For our last post of 2013 we’d like to welcome Suzanne Van Rooyen. Suzanne is an author and peanut-butter addict from South Africa. She currently lives in Finland and finds the cold, dark forests nothing if not inspiring. Although she has a Master’s degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. When not writing you can find her teaching dance and music to middle-schoolers or playing in the snow with her shiba inu. She is rep’d by Jordy Albert of the Booker Albert Agency.
Diversity in YA is a popular topic right now being discussed by both readers and writers. The general consensus appears to be that diversity in young adult literature is a good thing and that we need more of it.
Before we can accurately ascertain whether we need more diversity in YA, perhaps we should better understand exactly what ‘diversity’ means. After a brief Google search, I found this Diversity Wheel – courtesy of the Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center’s Diversity Services. First of all, it’s pretty cool that a medical site has a page dedicated to diversity, and secondly, this wheel is a brilliant diagram encompassing the various facets of diversity – including the ones we don’t offer consider.
When most people think about diversity, they immediately think race, perhaps religion, and perhaps ever increasingly about gender/sexual orientation. This is still a rather myopic approach that fails to consider differing political or ideological outlooks, thinking styles, education backgrounds, or disabilities, but all these are just as important and just as deserving of representation in YA literature. But how do writers do this when their own experiences might be limited to a certain geographic location or cultural perspective?
Diversity shouldn’t be thought of as some sort of ‘affirmative action’ in literature as this can lead to the less than satisfactory inclusion of minority characters as the ‘token’ gay friend or ‘token’ black guy. Instead, we as writers need to open our eyes and take the time to analyse and understand our society. There is diversity no matter where you are in the world. You are surrounded by a diverse group of people even if it isn’t obvious.
In this era of globalisation, homogenous societies are increasingly rare, but this has yet to be accurately reflected in the books aimed at young adults, perhaps because authors are afraid to write the ‘other’ for fear of writing it wrong or badly. This feels like a cop-out. Authors research many aspects of their writing from the weather of the setting to the technology of the era. Writing diverse characters should be approached with just as much care and consideration, but with no greater fear of inaccuracy than creating a true historical setting. People are people after all, and regardless of race, religion or ideology, many things hold true for all human beings. The onus is on authors to do adequate research in order to write realistic, diverse characters
Thankfully, there is a changing literary landscape, and as more and more authors write inclusively, unafraid to create characters different from themselves, so more authentic diversity is becoming apparent in YA books across all genres. While we still have a way to go, there is definitely hope for the future of YA; hope that all young adults – regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability – might see a character like themselves one day on the front cover of a YA bestseller or gracing blockbuster movie posters.
Fifteen-year-old Treasa Prescott thinks she’s an alien. She doesn’t fit in with the preppy South African private school crowd and feels claustrophobic in her own skin. Treasa is worried she might spend life as a social pariah when she meets Gabriel du Preez. Gabriel plays the piano better than Beethoven, has a black belt in karate, and would look good wearing a garbage bag. Treasa thinks he’s perfect. It might even be love, as long as Gabriel doesn’t find out she’s a freak.
As Treasa spends time with Gabriel, she realizes she might not love him as much as she wants to be him, and that the reason she feels uncomfortable in her skin might have less to do with extra-terrestrial origins and more to do with being born in the wrong body.
But Gabriel is not the perfect boy Treasa imagines. He harbors dark secrets and self-destructive tendencies. Still, Treasa might be able to accept Gabriel’s baggage if he can accept who she longs to be.
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