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.
Pon worries that a book with an Asian-American on the cover will be seen as a book for Asian-Americans, when in fact her books are aimed at fantasy lovers, not a specifically ethnic audience. For similar reasons, Malinda Lo noted her publishers try to "disguise" the fact that the main character in her retelling of Cinderella is a lesbian by not making it clear in the jacket copy or beginning of the book. While many readers are surprised to discover the identity of the character's love interest, "some are okay with it" even though they might not have picked up a novel marketed as LGBTQ.
The authors were unanimous in their belief that "anyone should be able to write about anyone," as Stork put it. Most of his books are about Latino teen boys, but his goal is to write good stories, not Latino stories. Stork and the rest of the authors thoroughly reject the idea that only authors who are part of a given minority group should be "allowed" to write characters who are part of that group. Pon applauds anyone who "writes beyond their own personal experience," but pointed out that it's important for authors to do extra research and extend more respect to the experiences of others when writing about things they haven't lived through themselves. "We have an obligation as writers to represent the world we live in," said Holly Black, "[but] doing it badly is not better than not doing it."