rt14: diversity in YA

Alright, time again for another RT panel recap! I missed doing this one yesterday, but here’s my notes from the Diversity in YA panel, probably one of my top three of the ones I sat in on. I’ll start off by listing the panelists and a book emblematic of their work (while they have often written more books, this is a good, if arbitrary, place to start).

Lydia Kang: CONTROL
Malinda Lo: ASH


First and foremost, do your research. The goal is always to present a 3D view of a character, not a 2D one. Talk to people, get people to read your work, get into the community to stop yourself from making errors. It’s important to have your work vetted– your characters need to be personal and specific.

What’s more: you will offend people. This is unavoidable. The best you can do, through all this vetting and research, is to write a true story. Your diverse characters do not and should not have to be the only representative for an entire group.

A piece of advice I really liked from Malinda Lo on character creation was “don’t rub off their edges.” Get specific with what makes your character tick, why they are the way they are. Generalizing, esp. to group stereotypes undermines this specificity. Writing with a diverse character is less writing the story of a member of a group than it is writing a single character’s story regardless of their race/gender/orientation/faith/mental health, etc. We want lots of different representations of people out there, not just one.

What’s an easy way to get more diverse books out there/show publishers that books with diverse characters are worth signing on? Buy more books. Diversity in YA (the tumblr) has some really fab book lists to start with, and people recommend diverse reads on twitter all the time. Read books, buy books, talk about the books you love. It makes a difference.

Beth Revis suggested treating all characters like people, not token characters or an issue needing to be resolved. She also mentioned making the WASP the Other as a way to flip some perceptions, as she did in AtU, and said that there’s a big difference between having diverse characters be Othered and having diverse characters in a story and it not being a big deal.

Lydia Kang asked the audience to do uncomfortable things with our writing, to work out how we approach issues as authors and explore what we can do to write more authentically. Malinda Lo added that this is a process and that every book you write you should try to challenge yourself in a new way.

She also said that growing up with white everything, especially in media, makes it hard to do this. We need to look at the real world and make our books match up to that, while being careful not to include diverse characters as tokens.

Recommended reading: ANANSI BOYS by Neil Gaiman.
(Beth Revis rec’d this book because it also Othered the WASP and has interiority that fits diverse chars– e.g., seeing white as different and foreign, the tribe’s customs as the norm.)

Everyone agreed that hammering home messages or platitudes did not work– readers are smart and they’ll pick up on you being too general, which is why the panel suggested making your book as specific as possible, tailored to who your protagonist is rather that what diverse group(s) they belong to.

When asked what areas more diversity was needed in publishing, the panel had some great answers. Beth Revis wanted to see more body image and types in YA, as well as more handicapped characters. CJ Omololu suggested deaf parents with hearing children and mental illnesses, especially depression and anxiety since either of those diseases make the sufferer feel like they’re the only person in the world who feels that way.

Malinda Lo would like to see more books with gender diversity, especially books that present girls as not having to be feminine and boys not having to be masculine– showing gender as more of a spectrum. Lydia Kang commented that male teen characters in many ways are not like book guys, and she’d love to see more diversity there. She also mentioned more faith diversity, and CJ said that she personally was fascinated by Jewish families and would love to see more books on them.

Recommended reading: IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE by Eric Ganworth (rec’d by Malinda Lo)
CHARM AND STRANGE by Steph Kuehn (rec’d by Beth Revis)
FOURTY-FIVE POUNDS (MORE OR LESS) by Kelly Barson (rec’d by Lydia Kang)
PROPHECY by Ellen Oh (Lydia)
WONDER by R. J. Palacio (Lydia)
GILDED by Christina Farley (Beth)
THE UNDERTAKING OF LILY CHEN by Danica Novgorodoff (Beth)
TRIGGER and GOING UNDERGROUND by Susan Vaught (rec’d by CJ Omololu)
FAR FROM YOU by Tess Sharpe (Malinda)
(and again, reminder that diversity in YA has a huge list of book recs, too)

The panel again stressed the importance of research. CJ suggested finding forums and websites for diverse groups and reaching out to the people who run them. It’s important to have one-on-one connections with people, as well as to get your work vetted by them. Malinda also said not to get discouraged if people don’t reply or are too busy– you can also read a ton of books at your library as well as talk to your librarian to help find connections with people who have background on what you’re writing about.

Lydia agreed and said to also go to the source material and to go on research trips. Beth mentioned reddit as a place that she used for her research– to find out details on a community she’d never lived in, Beth talked to people on that area’s reddit board, and asked questions of locals.

One of the last questions that the panel answered was about backlash. It was really interesting– everyone said that they never got hatemail from the teens they wrote for; it was always the parents.

Malinda Lo had a great strategy: don’t write defensively, write generously. Write from personal experience and be kind. These aren’t light issues, and people have intense feelings about them. Be respectful, and when you put kindness out there, you tend to get kindness in return.

Beth Revis referenced a diversity series she did on her blog and she had to ask herself– what right do I have to say anything? She invited other people to use her blog as a platform to have a dialogue about diversity.

An interesting point from Lydia Kang was not to assume that people know how to or feel comforting writing their own diversity; people only have their own ideas to go off of. CJ Omololu said again that this is why it’s most important to make your story personal and your characters well-rounded– no one person is the only representative for how their diverse community should act. Your goal should always be to create a full person, not defined solely by any of their traits.

Recommended reading: BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott. (Lydia)

Previously in this series:
Violence in Thrillers

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