ALA Midwinter 2014: Authors Weigh in on Diversity in Youth Literature

photo by Lessa Pelayo-Lozada
Soman Chainani, Phoebe Yeh, and Ellen Oh

At ALA Midwinter in Philadelphia, the conversation surrounding people of color in youth literature left the halls of the convention center and headed over to the Karma Cafe for the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association dinner.   The dinner featured a discussion with authors Soman Chainani and Ellen Oh, moderated by Phoebe Yeh, vice president and publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House.

Both authors started off describing their works and the process behind their stories.  Unsurprisingly, both were rooted in a need for books about non-mainstream ideas and characters.

Soman Chainani began by discussing his series, The School for Good and Evil, which was recently optioned for film.  He discussed the gap he saw between his beloved Disney versions of stories which were often sanitized versions of their origins.  This served as the basis for his series which, from the cover, looks like a classic Disney-esque book, but which he describes as containing almost anti-Disney in themes such deconstructing notions of what it means to be a boy or a girl, and looking at binaries such as young and old in addition to the traditional battle between good and evil.  Chainani also described how he purposefully creates diverse characters, since in fantasy traditional race and ethnicity are not as common and diversity relies instead on subtleties such as names of characters (he tries to pick a name from a different culture each time) and skin color. 

Yeh turned the discussion to more controversial topics, asking about the feeling that there isn’t enough realistic fiction for children of color and inquiring to what degree should authors take this feeling (or fact, rather) into account when writing.For Ellen Oh, her path towards Young Adult literature began with a Time magazine cover of Genghis Khan which led her to conducting research into Korean history while balancing a career as a lawyer.  In-depth Korean history was hard to come by online and in the public library, and she would get books directly from Korea.  She tried her hand at writing books that reflected this history and experience, but didn’t have a hit until the story of the Prophecy came to her while she was sitting in the middle of Washington, D.C. traffic.  Her car then became filled with Post-it notes about a kickass girl superhero rooted in Korean history.  Her main character, Kira, was created as a role model for her daughters who did not see strong, female superheroes in their literature.

Oh discussed how we definitely need more diversity in children’s fiction (which is why she wrote her series in the first place) and noted that diversity is important for everyone to respect other cultures.  Filling this need, however, can’t come from just anywhere; kids need to see themselves not only in the characters of stories but also in the authors writing those stories.  We need more People of Color (POC) being published in addition to more stories about POC.  Oh touched on the role of POC in literature often acting as sidekicks or minor characters because authors writing the characters are not familiar with the culture enough to be comfortable or are not a member of the community and stated that “we are done being sidekicks!”  She quoted the blog post “arg arg arg” by Claire Light and emphasized that it is important not to stereotype, it is important to get it right, and we need to steer clear of appropriation and exoticism.  Yeh also added some excellent responses to the need for more multicultural literature such as the Horn Book article Young Dreamers by Chris Meyers.

Another important topic was how each authors’ life experiences shaped their writing.  Chainani told the story of his grandmother who he would spend summers with growing up.  Every summer they went to a different country with no limitations on their experiences because of age, gender, or ethnicity.  Someone told his grandmother that she couldn’t go river rafting because she was too old, and the next day he found himself sitting next to his grandmother on a raft.  These adventures with his grandmother translated to experiencing a new stage of life, or a new place, every year.  He replicated this growth development in his books where he wants each chapter to feel like a different place or stage of life.  After every chapter he wrote for The School of Good and Evil, he would read a different book, setting himself up in mood and mindset to tackle the next stage or chapter.

Oh’s writing process more methodical and based upon her experiences of visiting the Brooklyn Public Library at every opportunity as a young child.  Growing up, she struggled to balance her own goals with her parents’ expectations, but in the end, the library was always there for her, as she says she wrote practically all of the Prophecy at the Bethseda Public Library.  Ellen described how she would start researching one thing, such as Genghis Kahn, and the next thing she knew, she would end up who-knows-where.  Her novels include copious amounts of research and specific visions such as maps and history and location.

The discussion ended on a positive note, with Yeh offering insight into how librarians can help aspiring authors become published, such as reviewing and recommending manuscripts to personal contacts at publishing houses.  Most publishing houses only take agent submissions and rarely pull out of the “slush pile” but recommendation goes a long way.  During the discussions, Yeh highlighted some of the challenges that POC face, such as contacts/networking and the view of profitability from the publisher.  As an editor and POC, Yeh describes how her experiences growing up Asian American in New York City influence her view of manuscripts and her recognition that POC often feel their manuscripts and work have to be better than other writer’s to be noticed.

While the struggle to break into publishing in general is not a new struggle, the desire and call for more authors of color and stories for children of color is gaining fire.  With authors like Chainani and Oh and editors like Yeh making conscious efforts to represent our communities, we are headed in the right direction.

-Lessa Pelayo-Lozada, APALA’s Young Adult Literature Award Committee Chair, currently reading Bird by Crystal Chan