Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Diversity in YA Lit

First, I want to make a little announcement. Last time I posted, I mentioned that my sister and I were trying out for the YA Rebels. Well, guess what?

We're the new Saturday Rebel(s)! All the Rebels are posting intro videos up this week so check them out and you can see ours on Saturday! I wrote a post about all the new rebels, but my web host's server crashed last week and hasn't come back up, so you can see the Google cached version (without pictures) here if you wish.

Now on to my regularly scheduled post...

My post today was inspired by this post by Zoe Marriott (who, by the way, I met through YA Rebels auditions!) as well as the posts over the past week(ish) by YAtopians Kelley, Leigh, and Sharon. It seems we're inadvertently tackling "issues" in YA lit this week!

Zoe's post is basically encouraging (especially) white, straight, able-bodied writers to add more true (non-stereotypical non-token) diversity to their characters. I didn't even fully realize until I read this post that I'm 20k words into a novel where my FMC is 4th generation Chinese-American, my MMC is a Ugandan who has been in the US a few years, and one of my antagonists is a Japanese woman pretending to be the German Ambassador's daughter (don't ask; just trust me on this one for now). BTW, to avoid confusion, both of my MCs and most of my characters are also weredragons. There's also diversity in the types of dragons that definitely causes tension between the different groups. I mean, check out how different these two dragons are:

There are even "differently-abled" people as supporting characters all over the place. The reason why that specific phrase is used and in quotes is they're differently-abled compared to the other dragons, not necessarily compared to human conventions. There is one woman who suffered a brain injury that prevents her from fully changing back to a human and she has dragon scales covering some of her human body. Another character is in terrible shape - missing both legs, terribly scarred face, and other dragon-specific injuries.

FMC: Katherine "Kitty" Lung
My point is, I didn't really set out to create this "diversity." It's simply a result of the different dragon mythologies I wanted to blend to create my world AND the fact that these dragons are constantly facing dangerous situations with a high probability of severe injuries. And I've learned over the years that I'm apparently more accustomed to living in "multicultural" settings than most people expect a blue-eyed girl born in Missouri to be, thanks to my life as a military brat.

MMC: Bulisani "Sani" Mathe

I'm comfortable with all these different cultures, it seems natural to me - especially in a country as diverse as the US. But I do still worry about getting something wrong. I'm doing tremendous amounts of research on cultures, but I fear that I'll make one mistake and be accused of being "ignorant" or "insensitive." (I may somehow be the former, but I'm definitely not the latter.) My FMC is 4th generation American - but is she too Americanized? Too Chinese? My MMC is Christian, like 80% of Ugandans but will I be accused of trying to make him more relatable by mentioning his religion?

These are all real, valid fears I have and I know it's a risk. But for me, for this story, it's a risk I'm willing to take. I know I'll have to find a publisher to take those risks with me too - and with all the talk of whitewashing covers the past few years, I'm worried.

So what do y'all think about diversity in YA Lit? I'd really love to have a conversation about it in the comments.

UPDATE: I just realized I didn't discuss diversity in terms of sexual orientation, but that is something to think about too.


  1. The world is a diverse place, and to accurately represent the world we live in (and yes, even fantasy worlds need to reflect something about the real world) we need to write a diverse range of characters from different places and backgrounds.

    Sure, there are enclaves where there aren't any 'different' people, but they are far and few between - and often quite terrifying... Hmm... an idea for a horror just popped into my head. No, you can't have it. It's mine.

    Sorry... digression. What i'm saying is, just like there are people in every walk of life who look different, talk different languages and sleep with people of the same sex, they are all human beings with stories to tell. Your work will be so much richer if you include them in the fabric of your literary world.

  2. I love books with diverse characters in terms of race and sexual orientation. Your book sounds fantastic, by the way. And dragons? OMG YES.

  3. Yay for military brats!!! (Army, hooah! lol)
    My MC is a white girl, but she's partnering up in book two with a guy from Malawi, so I'm excitedly researching that culture right now. There is also going to be a girl from the Middle East.
    We definitely need more cultural/racial diversity in YA lit. I want to write a modern contemp or dystopian some day with a mixed female MC.
    Thank you so much for this post, Sarah!

  4. I totally agree. In my book that's currently on sub one of the main characters is Hispanic. In my WIP, (written from boys POV), the love interest is black. I also have another WIP that I plan to get back to one day with a main character who is half Black, half Japanese.

    I know people from all backgrounds and races in real life. Everyone does. It needs to be incorporated in our books as well.

  5. As for diversity: go for it! We are a diverse nation! But please, please, don't just resort to tokenism--adding an extremely secondary character who is from a different race just to say your book is multicultural. I'm tired of reading books where the author just blatantly says that Character A is African American or Hispanic or Asian, but doesn't identify anyone else's race or make the character well rounded. Instead, the character is a walking stereotype (loving basketball, talking like Oprah, great at school—you all know the stereotypes). Please give some serious thought to your characters.

  6. Good topic! Something I have wondered about, too. Like, one of my MCs is biracial, but he identifies as African American. But he's close with his mom, who is white, so how realistic is that identity? I don't really know.

    In another novel, there's a supporting character who is gay, but though there are hints, I don't outright say it. Would people in the gay community think I'm hiding the fact that this character is gay? Should I be more pointed about it? And say I kill off this character- would killing the one gay character I have be considered a statement? Maybe I'm being paranoid, but I feel like even if I don't think much about races or sexual orientation, there are still enough people who make a fuss over it that I have to check myself now and then.

    Sorry I don't have more to contribute, just figured I'd throw in my 2 cents.

  7. In an increasingly diverse world I think it's vital for author's work to reflect that diversity, especially in YA. They are the future after all.

    Fellow I Love Dark YA blogfester with Kelly here, dropping in to say hi! Love what you ladies have going on here.

  8. I read on an agents site where they were like - yeah, we want diversity, but don't make your cast of characters look like one of the old United Colors of Benetton ads :D

  9. Yay for diversity in YA fiction! Especially in fantasy; there are far too many white/Euro-centric fantasy stories for my taste. And yep, I'd like to see more diversity in terms of queer characters, too.

    Funny thing led me to this post. A YA writer friend of mine emailed me the link. I think I may know the artist who painted one of those dragons you included above... ;P :D

  10. SO cool! I have been searching for other YA writers who feel the same. My book just launched on Amazon, titled Swimming Through Clouds and my main character is an Ethnic Cocktail and my main guy lead is Indian-American. :)

    www.rajdeeppaulus.com for some Brown Sistah YA love!