A hot topic lately is diversity in YA–or lack thereof. Just look at the heated discussions over the whitewashing of certain book covers, like Justine Larbalestier’s Liar (which has thankfully been changed to reflect the correct heritage of the MC).
Liar cover gets a much needed facelift
This is an important, serious topic. One that has to be handled with a modicum of tact. So, of course, savvy girls that we are–we farmed it out.
Seriously, though. Read this guest post by the awesome, newly agented Jennifer Walkup, represented by Kathleen Ortiz of Lowenstein Associates. Her YA book featuring characters of diverse ethnicities is currently on sub.
Jennifer Walkup’s thoughtful discussion on Writing Diverse Characters in YA:
Diversity in YA. Wow, broad topic. Diversity as authors, diversity as characters, diversity all around. How to do it “right.” How to do it well.
When I started writing YA, I didn’t set out to write diverse characters. I set out to write the world I live in. I’m really lucky to live in a diverse place full of people of different racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. I’ve always been surrounded by people who weren’t exactly like me, so that’s what I want to represent in my stories.
In writing Beyond Us, my current novel that is (eep!) on submission, I told the story as it needed to be told. Shauna is a black teen–not because her being black fit the novel, but because that’s who she is. It’s her story that was in me to tell.
Getting it right is important. And it’s what we fear being unable to do whenever we write a character that is unlike ourselves. There are a few ways to go about getting it right. First and foremost, research, research, research. For instance, if you’re writing a character of a certain ethnicity and including related customs or traditions, make sure you do your research, just like you would for any other detail of any other character: ask people whose lives mirror your characters’s, reach out, ask questions, meet people, and follow through. Read books with voices in the same background you are trying to represent, and make sure you have readers who will give you honest feedback, preferably readers who are representative of your characters.
Do not write to stereotypes. This is so important. You want to be accurate, and you want to portray your characters and their lives as best you can, but you don’t want to write characters that are nothing but stereotypical cutouts of what’s expected/perceived. This goes beyond representing diverse characters, anyway; it’s just plain boring. Who wants caricatures when you can create real, full, round characters?
Diversity does not just come in the form of ethnicity or race. My current WIP is told from three points of view, two of which are male, one of which is hearing impaired. None of which are me. So again–research! Writing a male point of view is just as difficult and important for me to get right as it was to get Shauna right. I’ve read books with male POV and have been researching teenage boys (scary, I tell you!) to get my facts right. When the time comes, I’ll hopefully have a male reader or two to look over the manuscript. Because I want to get it right. Same goes with my character who is hearing impaired. I can’t just give him a hearing aid and move on. I have to figure out what it means to be hearing impaired, what it means to be him, and like any other detail of any other character, how one attribute of him does not define the whole of who he is.
But the bottom line is, you will never get it right for everyone. Wait, what? But I have to get it right! Hear me out here. . .There is not one universal reader that represents any one group. When I wrote Shauna, I crafted her as best I could; I created a character that is true to herself, above all else, to her voice, her story. If it’s published, I’m sure I will have readers who say I got it right, and I’m sure I will have readers who say I got it wrong, because there is no one universal reader.
For example, my personal experience as a 30-something mom is likely to be very different than the experience of another 30-something mom living in another state, country, or maybe even down the street. So if someone writes about a 30-something mom who happens to do something I find completely unrealistic, as in, “No way would a mom do that,” but mom B says, “Wow, I did that last week. This author got it right on!” who’s to say the author didn’t do his/her job? It’s just as likely an Indian American reader who grew up in the plains of Illinois and another Indian American reader who grew up in a desi community could read the same book and have very different reactions to the portrayal of Indian American characters as being done right/wrong. As readers, we all bring our own baggage to the table, and our experiences/lives likewise affect how we perceive characters and situations.
So as authors, we do the best we can. As long as you’re conscientious and know you created the characters who needed to be created, told their story as it needed to be told, respected who they are and where they come from, and did your homework on being true to them, you can say you did your best. Will you make everyone happy? No. Will you get it right every time for every reader? Probably not. But that’s true of any character and any story.
But just as readers ask authors to do their best writing characters unlike them, we authors ask the same of readers. Do your best to give us a chance, to believe that we did do our homework and aim to get it right. I wouldn’t dismiss a book written by a man with a female main character, assuming he couldn’t get it right, and neither should readers assume we haven’t done our best job to deliver the story of characters that may be different from us but have exciting stories to tell!
Jennifer, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on diversity in YA–it definitely gives us all something to think about!
By Debra Driza