Reading has always been a big part of my life and identity. Ever since I could pick up a book I was lost in the worlds that writers were capable of creating. Roald Dahl was my hero. A wide variety of genres to choose from combined with the vast imaginations of storytellers make for endless possibilities that a story could be. This is what draws people to books, what makes reading an amazing escape.
Furthermore, a variety of stories means a variety of characters, compelling and unique. Just like how there is a book for everyone, the characters in these books are what people are drawn to. They find themselves rooting for the characters, invested in their stories, and most of all relating to them. This is why stories that range from Annie to The Hunger Games are so popular.
People can read about a character and see themselves, see their identities represented. This is an amazing moment, to feel recognized and acknowledged, to read about the amazing feats a person like you can accomplish. This is a common experience, yet one I nor my peers didn’t get to have often.
Why? To put it simply, because we weren’t white.
Being a person of color and loving to read comes with a catch. You can love books but they won’t love you. For the majority of books you read, there will be a lack of characters described to have your characteristics or mannerisms. The exception is usually when the white protagonist needs a stereotypical best friend or the comic relief that will either never be expanded on or die. This doesn’t go unnoticed by readers, especially children. It can significantly impact how children of color feel about themselves and their identity in a negative way, making them feel inferior or unimportant.
I remember in middle school we were reading the Percy Jackson series. The teacher assigned a fun project for us to put ourselves into the PJ series, to describe what powers we’d have and who our godly parent would be. I was so excited, I really loved the series and thought it would be so cool to fight monsters and control water as Percy did. A classmate of mine, a white girl, laughed and told me that I couldn’t be a demigod. When I asked why, she said “That wouldn’t make any sense. There aren’t any black people in the book.” It’s obvious to state I was shocked, and a little bit hurt.
After that moment, I started to notice more the lack of characters like me in books, and how the characters were described with olive or cream-colored skin. Even if they weren’t described to have white skin, the default of a character’s appearance was white, because that’s all we envision in books. It’s just what we're used to. I began to feel bad about myself, and my identity. Why didn’t Harry Potter have any black friends? Are there really no black demigods? I started to think that white people were the only ones allowed to have cool adventures and dramatic love stories. My love for reading suffered at that time. This is something a lot of people of color experience growing up, that feeling of empowerment and identity unknown to most.
Fortunately, as the years have passed, the lack of diversity in books has dwindled! There has been an increase in BIPOC authors and main characters of different backgrounds and cultures. A lot have become incredibly popular and even adapted into movies and shows, like To All The Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han.
There are now an abundance of books for POC people to relate to and finally see stories with them as the leading character. Younger me would be ecstatic to discover Legendborn by Tracy Deonn and Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury, two immersive YA fiction stories with powerfully compelling and beautifully written black women as the protagonist. She would be amazed to read the adventures of a strong character who’s just like her, pushing her to believe she could do those things too.
This goes for every person who couldn’t have that growing up, who can finally envision themselves doing wondrous things on the page. This experience is important for kids and adults alike, for media and literature alike.
Representation is important for everyone and if we keep progressing to include diverse characters with their unique attributes and perspectives, books can continue to be the creative masterpieces that build worlds and form connections and become so much more.
About the Author: Kayle Pritchett was born in 2001 in Brookwood, Alabama. She is a junior in college pursuing her BA in English and has always had a passion for reading and writing ever since she could pick up a book. When she's not reading or writing, Kayle enjoys making people laugh, watching scary movies, and drinking boba.