I’ve been reading YA fiction since I was a teenager, and even though I aged out of the target demographic, I still love YA. Growing up I devoured anything fantasy and science fiction related, but I don’t remember reading or seeing many characters like me.
Now that I’m a writer, the need for intersectional books by intersectional authors has become greater. The reason I write is two-fold. I write for a younger version of myself—the one who realized she was bisexual but freaked out because it meant she was no longer straight. I wonder how she would have felt if she saw someone like her learning how to accept their sexuality. Or the time I went on a starvation diet and lost thirty pounds because I hated my body. Maybe if I saw more fat characters that were content with themselves, it could have sparked my body positivity journey sooner.
I write for the next generation, for teenagers who are like me and those who aren’t. I want them to know that they matter and that I see them.
We Need Diverse Books and other grassroots organizations have brought about a change in the publishing industry. In recent years, there have been many successes and triumphs, such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, and If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. If these organizations hadn’t come along, I don’t know if we would’ve gotten these stories or if they would’ve received the enormous support they did.
There are plenty of people doing the work. Some recent and upcoming books by intersectional authors include Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse and Anger Is a Gift by Mark Oshiro.
But when people discuss We Need Diverse Books, they often discuss marginalizations such as ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation, but marginalizations like disabilities and religious minorities often are left out. Recently, when I went searching for characters like me, I found myself having to choose a marginalization. If I can’t find at least one character like myself—black, bisexual and fat—I wondered how other people who have never seen themselves represented feel.
A lot of YA fiction highlights one or two marginalizations, and I often see #OwnVoices writers worried that if they were to portray someone like themselves, then people wouldn’t find it realistic, even though those people do exist. Often, I see my friends across social media platforms discuss how they have yet to see someone like them represented in media. Like me, they settle for bits and pieces of representation, and once we find it, we cling to it because that’s all we have.
Some authors try to write every marginalization into their books without proper thought or consideration because “diverse books sell” – which isn’t true. According to the Diversity Baseline Survey by Lee & Low Books, the publishing industry’s still overwhelmingly white. With 79% of publishing employees identifying as white, Asian and Pacific Islanders account for 7% of the industry and Latinos follow closely behind at 6%. African Americans make up 4% of the industry, and biracial and multiracial people follow behind at 3%. While Middle Easterners come in at 1%, and Native American and Alaskan Natives account for less than 1% of the industry. When I look at Publishers Weekly sales report, I see one of the effects of a mostly white industry; they buy books from mostly white people about mostly white characters. Every week I see a list of mostly white people and a few people of color sprinkled in. White authors should stay in their lane, boost #OwnVoice authors and newcomers, and support things outside of what usually sells and contribute to the diversification of YA that way.
Many of the white authors who try to fill the imaginary, unspoken “diversity quota” fail. The Black Witch by Laurie Forrest and The Continent by Keira Drake are two books that deal with racism with a white savior narrative and caused harm to their marginalized readers by reinforcing a lot of -isms. There’s been a parade of well-meaning white authors who consider themselves allies but have written harmful LGBTQ and racial representation. Last year, New York Times bestselling author Maggie Stiefvater wrote All the Crooked Saints, a story about a Mexican-American family who has unique talents. One clue that Stiefvater didn’t do adequate research was the name of the town the characters lived in: Bicho Raro. Depending on where you’re from in Latin America, it means strange bug or strange penis.
Being an ally means making mistakes, and growing from those mistakes, but some authors have doubled down and insisted that their critics were wrong or that they didn’t get it. Instead of learning from the criticism or reflecting on whether this is their story to tell, these white authors continue to rise to the call for diverse books.
I believe what those white authors are seeing is readers frequently talking about needing those books. To them, it seems diverse books would sell more, and if they write a book, it must have diversity in it. Although we need diverse and intersectional books, we don’t need them written by white authors who only think of diversity as a trend or those who go through a checklist to cram in as much as possible without considering if they’re the right person for the job. It rings false.
Ultimately, these authors are taking two seats at the table. I’m not saying that white authors shouldn’t write diversely, but there’s a difference between building diverse worlds and writing experiences that don’t belong to you. I want to see a day in YA where people like me can be seen: as both characters and writers.