Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature/meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is Ten Books That Celebrate Diversity/Diverse Characters.
I’ve divided these into genres; other than that they are in no particular order. I stuck to books I’ve read. I also tried to choose books that present POC, LBGTQIA, and differently-abled characters and those with mental illness in positive ways, without making their “difference” their defining characteristic. I’ve tried to avoid books that use cultural appropriation or exhibit problematic/stereotyped portrayals (as, for instance, many books featuring Romany people seem to do.)
Fantasy & Science Fiction
- The Circle of Magic series (Tamora Pierce). This MG/YA fantasy series features a very diverse cast. Of the four main characters, two are POC: Daja is black and Briar is described as having black hair and golden-brown skin – possibly Asian. There’s also class diversity – Briar was a street rat; Daja is from the Trader people; Tris’s family were merchants; Sandry is a noblewoman. As for LBGTQIA characters, two of the children’s teachers, Rosethorn and Lark, are a same-sex couple. And the diversity carries past the first quartet into later books, including one set in that world’s equivalent of China or Japan.
- The Trickster duology (Tamora Pierce). The main character, Aly, is white, but all the other major characters are Kyprish (from the Copper Isles, for fans of the Tortall books) – a culture and people loosely based on Malaysia/Indonesia.
- The Kane Chronicles (Rick Riordan). Carter and Sadie Kane, the brother-sister duo at the heart of this trilogy, are biracial: their father and uncle are African-American, while their mother was Caucasian British. They are also descendants of the Pharoahs of Egypt.
- The Last Herald-Mage trilogy (Mercedes Lackey). When they were first published in the 1980s, these books broke ground as the first major fantasy series to feature a gay main character, Vanyel Ashkevron. Vanyel is written with respect, empathy, and dignity; his sexual orientation is important, both to his life and at times to the plot, but it’s never all of who he is. Lackey doesn’t shy away from the issues faced by many gay teens and adults, either; Vanyel is the recipient of bullying and homophobia at times. But I’ve heard or read more than a few people say that reading this series was incredibly important to them, either because it was the first time they had found someone like themselves in a book, or because it made them much more aware of the humanity of people they had been taught to hate and fear.
- The Vows & Honor series (Mercedes Lackey). These two books and a collection of short stories feature the mage Kethry and her oathsister, the Sword-Sworn warrior Tarma: a POC main character who is also one of the few canonically asexual characters in SF/F. Tarma’s people are the Shin’a’in, horse-nomads who are loosely based on nomadic tribes of the Eurasian steppes (including Mongolian tribes.)
- My Enemy, My Ally (Diane Duane) You can’t have a post on diversity in fiction without including at least one Star Trek novel. Celebrating diversity is at the heart of Star Trek, and Diane Duane’s books do so in spades. Her Enterprise crew and Starfleet are not only racially but also species-diverse – and not just hominid species like Vulcans and Andorians; minor characters include a Horta and an alien with a number of tentacles, while another starship is crewed by heavy-planet species including a six-legged, vaguely elephantine species and another that resemble giant slugs sheathed in Naugahyde. The main characters are Kirk and Ael t’Rllaillieu, a Romulan commander. Duane’s Romulans are in line with the original series’ canon, though not with where the series went in ST:TNG and ST:DS9. Still, they are a fascinating, complex people, and Duane does a fantastic job fleshing out their culture, both in this book and in The Romulan Way. You can hardly find a better example of the joys and rewards of accepting, respecting, and celebrating each other’s differences.
- Stardance (Spider and Jeanne Robinson). Although it’s never stated overtly, one of the major characters in the first third of the book (the original Hugo- and Nebula-winning novella) is probably lesbian; two important secondary-verging-on-major characters in the remainder of the book are gay. Neither fact is particularly important or stressed in the book; what’s important is the story itself (which is well worth reading.) But given when the book came out (1979/1980), I thought it was worth a mention.
Middle Grade Fiction
- A Snicker of Magic (Natalie Lloyd). The main character’s best friend is a boy named Jonah, who just happens to be in a wheelchair. His disability is treated matter-of-factly by both himself and the author. It’s good to see a relatively major character in a children’s book (or any book!) be neither an object of pity nor defined by his disability.
- The Survivors’ Club series (Mary Balogh). Especially The Arrangement (blind hero); The Escape (physically disabled hero); Only Enchanting (hero with traumatic brain injury); Only a Promise (hero with clinical depression and PTSD.) The Survivors’ Club is a group of friends injured – mentally, physically, and/or spiritually – in the Napoleonic Wars. They’ve spent years together trying to heal; now they are taking up their lives again. Balogh writes their struggles with empathy (and has clearly done her research), but neither pities them nor puts them on a pedestal.
- Wildest Dreams (Robyn Carr). The heroine, Lin Su, is Asian-American, specifically Vietnamese, but raised by white adoptive parents who renamed her. Her background is part of her backstory and to some extent her character, but the author does not go deeply into Vietnamese-American culture.
- Promise Canyon (Robyn Carr). I’m a little hesitant to put this one in here. The hero is Navajo; the heroine is half-Hopi (and raised Hopi.) I think that for the most part Carr presents both main characters and their cultures with respect and without idealizing them or falling into stereotypes, but I’m honestly not familiar enough with the Southwest Native cultures to be sure. And I’m always a little wary when white authors write romances about characters that could be considered “exotic” by some readers, because the romance genre has a really bad track record when it comes to stereotyping, glamorizing, and/or demonizing certain cultures, particularly Native American, Arab, and Romany.
- Dancing in the Moonlight (RaeAnne Thayne). The heroine is both Hispanic (Mexican-American, I think) and a disabled veteran who lost a leg in Afghanistan and hasn’t yet come to terms with it emotionally. Thayne handles it pretty well.
[Sort of] Honorable Mention
- The Harry Potter series (J. K. Rowling) There’s plenty of diversity among the students at Hogwarts, but not among the three main characters – which is a little disappointing, since it would have been very easy to do. However, there’s actually nothing in the descriptions of Hermione to prevent you from reading her as biracial, and in fact, some readers deliberately do just that. There’s also a movement in the fandom suggesting Charlie Weasley may be on the autism spectrum.
- I give kudos to Mercedes Lackey for her LGBT characters and for her Shin’a’in and Tayledras cultures and characters (the Vows and Honor series, the Mage Winds trilogy, the Mage Storms trilogy, and the Owl Mage trilogy.) Unfortunately, she doesn’t always do as well with some other cultures; she uses gypsies – by that name – in the Bardic Voices series, with some of the usual stereotypes and glamorization.
- The Horse and His Boy (C. S. Lewis) I loved this book as a child, and I still do, but it’s problematic to say the least. The parts with Bree and Shasta, Aravis and Hwin are wonderful. But it is so racist/anti-Islamic when it comes to the Calormenes that as an adult reader, it makes me cringe. I suspect that’s why it hasn’t been and won’t be made into a movie (not without some major changes, anyway.)
- The many, many historical romance novels that glamorize and stereotype Romany or half-Romany heroes as exotic or half-wild. (Even though a few of them are books I otherwise really love.)
One of the things I’ve realized in putting together this post is how few books with diverse main characters I actually read. I seem to do best with fantasy. Historical romance has obvious challenges when it comes to racial diversity, particularly since I gravitate toward the Regency and Victorian eras in Britain; those weren’t times when people of color were often found in or particularly welcome in middle- and upper-class society. Ditto much of the historical mystery genre – there weren’t many people of color wandering around Britain in Brother Cadfael’s day, for instance. But I should be able to find more diverse main characters in contemporary mystery and romance, and there should be (and are beginning to be) more in SF/F.
I’d like to expand my horizons. So please – leave me suggestions! What have you read that’s really good and features diverse major (not minor) characters without defining them by their race/orientation/ability/etc.?