How to Make Young Adult Fiction More Diverse

Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon are trying to show that books for young readers do not have to feature only white, straight characters

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Little, Brown/Greenwillow Books


Forget the vampire invasion or the mania for dystopian stories. Some authors think the truly troubling trend in young adult fiction is that most characters are predominantly white and straight—even after the genre's expansion in recent years. So authors Malinda Lo (Ash, Huntress) and Cindy Pon (Silver Phoenix, Fury of the Phoenix) decided to do something about it: They created the Diversity in YA Fiction website and launched an accompanying speaking tour. Lo said her goal with the site was less to convince authors to write differently and more to highlight the diversity that was already present in YA: characters of a broad mix of races, ethnicities, sexualities, physical abilities, and more.

Pon says that she and Lo had long joked about touring together, and when they found out that their second novels would be released around the same time, they decided to actually do it. As two Asian-American writers, it was natural to tour "under the banner of celebrating diversity," as Pon put it. They chose cities where other authors who write about a wide range of characters live, and invited a different group of writers to join them at each tour stop.

At a recent event at the Cambridge Public Library in Massachusetts, Pon and Lo were joined by Holly Black (author of the Curse Workers series), Sarah Rees Brennan (the Demon's Lexicon trilogy), Deva Fagan (Fortune's Folly, Circus Galacticus), and Francisco X. Stork (The Last Summer of the Death Warriors). Lo told me that they were happy that a few teens showed up, but "we were also very much targeting librarians, bloggers, educators, and other members of the book business with our tour. YA books are often delivered to teens via these gatekeepers, so we wanted to make sure that they were part of the diversity discussion."

The panelist who traveled the farthest for the event was Rees Brennan, who lives in Ireland. "I think we all have to write the change we want to see in the world," she said. "And wanting the world to be better is something every person wants—and wanting to write better and more interesting books is something every writer wants." For Rees Brennan, reading and writing about diverse characters, regardless of genre, is just more interesting. The characters in her trilogy about British teenagers hunting demons include a black girl, a disabled boy, and several gay characters. She told me: "I think writing with attention to the different world people see, and the different issues they face, makes you a better writer - and with luck makes the reader see a different world."

Marketing concerns, of course, play a big role in all of this. Conventional wisdom assumes that white kids won't pick up a book that has a picture of a person of color on the cover, and there have been controversial incidents of YA covers being "whitewashed" in recent years. One of the most widely-publicized examples was the cover of Justine Larbalestier's Liar: her publishers planned to have a white model stand in for her black main character until they bowed to her objections and public outcry.

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Kate Linnea Welsh is writer based in New Hampshire. She writes regularly for The Televixen and blogs about books, TV, and more at Kat with a K.

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