Lisa: Growing up, I never thought about diversity (or the lack of) in the books I read. I picked books for the plot, or because I liked the author, and while I had a vague notion that almost all the protagonists were Caucasian (aside from historical novels or the ones that take place in another country), it didn’t bother me. If the story was compelling, it wouldn’t have mattered if the protagonist had green skin and five nostrils.
That being said, I started getting annoyed at the preponderance of “depressing minority books.” English class books seemed to be divided into three categories: historical novels by Shakespeare and other greats, (relatively) contemporary books with white protagonists (A Separate Peace, Lives of the Monster Dogs), and books starring minorities (The Bluest Eye, The Joy Luck Club). The white protagonists wrestled with jealousy and creepy science experiments. The protagonists of color got stuck with unspeakable oppression. Of course it’s important to write about racism, sexism and issues of self-identity. But I also wanted books where the proganist’s cultural or ethnic identity played second fiddle to other matters—like navigating changing friendships or saving the world from an evil mastermind/wizard/apocalypse-bringing villain of your choice. The same thing applies to LGBT characters and those with disabilities: there are plenty of conflicts that don’t revolve around someone’s feelings about being in the minority.
So I knew what I wanted, and once in awhile I’d stumble into one by accident (Ship Breaker, Akata Witch). Yet it wasn’t until I read about the diversity reading challenge that I plunged into an active hunt for these books. Here are just some of the highlights from this summer. And now that I know it’s not so much Mission Impossible as Mission Gnarly Scavenger Hunt, I’ll certainly continue the quest long after the challenge ends.
#1: Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream by Jenny Han (author) and Julia Kuo (illustrator). Clara’s a third-generation Korean-American. She has a grandfather who needs some help with English and the family eats lots of Korean food. But cultural identity doesn’t consume her life; she’s never even been to Korea. Clara’s much more worried about sibling rivalry and competing for the town’s baked dessert crown, aka Little Miss Apple Pie. When a rival student points out that Clara could never win because she’s not really American, Clara’s grandfather reassures her that she’s one hundred percent Korean and one hundred percent American. I was glad to see that Clara isn’t ashamed about her Korean heritage. She’s simply worried, which is realistic and quite refreshing for the genre.
#2: Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher. It looks like a classic “issues book,” what with the racism, sexism and secondary character with disabilities. The mixed-race protagonist was born to an abusive mom and later adopted by a white middle-class family. Talk about potential baggage…but what’s so refreshing is how T.J. feels perfectly comfortable in his own skin. His first priority is getting the school’s swim team in shape. Everything else—run-ins with a local racist, his family’s attempts to protect an abused black child—forms a strong background without stealing the plot. Which all goes to show that you can have gritty, dark YA where self-identity doesn’t take center stage.
#3: The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan. I confess that this book took me way out of my comfort zone. I’m no fan of paranormal romance. Or demons. Especially if it comes with a cliché book cover (muscle-ly guy wielding a sword against a craggy black background). But after I heard SRB speak at the Diversity in YA panel, I thought, surely, someone that funny couldn’t have written a bad book. And so I read it. After which I sped through both sequels. There’s plenty of diversity: a biracial dancer, a gay magician, another teen with a physical disability. It’s an important part of the protagonists’ identities but not all that they are. They’re too busy saving London from dubious magicians…and telling a darn good story in the process. Best of all it was funny. Diverse characters having fun—whatever next?
Jen: Until this challenge, I hadn’t given YA books much notice, regardless of whether they embodied diversity or not. I circumvented the whole section altogether because the paranormal romances and gritty dystopian romances so popular nowadays weren’t my cup of tea. But one thing led to another: after Lisa went to a talk featuring a panel of YA authors, read some paranormal romance and liked it (that must have been some high caliber writing!), I found this challenge and though I was still wary of books ripe with half-vampire, half-Sasquatch angst (a minority so rare, I ought to represent it in fiction), I thought, what the heck and bring it on!
I had assumed that the books which met the requirements for this challenge would be completely foreign and exotic, so unapologetically beyond my normal experience and comfort zone that they dared me with every page to wrestle with my preconceived notions on Life and become a Citizen of the World. I was surprisingly underwhelmed. Will Grayson, Will Grayson, a book with two gay main characters (one of them a walking stereotype) deftly balanced all that pride with dignity and reflection, at least until I got to the absurdly theatrical ending. Besides, most of the angst was about the difficulties of being vulnerable and honest in a relationship, gay or otherwise. Similarly, The Dreamer was more about a boy breaking free from his authoritarian father than representing Chileans in middle grade fiction, even though Ryan does address the sociopolitical atmosphere at the time. And Schmidt didn’t just stop at racism in Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, but covered overarching themes like friendship, the transition from accepting child to questioning adult, and the conflict between societal obligation and personal conviction.
After all, diversity is in the eye of the beholder. For example, with its Chinese vibes, Silver Phoenix definitely embodies Diversity. But because I grew up on such folklore and pseudo-period martial arts films, the setting wasn’t all that exotic to me. I soon found myself rolling my eyes at the barrage of swirling silks, Filial Piety, and jasmine scented everything. All the steamed pork buns in the Kingdom of Xia couldn’t disguise the episodic format of the let’s-fight-demons and acquire-mystical-objects plot, which is very Journey to the West in a way. However, props to Pon for cleverly setting her story in a phantasmagorical version of the first dynasty, which is so old it’s legendary.
In my readings, the book that gave me the most culture shock (diversity shock?) was Words in the Dust. Taking place in modern Afghanistan, its culture, traditions, and painful history unarguably permeates every character, interaction, and word choice. Despite the current day presence of US forces, Reedy reminds us that the Afghanistan Zeynab lives in is still very much mired in the past. To my American mind, it seemed unimaginable and alien that the main character’s father could love his teenage daughter and still marry her off to a rich but heartless old man. But the idea that you can love someone deeply and genuinely and still not act in his or her best interests resonates across cultures. And it takes nothing away from the cultural aspect of the story.
After all, regardless of whether the diversity aspects of the book are window-dressing or integral to the character/setting/plot, a good story is a good story. And no amount of exoticism will save a poor one. I would much rather read stories with characters that reflect the people populating the world in ways beyond mere genetic make-up than a book that is diverse for diversity’s sake. That said, this challenge did expose me to a lot of good books I normally wouldn’t have picked up, and I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more.