I mean, why diversity in YA is important to me is probably pretty obvious. Just look at my face. I would like to read about more faces like it in books, and especially books for younger readers. Why? Part of it is personal; I didn’t have many options growing up that cast girls like me in heroic protagonist roles that weren’t subject to some sort of gross orientalization.
If Asian protagonists in books weren’t somehow exoticized, they were made into “issues”. Culture clash of Old World vs. New! Are Confucian ideals relevant in a Western society? Etc. These storylines were rarely useful to me as I did not have an immigrant experience, nor did my parents. And despite the best of intentions, these issue books didn’t do much to change Asian stereotypes; in fact, in many cases they reinforced them. (Ahem, APRIL AND THE DRAGON LADY. Okay, that book makes me see red.)
I think these issue books are part of the reason some people steer clear of diverse protagonists in books. Hell, it’s the reason I stayed clear of books that screamed “Asian” at me (the shorthand, oh god, the shorthand). There is a deep-seated belief that books with “other” protagonists must somehow address their “culture” and people are terrified of this. I’ve come across this fear in my own house; publishers are a little afraid of books with ethnic protagonists. It isn’t that they are unwilling to publish them; on the contrary, they are just absolutely petrified they will do something wrong.
So a lot people got around this fear by writing characters of color as sidekicks or best friends. At first, there were some rampant cases of tokenism, but thankfully things have improved. But I hadn’t seen much of a jump from sidekick to fully-realized and three-dimensional protagonist for many characters of color until recently. Perhaps it’s because I’m looking harder. I’m hoping it’s because more are becoming available.
Regardless of the reason, I think this is a wonderful reason to celebrate diversity in YA, and to tell writers and publishers that you shouldn’t be so afraid of a misstep that it paralyzes you. I mean, it can’t be too hard to write a story about a book-loving, flibbertygibbet adrenaline junkie who just happens to be biracial, right? (Ahem, hem. I am waiting for this book to be written and sent to me, thanks.)
If you can create a fantasy world, you can write or publish a protagonist of color. If you can write historical fiction, you can write or publish a protagonist of color. It takes research, it takes effort, it takes having resources to show you where you’ve gone wrong, but most of all, it takes courage. Don’t be afraid to be wrong, as long as you are willing to learn how to fix it.
So once again, I am pimping this out. Let’s celebrate!