forty Acres presents an extreme answer to that question, an answer that’s morally abhorrent. But it’s also raising a serious question. No one would seriously suggest the scenario in Forty Acres, but there is a hidden fear that these conversations and questions would lead there.

Part of what I found disturbing about this story was my own reaction to seeing white people enslaved by black people. Somehow it seemed more unjust than the reverse, which is ironic since one happened and one is a work of fiction. I’m not saying this reaction reveals some kind of closeted racism, but I think it reveals bias and white privilege within myself that I’m barely aware of.

Let me put it this way: The image of a white man beating a black man, while vile and repugnant, isn’t that jarring to me because it happened over and over again as part of our ruthless history of slavery. But the image of a black man beating a white man, I found completely jarring. Both are horrible, but I have an easier time moving past one of them. And I think that’s a product of institutional racism or white privilege or whatever bias I bring to the table.

An Evil Legacy

In 1865—149 years ago—slavery was fully abolished in the United States with the passing of the 13th Amendment. But the legacy of that evil institution continues to haunt us today. Despite many advances in civil rights, racism and prejudice persist. It’s not something we simply move past. There’s often unconscious prejudice we don’t even realize we have. Forty Acres taps into all of that, making it one of the most powerful books I’ve read this year.

A Wizard of Earthsea: Meh

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le GuinA Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin is a beloved fantasy classic that subverts expectations. I wasn’t impressed.

It’s the coming of age story of a wizard, but unlike Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, there are no wars and the main enemy is primarily internal. It was an intentional choice by Le Guin to create something different and portray a world that wasn’t defined by endless war and violence.

It also has the distinction of being a fantasy novel published in 1968 where nearly all the characters are people of color. The only white characters are villains and savages, a telling reversal. Unfortunately the publisher refused to reflect that in the cover art.

While all that is fascinating, I didn’t think the story was. I’m not a big fan of fantasy, which is one big strike, and then the story felt distant and slow. Part of it was her style, which felt older than the 1960s—more like ancient legend. Then there’s the fantasy trope—”I traveled to the [bizarre description] isle of [weird name], and found the [more bizarre description] people, know as [another weird name]. But I think the biggest factor was the slow plodding pace of the story and feeling like we weren’t going anywhere.

This is probably sacrilege to all the Earthsea fans, but there it is. The book has more than 100,000 ratings on Goodreads, and still has a very positive 3.96 rating (out of 5), so clearly lots of folks would disagree with me.

Half Way Home: Colonies, Lord of the Flies & AI

Half Way Home by Hugh HoweyHalf Way Home by Hugh Howey offers one of those classic and incredible sci-fi setups: Planetary colonies are sent out across the universe and governed by an artificial intelligence that decides the viability of the colony and aborts when not fully viable. You get a sense for the creepy undertones already.

The story follows one colony that is aborted, but the abort sequence is stopped. Maybe 15% survive, having been interrupted in their gestation and only half grown and educated (meaning they’re teenagers instead of adults). As the surviving confused colonists stumble out of the vats, they’re in for a strange new world where their AI tried to abort them but then changed its mind, and rather than give answers insists they work to build a rocket ship that has nothing to do with survival.

So it’s part colonization story, part Lord of the Flies, with a little bit of creepy Dave from 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown in.

The fact that Hugh Howey wrote Half Way Home for National Novel Writing Month means it’s quick and has a special place in my heart.

Otherness

One of the deeper themes in the story (SPOILER ALERT) is the main character’s orientation. He’s gay and slowly comes to terms with this throughout the story. What he’s really coming to terms with is the fact that he’s alone—and we learn that’s quite intentional (thank you creepy AI). It’s not an overriding part of the story, but it is an interesting commentary on the “otherness” that society creates for LGBT people.

Not Quite YA

The only downside to Half Way Home is that it’s supposed to be a YA novel, but I think that fails.  I read a lot of YA (probably half the books I’ve read this year are YA or middle grade) and even knowing what to expect I couldn’t read it that way. The characters came across like adults and not teenagers. And it’s not that Howey can’t write teenagers. He did a great job with the YA feel in the Molly Fyde series.

But Half Way Home‘s non-YA-ness didn’t lessen my enjoyment at all. I’ve been lacking in some intergalactic sci-fi lately, and while colonizing a planet isn’t gallivanting across the stars, it’s still pretty great.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-MillsBeautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills is an eye-opening look into the life of a trans-gendered person.

As a senior in high school, Liz decides she’s now Gabe. She’s never felt like a she, but getting everyone to accept her as a he is no easy task. Simple things like which bathroom to use and filling out W2 forms are stress-inducing for her—er,  him.

My own confusion over which personal pronouns to use are a good example of how we really get a feel for what Gabe’s struggle is like. The story is in his voice so the struggle is personal and real. It’s not some out there issue we can easily dismiss.

Tackling that topic alone makes it a book worth reading, but no one wants to read a story about a token hot button character. Instead Gabe has this fabulous interest in music and wants to be a DJ. His neighbor is this washed up, old school disc jockey who shows him the ropes. Gabe starts his own community radio show and begins to flourish as he finds himself and generates a following.

It all comes together as a very real and lovely story about humanity.

In light of a recent Southern Baptist Convention resolution about transgendered people, I think a book like this is more necessary than ever. The resolution basically dismisses the struggles of transgendered people, saying God made them one way and they shouldn’t try to change it. Jesus will help them.

I don’t pretend to understand all the theological perspectives here, but where’s the compassion? The resolution did condemn any bullying, abuse or violence against transgendered people, but that feels like lipstick on a pig.

We’re broken people living in a broken world. There are a lot of things that aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. I’m not sure denial is very compassionate.

I see more of Jesus in Gabe and the friends who love him than I do in this church resolution. This is why I read. I don’t know anyone like Gabe personally. But now I have a tiny glimpse of what that life might be like, and I think it makes me a tiny bit more understanding, sympathetic and compassionate.

That feels more like Jesus to me.

Randi Rhodes Ninja Detective: Characters Trump the Mystery

Rhandi Rhodes Ninja Detective by Octavia SpencerRandi Rhodes Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit by Octavia Spencer is a quick mystery featuring a kid detective and her friends. I’m not a big mystery fan, so I need to be really impressed. Not so much with this one.

The characters were good. I liked Randi Rhodes and her friends. They’re realistic and relatable, dealing with real problems. The biggest is Randi overcoming the death of her mother.

But the mystery didn’t stand up to the quality characters. It felt a little too simplistic (though it is a kids’ chapter book) and relied on a big reveal at the end. The Time-Capsule Bandit really didn’t hold my interest, but Randi and her friends did.

I’d be willing to read another volume in this series just for the characters, though I hope the mysteries pick up.

The Living: What’s the Plural of Apocalypse?

The LIving by Matt De La PenaConspiracy and cover up in the midst of apocalyptic mayhem on a cruise ship—with a scary disease thrown in for good measure.

The hits just keep coming in The Living by Matt de la Peña.

The story centers on Shy, a hard-working kid stuck in the middle of it all. In many ways this book can’t quite decide what it is, and you get some of everything from class-based cruise ship hijinks to suicide mystery to Titanic sinking to adrift in a life boat.

It’s also the first in a series, so there’s not a lot of closure (though it’s better than most). The cruise ship apocalypse is taken care of in volume one, but there’s still the super disease conspiracy and a giant earthquake, which leaves plenty of mayhem for later in the series. It’ll be interesting to see if this turns into a post-apocalyptic tale or if it’s more firmly grounded in the midst of the apocalypse.

What’s the plural of apocalypse?

The relentless pace was fun, but it felt awfully jumbled.