There are so many reasons to read. We read for entertainment, because it’s fun. We read to keep up with the illustrious fanfiction community. We read because it makes us better, smarter, more aware. But one of the best reasons to read is because it opens our eyes.
As aware as we try to be, as conscious and kind and empathetic, we are all limited to our own experiences. If you go to public school, you can’t really understand what it’s like to be shipped off to a boarding school far from home. If you grew up in a big city, you can only try to imagine what it’s like to live in a small rural town where everyone knows you. It can be hard to understand and even harder to empathize with something we haven’t experienced. We have lots of tools to increase that ability: conversations with people who are different from us, twitter threads that went viral, and portrayals in the media, but one of our best tools is books.
How to Change the World
JUST BY READING
We know that stories are magical.
We remember them and guard them. We retell the best ones again and again, in different ways. Thinks about how many different ways you’ve heard the story of the boy who cried wolf. Even our own stories we hold closely, we use certain ones to help guide us back to ourselves when we get confused, to map out who we are or to explain our behavior. If stories are that powerful for helping us understand something we’re close to, they can be even more powerful when they’re bridging the gap, making something clear to us that we couldn’t grasp otherwise.
Stories are our best and most potent tool of understanding.
A story can suck us in and explain things to us so clearly it’s like we’re seeing out of the characters eyes ourselves. The things that are happening to them are happening to us, and the situations of their lives that were so inexplicable a moment ago now make perfect sense. A story helps us get inside, so we’re no longer a stranger asking questions and making judgements, but a teammate with an behind-the-scenes perspective.
That’s why it’s so important for us to read, broadly and hungrily.
If you read only books about people who are like you, by people like you, it confirms the dark part of your brain that thinks the way you are and the way you do things is right. The more stories you encounter where you’re the main character, the more you think that it’s right and fitting that you’re the main character. When we read broadly, though, we gain humility.
When we read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas about a black high school girl struggling with police brutality, then What if it’s Us by Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli about two boys being pushed together, then The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevado about an Afro-Latina girl fighting to make herself heard in Harlem, then Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy about Willowdean Dixon, a self-proclaimed fat girl overcoming insecurities, we begin to understand all those different people and lives, some of which are bound not to match our personal experience.
Reading like this, reading to understand, is a kind of activism.
Intentionally immersing yourself in stories from the perspective of people who aren’t like you, especially members of oppressed and marginalized people groups, is a noble cause, but it’s also a kind of duty.
People with privilege, white cis people and white cis men especially, have had their story told a million different ways from the dawn of time. If you wanted to find a story about a white person struggling with poverty or a white person with so much money they don’t know what to do with it, you could; a story about having 19 children or remaining childless because they’re concerned about climate change; a story about running from the cops or being the cops. Other groups don’t have this luxury, compounding oppression and furthering stereotypes because the only stories that exist are stories that confirm those stereotypes.
That’s where reading as activism comes back around.
By reading, talking about, and buying books from and about people of color, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized people groups, you’re helping say these are stories worth being told. That there’s an audience for these stories and there’s a culture who is clamoring to learn about people different than them so that they can move forward with compassion and wisdom.
This is also important because for generations these stories have been told by the wrong people.
White people have co-opted the narratives, telling stories of slavery, colonization, and even just everyday life, from only the white perspective, skewing cultures perception of these events. It shouldn’t be innovative or progressive for people to tell their own stories, but we’re just now, in 2019, getting to a point where marginalized people are able to tell their stories with as much of an impact as white people. That’s why it’s even more important to pay attention to these stories, and to support the authors who are telling them.
It would be remiss not to mention some of the pitfalls of this method of activism and some of the traps that are easy to fall into.
The first pitfall is reading a book and thinking that you understand the full story. One book, song, movie, or even interpersonal conversation does not and cannot paint a picture of an entire culture. People are different, have different opinions and different stories, and it’s just as unfair to create a stereotype of a culture based on reading one book as it is to hold a stereotype without reading anything. Reading about something opens your eyes, but it doesn’t make you an expert and it doesn’t override the opinions of real people in the world.
The second pitfall is knowledge without action.
Reading helps us see things from new perspective and gives us humility and compassion, but those things aren’t valuable unless they’re used. Reading a book that helps you understand the story of a gay teenager, but then not standing up for a classmate who’s being bullied for being gay doesn’t make much sense. Reading can help you move through the world with more emotional intelligence and wisdom, but only if we use what we learn and share it with our friends and family.
We’ve talked about a few books that could help open your eyes to a diversity of experience, but here’s an official reading list to help you change the world:
The Activist’s Reading List
TEN BOOKS TO HELP YOU GET STARTED
1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.
Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.
2. Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
It’s 1989 in New York City, and for three teens, the world is changing.
Reza is an Iranian boy who has just moved to the city with his mother to live with his stepfather and stepbrother. He’s terrified that someone will guess the truth he can barely acknowledge about himself. Reza knows he’s gay, but all he knows of gay life are the media’s images of men dying of AIDS. Judy is an aspiring fashion designer who worships her uncle Stephen, a gay man with AIDS who devotes his time to activism as a member of ACT UP. Judy has never imagined finding romance… until she falls for Reza and they start dating. Art is Judy’s best friend, their school’s only out and proud teen. He’ll never be who his conservative parents want him to be, so he rebels by documenting the AIDS crisis through his photographs.
As Reza and Art grow closer, Reza struggles to find a way out of his deception that won’t break Judy’s heart—and destroy the most meaningful friendship he’s ever known.
3. Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
A new pair of shoes, a university degree, a husband—these are the things that a girl dreams of in a Nigerian village. And with a government scholarship right around the corner, everyone can see that these dreams aren’t too far out of reach.
But the girl’s dreams turn to nightmares when her village is attacked by Boko Haram, a terrorist group, in the middle of the night. Kidnapped, she is taken with other girls and women into the forest where she is forced to follow her captors’ radical beliefs and watch as her best friend slowly accepts everything she’s been told.
Still, the girl defends her existence. As impossible as escape may seem, her life—her future—is hers to fight for.
4. Black Enough, edited by Ibi Zoboi
Edited by National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi, and featuring some of the most acclaimed bestselling Black authors writing for teens today—Black Enough is an essential collection of captivating stories about what it’s like to be young and Black in America.
Black is… sisters navigating their relationship at summer camp in Portland, Oregon, as written by Renée Watson. It’s three friends walking back from the community pool talking about nothing and everything, in a story by Jason Reynolds. It’s Nic Stone’s high-class beauty dating a boy her momma would never approve of. It’s two girls kissing in Justina Ireland’s story set in Maryland. And it’s so much more.
Black is urban and rural, wealthy and poor, mixed race, immigrants, and more—because there are countless ways to be Black enough.
5. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.
But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about.
With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself. So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out. But she still can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.
Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.
6. A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.
Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.
But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.
- Buy A Very Large Expanse of Sea now!
- Join the book club discussion in the Year of Epic Reads Facebook Group
7. What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera
Arthur is only in New York for the summer, but if Broadway has taught him anything, it’s that the universe can deliver a showstopping romance when you least expect it. Ben thinks the universe needs to mind its business. If the universe had his back, he wouldn’t be on his way to the post office carrying a box of his ex-boyfriend’s things.
But when Arthur and Ben meet-cute at the post office, what exactly does the universe have in store for them… ?
Maybe nothing. After all, they get separated. Maybe everything. After all, they get reunited. But what if they can’t nail a first date even after three do-overs? What if Arthur tries too hard to make it work and Ben doesn’t try hard enough? What if life really isn’t like a Broadway play?
But what if it is?
What if it’s us?
8. Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson
Monday Charles is missing, and only Claudia seems to notice. Claudia and Monday have always been inseparable—more sisters than friends. So when Monday doesn’t turn up for the first day of school, Claudia’s worried.
When she doesn’t show for the second day, or second week, Claudia knows that something is wrong. Monday wouldn’t just leave her to endure tests and bullies alone. Not after last year’s rumors and not with her grades on the line. Now Claudia needs her best—and only—friend more than ever. But Monday’s mother refuses to give Claudia a straight answer, and Monday’s sister April is even less help.
As Claudia digs deeper into her friend’s disappearance, she discovers that no one seems to remember the last time they saw Monday. How can a teenage girl just vanish without anyone noticing that she’s gone?
9. On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least win her first battle. As the daughter of an underground hip hop legend who died right before he hit big, Bri’s got massive shoes to fill.
But it’s hard to get your come up when you’re labeled a hoodlum at school, and your fridge at home is empty after your mom loses her job. So Bri pours her anger and frustration into her first song, which goes viral…for all the wrong reasons.
Bri soon finds herself at the center of a controversy, portrayed by the media as more menace than MC. But with an eviction notice staring her family down, Bri doesn’t just want to make it—she has to. Even if it means becoming the very thing the public has made her out to be.
10. The Black Coats by Colleen Oakes
The enigmatic Black Coats have been exacting vengeance on men who have hurt girls and women for years. The killer of Thea’s cousin went free, and Thea has just received an invitation to join the Black Coats’ balancings—acts of revenge meant to teach a lesson. Justice for Natalie has never felt so close.
But as the balancings escalate in brutality, Thea’s clear-cut mission begins to unravel and she must decide just how far she is willing to go for justice.
Because when the line between justice and revenge is paper thin, it’s hard not to get cut.