I have this theory that your bookshelf is a portrait of who you are, particularly if you bought a lot of books growing up. Study your bookshelf closely enough and you can trace the ideas that compelled you at different point in your life. The seven volumes of Harry Potter captured my imagination between the ages of five and thirteen. There’s the Eragon series from my 5th grade dragon phase, those tomes that only Comparative Literature majors read, and some poetry that I thought was good when I was sixteen but now find extremely questionable.
My bookshelf reveals the meandering path I’ve taken to build an understanding of the world. And if you’re also like me, the majority of my bookshelves was occupied by books written by white authors. It’s not a totally bad thing. I truly value some of those books – even from a white, European perspective, they could touch on some universalities that I felt as an Asian American girl. But my bookshelf also revealed my blind spots: there was little that I knew about Black, Latinx, Native American, LGBTQ+, and disability experiences. I didn’t even come across an Asian American protagonist until I was seventeen, and I didn’t read a FilAm protagonist until I was 20!
The disparities on my bookshelf have less to do with conscious choices than subconscious biases, the lack of diversity in the publishing industry, the systemic barriers to entry for authors of color, and the dominance of a straight-white-male literary canon that is taught and valued in American high schools.
Since college, I’ve made it a point to diversify my bookshelf and deepen my understanding of stories that aren’t my own (after all, reading diversely is an act of resistance). Here are the 10 diverse books that helped shape my understanding of perspectives outside my own:
1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ifemelu and Obinze are forced to abandon their budding romance to immigrate from an unstable Nigeria – Ifemelu to the United States, and Obinze to London, where they each confront for the first time what it means to be Black. This is the first book I ever read that directly discussed race and racism, in Adichie’s elegant and observant style.
2. The Making of Asian America by Erica Lee
A dear friend and editor gave me this thorough history of Asians in the Americas from the 1600s until present. By giving a thoughtful account of the past, this book contextualized my identity as an Asian daughter of immigrants – and, more valuably, illuminates how Asian activism can grow in the future.
3. Every Day by David Levithan
Every day, 16-year-old main character A occupies a different day in the life of another person. For their whole life, A has accepted the transience of their situation – until A falls in love with a girl named Rhiannon and decides to find a way to stay with her. This book’s fantastical premise allows it to call to question where empathy comes from and to challenge the constructed nature of categories of identity. An enthralling read that kept me up until 2am reading under the covers like a kid.
4. Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
Another fantastic work by David Levithan, Boy Meets Boy recounts a few weeks in the life of a group of high school students, in a town where being LGBTQ+ is normal and celebrated. It’s a constant reminder of the kind of world worth fighting for.
5. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan
Sarcastic narrator Leila is queer, Muslim, Pakistani American, and just trying to get through the awkwardness of high school without letting her crush on the new girl in school fluster her too much. I found myself giggling and “aww”ing throughout this book and recommend it to EVERYONE.
6. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
A Hello Kitty lunchbox washes ashore in Canada and is found by a Japanese American novelist. The lunchbox contains: a watch, a packet of letters, and a diary written by a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl in Tokyo. Family ghosts, a WWII mystery, quantum mechanics, and environmental activism themes come together make this one of the most complex (and enthralling) novels I’ve ever read.
7. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
This book was a gift from the amazing We Need Diverse Books organization. Written from the alternating perspectives of two high school boys – one Black, one white – surrounding an incidence of racialized police brutality, Reynolds and Kiely powerfully unravel the complexity of coming to terms with police brutality in America.
8. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
This was another recommendation from a dear mentor. The Book of Unknown Americans is told from alternating perspectives of Mexican immigrants living in an apartment complex. Coming from an immigrant family and having grown up in majority Latinx neighborhoods, the entwined narratives were extremely close to home.
9. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
I actively push this book into the hands of every middle schooler/parent of middle schooler that I know, it’s that good. Junior, a Spokane Indian teen who likes to draw and play basketball, transfers out of the reservation high school and to a majority-white school. Warning: This book will require Kleenex for both laughing and sobbing.
10. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
So good that I wrote a full review here.
The sad thing about these posts is that it makes me pick favorites. So thank goodness for the comments section! What are the diverse books that are dear to you, for any genre or age group?