Friday, February 28, 2014

One Window, Two Views {Diversity in YA}

Arianne and I are so excited to bring you this new feature! One Window, Two Views will be a weekly meme where we will discuss a topic from each of our points of view.  Please join the discussion!  

Arianne: When it comes to diversity - whether it's to do with creed, culture, race or sexuality - YA is not where it should be. Yes, there are some fantastic examples of books where diversity is key - but we still need more of it.

Liza: I agree.  Since I’m originally from Puerto Rico, I enjoy books about other cultures and I can really identify with Hispanic (Spanish speaking) characters. 

Arianne: I know that when I read YA, I just want to read about characters who feel real to me. When I look at my favourite books, there's a pretty even split between what I would consider to be 'diverse books' and 'not so diverse books'. (And of course, there are the 'OMG why did I read this it's so badly written' books, or the 'there are plot holes everywhere HELP ME!' books that fit into both categories, because let's face it, whether you've created a diverse book or not, there's still the chance that it's just a terrible read.) The main characteristic of all these books, however, is that they are good stories - stories that are fantastically written, totally unique and refreshing to read.

Liza: You couldn’t be more right, it doesn’t matter what the topic of the book is, as long as it’s a good story.  However, there is nothing wrong with writing a great story that includes diversity.  I also have to confess that I don’t read as many divers books as I could, or rather that I don’t seek them out, it seems to be a happy coincidence when I read one.  

Arianne:  One great example - and this is a story I've always wanted to tell - of my personal experience of diversity in YA is the story of the first time I read Ash by Malinda Lo. (For those who don't know, Ash is a Cinderella retelling where Cinderella doesn't fall for the Prince, but for a Huntress named Kaisa.) I was reading young adult way before I was an actual young adult, and by the time I read Ash, the fact that the central romance was between two girls didn't even cross my mind as unusual. I saw it as something different and challenging and memorable. I was actually disappointed that there weren't more books like Ash on the shelf when I returned it to the library. I was hungry for books that showed me different worlds, different sides to life. I didn't know it then, but I was hungry for diversity.

Liza: Following your suit, let me give you two really good examples of cultural diversity that I love – Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles and The Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler. The first is about a Mexican-American teen and what he has to go through to get ahead in life as a minority.  Of course, it’s also a love story, but what I liked most about it is the sense of family that is always present among Hispanics.  The Book of Broken hearts is a book that I read (listen to, really) due to your suggestion when I posted my rambling about authors using foreign languages in their books (see it here.)  I’m SO glad that I listen to you Arianne, because I loved it (I still have to review it, but I promise to do it soon!)  Again, the sense of family is such an intricate part of the story.  I also loved that Ockler didn’t feel compelled to make the Hispanic community one of gangs or criminals, as it is often a stereotype that I dread in literature and movies/TV.

 Arianne: For me, lack of diversity in YA just isn't acceptable. I actually get really heat up about it! The teen imagination is as vast as an ocean, filled with the potential for racing currents, thrilling danger and incredible creatures. YA books have the capacity to tell stories you would never see on the adult shelf, because we're open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. We're open to what others see as impossible - vampires, witches, ghosts, gods, monsters, parallel worlds and bizarre dystopian futures. But why, if YA authors are so willing to write about these fantastical impossibilities, are they unwilling to make their characters more diverse in real ways? Why are the shelves filled with book covers featuring pretty blonde rich girls and their super-hot boyfriends? Where are the ethnic minorities, the characters questioning their sexuality, the books where we aren't told the hero is straight and white on the first page and we should all just move on and assume that's how it's supposed to be?

Liza:  I’m not sure I know the reasons either.  Maybe it is because authors and publishers might be afraid, not only that it will not sell their book, but that their work (their babies, really) will be shunned, criticized and even banned.  Another reason might be that since the young adult books are really designed for an age group that starts at around ages 10-12, parents get involved as well.  It is my humble opinion as a mother that banning a book for its content is never the answer.  Just as I supervise what my kids watch on TV or at the movies, I also supervise their reading.  It is up to me, as a parent, to shape their minds and make sure that the content is age appropriate.

Arianne: I get that certain types of young adult books sell, I do. Publishing is a business, not a fairytale. Authors, editors, agents, designers, PR departments and all the people in the between - they have to make a living. I don't want my favourite authors to have to work three jobs and sleep in their car because their books were 'difficult to market' or 'didn't acquire a large audience'. But without change, the YA sections are going to get smaller and smaller, because, eventually, teenagers will get tired of reading the same stories over and over again. Our expectations of the books we read are getting higher, and I know this makes us a demanding bunch, but you know what? I think YA can meet that demand, because YA does good books better than any other category I know.

Liza: I think that what ‘sells’ varies from year to year.  Once a book or series becomes a ‘hit’ bestseller, which was the case with The Hunger Games and the Twilight Saga for example, it seems like everyone wants to jump in the same wagon.  This is understandable and not isolated to the publishing industry, the same happens with movies, fashion and even food.  However, I think that YA readers also appreciate the unique and the different.  Every reader wants to discover that one story that makes them feel, that story that they can identify with, even if it’s not wrapped with a pink bow.  Not writing about important topics such as creed, sexuality or cultural diversity doesn’t in any way change the reality that surrounds us, on the contrary it feels like we are trying to bury our heads in the sand or look the other way.

Arianne: Personally, I think 2014 is definitely going to be a big year for diversity in YA. 2015 and 2016, too, have already been slated as the years for a landslide change in the shape and look of the YA bookshelf. People are starting to realize that diversity shouldn't be regarded as an obstacle, but as an asset - and the norm. I'm really hopeful that as the year goes on we'll see more books from diverse perspectives. This year, and beyond, I want to read more about characters whose experiences have thus far been pushed aside by the industry. Publishers are getting braver, and I love that, because YA fiction is supposed to be a place where anything can happen, and we can never afford to forget it.

Liza:  Like with everything else in life, as years go by, we (as in ‘people’) get more open minded.  Things that we see and hear now would have appalled and scandalized my grandmother, but they are common occurrences now, and thus it will get better for each generation.  I think you’re right as we will soon see an increase in these topic for YA in years to come.

Arianne: For anyone who's interested in finding out more about the kind of LCBTQ diversity I've spoken about today, I highly recommend checking out Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon's diversity project - aptly named Diversity in YA! From there, you'll find a whole new world full of stats, trends, blog posts and interactive discussion on this topic and more.

What are your thoughts about diversity in YA? Are you open to read more of these books?  Do you care either way as long is it is a good story?  Any book recommendations for us?

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I love comments! Please leave me one and I will try to reply as soon as I can. Liza


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