In 2011, young adult authors Malinda Lo (Ash) and Cindy Pon (Silver Phoenix) launched Diversity in YA, a website created to celebrate and encourage diversity in young adult novels. Lo and Pon are advocates for the representation of all kinds of diversity in young adult literature, including race, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. Young readers everywhere responded positively to the project, and in 2013 Diversity in YA moved to its new home on tumblr, where reader response has been just as encouraging.
But believe it or not, when Lo and Pon originally sat down to plan the book tour that would eventually launch Diversity in YA, the theme of diversity was suggested as a joke.
“To clarify, I had been joking with Malinda about touring together for some time, and then the opportunity actually arose when Huntress and Fury of the Phoenix released close together, and we just had to do it! I think I had thrown out the diversity theme as a joke–because who does that? Group author panels had only become recently popular at the time, and they were fun groups. Not that our tour wasn’t totally fun, but the diversity banner seemed a lot more serious than what was currently taking place. However, Malinda and I both felt the time was right as there had begun to be much more discussion about diversity in kidlit,” said Pon.
Awareness of the lack of diversity in books, TV shows and films for teenagers has grown rapidly in recent years, particularly on the internet. This awareness is in part thanks to the rising number of blogs and websites like Diversity in YA, which encourage readers and writers to think critically about representation in the stories they enjoy.
Both Lo and Pon are thrilled with the success Diversity in YA has garnered.
“The reaction we’ve received since we launched has been incredible and heartwarming. It’s wonderful that so many people are actively supporting diversity in YA fiction!” said Lo.
And when I bring up other blogs celebrating diversity, Lo is only too happy to share her favourite blogs that focus on diversity in YA and children’s literature:
Malinda Lo is the official webmistress of Diversity in YA on tumblr. Lo and Pon regularly post new content including long lists of book recommendations, features on new diverse book releases, interviews with authors and publishers of diverse literature, and statistical analysis of diversity in YA. Lo – who Cindy Pon has dubbed “the Queen of Pie Charts” – is responsible for the blog’s fantastic emphasis on up-to-date research and accurate analysis of diversity in YA and children’s literature.
“I’m a former academic and ex-reporter so I’m very geekily into research — and also statistics! I really like to put numbers behind this topic, because all too often the discussion of “diversity” becomes all about personal anecdote, and while I think personal experience is important, we also need facts to bolster our arguments. I really enjoyed researching the statistics on diversity in 2012 bestsellers earlier this year, because it actually pleasantly surprised me to discover that a number of bestselling series do have characters of color or other kinds of diversity in them. I think there’s certainly room for more, but a lot of the received wisdom in publishing is that diversity doesn’t sell, and I think that’s not the whole story.”
But the blog isn’t just about statistics and numbers crunching.
“On the lighter side, I’m always partial to my YA book lists that feature Cute Asian Boys,” laughed Pon.
The success of Diversity in YA comes from this balance of light-hearted and serious discussion of diverse representation in young adult literature. But has the growth in discussion and awareness managed to leave a visible impact on the publishing industry in recent years? “Absolutely,” according to Lo.
“At the same time that Cindy and I were kicking off Diversity in YA, we heard from several editors in the publishing business who were starting a group within the publishing industry to support diversity in publishing. That group has since become the CBC Diversity Committee, and they’ve had real-world events involving publishers and editors that seek to broaden awareness of diversity issues.”
With ‘write what you know’ so often misinterpreted as ‘write what you have experienced;’ however, many writers have admitted to initially holding back from including queer characters, disabled characters or characters of colour in their writing, for fear of creating an unintentionally harmful representation of an identity or culture they don’t belong to.
But Lo and Pon have advice.
“There’s so much to say about this! Diversity in YA in collaboration with the YA subreddit is doing an Ask Me Anything session on Monday, November 11th about writing diverse characters. It always starts, though, with the willingness to learn how much you don’t know, and the dedication to really dig into research,” said Lo.
“I would say to research and also have beta readers from the background you’re writing about, if at all possible, provide feedback. The worst thing is to write a cardboard character based on stereotypes, and often, the cliches might be so embedded that the writer doesn’t even realize she’s writing this way. And though research is important, it’s to provide you with understanding and to ground you in the culture you’re researching. It’s not an opportunity to throw everything you’ve ever learned onto the pages because that only tends to lead to info dumps, overwriting, and exotifying of that culture. I also believe that it’s crucial to be aware of your reader, and not necessarily pitch something as being “diverse” if that truly isn’t the focus of the story, but a side bonus. Malinda and I write YA fantasy and science fiction that happen to be inclusive of diverse characters. I believe they are books that can be enjoyed by a broad audience. Diverse books shouldn’t be pigeonholed. Books featuring straight and white characters certainly aren’t,” said Pon.
I’m always on the look-out for book recommendations, so before I wrapped up our conversation, I asked Lo and Pon if there were any books they’d like to give a shout-out to.
“Over the summer I read Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here, which is about a Native American kid growing up in 1970s New York state. It was so touching and showed me a part of the world that I know so little about. I highly recommend it,” said Lo.
“I recently very much enjoyed Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, and Pantomime by Laura Lam. Prophecy by Ellen Oh is also an exciting YA fantasy, set in ancient Korea, and the sequel, Warrior is out on December 31st!” said Pon.
For more on diversity in YA and children’s literature (as well as book lists featuring Cute Asian Boys!) and on Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon, visit Diversity in YA. Visit Malinda Lo at her website and Cindy Pon at her website.