Diverse books are important. They allow children of color to see themselves represented in literature, and they help all students see the world from new perspectives.
Historically, the majority of the books touted as “classic books” or canonical works of literature have been written by white people. Some of these books normalize racism, sexisim, and homophobia. Even classics such as “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which was noteworthy due to its exploration and condemnation of racial injustice, is written by and told from the lens of a white person. Recently, there has been a push to expose students to #OwnVoices stories.
#OwnVoices is a term coined by the writer Corinne Duyvis. It refers to an author from a marginalized or under-represented group writing about their own experiences, as opposed to someone from an outside perspective writing about a character from an underrepresented group.
When considering what books we teach children in schools and include in our at home libraries, it’s worthwhile to consider that another book might be able to convey similar themes while highlighting diverse #OwnVoices perspectives.
I’ve compiled a list of literary classics alongside modern counterparts that occupy the same thematic space.
Published in 1847, Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” was a groundbreaking novel because it critiqued and challenged the social norms of the time period. It is a coming-of-age story that follows a girl with childhood trauma to adulthood while exploring class, oppression, religion, gender roles, family, and mental health.
- “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston is another coming-of-age story that follows a young girl from childhood to adulthood. This story captures the spirit of Jane Eyer, but allows the reader to get to know a Black girl from rural Florida in the early 20th century. Like Jane, Janie from “Their Eyes Were Watching God” starts off poor and advances to become a notable member of her community. This story deals with gender roles, independence, family, and dysfunctional relationships. Janie’s resilience will remind you of Jane’s equally strong-willed nature.
- “Monday’s Not Coming” by Tiffany D. Jackson follows a 14-year-old girl’s quest to find her missing best friend. In both “Monday’s Not Coming” and “Jane Eyre,” childhood innocence conflicts with the harsh reality of the world. Like Jane, the young women in “Monday’s Not Coming” deal with trauma and bullying from peers and family. Part coming-of-age novel and part thriller, it explores timely and thought provoking themes such as mental health, class, race, family, and gentrification.
The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” is a story that’s rooted in the idea of the American dream—the promise that with enough willpower anybody can become somebody. The book chronicles millionaire Jay Gatsby’s quest to reunite with his ex-lover. Wealth, class, and materialism are themes throughout this novel. There are a variety of novels that explore these ideas through the lens of people of color.
- “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng is about two families, one Black and poor and one white and wealthy, living in the idyllic community of Shaker Heights. When a white family adopts a Chinese-American baby, the community is divided over if the baby’s birth mother should be able to reclaim the child she gave up for adoption. The story explores race, class, wealth, and the law.
- “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison is about a Black girl growing up in a white community. She wants blue eyes because she thinks she’ll be more accepted if she looked like her white neighbors. Race, class, and verbal/physical abuse are themes in this novel. Best for older students due to the themes in the book.
- “The Black Kids” by Christina Hammonds Reed follows a young wealthy Black girl. Her parents are leaders in her community, but she’s focused on going to the beach and hanging out with friends. When Rodney King is beaten to death by police officers in her city, her sister gets involved in protests that disrupt the community’s view of her household as the “model Black family.” She realizes she’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the Black kids.
To Kill A Mockingbird
“To Kill A Mockingbird” follows Atticus Finch as he tries to prove the innocence of Tom Robinson, a Black man who was wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. It explores race, class, innocence, and the justice system during the Civil Rights Movement.
- “The Hate U Give “by Angie Thomas is about a young Black teen named Starr Carter who witnesses a white police officer shoot and kill her childhood friend. The drama that unfolds documents the young girl’s political awakening. It explores race, identity, and finding your voice.
- “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Ibram X. Kendi & Jason Reynolds is a remix of Kendi’s award winning book “Stamped from the Beginning” which explores how the construct of race has been used to gain and keep power and to create dynamics that separate and silence.
- “Monster” by Walter Dean Myers chronicles the trial of a teenager living in a juvenile detention center who is accused of murder.
Pride and Prejudice
First published in 1813, “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen follows Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters as they seek suitable husbands. Due to financial struggles, time is of the essence in their quest to find a partner. They’ll have to overcome their pride and put aside all prejudices in order to find love. The story explores themes of class, reputation, and gender as the girls decide if they’ll marry for love or for money. Here are two modern books by writers of color that explore similar themes.
- “You Should See Me in a Crown” by Leah Johnson tells the story of Liz, a Black, queer teen. Liz thinks she’s too Black, too poor, and too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, she tries to cash in on the school’s scholarship for prom queen. She didn’t expect to fall in love with her competition. The tension between class, love, and money tie Liz’s story to Elizabeth’s story.
- “The Downstairs Girl” by Stacey Lee is about a Chinese woman who lives a double life. By day, she works as a lady’s maid, but by night, she’s the voice behind the most radical advice column in 1890s Atlanta. This book explores themes of family and reputation that are similar to those explored in “Pride and Prejudice.”
- “Pride” by Ibi Zoboi is a retelling of “Pride and Prejudice.” When the wealthy Darcy family moves in across the street, Zuri wants nothing to do with their two teenage sons, even as her older sister, Janae, starts to fall for the charming Ainsley. She especially can’t stand the judgmental and arrogant Darius. Yet, as Zuri and Darius are forced to find common ground, their initial dislike shifts into an unexpected understanding.
Romeo and Juliet
“Romeo and Juliet” is a tragic romance written by William Shakespeare. The story follows two star crossed lovers and deals with themes of love, individualism versus group think, fate, and death.
- “Noughts and Crosses” is a series of young adult novels set in an alternative history where Africa colonized Europe. In the novels, an interracial couple fights for the right to love each other and to better their community.
- “It’s A Love Hate Thing” by Whitney D. Grandison follows lovers from two different worlds. Tyson Trice has survived the mean streets of Lindenwood, so nothing can faze him—not even being tossed into the affluent coastal community of Pacific Hills. But Nandy Smith, the golden girl of Pacific Hills, is not pleased when she hears her parents are taking in a troubled teen boy.
- “The Sun is Also a Star” by Nicola Yoon is about a young couple who fall in love, while one of their families faces deportation to Jamaica.
In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the ghost of the King of Denmark tells his son to avenge his murder by killing the new king. Themes of revenge, corruption, politics, and justice run rampant in this classic play.
- “This is My America” by Kim Johnson tells the story of seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont. Every week, she writes letters to Innocence X asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row. After seven years, Tracy is running out of time. Her dad has only 267 days left. Then the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy’s older brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a “thug” on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Political unrest and a desire for justice are themes in this novel.
- “Dear Martin” by Nic Stone introduces readers to Justyce McAllister, an honor student who has a traumatizing run-in with police officers. Despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers, but do they hold up anymore?
We Need Diverse Books: a 501(c)(3) non-profit and a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. https://diversebooks.org
Banned Books Week: Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. https://bannedbooksweek.org