September 25 through October 1 marks the 2016 Celebration of Banned Books Week. This annual event, sponsored by the American Library Association and its many partners, celebrates reading and Highlights the importance of giving individuals the right to choose their reading preference.
Three of the top 10 most challenged books in 2015 featured themes related to homosexuality and transgender identity. They are “I am Jazz” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, “Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out” by Susan Kuklin and “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan. All are written for youth under the age of 18.
Diversity in Literature
If there’s one thing that writers, prolific readers and librarians largely agree on, is the need for diverse books. The banning of ideas related to diversity hurts us all. Young readers, especially, need characters that reflect their own experiences. And, like the many shades of gray, those experiences vary by culture, race, sexual orientation and family structure—to name a few.
Karen Lemke, Head of Marketing and Community Engagement at Rochester Public Library agrees. “Reading diverse books helps us better understand one another…(They allow) us to focus more on the similarities we have, rather than our differences.” Lemke elaborates by illustrating the profound effect author Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” had on her as a young college student, and how it helped her better understand some of our nation’s strife. “It’s still one of those books that haunts me and makes me wonder how much (or little) I would know about the plight of ex-slaves without reading that book,” she explains. Though “Beloved” is historical fiction, understanding where we’ve come from may be critical to healing the remaining scars .
Local author Posy Roberts explains that diverse books are not strictly limited to race and culture. “Diversity is an umbrella term that covers a lot, but many people read that as multicultural,” says Roberts. “In a community like Rochester, I think it’s especially important to mention (that diversity also includes) books that deal with disability—mental and physical—as well as illness.”
Gay Romance Novels
Roberts is no stranger to diverse books. Appealing to the underrepresented market of gay romance is her livelihood. Her “North Star” series, featuring the budding romances of male couples, has received stellar reviews from Amazon readers.
A heterosexual woman herself, Roberts turned to writing male/male romance after observing that many of her gay friends had monogamous relationships that were lasting longer than many of the straight couples she knew. Roberts explains, “The media didn’t show happily ever afters for gay men. You couldn’t even find one in books unless you dug in off-the-beaten-track bookstores or obscure websites.”
Writing about diversity allows Roberts to reach those readers interested in learning outside their own experiences and those whose lifestyles are underrepresented in the publishing world. “So many gay and bisexual men of my generation grew up not believing in a happily ever after, and I wanted to show them it was a possibility. “
Open Book Reading Challenge
In an effort to help the public identify diverse reading, Rochester Public Library is hosting the “Open Book Reading Challenge.” This program challenges readers to step outside their comfort zones to try titles of different genres, often featuring diverse characters or experiences. Lemke says, “(It’s) a great conversation-starter and provides an easy starting point for anyone looking to expand their reading boundaries.” Participants who complete the challenge receive a custom mug and, according to Lemke, “extensive bragging rights.” For more information about the “Open Book Reading Challenge,” visit rochesterpubliclibrary.org/services/open-books-reading-challenge.
For more information on Posy Roberts, visit posyroberts.com.
Catherine H. Armstrong is the author of “The Edge of Nowhere,” and writes under the pen name C.H. Armstrong. She is a prolific reader and passionate about the inherent problems associated with banning and challenging books. For more information, visit her website at charmstrongbooks.com.