This has been the year of “diversity in YA.” As someone who grew up feeling marginalized, before J. Lo made it cool to be Latina and before the radio played songs with whole chunks in Spanish, I applaud this. As someone who has loved books primarily for the feelings they evoke in me and less for the lessons they intended to teach me, I am conflicted. Such is the lot of the “diverse” writer.
I have what you could call “minority cred.” I was born in a Spanish-speaking country to Hispanic parents. I crossed the Mexican border undocumented in the U.S. at the age of eight. I sat for months of the third grade utterly confused in a small school with no such thing as English as a Second Language instruction. I chafed against the irrationalities of English, its ‘rough’ and ‘dough’ and ‘bough.’ I felt completely left out and didn’t see myself in the world around me.
And then… books. They whispered to me late at night, giving me that little thrill of discovery. Francie told me her story – so much like mine! – in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Anne let me into her haunting attic hideaway, where I sat with her feeling her heart full of angst and hopes and her bittersweet words about still seeing good in the world just days before being discovered. I – not black, not southern – saw my hopes in Celie in The Color Purple and her letters to God. She eased my pain through my own difficult relationship to male authority. Like most readers, books saved me and made me and uplifted me.
It seemed impossible for so long, but this undocumented girl finally wrote her own book decades after scribbling in my diary, “Most of all, I want to be a writer.” I wrote, not surprisingly, about the experience of being “illegal” (an awful term) and wanting to hide it. But I wrote, or meant to write, about more than that too, things like how secrets can weigh you down and how hard it is to grow up and figure out how to not stink at having a boyfriend. And then I was initiated into the discussion about diversity in YA.
It surprised me, for example, that we are still having this conversation. (It surprised me even more to learn my book was “diverse”). As a reader, I’ve picked books for the sheer joy of holding them and inhaling them, not with any real understanding of the bigger picture of where they fit in in “the literary world.” I was naïve, I now know. My world is a kaleidoscope of diversity – everyone I know is a minority of one, from my fashionista Latina best friend to my Italian fellow town mom holding on to the traditions of her parents and grandparents, to my Irish-step-dancing neighbor. No one I know is a “type” or a “race.” They are individuals with a unique collection of experiences and worldviews. Who knew that some people needed book characters to be indistinct enough to be able to imagine themselves in their place? I loved Celie and Anne and Francie (and so many hundreds of their sisters and brothers) because they let me live in someone else’s head and learn something new about myself. I didn’t love them for what they represented. I just loved them.
But the reality of it can’t be denied. Books are segregated, just like we are. “Diverse” books are looked to for what they can bring to the conversation about race and gender and ethnicity but not as often to what they can add to the conversation about being human. In a way, we can look at this reality and see a microcosm for our larger issues. I don’t hope for a color-blind society or even for a meritocracy, when diversity is real and what passes for merit is so often infused with privilege and access. I hope for a world where we no longer need to point out whether a book is diverse. I hope for a day when diverse books get shelf space not as a political message but as a literary reality, a mirror of the rest of our world.
But then, even as the little kid waiting to cross the border into the U.S., I have always been a dreamer. The good news is that I think most readers are too and together we will make that world happen.
Maria E. Andreu is the author of THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY (Running Press), a Junior Library Guild Selection and 2014 National Indie Excellence® Award about an undocumented teen girl facing an uncertain future. For more, visit Maria E. Andreu’s website.