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You’re probably aware there’s a big campaign for more diversity in YA. If you’re not, check out these links:
(I pre-ordered The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson!)
There is a lot of support from numerous authors.
I’ve long felt the desire, the need for more diverse characters in YA, in all fiction. When I was a child, I devoured books by Judy Blume and Paul Zindel and M.E. Kerr – and often wished at least one of those characters looked like me. I think the only book I read when I was younger that had a Japanese-American character was Farewell To Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, and while it was a fascinating story about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, it wasn’t something I could directly relate to (although my father had been interned).
I am a third generation Japanese-American. I grew up in West Los Angeles where I was surrounded by friends and classmates of all races. It wasn’t until as an adult when I moved from California that I was forced to think about race a lot more. I’ve lived in the Midwest, the East, New England, Mexico, and China. I’ve had great experiences and not-so-great experiences. I am proud of my heritage, but for the most part I very much identify with being American. While I appreciate and enjoy reading stories about immigrant experiences, I also love to read contemporary stories where Asian-American characters (or any characters of color) deal with romance, friendship, hard issues, family, etc. I love seeing Ming-Na Wen in television’s Marvel’s Agents of Shield and Lucy Liu as Watson in Elementary, where their race isn’t an issue. I’d love to see more of that in YA literature.
Here’s an incomplete list of books with diverse characters. Please feel free to add to it in the comments section.
Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri
Dust of Eden by Mariko Nagai
Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg
Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth
Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina
Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee
See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith
Wolf Mark by Joseph Bruchac
Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon
Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park
Geography Club by Brent Hartinger
I also want to make special mention of an adult novel with an Asian-American main character who is a lawyer in Manhattan: The Partner Track by Helen Wan.
This is not a full list – but let’s face it, we still need more! My friend’s young daughter (of Asian heritage) often bemoans the fact that there are “no books out there with characters that look like” her. My college-age daughter is half Japanese, a quarter German and a quarter Irish. Where are the characters that look like her? Act like her?
One of the reasons I’ve heard that publishers give for not publishing more books with diverse characters is that they don’t feel that their audience will be able to relate. I’ve been reading books with mostly Caucasian characters for decades – I enjoy those books very much. I can relate to the characters’ feelings and their experiences. I get to learn and grow and experience through the lives of these characters. I doubt very much that young kids who are not of color would be alienated by these books with diverse characters. I would also love to read stories about characters more like me. It’s one of the reasons I mention The Partner Track by Helen Wan above. I’m not a lawyer gunning for partner, but some of the experiences the main character has as an Asian-American living and working in a big American city were exactly like some of my own. Wouldn’t it be nice if kids of color could see themselves in some of the characters in books – to be able to say, “Hey! I know how that feels!” I could seriously go on and on, but in the interest of time, I’ll stop here.
Let’s make some noise and put our money where our mouths are. Buy books with diverse characters! Share them with friends. Help the publishing world let go of the notion that kids (or really buyers) don’t want to read books with diverse characters.
Thanks for your support!