Diversity Done Right: Dreams of Gods & Monsters

Full Disclosure: To avoid spoiling the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, this blog post will be vague in parts. Sorry. Go read the series!

I’m going to admit something a bit embarrassing, but all to real for readers of color. When I first read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I made the mistake of not clearly reading the physical descriptions of the character Akiva. I was enjoying the story, inhaling the gripping twists and turns that I did what many readers do – defaulted in my mental picture of Akiva (i.e. White guy). It wasn’t until I was reading the last book of the trilogy, Dreams of Gods & Monsters, that I realized my error. There was a description of him that brought me up short. I stopped, read the line again, and my mental picture changed. I grabbed the first book in the series and scanned looking for physical descriptions and bam, found my error. I had read the words, but did not truly take in what skin tone the descriptions meant.

I imagined this….

Because I'm a HP fan.

Because I’m a HP fan.

Now I picture this….

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While I can’t fault the author for my misinterpreting, I think if she had included a few more physical descriptions, I think I would have caught my mistake earlier. She clearly described the main female character, Karou, many times so the reader could create a full mental picture, but with Akiva, the descriptions are few and somewhat vague. It is really easy to see how in this instance, a reader could default. There have been many discussions about how much description a writer should use when writing a character of color; the debate being giving too much description or is it “othering” to only describe characters of color. I am in the camp of that a writer should be specific in their descriptions and to repeat a few times throughout the novel. Let us be aware of what the characters look like, otherwise we will default to the Eurocentric standards of beauty.

In Dreams of Gods & Monsters, Laini Taylor changed up her tactic and spent more time giving character descriptions, repeating them sometimes in beautiful ways to make sure the reader know that the characters that inhabit the world of her story are very diverse. The novel takes place in different places in our world and on an entirely different world, but all the people in both worlds are made of a variety of colors. By making sure both her worlds were reflective of the racial diversity of our world, the book felt more grounded in reality (as much as she can make it). This attention to detail in her character descriptions made the book extremely enjoyable to me. I liked knowing that in a major event in our world, all the people would be represented, and that even in a different world, the different colors are all represented as well.

Another aspect of the novel, a “Diversity Surprise” moment, was that Taylor also made one of the major characters a Black woman. I actually sat up and read the description twice because I was so happy to see this character included. I loved that a Black character was included in the ensemble and that the focus was not on her being Black, but other things which I can’t say because….

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But I will say that Taylor wrote her character to perfection as she was a real character where we learned more about her fears, her hopes, her dreams, instead of focusing just on her race. When authors ask “how do I write a character of color,” the aspects of the character’s personality is what they should focus on, not just a character’s race. A writer still should address it someone, after all, race does color how one views the world, but do so sparingly as dealing with racial issues is not something a POC worries about 24/7. For example, Taylor has Eliza describing her interactions with a hostile co-worker, she writes, “Eliza was used to being underestimated, because she was black, and because she was a woman, but no one had ever been quite so vile about it as Morgan”. Talk about your intersectionality laid out in one sentence! Taylor has lines like this peppered throughout out Eliza’s narrative, but it is not the focus of her story, it is just Eliza’s observations that she has from time to time. Those little moments, those small comments, will show that a writer has done his/her homework when creating a character of color and will make the character read like a real person instead of a stereotype.

I’m sad that Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series has come to an end because I really did love its epic story. I highly recommend this fantasy series to anyone who also loves plot twists that keep you reading well past your bed time, and characters that make morally gray decisions in order to survive. The story is gritty in it’s realness in regards to war and doesn’t hold back with the darkness just because it’s considered a YA novel. I fully respect authors who don’t insult the intelligence of the teen reader and my respect for Laini Taylor has grown three-fold with her creation of a truly diverse world.

Seriously, go buy this series.  You will not be disappointed.

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Talking Books, Culture & Identity

It’s that time of year when cities all across the country have weekends celebrated to the written word and this past weekend was one of my favorite weekends of the year, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Two days of a book addicts dream where there are all sorts of book talks, author signings, independent bookstores just waiting for my money, and just plain fun. The festival begins with the Los Angeles Book Awards ceremony where this year Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints won for Best Young Adult Fiction! Congrats to Gene!

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Gene draws and signs my copy of Boxer & Saints.

At the festival there were literally hundreds of talks and panels fans of books and writers of all levels could attend. Of course, being my focus is diversity in YA literature, one of the panels I attended was titled, “YA Fiction: Writing Culture & Identity.” The panel included Maurene Goo, Cynthia Kadohata and Gene. The panel focused on the topic of incorporating culture and one’s identity into their writing. The discussion was a lively one with Maurene and Gene giving insight into why they infuse their writing with their own culture. Maurene stated that as an adult YA reader, she noticed a void within the literary landscape and wanted to add her voice, her experiences. She said there were a plethora of diverse “message” stories (and I completely agree with her) and that she wanted Holly’s stories (from Since You Asked) to be universal. When asked if the authors were writing for their child self, Gene stated that “maybe I’m writing for the 12 year old me.” He expanded his statement that he was writing for the self who wished there were more characters in his books and comics that looked like him. In fact, this desire is what is also propelling him to write the Green Turtle series.

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The panel was not all about discussing problems with the lack of diversity but also a talk for solutions. Cynthia stated, and correctly so, that because Middle Grade/YA purchasers are usually the parents, the parents of children have to take the initiative and ask for books by and about people of color. Another suggestion (and I unfortunately did not write down who said it, sorry all) was questioning what are we, all of us, doing to help the next generation of writers. Are we nurturing kids writing, especially children of color, who might not be encouraged to write? I think this question is profound and an important one as I also work with mentoring young writers of color. Children need to be able to know that their stories are valid and worthwhile, instead of just voices from the dominate culture. Gene also followed up by stating that diversity is difficult, but by using common interests, we can build community.

Over all, it was a good talk and after I got to spend some time chatting with Maurene who is a lovely young woman. She mentioned what she is currently writing about and I got so excited!

Maurene Goo. We bonded over our love of Korean Dramas.

Maurene Goo. We bonded over our love of Korean Dramas.

If you have a book festival coming to you this spring, please go and support authors of color. Get your books signed, say hello, tell them how much you loved their book.

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Is Eleanor and Park racist? And other questions to ask

Recently, there’s been an attempt to resurrect affirmative action in Californian universities. This attempt failed and news outlets flooded with articles reporting the Asian American backlash against affirmative action. Sure enough, when I went by the library the other day, I saw a banner proclaiming “SCA5 = RACISM” and two Asian American girls tabling a booth outside city hall.

And I wondered — how in the world did it get to this point? How did so many of my fellow Asian Americans end up thinking that affirmative action was racist? Well, I’m guessing the model minority myth played a role. By buying into the mindset that Asians, as the ‘model minority,’ have more in common with white Americans than with other POC, concerned parents and political leaders came to the false conclusion that affirmative action would be detrimental, and therefore racist, towards Asians.

Tell your parents, tell your uncles, tell your aunties: Stereotypes are toxic, kids. There is no such thing as a good stereotype.

Which brings me to this question: When it comes to YA lit, media, etc — is all representation good? Representation certainly matters, but to what extent does the need for representation of marginalized groups in fiction excuse shoddily written characters and stereotypes? Short answer: It doesn’t.

The thing is, there is great representation out there. It might require some searching, but it’s out there. To unquestioningly accept any-and-every form of representation means dismissing and devaluing the fantastic stuff already out there. Representation of marginalized groups in YA lit shouldn’t simply be a matter of putting a check mark next to the diversity box. It shouldn’t involve stereotypes, exotification or cultural appropriation. It can and should be done right.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an incredibly lazy when it comes to reading. I’m my English professor’s worst nightmare — a passive reader. When I read, I let the words wash over me and think of nothing but the story until I’m finished. When people ask me for book recs, my answers are vague — “You should read this book, because it’s … cute? There’s a hot guy with a six-pack?” I barely even remember the books I read — that’s how lazy a reader I am. Nonetheless, I’ve been trying to become a more proactive reader and question the things I read.

A while back, I reviewed Eleanor and Park. I was all ready to cheer for the wild success of a book with a Korean American hero and love interest. But when I read Eleanor and Park, I was a teensy bit troubled by the racism vibes — I attributed this to the POV of the heroine Eleanor and her good-intentioned-yet-ignorant views, and thought little of it.

Fast forward a few months: I picked up Fangirl, another book by the same author, and gobbled it up. Though it was a fun read, I finished the book with the same troubled feeling, this time about the novel’s problematic treatment of mental health and anxiety issues. Same author, different book, and a pattern emerged, causing me to question my initial reading of Eleanor and Park.  By itself, Eleanor and Park is a cute, Romeo and Juliet style romance. But books don’t exist in a vacuum. Historical context and prevalent stereotypes cast the book in a different, and more unforgiving light.

Still, I wanted to cheer for the success of a book with a Korean American boy as the hero and a lower class girl as the heroine. Wouldn’t pointing out the problematic elements of the book do more harm than good?

Around the same time, I read Stormdancer, a self-proclaimed ‘Japanese steampunk’ fantasy novel. It ended up a huge disappointment and was, to put it nicely, pretty dang racist. This, to my mind, was a classic example of ‘not all representation is good representation.’ Each time I saw Stormdancer and its sequel Kinslayer listed on diversity blogs and goodreads shelves as a ‘diverse read,’ I cringed inside. Something was amiss here.

I don’t mean to cast Eleanor and Park or any other book, for that matter, as the villain. And it’s incredibly telling that people are more afraid/angered by the label of ‘racism’ than by, well, racism itself. For some, calling something out as racist is considered worse than actual racism (or sexism, homophobia, classism, etc). This makes for an environment hostile to critical reading and analysis.

I firmly believe that there are questions that should be OK to ask of any book: Is this book racist? How are these character depictions influenced by society and stereotypes? Is this respectful borrowing or cultural appropriation? –and so on. No book should be off-limits. Representation matters, and because it matters, giving it the careful thought and attention it deserves is paramount.

One of the things that makes YA lit so awesome to me is the fact that it’s a genre-bending category open to experimentation and fresh ideas. It’s a safe space for new voices, innovative ideas, and social activism — or so I like to think. If we can’t question, examine, and re-examine works in this brave not-so-new world of YA lit, then where can we?

tl;dr Is all representation in media good representation? Not necessarily, and asking questions/thinking critically about YA lit is important! Representation matters, so we should give it the thought and attention it deserves.

IF YOU’RE CURIOUS ABOUT ELEANOR AND PARK (and Stormdancer)*
The Author Rainbow Rowell on: Why is Park Korean? <take with a grain of salt
Angry Girl Review: Eleanor and Park
Clear Eyes Full Shelves on Eleanor and Park
Ellen Oh on Eleanor and Park
The Book Smugglers: On Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff
Addressing Troubling Tropes Regarding Asian and Asian-Americans in YA

And always relevant:
Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story
caring is not trying, trying is not succeeding
There’s no such thing as a good stereotype.

*Not even the point of the post, but okay. My bad for making it the title (heh). Your bad for not bothering to read the post.

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Are You Up For a Challenge?

Back in January, I wrote a post about the reading challenges that I would be guiding my reading this year. During the CCBC-Net diversity in literature discussion in February, someone (I wish I could remember who) mentioned one more that I am excited to add to my list. First though, a recap of the ones I have been participating in already:

latin@s

The Latin@s in Kid Lit Challenge has been a lot of fun and is focused around reading children’s and young adult lit written by Latin@s or starring Latin@s. I’ve read many picture books (since I am an elementary school librarian), but the YA books I have read and enjoyed are Saving Baby Doe by Danette Vigilante (coming March 20th), The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer, and Death, Dickinson and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez (which Jessica reviewed last year).

Diversity

The Diversity on the Shelf Challenge is great because the books from the Latin@s in Kids Lit Challenge also count in addition to anything that I would review here on Rich in Color. This challenge is to read books that are written by an author of color or have a main character that is a person of color. My favorites from this challenge were The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang (available digitally in installments over the next several months and in hardcopy in July), Inheritance by Malinda Lo (reviewed by K. Imani last year), Romeo and Juliet adapted by Gareth Hinds, and Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices edited by Mitali Perkins.

Africa Challenge

The Africa Reading Challenge is the new one that I was reminded of during the CCBC-Net discussion. I’m excited to get started on this one. It’s focus is concentrating on literature by African authors or taking place in Africa. The host, Kinna, encourages readers to try reading from a variety of countries. After reading Jessica’s review of Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, I knew I wanted to read it so I bought it recently. It’s fantastic so far. As with the other two challenges, the host provides resources and suggestions so I won’t have a shortage of titles to choose from once I finish Akata Witch.

I am loving the exposure to many titles through the lists, but also through the reviews of the participants. There are still ten months left in the year, so it is not too late to get started. You don’t need to have a blog either. You can create a list in Goodreads or find some other creative way to keep track on your own just so long as you are reading and venturing out into new territory. Do you know of any other diverse lit challenges? Are you participating in one or more? Let us know and have a great time exploring diverse lit this year.

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Splashes, No.2

A few years ago, my friend took me to Busboys and Poets in Washington D.C., In addition to serving as a restaurant/bar, Busboys and Poets has a section dedicated to books. All of their book selections are “an extension of our mission to promote cultural, political and historical awareness in our diverse communities.” Basically, they have an awesome book selection.

While Busboys and Poets only features a small YA section, it got me wondering what an entire store dedicated to diverse YA books might look like. Heck, forget an entire store, let’s just start with a shelf of diverse reads. In fact, I’m sure there are stores, libraries, home collections, that already do this sort of thing. Right? Please tell me I’m right… I mean, people are already organizing their libraries by color.

rainbowdeerWhen I recently visited my local Barnes & Noble, inspired by K.Imani’s experiment, “Mad Words Turn to Positive Action,” I was pleasantly surprised with how many of the books on display were diverse ones that we’ve championed here. Of course, it could just be an alphabetical thing. I mean, Kagawa was next to Kang, while Lam, Lu, Mafi were close to each other in proximity. Maybe it was pure chance that these books were so prominently displayed.

My thinking was, why leave it up to chance? What if an entire bookshelf was simply dedicated to showcasing diverse reads? What would that look like? Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll find out at Barnes & Noble any time soon. Which brings me to my next point: Does the general YA buying public care, or notice, diverse books? I’m gonna go ahead and say “no” for the sake of argument. How can we push it in their face then? Someone unaware of the struggle for more diverse books is just going to simply browse the shelves, looking for whatever catches their eye. Wouldn’t it be amazing then to have a shelf full of books featuring all diverse main characters — or titles by diverse authors?

I mean, it’s one thing to look around and see a smattering of non-white faces on covers but it’s another to be presented with row upon row of them. It’s a visual statement that can’t help but pique someone’s interest. It might make them stop and be like, “Wait, what section am I in?” And when they look up and see the big “DIVERSE READS” label, hopefully they’ll ask somebody. Or the answer will be so obviously right in front of them. Maybe they’ll go “meh” and walk on by, or maybe they’ll pooh-pooh the need for such a shelf, maybe they’ll complain! That would actually be the best, since then the bookseller could give them a mini-lecture about the importance of diversity, etc. Ha, just kidding. Not really.

Anyway, would the people in charge of putting books in places where books are put get behind something like this? I don’t know, but if publishers, librarians, book people, and readers all clamor for more diversity in their books, this seems like a small step that could be easily taken. Heck, it could be done in an hour. I’ll come help, I’m an excellent re-arranger.

Now, what I’m suggesting isn’t that diverse title should only be shelved here. But if book store promotions concurrent with Black History Month or Asian Pacific American Heritage Month come around annually, why not make a shelf of diverse reads a permanent thing? Does this tread dangerously close to “diversity” as label? Probably. But, at least for now, better some diversity than none. And isn’t “diversity” already a label marketing people are putting on things?

While it causes a little spark of joy to see a diverse book on the shelves, right now it’s a little like playing hide and seek. Wouldn’t it be cool to be overwhelmed by the selections instead? That’s how I felt walking into Busboy and Poets for the first time. “It’s all diverse books here, I can just grab one and go. Dones!”

Since we’re already headed into dream land, why not consider a shelf that incorporates affirmative action on our bookshelves. Yes, I’m talking quotas! I know, such a controversial word but hear me out. According to the 2010 census, the U.S. population is roughly 35.8% racial or ethnic minority. That breaks down to roughly 16.3% Hispanics or Latino, 12.2% Black or African American, 5.4% Asian or Pacific Islander American, and 1.9% two or more races. That leaves 64.2% white people. So taking those numbers, let’s slap together a one hundred title bookshelf that looks exactly like those percentages. What’s the point? I dunno, to see what it looks like? How would it compare to the current state of our bookshelves?

A Couple of Things

1. There’s a store in Massachusetts that specializes in multicultural books. In fact, it’s called Multi-Cultural Book World. Someone go and tell me how it is. It’s located, appropriately, on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Boston.

2. Why is there a “multicultural stories” tag in Amazon for children’s books but not for teen books? Can we get a tag Mr. Bezos? Also, what happened to the Multicultural Children’s Book Festival? Did it stop after the fifteenth one in 2010?

3. “We’ve also come very close to hiring several other non-white writers and have made a concerted effort to encourage submissions from a more diverse pool.” This is progress right? I mean, so very close!

4. Children’s Literature Association Conference presents Diverging Diversities: Plurality in Children’s & Young Adult Literature Then and Now. The first sentence kills me. “In 1965, Nancy Larrick wrote an article for the Saturday Review entitled ‘The All-White World of Children’s Books.’” This has been a thing since 1965? Geezes.

5. I’ve been reading Liz Lin’s blog series, “Coming to Terms with My Race.” She’s chronicling her experience through the five stages of Minority Identity Development (Atkinson, Morten, & Sue, 1993). Those are: conformity, dissonance, immersion, introspection, synergetic articulation and awareness. Also, there’s a link in her post about the stages of white racial identity development that I found veeeery interesting.

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Experiment Update!!!

The night I posted my blog post about the Barnes & Noble experiment, I spent some time talking to folks about their experiences finding works by authors of color in Barnes & Noble. Turns out that while my experience wasn’t uncommon, a number of Barnes & Noble stores are diverse in the books that they sell. I kept that in the back of my mind as I went out to perform my experiment. I chose to explore a Barnes & Noble during a visit to my mother, hence it was not my local Barnes & Noble. She lives in an area that is fairly diverse, but with my prejudice in hand, I expected to find her store to be lacking in diversity. I am willing to admit when I am wrong, and in this instance, I was. I was quite surprised how diverse their selection was. A number of books by authors of color were facing frontwards, and even Amy Tan was highlighted at the check out.

Behold my amazing photograph skills.

Behold my amazing photograph skills.

Coe Booth, an author I’ve actually never seen stocked at Barnes & Noble before, was! I turned her novel, Bronxwood, frontward so she’d been seen more. In fact, I did that for a few other books.

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Malinda Lo’s Adaptation was a standout, facing frontward at the top of the Teen Fantasy shelf. There was only one copy there, but I’d like to believe that it was the last copy left instead of the only.

All was not sunshine and roses, though. Ellen Oh’s “Warrior” was no where to be seen and even though Tahereh Mafi and Marissa Meyer had books come out on the same day, both popular series mind you, Marissa Meyer’s book was on the New Teen Releases shelf at the front of the store, while Tahereh Mafi’s book was in the Teen section.

Overall, I was quite surprised at the diversity I found in my mother’s Barnes & Noble, which supported what other folks had mentioned to me about their Barnes & Noble. However, I think B&N can do better and I intend to visit a few more B&Ns to get an accurate depiction of the large chain’s diversity. I hope that maybe I was just having an off day that chilly day in January and that the other stores I visit do better.

I’ll have another report ready for you in March.

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