Diversity in Contemporary YA Fiction by Ashley Hope Perez
I came to care about diversity in YA first as a reader. As a high-school English teacher, I shared a quest with my students in Houston, a quest to find those books that would speak to them and their varied experiences.
We had plenty of successes, but there were a number of students for whom it seemed that the gateway book—that critical read that would persuade them of all that words can do—was missing. “I want a book that shows how my life really is,” I heard over and over. “Not just somebody brown, but somebody real,” one student insisted. And, “please, I can’t stand it when they make it seem like if you just get accepted to college you’ve got it made.” That last bit came from one of my top-performing seniors, an impressive scholar by all accounts but also a young woman who had few illusions about the conflicting demands she would be facing in the coming years.
It wasn’t long before my students—aware of my aspirations to “one day” write a novel—began to recommend (okay, insist, pester, badger) that I write the book that they were looking for. It turned out to be the greatest of many gifts they gave me, and my students were both my inspiration and the first readers for What Can’t Wait.
Often I hear from readers of What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly with questions along the lines of, “How did you know it was like this for me?” Readers of What Can’t Wait sometimes assume that I’m telling my own story (I’m not, except in that something of every author lodges in her books), but since The Knife and the Butterfly deals with gang culture and is narrated from a Salvadoran-American teenage male’s perspective, the question is all the more frequent in that context. How does a nerdy, twenty-something mother make the leap into that world?
In truth, the answer is the same for both cases: I listened.
For What Can’t Wait, I listened to my students as they talked through the latest crisis, listened to their gossip in the hallways during passing period, cherished the stories and notes they shared to help me develop the story. For The Knife and the Butterfly, I heard the voice of a lost boy while reading in the papers about a gang fight and its aftermath, and I knew I had to learn how to become the writer who could tell his story. In the process of growing into that role, I listened to hours of interviews with MS-13 members, especially focusing on the aspects of the experiences described that challenged my preconceptions. I did other research, too, but it mattered especially to voice that experience as it was lived by real youths.
The best diverse reads grow out of a sense of urgency and a sense of particularity. For me, urgency often comes from a feeling that my audience—often “at-risk” or otherwise marginalized teens—needs the story I’m telling. Making particularity a priority argues against giving a character a particular background, social status, or sexual orientation because one feels—in some abstract way—that one “should” do it. Rather, we do best when those characteristics are part of a compelling character whose experience of the world is based in who they are—or who they are becoming—but is not defined by or limited by any one characteristic.
The enemy of particularity is, in my opinion, tokenism, where a character’s background is either basically arbitrary or is the only reason they are included. I read a YA novel recently that had two characters of color (out of four focal characters), and both plugged neatly into a stereotype: the cool Indian-American with emotional commitments to extended family on the one hand and the financially strapped Latino working as a busboy on the other. The problem wasn’t so much that these details were part of the character profile; it was that they were defining features. Most of the characters’ actions—and much of their story—found motivation in these relatively superficial factors.
That’s not to say that we should immediately veto all novels that seem to draw on stereotypes. A crucial strategy in some narratives is to engage a stereotype up to a point so as to gradually dismantle it through the course of the narrative. This is what I try to do, for example, with the trope of the Hispanic family as a barrier to individual success in What Can’t Wait. While the protagonist struggles with her family’s ever-increasing expectations, in the end several members of her family rally around her to help her overcome her own personal crisis. Similarly, while I have a Latino dropout and gang member narrate The Knife and the Butterfly, his misogynist views and macho bravado gradually peel away as he comes closer and closer to total desperation.
When I have the chance to talk with librarians or teachers about book selection, I often beg them first to make sure their collection goes well beyond the default “diversity” titles. By the time my (mostly Latino) students reached my senior English class, most of them had read The House on Mango Street—in part or in whole—a half dozen times. While the absence of a broad selection of diverse YA titles can reinforce students’ feelings of exclusion and general disengagement from the world of books, offering students (whatever their background) a sense of the range of YA can generate a sense of excitement.
Here are the questions that I ask myself when evaluating a YA novel that includes a non-mainstream character. Is the book of comparable literary quality to other books in its genre/category? Will the style/voice/pacing/themes of the novel appeal to some portion of my target group? What role does the character’s background play in the story? If the plot involves issues of identity, does it complicate those issues somehow? Does the character act and make choices, however narrow the margin of possibility may be for him or her? Does the story incorporate recognizable stereotypes? If so, are these complicated or challenged somehow? What new readers might I reach with this book? For whom would this be a “gateway drug” read?
There’s no formula for what makes a good diverse read, but in setting priorities, it’s helpful to think through these questions. They can help us to step out of our own preferences and dig into the needs and appetites of the readers we want to serve.
Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of two YA novels, The Knife and the Butterfly and What Can’t Wait. What Can’t Wait was inspired by her high-school students in Houston and was named to the YALSA 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults list. Her latest novel, The Knife and the Butterfly, explores the lives of two teens connected by their struggles—and by an act of violence. Kirkus Reviews called it “an unflinching portrait with an ending that begs for another reading.” You can find Ashley online at www.ashleyperez.com, on Twitter (@ashleyhopeperez), and on Facebook and Goodreads.