I’ve not commented, though have retweeted profound threads, on the on-going discussion that resulted from the removal of American Heart’s starred review from Kirkus. I saw the FB post the author posted, read some of the reaction pieces, and the debates that have resulted from the concept that PoC’s speaking out for equality and inclusion is making YA toxic. I’ve always felt, as an aspiring author, that because I don’t have a published book yet, I really have no skin in the game, but after having a conversation with a former student, I remembered that I do. It is why I chose to write my MFA thesis on the need for more diversity in YA and why I’m became a contributing writer to this blog.
I am a teacher. I have spent the past 15 years, 8+ hours a day, with Black and Brown 12-14 year olds. I know what makes them tick, I know what makes them happy, sad, depressed, goofy. I know how to get them to reach for their dreams, but also know how to hold them accountable for their mistakes. I have a responsibility to help them become critical thinkers, to enjoy searching for knowledge, and become more compassionate and empathetic young adults. One of the ways I do this is through literature. As I cited in my essay post titled Combating Racism Through Literature, books engage the active centers in our brains and allow us to become empathetic to other people outside our own small bubble. As a teacher, it is my job to give my students access to other lives outside of their own, but also have them read literature that features characters who look and feel like them. It is also my responsibility to think about all of my students and not give them books that might be harmful to them.
While I understand the concept of “write what you want”, and as I writer I agree with that to a certain extent, when you write for children and teens you actually have an added responsibility. Words are powerful and if you write something that reinforces a stereotype of PoC, not only do you not help create empathy for whom the character is a window, but you also hurt a child of color. YA, MG, and children’s book writers do have a responsibility towards their readers as their readers often use novels to help them learn to navigate the world. Your books can help a student who has depression use the book to seek out help (as happened with one of my students), help a student report their sexual abuse (another student), help them navigate their sexuality (another student), realize that though they are a PoC, that they can be writers too (many students). Novels do not exist in a vacuum and often do have real life consequences. I’ve had students be so touched by a novel we read that they’ve reach out to the author to thank them for their story. I’ve had student’s minds changed due to the conversations around the subject matter of a novel. In all of these cases, and many more, the novels the students read had a powerful impact on their lives for the better. Conversely, negative portrayals can hurt their growing sense of self. If a student were to be given a book with a horrible stereotype, or even a character who is only caricature of a specific ethnicity, the student will a) not see a PoC has a complex human being, and/or b) get a reinforcement of what certain parts of society thinks about them. Both are harmful and hurt a child’s personal development. It is for these reasons that the thought “I should be able to write what I want” doesn’t actually work for YA literature. And frankly, that thought is selfish. If a writer’s complete motivation for writing YA is “to do whatever they want”, then maybe they should not think about writing for young impressionable minds.
I’m going to say it plainly…if you write YA, you do have a responsibility to your audience and the impact your words will have on said audience. It is the reason why many in the YA world are so outspoken when a book attempts to be diverse and gets it wrong. It is the reason why WeNeedDiverseBooks was started. It is the reason why Lee and Low have done so many of their publishing info graphics. It is the reason why blogs like Rich in Color exist. And it is the reason why I finally decided to speak out. All of us, writers, publishers, teachers, librarians, parents, we have a responsibility to help our children grow up to become ethical and compassionate members of society. Giving our children books written responsibly helps achieve that goal.