2015 Young Adult Services Symposium: Diverse Teen Fiction


Diverse Teen Fiction: Getting Beyond the Labels

Moderator: Dhonielle Clayton (middle school librarian, VP of Librarian Services of We Need Diverse Books, author of Tiny Pretty Things)

Panelists: Swati Avasthi (author of Chasing Shadows, 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults), I.W. Gregorio (author of None of the Above), Fonda Lee (author of Zeroboxer), Stacey Lee (author of Under a Painted Sky), Anna Marie McLemore (author of The Weight of Feathers), Renee Watson (author of This Side of Home)
  • All children need access to diverse books.
  • We need to change the landscape.
  • Mirror books: books that reflect your experience.
  • Window books: shows you an other experience.

What was your first mirror book?

Avasthi: It was actually Little House on the Prairie, while she was not white, personality-wise she felt akin to Laura. She felt conflicted when reading it though because at the time there was no difference when it came to identifying Native Americans and Indians. Did that mean she was a savage? In her twenties she found Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, and she feels that this was really her first mirror book and it taught her that there doesn’t need to be just one experience.

Gregorio: For her it was In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord. The character was the same as her, but the experiences was not hers. The main character was a first generation immigrant, and she was a second generation immigrant who grew up in upstate New York.  When she read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan in college, it was then that she found a book much closer to her experience as second generation immigrant. This shows how much diversity is needed in diverse fiction. There are multiple stories and different experiences.

Fonda Lee: She read lots of sci-fi and fantasy, which was greatly lacking diversity. The Sign of the Chrysanthemum by Katherine Paterson was the first Asian character she read. Years later she drew inspiration from reading Eon and Eona by Alison Goodman, since it was a great example of fantasy drawing from other cultures.

Stacey Lee: The Five Chinese Brothers written by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese was her first mirror book. Now looking back we know it is a problematic book. Depictions of all Chinese people looked the same in that book. She cringes that it was first mirror book, but it was all she had.

McLemore: Her first mirror book was Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. It centered on strong women and communal magic that was not controlled by one person. She identified with the cultural representations  as well as the family of strong women. She didn’t feel like she existed in the world of books until reading it.

Watson: She first saw herself in literature through poetry, like Gwendolyn Brooks. She fell in love with poetry as a child. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros was the first book that spoke to her.

Clayton: She had lots of mirror books growing up like those by authors Virginia Hamilton, Walter Dean Myers, and Mildred Taylor. However, they only revolved on two topics: the legacy of slavery and civil rights. She wanted more stories that reflected being and African American girl. We can’t just carve out one story.

Do you pitch books as diverse reads and should librarians?

Avasthi: Yes I do, because people don’t realize it’s a diverse book. When people look at her books they may think it’s about white people because of the cover. But she does recognize that it’s a double edge sword. She wants to represent the truth of experience, but she also wants it to be accessible to everyone.

Gregorio: Her book is about an intersex person, and people don’t know about this word and don’t know what it is. She has to pitch it as a reading experience that you’ve not read before. It’s all about self acceptance rather than diversity.

Fonda Lee: She doesn’t pitch her book as diverse. “This is diverse book” is not a good description for her novel. “This is a kick ass book about fighting in space!” is a good description. Her goal is that her characters are a cross section and representation of society. Pitching your book as diverse varies greatly on your book.

Stacey Lee: She does pitch her book as a diverse book, but it depends on the audience you’re pitching it to. Her intention in writing this book was to show the diversity of the United States in the pioneer era.

McLemore: She is a Latina woman that can pass as white and queer woman that passes for straight. If we’re not counted we don’t count. If we don’t speak up, people won’t find us. Books need to be pitched in both ways, but she is trying to be diverse in her writing and so she pitches her books as diverse. You have to get diverse books into people’s hands.

Watson: She never intentionally pitches her work as diverse. As she talks about her characters and her book, people naturally understand that it is a diverse book, but that it is also about friendship. She also wants to make sure that we read across gender, race, and class. White students need to read diverse books, it’s just as important for people to read mirror books as it is those to read window books.

How do you not pigeon hole diverse books? How do you get wide interest, readership, and circulation of these books? How do diverse books get pigeon holed?

Stacey Lee: Multicultural shelves are problematic. We put books in categories and forget that they are other things too like romance, fantasy, sci-fi…

Clayton: We hold on to labels and genres as librarians. What does the label multicultural mean?

Avasthi: Don’t segregate diverse books at all but have lists for people that do need to find their mirror book. Double shelving may be a solution. What does it tell our white readers when we label a book multicultural? They can’t read the books if they are not of that race?

McLemore: As librarians, you can help readers find the books they need. Be careful of telling readers to stay in their own place to find themselves.

How do you spend a budget effectively? Deciding what to buy is a social and political  act. Am I censoring voices with my choices? Not having diverse books can be a form of censorship. How do you use your choices powerfully and effectively?

Fonda Lee: Libraries have the power to influence readers. Self discovery is important and so is knowing what else is out there. A librarian needs to know that diverse books are out there. Making yourself well informed is half the battle.

Avashti: Put together a panel on it! Because that’s one way to reach out and educate others. Self censorship and the idea of gaslighting is problematic (gaslighting: when you notice something that feels wrong to you, but people tell you it’s not that way at all and even go so far as saying you’re playing the race card).  In her case she was getting a message that Asian people are supposed to be passive and not have agency, but it wasn’t being said outright.  What we accept as normal is often askew.

Fonda Lee: There are only a few books that getting a lot of support from publishers, and tons of well written great books that don’t get the marketing dollars. Bear that in mind when you purchase. Great books are being pushed by the publishers, but you have to look beyond these books to what else is out there.

As a librarian what happens when you don’t have “those people” in your community? This is a question Clayton gets asked a lot.

Gregorio: If you don’t give teens a view of the actual world, you are crippling them. This is a global society and they have to know empathy.

Watson: She overheard a white mother tell a child she couldn’t read a diverse book because the daughter would not be able to relate to them. The daughter answered with all the other things she can’t relate too, like wizards. We need, at a very young age, for white students to learn what it means to interact with others, and that can be done through literature. Make our young people ready for the real world.  It’s a fight worth having to have young people see the world reflected in literature.

Clayton: Lately she has been getting challenges for her LGBTQ middle school’s collection. How should we deal with challenges: to purchasing, displays, and recommendations. Especially because diverse books are the most challenged book out of any group?

Gregorio: ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom has great resources. Be brave, you are fighting the good fight and there are people that want to fight with you. David Levithan has said he likes when books are challenged because then the writing community rallies behind the book and brings attention to the book and to how necessary it is.

McLemore: We are graded on a curve with diversity. A romantic kiss in a LGBTQ novel is judged at a higher level than in a straight book. With diverse content it’s seen differently– with similar scenes side by side it’s the diverse book will be judged harshly.

Avasthi: Books by people of color are banned more that books by white people. For example, Eleanor and Park was being challenged for swearing? What is it really being challenged for? For the swearing? Or for the inter-racial relationship? Examine the challenge.

What about problematic books and problematic portrayals of diverse characters? We are told not to censor based on our own views. How do we support the true portrayals versus the problematic portrayals?

Gregorio: Try to discover the intent of the book, read the authors notes, and pair them with a more true portrayal of the race.

Watson: Have conversations! Read the book and talk about it. A follow up to any book should be to think about the themes and issues. Can the teens identify if the book is problematic? Talk to them about what they are reading and what they are taking away.

Stacey Lee: Having alternate reads and using the books to launch discussions is very important.

Tips: what can librarians do?

Clayton: Pitch the universal. Pitch the story. Diverse books are being boiled down to the characters rather than the story. Change the language with which we talk about these books. Also check out the We Need Diverse Books booktalking kit.

Gregorio: Use shelf talkers! Especially with suggesting a comparative title. Don’t emphasize the diversity. Give them the flavor of the book so that they will want to taste it again. Ask the sales reps on the exhibit floors for more diverse books. We are powerful! They will listen.

Fonda Lee: Many times your avid readers are aspiring authors. They form their dreams and aspirations in your library. Bring in authors for author visits, spotlight local authors in your community, and have books clubs. They are not just looking for themselves in the books but that they can also be writers. Make the message clear that aspiring authors can be authors.

Stacey Lee: Place books in high traffic areas and make books easy to find. Hire diverse staff and train staff on diversity. Examine our own biases and educate ourselves.

Watson: She wants to stress the importance of the power that librarians have: you are the gate keepers, you will give teens books that change their lives. Continue what you are doing! There are teens who need books to let them know their story matters. Have author visits and highlight authors, especially local authors that are not published with a capital P. Authors love to meet young people, and it’s important to let teens know and meet real life authors!

Gregorio: It’s especially important for diverse kids to meet authors. Usually there is a strong work ethic instilled in diverse teens (especially children of immigrants) and they think they can’t be authors. Meeting authors can change this view for them. Think about the language you use to describe books: saying it’s an important book is not going to mean much for teens. Pull out the fun and engaging words to use for teens when describing a book. When you interact in social media about diverse books, call out to the publishers so they can see the successes of diverse books. Think about how you review books.

Clayton: Use genres and work within the genre. Populate displays with diverse books. Use the “big” book to highlight the “little” books. Hit as many diversities that you can.  For example, in a romance display have LGBTQ, straight, and racial diversity. Hunt for diverse titles because they are buried.


How do you deal with negative publisher comments?

Clayton: She still receives publisher rejections saying that they “already have” this book, when really there is nothing the same about the titles. Publishers are sometimes just checking boxes.

Watson: Even after the purchase of her work, the critique and revision process can be hard because of our stereotypes. Sometimes editors gives feedback not on her writing but on their own issues and struggles.

What do you think of the role of cover art?

Avasthi: Her cover has a white girl on the cover. She experienced gaslighting because it sort of made sense to have the white girl on the cover, but the book is about interracial friendship. She appreciates that she could give feedback on the cover and that they listened, but it was so much fighting and still the person of color was only on the back of the book. The paperback was changed, most likely due to We Need Diverse Books movement. As an author she needs to fight, but publishers think teens think a lot about the cover and don’t give teens enough credit.

Stacey Lee: The marketing team is just thinking about selling the book, you have to go beyond the cover and focus on the content of the book.

Watson: Have conversations about the covers. Does it fit the story? How would you design the cover? Design your own cover.

Can you talk about the myth of neutrality and struggle with administration who believe this?

Watson: Even if you can’t purchase books, make lists about the diverse books out their for students or parents. Give resources as to where they can go out and find books. It may not be in your library but they can find them.

Gregorio: Neutrality should mean inclusivity, but in many cases it’s being used to be colorblind.

Avasthi: Sometimes a leadership change makes a difference, but coalition building is important. 30% of the population has to have buy-in to start change. Think about who your 30% are who can start change.

What was a comment from a reader where you realized that your book was a mirror or a window book, and that this is why you do what you do?

Gregorio: She met a twelve-year-old girl who was intersex and she was encouraged to reach out to a support group. She also likes hearing about those who are surprised that they liked her books.

Stacey Lee: There are audiences that we don’t think we will affect. For example, her book got into hands of federal judge who really enjoyed it and he passed it on to another judge.

McLemore: She received a letter that said “I didn’t think girls like us deserved magic”. That’s how she felt growing up. The possibility of magic belongs to all of us, that magic is not just fantasy, but that people like us exist and our stories are important.

–Colleen Seisser, currently reading The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey

2 thoughts on “2015 Young Adult Services Symposium: Diverse Teen Fiction”

  1. This was a great session. Thought provoking, with a diverse range of opinions about YA, diversity, and literature. Thank you!

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