Vanessa L. Torres, author of
Vanessa L. Torres, author ofThe Turning Pointe (Knopf Books for Young Readers, February) and member of Las Musas, a collective of Latinx women and female-identifying authors, wasn’t the kid that hung out at the library. “I didn’t know that there were other kids out there that had the same experience as me,” she said. “And I think, had I seen [myself] in books, I wouldn’t have been a reluctant reader.”
Torres and authors Susan Azim Boyer, Katryn Bury, and Maya Prasad shared their experiences growing up with a lack of positive depictions of themselves in books at “Engaging Historically Underrepresented Young Adult Readers,” a June 27 session at the American Library Association’s 2022 Annual Exhibition and Conference in Washington, D.C. The panel offered strategies for how librarians can engage marginalized readers.
Bury, author of Drew Leclair Gets a Clue (Clarion Books, March) and youth librarian at Alameda County (Calif.) Library, said she often battled with a self-perception of “being not enough” and then “being too much” when she was younger. Drew, her book’s protagonist, is queer, chronically ill, and “apple-shaped,” she said. But her book “didn’t have to be about any of that. It didn’t have to be about coming out [or] about an illness. Those are all background characteristics … She’s solving a mystery, just like Nancy Drew would.”
Boyer, the panel’s moderator and author of the forthcoming Jasmine Zumideh Needs a Win (Wednesday Books, November), said librarians should consider outsider versus insider authors. In other words, is the experience of the protagonist coming from an author who has lived that experience? “Read the [author’s] bio on the inside flap to find out if this book has been written by an insider,” she said. “Books written by insiders tend to center the person rather than making them kind of tangential.”
Books written by outsider authors run the risk of including harmful depictions of groups of people. “Outsiders tend to fall back on the stereotypes because they don’t have that specific, authentic knowledge,” Boyer said.
Prasad, author of Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things (Disney-Hyperion, October), agreed with Boyer, and said the nuances that come from writing a story as an insider can make a big impact on readers. “I always wanted, when I was growing up, to be told that I can be Indian and American. I hadn’t even heard that term Indian American—that wasn’t really a thing when I was growing up,” she said. When she included that moment in her own book, she received a lot of positive feedback from readers who noticed the detail and said it resonated with them.
The authors agreed that banning books that feature diverse characters can be like cutting a lifeline—the only connection that readers may have to books. Said Bury: “[Librarians] choose what to uplift. We choose who to give a platform to in our programs, and that does make a difference for underrepresented readers.”