In April, YA author Sarah Ockler had a great post about the difficulty with finding YA books that don’t feature “white authors, white characters, white faces, white girls.” As she notes, YA authors of color are writing books, but booksellers aren’t stocking or promoting them. She asks:
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.”
Ockler isn’t the only YA author who has spoken up about diversity. Francisco X. Stork, another favorite author of mine, made some interesting comments in his interview over at The Book Smugglers:
My hope is that in reading my stories, the reader will notice and then forget that my characters are Hispanic. Even though, my young heroes will always be specifically Hispanic, I would like them to represent what is essential in all young people regardless of race and ethnicity. I would like the reader, whatever his or her background, to look into the soul of my characters and see his or her reflection.”
Reflection can be a two-edged sword. It would be great for white readers to realize they can identify with characters of color. What about the effects when readers of color encounter so many white characters? (See, for example, the post “The Elephant in the Room” by Elizabeth Bluemle, here, and numerous posts on this subject by the talented and indefatigable Zetta Elliott, such as the one here.)
Ockler includes a “primer” for white authors on addressing diversity, which begins with:
Actively diversifying our fiction does not mean…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.”
Her whole article is worth reading, and worth contemplating.
I know last year, at BEA (taking place again this year this coming week), I really, really missed diversity. How has the situation gotten to the point that there are separate book festivals? How are whites to find out about all the great writing in the black community if the major book festivals aren’t more integrated?
Note: “Diversity” does not just mean “of color” of course – kudos to those YA authors who have incorporated differently abled characters into their fiction, including (to name some but thankfully not all): Laura and Tom McNeal (The Decoding of Lana Morris), Francisco X. Stork (The Last Summer of the Death Warriors and Marcelo in the Real World) and John Green (The Fault In Our Stars).