Race in YA Lit: Wake Up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!

In a new series entitled Y.A. for Grownups, The Atlantic Wire posted an article exploring The Ongoing Problem of Race in YA.

Like the title states, race in YA isn’t a new problem, nor is it going away. When I scan the YA bookshelves—whether my own or the extensive store displays—the issue is clear:

I spy with my little eye something… white.

Barbie® Fashionistas™

White authors, white characters, white faces, white girls. The scenario isn’t entirely unlike my high school graduation, but it’s no longer the world I see (or want to see) when I look out the window. So why the disconnect?

Plenty of YA authors of color are writing about diverse characters, often struggling to get those books out into the world and into the hands of readers. Discussions about the issue focus on a trifecta of economic challenges doused in racial politics: consumers aren’t demanding and buying diverse fiction. So booksellers aren’t stocking and promoting it. So the publishing industry isn’t actively seeking, acquiring, and publishing it (with covers and flap copy that appropriately reflect the characters and story). So consumers aren’t demanding and buying it…

Which came first—the chicken, the egg, or the egg white omelet—I don’t know. But the discussion glosses over an obvious gap: white authors.

Demographically speaking, caucasians comprise the majority of young adult authors (according to Zetta Elliot’s 2011 interview with author Jacqueline Woodson, people of color make up less than 5 percent of children’s book authors published in the U.S. annually). So when you look at the sea of white stretching on forever along the shores of YA literature, know that white authors are by and large the ones putting it out there.

Which means we’re the ones who can—and must—change it by actively diversifying the stuff we’re writing, and by doing so in authentic, meaningful ways.

One Café, Hold The Au Lait: A Primer for White Authors

Actively diversifying our fiction does not mean any of the following:

  • Giving a character almond-shaped eyes or coffee-mocha-latte-chocolate-hazelnut-caramel-cappuccino-colored skin. In fact, as a general rule, writers seeking inspiration solely from Starbucks menus probably need to dial down the caffeine.
  • Slotting in a random person of color for no other reason than to break up the whiteness (especially if you’re writing about a place that is mostly white. Like, a Rod Stewart concert, or maybe a deer hunt).
  • Sneaking in a few non-white celebrity guest appearances on a poster, an iPod, or a character’s favorite TV show. I mean, I love Fresh Prince as much as anyone, because Parents Just Don’t Understand, but no—that doesn’t count.
  • Including a non-white character whose only real difference from the white characters is the color of his skin and/or his snappy catch phrases. Word!
  • Conducting a find-and-replace in Word to change Breanna and Chad to Belicia and Chen. CTRL+F what?
  • Putting a sushi or taco bar in the school cafeteria. Which is one of those things that sounds like a good idea at the time, but usually isn’t.

Diversity in fiction isn’t about tokenism, filling up imaginary “affirmative fiction” quotas, or embarking on a PC quest to be “inclusive.” It’s about respecting our readers.

Teen book reviewers

It’s about loving and supporting all teens, letting them know they’re important by giving them voices and honoring their unique perspectives, experiences, and dreams in our stories. It’s not random. It’s not an afterthought. It’s an intentional, thoughtful, and respectful choice to stop perpetuating homogeneity.

Why Do We White-ify YA, Anyway?

The small-but-still-beating “people are mostly decent” part of my heart wants to believe that when white authors neglect to diversify our stories, it’s not out of racism, laziness, or even ignorance, but because of two oft-misinterpreted writing tips: 1) Write what you know, and 2) YA novels need a clear moral message. When it comes to diversity, both pseudo-commandments inspire fear.

Fear #1: As a caucasian, I’m not qualified to write about or from the perspective of people of color.

White Boxer Dog Loki Puppy TWhile there’s some merit to seeking inspiration from the wellspring of our own experiences, when taken literally, the advice to write what you know stifles creativity and shuts down our imaginations. It tells us that unless we’re black or gay or a woman, that we can’t write about those kinds of characters because we can’t possibly know them.

Saying that a white writer is not qualified to write a black or a Mexican or Indian or Philippino character is like saying Stephenie Meyer can’t write about falling in love with vampires because she’s married to a human, or that I can’t write a male POV because I don’t have, um… a beard. And by that logic, we wouldn’t have stories about dogs, either.

I don’t buy it. We’re writers. Storytellers. Weavers of tales great and small. It’s our job to make things up, to imagine, to explore different perspectives through the eyes of our characters. This isn’t to say we can plug-n-play a few multicultural characters into our work or rely on stereotypes or assumptions for crafting our fictional friends (see aforementioned anti-starbucks advice), but that’s writer 101 stuff. Cardboard, one-dimensional people have no place in a story, whether they’re white, black, brown, purple, or invisible. Authenticity is important, but thanks to the library, the internet, and, you know, other human beings, it’s possible to learn about something we’ve never personally experienced. Sometimes all it takes is a simple question: Hey, people who’ve been there, what’s your take on this? People want their voices heard. They want to share. They want to help.

Race is a sticky thing though, isn’t it? We’ve gotten so divisive in this country that we’re often afraid to mention it. Comedians have created entire routines on the phenomenon that is white people trying to describe a black person. I’ve witnessed it—you’ll inevitably get detailed run-down of his clothing, his hair, his shoes, his car, but rarely the simple statement: he’s black, or he has dark brown skin. When people actually describe the race, it’s in a whisper. “He’s… um… he’s… bla—he’s African American…”

Seriously? We all need to take a collective drink of Let’s Get The Hell Over Ourselves (and chase it down with a swig of We’re All Human, Remember?). Writers imagine. We take risks. We experience, and we ask, and we imagine again. And then we write it all down for other people to experience the moment they pick up our books.

Fear #2: If I write about people of color, my story must teach a moral lesson and take a stand on an issue.

From The Atlantic Wire:

There’s also the rather unfair expectation put upon writers of books featuring non-white characters that they still have to make a statement, or that they’re speaking for all people of that race. “It does get frustrating when your book comes out and other people think you’re making a statement about all black people,” says [author Coe] Booth. “There are so few books featuring black characters, with the one or five that come out, there’s so much pressure to represent all of this particular race.” That’s not a problem white writers have. People in the industry “need to open up the thinking about what a book by a person of color is supposed to do,” she adds. “It’s not an education; why do books by authors of color have to have that much more responsibility? It’s just supposed to be a book.”

I disagree that this isn’t a problem white authors face. Anyone writing characters of color faces this problem, but non-white authors bear the brunt of it because of the expectation that they educate people about their “experience” (whatever that may be).

Our society has created and perpetuated the expectation that, with a few notable exceptions, YA books with non-white characters either tackle a social injustice head on or strip out the character’s entho/cultural/gender/etc. uniqueness altogether. The black character, then, must either struggle under the weight of “the black experience” or blend in so completely that the only black thing about him is his coffee-colored skin (which is of course described with a frequency the white character’s “peaches and cream” colored skin is not).

The whole conundrum is compounded by the fact that plenty of cranky grownups still cling to the misguided belief that YA exists solely to teach kids lessons. The result, if the Atlantic Wire article is indicative of the larger problem, is that whenever we write a non-white (or a non-hetero, non-insert-socio-ethno-psychological-category-here) character, we’re taking it upon ourselves to write the non-whatever “experience.” Whatever else happens in the story, my gay character should have a difficult coming out story, and he should be bullied so that I can send a message that homophobia is wrong. My black characters should be subject to racism so I can preach about diversity and tolerance.

Issue stories are important, and there are wonderful books addressing racism, homophobia, bullying, and other human ills head on. But like Coe says, it’s not an education. Not every book has to tackle the issues. Some stories are simply about other challenges of adolescence, real and fantastic: falling in love, the sudden death of a loved one, hunting vampires, fitting in with peers (or not), raising the dead, road tripping, portal tripping, learning magic, getting sick, having sex, exploring passions, surviving the zombie apocalypse that was started by that goober who just raised the dead, trying out for the school play, getting in a fight, saving the planet from alien invaders… just to name a few obstacles our beloved white fictional teens face over the pages of their daily lives.

What about our beloved black fictional teens? Indians? Asians? French-Canadians?

Can a black kid slay dragons without turning his quest into an anti-racism manifesto? Dragons can be dangerous. Maybe they need to be slayed, and maybe this kid is quick on his feet and handy with the magic sword… and he happens to be black. Can we see his unique and special worldview as a young black dragon slayer, or does he have to take a stand against bigotry too?

Can a Mexican girl fall in love with her best friend without exploring immigration policies or her grandmother’s homemade tamales? Conversely, can she just enjoy her grandmother’s tamales because they kick ass and not because she must reconnect with her Mexican ancestry so that readers understand the importance of one’s cultural heritage? I mean, I love tamales, and I totally respect and appreciate the culture from which they originated, and maybe this girl does too.

But dudes, sometimes a tamale is just a tamale.

Vegan Tamales with Beans and Rice

Speaking of tamales… I teach an advanced YA novel class at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. One of my students is a Mexican American writer working on a YA urban fantasy. In class, she admitted that people have often “encouraged” her to abandon the fantasy and write about “the Mexican American experience.” As if there’s only one. As if she’s obligated by her ethnicity to speak up, to teach those all-important lessons. “Look,” she told us. “Just because I’m Latina doesn’t mean my characters have to go around speaking Spanish and making tortillas. I want to write a different story.”

Just Who is Responsible for Writing Diverse Characters in YA?

The sea of white on the YA bookshelves has to change. And the onus shouldn’t fall entirely to authors of color, nor to the aforementioned trifecta of readers, booksellers, and the Borg of Industry.

The responsibility belongs equally to all writers.

diversity matters

I hesitate to even use the word “responsibility,” because it’s actually not that. We’re writers. Our only responsibility as far as I’m concerned is being honest and authentic in our work. But to be honest and authentic, we have to address this. We live in a diverse world. To pretend otherwise is more fantastical than believing that sex with vampires is a good idea (not that I’m judging!).

Our stories must be diverse, and I can make no better case than this quote from John Truby in his book, The Anatomy of Story:

The dramatic code expresses the idea that human beings can become a better version of themselves, psychologically and morally. And that’s why people love it.

Stories don’t show the audience the “real world”; they show the audience the story world. The story world isn’t a copy of life as it is. It’s life as human beings imagine it could be.

“Life as human beings imagine it could be.”

Think about that. Really sit with it. Pretty powerful, right? Isn’t that why we write, because we imagine things can be better? Because we believe in the power and wonder of imagination? Because we know that YA books are not billboards, but conversations?

Why is diversity in fiction important? Because diversity in life is important. And when we exclude—intentionally or otherwise—characters of color from our work, we do send a billboard message to readers. We tell them that people of color aren’t there, aren’t important, aren’t worthy of our stories. That they don’t deserve to be part of the conversation of our books. That reading isn’t for them. That they don’t matter. That they don’t even register on our radar.

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I adore teenagers. That’s why I write for them. They’re special and magical and full of life; they’re truly the best of us. As young adult authors, our words have power. The power to entertain. The power to inform. The power to inspire. And most importantly, the power to change the lives of teen readers—to really make a difference. If, as Truby believes, stories express the idea that human beings can become better versions of ourselves, then I want to show YA readers that those better versions look like them, too.

All of them.


All images copyright of their respective owners. Posted with permission under Creative Commons licenses via Flickr.

129 Responses to Race in YA Lit: Wake Up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!

  1. Tameka says:

    LOVE this! I recently had the opportunity to see and hear Jacqueline Woodson speak about this very topic during a YA author panel at the Festival of Books in Los Angeles. What she expressed so eloquently keeps resonating in my mind, as will the words you’ve written here. Thank you Sarah!

  2. Really thought provoking post, Sarah.

  3. great post, sarah. i diversified my WIP cast of characters without even thinking about it. the group of kids in my book are thrown together and would have come from different backgrounds – ethnic and economic – so it just made sense to me as i wrote. i didn’t go through and say i need one of this kind and that kind, they just came into being as the story called for them. your post really made me think about my choices. i’m glad i made them.

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Hi Valerie! Yes, that’s exactly how it happened with my last book (Bittersweet). They came into the story diverse, largely because of where they lived. I wanted to be sensitive about handling it appropriately, but I also didn’t want to hold myself back from trying. The characters showed up at my door, so I let them in and put on the coffee (and cupcakes). Glad to hear you did the same. What’s your WIP about (if you don’t mind sharing)?

      • no, i don’t mind, although i’m not the best at condensing my descriptions, here it is: it’s called institutionalized and it’s about a young girl Sara whose parents have her committed into a private psych hospital under false pretenses after she discovers a disturbing family secret involving the only person in the family she’s close to; her sister. they have her locked away so she won’t reveal it or if she does, she won’t be believed. when Sara fails to find anyone in the hospital who thinks that she’s not crazy, she has to find another way out. for the first time in her life she’ll have to break the rules and submerge herself in the unfamiliar culture of the psychologically unbalanced in order to survive. Sara ends up taking orders from the craziest bitch on the unit who’s agreed to help her and she’s bunking with a girl who’s threatened to tear another girl’s face off. her only refuge is the stolen moments with a boy who’s just as lost as she is. even if all the crazy plotting works and Sara actually does escape, she doesn’t know what comes next. all she does know is she can never go back home.

  4. poptext says:

    This is a great essay, about an issue that needs to be kept at the forefront of all YA writers’ minds. As a white author, I can attest that often the instinct is to shy away from writing characters of other ethnicities, out of fear of ‘doing it wrong’ and inadvertently causing offence. But that temptation should always be over-ridden. The commitment to offering our readers a diverse world that both reflects their reality, and provides multiple POVs for them to relate to is more important than any fears or insecurities which may hold us back. It may take more thought and work to diversify our books beyond our personal viewpoints and experience, but that’s our job as writers. It will always be worth the effort – both in terms of the stories we will be able to tell, and the audience we can reach.

    And you’re right, just as important as ethnic diversity is diversity in the kinds of stories being told: not just narrow ‘issue’ books. My next YA novel, JANE AUSTEN GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, is a modern re-telling of Sense & Sensibility; the two narrators – the Eleanor and Marianne characters – are mixed race, but it’s not the defining issue of the book. In modern Beverly Hills, their ethnicity is less an issue than fame and wealth. When I’m asked why they’re black, I say, ‘why not?’. Given the ethnic makeup of major urban cities, and the proportion of modern teens with mixed heritage, it seems odd *not* to reflect this in the reality of YA books.

    I can pick up a book anytime and find myself represented on the pages in any number of narratives. It would be great if this were true for *all* teens, and not just the white, straight, educated, middle-class ones.

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Totally agree that we must override that temptation. It’s definitely more work, and definitely worth it (besides, writers are notorious for inviting more work. When do we shy away from a challenge?). :-) Looking forward to Jane!

  5. Well done, Sarah. Fantastic article. As a person in a multi-cultural, mixed race marriage, I really appreciate the suggestion that every non-white character does not need to be written as some ridiculous stereotype or have to be obsessed with their own race and cultural.

    To address the issue of white people writing authentically about people of other races, I was a little startled with all the fuss that was made about Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Some people refused to even read the book because the author was white. C’mon, people. Really?

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      It would be an interesting experiment to present readers books with characters of color with no mention of the author, and then gauge reaction before and after they find out who wrote them. David Macinnis Gill had a similar experience with his YA novel (see his comments below).

    • Hi Cristy,

      I created a blog addressing some of the things about African Americans that were highly offensive in the book. While I agree that some people did refuse to read the book because Stockett was white, its important to point out that word had gotten out about regarding the stereotypes in the book ( maids were heavy set, dark, of thick dialect, one maid is loyal and saintly, the other is grumpy and comedic) and so once word got out through conversations on different websites, it just confirmed what some already suspected.

      While the book is a best seller, its also an example of an author failing to see the beauty in the black culture, and also including familiar (and some would say tiresome) depictions, like the negatively labeling the black males the maids are paired with, having the white characters read as if they speak standard english while the black characters read as if only they are from the south (note that the movie corrected this).

      Anyway, that’s just part of the problems with book.

      Sarah, many thanks for this post. I’m going to link to it on my site. You bring up points that minority readers and writers have been complaining about for YEARS, and I thank you.

      • Dear A Critical Review,

        While I respect and appreciate your opinion, I have to say that I disagree. When did a loyal and saintly maid become a stereotype? When the author made her black? When did being grumpy and comedic become a negative thing for a black character? If that’s the case, then Redd Foxx was a stereotype his entire life. With so much criticism about there about perceived stereotypes, I fear that Caucasian authors will be afraid to write about other minorities at all – for fear that they’ll be called out for accidentally wading in the stereotypical sea, which is clearly a vague and ambiguous place. Again, thank you for sharing your perceptions, but I really think that people need to lighten up a little.

        Warmest Regards,

        Cristy

        • Hi Christy,

          The loyal and saintly maid/domestic has been used throughout history, in films and books. From Gunga Din, to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Stockett’s The Help, this character serves a dual purpose. For those like me, who were around during segregation, this is a familiar character. Their “goodness” is biblical in proportion. Many times their character traits require them to grin, quote the bible, cower, and assist the white character, no matter what. Their lives have little or no backstory, and most often they seek no companionship (please note that Stockett has both Aibileen and Constantine swearing off all men after falling one time for the wrong man). Another major criticism of Aibileen is that no matter what, she never gets mad at the children in her care. However, in the novel Aibileen did turn judgmental. Against Kindra, Minny’s youngest daughter and also Gretchen. That is part of the problem with the saintly character. Most times they are required to turn against their own in order to “prove” their goodness or loyalty to the main protag. A few more examples. Delilah in Imitation of Life handed over her family pancake recipe, and didn’t want any of the profits. She even begged to stay on for no pay when Bea wanted her to sign a new business contract, that’s how good and childlike the character was created to be. Another example is Julie from Showboat. This character gives up her job so that Magnolia can have one, again showing she has a heart of gold based on her sacrifce.

          The message was clear. That no matter their color, if they were willing to sacrifice then they couldn’t be all bad. But it also infers that servitude is the way to melt hearts, and after over a century of segregation when oppression still reigned, no matter how “good” the minority, equality would only come through marching, sit-ins and boycotts, and gaining allies sympathetic to the cause.

          Minny goes even further. She smacks her daughter Sugar because the teen gossips about Celia. So an abused woman, in defense of her employer abuses her own child. Not only that, but not once in the book does Minny state she loves her children. Only once does she say she’s proud of them. And Kindra, the youngest gets most of her ire. But Kindra is also never hugged or coddled by Aibileen, though this character is supposed to be the most compassionate in the novel. Thus pointing out another issue with the saintly character, how they are only good when they show love or kindness to the white characters instead of being equally kind and loving to those in their own community.

          Respectfully, “lightening up” and keeping silent can be misconstrued as acceptance. When Stockett, writing as Minny has her state “Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump . . .” (Pg 311) there’s no way I’m not going to speak on it. Because no white character in the book makes such an offensive and far reaching statement about white males, not even about the naked pervert. The negative labeling has a far reaching affect, even today when many black males are wrongly labeled “thugs” (see Trayvon Martin case as an example).
          It’s important to note that while Stockett negatively depicted at least four of her black male characters, the men who practiced segregation were given a “twist” as in telling the reader that they were really “honest” (Skeeter’s father) “A good man (Skeeter states this about Stuart after he dumps her) and even Stoolie Whitworth is only doing the will of his constiuents when he publicly sides with Ross Barnett in blocking James Meredith. The studio marketed

          Sarah, I apologize for the long post. But I must state that making a white author afraid to write a minority character is the least of my concerns. Authors need to do their research. Unfortunately for Stockett, her book contains a cringe worthy error on page 277, if you wish to know more about the error, see this post:

          http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/medgar-evers-error-in-the-help/

          One last thing. Red Foxx was a comedic icon and had a lot more “bite” than his later roles suggest. I doubt he wouldn’t have balked at saying this line: “Frying chicken make you tend to feel better about life” – Minny, from The Help

          Especially with how often African Americans were paired with chicken for cheap laughs (example – Birth of a Nation has a fired chicken eating scene)

        • Redd Foxx didn’t balk at requesting neck bones, black-eyed peas, collard greens as his entree on his first plane flight on an episode of Sanford & Son. Nor did he balk at carrying a bag of fried chicken wings on the plane with him in that same episode. During his live performances, he would tell his audience that one of his favorite restaurants was Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. He and the cast also used the N-word regularly on the show.

          As you know, The Help is not, by far, the first book about African Americans to portray black men in a negative way or black women as single saints. I’m sure you’ve read some of Alice Walker’s novels. Why have you not devoted time to criticizing African Americans for continuing to perpetuate these stereotypes in their novels?

          But I’ve no interest in continuing to split hairs with you. Clearly, you feel one way and I feel another. It’s a wonderful to live in a country in which we can express our opinions freely and agree to disagree. Again, I respect and appreciate your opinion on this issue, but I still feel that my concern as to how this type of overly-critical analysis of minority portrayals in literature could negatively impact Caucasian writers’ decision to include minority characters in their books is also valid.

    • gemmabennett says:

      Very quickly adding my two cents to another comment I couldn’t stay quiet on. Will explain myself further in a blog post I’m working on now.

      But.

      Christy,

      If “this type of [so called] overly-critical analysis of minority portrayals in literature” “negatively impact[s] Caucasian writers’ decision to include minority characters” in a STEREOTYPICAL and quite frankly, prejudiced, way… (i.e. The Help)

      GOOD!

      I’d rather wait a while for diverse, authentic, well-researched Black characters then see a flood of White authors start writing jive talking, gum smacking, sassy sistah gurls, modeled after what was on BET last night.

      Because it’s offensive. For Black people, the people affected by this, there’s nothing ‘light’ about it. And I’m tired of it.

      • Hi Cristy,

        I don’t call this “splitting hairs” I call it having a valid discussion. If you took a look at my site, you’ll see I never advocated white writers not create minority characters. But in the case of The Help, Stockett included demeaning ideology on the black culture, which far too many read as amusing anecdotes (for example the sordid “spoilt cootchie” scene on page 23-24. Aibileen and Minny cackle over Aibileen’s aibilty to call down a venereal disease on the woman who ran off with her husband. This is supposidely done via the power of prayer. And Aibileen, who’s supposed to be a devout christian states “you saying people think I got the black magic?” Pg 24. How black magic has any context for two christian women reeks of another old stereotype of African americans, which is that no matter what religion we profess to be, then we still practice pagan beliefs. I’ve got scans from old Jackson Ms. newpapers which repeat these type of claims.

        In addition, during segregation there was a nasty myth about African americans being immoral and that even our children had venereal diseases.

        This is the type of thing that bears researching (and yes, I found old newspaper scans from the actual time period where real residents of MS state its one of the reasons why they oppose integration. The post on my blog is called “The Real Housewives of Jackson.”

        I do apologize, but I don’t recall any episode where Sanford and son used the N word other than saying “Negro.” While Red used the word in his stage performances. Most times the comics switched up (even Richard Pryor) and inserted Negro for the other term. But I thank you for the information.

        Getting back to Sarah’s article, I think this discussion highlights why writers, and not just white authors should value doing research on the cultures they write about.

        I’ll have to agree with Gemma. I know I’m tired of it. All we ask for is characters with real backstories and who are fully fleshed, just as the many white protags which grace covers and sell books. And there are white authors who effectively create minority characters. Writer Richard Price (the Wire, Clockers) creates credible minority characters. Ursula Guin, M.T Anderson (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing) Brandon Sanderson (the Way of Kings) among others, have been able to craft black characters who don’t default into stereotype. It has been done.

  6. fishgirl182 says:

    great post, sarah and i think you bring up a lot of good points. as a kid, my only experience with an asian character in a book was claudia in the babysitters club and she totally had almond shaped eyes. i think there is definitely greater diversity in ya lit than when i was a kid but we’ve still got a long ways to go.

  7. Very interesting post. Definitely marking to “re-read” and think on further. In the story I’m currently working on, my main character is hispanic because where he lives, the majority of people are hispanic. It felt wrong to make him white. But I don’t know anything about being hispanic so it makes me nervous, but at the same time, does him being hispanic really mean he’s that much different than if he were white? I don’t know. I don’t want to go down any cliche roads, but I also don’t want him to feel like a white character in a hispanic costume. It feels like a tricky line to walk down.

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Based on your thoughtful comments on the matter, and the fact that you’ve obviously given a lot of thought to making your character authentic, I bet you did a great job with him. And you’re absolutely right–in so many ways, our universal experience as humans (love, heartache, fear, desire, laughter, and a million other things) transcends our individual races and cultures.

  8. Tina Hoggatt says:

    Great post – thanks for this. Food for thought for both writers and readers, because readers do drive the book bus ultimately.

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Thanks Tina! Readers do influence the business, but I think we’ve been relying on that as an excuse not to publish really diverse books for too long. If publishers & major booksellers got behind diverse books in a big way, readers *would* buy them. Right now, readers are expected to actively seek out diverse books rather than just being able to browse randomly on the shelves and find them (or being able to randomly pick up a fantasy or “non-issue” contemp book and find that the story happens to be populated by a diverse cast of characters). Publishers and booksellers can and do influence shifts in demand as much (or more than) readers, b/c in the case of books, the industry helps readers discover new things as much as it fills the existing demand for them.

  9. Love the post and think we need more discussions like this in the future. I’m so thrilled that my publisher decided to put my gorgeous brown love interest on the cover of the book that will be out in June. It was their idea, but I have to admit there was a lot of discussion about it, hoping that it won’t hurt sales. If he were white, nobody would have thought twice about it, and that right there is the issue.

    I included a biracial love interest because I thought he was hot, not because I wanted to make a racial statement. The fact that my kids now get to see someone on the cover of a book that reflects what they look like is an awesome bonus. It was only after we were in copy edits that my editor and I realized that we didn’t address ‘the racial issue’ and we decided that we weren’t going to. The book is about reincarnation, fate and destiny, not race – it’s an interracial love story that’s not an interracial love story.

    Like you said, there is a huge need for stories that address race and discrimination, but there is also a need for stories that are diverse just because. We need to normalize gay and non-white characters by putting them on covers and in stories that aren’t about the issues. Thanks for bringing this up!

  10. I’m hyper aware of stereotypes as I read, mainly because I’m an adoptive parent of two Asian children. There aren’t many characters (in the books I’ve read at least) whose adoption story hasn’t been a main plot catalyst. I can’t recall one book I’ve read where a character has been adopted and there was no intentional backstory behind it.

    Your post also hit home with your Point #1. I felt this way when I first started writing my novel — that I wasn’t qualified to write about Native Americans because I’m white. But then fortunately my characters took over and slapped some sense into me. They’re characters in my novel and my job is to do right by them and not worry about making a statement or try to be someone I’m not.

    We hear so often as writers that we need to “tell the truth.” And you’ve just told it, Sarah! Great post!

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Maybe you’ll just have to write that book for them, Beth! So true though. All of those stories need to be told. Imagine your kids coming to you and asking, where are the stories about me? And you did an amazing job in your novel — very authentic and not stereotypical or issue-heavy. Just great Native American characters.

    • Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu has an adopted girl from India as the main character and the story isn’t about it at all. It is beautifully written and shows her ethnicity on the front cover. I loved the story.

  11. Gemma says:

    Thank you for understanding, contemplating, and posting this. It’s fantastic. I do disagree with one point though. I think that sometimes (emphasis on ‘sometimes’) diversifying YA *is* as simple as “Giving a character almond-shaped eyes or coffee-mocha-latte-chocolate-hazelnut-caramel-cappuccino-colored skin.”

    Most White characters in YA books don’t acknowledge race because they don’t have to. They just go on their journey and address whatever other issues they’re facing. Minority characters can have this same luxury when authors write POCs who are people first and physical descriptions second, i.e. Rue in the Hunger Games. She could have easily been White and it wouldn’t have changed the story. But by making her Black, Suzanne Collins made thousands more fans feel like they were represented in the Games too. I know District 11 is an allegory for the deep south, plantations, etc, but she didn’t *need* to do that. Giving a well loved character “dark brown skin and eyes” was enough to make me and every other Black HG fan I know feel like we were noticed and included. I immediately zeroed in on that line and was really excited. “Wait. Whaaaat? There are BLACK PEOPLE in this book?” (Yes, it’s that exciting because it’s that rare) Doing nothing but changing a character’s skin color really can have a huge impact on readers without changing anything else about your story.

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Excellent point, Gemma. I think what I’m trying to say there is that whomever populates our novel, they need to be authentic and true to their own experiences. Sometimes it’s not a drastic difference–might not even show up on the page–b/c after all, we’re all human. In Rue’s case, her race didn’t color her experiences as much as the life-threatening poverty (pre-games) and the fight to the death in the games, so that’s what we got to see. I love that Collins included her.

      Though, even when race is secondarily described, I would encourage all authors of finding more unique ways to do it other than the cliched coffee or food metaphors! At this point I’d even prefer straight up “dark brown skin” to anything more “clever.” :-)

      Thanks for weighing in on this!

      • I wanted to make a comment about the food metaphors too. “Dark brown skin” “light brown skin” “Olive skin” (oops, olives are food) whatever. I don’t tend to put much physical description of characters in my books but I have used the term “almond shaped eyes” and though it’s a cliché that might not make the second draft, I stand by it. Why? Because almond is a shape, like diamond, toothpick, or any number of other shape metaphors. Cafe au lait is a shade of brown. People use it to describe paint, fabric, carpets, the sand on beaches and yes, skin tone.
        If we encourage writers of all colors to write stories including diverse characters why then imply that using a term like “almond shaped eyes” is not only a cliché (it is) but also somehow racist? Because that is the implication made here and in the Atlantic Wire piece. Furthermore, the implication is that white writers must dance around any number of other clichés and tropes with regards to race if they are brave enough to include characters of color.
        I think we need to draw a distinction between clichés and racism. The brainy Asian best friend is a cliché, but it’s not racist. Some people do have Asian best friends. Some Asian kids are brainy. Making said Asian friend bucktoothed and squinty like a 1940s propaganda poster would be racist (http://chumpfish3.blogspot.ca/2011/03/jappy-so-happy.html).
        Racism is a serious offence that most decent minded people would be horrified to be accused of. Clichés, by comparison are misdemeanors. If we insist that every writer who includes a diverse cast must be a literary genius who never makes mistakes or uses a tired phrase now and then we are going to seriously limit the number of books with the diversity we seek. I, for one, am out.

        • Sarah Ockler says:

          Oh I agree with you! I think we have to make mistakes in order to put ourselves out there and try something new, and we shouldn’t be afraid of doing so. My points are that for writers who want to include diverse characters, 1) simply giving a character x-color skin or x-shaped eyes, without taking into account his unique experiences or nuances as a person, is not really diverse writing (and I would say the same thing for the white airheaded, blond, heart-shaped face, bow-shaped lips cheerleader paired with the jocky white meatheaded football captain). I guess in that way it’s more about creating well-rounded, multi-dimensional characters than about race. And 2) when we *are* describing race, there are more interesting and fresh ways to do it than food metaphors, or less interesting but straightforward ways to do it, neither of which require literary genius.

          “Dancing around” tropes and cliches feels like we need to tiptoe, and that’s part of the problem in this country with race issues overall. We keep tiptoeing. Instead of dancing around the cliches, we should actively seek to avoid them, actively and intentionally look for fresh takes and unique writing (and that goes for characters as well as situations, themes, words, etc.). Not just to be diverse, but to be better writers (something I think we can all agree that we’re trying to do with each new book or story we write). I’m all for taking chances though, and I commend any author for trying, even if we make mistakes.

          And I agree that racism and cliched writing are very different! Cliched writing is not a crime against humanity, but it is something we should strive to avoid. Brainy Asians exist, but if that’s the *only* thing about them on the page, and if the writer constantly calls attention to that detail, it’s boring. Not racist, just typical. I think that’s what the article is trying to point at (and what I’m trying to point at).

          Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

        • cindypon says:

          ah. but so much of stereotype *is* racist. as a writer, if you are writing outside of your own culture, it is SO important to do research and be aware of all the cliches out there. because as an asian american, i’ve seen us only predominantly represented as cliches in the media: the default being nerd, dragon lady, ninja. to put it simply. the danger is when you create an asian geeky best friend, and there is no depth to the character other than that. it is like the token gay best friend. who drops in for a few lines and is card board. it is bad to write card board characters, period. but you are really unknowingly contributing to very hurtful stereotype when you do so with PoC characters, because there are so *few* in the novels. we need them to be represented in a more thoughtful manner. so in that sense, yes, it is more challenging to be inclusive. not that much more so, but i do think it requires the writer to do more research and be more aware and form more well rounded characters.

        • Yahong says:

          I would say that the problem extends beyond JUST cliched writing. I have read before that using food like “chocolate” and “cocoa” has negative connotations for people of colour because of history, where slaves were forced to work on plantations. Will say upfront that I have no hard evidence to back me up, but I think it’s definitely something to think about. It might not matter to some people, but then it might. As well, is it really so hard to find a different word?

          On a somewhat different note, as a Chinese-identifying person, I don’t appreciate the cliched “almond” adjective being used to describe an Asian person’s eyes. Because it has been used so often before to represent everything Asian, stereotypes and all, it immediately gives a lot of connotation to the character being described. If worse comes to worst and there is no other word you find suitable, mentioning their race/ethnicity without making a big deal of what they look like works just fine.

  12. KM says:

    LOVE this post! I’m querying my manuscript right now, which has all Asian characters besides the protagonist since it’s set in China. It also involves a multi-cultural romance. I’ve been getting a little discouraged lately by the market and how it seems most people who want to read travel-ish books all want to read about Europe, as well as the lack of Asian characters in YA contemporary. (There are some great ones in fantasy and dystopian!) So this was really encouraging!

    I also loved what you said about white writers writing people of color. Why can’t caucasians write about African Americans? Why can’t African Americans write about caucasians? They totally can! Oh, and the Starbucks comment? Hysterical! Let’s just be honest and say “white” or “Latino” or “black.” lol

  13. cindypon says:

    thank for taking the time to write this sarah. it is so true. as one of the very few PoC YA authors, the burden *shouldn’t* be on me to represent or *have* to write for asian-american readers, you know? it really does take a village to create this sort of positive movement. and yes, it CAN be scary and you very well might be told that you “got it wrong”. but you know what? i’ve been told the same. it is very personal and it’s the fact that you’re inclusive (and have been sensitive to sterotypes and done your research) and have “gotten it right” for many that matters most, i think.

    also, for our Diversity in YA tour, cheryl klein specifically said that she is looking for more diverse fiction and i do believe this is true for many children’s and YA publishers out there. it’s just a matter of changing how we view these books from marketing to publicity to booksellers to readers to writers, it is a many layered endeavor! challenging, but entirely possible!

  14. What a great reminder! As a writer of Young Adult Fantasy, I am grateful for the lesson/heads-up/reminder, Sarah! You raise some very poignant and important points.

    I “pressed” your post into the blog for my novel, “The Crimson League,” which tells the story of teen sorceress Kora Porteg, who joins a resistance group to save her homeland after a coup d’etat from a noble-born sorcerer. http://wp.me/2oycN

  15. Laura H. says:

    Loved this post and totally agree. Am not published (yet, hopefully) but have a diverse group of kids in my story…not just racially but nationally as well. I love my diverse friendships and want that to come out through my British Indian character and my Czech character (to name a few). Let’s bridge the race and nations gap and see how much we can benefit from each other…even if it’s just a story! Bravo!

  16. tadmack says:

    I very much appreciate this whole post.
    I worry sometimes that I strip my characters of color of anything but their color, in an effort to write them as *human* but at the same time, maybe it’s just that I refuse to add the zingy one liners and catchwords, yo.

    I feel cautiously optimistic that I might be on the right track, at least…

  17. ycwrite says:

    Just one reaction. Wow! I love this post. Your thoughts on this topic are a wonderful read for me. I’m a Black Latina who is working on a multiracial urban fantasy romance. As a young writer, I’ve been doing the things all writers do: attending conferences, finding critique partners, blogging, etc. Yet, I find that I have to keep my enthusiasm level up because I’ve learned writers of color face daunting odds. Listen to this: 75% of the book-buying public is white. What does this mean for writers like me who would like to make a living writing books? I started exploring the lack of diversity in YA in my blog. I’m hoping I’ll meet people who want to explore this topic, and do so in a safe environment. Race is a ‘sticky’ issue, and we’ve been avoiding it to our detriment. As a writer, I want someone to someday say they were so engrossed in my book, they missed their stop. As a person of color (PoC), I someday want a young girl or boy to say they saw themselves in my characters. As a human being, I don’t care if that boy or girl is a PoC, but it would feel mighty special if they were.

  18. When I started submitting manuscripts to agents, I was afraid that revealing my ethnicity would damage my chances (yeah, yeah, I know). But then an agent told me, how do you expect me to sell your work when the most interesting thing about you is that you are Filipino and there is not a single thing that reveals that in your book? That’s when I realized that it’s not Write What You Know but Write WHO YOU ARE. And boy am I glad I took her advice.

    It’s exactly the same problem some white authors probably have with writing non-white characters. If you invest your character with truth and a heart that really beats, your character will come alive, no matter the colour of his/her skin. Write who you are – the truth will set your character free.

  19. Andrea says:

    Fantastic food for thought… I think it can be tough, though, to find that balance between making the story all about the minority protagonist’s identity as that minority, and stripping her of everything that is associated with that minority group (except the skin), to paraphrase. I think white authors are probably afraid because they know they will offend SOMEBODY. I mean, say you want to write that Mexican girl you whose grandma makes banging tamales, okay, cool. But someone, somewhere (or a lot of someones) will be offended that tamales are even mentioned at all in conjunction with her Mexican-ness, and call that a cliche and derogatory, and then what do you do? It’s daunting. I know you can’t please everybody, but once you get publicly accused of racism it is hard to come back from that. So I think white authors shy away from it, not because they don’t want to write such characters, but because if they get one detail “wrong” and someone takes enough issue with it, the repercussions could be dire.

    Also, I think a lot of these “token” minority characters aren’t there to be a lame *insert token minority of choice here* character, but they are there because that is truly how the writer sees her protagonist’s friends group looking. I had a story set in Seattle’s Eastside with an important friend being Indian (where that would be geographically believable)… but due to some plot changes, the story is now being moved to a section of the Rockies where that might be considered a stretch and therefore she might be seen as “token.” But I don’t want to get rid of my girl from India because she kicks ass and I love her. I can’t imagine her being anyone else.

    Also, what if your high school really does have a taco bar? Mine did.

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Wait, I thought the whole point of writing YA was so we could offend people? That’s why I signed up! ;-)

      Kidding. I totally see your point. Yes, someone will likely be offended. I know some people were offended by a joke one of my black character’s made in Bittersweet. But I think we have to try to work through it and talk about it. It’s the only way to make a change, hard as it may be.

      And I think you should totally keep your kickass Indian girl! I live in Colorado. There are lots of Indians here. No worries. :-) Seriously, I think the key to avoiding being accused of tokenism is to just let the character shine through as a “real” person, no matter where the story is set. I bet you did a great job.

      BTW, high school taco bar… we had a taco bar in college, but I never did trust the meat in high school, whether it was served in taco style or meatloaf or anything else. Scary stuff! Maybe times have changed. I’m pretty old after all. :-)

      Thanks for visiting.

  20. karensandler says:

    Lee and Low/Tu Books is doing a great job publishing science fiction, fantasy, and mystery YA with POC as main characters. For the five books they’ve released, the heroes/heroines have been Native American, black, Japanese American, Chinese American, and Roma. Three of us are white authors. The classroom talks I’ve done, the kids don’t care what race the main character is as long as it’s a good book.

  21. Love this. As an (unpublished, but whatever) white writer, I often run into the issue of “race” in my stories. The novel I’m working on now has one of the most diverse casts I’ve written — the MCs are white, but their wider group of friends includes white, Mexican, and black kids. The thing is – especially with the black boy – their culture (or at least what’s seen of it in the book) is pretty much the same as the white characters’ and I find myself in the weird position of having to specifically mention that this character ISN’T WHITE and I feel *almost* like I’m doing something “wrong” by making him black but then not exploring that culture (or whatever) at all in the book, even though it’s SO NOT THE POINT OF THE STORY.

    So I’m all mixed up. I want to include characters of different races, especially since most of these characters have been not-white since the beginning, but I don’t want to have to write some sort of racial sub-plot to justify it, if that makes sense.

    • norroway says:

      The problem is that a lot of authors and readers assume white as the default. If you feel like it’s out of place to describe your black characters in terms of race but not your white characters, it’s because it is. I personally believe the way to fix that is to describe everyone (smoothly, of course, fitting in specific details here and there as appropriate).

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Hey Jordyn! First of all, you’re a great writer, so have confidence in your ability to tackle this (just the fact that you’re thinking of it speaks volumes). I think one way to show the diversity is to just let some of their unique quirks and experiences stand out. You don’t need a racial subplot to do it. We’re all influenced by our experiences and perspectives growing up. So, for example, as a white girl who grew up in the WNY suburbs, I have a different way of looking at the world, talking, gesturing, processing, relating, dressing, eating, joking around etc. than a white girl from NYC, or a black boy from New Orleans, or you. Just think about who your characters are as individuals and try to find ways to let those little unique details shine through. Trust yourself. :-)

  22. Sarah, I’m so glad you wrote this. Race in YA is something that is on my mind all the time. I’m a white writer, but all of my main characters so far have been Asian girls. It’s so important to me to tell a fun contemporary story that isn’t just about white girls and isn’t just about race. I teach high school and my Asian students are cheerleaders and like trance music and they are on the band and they are in a band and they are stoners and they are in AP classes and everything in the middle. They are the stars of their own stories, they are not just the best friend or the generic background member of the crowd. But they don’t have anyone on my classroom library shelves who looks like them (well, hardly anyone), and I want to change that.

    I feel like the stories of white girls are being told already, and I really have nothing to add to that conversation. I’m way more interested in the stories of these girls who are always the side character / friend. I want to give them a chance to share their story.

  23. Kristan says:

    Just wanted to say: YES, THIS.

    Thank you for writing such an intelligent and thorough post about this important issue.

  24. davidmacinnisgill says:

    My debut novel, Soul Enchilada, features a black Tejana female protagonist named Bug. While I agree with pretty much everything you said and while I wouldn’t change a thing in the novel, I wish I could share the emails (I no longer have them) I received from readers who were not happy that I was a white male, or the blog posts discussing whether or not I should have been allowed to write such a novel (those are online somewhere). Most dishearteningly, I’d like to point out the reviews on Goodreads that use racial epitaphs and the language of white privilege to criticize the main character’s use of language and “bad grammar.” It’s a complex issue, and I don’t have any answers, but it’s much harder than anyone can imagine to not “write white.”

    • cindypon says:

      i’m sorry to read this because you know i love Soul Enchilada, david. it can be a complicated issue indeed because it can be personal for each reader. but i bet you had more people who loved and applauded you for writing bug than not.

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      “Allowed” to write it… wow. I’m sorry you had to experience that. And I’m afraid that won’t be the first or last time we hear of that kind of response. Still, I’m glad to hear that you wouldn’t have changed anything about Soul Enchilada. It’s certainly complex, and it brings up another question: for white writers writing characters of color, does anything less than perfection (or at least a “really good” character) invite criticism on the issue of race? I would argue that all heros in stories are flawed and weak, and through the experiences of the story they often find their hidden strengths. But if a white author writes a not-so-loveable character of color, is there a danger there?

      Also, you mention that it’s harder than anyone can imagine to not write white. Do you mean the actual writing, or just the potential fallout? Has the criticism of Soul Enchilada influenced how you write characters of color now? I would imagine there’s a voice on your shoulder, warning you about “what happened last time.” Is that the case?

    • Hi David,

      I’m going to pick up your book this weekend. Please know that after I started a blog critiquing The Help, I was told I’d set race relations back 50 years. Oh, and that “I voted for Obama” whatever that was supposed to mean, among other comments I can’t post here.

  25. Monica says:

    Excellent post! I feel very strongly about this topic because I’m a POC and there were never any books about people like me when I was growing up. If a MC was a brunette, that was as close as I could get. For white writers looking how to write POC while avoiding stereotypes, there is a great article from The Writer Magazine: http://bit.ly/f3QFNp

  26. Thanks for reminding me of this issue, it’s easy to keep writing what you know and not push yourself to take a step into someone else’s world, However, not everyone would agree that if you’re causcasion you can write about those who aren’t. I’m in Australia and when I was a visual theatre performer, one piece I created was rejected by a school approval board because we had used music with a digereedoo in it and we weren’t aboriginal. Amazing, isn’t it!

    I can write Asian characters because I know a lot of Asians, but aboriginal, no. You’d have to have spent a lot of time with someone who is aboriginal to be able to pull that off realistically, without doing them a diservice and without risking offending people. You’d have to be so committed to diversity that you’d do the personal research required ie get to know someone from out of your box.

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Hi Thalia! Yes, I think that’s just it – “you’d have to be so committed to diversity that you’d do the personal research required – get to know someone from out of your box.” I would argue we need to do this with all of our characters, even the ones who are similar to ourselves, but more so for characters whose worldviews and experiences are so drastically different. Thanks for visiting. :-)

  27. S.G. says:

    Not a convincing article, really, for a number of reasons.

    For instance, implying that ethnicity always correlates to a different lifestyle is inaccurate (and kind of racist, frankly). In the case of young adult fiction (not something I read or write, to be fair), it seems to me the emulation of the reality of high school or junior-high students is desirable; in these environments, ethnicity is RARELY a major defining feature.

    Another huge flaw in the article is using Stephanie Meyer’s capacity to write about vampire romance as an example of how lack of personal experience in a given subject does not necessarily debilitate our capacity to write about it convincingly. Clearly, with the evidence provided in this carefully-selected example, it does.

    The article ultimately feels self-righteous and dated–the kind of thing you write to get a fast stream of unthinking supporters without relevance to the reality of today’s young adults.

    Was directed here by an MFA program’s Facebook status.

    • cindypon says:

      i can see you taking issue with points in the article, but i didn’t think you needed to insult all of the readers who found this post thoughtful as well as thought provoking? much less the author for taking the time to address such a timely issue in YA today.

      as for race NOT being a defining feature for most high school students… i grew up in los angeles and it most certainly was. it doesn’t always have to be, no. i found that sometimes, that sort of identifying doesn’t occur until one’s college years. i think it’s different for every individual, but to say that racial identity doesn’t affect most high school students? that seems a bit far fetched.

    • gemmabennett says:

      I’ve been reserving additional comments on this page for a blog post, because I have SO much to say, but I had to address this:

      “it seems to me the emulation of the reality of high school or junior-high students is desirable; in these environments, ethnicity is RARELY a major defining feature.”

      I believe that you believe that. And your statement may even be true for many teens in the racial majority. But for the rest of us, it’s about as far from the truth as a statement can be.

      As a Black woman, my ethnicity has not been a ‘majorly defining feature’ for one short and specific period. The four years that I attended a Historically Black University. Because there, I was in the majority. But in every year of schooling before and after that (elementary, middle, high, and law school) it was *very much* a defining feature.

      And this is not unique to me. I lived in D.C. for seven years, and in EVERY conversation about race that I’ve had with a Black person who went to a predominantly White school (and there have been many of these conversation, with people from all over the world) they strongly felt that ethnicity was a major defining feature. I recommend you read Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” Or listen to any song by Childish Gambino. Or just google ‘acting white’ and/or ‘achievement gap’ if you still aren’t convinced.

      • Sarah Ockler says:

        Thanks, Gemma. Please share the link to your post when you’re ready — I’d love to hear your thoughts.

        • I’d love to read the post too – commenting so that I get a notice when you post the link!

        • Gemma says:

          Thanks ladies. I’m writing it bit by bit, adding citations to my main points, and giving myself some time to make sure I’m saying what I really mean and not emotionally reacting to anyone else’s words. It’s way too easy to do that when talking about race and doesn’t help any of us :)

          Sarah, I was already a fan of your work, but working on my post about this has made me respect you even more. This is difficult stuff to write. It’s so necessary but it can be awkward and uncomfortable and you worry about offending someone in this everlasting word preserver that is the internet. And I say that as a Black woman, who by virtue of being a POC will probably be granted more leeway to say what I want about this.

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, S.G. I’d like to address your points.

      1) The article never states or implies that ethnicity correlates to a different lifestyle — just a different worldview/perspective/experience. Every single one of us has a different worldview, so mine is different from yours, mine is different from a man’s, mine is different from a Puerto Rican woman’s. We all have different experiences, often influenced by our cultural and ethnic heritage and race — and to deny that uniqueness would in fact be racist. Perspective is not the same thing as lifestyle.

      2) I agree with Cindy. To say that ethnicity is rarely a defining feature in high school seems a bit of a stretch. Every single difference is a potentially defining feature in high school — that’s why it’s often so difficult for teens to feel like they belong or like they’re understood.

      3) I’m happy to hear your thoughts on why the Meyer example doesn’t hold up, but you’d have to explain your reasons for calling it flawed instead of just calling it flawed. For example, I could understand the argument that vampires aren’t real, and therefore they’re open to interpretation for anyone to write about without fear of “getting it wrong.” I’m not sure what your point was with that example.

      4) Calling the commenters on this article “a fast stream of unthinking supporters” and implying I wrote it “without relevance to the reality of today’s young adults” is insulting and pointless (made more so by your own admission that you, unlike most of the commenters here, don’t write or read YA). I welcome you to participate in this important discussion, and I appreciate differing opinions and classy debate, but I request that you show me and the other readers and commenters respect.

    • Melinda says:

      May I direct you to Racefail 2009? http://wiki.feministsf.net/index.php?title=RaceFail_09

      I live in a predominantly white/conservative area, and though I seem more PoC kids at school now (including my nephew), the conversations I still hear white having regarding race still set my hair on fire.

      Oh, yes, it still defines people, a hell of a lot more than it should. But just because we’re white doesn’t mean we get to call the shots on whether people are affected by ethnicity. We get to live outside of it. We’re safe. Other folks don’t have that luxury. That’s what we want to change.

      *blasts hair with fire extinguisher*

  28. Heaven says:

    Nice article. It’s great this issue is getting more exposure. White authors should step up to the plate, sure, but it’s equally as important to get more authors of color out there, telling our stories, whatever that may bet. That’s a big part of the equation. White people can’t do it alone. So I think that’s a major next step we should be taking… exploring where the POC writers are and how we can help them come into the forefront. Of course, they won’t be expected to tell us something about the entire experience of their particular ethnic group but be invited to participate in the quilt work of stories that help make up the collective literally landscape for minority characters, the same place where the white writers are invited and encouraged to participate. And more POCs need to be the forefront of the story, as nice as it is to have everyone in the background mixed up but the main character still white. I think race is still important to a lot of teens in America, something they are aware of, want to read about. I love stories about black suburban teens, as that was my experience. So we need to come at this at all angles.

    • Stacy says:

      Completely agree. Just so you know, that’s one of the missions of the CBC Diversity Committee–encouraging authors of color by asking agents to specifically let people know they’re looking for diversity. (As well as working on diversity in publishing personnel and doing school visits to show diverse kids that publishing is an interesting career possibility.)

      At Tu Books (and at Lee & Low in general), we are actively looking for new voices to discover as well, unagented and agented.

  29. For the record, I’m not an unthinking supporter! I have problems with the post, and with the whole discussion about diversity in YA too (some I detailed above). I just want to say one more thing: a lot of it depends on what the book is about. If it’s about, say romance and bullying in high school, then it would feel weird to have diverse characters with very little discussion of their culture, race etc. ON the other hand if the world has gone to hell in a hand-basket and the zombies are devouring people, I hardly think most heroic teens would take the time to celebrate Kwanzaa or whatever right? I guess the point is, in dangerous circumstances we are all more alike than perhaps we experience in our ordinary “safe” lives. That said, it’s also conceivable that a zombie apocalypse in, say, Florida, could rapidly degenerate into race riots.

    • That sounded more facetious than I meant. No disrespect to Florida or race riots meant, or the recent events there.

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Yes, like in Hunger Games. Rue wasn’t concerned about her race — she was concerned about staying alive. In that context and story, it worked well.

      • Exactly. When you’re all lined up to die together, you might not be thinking about race. However, in the Hunger Games, it could have gone another way. If say six tributes were black and six Asian, they might have made alliances based on race I suppose but that would have complicated the story too much?

    • irreverently says:

      A lot of zombie films comment on race and racism, from Night of the Living Dead onward. People in dangerous circumstances still cling to frightening ideas of power, superiority, et cetera.

  30. [...] Ockler has an excellent post up about the issue of race in YA. Like most other genres, the characters are predominantly white, and so are the authors. Sarah [...]

  31. [...] 1. “Race in YA Lit: Wake Up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin!” by Sarah Ockler [...]

  32. Keren David says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful and interesting post. I think about diversity a lot when writing my books, and I try to make them represent the multi-cultural city (London) that I live in.
    One thing you don’t mention is having diverse adult characters. I think it’s s important to challenge the idea that authority figures are likely to be white men. Therefore I have a senior policeman in my first book When I Was Joe who is black. His ethnicity is pretty irrelevant to the story, but I think it’s important that it’s there. There’s a woman judge in the sequel. Sometimes just a word or a pronoun when describing a minor character is enough to shake lazy assumptions.
    I’ve noticed a spate of Muslim characters in UK YA boks recently, mostly focussing on the important subjects of terrorism and extremism. In my latest book, Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery I have a central character Shazia (yes, yes, the Asian best friend) whose Muslim faith prevents her sharing in her friend’s lottery win. I wanted to reflect the Muslim girls that I meet when I go to schools, keen open-minded readers who are certainly not preoccupied with extremism.
    I think that writers shouldn’t be scared to have minority characters as villains either. Lia comes up against a lot of jealousy when she wins the lottery, and one of the most outspoken girls is black. It’s only an issue when it needs to be.
    I’ve just read a book written by an American writer set in a part of London I know well, in which the area’s Bangladeshi community seems to have been ethnically cleansed out of the book altogether. I can only imagine the bafflement of a girl from a Bangladeshi family reading that book. Writers of contemporary fiction need to open their eyes and write about the diversity that is all around them. Writers of fantasy, dystopia and even historical fiction should make sure they don’t have a whitewashed imagination.

  33. Great post. I write romance, I’m a Midwestern white woman, and I’ve been planning a Cambodian-American heroine for an upcoming book — but waffling for just the reasons you describe. Thanks for the kick in the ass.

  34. Sarah,

    I’m going to apologize for my long winded response and thank you again for your much needed assessment. The creative mind is a beautiful thing, and authors should know that many of them have a loyal, diverse fanbase even if their worldbuilding doesn’t contain a minority. But if teens and adults can be paired with Demons, Vampires, Werewolves, Angels and the like, then surely having a love interest of another race can be added to the mix.

    And Cynthia Omololu, I love, love, love your cover and the concept for your novel. This will be a must read for me and my girls.

  35. Sarah, well said! It’s good to see the discussion continuing in the comments. I’d add that it’s not just the story world;the real world is diverse too. Your story will be more believable if it includes people of color, with special needs and not all heterosexual. If an author feels uncomfortable writing about minorities due to lack of exposure, this would be a great opportunity to volunteer at the local high school and connect with more diverse teens. It’s a win-win for all. I haven’t read any of your books yet, but after reading this post, I will check one out. I came here via YA Highway.

  36. ljcohen says:

    Thank you for this–I’m in the midst of revising a YA urban fantasy that centers around a 17 year old boy aging out of foster care. He’s white, his foster parents are black, and he gets involved with a Latina. I am a white, middle aged woman, so am none of the above. I hope that I am writing all my characters from a place of deep authenticity.

  37. Sarah, I hope you don’t mind, but I’m passing this link onto my husband and his students. He is teaching a class on Global Media Politics, and they are currently discussing the topic of racism on the internet.

    I forgot to mention in my last comment that the MC of my realistic contemporary WIP is half Chinese and half Jewish, and there is a diverse cast of secondary characters. It’s encouraging to see so much support here for writers writing beyond their race in YA. (ljchohen, go for it!)

  38. [...] Sarah Ockler wrote a thought-provoking post about race in YA Lit. [...]

  39. [...] Ockler wrote this kick ass piece about Race in YA Lit. She is witty and observant. This post makes me want to read her books. I love the tag line for her [...]

  40. Natalie says:

    Hi Sarah! I was so glad to come across this post, because it’s an issue that I’m very concerned about. I’m actually in the process of writing a seminar paper for my rhetorical theory class on a similar topic…the whitewashing of children’s and young adult book covers. You make a lot of great points here, and hopefully, as this issue is talked about more and more, the problem will eventually be eradicated!

  41. Kailia Sage says:

    I am SO GLAD I came across this post. I’ve always been an avid reader and while I like all types of books, I have noticed the whitewashing going on. While I have no issue with reading a book about a Caucasian girl by a Caucasian author, I want to read more diverse books. I’m Indian and I can’t name a lot of books that have teens of different races in them, as side character or even a main character, Indian or not. I’ve come across something that makes me extremely furious:

    1) I think it’s perfectly fine for a Caucasian author to write about a character of a different race but I think consideration should be taken. I’ve read books that have mentioned Indian teens or India or the culture, and the fact were just…wrong. And hurtful. If you’re going to write about another culture, do it, but know what the heck it is you’re talking about. I was very upset that this author didn’t take the time to research that maybe the culture was different and more defined than what she had said. With your point in #1, if the author doesn’t have the brain to do some research or ask someone about another culture or race, don’t write about it. Maybe some of it is unintentional, but believe me when I say that it hurts.

    In my opinion, Libba Bray did an amazing job of adding race into her Gemma Doyle books by making Gemma, a Caucasian girl, have an Indian love interest, Karthik. I was very happy because I hadn’t anticipated this but it seemed to me that Libba Bray knew what she was doing. She researched the time in which her book was sent and I wasn’t offended by anything.

    I don’t know. While, yes, I want there to be more diversity, I want it to be done…well, in an inoffensive way. Stay away from stereotypes of races EVEN THOUGH many prove to be true but other times, they’re not.

  42. laina1312 says:

    I have trouble with this personally. Partly I think in my one book, the characters don’t trust me enough (I spent months poking at one character before he finally told me his story – turns out half Hispanic, half white, bisexual and lots and lots of emotional baggage :P) but also… I am not so great with description in general. Even with my main characters. Partly… I have a side character who I know is Asian and I don’t want to say that a way where it’s that she’s “the Asian girl” because holy heck that doesn’t seem right and I don’t want to stereotype. And I’m not good at description :P I’d be a TERRIBLE witness.

  43. Angie says:

    Thank you for this! Using the Starbucks menu, I’d be a hazelnut latte (also my drink of choice!) and I have to say there’s not enough girls who look like me in fiction. I don’t actively seek out books with non-white characters, but I do get excited when I run across a colored character who is not a token or a stereotype. :)

    The latest book review I posted actually briefly mentions this topic.

  44. jenlanebooks says:

    This post ROCKED! Loved what you said about writing good stories for teens and about White people (like me) struggling to describe a Black person. My first YA just launched and my hero is Biracial. I don’t strive to teach a moral lesson from his skin color, but I do explore a theme of feeling like you don’t fit in (which resonates for just about every teen, I believe). He’s Biracial, his girlfriend’s father is in prison, his male teammate is gay, and his female teammate is overweight. They all struggle with being “fish out of water” in this swimming story. Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

  45. [...] Sarah Ockler: Race in YA Lit: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, YA Authors [at her own blog] [...]

  46. [...] Race in YA Lit: Wake Up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors! ”Our society has created and perpetuated the expectation that, with a few notable exceptions, YA books with non-white characters either tackle a social injustice head on or strip out the character’s entho/cultural/gender/etc. uniqueness altogether. The black character, then, must either struggle under the weight of “the black experience” or blend in so completely that the only black thing about him is his coffee-coloured skin (which is of course described with a frequency the white character’s “peaches and cream” coloured skin is not). The whole conundrum is compounded by the fact that plenty of cranky grownups still cling to the misguided belief that YA exists solely to teach kids lessons. The result, if the Atlantic Wire article is indicative of the larger problem, is that whenever we write a non-white (or a non-hetero, non-insert-socio-ethno-psychological-category-here) character, we’re taking it upon ourselves to write the non-whatever “experience.” Whatever else happens in the story, my gay character should have a difficult coming out story, and he should be bullied so that I can send a message that homophobia is wrong. My black characters should be subject to racism so I can preach about diversity and tolerance.” [...]

  47. [...] Race in YA Lit: Wake Up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors! [...]

  48. [...] April, YA author Sarah Ockler had a great post about the difficulty with finding YA books that don’t feature “white authors, white [...]

  49. Rahimah says:

    Sarah, your article on Diversity and white authors was right on. I read it with interest as I am an author of color who writes about YA of color. I belonged to a well known online writers group and had introduced my stories there. The stories were well recieved by the majority of general reviewers but there was one reviewer who caused my heart to anguish and I withdrew from the group because of what I saw as blatant ignorance in his critiquing of works by me , a black author only because the characters may not be based upon expectations that “all black characters have to portray crime laden, and or disfunctional families. My story was about fantasy and two sisters finding a magical trunk. The person who reviewed my story stated in his first sentence ” I found it to be a problem when I found out the chracters were black!” He then went on to explain how he was disappointed because he envisioned the characters to be “white” and they weren’t. I wasn’t trying to portray them as white but wanted people to be aware that children of color also dream and have ideas of becoming heroes and super heroes too. The ignorance of the other writer brought a flasback to my mind of my son coming home one day in the 1990’s , very sad because in the school yard when he was playing “Power Rangers” he was told by a white classmate that he couldn’t be a Power Ranger” because he was black and Power Rangers were white. Sad, sad state of affairs when in 2012, an adult makes a comment about the race of the characters being disappointing to him…..

  50. doriantgray says:

    I love this post! I think that it has a lot to do with being afraid to mention it (like you said). We want to live in a color blind society, but as writers, when it comes to describing what a character looks like, we will have to use language to include race–bluntly or otherwise.

    I think we are afraid of being called racist; it isn’t a fun thing to be called. But I also think that African Americans are not so offended by the term “black” either. I’m white, so I don’t really know.

    Like you said, it is a sticky subject, but if we want to move past this, we are going to have to just try it out and see what happens. Otherwise, we’re going to be stuck in this void of “not knowing how to handle it.”

  51. [...] library, I looked up Ockler’s blog and found an amazing essay she wrote about the issue of diversity (or lack thereof) in Young Adult literature. Given that I wholeheartedly agree with everything she said (including [...]

  52. [...] a response to an Atlantic Wire article, Sarah Ockler argues that since the vast majority of YA literature is written by white authors – with only [...]

  53. […] for those who are interested in continuing the discussion, I’ll point you to a blog post here:http://sarahockler.com/2012/04/30/race-in-ya-lit-wake-up-smell-the-coffee-colored-skin-white-authors… and to the Diversity in YA Tumblr, run by Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon, […]

  54. Someone recently mentioned my blog about writing diversity when you’re not A,B or C. :)

    So i backtracked and it lead me here =D I have two blogs that feature incorporating diversity, so this was a delight to read =D

    Im a new follower!

  55. Reblogged this on My path to self publishing Multicultural YA, Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels and commented:
    A tweet comparing our writing diversity in books when you’re not black, gay, a woman,etc lead me to this author =D I just had to reblog it, had some good advice!

  56. This is an amazing post! Found it on a retweet. I wrote something similar no more than a week ago. I’m always happy when people address this obvious issue in YA novels! I’ve even dedicated both my blogs to multicultural authors and fiction. One is a book review blog, the other is a writing advice blog. I hope to check out your books one of these days XD

    Twinjabookreviews.blogspot.com

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Thanks so much for the retweet/reblog and for your comments! It’s definitely an important and ongoing discussion. I’m always happy to find more blogs that deal with diversity (or lack thereof!) in YA. Pretty sure I’m following you on Twitter, but off to double check now!

  57. I read alot of black readers dont like to be compared to food when describing their skin color. While I can see why many dislike this, i think a part of me has to disagree that it’s offensive =D

    There arent as many flattering ways to describe dark skin, as fair skin. That’s just a sad part of how we are cultured. Especially those of us in the United States. I bought a book on how to describe features in detail, especially when you write, and especially when you’re attempting to use words like black or white(my first series features a world where they dont use those terms to describe race) and there are 17 ways to describe pale skin, 2 ways to describe dark skin,in a FLATTERING way. There are 23 ways to describe noses and features that are associated with European features(nose bridge, eye shape,etc.) non Europeans? about 4 =/

    Having my skin color compared to food isnt ideal, but it’s much better than the alternative of dirt, gravel, feces, roaches, or coal. There are hundreds of color in this world, but alot of people dont research them, so for lazy people, food is the most appealing thing most people reference when describing darker skin.

    Im sure people will disagree =D I just figured I’d put that out there!

    • Sarah Ockler says:

      Great to hear your perspective on this. For me, when I read books with POC characters, what stands out isn’t so much the food descriptions in and of themselves (though I do think there are probably less cliched ways, even if it’s not necessarily *offensive* to say “mocha skin” or “almond-shaped eyes”), but the fact that often, the non-white characters are the only ones described. So it’s automatically othering them. I’ve yet to come across a book with both POC and white characters where the POC skin color is described as mocha/latte/caramel *and* the white skin is described (the color of French vanilla ice cream, perhaps… ;-) ).

      But… roaches? Feces? GAH. How could anyone think that’s even remotely okay? Sheesh.

    • Zenith Graham says:

      Thank you so much for being so frank about this. I am writing a book with a relatively diverse cast, and I do tend to physically describe everyone as much as I can, across the board. As a reader I like to get the physical cues as much as the emotional beats.

      I’m curious if you have any tips for how to physically describe people of color well–getting away from the tired old food cliches. Are there examples of people who’ve physically described race in a fresh, interesting, respectful way?

      Obviously I’m focused on creating well-rounded characters, more than fretting about how they look…but I don’t want to let myself weasel out of giving an interesting description just because I’m afraid.

      • First of all, I’m glad that this seems really important to you! I can certainly help with descriptions and such if you are able to reach me by email. I’d be so happy to help! My email is Guinevere.Libertadtomas at gmail dot com this is somewhat a passion if kind so anything I can do to help let me know!!!!!

  58. […] diversity in children’s and teen’s books (except writing about diversity in an authentic way is hard to do when you go to […]

  59. […] From Sarah Ockler’s blog post “Race in YA Lit: Wake up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!” […]

  60. Race in YA Lit: Wake Up

    [...] What host are you using? Can I am getting your associate link on your host? I want site loaded up as fast as yours lol[...]

  61. I do have a few questions. In the story I am working on everyone is growing up in the same place. A dimension that is highly influenced by Italy. Now…as of this moment all of my characters are full Italian except for four. Two of the four just happen to be black.
    How do I show how wonderfully diverse these characters are when they have grown up in the same setting as the “white” characters?
    And am I a bad person for having so few diverse characters when my setting really can’t have that many diverse characters?
    Like my High School literally had two black kids, one Hispanic kid and one Asian, because I went to a farm school in Ohio where our diversity is low. So…should I add more diverse people, even if the setting does not have that many diverse people?
    My story has a lot of diversity…Mages, Witches, elves, Fairies. ect. But nothing relating to skin tone….
    Help?

    • @ Cassie Burns

      Well, first of all congrats! You consciously created more than one character whom is a person of color. That is more than we can say about most mainstream books.

      Second, I highly doubt having mainly white characters makes you a bad person. But consider the genre you’re writing in. Is it speculative fiction? A world that does not exist already? Or is it Earth? Are the characters whom aren’t POC actually Italian? Or based on Italians?

      No one is asking you to change your story. You’re obviously writing what you would like to see. But I think people would have to know more to give you an honest answer. A story Im working on my main male protagonist was originally white. Im not sure why I created him this way, so I considered my options. Did him being white actually have anything to do with the story? What type of culture was I trying to convey? Is there anyway to make him more colorful?

      Let me just say this, when he was written white, there was nothing wrong with him. But he didnt pop. The story that Im trying to convey, it’s not as if it made no sense for him to be white, but as I dug deeper, I found that he was much more appealing Asian(although they dont use these terms to describe race).

      Like I said, he was originally proposed as white. But there was little about him that was specifically white. His personality came to life, his appeal was stronger, and I became more invested in him.

      This is not to say this is a method for every story. But ask yourself, is it absolutely necessary to the pacing of the story and essential to the plot for these decisions. If the races are imaginary races, Im sure that would be diverse to your world, but Im not sure why mages, elves, fairies,witches etc. are only imagined white.

      This is not toward you, this is just in general.

      And also think to yourself. (Im assuming your white, if you have to ask :p)

      There are different personalities within your own communities. There are different classes, ranks, the like. Do not resort to making a stereotype, the best advice anyone could give you on what it’s like to write outside your race? Write the character the way you want, and then change their race. It’s that simple. I see so many forums and blogs and websites where writers looking for answers on writing diversity in their books when they know no LBGTQ, POC, people differently abled, people with different religions, the like. But there are people whom are just like you, whom just happen to identify with those classifications. It’s easy!

  62. […] Ockler talks to white authors about what doesn’t count as diversifying fiction, why certain fears hold some people back, and […]

  63. […] A reaction to Jenn Doll’s Atlantic Wire article addressed to YA writers:Ockler, Sarah. “Race in YA Lit: Wake Up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!” sarahockler.com. 30 Apr. 2012. http://sarahockler.com/2012/04/30/race-in-ya-lit-wake-up-smell-the-coffee-colored-skin-white-authors… […]

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