Wordy Wednesday: We Need Diverse Books

It’s currently 6:55 PM and while so far today I’ve watched an episode of Gilmore Girls, read some of Eleanor & Park (using it for a project on banned books for my YA lit class!), attended two classes, taken a quiz, completed a film project, played guitar for a couple hours, run through my choir music, watched last night’s episode of The Flash (this show is so campy and wonderful), and made lots of really yummy food–I am yet to open my NaNoWriMo file. The NaNoWriMo file I need to add 5.5K to today, when you combine my allotted 3K for today, 2K from Monday, and 500 words from Sunday.

And Ch1Con is putting on a Twitter chat tonight about what it’s like to be a young writer using #Ch1Con at 9:30 PM EST, so time I have to write tonight = negative hours.

So that’s great.

But anyway, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. And, conveniently, I just got another paper back in YA lit, so I figured I’d share that. (This one got an A. Booya.)

Like last time, because this was a paper for class, I addressed the topic through the lens of the books and articles we’ve read this semester and had a three page limit. But hopefully this covers diversity in YA lit fairly decently.

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The need for more diversity in young adult literature has been an issue relevant in the publishing industry for years, but only recently has it come to mass attention. Now, it’s a prevalent topic in all segments of the industry, from editors and literary agents calling for more diverse submissions, to writers learning how to write diversity realistically and truthfully and readers begging for more. In order to face and solve the problems associated with diversity today, and provide hope for a better-represented and less challenging reality for everyone tomorrow, it’s time for young adult literature to diversify.

The term “diversity” itself refers to a number of different sub-definitions that are all relevant in their current necessity for further representation, including but not limited to all the various races, classes, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and disabilities that exist in society. It’s important when writing diverse literature to remember that no human being can accurately be defined by just one thing, and it is the layers and combinations of all these factors that make characters feel like people. Readers take interest in characters with whom they are able to relate, but these relatable features rarely are characteristics like the texture of someone’s hair or the ability to use her legs so much as the things she feels and thinks. For example, in Gene Luen Yang’s young adult graphic novel American Born Chinese, protagonist Jin’s classmates ostracize him for something he cannot control, and although many readers likely don’t know what it’s like to for others to define them in this way due to their race, they do know how it feels to want to change something they cannot and to be alone in a crowd. As Ponyboy realizes in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, “[m]aybe the … different worlds we live … in … [aren’t] so different. We … [see] the same sunset” (Hinton 41). While many parts of two people’s lives may be different, they will always be able to find some sort of common ground.

Writers can approach diversity in two primary ways: apparent and incidental. In apparent diversity, the writer references the diversity in such a way that it becomes an element that furthers the story. For instance, in a plot-driven narrative, events might occur that would propel the story because the protagonist suffers of obsessive compulsive disorder, or in a character-driven narrative the protagonist might do things that would propel the story because he suffers of OCD. This sort of apparent diversity appears in both issue books, in which the diverse element is central to the underlying concept, and more complex stories in which diversity simply has a strong influence. Matt de La Peña masters this second type in his young adult contemporary novel We Were Here, in which the protagonist Miguel’s story is primarily about his breaking out of a group home with two fellow juvenile delinquents, but race plays an underlying role as he also learns to reconcile the Mexican and white sides of himself. For example, at the Mexican border to which he has fled so that he will never have to return to the group home, he wonders:

Why [was that kid] on the Mexico side of the fence, and I was on the American side? … Just ’cause my moms is white? ’Cause … how gramps snuck through a sewage drain … just to make it to America? … What did I do? (de La Peña 218)

While this element of Miguel’s character is not the focus of We Were Here, it’s still important to him and the plot.

Incidental diversity, on the other hand, is diversity that just happens to be there without actually affecting the plot or central development of the character in question. If the character is gay, the story is not about him coming out to his parents or being bullied at school. He just happens to be a boy who likes boys, and the plot itself is about something else entirely. Many authors, including Matt de La Peña, argue against this type of portrayal, because it omits the truth behind what diversity looks like today. In modern society, diverging from the norm in any aspect generally leads to trial and adversity. However, it is also arguable that while incidental diversity might not be wholly realistic in a modern setting, the authors don’t fully mean their portrayals to be. Their primary goal, instead, is to sow hope.

In a world in which everyone is defined by both their similarities and unique features—and beautiful due to the combination—, hope for a kinder future is just as crucial as addressing the problems of today. By portraying a society in which it is not an issue to be someone other than a white, straight, protestant, able-bodied and minded, middle to upper-class male, authors normalize this vision. One of the most significant things diverse literature can do is let readers into the heads of others, so that different characteristics no longer feel like unknowns and therefore potentially dangerous. Showing a reality in which it is the norm to accept and understand diversity makes a future in which that occurs no longer feel potentially dangerous, and in turn makes such a future more likely to occur.

Perhaps someday soon literature and reality will mirror one another. Books will represent all the very different people reading them, and society will accept and embrace this diversity the way characters do—not only in the scarce offerings currently on shelves, but in the hundreds of manuscripts the various members of the publishing industry are currently feverishly writing, submitting, and editing in hopes that readers will fall in love with a more colorful future. It’s time.

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Thanks for reading!

Goal for today: 3,000 + Monday’s 2,000 + Sunday’s 500 = 5,500.

Overall goal: 22,000.

Current word count: 19,046.

~Julia

PS. The title of my paper is also the name of a really awesome organization that promotes diversity in literature. You can check them out at their website: weneeddiversebooks.org. (And they’ve got an Indiegogo campaign going on to raise funds to send diverse books and authors to underprivileged schools, support diverse authors, etc. that you NEED to donate to right over here. They’re so close to their goal!)

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4 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday: We Need Diverse Books

  1. That’s a really nice essay! I learned a lot about the diversity situation in YA literature. 🙂 Personally, in my own writings, I’ve found incidental diversity to be the most natural for me to write. Otherwise, it sounds like I’m overdoing it by hyperfocusing on my characters’ differences instead of showing how they can and should be able to blend into our society. But I see how apparent diversity can be a good thing in books too – I just have to figure out how to portray it better on my own. 😛

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