No More “Surpise! It’s Diversity!”

Contrary to the title of this post, I like surprises, especially plot twists. I like a surprise where I can scream then giggle like a little girl and surprises where my heart flutters in joy. The surprise I’d like to stop having is the “Novel Diversity Surprise.” Now, you might be thinking, isn’t that a good thing? No, it’s not. Here’s why.

My good friend Haneen surprised at a book's diversity.

My good friend Haneen surprised at a book’s diversity.

Earlier this summer Lee & Low Books, in connection with the Cooperative Children’s Book Center released a graphic of the dismal diversity in children’s literature. That conversation is still going some 2 months later. Clearly, most children and young adult literature reflects the dominant culture, with characters of color (both main characters and secondary characters) practically non-existent. In last month’s essay, I noted that authors need to also create diverse worlds as that is the nature of the world we are living in. Here is where the “Novel Diversity Surprise” comes into play. As an avid reader, I constantly read books that do not reflect the world I’m accustomed to and am used to accepting the “default” – that of the dominant culture – that when I read a book that has an actual diverse world, I’m surprised.

I’m surprised to see a Black character, a Latino character, and Asian character in a novel where I wasn’t expecting them to be. A thrill runs through my body when I see characters that look like me or people I know in a novel where I wasn’t expecting them to be. I am thankful for the author to include characters of color in a novel where I wasn’t expecting them to be. Do you see a theme occurring here? I’m reading a book, expecting to find only one hue color and instead find a variety. Yay! Let’s do the happy dance! *Sarcasm*

But no. See, the thing is, if publishers, book sellers, etc. encouraged the selling of books with diverse casts, and if more writers from the dominant culture wrote books that reflected their diverse world, I shouldn’t be surprised when I read the book. Diversity in literature should be the norm, not the exception to the rule. Many writers of color often write books where diversity is represented, because that is how we experience the world, but many writers from the dominant culture fail in this arena. And when writers from the dominant culture include diversity in their books, it’s is seen as a novelty, something special. A surprise gift.

This surprise gift needs to come to an end. Having a diverse world (shoot even diverse universe for the SciFi/Fantasy people) should not be seen as unique and special; it should be seen as the norm. No, not seen as the norm; it needs to become the norm. Until such time, I’ll continue to be on the hunt for books that reflect diversity in all forms and raise my eyebrows in surprise when it comes.

Interview: Kat Zhang

what's left of me
Kat Zhang, the author of What’s Left of Me (a book you should totally read!), was kind enough to answer a few questions for us this week —
The idea of two souls in one body is a fascinating one. What gave you the idea to create an alternate universe where this was the norm?

I don’t really have a super interesting story to tell about how I came up with the idea for WHAT’S LEFT OF ME, unfortunately. I wish I did! Really, though, I just started wondering one day–everyone has a bit of an internal monologue going at times; what if that little voice in the back of your head was a real person? What would it be like to live trapped in your own body? That was how the idea for Eva began, and the rest of the story grew around her.

There are a number of siblings in What’s Left of Me. Would you consider siblinghood a central relationship in What’s Left of Me?
I think so. I know my editor has said that it was one of the things that really drew her to the story. I’ve always been really interested in relationships–not just romantic ones, which are the ones most popularly explored in fiction–but the special, unique relationships that human beings can form with each other (or sometimes with animals or even inanimate objects!).
In WHAT’S LEFT OF ME, there are two kinds of sibling relationships–that between “normal” siblings, and that between the two souls that share a body. Funnily enough, I don’t think I based the latter off my idea of “real” sibling relationships (though many people do say it reminded them of such!).
It’s always said that authors are also great readers. So — any book recommendations? Who are some of your favorite authors? 
I’m sadly not as prolific a reader as I wish I were. The funny thing about publishing is that it often keeps you so busy (especially if you also have another job/school/ etc), that your reading time shrivels up! I tend to stick to recommending the classics of my childhood–things like THE GOLDEN COMPASS, and ENDER’S GAME, and SABRIEL 🙂 I have favorite books more than favorite authors.
So you just got back from the Young Authors Give Back Tour. Sounds fun, but what’s it all about? 
It was a lot of fun! Basically, Erin Bowman, Susan Dennard, Sarah Maas, and I traveled for 2.5 weeks all along the North East, starting in NYC for BEA and ending at Anderson’s in Chicago. We hit 7 cities along the way. The special thing about the tour was that we wanted to do something more than the usual book signing/panel stuff, so in each city, we also gave free writing workshops to people aged 13-22 (in general…some others slipped in ;P). It was a fantastic experience working with so many young writers!
Final question: Are you ready for the release of Once We Were?
Definitely! It’s nerve-wracking, too, because it’s the first book I wrote on deadline, and the first book of its kind that I’ve ever written (and really, just only the 3rd book in general I’ve ever finished). But I’m very excited for everyone else to read it, too!
katKat Zhang spent most of her childhood tramping through a world weaved from her favorite stories and games. When she and her best friend weren’t riding magic horses or talking to trees, they were writing adaptations of plays for their stuffed animals (what would The Wizard of Oz have been like if the Cowardly Lion were replaced by a Loquacious Lamb?). This may or may not explain many of Kat’s quirks today.
[Author photo and bio via Goodreads]

New Releases

Happy book birthday to The Weight of Souls (release date: August 6, 2013)!

the weight of soulsThe Weight of Souls

by Bryony Pearce

Sixteen year old Taylor Oh is cursed: if she is touched by the ghost of a murder victim then they pass a mark beneath her skin. She has three weeks to find their murderer and pass the mark to them – letting justice take place and sending them into the Darkness. And if she doesn’t make it in time? The Darkness will come for her… [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Definitely grabbing this book when I get the chance!


New Releases

July was a slow month for new releases, but makes up for the lack of diverse books by publishing 4 in the last few days. Plus, a new one from one of my favorite authors, Walter Dean Myers!!


everIf I Ever Get Out of Here, By Eric Gansworth

Arthur A. Levine Books

Lewis “Shoe” Blake is used to the joys and difficulties of life on the Tuscarora Indian reservation in 1975: the joking, the Fireball games, the snow blowing through his roof. What he’s not used to is white people being nice to him — people like George Haddonfield, whose family recently moved to town with the Air Force. As the boys connect through their mutual passion for music, especially the Beatles, Lewis has to lie more and more to hide the reality of his family’s poverty from George. He also has to deal with the vicious Evan Reininger, who makes Lewis the special target of his wrath. But when everyone else is on Evan’s side, how can he be defeated? And if George finds out the truth about Lewis’s home — will he still be his friend?

Acclaimed adult author Eric Gansworth makes his YA debut with this wry and powerful novel about friendship, memory, and the joy of rock ‘n’ roll. –Cover image and summary from Goodreads

dramaWay Too Much Drama, By Earl Sewell

Harlequin Kimani Tru

The toughest lessons aren’t always taught in the classroom… Maya is ready to put the fabulous back into her life—and that means getting her manipulative cousin, Viviana, out of it. Bad enough that Viviana is living under the same roof and tried to claim Maya’s boyfriend, Misalo, for herself. Now she’s going to Maya’s high school and she’s part of the quiz team competing on a TV show…alongside Maya, Keysha and Misalo. 

Maya has no sympathy when Viviana finally starts to feel the pressure of fitting in to her new world. That’s until her cousin does something drastic…and dangerous. Maybe Viviana isn’t as tough as everyone thought. Maya could be the only person who can help bring her back safely. Question is…does she want to?

cruisersThe Cruisers: Oh Snap!, By Walter Dean Myers


The Cruisers are in trouble — again. The freedom of expression they’ve enjoyed by publishing their own school newspaper, THE CRUISER, has spread all the way to England, where kids from a school “across the pond” are now contributors to their own school’s most talked-about publication. When photos start to go alongside the articles written by kids, things get suspicious. Zander, Kambui, LaShonda, Bobbi — and a bunch of students from Harlem’s DaVinci Academy and London’s Phoenix School — come to learn that words and pictures in a newspaper don’t always tell the whole story.

With his signature on-point pacing and whip-smart characters, award-winning author Walter Dean Myers delivers another awesome book about the Cruisers, a group of middle-school misfits who are becoming the coolest kids in the city. — image and summary from Amazon


star powerStar Power, By Kelli London


Charly St. James takes on her biggest challenge yet when her television show goes for a ratings sweep by making over the life of a not-so-willing small-town teen with a big secret. . .

Charly St. James is on top, and she’s determined to keep it that way. That’s why she and the producers have come up with a plan to take The Extreme Dream Team to the next level–by turning loners into VIPs. After all, how can you enjoy your new digs if your life is jacked up?

But when Charly meets her first makeover, Nia, she knows she’ll have to do more than dress her up and boost her self-esteem. Nia is living in the shade of her twin sister, who is luxuriating in a major case of pretty girl syndrome. And the more Charly tries to get Nia to shine, the more her twin sabotages her mission. Good thing Charly loves a challenge, ’cause these twins’ troubles are more than skin deep. . . — Cover image an summary from publisher’s website



FWFF alas

Foreign Words for Foreign Flavor (FWFF): when writers toss in words from languages not their own just to make it clear that everything is happening in a foreign culture where things are ~exotic~ and different

Example: The shadows made his face resemble a gui. He looked just like a demon! Terrified, I dropped my xiezi on the ground and screamed as my shoes hit the ground.
Bu pa!” the figure said, stepping into the light. It was only Wang Dazhong, son of the Long emperor and the heir to the Dragon Dynasty. “Don’t be afraid! I will turn out to be handsome and soft-hearted in three to five chapters!”

Yes, sometimes authors mix in different languages and it totally works.* It’s fantastic, beautiful even. Makes me cry tears so joyful and pure that scientists use them in chemical experiments. Many books don’t commit FWFF.

But sometimes — the author means well. The author has done research, lots of it. The author has even toured the country in question. (I’m a little bitter about this part because flying off to have fun in other countries costs $$$. Hmph.) The author might even have stayed in the country for years and years. Still. I’ve got problems with FWFF:

1) Hey, this isn’t even about ethnicity/nationality/cultural background. This is a matter of writing quality. It’s just plain bad writing to throw in words from other languages when they don’t serve any purpose other than, well, foreign flavor. If the words are only there to provide exotic atmosphere, then that is a failure on the part of the writer. Good writing should be able to explain cultural differences to the reader without hitting the reader over the head with it. Don’t fall into the FWFF trap — especially if you’re not from the culture in question and the foreign language isn’t one you’re intimately acquainted with, which brings us to:

2) Okay, so it is kind of about cultural perspective. FWFF assumes that the reader is always an outsider, just like the author. For example, someone who doesn’t know Japanese would need translations for the greetings and clan names and weapon types in all those Japan-inspired fantasy books (written by people who aren’t Japanese!) that have been cropping up lately. There’s always the super awkward translation of every foreign phrase stuffed into the text at intervals (necessary because there’s no way the reader could possibly speak that language, right? /sarcasm).

FWFF and all its related buddies make it clear that the target audience is not from or even remotely knowledgeable about the language/culture in question. It turns the insiders into the true outsiders. When an author uses a different culture as an easy substitute for a fantasy setting, or to add spice to the tale, the result is shoddy writing and an alienating story. When an author uses a culture not their own as a shortcut for an exotic setting, the author says: This book isn’t for you. It’s for people who think foreign means exotic and mystical and weird.

Well, let me tell you a thing. “Foreign” and “Other” — these things are a matter of perspective. What’s foreign to you isn’t foreign to someone else. That’s something to keep in mind when writing, okay? Okay.**

*The Summer Prince uses sprinklings of words from other languages — like “mushibot” — and it’s awesome! Swoon.
**Note: FWFF has many little friends crawling around literature land. You know — stereotypical characters, names that are straight out of a foreign language dictionary, mystical customs, strangely alluring dance moves, etc.

Creating Diverse Worlds

This post is for all you writers out there wondering how to create diversity in your novel. Creating diversity is not just the act of developing a character of color, it is also creating a diverse world. Think about the world that you live in. Who do you interact with everyday? I’ll use myself as an example.


Mural expressing the diversity of my city. From

I live in Long Beach, CA, one of the most diverse cities in America. My student population is 60% Hispanic/Latino and 40% African-American, but the teaching staff is much more diverse with a good mix of different nationalities. I live in a large condo complex and there is every race and age living in the building. Yesterday as I walked out, I was behind an elderly Japanese couple and there is a mixed race family with two girls that I have seen grow into beautiful young ladies. Our neighbors across the courtyard are Samoan. This is just my complex. My best friend from high school is Puerto Rican and my husband’s best friend is a mix of Mexican and Navajo. Another high school friend, who is Caucasian, married a man who is a mix of Mexican and Japanese. Their daughter is a lovely blend of everything that makes up her parents. Another friend’s fiancée is Filipino, and she herself is a mix of Persian and Jewish. I am sitting in a coffee shop as I write this and the ethnic makeup of everyone in here is a mix of all the colors of the world.

Obviously, I encounter diversity in every aspect of my life, except for in novels. Why is this? I know writers do not write in a vacuum and have lives outside of the computer. Why not have the world you create from the pen, reflect the world the you live in? If you are unsure of how to do that, just spend some time sitting in a restaurant, coffee shop, mall, wherever people gather and watch them. Imagine their lives. What are they doing? Where are they going? What are the relationships with the people they’re with? You don’t have to create full character histories for them, but do remember them when creating the world your characters lives in. Just having a main character of color is not enough; the people the character interacts with should be diverse as well.

Don’t just focus on their ethnicity as well. People of color are more than just their skin. We are as unique and varied with our own special interests (I’m a Trekkie) and when creating diverse characters make sure you are creating a real person, not just a stock stereotype. Even if your main character interacts with a person for just one scene, create a small character profile in your head and then use that as a basis for how you write him/her in that once scene. Or, use the personality of someone you know and think about how he/she would react in the same situation. Think outside of the box and strive to make your world reflect the world you live in.

Now, unless your world is set in a place that is not diverse, say the novel “Spirits Chosen” which was set in a mythical Japan, then obviously your characters will not reflect the diverse world you live in. However, if you are interested in writing fantasy, why stick to the European version of elves and such? Why not look into the ancient history or folklore tales of other cultures? There is such a wide variety of stories from distant places that are just waiting to be told.


Image via

Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Chaos” is a novel that creates a diverse world the right way. In fact, it felt as if she were hitting us over the head with diversity, but that is because it is so rare in fiction to find a novel that accurately reflects the culture we live in. The novel is set in modern day Toronto when an odd supernatural event happens, dubbed The Chaos for that is exactly what it is, and the story deals with one characters attempts to survive the event. The novel does have an aspect of fantasy pulling from Caribbean, Asian and European folklore traditions. I recommend that every writer interested in creating a diverse world, read Hopkinson’s book for inspiration.

Go forth and create diverse worlds!