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.

Guest Post: E.C. Myers

We’re excited to welcome E.C. Myers, recent winner of the Andre Norton Nebula Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy for his YA debut, Fair Coin. In addition, E.C. deserves additional medals for being a thoughtful and super fun author, and we’re delighted he had the time to stop by and guest post. Read on!


myers_coinsOver the course of writing and selling my first two books — we’re talking over the course of many years, because that’s how publishing rolls — diversity in YA became more important to me as a reader and as an author. When I first drafted Fair Coin, I envisioned the protagonist, Ephraim Scott, as half Puerto Rican and his love interest, Jena Kim, as half Korean; but aside from a few oblique character descriptions, readers might not have realized it. Ephraim’s friend Nathan is Jewish, and Mary and Shelley are Latina, but again, these began as insignificant details — details that were perhaps only there for me, the writer.

Eventually, I decided that just wasn’t good enough.

As I became more aware of how few multicultural YA books there are, I realized that the diversity in my own stories was almost invisible. There’s a simple reason for that: Growing up as a half-Korean boy, I didn’t define myself by my mixed heritage, and so I figured it need not be a big deal for Ephraim or Jena either. (And I certainly didn’t want to include stereotypical characteristics just to bring the point home: “Look! You can tell she’s Korean because eats kimchi!”) But even though I considered myself simply “American,” whatever that means, from the outside, many people saw me as Asian — and that might not be a bad thing in fiction, when there aren’t many Asians at all.

It took me a while to realize I could give my characters richer backgrounds and make them more visibly from other cultures without making the books about their heritage. I could be nuanced without rendering their heritage invisible, by conveying their different upbringing in their perspectives and how they approach situations and each other, not just what they eat, how they talk, or what they wear. The characterizations were deeper for it, and I hoped there would be readers out there who would see some of their own unique experiences reflected in them — and see Latino and Asian characters who identified as such, as part and parcel of their personalities.

I did tweak Fair Coin before publication to emphasize the characters’ backgrounds more, but diversity isn’t something you can just shoehorn into a book. I had more freedom in writing Quantum Coin and tying it in more organically to the plot. Ephraim’s Puerto Rican father reappears in his life, giving him a glimpse of how different things would be if he’d been raised by him instead of his mother. And we also see Jena’s immigrant relatives and some of the unfortunate impact of racism on her and her Korean family.

I’m more committed to including more people of color in my fiction from here on, but I’m still learning that the degrees must be dictated by the nature of the story, rather than the other way around. The science fiction YA manuscript I’m working on now is very multicultural, because it makes sense for that world, but that also means that diversity is also a given for those characters. (If only!) Mainly, I’m determined to look for opportunities to include more characters from different backgrounds and with each story, question whether the protagonist can be of another race, gender, or sexuality before simply defaulting to white male. And that’s the least we can ask of any writer: To consider more varied perspectives in your fiction and challenge yourself to do better than what you’ve done before.


ecmyersE(ugene).C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and a public library in Yonkers, New York. His debut young novel Fair Coin won the Andre Norton Nebula Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy and its sequel, Quantum Coin, just released recently. He blogs at ecmyers.net and is on Twitter @ecmyers.

New Release

I just finished reading this unique romance. I’ll be reviewing it on August 28th so check back for more feedback then.

Screen shot 2013-04-06 at 7.40.31 PM
If You Could Be Mine By Sara Farizan

(Algonquin Young Readers)

Summary: In this stunning debut, a young Iranian American writer pulls back the curtain on one of the most hidden corners of a much-talked-about culture.

Seventeen-year-old Sahar has been in love with her best friend, Nasrin, since they were six. They’ve shared stolen kisses and romantic promises. But Iran is a dangerous place for two girls in love—Sahar and Nasrin could be beaten, imprisoned, even executed if their relationship came to light.

So they carry on in secret—until Nasrin’s parents announce that they’ve arranged for her marriage. Nasrin tries to persuade Sahar that they can go on as they have been, only now with new comforts provided by the decent, well-to-do doctor Nasrin will marry. But Sahar dreams of loving Nasrin exclusively—and openly.

Then Sahar discovers what seems like the perfect solution. In Iran, homosexuality may be a crime, but to be a man trapped in a woman’s body is seen as nature’s mistake, and sex reassignment is legal and accessible. As a man, Sahar could be the one to marry Nasrin. Sahar will never be able to love the one she wants, in the body she wants to be loved in, without risking her life. Is saving her love worth sacrificing her true self? — Cover image and summary from Goodreads

Author Interview:

Book Review: Long Division

long divisinoTitle: Long Division
Author: Keise Laymon
Genres: Literature/Contemporary
Pages: 267
Publisher: Bolden
Review Copy: Purchased from Amazon
Availability: On shelves now

 
I’m a Doctor Who fan, but I will admit that the timey-wimey stuff often gets me confused. I loved time-travel stories but I’m usually left scratching my head at the end because I just can’t make it work the linear way my mind wants me to. This feeling, this confusion, is what I had at the end of Keise Laymon’s debut novel. This is not a reflection on him as a writer, but everything on me as the reader.

 
While I was reading the novel, I enjoyed the adventures of the two main characters, both named City Coldson, but divided by 28 years. Long Division is a novel within a novel, and I wondered at the end if 1985 City was real, and not a character in a novel, or if 2013 City was real and not a character in a novel. I really hope that sentence makes sense, but if it doesn’t, that’s the complexity that is Long Division. The ending is a bit vague with the answers, leaving the reader to make up their own minds. I’d like to think both City Coldsons were real, but that would mean…oh my…*scratches head*

 
Moving on, Long Division is a novel about teenagers making sense of the racial inequalities in their world, as well as learning to be responsible for one’s actions, both positive and negative. Because it is a novel with time travel in it, the reader experiences life in 1964, 1985, and 2013. Making each of these time periods distinct, and the characters interactions during each of the time periods, is what Laymon does best. For example, I was a tween in 1985, therefore a number of the references 1985 City makes, how he speaks, is very true to the time period. Conversely, 2013 City reads just like one of my students. Laymon does a good job capturing the myriad of thoughts teenagers will have in a given moment.  This oftentimes led to some hilarious inner monologues and exchanges from both of the young men. Both 1985 City’s and 2013 City’s section are given to the reader in first person, so we are privy to the boys mixture of deep and mundane thoughts. And just like regular teens, these thoughts can go from deep to mundane in the blink of an eye. It was usually at those moments that I laughed the most.

 
The novel takes place over a series of days, but both 1985 City and 2013 City make the transition from boys to men in that short period of time, coming to understand the complexity of the effects of one’s decision and how it can have a lasting impact. I won’t give it away, but there is a moment towards the end where 1985 City has to make a decision that no adult would want, but he handles it with a maturity and grace that is absolutely beautiful.

 
Lastly, Long Division is not a novel where you can sit back and relax. You have to pay attention; notice the social commentary that Laymon drops subtly all throughout the novel. It is a very different type of Young Adult novel, but is one that teens are capable of finding, discussing, and examining the deeper meanings behind the words presented on the page. It is a novel that respects the teenage mind, while challenging them at the same time.

 

Recommendation: Get It Soon

Mini-review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

ariTitle: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author:  Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Pages: 359
Genre: contemporary, romance
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: the lovely local library
Availability: February 21, 2012

Summary: Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: When you read a lot, you realize that there are books — and then there are books — the sort that you want to throw at your friends and scream “READ IT! I HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS!” This is that sort of book. The plot, characters, style — everything about Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is done so well. You really get to know the two protagonists, Aristotle and Dante. There’s friendship, romance, family — everything you could want. The only teensy problem I had was with the ending, which felt sort of rushed and a little forced. But, aside from that, it was wonderful. Talk to me and I will gush about this book for ages.

Recommendation: Buy it now! It’s such a beautiful story.

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]