We need diverse publishing

Recently, one of my students asked me if we had any fantasy books with an “awesome rockin’ black girl” as the main character. I struggled to think of one, partly because of my own ignorance and partly because I just don’t think there are nearly enough awesome rockin’ black girl leads in books.

This got me thinking about the We Need Diverse Books campaign and just how right they are. I started wondering if perhaps the problem wasn’t that writers aren’t writing diverse books, but that publishers are not willing to take the risk of publishing them.

As I’m chewing on this I read the Seattle Times article about Amazon Crossing, the Amazon publishing imprint that has been translating books recently. While there are pros and cons about behemoth Amazon taking on this aspect of the literary world, I was thinking about the immense benefit we could reap from it in the form of diverse books.

Currently, most of the books they are translating and publishing are from very white populations in Europe and Scandinavia. A lot of what they choose to translate is based on data about what English speaking readers are enjoying. I think they could still harness the power of data to find what is popular to read, but expand their reach to less white countries and expose us to some of their greatest literature. Maybe my student could finally read a fantasy about an awesome rockin’ black girl straight from Africa.

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13 Problems with Thirteen Reasons Why

Jay Asher’s young adult novel was recently adapted to the screen for Netflix and I had some issues with how suicide is represented. Below are my 13 problems with Thirteen Reasons Why. It is also available as a pretty Buzzfeed post here.

  1. Thomas Joiner, an academic psychologist and expert on suicide notes that feeling like one is a burden to friends and family is one of the strongest predictors of death by suicide. Hannah Baker didn’t feel like a burden, she was angry, confident, and vindictive.
  2. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says in their guidelines that graphic representation of suicide increases suicide risk. The way the show portrayed exactly how Hannah took her life was irresponsible, and will probably inspire copycat, or contagion suicides.
  3. The show has romanticized suicide and normalized it as a response to bullying. Your experiences of bullying are valid even if you’ve never felt suicidal as a result.
  4. The audience is shown what NOT to do in a mental health emergency, but examples of what TO DO are not shown. HalfofUs.org is a good resource for TO DO’s if you’re experiencing a mental health emergency.
  5. 90% of those who die by suicide experience mental illness. Depression and other mental illness that may lead to suicide are never discussed in the show.
  6. The way Hannah is bullied into taking her own life dangerously oversimplifies perceptions of suicide, and furthers the idea that there is someone to blame for a suicide.
  7. While there are trigger warnings for graphic scenes, suicide prevention and other mental health resources are not made available to the audience directly after these jarring depictions. There is a Beyond the Series feature that plays after the show and interviews mental health professionals, but it is not searchable by itself.
  8. It shows teens world through adults eyes, and the teens are portrayed by adult actors. The adult perspective bloats the series with bad parenting like condoning family violence and encouraging underage partying (Jessica Summers,  Burlington Partnership for a Healthy Community).
  9. Hannah is not a well defined character in her own right, instead she is characterized by her victimization and her death.
  10. Covering suicide in this manner can dangerously influence the way suicide is viewed. 13 Reasons Why may continue the stigma that suicide is a selfish act. Joiner said in an NPR interview, “Their idea is along the lines of, my death will be worth more than my life to others. Now, if you ponder that sentiment, that’s not selfish at all.”
  11. We never get to see a successful request for help. Hannah’s counselor was not receptive to her need and was totally unsupportive of her, most school counselors are not like that. They want to listen, and they want to help.
  12. The show normalizes use of alcohol and marijuana in informal setting as well as formal school settings (Jessica Summers,  Burlington Partnership for a Healthy Community).
  13. The book is better. It is more empathetic, compassionate and more realistic. The TV series blows events up and aggrandizes them. I’m a librarian though, so I may be biased.