I am another white, heterosexual, cis woman who writes YA and most of my characters share the same background as me. I could make excuses for it (my first book is set in a small town in Wisconsin; my second book has mixed race characters), but the truth is I cling to “write what you know” as a safety net, to avoid getting anything wrong or offending anyone. But this in and of itself IS wrong and offensive. So many of my fellow bloggers here have talked about how important it is for every reader to see themselves in books—that was so essential for me as a teen and is what led me to become a writer. It’s also essential to have diverse books so that we can learn about and experience what other people live through and experience—to develop empathy, understanding, and build a better world for all. Back in 2010, Mitali Perkins (author of the stellar Bamboo People) gave an incredible talk at the BEA Children’s Breakfast about how books function as mirrors as well as windows. This talk stuck with me so much that it inspired me to write a personal essay for Rookie about why art is important and why I became a writer. There need to be more mirrors and more windows. And as a writer, I am responsible for helping to create them.
So how do I tackle that?
Well, I’ve started by doing what I do best: reading. Devouring books diverse books like Ash by Malinda Lo, Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Pull by B.A. Binns, Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia, and the list can, will, and should go on and on. (These are some of the ones I’ve loved best, so if you have recs based on that, please comment.)
By talking openly about what concerns I have (namely getting it wrong). My next book is a memoir, so obviously the main character is a white girl in this one because she’s me. However, I’m still writing about the people of color in my life and I admitted straight out to a group of writer friends that I didn’t want to describe these people by their skin tone or other features that I wasn’t using to describe white people, but I didn’t want not acknowledge race either. I asked for input from the women of color in the group and was pointed to this great illustrated guide to writing people of color. They also suggested that I have people of those backgrounds read my work. In this case since one of the people I’m writing about is my best friend, that is going to be easy. My illustrator for this book is a woman of color, Suzy X, and I’ve asked her to be critical and let me know where my failings might be. I will definitely be doing this and following in Delilah Dawson’s footsteps as I get back into fiction.
By listening. To the feedback I get from Suzy and other beta readers that I enlist. To people of different backgrounds than me in general. I’ve always believed that the best way to be an ally is to listen and then help to amplify those voices (rather than talk over them from my place of privilege, something we saw happen on a wide scale when #BlackLivesMatter was changed to #AllLivesMatter or when #CrimingWhileWhite took over the conversation). As a writer, I learn from listening. And speaking of that, I’ve also signed up for a class about writing diverse characters for YA, which is taught by B.A. Binns, a YA author I greatly admire. It’s taught through the Young Adult RWA chapter so it’s discounted for members, but if you aren’t a member, it is still quite affordable and worth checking out.
Let’s keep reading, keep talking, and above all keep listening and learning from each other. We’ll write better books, read better books, and build a better world.