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Saturday, April 3, 2010

Diversity in YA

I know this subject has been done to death, but I wanted to add my two cents into the exchange. Anecdote, straight ahead! ==>

I worked at a toy store during the holiday season. I lost count on how many customers approached me asking if we had any African American or Hispanic dolls. I searched the aisles, even looked in the stock room, and found nothing. Trying to be as professional as possible, I explained that all we had in the store were the Caucasian dolls. Each responded with the same look of disgust, appalled that I would even offer up a substitute. And they gave the same reply, “Why would my daughter/granddaughter want to play with a white baby doll? She wants a baby that looks like her.”

The sad part is this, 50% of the time the customer bought the white doll instead of leaving empty handed. I asked the manager why the number of black and Hispanic dolls was so limited and the reply shocked me.
African American and Hispanic dolls are the first to go. They fly off the shelves quicker than we can restock or order more. Out of 10 boxes shipped, only 2 have dolls for minorities. ”

So in other words, the supply cannot keep up with the demand and manufacturers won’t even try.

Could it stand to reason that the same demand applies to young adult fiction? The mystical world of monsters, magic, and teen angst only rings true to those with flowing hair and ivory skin, and my question is why?

Is it impossible to think that a young Hispanic girl would love to read about a girl just like her who is popular in school? Would it sound so ridiculous for a black girl to find out that the cute boy next door is really a vampire? Imagine an Asian girl who discovers that she has a special ability that has nothing to do with Chinese dragons or martial arts. Imagine having any of the following people of color in the story without being lumped in to the token sidekick role with real character development. (Yes, I too can dream and dream BIG.)

Perhaps if there were more books with people of color, there would be a higher demand. As it were, the YA section of the bookstore looks like the same girl in different Emo poses. Young girls of color are left feeling inadequate for being different and striving toward a goal that they could never achieve nor should they want to. Teen girls are the most impressionable people on the planet, and are FAMOUS for inserting themselves inside of a story. Reading about a hot, mysterious guy who falls madly in love with a flawless girl who looks nothing like you does wonders for a girl’s self-esteem.

Fiction is a world of imagination, a canvas of varying hues and tones, a place where affirmative action shouldn’t have to be enforced. But the outcry for diversity is growing louder. No one should settle for substitutes or leave empty handed. Reading should be a means of escape, to step away from the harsh injustice of life, a toy box for the mind. If nowhere else, young fiction should be a place where there is a doll for everyone.

12 comments:

  1. I completely agree! We need books and dolls that reflect everyone. It's crazy to even think otherwise. Great post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post. I do my best not to describe skin color for most of my fiction characters because then the reader can make their own decisions. Sure, some will seem obvious but the truth is you never know. My focus is on sexual orientation. That may cause problems in the future but it's one thing I won't change. There should be more glbtq main characters in fiction that are easier to find.

    Even with a common topic, it's still a good one that needs to be discussed and considered. Well done.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Guess, I could excuse the stores because they had to wait for a shipment from China before they could restock ... but that's not really an excuse.

    Having been in the same position myself, I can say it's rather disgusting -- especially when the clerk looks at "white" looking me looking for a doll for my grand-niece who is mixed race, though I think she considers herself black.

    Someday, everyone is going to have to accept that "whites" aren't the majority in this country any more.

    Now that I've ranted, back to the comment I was going to make. I've included Hispanics and blacks in my stories ... but I think lack of interest in the works I'm shopping is wrapped up in other considerations.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you for this awesome post. The anecdote about your experience in a toy store is both heart-breaking and illuminating. There is definitely a need for books with people of color as main characters, as heroes and heroines of their own stories -- rather than stock characters of others'.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm white, and I don't write YA (women's fiction). I love to read, and I, too, would love to see more diversity in fiction, especially YA.

    We're actually planning an Ethiopian adoption, so it's definitely at the forefront of my mind. A great post! I've already started buying dolls and find I mostly have to order them from specialty/boutique stores.

    Personally, I'd love to write more diverse MCs, but it's my fear of "doing it wrong" or not representing a particular culture with authenticity that stops me--and as a white female, writing women of color would (and should) put me under intense scrutiny. I am always interested in learning, though.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Brooke,
    That’s awesome you plan to adopt. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. As far as writing diverse characters, just be honest and don’t fall back on the crutch of stereotypes. Not all black people talk or act “hood-tastic”, not all Asians are good at math, not all Hispanics speak Spanish, believe it or not. Bottom line: focus on the character, the heart of the story. Something as trivial as skin color and ethnicity shouldn’t be a key factor in a story, but rather accent one’s individuality. If you’re still unsure, ask some people of color or have them read your work. DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Great post..I agree with Dawn, if too much emphasis is placed upon the looks then the reader is guided to how the character 'looks'. If the writer can allow the reader to form his/her own opinion then it becomes an open book, much better!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Wow, Jamie. This was a very thought-provoking post. I have always felt like Brooke in her earlier comment. I'm caucasian, so all I must know is the 'caucasian' experience. But I'm writing from a boy's perspective in my current WIP...why would I think I could pull-off a different gender, but not be able to pull-off a different ethnicity?! Sometimes, I feel so narrow-minded. Thanks for reminding me that I don't have to be. I'm usually very careful to not describe the character's appearance, just like blueyedadri and Dawn, but in my mind, the girl looks just like me...and she doesn't have to. Thank you, Jamie, for making me think.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This is an amazing post and so important for us all to talk about. It's a topic all writers should be thinking about. We should be reflecting the world, not just the world currently center stage in YA books. Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm Hispanic, a voracious reader and hopeful writer of YA books. Sucks that most of them don't feature strong Latina MCs, especially in paranormals and urban fantasies.

    Your post is dead on, Jaime. The Caucasian mold is pretty dominant, but there's certainly room for other "dolls" in the market. Awesomeness comes in different colors, shapes and sizes. When will YA publishers get the memo?

    ReplyDelete
  11. I love that people even bother talking about the "demand" as though it's been established. As though little brown dolls were originally produced in the same numbers and they had to dial it back because nobody was buying them. (This is me, deadpanning.) The "problem" is ethnic kids aren't drowning in sadness and devastation at not seeing ourselves coddled and attended to. The problem is the insinuation that white kids would.

    ReplyDelete
  12. This was a really thought provoking post.

    I'm an Asian teenager and I haven't really encountered that many Asian characters in YA. I only remember reading about one, and she was the Caucasian MC's annoying best friend. So, yeah, not very enlightening.

    ReplyDelete

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