Diversity in YA

Diversity in YA

Internets! You should check this out.

Dear internet, you have probably seen me tweet about Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo‘s joint venture Diversity in YA, but I want to take the time to mention it again and explain why it is important to me.

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.

China Doll

Things I am not: a geisha girl, a china doll, or any other fetishized, sexualized, exoticized creature.

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.


Three times a sidekick, never a main character. It's the bridesmaid's curse.

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!

Buy me a coffee at ko-fi.com

19 Responses to Diversity in YA

  1. cindy 13 Jan 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    thank you for such a wonderful post, jj!
    you are awesome!

  2. Jessica Love 13 Jan 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    Yay for this! :-D

    My WIP is about a Korean MC. The one after that has a Japanese love interest. A future book of mine NEEDS an Indian love interest because Indian guys are SO HOT.

    I’m a teacher in an area with a lot of Asian and Middle Eastern students. And I have so few books on my classroom library shelves that feature characters who look like these kids.

    Here’s what they look like: they are cheerleaders, they play sports, they skateboard, they are in band, they are in a band, they are in ASB. Pretty much they look exactly the same as the white kids. But all the books about “normal” high school kids feature white face after white face…like only the white kids do the “normal” things. So that’s why I started writing my WIP. I wanted to write a book about a girl who looked like most of my students.

    I love the celebration of diversity. It’s real life, and it’s awesome.

  3. ello 13 Jan 2011 at 4:24 pm #

    Love your post! I feel the same way – except I never read April and the DRagon Lady – thank goodness!

    So my trilogy, the Dragon King Chronicles, is being published by HarperCollins and it is a YA historical fantasy set in ancient Korea. I’m thinking you might be interested? ;o)

    • JJ 13 Jan 2011 at 8:43 pm #

      YES!!!!! YES YES YES YES!!!!!!! OMG, YES!!!!!!!!!!

      Which period of ancient Korea, might I ask? :)

  4. ello 13 Jan 2011 at 10:46 pm #

    I based it on the Three Kingdoms period – so around 360AD. But then I made it high fantasy so it is ancient Korea, but not really. Which let me have lots of fun with it! I’m so glad I found your blog! I found you through my friend Cindy Pon who was twittering about your post. So I had to follow you! (I’m the little pig avatar!) It’s always good to meet a fellow KA writer!

  5. Sayantani 14 Jan 2011 at 9:16 am #

    Great post JJ! You know from our discussion on #kidlitchat that I can’t stand that fake inclusivity of sticking the POC in as the BFF. It just sends the message that white, able bodied hetero people are always the MCs, the rest of us the supporting cast! @ellen – I’m so happy to learn about your forthcoming book(s?), as I was happy to read @cindy’s! I too am a professional/parent/writer with an adventure fantasy WIP based on Bengali (Indian) folktales…

    • ello 14 Jan 2011 at 9:50 pm #

      I’m sorry I missed that #kidlitchat! I have a trilogy which is set to come out summer 2012, 2013 and 2014. I’m excited and scared all at the same time. And btw, Cindy’s new book Fury of the Phoenix is unbelievably mind blowing good! I can’t wait for it to come out because it is going to blow readers away and she’s going to gain tons of fans with it!

      • Sayantani 15 Jan 2011 at 12:50 pm #

        sorry you missed it too but so happy to “meet” you here (love the pig, btw, and love that it’s dancing) How exciting that it’s a trilogy (right out the gate, right?)!!! Wohoo! can’t wait to read it and all that Cindy has in store too… Now to find someone who sees the potential of bone-chewing, marrow-sucking Indian demons that rhyme (Bengali ghosts and demons all rhyme I really really don’t know why but it’s such a cultural tradition and it’s really quite funny)

  6. Bethany 14 Jan 2011 at 1:41 pm #

    Thank you. What does a girl have to do to have a Black female protag with a Chinese male love interest? Because I just went ahead and wrote it.

    • cindy 14 Jan 2011 at 1:55 pm #

      love that! i also wrote Silver Phoenix
      for my tween teen self. =)

  7. Kristan 14 Jan 2011 at 4:19 pm #

    I’m all for diversity in YA — in all forms of art/entertainment!

    But as a writer, I find myself feeling guilty sometimes… As if I’m *obligated* to write ethnic characters, just because I have a non-white background.. As if every time I come up with a white protagonist, I’m “hurting the cause”…

    It’s irrational, I know. I guess sometimes it just seems like you’re damned if you (b/c you’re a harder sell) and damned if you don’t (b/c you obviously don’t care about your people).

    But that’s too negative of view, and I’m not a negative person. That’s just a teeeeeeny tiny (whiny) voice in my head.

    Really I just try to write the best stories and best characters that I can, without letting their ethnicity become a factor (for me). (In fact, I’m never thinking, Oh, so-and-so should be this race or that race. They just come as they are!) However readers want to interpret that is up to them.

    // end thinking-aloud ramble (sorry)

    • JJ 14 Jan 2011 at 4:48 pm #

      I think it’s fair to be wary of being pigeon-holed as an “ethnic writer”, as though you didn’t have the scope or imagination to write a character with an ethnicity different from you.

      You are not obligated to write anything you don’t want, of course. :)

    • Sayantani 14 Jan 2011 at 6:41 pm #

      JJ and Kristan, here’s a nice essay on racialicious about the burden of representation as a POC author/filmmaker etc. and how some people embrace it, or stay away from it, or vacillate between the two positions: http://www.racialicious.com/2011/01/11/on-embracing-the-burden-of-representation/

      • Kristan 15 Jan 2011 at 1:56 pm #

        Oh, love love LOVE that piece. Thanks for linking.

        “A lucky few can be both responsible to their communities and do other projects while not being branded either way.”

        Yes! I want to be one of those lucky few. Diversity (specifically Asian culture, in my case) IS important to me, but it’s not ALL there is to me.

    • cindy 14 Jan 2011 at 11:38 pm #

      i have a good writing friend who suffers
      from same type of guilt.
      i don’t think you should. we write what we
      write. it’s never hurting “a cause” when you
      write what you are passionate about.

      • Sayantani 15 Jan 2011 at 12:47 pm #

        Absolutely, Cindy. I think that just BEING out there as a POC writer (for those of us who are…) is in and of itself being a role model/pathbreaker. But I think that you Cindy are a good example of someone whose also used that opportunity to create community – through websites, being such a supportive online presence, and now through the Diversity in YA tour…

      • Kristan 15 Jan 2011 at 1:52 pm #

        Oh, I don’t normally feel that way. Only when the issue is specifically brought up, then I start pondering. :P

        And actually, I was going to add this to the discussion too: What about the guilt over “exploiting” one’s cultural heritage? I’ve heard and grappled with that side of the argument as well. (Not sure if it’s worse because I’m “only half.”)

        • Sayantani 15 Jan 2011 at 4:01 pm #

          I think it’s exploiting only when we’re willingly exoticizing/Orientalizing ourselves and others in our communities… and honestly, I would only really worry about POC authors exploiting cultural heritage when we started selling out our books in droves – sadly not (yet?) the case anyway! :) Authenticity is being true to our own (heterogeneous, specific and universal) stories…

  8. Terri-Lynne 17 Jan 2011 at 12:56 pm #

    Great blog and link. We need more of these discussions, especially for those of us who are half, and fit even less in the neat little boxes.

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