A panel of six authors spoke at the Cambridge Public Library on Thursday about diversity in YA fiction. The event was moderated by Roger Sutton, Editor-in-Chief of the Horn Book, who noted the strange irony that this diversity panel had five fantasy writers (Holly Black, Sarah Rees Brennan, Deva Fagan, Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon) and only one who wrote realistic fiction (Francisco X. Stork).
Fantasy is certainly the “it” genre right now, and Sutton had a stunning statistic to back it up: one-third of all current hardcover book published for youth are fantasy/speculative fiction—and many of them series fantasy. Cindy Pon thought this was a trend that would come and go. Holly Black agreed, and said now’s a great time to be an author of YA fantasy. Malinda Lo said since fantasy is often derided as a genre, she’s happy to see such demand.
Here are some more highlights from the discussion:
On future trends
Mermaids are doing well, said Sutton, but don’t try to write your next book about them, because by the time it’s published their popularity will have died away. (Except for Kathi Appelt’s Keeper, I can’t think of any recent mermaid books, so I must be missing the trend. Suggestions, anyone?)
On whitewashing and the challenge of pushing people outside their comfort zone
Malinda Lo said it’s not always bad to disguise the controversial aspects of a book. For her first novel Ash, the girl on the American cover (below, left) could pass for either white or Asian…and the jacket summary is vague about the lesbian plot twist. The UK cover (below, right) looks even more innocent, so she’s heard from a lot of British readers who say, “Um, I read your book, and halfway through I realized it’s a lesbian re-telling of Cinderella. How cool!”
This strategy has its limits, of course, and Lo did the exact opposite for her second novel Huntress. There’s an epic-looking Asian girl on the cover, and the lesbian relationship is obvious by page two. (Lo described Huntress as a “queer Asian take on the hero’s quest”—a perfect Twitter-sized summary).
Pon pointed out that she writes books because she likes fantasy, so she’s always stunned by people who think book covers that feature Asian-looking characters are only relevant to Asian readers. Francisco X. Stork’s answer was the simplest: just write the best book you can about something that’s universal. Make the characters relatable, and pretty soon the reader will be so caught they’ll forget that the protagonist is [insert minority group here].
Why are YA authors so chummy?
YA authors seem to collaborate more than other genre writers. We’ve seen it with John Green and David Levithan’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson and Zombies vs. Unicorns by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier.
Black attributes it to the ultra-welcoming YA community, and the willingness of fellow authors to support and critique each others’ work. Brennan said it’s hardly a new trend—Tolkien and C. S. Lewis collaborated plenty back in the day (vying, she said, for fantasy superiority), as did Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Fagan wondered why other genre authors don’t do it more often, since writing is such a lonely activity.
Race and sexual orientation get the most publicity, but one audience member had a question on how to write about disabilities. Stork, keeping true to his mantra on writing universal experiences, said he gave the protagonist of Marcelo in the Real World Asperger’s syndrome almost by accident. Stork simply wanted to create a character that was special—the realization that Marcelo had Asperger’s came later.
Brennan’s pet peeve is the fantasy trope of healing disabilities with magical powers. So she put it in one of her books…and promptly reversed the cure a paragraph later.
Best question from Roger Sutton
…what other genre do you want to write?
Stork and Black both yearned to write funny books. Pon opted for adult historical fiction. Lo has a thing for adult crime fiction and is currently working on a book of that genre. Fagan, the sole panelist whose books are more middle grade than YA fiction, wants to write higher grade YA “with more romance.” And Brennan dreams of writing contemporary romance sparkling with “nonstop banter.”
The last question of the evening came from an audience member, who asked about the difficulties of writing outside your own experience. Stork suggested aiming for the human experience. Pon agreed, noting that she’d grown up reading books with white protagonists because that’s what was available, but she wasn’t scarred by the experience—she could always find something to relate to in a good book. As an author, of course, research is indispensable, and as Brennan said, it’s simply interesting to write about people different from yourself. That’s the point, really, because the more variety we have, the farther we’ll be from stereotyped ideas of “default” vs. “other” characters.