While I’m redesigning my blog, I’ll be re-publishing my favorite popular posts. This piece was originally published on March 24, 2014. It sparked an amazing Twitter discussion, because the agent I mention below reached out to me. So much has advanced in one year in terms of diversity in children’s literature but the movement’s ongoing. For some great resources / intro to the “debate,” check out my Reosurces for Writers page and the WNDB website! -P
I write from where I come from isn’t a good enough excuse for why there are only white straight people in your book.
My parents made sure I had books featuring black protagonists, knew my history, played with black barbie dolls, and so forth. Representation was always there. Yet I still found myself reading other things. The books my parents provided were great, but I wanted to read about superheroes, criminal masterminds, wizards, girls who disguise themselves like boys to become knights, and so forth and those characters didn’t look like me, not on the covers or in the books, but I was okay with that because I just wanted to read.
I didn’t care who was on the cover, I didn’t care that I mostly read “boy books” growing up or that there were no queer romances in my YA books.
I. Did. Not. Care.
I kept not caring until college. I’d pretty much stopped reading books for pleasure during my last two years in high school. I was going through a lot, and it was no longer cool to talk about The Clique series, Vampire Academy, Twilight, and so forth at the lunch table like my friends and I used to do just a couple years earlier. I graduated high school, went to Wellesley College, and all of a sudden everything my parents had “forced” on me about black pride and activism slapped me in the face. It was my reawakening. That’s not to say I look back with fondness at those years, as a child, I spent picket fence in hand protesting injustices in black communities, but I do look back and thank those years for the person I am now.
Activism comes in all forms.
I hated the protests my father dragged me to because they didn’t mean much to me. I was a booklover, my happiness was always assured as long as I had a good book. Reading was my means of escaping, or so I thought when I was little. Yesterday I finally watched Catching Fire (a book I love) yet because of this article or rather thanks to it, I couldn’t stop looking at Katniss and thinking damn, 1) this is/was such a whitewashed film even thought the books weren’t and 2) this would’ve been so much better had someone from Rue’s district been the protagonist, who seemed like the poorer ones & are basically sharecroppers. Not to mention, as the writer of the latter article says, “if you’re going to write a story about the marginalized, why not reach down and pick the darkest girl?”
Thoughts like those keep me up at night. Sure, like my dad says, you should be able to envision yourself in any book. I mean, that’s what I did for years. However, is there any wrong in wanting to read about a black girl who doesn’t hating herself, who isn’t a slave, who isn’t living during the civil rights movement, and/or who isn’t from one of the various time periods in history class when I was called upon to speak for my entire race?
As a child I was content with reading books featuring only white, straight, abled kids. These characters, aside from the fact that it was up to them to save their world, were perfect and though I didn’t realize, that led to years of me hating myself because I could never be like them. Whenever I said my favorite character was Jo March, I quickly reminded myself that I would’ve been a slave at that time or that I wasn’t a boy when I said my favorite character was Artemis Fowl.
So yes, although the answer I write from where I come from is nice. I no longer accept it. I’m not calling out one single author for there are many authors who have said something similar.
The stories I write do not only feature black characters. I do a TON of research, even when writing black characters, because believe it or not, even people of a certain culture have stereotypes about that culture that can bleed through into their writing.
I write books from where I come from. Where I come from is pretty diverse, and no it’s not the ghetto. Books should, at the very least, represent the world we live in. But, they should also aim to imagine a better, more honest world.
I read books because I like them & identify with them in some way.
Even to this day, I don’t throw a book away because it has a white girl on the cover. That’s stupid. However like Christopher Myers argued in his piece in the NY Times, it’s time for us to show The Market that we’re tired of this falsified, warped world in which only white people survive dystopia. (<– that links to the intro post, the entire series is phenomenal!)
We need to get rid of this mess.
I love my action-adventure MG books, but why when I sign up for a panel featuring action-adventure MG/YA authors why all the authors are male? Yes, I love these authors. BUT, don’t tell me there aren’t female MG action-adventure authors (I read two this month). Don’t tell me there are no black YA Spec-Fic authors, I can name three phenomenal ones (not including Octavia Butler, <3 her though).
If the problem is that there aren’t enough, get more. Find these writers, mentor them, sign them on, publish them. We, readers, grew New Adult, and with books such as Shannon Stoker’s THE REGISTRY and Sarah Harian’s THE WICKED WE HAVE DONE we’re getting NA that’s expanding beyond Contemporary Romance. If we want something, we need to tell The Market we want it because The Market does not exist without us. I’m not saying abandon books because they feature a cast in which girls of color don’t survive dystopia, although I pretty much have. I’m saying purchase books that reflect how our society is, or, as Malinda Lo did in ASH or Alaya Dawn Johnson did in THE SUMMER PRINCE, create a world in which it’s fine to be a queer and of color. Although I didn’t have books like the previous two when I was younger together we can ensure that children today and in the future do.
If the problem is that these minority voices aren’t being heard, stop talking and put the mic in their hands. It’s nerve-wracking that the only way diverse voices and posts like the one I’m writing can be heard is if they’re said by someone outside that culture. I’m not blaming the outsiders, because they’re just trying to help, but still, give us the mic. If we don’t want it, we’ll hand it to someone else. We’re not trying to be the spokesperson for our culture, but since I’m a black queer woman, unlike an ally, when diversity as a trend is over, I’ll still be who I am. My experiences will still be erased in children’s books, in Hollywood, and so on. For us, this isn’t a fad.
There’s a time and a place for anger…that time is now.
–As a post script, I will add that there are many people I interact with on Twitter and/or via my blog who say they want more characters with disabilities, from non-Christian religions, POC, LGBTQ, books set in non-western cultures, and “girl books” that read more like “boy books.” These people I’ve talked to are librarians, writers, readers, bloggers, agents and even editors at major publishing houses. Some, like my SHC client, Dahlia Adler, are known for making phenomenal lists (<–This QUILTBAG YA/NA Compendium of her is pretty freaking awesome) compiling their favorite books featuring these types of characters. However it can’t end there, we have much work to do, but it does make a difference. Maybe not for all children, but for sure for one and that is what really matters.
–I recently read a post on the Dystel & Goderich Agency blog titled “The R Word.” That word being race, I assume. It’s a great post and it got me thinking and a bit fired up. I am in no way angry about what Mr. McCarthy wrote, in fact I’m very thankful that he wrote what he did. It’s a very honest piece. However, my reply was quite a bit too long for the comments so that’s what spurred this post.
As far as writing resources go, I have several specific links on my blog menu under resources, but for a plethora of tips on writing race, queer characters, and many though provoking discussions check out Malinda Lo’s writing advice section.