The #weneediversebooks movement has been a popular phenomenon on Twitter and among kidlit and YA bloggers this year. The idea is to encourage publishers and authors to write and market more and better literature for children and young adults that shows and features diversity in human beings. In other words, children want to read, or adults want them to be able to read, about the many cultures, racial groups, religious groups, ability groups, and others that make up the human race. Books, especially book characters, as a whole, should reflect the marvelous diversity that exists in the human family.
One question has been where does this movement for diversity intersect with speculative fiction? In particular, since I’m reading a ton of it for the Cybils, where do diversity in characters and cultures and middle grade speculative fiction intersect? Is it just about more people of color or more people with disabilities as characters in our fantasy and science fiction books? Or can diversity be approached in another way, a way that is particularly suited to speculative fiction?
In Horizon author Jenn Reese shows a world of diverse “humans”, a world in which, by the end of the book, most of the very different creatures with very different cultures an cultural expectations have learned to live together peacefully. (I could argue with the implication that if you simply get rid of the evil dictator, evil in the rest of the world will die a quick death, but I won’t go there.) Instead I want to just list some of the peoples that Reese includes in her fantasy world:
The Coral Kampii live under the ocean but near the shore and are given beautiful tails instead of legs at puberty. Their society is closed off, conservative, and isolationist.
Equians are intelligent horse-like people who live in the desert and worship the sun. Their primary values are honor and loyalty to the community, or herd.
The Deepfell live in the deeps of the ocean and are related to but also enemies of the Kampii. They have bodies that have adapted to the pressures of the ocean depths.
The Serpentii are a snakish people who also live in the desert, usually in caves. They have been long at war with the Equians and are by this time nearly extinct.
The Aviars are bird-people with a rather militant and Spartan female-led culture.
Upgraders are technologically enhanced human-like cyborgs who seem to be the enemies of all of the other more human species in this world. Or are they?
So in Horizon these different groups work out their differences and some of them ally themselves together to fight the evil Karl Strand, a mad scientist dictator who wants to rule the world. Written like that, the plot may sound a little hokey, but it’s certainly not. The interactions between the different characters and between the different people groups are complicated, nuanced, and intriguing. Characters must overcome their prejudices, learn to accept their dissimilarities, and work together, capitalizing on the things that divide them and make them diverse, while also overcoming the things that handicap them. For instance, the main character, Aluna, is a Kampii with a tail (think mermaid) which is a disability when she is on land. However, her friend, Vachir, an Equian, carries Aluna, tail and all, into battle where she is able to use her other abilities to fight and win battles.
When we talk about “diverse books” or “diverse characters”, it’s not enough to ask only simple questions, although these are a start, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. Are there any people of color in the Above World books? I’m not sure skin color is ever mentioned, except for the Kampii’s colorful tails. Are any of the characters disabled? Well, in a way, they all are “differently abled”. The Kampii can’t walk. None of the people can fly, except the Aviars. The land peoples can’t live in the water, and the water peoples can’t live on land without technological aids. The Equians don’t talk in words, only whinnies. Are there diverse cultures? Of course, but they aren’t the cultures we know in our world, even though some of them resemble real cultural groups in our world.
Is speculative fiction, particularly this Above World trilogy, a good way for middle grade readers to explore diversity? Absolutely. I’ll leave you with a quote from the book in a scene in which the different characters are trying to build a city that will serve all of the world’s people groups:
“She pored over the city’s planning schematics every night. The ramps and elevators had been her idea, so every person could go every place, whether they had wings or tails or hooves or legs. Given enough time, she’d probably find a way to let the Aviars live underwater if they wanted.”
Now that’s an example of accommodating and celebrating diversity. #weneeddiversebooks
The first two books in this series were Above World and Mirage. I suggest reading the books in order.
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This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.