Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

How to diversify the classics. For real.

As (I hope) Barnes and Noble and Penguin Random House have just learned, appropriating the concept of diverse books for an opportunistic rebranding insults the idea they claim to honor.

If you were off-line last week, here’s a brief recap. The bookseller and publisher announced (and then abandoned) plans to publish “Diverse Editions” – not books by writers of color or from minoritized communities, but a dozen classic books with new cover art depicting the protagonists as ethnically diverse. An African American Ahab on Melville’s Moby Dick, a black Peter Pan on Barrie’s book.

As Michael Harriot wrote in The Root, “They put their books in blackface.” Within 48 hours of the announcement, widespread criticism prompted them to cancel the project.

If booksellers and publishers truly want to diversify the classics, here are some better suggestions.

You want to rethink a white-authored classic? Rather than decorating Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) with a brown Alice, try L.L. McKinley’s A Blade so Black (2018), in which an ass-kicking African American Alice from Atlanta navigates the Nightmares of Wonderland. Instead of publishing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) with a brownface monster on the cover, promote Victor LaValle and Dietrich Smith’s Destroyer (2017), a contemporary graphic-novel retelling that explores how racism makes monsters. Christina Orlando and Leah Schnelbach have assembled a great list of “23 Retellings of Classic Stories from Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors.”  Start there.

Another way to rethink the classics: Put them in dialogue with works by authors of color. To counter the allegation in the final third of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) that enslavement is one big joke, booksellers could create a display pairing Mark Twain’s novel with Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave (1968), where readers will find first-hand accounts of living quarters “more fit for animals than human beings,” mothers who killed their own children rather than allowing them to be sold, and ways that the enslaved resisted their white jailors. Or they could pair Twain with speculative works that render with precision the physical and psychic traumas of slavery: Zetta Elliott’s A Wish After Midnight (2010), Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) and its recent graphic-novel adaptation (2017).

Publishers and booksellers might — as the We Need Diverse Books organization suggests — champion “new editions of classic books by people of color and marginalized people, particularly if those books have been largely ignored by the canon.” Need recommendations? Instead of consulting the company’s chief diversity officer, ask experts. Marilisa Jiménez García, a scholar of Latinx literature at Lehigh University, recommends the Nuyorican writer Nicholasa Mohr’s Nilda (1973), “the first novel by a Latina.” Professor Sarah Park Dahlen, co-editor of the journal Research on Diversity in Youth Literature, suggests Yoshiko Uchida’s Journey to Topaz (1971) “for the important work it does to inform young readers of the racist incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.” Katharine Capshaw, a scholar of African American children’s literature at the University of Connecticut, proposes June Jordan’s His Own Where (1971), “a poetic young adult novel about two teenagers in love, which was nominated for a National Book Award.”

There are many experts who can give you good ideas. Ask them. Or, better, hire them as consultants.

Instead of commissioning new covers, publishers might commission restoried versions. As Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic (2019) explains, restorying happens when readers take ownership of and rewrite the stories they hear: “they not only imagine themselves into stories,” she writes, “but also reimagine the very stories themselves.”  Rather than creating a new cover, ask a writer from one of the southern Pacific islands what Moby-Dick might look like told from the perspective of Queequeg. Or ask an African American writer to reimagine the story from Pip’s point of view. For any classic, ask what narratives emerge when we instead center the characters who Thomas calls the “Dark Others”?

Finally, and most importantly, you can create diverse classics simply by featuring diverse books. The works of Cherie Dimaline, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Elizabeth Acevedo become classics when publishers promote them, teachers include them in their classrooms, librarians recommend them to patrons, and people read them. Erika L. Sanchez, Emily X.R. Pan, and Hanna Alkaf — whose debut YA novels appeared in 2017, 2018, and 2019, respectively — get to write second novels when bookstores feature their work and readers buy it.

Classic diverse novels are being written right now. Help readers find them.

Featured Image Credits: by maxmann via Pixbay

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *