Why Diverse Fantasy Fiction Matters

“Speculative fiction is powerful because it provides an unrestricted playground for our imaginations, a test site to explore our impulses and examine the consequences of them.”

Lagoon  by Nnedi Okorafor.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor.

Written by Amber Peterson, Director of Programming Innovation at LitWorld

I have been a self-proclaimed nerd all of my life. My childhood was shaped by Lloyd Alexander and Terry Pratchett, and the opening sequence of Star Trek, The Next Generation will always bring with it feelings of security and comfort.

For me, science fiction and fantasy provided much needed portals of solace and escape. As one of a handful of black children bussed to an almost exclusively white suburban school, I spent my formative years feeling very much like an outsider. It was in those stories that I found the celebration of otherness I craved; the person who stood out ended up saving the day and he or she was always ultimately embraced.

Growing up black in America, I understood that the characters in the stories I loved didn’t and wouldn’t look like me. While the heroes were always in some way different from the rest of their community, they were never so different as to be black. The good vs. evil dichotomy generally employed in these narratives was often underscored by an parallel association with light vs. dark, an association that extended to skin color.  As such, I expected that if any characters did have a melanin count similar to mine, they would likely be villains.

The first time I questioned the certainty of this rule was upon reading A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin in 5th grade. The red-brown skinned protagonist was a revelation and opened my mind to the extraordinary possibility of seeing myself reflected positively in the stories that defined so much of my identity. My subsequent discovery of authors like Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, and Nalo Hopkinson shattered the rigid boundaries I perceived and represented my initiation into the burgeoning enclaves of diverse, imaginative fiction.

There has been much recent attention focused on the need for diversity in literature. It is absolutely essential that we see stories that normalize the incredible heterogeneity of the lived experiences of people of color. The recent increase and success of books proudly centering minority characters cleanly shatters the age old axiom that those books do not sell. Especially in the realms of children’s realistic fiction and narrative nonfiction, I believe we’re slowly but surely beginning to see progress.

Despite this, speculative fiction- fiction with supernatural, futuristic, or other imaginative elements-  is being left behind. Even as pop-culture adopts a decidedly speculative slant with the success of superhero franchises, dystopian epics, and legions of supernatural fandoms, people of color remain markedly underrepresented in the genre. Notable exceptions, such as the unprecedented success of Marvel’s Black Panther film, illustrate the hunger for representative speculative stories and the vast audiences eager to consume them.

Speculative fiction is powerful because it provides an unrestricted playground for our imaginations, a test site to explore our impulses and examine the consequences of them. It allows us to paint a picture of the world, not as it is, but as it could be. If these stories take us into our dreams and help us imagine the moral implications and literal possibilities of our future, than what does it say if people of color are not present? What does it mean if people of color are not included as the boundaries of what could be are tested, shifted, and dissolved?


Speculative fiction writers of color and speculative fiction stories featuring characters of color do exist. N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Tomi Adeyemi, Victor LaValle, Daniel José Older and Priya Sharma are just a few of the writers who are redefining the genre and have been for years. It’s essential that we amplify their voices and provide platforms to celebrate diversity as we explore the unknown and push the boundaries of our imaginations.

Energy Meets Action: Activist and LottoLove Founder Laura Beck on Making Change in Our World

Life isn’t about getting and having, it’s about giving and being.

– Kevin Kruse

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Written by Laura Beck, pictured above in Kibera.

All of the following images were taken by LottoLove during their most recent trip to Kibera.

With the creation of LottoLove, I saw an opportunity that used my experience, passion, and talents to build something with the sole mission of doing good. LottoLove has been working with LitWorld for several years, and in May I was able to visit one of the sites of their LitCamps at the Red Rose School. The school is tucked away in Kibera.

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The morning began at the Kenya Education Fund, a partner of LitWorld, and there I met Geoffrey. Geoffrey was our guide in Kibera and he explained where Kenya’s educational system stands today. High school is not free. Books and literacy tools are virtually nonexistent. Teachers are scarce. Classrooms are overcrowded. 50% of kids are not in school. Desks are rarely available. The dropout rate is extremely high. The list went on. We loaded into the car and made our way to Kibera. In an instant the landscape around me changed from municipal buildings and shopping malls to an overcrowded landmass that is home to over 2 million people.

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Our first stop was to visit the Power Women’s Group, a collective of entrepreneurs who have created lives free of dependency. It is the workplace of about 15 HIV positive women. The women hold a variety of jobs: tailors, jewelry makers, babysitters, and hairdressers. Everyone in Kenya knows about 3 languages. Growing up, they learn their local language and typically speak Swahili at home. In school, they learn English and only speak and write in English.

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Next we visited the Red Rose School, home to one of LitWorld’s thriving LitClubs. One of the many reasons LottoLove supports LitWorld is their holistic approach to literacy. LitWorld gives people the resources to learn how to read and write, but they are also creating a space for joyful learning, creative expression, community building, and social-emotional skills development. I entered the classroom which was empty of desks and chairs. Pillows rested on the ground in a circle. Everyone took their seat. True to LitClub fashion, the class began with a song that continued until each person introduced themselves. As the song ended the teacher spread out her arms addressing each person in the circle and together everyone sang ‘hello friends, we’re glad to see you here.’

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The class continued with a group activity. The activity was one I actually love to do with my family and friends. All 15 girls took turns explaining if their week was a rose, a bud, or a thorn. A rose being something beautiful, positive, or happy. The bud being something exciting coming up or something highly anticipated. The thorn being a tough experience or sad moment. Fourteen out of 15 girls chose to talk about their rose of the week. Roses like...

‘I’m about to become a sister.’

‘I had a good dinner.’

‘I played with my friends.’

‘I’m happy to be in this class.’

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After reading and discussing the book Black Beauty, we moved onto the main activity of the day, the heart map. Each girl grabbed their school folders from a pile. We all sat on the floor as we drew our heart. Inside each heart we were told to draw images and words that represent what we love and who we are. The room was quiet. The result was beautiful. Their hearts were colorful and bright. Each filled from edge to edge. No empty spaces. But, I already knew this to be true.

As we all shared our hearts it was clear that we shared a lot of the same joys and roles in life. There was a lot of love for food, dancing, reading, nature, singing, drawing, and sleeping. There were many sisters, daughters, students, and friends. I remember one girl said her favorite activity was smiling. LitWorld created a gesture called ‘shooting stars’. Typically after someone speaks everyone brings their hands to their mouths and moves their hands down as they twinkle their fingers, like shooting stars. After the last shooting star, the class came to an end. We were all hugging goodbye when two girls came over and asked me if they could have my heart map.

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These are the lessons I’ve learned from the people I met:

Be grateful for what you have.

Find the beauty in life.

Focus on the positive.

Smiling is a universal language.

The trip was truly magical. LitWorld is doing amazing things for people all around the world. I am excited for the day I return to Kenya and for the future visits to the sites of our wonderful partners.

LottoLove has donated over 16,000 sets of literacy tools to LitWorld. To learn more about their work visit givelottolove.com.

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Uniting LitClubs in East Africa

“As with any LitWorld event, the week was filled with joy”

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LitWorld’s East Africa Partnership Coordinator Conference, hosted in Rwinkwavu, Rwanda, was the second of its kind. It first launched in August 2017 in Colombia for seven of LitWorld’s Latin American partners. This second conference brought together Partnership Coordinators and mentors from Eastern and Southern Africa for a full week of training and learning. Partners were from: Kenya (Kenya Education Fund, Milele, and NEWI), Uganda (Art of a Child), Rwanda (Ready for Ready), and Zambia (GoYe Therefore). The conference served as an opportunity for Partnership Coordinators and Mentors to share best practices and lessons learned in their experience of running LitWorld programming.

We kicked off the week by joining Ready for Reading’s annual LitCamp. Over 200 LitClub members from Rwinkwavu and nearby Kayonza participated in the three day LitCamp which culminated in reading, writing, singing and dancing. As with any LitWorld event, the week was filled with joy! One of the highlights of the conference was to be able to meet in person. Everyone shared experiences and highlighted the unique work that they each do within and outside of their work with LitWorld. We also had the chance to visit some of Ready for Reading’s LitClubs, including a LitMoms visit led by Mentor Colette. Not only was this an opportunity for us and the conference participants to observe and participate in the LitClubs in Rwanda, but the boys, girls, and moms were amazed to learn that there are other LitClubs around the world. For them, it was a moment of belonging to the larger LitWorld family.

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Another highlight of the conference was sharing various community building activities with one another. One of the favorites of the week was a song called, “Insari, Sari, Sari” created by some of the mentors at Ready for Reading. Every day, the LitWorld Programming team led trainings ranging from Creating a Collection of Stories to Goal Setting and more. For some of the conference participants, it was their first time learning about SMART goals. We even debuted LitWorld’s new and improved library training!

Sanyambe, LitWorld’s Partnership Coordinator from Zambia, shared that she made great connections with other coordinators, she now knows here colleagues, from around the region. She said she now has a pool of resources she did not previously have and she will collaborate with other Coordinators on programming and other activities. Sylvie, a mentor from Ready For Reading in Rwanda shared that the conference helped her think creatively and innovatively during her mentorship activities. Because of the conference, she has learned from other mentors and formed relationships to continue growing as a strong LitClub mentor. In follow up conversations with Partnership Coordinators, several of them have mentioned that their mentoring skills, especially the read aloud, have dramatically improved.

As a result of the Partnership Coordinator Conference, our expansive network has grown closer together. We have all learned new skills, made new friends, and deepened our connections with people who will continue to help us grow in the future. We hope that it serves as a launching pad for Partnership Coordinators to come closer together to supporting each other, not only in their work with LitWorld, but their work as professionals trying to create a stronger network of individuals who believe the power of story can change the world.

This post was authored by LitWorld team members Oriana Stern, Director of Program Operations, and Marielle Ali, Program Coordinator.

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A Tour of the Heart Map

Share your story, explore your heart.

Enjoy this video exploration of the HeartMap Project: an interactive, public art installation created by LitWorld resident artist Tina Villadolid in collaboration with Broadway Housing Communities at the Sugar Hill Project.

The above video was shot and editing by Sean McCoy.

Mapping the Heart of a Community: Tina Villadolid, In Her Own Words

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“If you could do something really big for us, what would it be?”

What an honor to be asked this question by Pam Allyn, the founder of LitWorld, in the fall of 2017. It was an opportunity to enact an idea that had taken up residence in my brain: collect data from communities in the form of art, in order to humanize the information. Despite the artistic elements of charts and graphs, their colorful lines, bars, and circles don’t express the stories of the humans that inhabit the statistics. What if the data collected could reveal what we have in common inside our hearts, despite differences in culture, class, age, race, gender, and language?

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The Heart Map Project was launched this past August at the Arab-American Family Support Center in Brooklyn, and at Sugar Hill in Harlem, a Broadway Housing Community. The participants created individual pieces in response to these three workshop themes:

People we love

Places in our heart

Who we are

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Amassing the individual artwork from each workshop to form 3 chambers of the community’s heart, I created a walk-through installation at each of the two sites. The trust that I was given to do so was such a gift (not knowing for certain what a site-specific installation will look like while asking permission to transform a space can be challenging!). It was moving to witness the participants finding their own work in the installation, to listen to the dialogues that began, and to see the bonding that occurred from the shared experience. Visitors to the installations wrote the names of people they love on an anatomical drawing of a human heart, adding it to that chamber and becoming part of it themselves.

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I am an artist and an educator with a “long game” credo.

Humanizing data

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What’s missing from the data?

Making the story visible

Breathing in and out, flow in and out, asks and offers

Maps help us get our bearings of where we are in the world, in life

Atlas of human emotions

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The ongoing collection of 3-D Heart Maps provide visual information that yield another art form: a chart/graph/map that measures the components and commonalities of each community represented. A living visual document is created by the “data” compiled from the hearts of each community, expressed through art. The stories, faces, and spirits become an integral component of informational “data” and “data gaps.” The hope is that this living art form and the visceral response to it may spark an urgency and duty toward increased humanitarianism.

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The heart map expands from an individual exercise into a group collaboration. Inclusive of all genders and generations that are parts of the whole, the 3-D Heart Map explores and reveals what binds a community together at its heart.

Visual storytelling activities build community while creating a unified art piece comprised of many individual parts, a reflection of the group itself.

The heart map expands from an individual exercise into a group collaboration. Inclusive of all genders and generations that are parts of the whole, the 3-D Heart Map explores and reveals what binds a community together at its heart.

Visual storytelling activities build community while creating a unified art piece comprised of many individual parts, a reflection of the group itself.

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