The other gift, the equally important gift, is the exact opposite. We read to learn something new, to see the world through new eyes. We read to see the differences. We read to get outside ourselves. To escape our identity and to wear that of another. Diversity is a good thing. An important thing. To learn to value other's experiences, other's perspectives, etc. To learn that all people aren't the same.
Reading can help you learn about yourself, but it can also help you learn about others. It can help you learn about life, about humanity, about what it is that matters to you. Books can help shift the way you think, the way you see yourself, the way you see the world around you.
There are a few things that are so central to my thinking, but I'll share them anyway.
1) Challenging, banning, and censorship is always wrong. I don't believe that anyone should ever have control or be able to dictate what others read. I may not want to read something personally. But who am I to say that another person shouldn't be allowed to do so? That being said, that doesn't mean that all materials are suitable for all ages. (No Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist for fourth graders in other words.)
2) I do believe in diversity. I feel all readers--from kids to adults--should take time to read outside themselves. They should see what the whole world has to offer. Other cultures, other ethnicities, other value systems, other religions, other experiences. That doesn't mean that they have to shed their own culture or religion or whatnot (meaning devalue), but they should be aware of all that the world has to offer. It will only enrich your own life to do so.
3) But readers should be able to find themselves in books. Every person should be able to have the luxury of finding themselves, seeing themselves reflected in literature. No one should be marginalized. No one should be excluded. Everyone should be able to find authentic representation, authentic voice, genuine reflection.
4) Because of this authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents should be aware and take this into consideration. I'm not sure who is the most responsible for seeing this get done. Perhaps authors are writing what they feel needs to be written, yet the publishers are telling them that there isn't a market, a need. Perhaps publishers want to publish titles yet feel that librarians, teachers, and parents just aren't there to buy them. Maybe librarians aren't aware of what is being published. Or perhaps more likely, librarians just don't have the money to buy everything they'd like to. I could go on and on about how we all share little portions of the blame.
So where do I see a few gaps? Well, they're probably not in places you'd imagine. And in both you'd be able to find a small sampling of books that pass the test. That represent what is possible. So I'm not saying that there is absolutely nothing out there.
What I'd like to see?
1) Positive portrayals of Christianity in fiction. In other words, books where Christians don't play the monsters and villains.
It's typical to see one extreme or another. On the one hand have it be completely new-age and/or universalist (no heaven; no hell; no sin; no right or wrong; all roads lead to one god; God is a god of self-esteem and happy feelings.). On the other hand, have it be extreme fundamentalism where abuse and hate crimes and all sorts of un-Christian behavior are sanctioned by a very authoritarian, overbearing church or disciplinarian father.) In these books, either God is so full of love that there are no other attributes; (especially no wrath, no judgment, no consequences, no need for a Savior in the first place) or God is so full of wrath and judgment and doomsday despair that there is no room for love or grace or mercy, kindness or forgiveness.) Rarely in fiction is Christianity shown to be decent, respectable, or rational.
Christians aren't perfect people. They make mistakes. They sin. They're not always kind. They're not always polite. (Especially when driving or standing in the check out lines!) They're human. Faith is a struggle. Not that faith is a struggle in the believing that God exists way. But in the struggle to be living a faithful life way. It's not easy to be kind and to get along with people. It's not easy to submit to God. It's not easy to follow Him. Every day is a struggle to live a life that is pleasing to God. Every single day is a day that we need grace from God. We are to be dependent on God. Not self-reliant on our own self-righteousness.
Christian characters shouldn't be portrayed as being dinky. (Think the Flanders family on the Simpsons.) I don't want to be portrayed as being cheesy either. One's beliefs shouldn't be condensed down and concentrated into stereotypical mockery.
There are a handful of books that aren't "typical." For example, The Road to Paris by Nikki Grimes is one of those books that is practically perfect in every way. I loved, loved, loved that book. My favorite part? It featured a child, Paris, who comes to faith in God and you see how it changes her but it is not done in an overwhelming, over-the-top way. It just feels right. It's not preachy. It's not didactic. The faith feels natural, feels real. And to a certain extent (although I won't say completely complete) Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande would be another example. (I'm not with her on the evolution element.) But I do like that it features a heroine who comes to read and study the Bible herself. Who sees faith as a positive in her life. Who is able to discern in many ways right from wrong. She sees where her parents and their established church have faltered a bit. And she discerns that this isn't a place for her. That something is clearly missing from their gospel message. Yet she doesn't take this disappointment as an excuse to abandon faith, to abandon God, in general.
2) More authentic representations of obese or overweight characters.
With obesity on the rise in America in particular in both kids and adults, it is important to see this reflected in literature. In many types of literature, it is rare to see anything but a perfect heroine. She may be blond, brunette, or redhead. But chances are that she's far from obese. You might have a heroine be a size six or eight and think she's "fat" and have some melodrama thrown in round the lunch table. You might see characters talk about how "awful" their lives are because they're not a size two or a size zero. (I think of the scene in Clueless where one of the characters is bemoaning the fact that she ate a handful of peanut m&ms.) But it's rare to see characters that are really and truly in the overweight category. I hate, hate, hate it when characters make such a big deal about being "fat" when they are anything but. What they are is normal. Size 2? So not normal!
There is the occasional book. And some are well done. Others not so much. When they're good, they're really good. But when they're bad, they're really bad. Stereotypes. Books might fall into the "if only he/she would lose x amount of pounds then their life would be magically better. They'd get the girl/guy. They'd make friends with the popular crowd. They'd have all their dreams come true in an instant. If only they'd lose weight. That's a stereotype for sure borrowed straight out of the real world in that it's easy to forget that the weight is there for a reason. Before you lose any amount of weight (and keep it off) you've got to deal with the bigger picture. You've got to delve into the mental/emotional/psychological/physical issues for why this weight is there, why it works for you in the first place. If you're not really to work it out in your head, then the weight will just continue to come back and come back and come back. Weight in books tend to be about issues. How they need to lose weight. How they need to eat right. How they need to exercise. How they need to do this, that, and the other in order to be happy, in order to be right with the world. In order to not be miserable and depressed and deserving of oh-so-much-pity. Perhaps if love and acceptance and self-worth were taught then they wouldn't be seeking the same out of macaroni and cheese and candy. You've got to love yourself no matter what you weigh. If you don't love yourself, then you'll never even make the effort to change the outside. You can't wait to love yourself, to respect yourself, to value yourself until you've lost the weight. You can't live life saying, I would love myself if I could just lose those twenty pounds or those last ten pounds or whatever. You can't live your life on hold waiting for the day you're perfect.
So what do I want here? I want books where weight is only one of many components that define a person. I'm tired of "fat" being the sole defining factor of characters. Fat equals pity. Fat equals teased. Fat equals miserable. Fat equals worthless. Fat equals invisible. I'm tired of the message that it is only if the fat comes off that the person can become happy and loved and worthwhile. Characters need to be seen as much more than just their outward appearance.
I loved most of Artichoke's Heart. I loved about 85 to 90 percent of it at least. It does show the connection between working through your issues (psychologically/emotionally) and losing weight. But she doesn't go about losing weight in a healthy way. Of course, many people don't go about losing it the right way. You've got so called experts each with their own "right" way to do it. But I think it's authentic enough.
And I loved a good bit of Big Fat Manifesto. I liked that it showed how fine a line there is between being happy with who you are and what you look like and wanting to make a change. I think overweight people are judged enough in this world that you shouldn't have to beat yourself up too. You should be kind to yourself. Love yourself. Value yourself. That doesn't mean you hide your head in the sand and pretend that you're not fat. But you shouldn't loathe yourself, loathe your body. The truth is I think women are taught to always find fault with themselves. No matter what, they're never good enough. There's always something keeping them from being happy, from being content. We've created a society that is concerned more with the outward appearance than the inner self. And I think that is damaging in dozens and dozens of ways. But that's a whole other story.
In conclusion, in all cases of fiction, I want more authenticity and less stereotyping!
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews
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