GeekGirlCon ’14 Panel Recap: Diversity in Young Adult Literature

One of the five panels starting our Sunday morning at GeekGirlCon ‘14 was Diversity in Young Adult Literature. As the GeekGirlCon Strategy Guide explained, “Representation is vital for people of all races, sexualities, gender identities, and abilities. According to Malinda Lo’s 2013 Diversity in YA website, only 15% of NYT Bestselling YA Books had people of color as main characters, and only 12% of books had LGBTQ main characters. This panel will examine the market today, what readers want versus the disconnect with publisher’s diversity, and what we can do to improve the number of diverse books for teens.”

The panel came to be because panelist Tori Centanni observed at Norwescon that there were a lot of YA panels and it seemed like everybody wanted to discuss diversity. Shortly thereafter, when GeekGirlCon’s call for programming went out, she submitted just such a panel. She then sent out a call for additional panelists to create a diverse group for a panel on diversity.

Tori Centanni is an author, and has published a young adult urban fantasy series called The Demon’s Deadline. She is bisexual and suffers from anxiety and depression. Mabel Allen has a self published young adult series called Remains that came out last July, and while she is working on traditional publication of the series, she’s currently happy with her self-published status. Her book has a female protagonist that is not a part of a love triangle, and completes the heroine’s journey. Em Salgado has a Diversity in Lit Magazine coming out soon. They created the zine because they didn’t find a lot of stuff out there for people like them. They are bisexual and biracial. Their goal was to get a bunch of people writing about themselves and normalize it. Emmett Scout is a game designer, works at UW, is an editor at UWB Next – a magazine covering social justice issues,  is an aspiring author, reader. He joined the panel because as a person who is transgender and bisexual, he has found some YA books to be very helpful to him.

The panel progressed as a series of questions to the panelists, with each panelist giving feedback on the questions as they felt appropriate.

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What do we mean when we say diversity?

Em jumped in with their answer that diversity is the RAINBOW of people. It’s not just one story, it’s everyone’s story; it’s 50 million stories by 50 million different types of people.

Tori considers diversity to be representation for everybody, where people can see themselves in books and movies. It can be hard to go to the movies or read stories where all that is represented is straight cis white men.

Why is diversity important in teen books?

Emmett said, at the risk of sounding cliche, it’s important for kids to have role models, or rather possibility models. Kids will ask “Can I exist?” Not only can I grow up and be myself as an adult, but can I exist as a teenager as myself? Giving them an image that’s true, that’s human, that they can be, is really important.

Mabel agrees. Growing up, she said, “no one looked like me.” She only saw herself in urban settings, but she likes science fiction and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was so white.

 

What’s a diverse book that helped you or what book would have been good for you as a teen?

Mabel asked for a more diverse Harry Potter.

Tori asked for more bisexual representation for herself as a teen. Bi girls do exist. She used to think that all girls like girls and think about them like that, right? She likes guys, so she can’t like girls too, right? She likes Far From You by Tess Sharpe, which features a bisexual, disabled girl and reads like a Veronica Mars-style mystery. If she’d had that book as a teenager, “it would have been amazing.”

Em did have a book; when they were about 16 they found Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. While Em is bi and not a lesbian, the protagonists journey in the book was relatable and they must have read it about six times by the time they turned 18. They identify as genderqueer, so seeing someone who went through a cross-dressing phase was relatable. But, they never found something that made them feel like them. They didn’t realize gender fluid was a thing until they were 25. They still haven’t found a representation of someone who is gender fluid, ie not binary trans. But had they, it would have made a huge difference.

Emmett did not find that book while he was growing up. He came out as trans a couple years ago, and one reason was due to the book Jumpstart the World by Catherine Hyde. The main character is a young woman, but her mentor and support is a trans man. He’s a really solid, nurturing, friendly, chill presence in the protagonists life. While the story goes into his story and transition, overall he’s a competent grown-up figure in a happy relationship. It was the first time Emmet had come across that presentation of a character. It was the first time he looked at a fictional character that was like him and he thought, “If I grew up to be that guy, it wouldn’t be so bad.” But he found that book at age 20.

 

Tori added that so many times you read a diverse book but it’s an issue book. Those are great for what they are, but it’s also great to read books with adult gay characters that are fine and their point is to be slaying the dragon. “You can be [check-boxes] and you can save the day.” The story doesn’t have to be a coming out/issues book. For them, they slay symbolic dragons every day, so why can’t they do it in books too? Mabel, who is straight and writes queer characters added that the characters need to have more than just the diverse facet, they need to be fleshed out people. They need to do things besides just come out of the closet. That’s not all people do.

 

What can readers do to bring more of these books to market? Readers want to see these books and what can they do to get publishers to publish them?

Emmett brought a suggestion from Gay Romance Northwest, that librarians request books. Many people can’t afford books, and use the library. Have your friends also request the books. This gets copies of the books purchased, even if you personally don’t have the buying power. You can also seek out niche presses that actively seek out voices. Emmett reads queer romance (that is not YA) but Harmony Press is actively seeking trans and people of color stories.

Em added: talk about them. Don’t just say “Here’s a really cool book with a gay character, but here’s a really cool book and title and you should read it.” It’s not just about diverse people coming across these books, cis-het white people need to read them too. It needs to be just as normal to read books with diverse characters as it is now to read cis-het white people protagonists. Sometimes saying “it’s about this Asian-American kid slaying dragons” makes people think it isn’t for them because they aren’t Asian-American. Talk about the book so it’s accessible, so that everybody finds it and wants to read it. When you blog about it or promote it, include the information about diversity, but also don’t make it the focus so it doesn’t appear to be niche.

Tori mentioned the catch-22 that the book is about (for instance) a disabled lesbian but you don’t have to be a disabled lesbian to read and enjoy it. There’s a big disconnect in the mainstream, not just the readers, but when television or movies change a character–why can’t Constantine be bi on the show? When recommending books, recommend them to everyone: “You have to read this, I’m buying you five copies. I’m shoving them under your pillow.” Although, she concedes that may just be her.

 

What should writers and readers not do? What doesn’t help, or actively hurts?

Emmett said it’s tricky. Is bad representation better or worse? Sometimes it is worse, but sometimes it is all you’ve got. After he read the one really good book, he decided to read all the trans YA there is, which was a bad idea. Some of it was really not good. Some trans YA is not written by trans people, which means there are sensitivity blind spots. Authors and readers both need to be really conscious of whether it is a respectful portrayal of that person as a human being. Is this the way a person would want to be represented, especially if in the story it is framed as in issue of “other”? It’s something to be really careful of, how you frame that person.

Em recently had this conversation with friends about what authors shouldn’t do. There are always trends. Sometimes everyone writes about vampires, sometimes everyone writes about unicorns. Diversity is a really big thing right now, everybody is talking about it. But, diversity isn’t a trend you can jump on. These are people. You are writing their stories and representing them. Authors need to be careful. Think about how you portray them. Are you doing this well? Talk to people about it if you’re writing a group you don’t belong to.

Tori added: make that character a person. Do your research. For example, if you write about a Chinese-American and you aren’t Chinese at all, do tons of research, talk to people, and get Chinese-American beta readers. One person’s experience is not every person’s experience. But when you are writing about someone unlike yourself, you’re judged more critically. Another example is a bisexual character who is promiscuous and cheating on their partner. It’s not like this does not happen in life, but the author must be careful because it’s a stereotype of bisexuals and since there aren’t many books about bisexuals, it just furthers the stereotype. Think, is this good for the story and is this character a person? Make your characters people, don’t just jump on the diversity train.

Mabel added that it’s a numbers thing. There’s not enough representation, so if you have 3 of a certain group and all 3 are the same, then you haven’t portrayed that group.

Tori discussed tokenism versus representation.  Tokenism is bad. The difference between tokenism and representation is how you do it. Mabel added that you can always tell because the tokens are not treated like themselves. The panel also brought up Zoe Kravitz’s character in Divergent, as the only black girl. Mabel asked, “Is she worried? Where’s her family come from? Does she look in the mirror and and say, ‘Something’s different about me’?”

 

As writers, publishers, and authors of diverse books, what challenges do you face?

The question was clarified as aimed specifically at the authors on the panel.

In her work, Mabel actively tried to include as many races in this group of friends in her book as she could because when she was brought up, she had friends of every race and when she goes to downtown Boston, she sees people of every race. She acknowledged that when she was writing her book, she asked herself if it is was too many different types of people. So she called her sister who said, “You can’t be too diverse. It’s not a real thing.”

Emmett added that the whole idea of realism can be so toxic, especially when it’s internalized. He mentions when he grew up 9 out of 10 friends were queer. He says they didn’t seek each other out, it just happened to be that way. Gender diversity and sexual diversity is everywhere. But for some reason when he sets down to write a cast of characters that is mostly queer, he wonders if it’s realistic. However, he then sarcastically adds, “It’s not like this reflects my lived experiences exactly.” Remember that the things we see on TV don’t actually reflect reality at all. Writing diversity will feel like its taking a big step, when actually it represents the real world. It’s hard to remember that, he says.

Tori said, for diverse authors to write and publish, they have an additional issue with resources. Statistically, people who are more disadvantaged have fewer financial resources. They can’t afford to go get a MFA. They don’t have the ability to go to $500 conference to meet agents and pitch their stories. That’s the problem. When agents read inquiries, they don’t know who these writers are. The face-to-face interaction is a part of getting published in many cases. She suggested that the publishing world have scholarships for minorities so more people can go to writing conferences. Some way is needed to make them more accessible to people. More different people need to get in front of the agents and publishers to talk about their stories. To get published, it’s a networking thing and a pitching thing. It’s a problem of unequal footing. How is that problem fixed? Tori doesn’t know how to fix the big publishing business. But, she suggested starting your own. Start or submit to a literary magazine that supports diverse voices. Publishers need to seek out diverse authors and not just the token diverse character. Mabel and Em added that until a truly diverse book goes big, publishers consider diversity a niche market.

 

Why do you think so many books with diverse content are banned?

Many of the books on banned books list have gay characters, characters of color, or disabled characters.

Em said, it’s the “think of the children” mentality.

Emmett brought up an idea mentioned in a video game panel at GeekGirlCon the day prior, that any character that is gay causes a game to be rated T because the mere presence of that content is seen as adult and referring to sex. The gross sexualization of people’s identities contributes to it. Em adds that there’s an odd perception for queer people that they have no sexuality until they’re 18. Being straight is the default, but a person must know who they are and what they’re doing before they can even think of calling themselves anything else. Emmett added, “And any exposure to diverse books will just lead you in that direction.” Tori added that for some people, a child reading about an Indian character is scary to the parents since their children may grow up to be well-rounded people.

Mabel pointed out that she has friends with racist parents who are not themselves racist, because they’ve grown up around and met people of different races at school or at their job. Such a person will come home and know their parent is wrong because of their experience with other people. Sadly, often the school, parents, and television are all racist. But that’s why diversity is so important. If your home is messed up, but everything else isn’t, you stand a chance of not becoming a messed up person yourself. Banning all these books, shows, and video games is not helping anyone.

Emmett added that media is a great place to reach people. That some people have a hard time coming out, that there is no visible example of someone in their life. A book can be that person’s example. If a book can provide some guidance, then it takes some of the pressure off marginalized people to be everyone’s encyclopedia, while providing support for those who need it.

Mabel says there were little diverse things that helped her grow as a person. At school, for example, she learned lots of stuff, but more importantly she met so many different kinds of people. For many topics, she knew nothing and now she says she’s so much less problematic. At the same time, people have to consume media to learn.

 

How do you find diverse books? If you’re looking for a book about a certain topic, where are some places you can go?

Emmett suggested starting with a Goodreads list, as a jumping off point.

Em suggested ”we need diverse books” campaign and “diversity in YA”, which both have blogs.

Tori asked the internet. She cited a post she wrote on Tumblr looking for books that still gets updates with suggestions. People are ready and willing with their recommendations.

Emmett added to have faith in the books are out there. They may be self-published or done by small presses, but search for them. You will find an author you can support.

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Q&A

When an author mishandles a character, what is a good way to get the author to respond to issues with that? Have the panel seen authors who have dealt well with that?

Authors can’t go back and change anything in the book once it is written, except to publicly acknowledge the issue. However, one person’s mishandle is another person’s lived experience. Tori cites a book with bisexual characters that many people took issue with that she herself related to. It isn’t that the book isn’t problematic, it just means that for her, it didn’t raise any red flags. Authors should not argue. They may have someone who says it isn’t a problem, but for those bringing up the point, it is a problem. When an author not of a group writes a character of a group poorly, the author’s response has often been that the group should be grateful they were depicted at all. That is also not a good response. Authors can acknowledge and apologize for the problems, and try to do better. When authors are writing, they should consider how this works and how to do it respectfully.

 

An author in the audience who self-identified as straight asked for advice on writing queer characters.

Talk to queer people. Ask them their experiences. Ask more than one queer person. They have different experiences. For example, Em is gender fluid and Emmett is trans. They are on the same spectrum, but they have very different experiences. There are a lot of great resources, but it’s going to vary by demographic and by group. It’s going to vary by the character you are writing. Absorb and read a lot of blogs. It a sense for how that experience is going to fit for your character. You want a gay character to have experiences that reflect that. Mabel was specifically in this situation, where she included people of different sexual orientations in her book. She wanted to write characters who are good characters, and happen to have a diverse set of sexualities. She didn’t want to act like the authority on the topic, though. She asked her friends a lot. She asked if a situation or thing affects them, she asked them to read her characters scenes and give feedback. She suggested, if you don’t know anybody like the character you are writing, put out a call for beta readers who fit. You can go to Diversity Cross-Check to find people who are willing to answer questions about their group. Tori advised, write the character, give them a character arc, and if it feels real, then even if you mess up a little bit, you are making the effort to treat them with respect.

 

What are the differences between being handed a book or just finding it yourself? For example, when his parents got divorced, the asker got handed a ton of books where parents were divorced, which really bothered him. But, he’d like to give books with diverse casts to all sorts of people, people who may need to hear a story like theirs, or people who need to hear a story unlike theirs.

Issues books are a tough call. One has to be ready to read them. For instance, giving a person a book about issues with self-harm when they are self-harming or recovering from it may not help but rather hurt that person. Issues books about trans people often include so much transphobia that many trans people cannot read them. Issues books can be more painful than they are helpful. When you’re in a situation where you hate yourself and the character most like you is also hating themselves, then you’re stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle. This is not particularly helpful. It’s great to get diverse books to kids before they start going through issues. Once someone is encountering an issue, they will find their own books to help them through. In this case, wait for them to ask you.

The panel was asked their opinion on characters being revealed as diverse outside of the book itself, for example Dumbledore being revealed as gay.

You don’t get points for diversity if you don’t mention it explicitly. You don’t have to deal with your character’s issues related to diversity, but it does have to be in the book. When you choose not to put something like that in the book, you are protecting yourself from backlash but you are also limiting the number of readers who will be positively affected by something like that. The gay kids who read that book aren’t going to know it is okay to be gay because two years later the author decides to declare him gay. Keep in mind that in these same books, children are literally murdered, but they couldn’t have an out gay character. There needs to be a push in the industry both as readers and writers to make it more explicit. One way to look at diverse representation is not to call it representation but rather “support.” Because people are looking for a support system, not just representation in books. It’s the difference between a check-box and actually supporting the community represented.

 

Do you support diverse authors and books with diverse characters if you don’t like the genre, or if you thought the story was bad, just to keep publishers publishing diverse books and authors?

You don’t have to buy the book, but you can reblog the cover and others talking about the book if they liked it. Maybe it just wasn’t your cup of tea and that’s okay. Support can come in many forms.

 

An attendee offered a couple more ways to support books that are not just purchases. One is to ask for books at the info desk of a bookstore. The more people ask for the books, the more the bookstore will stock them. They may end up on the employee recommendation display. While in the bookstore, if you see a book you want more eyes on, turn the book so the cover is showing rather than just the spine. Books with covers facing out sell better than books that have only the spine.

 

Want to know more about the panelists?

Em Salgado is a biracial, bisexual, and gender fluid writer and poet, so far only published in their college anthology. Salgado runs a zine and corresponding blog in celebration of diversity at polychrome-ink.com. They are currently an amateur web designer as well. In their free time, Salgado reads, games, and discusses various geekery with friends.

 

Emmett Scout is an assistant editor at The Next, and a current student of the UW Editing Certificate Program with ambitions of becoming a famous novelist. He was homeschooled in the woods for the first sixteen years of his life, an upbringing which taught him the value of an active imagination. His university studies include narrative design, genre fiction, and queer history and representation. In his free time he can mostly be found writing, gaming, baking, drinking too much tea, and raging about social justice.

 

Mabel Antoinette Allen is the author of the young adult novel Remains. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts. She earned a BA in English in May 2013. Although she currently works in a typical office setting, writing is her true calling. Allen began writing Remains during her senior year of college. What started as a small bit of dialogue between two nameless characters eventually grew into a scene, then a chapter, then an entire universe of interconnected stories. Remains is the first of a trilogy. Allen currently lives in Massachusetts with her family.

 

Tori Centanni is the author of The Demon’s Deadline, a YA Urban Fantasy trilogy published by OddRocket. She’s a voracious reader of YA lit, a huge fan of movies and television, and an expert-level cat wrangler. She has an affinity for sharks, dinosaurs, and anything smothered in cheese. She lives in Seattle.

All images courtesy of GeekGirlCon Flickr.


The panelists were very humorous, and as a write-up, I don’t feel I’ve captured how often attendees were laughing. I didn’t include many of the jokes because the translation onto paper didn’t work, as is the case in many improv situations. It’s a case of “you had to be there.” And you can be there–GeekGirlCon ‘15 promises to have more awesome programming just like this! Get your passes now!

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