Guest Post: Race in YA Lit: Wake Up

& Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!

by Sarah Ockler

Sarah OcklerIn a new series entitled Y.A. for Grownups, The Atlantic Wire posted an article exploring The Ongoing Problem of Race in YA.

Like the title states, race in YA isn’t a new problem, nor is it going away. When I scan the YA bookshelves—whether my own or the extensive store displays—the issue is clear:

I spy with my little eye something… white.

Barbie® Fashionistas™

White authors, white characters, white faces, white girls. The scenario isn’t entirely unlike my high school graduation, but it’s no longer the world I see (or want to see) when I look out the window. So why the disconnect?

Plenty of YA authors of color are writing about diverse characters, often struggling to get those books out into the world and into the hands of readers. Discussions about the issue focus on a trifecta of economic challenges doused in racial politics: consumers aren’t demanding and buying diverse fiction. So booksellers aren’t stocking and promoting it. So the publishing industry isn’t actively seeking, acquiring, and publishing it (with covers and flap copy that appropriately reflect the characters and story). So consumers aren’t demanding and buying it…

Which came first—the chicken, the egg, or the egg white omelet—I don’t know. But the discussion glosses over an obvious gap: white authors.

Demographically speaking, caucasians comprise the majority of young adult authors (according to Zetta Elliot’s 2011 interview with author Jacqueline Woodson, people of color make up less than 5 percent of children’s book authors published in the U.S. annually). So when you look at the sea of white stretching on forever along the shores of YA literature, know that white authors are by and large the ones putting it out there.

Which means we’re the ones who can—and must—change it by actively diversifying the stuff we’re writing, and by doing so in authentic, meaningful ways.

One Café, Hold The Au Lait: A Primer for White Authors

Actively diversifying our fiction does not mean any of the following:

  • Giving a character almond-shaped eyes or coffee-mocha-latte-chocolate-hazelnut-caramel-cappuccino-colored skin. In fact, as a general rule, writers seeking inspiration solely from Starbucks menus probably need to dial down the caffeine.
  • Slotting in a random person of color for no other reason than to break up the whiteness (especially if you’re writing about a place that ismostly white. Like, a Rod Stewart concert, or maybe a deer hunt).
  • Sneaking in a few non-white celebrity guest appearances on a poster, an iPod, or a character’s favorite TV show. I mean, I love Fresh Prince as much as anyone, because Parents Just Don’t Understand, but no—that doesn’t count.
  • Including a non-white character whose only real difference from the white characters is the color of his skin and/or his snappy catch phrases. Word!
  • Conducting a find-and-replace in Word to change Breanna and Chad to Belicia and Chen. CTRL+F what?
  • Putting a sushi or taco bar in the school cafeteria. Which is one of those things that sounds like a good idea at the time, but usually isn’t.

Diversity in fiction isn’t about tokenism, filling up imaginary “affirmative fiction” quotas, or embarking on a PC quest to be “inclusive.” It’s about respecting our readers.

Teen book reviewers

It’s about loving and supporting all teens, letting them know they’re important by giving them voices and honoring their unique perspectives, experiences, and dreams in our stories. It’s not random. It’s not an afterthought. It’s an intentional, thoughtful, and respectful choice to stop perpetuating homogeneity.

Why Do We White-ify YA, Anyway?

The small-but-still-beating “people are mostly decent” part of my heart wants to believe that when white authors neglect to diversify our stories, it’s not out of racism, laziness, or even ignorance, but because of two oft-misinterpreted writing tips: 1) Write what you know, and 2) YA novels need a clear moral message. When it comes to diversity, both pseudo-commandments inspire fear.

Fear #1: As a caucasian, I’m not qualified to write about or from the perspective of people of color.

White Boxer Dog Loki Puppy TWhile there’s some merit to seeking inspiration from the wellspring of our own experiences, when taken literally, the advice to write what you know stifles creativity and shuts down our imaginations. It tells us that unless we’re black or gay or a woman, that we can’t write about those kinds of characters because we can’t possibly knowthem.

Saying that a white writer is not qualified to write a black or a Mexican or Indian or Philippino character is like saying Stephenie Meyer can’t write about falling in love with vampires because she’s married to a human, or that I can’t write a male POV because I don’t have, um… a beard. And by that logic, we wouldn’t have stories about dogs, either.

I don’t buy it. We’re writers. Storytellers. Weavers of tales great and small. It’s our job to make things up, to imagine, to explore different perspectives through the eyes of our characters. This isn’t to say we can plug-n-play a few multicultural characters into our work or rely on stereotypes or assumptions for crafting our fictional friends (see aforementioned anti-starbucks advice), but that’s writer 101 stuff. Cardboard, one-dimensional people have no place in a story, whether they’re white, black, brown, purple, or invisible. Authenticity is important, but thanks to the library, the internet, and, you know, other human beings, it’s possible to learn about something we’ve never personally experienced. Sometimes all it takes is a simple question: Hey, people who’ve been there, what’s your take on this? People want their voices heard. They want to share. They want to help.

Race is a sticky thing though, isn’t it? We’ve gotten so divisive in this country that we’re often afraid to mention it. Comedians have created entire routines on the phenomenon that is white people trying to describe a black person. I’ve witnessed it—you’ll inevitably get detailed run-down of his clothing, his hair, his shoes, his car, but rarely the simple statement: he’s black, or he has dark brown skin. When people actually describe the race, it’s in a whisper. “He’s… um… he’s… bla—he’s African American…”

Seriously? We all need to take a collective drink of Let’s Get The Hell Over Ourselves (and chase it down with a swig of We’re All Human, Remember?). Writers imagine. We take risks. We experience, and we ask, and we imagine again. And then we write it all down for other people to experience the moment they pick up our books.

Fear #2: If I write about people of color, my story must teach a moral lesson and take a stand on an issue.

From The Atlantic Wire:

There’s also the rather unfair expectation put upon writers of books featuring non-white characters that they still have to make a statement, or that they’re speaking for all people of that race. “It does get frustrating when your book comes out and other people think you’re making a statement about all black people,” says [author Coe] Booth. “There are so few books featuring black characters, with the one or five that come out, there’s so much pressure to represent all of this particular race.” That’s not a problem white writers have. People in the industry “need to open up the thinking about what a book by a person of color is supposed to do,” she adds. “It’s not an education; why do books by authors of color have to have that much more responsibility? It’s just supposed to be a book.”

I disagree that this isn’t a problem white authors face. Anyone writing characters of color faces this problem, but non-white authors bear the brunt of it because of the expectation that they educate people about their “experience” (whatever that may be).

Our society has created and perpetuated the expectation that, with a few notable exceptions, YA books with non-white characters either tackle a social injustice head on or strip out the character’s entho/cultural/gender/etc. uniqueness altogether. The black character, then, must either struggle under the weight of “the black experience” or blend in so completely that the only black thing about him is his coffee-colored skin (which is of course described with a frequency the white character’s “peaches and cream” colored skin is not).

The whole conundrum is compounded by the fact that plenty of cranky grownups still cling to the misguided belief that YA exists solely to teach kids lessons. The result, if the Atlantic Wire article is indicative of the larger problem, is that whenever we write a non-white (or a non-hetero, non-insert-socio-ethno-psychological-category-here) character, we’re taking it upon ourselves to write the non-whatever “experience.” Whatever else happens in the story, my gay character should have a difficult coming out story, and he should be bullied so that I can send a message that homophobia is wrong. My black characters should be subject to racism so I can preach about diversity and tolerance.

Issue stories are important, and there are wonderful books addressing racism, homophobia, bullying, and other human ills head on. But like Coe says, it’s not an education. Not every book has to tackle the issues. Some stories are simply about other challenges of adolescence, real and fantastic: falling in love, the sudden death of a loved one, hunting vampires, fitting in with peers (or not), raising the dead, road tripping, portal tripping, learning magic, getting sick, having sex, exploring passions, surviving the zombie apocalypse that was started by that goober who just raised the dead, trying out for the school play, getting in a fight, saving the planet from alien invaders… just to name a few obstacles our beloved white fictional teens face over the pages of their daily lives.

What about our beloved black fictional teens? Indians? Asians? French-Canadians?

Can a black kid slay dragons without turning his quest into an anti-racism manifesto? Dragons can be dangerous. Maybe they need to be slayed, and maybe this kid is quick on his feet and handy with the magic sword… andhe happens to be black. Can we see his unique and special worldview as a young black dragon slayer, or does he have to take a stand against bigotry too?

Can a Mexican girl fall in love with her best friend without exploring immigration policies or her grandmother’s homemade tamales? Conversely, can she just enjoy her grandmother’s tamales because they kick ass and not because she must reconnect with her Mexican ancestry so that readers understand the importance of one’s cultural heritage? I mean, I love tamales, and I totally respect and appreciate the culture from which they originated, and maybe this girl does too.

But dudes, sometimes a tamale is just a tamale.

Vegan Tamales with Beans and Rice

Speaking of tamales… I teach an advanced YA novel class at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. One of my students is a Mexican American writer working on a YA urban fantasy. In class, she admitted that people have often “encouraged” her to abandon the fantasy and write about “the Mexican American experience.” As if there’s only one. As if she’s obligated by her ethnicity to speak up, to teach those all-important lessons. “Look,” she told us. “Just because I’m Latina doesn’t mean my characters have to go around speaking Spanish and making tortillas. I want to write a different story.”

Just Who is Responsible for Writing Diverse Characters in YA?

The sea of white on the YA bookshelves has to change. And the onus shouldn’t fall entirely to authors of color, nor to the aforementioned trifecta of readers, booksellers, and the Borg of Industry.

The responsibility belongs equally to all writers.

diversity matters

I hesitate to even use the word “responsibility,” because it’s actually not that. We’re writers. Our only responsibility as far as I’m concerned is being honest and authentic in our work. But to be honest and authentic, we have to address this. We live in a diverse world. To pretend otherwise is more fantastical than believing that sex with vampires is a good idea (not that I’m judging!).

Our stories must be diverse, and I can make no better case than this quote from John Truby in his book, The Anatomy of Story:

The dramatic code expresses the idea that human beings can become a better version of themselves, psychologically and morally. And that’s why people love it.

Stories don’t show the audience the “real world”; they show the audience the story world. The story world isn’t a copy of life as it is. It’s life as human beings imagine it could be.

“Life as human beings imagine it could be.”

Think about that. Really sit with it. Pretty powerful, right? Isn’t that why we write, because we imagine things can be better? Because we believe in the power and wonder of imagination? Because we know that YA books are not billboards, but conversations?

Why is diversity in fiction important? Because diversity in life is important. And when we exclude—intentionally or otherwise—characters of color from our work, we do send a billboard message to readers. We tell them that people of color aren’t there, aren’t important, aren’t worthy of our stories. That they don’t deserve to be part of the conversation of our books. That reading isn’t for them. That they don’t matter. That they don’t even register on our radar.

CB106492

I adore teenagers. That’s why I write for them. They’re special and magical and full of life; they’re truly the best of us. As young adult authors, our words have power. The power to entertain. The power to inform. The power to inspire. And most importantly, the power to change the lives of teen readers—to really make a difference. If, as Truby believes, stories express the idea that human beings can become better versions of ourselves, then I want to show YA readers that those better versions look like them, too.

All of them.

•••

Bittersweet CoverSarah Ockler is the bestselling author of critically acclaimed young adult novels Twenty Boy Summer, Fixing Delilah, and Bittersweet. Her books have been translated into several languages and have received numerous accolades, including ALA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, Girls’ Life Top 100 Must Reads, IndieNext list picks, and more. Her short fiction and essays will be featured in two upcoming young adult anthologies: Defy the Dark and Dear Teen Me.

Sarah teaches advanced young adult fiction writing at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. She’s a champion cupcake eater, coffee drinker, night person, and bookworm. When she’s not writing or reading, Sarah enjoys taking pictures, hugging trees, and road-tripping through the country with her husband, Alex.

Visit her at www.sarahockler.com, where this post first appeared, or find her on Twitter and Facebook.

All images copyright of their respective owners. Posted with permission under Creative Commons licenses via Flickr.

23 Responses

  1. L. M. Davis

    I am one of the authors that you are talking about. I am a black woman and I write Y. A. fantasy featuring people of color, and my readership–since the release of my first book in 2010–has been very diverse: Asian, black, latino, white, you name it.
    The perception persists that white audiences are not interested in stories where the protagonist(s) is(are) a person of color. My anecdotal experience seems to suggest that this is far from the truth. Of the 500+ copies that I have sold of my first novel, more than 50% of my reading audience has been white. And with the release of my second book, just this week, I am seeing a great amount of repeat buyers.
    Good literature and good stories come from every community; this is a message that is particularly important for the Y. A. audience to hear and understand. This article is an excellent way to underscore that fact. A great next step would be to provide a list of novels by people of color and about people of color. There are a lot of wonderful stories waiting to be discovered.

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  3. Elizabeth Moon

    I think we also need to confront the _Hunger Games_ book/movie phenomenon–the storm of online complaint that the movie had “made” a character black, who was in fact black in the book but many readers didn’t notice that. I don’t read as much as I used to (a busy writing schedule will do that) but there may be other diverse characters not being recognized because less experienced readers assume all the characters are white and ignore (without repeated reminders of the kind deplored here) the signals writers give. I know that in my own work, some readers have assumed there are no persons of color because I’m white, even though it’s there in (pun intended) black and white. And brown. Etc.

    So yes, we need more diversity in books, and more writers of various diversities being published. We also need more recognition of the diversity that is already there (given _Hunger Games_, can we even claim that YA is devoid of it?) And we need to include readers in the discussion (ideally in schools, when kids are encouraged to talk about the books they want to read, rather than the books teachers assign, and could be shown how to read more mindfully, how to notice the clues writers are giving.)

    In terms of fantasy and SF not set in the current or very near future “this-world”, the depiction of characters of color (and other diversity-images) need not be limited to realism in current terms. Why not depict a world in which skin color is no longer that big an issue–but something else is? Gender, gene-engineered differences in appearance (“You four-arms think you know everything!”), religion, planet of origin, social class.

  4. Den

    Love how you basically made this all about white authors. FUCK white authors. If white authors want to write white characters, fine. That still doesn’t change the fact that MORE WRITERS OF COLOUR NEED TO BE LET THROUGH THE DOOR. I don’t give a fuck nor do I want to even see a white girl trying to wrap her head around an African girl to write her as an MC. But if there’s an African girl who dreams of being published, does it really help HER DREAM to have WHITE GIRLS for whom it is MUCH EASIER TO GET PUBLISHED writing HER LIFE? Does it help that African girl become a published author of genre fic? No.

    Stop making this about you. Demand readers and publishers to support writers of color instead of saying, “oh don’t worry black/asian/hispanic/etc authors! We’ll write your stories FOR you! You just sit there and clean our kitchens or something.”

    God what the hell? White people.

  5. Amina

    Den-

    Are you serious? I think his comment should be deleted because it is full of rascasse and hate. And Den what is your problem with the majority of US authors being white because the majority of the US population IS white. How do you know an white author isn’t qualified to write about an African girl. What if she lived in Africa. Are you saying that a black author is more qualified than her just because the colour of her skin? That, Den is true racism.

  6. Todd Vandemark Post author

    Most comments are held in moderation due to spam issues. Some that are nothing more than attempts at flame baiting will not see the light of day. But this is an important subject where people’s frames of reference vary widely.

    As such, I felt Den’s opinion worthy of inclusion; anger is not necessarily hate speech.

    That said, profanity, invectives, and ad hominem attacks are unlikely win support or change opinions. With this in mind, everyone should keep the comments constructive by addressing the issue not each other.

    Thank you.

    -Moderator (whose opinions are not necessarily endorsed by SFWA).

  7. Ken

    Den, your racism is so damn loud I can hardly hear you. Now back to the conversation.

    Diversity is a terrible, amorphous crappy term. It adds nothing but a sense of disjointedness and disconnection from others – hence the root “diverse”. Too many people spend too much energy wrapped up in themselves and the genetics of their own navels. I write about humanity to the best of my ability, and that means I focus on content of character – good and bad. That’s what’s interesting, that’s what connects us. I hope writers refuse to let anyone mingle such self-conscious nonsense as diversity with the Muse because of some college sophomoric idea that bean-counting makes better fiction. And yes, that is the point of this post and so many other posts here as of late. The we-demand-more-diversity-but-we-don’t stuff has become truly tedious and offensive.

    If you need a break down, the afro-iberian part of me finds the pandering offensive. This is because I can read good fiction by anyone and be moved. And the irish part finds it tedious because I am human and pour my heart into connecting with my fellow human beings through trying to write good fiction. Or is it the other way around? I’m not sure.

    Despite the pandering here, don’t expect the Melungeon Dungeon from me anytime soon. Trust me; it wouldn’t make you feel better.

    When characters come to life, an earnest writer will neither bleach nor tan them. And a sensitive reader won’t bother with bad fiction.

    Ken

  8. Dave

    Despite the wordage used, Ken has a point; several, in fact. Ms Ockler’s article is pandering, self-righteous, egotistical and, yes, offensive. Political Correctness has no place in the creative process. It is not the “responsibility” of Ms Ockler to dictate how another author writes his or her YA novel. It seems to me that the job of an author is to tell a good story.

    There are wonderful teen novels from authors of all colors, nationalities and cultures. It is the reader who should seek out, find and read these books. If Ms. Ockler is horrified at the “sea of white on the YA bookshelves” perhaps she is shopping at the wrong bookstore.

  9. Rod

    I am African American and my writing reflect the diversity of the world I live. In some stories the story centers on one race, but most stories are completely integrated. Due to my life experience, I can flawlessly weave a racially diverse story.

    As a writer its amazing the different dimensions true racial diverstiy can add to a story. Its a component of some of the most memorable books I’ve read. Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Hawaii and Starship Troopers are in this category.

    It may be that an author crafting a racially diverse story is better at creative diversity in general. This adds to writing and improves storytelling.

  10. Sarah Ockler

    Hi all,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on the article. I appreciate all of the viewpoints — it’s an important topic for discussion and a highly sensitive issue (as are most issues regarding kids and teens).

    My intent is not to be pandering — it’s simply a tongue-in-cheek take on a very challenging issue. Ken and Dave, I see your points and agree that yes, an author’s job is first to tell a great and authentic story that reaches readers on the human level. My points here are not that we should simply bleach or tan a character, or slot them in to be PC. But at the other end of the spectrum, we shouldn’t *avoid* writing about these characters simply because we’re afraid of not getting it right. People of color exist in our lives. Why can’t they also exist in our stories (in realistic ways, not PC ways)?

    Further, as writers for children and teens, I feel like we *do* have a responsibility. We also have a really great opportunity here. Dave, you said:

    “There are wonderful teen novels from authors of all colors, nationalities and cultures. It is the reader who should seek out, find and read these books.”

    Sounds good, and as an adult with a car and internet access, I’m able to do just that. But how can you tell a black teen who wanders into a Barnes & Noble that it’s her job to seek out these books? What if these books simply aren’t there? Is it her responsibility to drive ten or fifty or a hundred miles away to an indie bookstore that may better serve her? I wish we all had more options for buying books, but we don’t. So when kids and teens browse the store shelves and see all those stories about white people, what can they do? The stories might be great fiction. Many of them are. And teens of color may be able to connect on those human issues just fine. But they also want to read about people who look like them, too. Why not?

    As a YA author, I’m very careful about *not* intentionally preaching or sending messages in my stories. I firmly believe that readers will interpret their own messages based on the characters and what unfolds over the pages. So I would never write a character of color simply to be PC. At the same time, by *not* including characters of color, writers do send a message — and it’s not a good one.

    My goal in writing about this issue is to continue stimulating this discussion. I don’t know what the answer is, or if there even is a good overarching solution. I just know that white YA writers, who compose the majority, could actually make some changes here simply by expanding our horizons a bit and not running away from the idea of writing about different kinds of people.

    Not to count beans, but to be authentic.

    Thanks again for all of your thoughts. I definitely appreciate all sides of this.

    Sincerely,
    Sarah Ockler

  11. Dave

    Earlier tonight I stopped in the local Barnes & Noble to see for myself the “sea of white on the bookstore shelves”. So, in an average bookstore, in an anverage mid-size American city, what did I spy with my little eye in the YA section?

    Quite a number of novels by authors of all colors and cultures, with a few of them having Award and Honor stickers on the front covers. There was, of course, the large section of supernatural, paranormal, vampire, etc, novels. And there were shelves of what my niece calls “mean girls” books. Skimming through the shelves, I pulled out various YA titles and examined them. Pleasantly suprised, a few thoughts came to mind.

    There are a lot of wonderful teen novels from authors of all nationalities and cultures. It is the reader who should seek out, find and read these books. Furthermore, today it is easier for teens to do just that. In fact, we just might be living in the golden age of teen fiction. No car? No internet access? No problem! Public libraries have entire YA/teen sections, with librarians specializing in teen fiction.

    This is the time of year when schools require students to engage in summer reading. The bookstore had a large table stacked with books (presumably) suggested by local schools. Quite a few faces on the covers did not look like mine, and this is a good thing.

    Now, there were a lot of dust jackets featuring white teenage girls. This could be an issue. I’m assuming the image is a representation of the book’s protagonist. However, does the author have a say in how his or her book is packaged? What about the publisher’s role? Also, if a black or hispanic teen loves dystopian novels, doesn’t the white girl standing in a post apocalypse landscape on the dust jacket become beneficial?

    Sipping my latte, I started reflecting on Ms Ockler’s post, and my earlier criticism of it, which I stand by. The deeper problem floated to surface. It is the use of the term “white writer.” White writer is a label. As a label, it leads to misunderstanding, stereotypes, and cliches. For people of color (or, how about this, my fellow Americans) labels lead to a lot worse. Intentionally or unitentionally, the term “white writer” used in this post implys all authors with white skin write the same story. Really?

    Does an author with white skin living in the foothills of North Carolina write the same book as an author living on the coast of Maine, or in Southern California? Do the books of Ellen Hopkins occupy all that shelf space simply because she is white, or is there something more happening in her fiction? Is the success of the Hunger Games trilogy based on the color of the author’s skin? And, the same is true with Jacqueline Woodson. Do her books sell because she is a great writer or because of her racial identity?
    There was a row of her books on the shelf.

    Diversity and authenticity are not mutually exclusive, but authenticity should never be sacrificed in the name of diversity. Ms. Ockler seems to be going about this the wrong way. The solution is simple (though not easy). Let writers tell the stories they want to tell, and, unless one is his or her editor, stay out of the creative process.

    Share the books you love reading. If one has a blog, occasionally use it to promote great books. You know they are out there. Word of mouth IS the best form of publicity. “You’ve Got To Read This” still carries great power, especially among frineds.

    My experience tonight showed me the dire state of YA literature has been greatly exaggerated. In fact, bookstores and publishing have come a long way. It is evolution, not revolution. Having said that, we should not rest on our laurels. Not one bit. Stories matter, regardless of the skin color of characters, or the author.

  12. Kaye Draper

    I think the previous post by Dave was wonderfully worded and thought out. I agree with the last paragraph, especially. I think writers should write the story they were meant to write. If I force myself to add in characters just for the sole purpose of making something “racially diverse” I would probably botch it and lose the magic of the story.

    I’m white. I grew up in a very rural, very white area. My biggest fear when writing a non-Caucasian character is that I will offend someone by doing it wrong. I can only write from my perspective.

    I am outlining a story at this moment for a YA audience and one of the main characters is Japanese. I love this culture and am really fascinated by how rich this will make the character- but I am scared to death because of discussions just like this one.

    Frankly, in the article above and in some of the comments, I felt attacked for being white. I don’t want to open up a whole new can of worms here, but racism goes both ways people. I can’t help who I am and where I live.

    I also think it is EXTREMELY offensive to hear someone say that a white writer has more advantage. Complete and utter bull, frankly. I am working my butt off to get published. I have zero advantage, and never once has any agent I’ve queried cared what color my skin is. Most of the time, they would have absolutely no idea if I were white, or purple with green polka-dots. They are only looking at the words on the page.

    Best of luck to every aspiring author, no matter who you are, or who your characters are. I look forward to reading your WELL WRITTEN story.

  13. Barry Hoffman

    I agree with large portions of this article (there is no reason whites cannot craft complex black, Hispanic or Asian characters, for instance). The problem, though, might rest with mainstream publishers as well as agents who feed publishers what they want. At the Pikes Peak Writers Conference one agent said she wouldn’t represent a book unless she knew there was a publishers interested in what was written. Rather than fight to get a well-written book published, then, she would reject it and represent a book not as well-written if it were easier to get published. She went on to say when a rejection letter states “This manuscript is just not for us” that’s code for she doesn’t have a publisher willing to take the book on. And for every book that sees publication in the YA market there are hundreds (or more) that agents reject or publishers have no desire to publish. So, while diversity is important let’s put the blame where it truly falls — not with authors but with agents and publishers who are looking for a sale rather than at the quality of a manuscript.

  14. A.T. Russell

    Sarah, I agree with you. Unfortunately, race is a sensitive topic and many folks tend to avoid it. Not me, and thankfully, not you, too.

  15. H. Durocher

    As a white writer with a half-black, half-white niece, I’m very disappointed in the white respondents who are minimizing or dismissing the importance of this issue.

    My beautiful brown-skinned niece cherishes a dream of having straight blonde hair “that runs through your hands like silk.” She is seven. Did she come up with this blonde fantasy all on her own without any influence from the media, books and pop culture? Please.

    We all want to read and watch (at least some) stories about people who look like us, because it tells us that we matter. Each writer can only write what they are capable of writing, but should we all stretch our imaginations a little to embody characters who are different from us, as Ockler suggests? Yes!

  16. H. Durocher

    Kaye, may I give an example of how white privilege works, from one white person to another?

    Example: I’m a white editor who publishes books that move me and resonate with me. I don’t give a damn about the skin color or culture of the authors or the protagonists, but the books that resonate most with me are those written by people who have a similar mindset to my own. It’s never even occurred to me that my author list is entirely white, but–surprise!–it is. Without meaning to, I’ve given an edge to white authors, and likely those with other similar experiences to my own (male or female, small-town or urban, etc.).

    To put it another way: The only people who don’t think white privilege exists are white people.

    I don’t think the problem is what readers demand, because I think most readers are just looking for great stories. The problem is the lack of diversity in the publishing houses themselves, and the lack of awareness about how white privilege is unconsciously perpetuated.

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  18. Antonio

    H. Durocher writes:
    “The only people who don’t think white privilege exists are white people.”

    I am saddened that some of the folks who have taken the time to comment here choose to be blind to the complex world around them. It is as if they have purposefully buried their heads in the ground. If I have not experienced this problem, then the problem does not exist. What a horrifying state of denial.

  19. Adam Kane

    This is a non-problem. There are plenty of ‘people of color’ writing fiction; as Dave pointed out above, browse your local bookstore and you’ll discover a world of diversity.

    Besides, it’s rather patronizing to think that readers of color can’t enjoy a great story just because the main character has a different ethnicity. Great fiction transcends boundaries.

  20. Nonny Morgan

    I’m honestly gobsmacked at the number of people here who have commented that think that Sarah is asking authors to write diverse characters as “bean-counting” or “PC” or some variant thereof. Did we even read the same article?

    That’s not what she’s saying at all. She’s encouraging being aware and thinking actively about one’s cast of characters.

    Okay. While I’m white, I’m a queer disabled woman. Until I started reading various essays on diversity in fiction, it never occurred to me to write characters like me. It never occurred to me to write anything other than able-bodied straight people. Part of that is because I had internalized “That won’t sell”, which I have heard over and over, but part of it also was that I rarely see books with queer or disabled characters as the protagonists. (This is not an invitation to list the few that you can think of. They are out there, but they are not common.)

    So I started thinking actively about what I was writing. And instead of assuming a character would be white or able-bodied or straight, etc, when creating my characters, I would think about it. I would ask myself questions about the characters. How would the character change if they were {fill in the blank}? What would they experience? Did it “feel” right?

    Some characters were very vocal about being straight or white or able-bodied, whatever. Some, thinking of them in such a way clicked. I have also thought “Oh hey, a black lesbian character would be cool…” and figured out where she fit in and learned more about her and I adore her. :) I also decided to say screw it and write a character like myself for once (queer and disabled and the hero of a goddamn fantasy book because fuck it, us crips can be awesome too) and she really took on a life of her own and I love her too.

    None of this would have happened if I hadn’t thought actively about it and considered other pathways than the majority, the default. It has, imo, made me a stronger writer because now if I do something, it is for a reason, and it further strengthens the character, rather than just being “because I didn’t think about it and went with what came naturally.” Naturally is informed and affected by society and its ideals.

  21. Terra C

    Thank you Sarah Ockler for writing this article. Thank you Nonny Morgan and H. Durocher for adding such well thought out and legitimate points.

    I agree with Ockler and Morgan. Writers should be more conscious and brave about writing characters which are representative of the audience they write for. If there’s no setting related reason to not have diversity and especially if your story takes place in some variant of “today” or “near future” diverse characters should probably be included. Like the Ockler stated you might as well just write stories explicitly about yourself or maybe a struggling author if you only write what you know. Research and people watching is part of the job it will help you grow as an author.

    I believe the problem our vulgar friend Den had was that the article did not address the embarrassingly small percentage of published minority YA writers as a problem to be fixed. Regardless of whether or not doing so would provide more people of color in YA fiction, it is a problem to be fixed not just noted and passed by.

    H Durocher, please hug your niece for me. Then go out and find her some stories with diverse casts. I suffered from the same issues when I was her age. When I was a teen I loved fantasy fiction with elves and magic as well as sf. I identified with many characters but always felt a bit other because Tolken style fantasy mostly takes place in a romanticized ancient European setting where people who looked like me were rarely included (when they were they were usually men and from far off). Even worse was I never read a fantasy book that described a girl of color as desirable for a relationship. I grew up in a predominately white town and I assumed myself to be default less desirable. While books aren’t the only media which contributed to this attitude, it sure would have helped if I had some positive reinforcement.

    I’m not saying that authors should take responsibility for the mental state of every minority. But now that I’m grown it does kind of irk me that in a fantasy setting where authors often invent a world from the ground up (geography, history, culture, rules of magic or physics) that many neglect to add diversity of phenotype.

  22. Dave

    Yes, we did read the same article. Yes, Ms Ockler is asking authors to change the color of their characters skin for the sake of diversity and nothing else. Furthermore, her view of the YA genre is a gross overgeneralization; please note her use of the phrase “sea of white stretching on forever along the shores of YA literature”. This myth was easily debunked by a quick trip to the local bookstore.

    Also lost, or ignored, in this conversation is how one defines diversity. Take three common romanticized European settings. Celtic Britain was very different from Hellenistic Greece, which bore no resemblance to medieval France. There is diversity in the white community as well.

    And, having read a lot of Tolkien and Tolkien style fantasy novels…elves, dwarves, trolls, goblins, and orcs (the majority of characters in The Hobbit) look very different than Anglo-Saxon based humans.

    A writer should be congratulated for overcoming his or her shortcomings in the imagination department. I agree. However, that is the individual writer’s issue. Ms. Ockler claims not to encourage “affrimative fiction quotas”, then promptly turns around and softly suggests if a writer does not have enough characters of color in his or her novel, then said writer is a racist. I disagree.

    Race is not a difficult topic to discuss. Diversity is important. It is also important to see the whole picture, to understand that science fiction, fantasy and YA literature is building upon the foundation that has been laid down. As these genres acquire a more diverse audience, there will be more diverse novels as a result. There already are. And, yes, that is an invitation to list your favorites. Word of mouth = more book sales.

    I think the better option is to look toward the future, to where one is going, rather than to keeping looking backward, pointing fingers and staying stuck in the past.

  23. Nadia

    I’m about to say something that will probably cause a lot of upheaval but here it is: who the hell cares.

    I’m a white 18 year old who’s read my fair share of YA and am currently attempting to pull together a novel or two of my own, so I think my opinion is valid. Also, I live in South Africa. 75% of my friends are black. We’ve only had 17 years of democracy and racism is widespread among the older folk. But here’s the thing: most of the youngsters I associate with don’t see colour.

    It’s the underlying issue in racism that nobody seems to get. As soon as you MAKE it an issue, it will be. When I write, I don’t describe the colour of my characters’ skin because they could be anything – purple, for all I care! Unless it’s important to your storyline and you can’t make your point without it, I don’t believe you should even allude to the race of your characters. It doesn’t matter, and we, as educated young people, don’t find it important.

    Most of the problems addressed in YA are universal and appeal to ALL teenagers. I promise you I wasn’t rooting any more or any less for Cinna and Prim because of the colour of their skin.