#1000BlackGirlBooks: Hallway Diaries

Now that I’ve finished my exploration into the NYT best seller’s list, I’ll be going back to some of my regular content. I still have posts drafted for #1000BlackGirlBooks and Books I Didn’t Pick, and I have a few other book reviews planned as well.

But for now, let’s pick up where we left off with Hallway Diaries.

Hallway Diaries is composed of three novellas, each of which stars a Black girl in high school. Friendships, romance, and drama are inevitable in these slice-of-life stories. It was published in 2007 by Kimani TRU, and imprint of Harlequin Enterprises. The front page welcomes us:

Dear reader,

What you’re holding is very special. Something fresh, new, and true to your unique experience as a young African-American! We are proud to introduce a new fiction imprint–Kimani TRU. You’ll find Kimani TRU speaks to the triumphs, problems and concerns of today’s black teens with candor, wit, and realism. The stories are told from your perspective and in your voice.

But before we get into each of them, I want to talk about the physical book itself. I know, I know, we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

I want to start with the back of the book, which has summaries for each of the three stories.

How To Be Down by Felicia Pride When Nina Parker decides to straighten her Afro, lose her valley-girl accent and get a total makeover for her new school in the hood, the cutest guy notices—yes! But so does the meanest girl, Vivica, queen bee of her crew, who wants Jeffrey for herself.

Double Act by Debbie Rigaud

In the hood, Mia Chambers is ‘the smart girl,’ but at her prestigious new prep school she hardly stands out. So Mia does what it takes— only to be accused of selling out by her old friends!

The Summer She Learned To Dance by Karen Valentin

At first, Giselle Johnson hates spending the summer with her cousin from the Dominican Republic. But she soon starts loving the island and even learns to dance to her own rhythm. That is, until her cousin attracts Giselle’s high school crush…

These descriptions make these novellas sound like “mean girl” stories, but that’s a big misrepresentation of what they actually are. Take the summary for How to be Down. It sounds like two girls fighting for the affection of a boy. That is part of the story – but not the whole thing. It’s really a story about Nina trying to fit in at a new school, and Vivica’s insecurities about her own racial identity. I can only assume that these descriptions were written to attract readers to buy the book, even if it’s misleading.

Now I want to talk about the cover.

I don’t think that these models are meant to represent any of the characters in the books, but I noticed something: everyone has relatively light skin on the cover, even the Black models. And I think that’s a bit weird, considering the publisher is trying to give Black teens stories that feel authentic and relevant to their lives.

To be honest, this is something I probably wouldn’t have noticed until a couple years ago. Today, I can see that it smacks of colorism.

Colorism is, essentially, a preference for people with lighter-colored skin, even among BIPOC. The term has been made more mainstream in the past couple years, especially following the release of the film In the Heights. The movie was criticized for featuring mainly light-skin Latinx actors, and not being representative of the Afro-Latinx community.

Colorism wasn’t something that was even on my radar for a long time, but once you start noticing it, you can’t stop. You can see it everywhere, from advertisements to entertainment, and, of course, book covers. This is not to say that Hallway Diaries is a bad book. But the cover, like the summaries, is misrepresentative of the book itself. I think both the back and front covers were deliberately misleading to sell more copies. It makes sense from a marketing standpoint, but it does annoy me. For anyone actually looking for mean girl love triangle stories, the reality of this book could be a huge disappointment.

But we’re not here to judge books solely on their covers (and/or marketing strategies), so let’s get into the novellas themselves. I’ll start off with a few more accurate summaries:

How To Be Down by Felicia Pride: Nina has just moved from her mostly-White hometown to Baltimore. She has a frenemy in Vivica, who calls Nina a White girl in a Black girl’s body. Vivica is insecure in her own racial identity, as she is half-Black, and half-Latinx. Tensions between Nina and Vivica explode during a school slam poetry competition.

Double Act by Debbie Rigaud: Mia leaves her old school and beloved Double-Dutch team to transfer to a new, mostly White high school. She struggles to fit in, but when she feels like she finally has a place, her old friends accuse her of forgetting where she comes from.

The Summer She Learned How to Dance by Karen Valentin: Giselle wants to connect with her late mother’s side of the family but isn’t sure how. She finally gets her chance when her cousin, Juanita, comes from the Dominican Republic to visit for the summer. However, Giselle finds Juanita embarrassing and wants nothing to do with her.

As I read these novellas, a common theme emerged: duality. I mentioned this a bit in my post about The Hate U Give, in which the protagonist often feels like she’s living in two different worlds.

In each of these stories, the girls find themselves being pulled in two different directions when life deals them an unexpected hand. All three have happy endings: Nina and Vivica learn to love themselves as they are; Mia manages to play piano in the school play and jump in the final Double-Dutch competition; Giselle embraces her cousin and learns more about herself and her family.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with happy endings like this. These were just light, fun stories and the message works for any teenagers reading them, particularly girls. To thine own self be true, make new friends but keep the old, be open-minded and you’ll be rewarded.

However, race can’t be ignored in these novellas. Boiling them down to a few pithy morals cheapens the meaning of the stories. The girls in these stories go through things most teenagers do: they need to figure out who they are in changing circumstances. This is hard enough, but they also must incorporate their racial identity into this journey of self-discovery.

Which brings me to my next point: the importance of representation.

When I was an teenager asking myself, “who am I?” I never had to worry if I was acting “White enough” or felt like I had to represent my race. Growing up, almost everyone I knew was White, and I never was made to feel like I didn’t belong among my classmates or relatives because of my race. Why would I, when almost all of us were the same race?

While I’ve known for a long time that representation in media was important, I rarely felt the impact when a show or a movie lacked diversity. Sure, I’d get annoyed at the way women were often treated in movies and TV shows, but I didn’t really understand on an emotional level the importance of representation for other minority groups.

Then I started playing a game called 2064: Read Only Memories. It’s a point-and-click cyberpunk adventure game, where you play as a journalist who teams up with the world’s first A.I., Turing. I was pretty excited when I started playing and saw that you could pick your character’s pronouns. Not just she/her, he/him, they/them, but also pronouns like zi/zie, hir, ve/ver, and many others that I had never heard of before. Early on in the game you’re introduced to your sister’s ex, who is another woman. One of my favorite characters in the game was TOMCAT, who goes by they/them. They majority of the characters, from main characters to minor ones, were queer, non-binary, or both. I have no problem with that — I thought it was really cool that there was a game that featured so many characters who ran the gamut of genders and sexualities.

But as I played through the game, I found myself getting weirdly annoyed. I caught myself thinking, “Isn’t there just one cishet character?!”

With a shock, I realized that this must be what queer and non-binary people feel like all the time.

I’ve had other moments like that since, but that was the first, and it was eye-opening. Like with colorism, once you start noticing the importance of representation in media, you can’t un-notice it. I remember working with a group of middle school girls talking about The Force Awakens, excited to finally see a woman as a Jedi. A friend of mine who’s a first generation immigrant who never saw herself represented in media until she heard “Breathe” from In the Heights. Another friend who’s bisexual and was excited to see that Disney’s Loki is, too.

I’m really glad that there is more representation for BIPOC and LGBTQAI+ individuals. I also think that there’s still a great deal of work to do in that regard, especially when it comes to representing people with disabilities, along with religious diversity. However, I’m so excited to see books, TV shows, and movies with a diverse cast of characters. We’ve come a long way – and we’ve got a long way to go still.

Now, I’ve got to be honest about one thing: I didn’t really like Hallway Diaries. Someone my age wasn’t the target audience, but even as a teen, I wouldn’t have had much interest in it. Teen drama just isn’t my thing, even when I was a teenager. However, I hope that this book, and others from Kimani TRU found the right person for them. I hope there are teenage girls out there who read this book, and other books like it, and finally felt seen.

52 Books in 52 Weeks: Best Sellers & Diversity

This is the final post in my 52 Books project, and it covers an enormous topic: diversity in youth literature.

This is a hugely important topic to me. I didn’t grow up in an area with a lot of diversity of race, religion, or otherwise. Like many small town kids, my window to the wider world came from media: books, TV, and movies. Growing up, my impressions of people who were different from me came from what I saw and read.

But good representation is even more important if you’re part of a group that isn’t depicted frequently in media, or depicted stereotypically. This is especially true for children and teens. Think back to your childhood heroes for a minute. Who did you admire, and why? As I’ve mentioned before, one of my heroes was astronaut Eileen Collins, the first woman to command the Space Shuttle. I followed her career with great interest, dreaming of the day I would be the first person on Mars. While I’m not an astronaut, she inspired a lifelong interest in space, aviation, and most importantly to my current career, STEAM education.

All people, but kids especially, need to see themselves in the books they read or shows they watch. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

Things are changing in the publishing industry. Since 1985, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center has kept track of youth literature by and about Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. While we certainly have more BIPOC voices than before, publishing remains White and male dominated. It’s also important to see how many debut writers of color are published each year. Kwame Alexander and Jason Reynolds may top the charts (and with good reason), but one or two voices can’t speak for an entire

Another reason this is so important for me is because I’m a public librarian in Florida. Florida is one of the most diverse states in the U.S.A., and I live in one of the most diverse counties within that state. Florida is also banning books and removing them from schools left, right, and center. Legislation like the “Don’t Say Gay” law, bans on teaching critical race theory, and even blocking AP African American Studies in schools have forced teachers and school media specialists to go through their libraries and remove books, or risk losing their jobs. I won’t get into all of this right now – that’s another post entirely. But I will say that anti-LGBTQAI+ and removing discussions of race in the classroom is both infuriating, and a disservice to our kids. Kids have the right to information and books, and to learn about the wider world, and politicians are robbing them of that freedom in a reactionary attempt to appeal to their base.

None of these laws target public libraries yet. I feel that I have a responsibility to the kids and families that I work with to keep our collections diverse and inclusive, so every kid can see themselves as heroes and leaders.

While reading my 52 books, I took note of what racial diversity was present. There are a few ways that I could do this, but I decided to keep track of the main character(s) in each book. They’re who the reader will be spending the most time with, after all. It’s not perfect data, either, but I love a good pie chart. My stats also don’t go into how these characters are depicted. Some books are represented more than once, in the case of multiple lead characters. For example, Ground Zero stars Brandon, who is cued as Latinx, and Reshmina, who is Afghani. For that book, I marked it as both Latinx and Middle-Eastern. Other books that have ensemble casts are marked as “multiracial.” To clarify: I use the term “multiracial” as it refers to race, while “multiethnic” refers to cultural identity. I’ve also included the categories of “animal” and “objects,” since a few books star critters or machines (Dog Man is categorized as “Animal,” btw). Finally, when characters’ races aren’t mentioned, White is the assumed default. Wait, don’t click away! Let me explain:

This is an issue when it comes to reading and writing fiction: if a character’s skin color is not described, most readers picture that character as White. Cover art may support this as well. It’s also really unfair, so for you novelists out there: please describe ALL your characters’ skin tones, not just some of them! The Tumblr Blog Writing With Color is an awesome resource for writing all kinds of skin tones.

Now, let’s get to the data! And if you’re uncomfortable, good. I am too.

I am far from an expert on diversity, equity, and inclusion. I also need to acknowledge that being White, cishet, and middle class, I’m speaking from a point of privilege.

To that end, I’ve started talking to people who aren’t me and have different identities and experiences one simple and important question: “Why does representation in literature matter?” I have already received some very well-thought out and in-depth answers, and I’m looking forward to reading more and sharing responses in a later post.

Until then, there are a plethora of resources online that can help you find multicultural literature, and why #WeNeedDiverseBooks.