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 fiction, assumptions, and 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 another obvious problem: 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 that in addition to fist and foremost supporting authors of color by reading and buying their books, white authors can also change the face of bookshelves 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.

While 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.

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 some white 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?

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.

2009 Character Debut Parties

2009 is here, and the Debs are coming out!

The best part? We’re totally crashing!

Join me throughout the year for the 2009 Character Debut Party Crash, where we sneak ahead of the A-list to mingle with the new crop of YA leading lads and ladies. Think Sweet 16 meets southern-style society debut, but less proper, and with a little bit of made-up stuff in between.

Winter / Spring Party Lineup:

  1. Thursday, February 5: Sarah MacLean, author of THE SEASON
  2. Thursday, February 12: Stacey Jay, author of YOU ARE SO UNDEAD TO ME
  3. Tuesday, March 10: Saundra Mitchell, author of SHADOWED SUMMER
  4. Sunday, March 29: Erin Dionne, author of MODELS DON’T EAT CHOCOLATE COOKIES
  5. Tuesday, March 31: Cynthea Liu, THE GREAT CALL OF CHINA
  6. Wednesday, April 8: Heather Duffy-Stone, author of THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO TELL YOU
  7. Wednesday, April 15: Carrie Ryan, author of THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH
  8. Thursday, April 16: Neesha Meminger, author of SHINE, COCONUT MOON

So mark your calendars, put on your sneaking-around shoes, and prepare to crash!

Teen Book Sales Booming, Part 2

Writing Truths in YA: How Much is Too Much?

For the recent boom in YA book sales, Newsweek’s Generation R credits teens’ increasing sophistication, their emotional maturity, and the accompanying new freedom for YA writers to explore almost any subject.

For authors, what does all this reader sophistication and new freedom mean?

Over in debut2009, we’ve discussed it in several forms—detailed vs. implied sex scenes, when does violence become gratuitous, do the bad guys always get punished, what is author responsibility, and more. I don’t think we’ve come up with an official group answer (perhaps in time for debut2029!), but here’s how I summed up my thoughts in the forum:

As authors, should we be responsible? Absolutely. And the best way to be responsible is to be honest and truthful in our writing. That means not censoring ourselves by shying away from controversial topics if the story calls for them. And it also means not adding in a bunch of over-the-top “controversy” for shock value or sales. Just tell the truth.

My primary goal as a writer is to…

*drumroll*

…tell a story.

An honest one, with characters and situations to which readers can relate. I’m not writing to teach a lesson or signal a warning beacon—I am absolutely not the poster child for good choices! And you know what? There aren’t always consequences in life. Not every teen who has sex gets pregnant. Not everyone who drinks and drives causes a wreck. Does that mean that if I include these elements in my books without their associated and predictable consequences that I’m condoning certain behaviors? Nope. It just means that I’m telling a story. Here’s what happened. You, young reader, decide how you feel about it.

Emotional maturity is born of exposure to and experience with new and sometimes controversial situations. I see more controversy on the six o’clock news than I do in the teen section at Barnes & Noble, so I write with this in mind: Teen readers do have the maturity and the sophistication to evaluate situations for themselves—whether in their own lives, on television, or in books—and make their own choices. This isn’t to say that books don’t have any influence on teens (just ask this guy!). But at that age, they already have a foundation for decision-making that a novel won’t crumble. If someone decides to have premarital sex or smoke a cigarette, it’s probably not because of something she read in my book. I have to trust that.

So when Jack Martin, assistant coordinator of YA services at the New York Public Library, tells Newsweek this about old school YA books vs. the current lot…

“Too many books for teens just stated obvious messages, like ‘doing drugs is bad.’ But now the messages are imbedded into the story. This new crop of writers would rather present drugs as a miserable existence and show what it’s like to live through this experience than to preach.”

…and a father of a teen reader says this about books that cross into controversial issues like drugs and alcohol or sex:

These are profound issues that I’ve seen handled tastefully. They’re issues that some might think are too big for a teen. But teens, like adults, live in the real world. And I get the sense that they appreciate fiction that’s honest and might give them a glimpse of what awaits them as adults.”

…I respectfully disagree.

Martin’s making a broad generalization here, implying that today’s writers are simply finding subtler ways to send the same heavy-handed messages.

And Dad? YA lit isn’t trying to give teens a peek at what the future holds. It’s probably just giving you a glimpse at what your teen is already dealing with.

Like the article says, teens enjoy books as an escape from reality, a break from the pressures of their lives, and even as a kind of therapy to bridge the lack of communication and support they might face at home. That said, the most successful YA writers are not those who can find a more creative way to sneak in the lesson. The most successful writers are those who tell an honest story and trust (and encourage) their readers to determine not what the story means, but what it means to them.

For me, the most meaningful thing a reader can say is not “this book is mad cool” or “I was all LOL,” but “wow, that’s totally me,” and “hmm, I never thought of it that way before.” Hearing those words means I’ve connected with someone or helped her see something in a new way, whether it’s a hopeful story or something full of pain and heartache, with or without consequences.

That connection is all I can ask for, and that connection—if I earn it—is how I will know my books have succeeded.

Your turn. What do you as teens, parents, teachers, authors, and readers think? How much is too much? And what defines a successful book?

Teen Book Sales Booming, Part 1

It’s hard to write a book. It’s even harder to get a book deal. And getting that book off the shelves and into teen readers’ hands? Basically impossible, right?

Far from it, according to Jamie Reno. His Newsweek article, Generation R, puts a new spin on an old topic: teens and reading. Apparently, they like it. Enough that the YA side of an otherwise lagging book industry is, as Reno says, booming.

Contrary to the depressing proclamations that American teens aren’t reading, the surprising truth is they are reading novels in unprecedented numbers. Young-adult fiction… is enjoying a bona fide boom with sales up more than 25 percent in the past few years, according to a Children’s Book Council sales survey. Virtually every major publishing house now has a teen imprint, many bookstores and libraries have created teen reading groups and an infusion of talented new authors has energized the genre.

I can absolutely attest to the infusion of talented new authors. In addition to the books already on the shelves in the teen section of your favorite book store, the 2009 lineup is, as Randy would say, “in the zone! The bomb! The hot one to beat tonight, baby!” and right around the corner. The rightfully-tagged “feast of awesome” hanging out in debut2009 has me counting down the days until next year.

I’m thrilled to be part of a group like debut2009 during this YA renaissance. Like Ally Carter said, our greatest competition as writers is not other writers. It’s bad books. Well-written books that engage and excite readers will get them reading more—more books, more genres, and more authors. I love meeting new writers who are passionate about getting books into teens’ hands. And now is a great time to be involved.

Why is YA so Popular?

The article cites several reasons for the current boom, including:

  1. increasing sophistication and emotional maturity of teenagers
  2. new freedom for writers in the genre to explore virtually any subject
  3. bookstores and libraries finally recognizing this niche and separating teen books from children’s books
  4. MySpace, Facebook, blogs, and authors’ and publishers’ Web sites allowing young readers to communicate with each other and with authors
  5. teen books becoming an integral part of today’s pop-culture entertainment menu, tying in to TV, movies, video games, and the Internet

What about adults? I think that’s another factor. With the sophistication of some of today’s teen reads, lots of people outside the intended audience are diving in. Parents and teachers are reading and discussing books with their children or class. Authors are checking out their peers. And adult readers often browse the YA section for something different (guilty!)—a vampire trilogy, a magical world, or an intense YA romance that doesn’t suffer from the over-writing that plagues so many adult books.

Newsweek gives a shout out to my favorite YA author, Sarah Dessen. I discovered Dessen in 2003 after taking a few YA novel writing classes through Lighthouse Writers Workshop and paying more attention to the genre (read: spending a lot of time and money in the teen section at Tattered Cover under the guise of “research”).

Dessen is a great example of how and why teen lit has become so esteemed (even outside of fantasy blockbusters like the Harry Potter and Twilight series’). She’s published 8 books featuring tough issues like abusive relationships, death, divorce, teen pregnancy, eating disorders, body image, and rape. Her books and characters are realistic—no over-dramatizing or talking down about the hard stuff. She tells it like it is and readers relate—and respond—to it. She also has a huge blog following via her LiveJournal site, where she talks about everything from the weather to her dogs to her monthly Tivo lineup.

What do you think? Are you a closet YA reader as an adult? Are you an author in this exciting genre? Do you agree that we’re in the “second golden age for young adult books?”

If you’re interested in YA literature and writing, check out the Newsweek article. It’s long, but worth the read. Over the next few days, I’ll be discussing some of the reasons cited for the boom (while working on revisions for my second book, which I’m even more excited about now!).

On deck tomorrow: Part 2: Writing truths in YA. How Much is Too Much?

Character Soup

Last week I had the opportunity to cheer from the crowd (I even did the wave a little bit in my head) at Tattered Cover Books for fellow Lighthouse member Carleen Brice as she celebrated the launch of her debut novel, Orange Mint and Honey. I haven’t read my copy yet, but if it’s half as good as jazz band, the wine, the orange chocolate brownie (okay, brownies, if we’re being honest), and the company that came together for the book party, well… just go pick up a copy, okay? Because Carleen’s reading was wonderful. I mean, everyone was hooked.

Young Reader
A young Brice fan.

LWW Cheerleaders
Me, Jenny (my fave Lighthouse instructor), Karen, and Lisa.

Carleen & Fans
Carleen talks about family bonds in Orange Mint and Honey.

A woman in the audience asked Carleen how she developed secondary characters for the novel; specifically, the main character’s love interest. Here’s what she had to say:

I love that answer because it’s so true. When I was in Buffalarctica last month, one of my brother’s friends said, “I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to end up in the book.” I laughed. “Too late,” I told him. “Everyone I meet goes in the book.”

Really. It might be something you say or a gesture or the way your face changes when you talk about the person you love. It might be a scar on your chin or the color of your eyes or the way you sing and play air guitar at my brother’s shows (yes, I’m talking to you, Nameless Air Guitar Man with whom I’m utterly fascinated). Maybe it’s your laugh or your beliefs or your nickname or the way I feel when I’m around you – good, bad, or ugly. Whatever it is, you’re all going into the character soup, and one day you’ll read my book and you’ll recognize something on the page and you’ll smile or cringe… and then you’ll know what I mean.

So when Carleen talked about stirring in all the best men in her life, including her husband and grandpa and brother and video store cutie, I smiled, because I knew exactly what she meant.

(It’s unfortunate that no one asked her how those orange chocolate brownies were developed, but then again, I am taking a beach vacation this summer… *shudder*)

Anyway, best of luck to Carleen on Orange Mint and Honey!

Book Signing