Hello! I have something a bit different for today’s post. I’m happy to say that author K. V. Flynn is guest posting about ‘Diverse Books’ today. I’m a huge fan of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and I asked him to write about diversity within fiction. His exciting new book ‘On The Move’ is out now (my review will be up soon!) and I’ll link more below if you’re interested in checking it out but for now…Enjoy! 🙂
Thanks, Hollie, for inviting me to guest blog here today. Your site is looking great and sparking some lively topics. I hear you’d like me to share some thoughts on diversity in fiction. Excellent. Maybe because of the multi-cultural cast of teenagers in my new book On the Move? Or maybe because… it’s an interesting subject to talk about!
So here’s the thing. I actually think that diversity in all contemporary media is pretty important on a lot of levels. It’s good storytelling. It’s representative of the world we live in. It’s aspirational so it sets great example and inspiration for young readers figuring out the many roles and realities they can grow into. And, as was reported in the recent Columbia University Latino Media Gap study that I helped with, “as stories often carry more weight in the public’s mind than other forms of communication, the absence and stereotypical nature of existing stories also promotes a lack of empathy and, at times, outright violence against” unrepresented or under-represented races, cultures, and non-majority components of our community. So we’ve gotta check that with what we write and how we read.
Gauging from the discourse here at Read.Rant.Review, your readers are passionate about this, too. But unfortunately—and this may surprise you, but I’ve looked at and worked on many studies that bear this out—diverse representations are not actually considered a pressing public “good,” where the American consumer is concerned. It is hard to translate our commitment to seeing multi-cultural characters and images into concrete social change, and difficult to activate a passion for diverse YA fiction into actual diverse YA fiction. Yes, yes, our parents and teachers like us to read all about everybody. And we have awards and stuff around positive images from GLAAD to NAACP to ALMAs and beyond. All awesome.
But you still get amazing strong actresses like Anne Athaway and Jessica Chastain in big movies like Interstellar “saddled playing brilliant women who are nonetheless ruled by their, you know, lady feelings, before ultimately capitulating to the men around them” (The Wrap review). You still find that, according to USC and GLAAD, the 100 most watched television shows and highest-grossing films last year underrepresented nonwhite characters in speaking roles, with the percentage of Latinos being particularly out of step with the real world. You have YA fiction dystopias from Hunger Games to Divergent to, well, name one, that are weirdly mostly all Caucasian. And we get a whole GamerGate scene around someone advocating with intelligence for less misogyny in video games while the haters tell us to keep feminism out of MMOGs.
The better news is that the hip leaders on the YA fiction landscape get the fact that diversity is a smart investment. The tricky thing, though, is that this idea isn’t yet widely shared. (Yeah, even deep in the 21st century… as America swiftly becomes minority majority in many states… go figure.) Some of this is actually about the money guys, as most creators and distributors of fiction intersect with companies or power structures that disseminate or recognize their stories. Unfortunately, even with all the lipservice paid within publishing houses and motion picture/tv studios to multi-cultural stories, to hiring more women and minorities, to making media on all platforms look more like the audiences who consume it, “diversity is not yet a true institutional value. In the words of one executive: ‘Diversity has never been an intrinsic part of the institutional fabric. Diversity is like a Christmas ornament that you bring out and after it’s over, you put it away’ (Interview, Washington, D.C. television executive). Or as one diversity officer bluntly put it, ‘Diversity officers are managers of discontent and get paid well to do it’ (Interview, Hollywood guild representative)” (Latino Media Gap, Columbia Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race).
The reason we still have a problem with diversity in fiction—whether YA novels or movies or tv, webseries or games—is different on the level of readers and critics and buyers/consumers than on that of the artists who generate fiction content. We both have a powerful role to play. You can buy or not buy stuff, analyze and critique with your readers and cohort while voicing your support for stories that get it right, plus you can always boycott advertisers who support cultural devaluations or misrepresentations because that’s been connected on occasion to incremental change. All of these strategies have been shown to have varying levels of success in impacting diversity in future work.
Writers, on the other hand, have the power to create juicy, complex characters and representative worlds. Unfortunately, writers also often stand as the frontline resistance to change. In the Columbia University study, we discovered that, “In media, poor representation of minorities is directly attributed to the homogeneity of writers and decision makers. As network diversity executives have told us, ‘ask a writer to add diverse people to the script and the white writer will flip out and say “the character is everything, I can’t change him.” When the writer says, “I don’t feel it,” the showrunner generally sides with him. At best, you will get a diverse sidekick character or “fruit salad: background where the characters do not make significant contributions to the story.’” This happens in publishing and editorial rooms, too.
My personal approach to creating the On the Move trilogy, though, was different. I write about teen skateboarders in a Southern California beach community and summer camp. It’s a naturally diverse environment. Middle school friends of the narrator include a Native American kid and his older cousin, a Mexican-American boy and his family, and a Black skater who they meet at camp. The narrative levers don’t involve familiar stereotypes like, as critic Debbie Reese describes it, the Native character being “the sidekick who will be the first to die.”
Of course not! As she goes on to say about Obbie, “He’s the real deal. That is, a Native kid who is grounded in his identity as a Native kid. It is a natural part of who he is–which is, one of several boys who hang out together. They are skateboarders.” The same can be said of the other diverse teens in the book, such as Latino eighth grader Mateo: his story has nothing to do with familiar issues like immigration or the border; he just plays drums, goes to school, skates, and has a kick-ass sister who’s a strong surfer and makes chocolate-chip pancakes. I wanted the young women friends and relations of the central boys in this book to be bright, strong, and resourceful, too.
Now, I hear around Read.Write.Review from blogger Saundra Mittchell and others that there is some probing as to YA being a niche “women’s art” and a “novelty creation only for girls.” She suggests that, to raise young men well, we should get them to read more feminine-centric YA fiction, and work against a boy reader’s notion that “it’s a hardship for men to have to relate to anything that doesn’t specifically cater to them.”
I think this is a sticky tactic when it comes to supporting diversity in YA fiction: books absolutely open horizons, but it’s great to crack the door with stories and arenas that super interest a reader… I chose to write for teen boys because there’s a bit of a paucity of excellent series in the tradition of “girls” YA fiction that focus on 12-15-year-old males. And I certainly believe, as Columbia’s Prof. Negron-Muntaner said on the Huffington Post, that there actually is a “growing and profound disconnect between the characters you see on screens and TV, and who is sitting next to you on the bus, teaching your children how to read or coming to your rescue in case of a fire.” So, for me, artistic activism comes from reflecting the multi-cultural world we live in, in an entertaining way. And I think that we will build boys’ “attraction to literacy” by giving them books about scenes they happen to love just as much as girls enjoy other stories.
I find that it is fun to write about real teens and the world they live in, so that’s a plus for authors including this in their work. I think diverse fiction makes for the best stories, too. It’s these books that are going to really connect with MG and YA readers ultimately because they’re honest, complex,amusing, engaging. I believe that they will endure, and have impact on those readers who immerse themselves in multi-cultural worlds. And I agree with the most progressive thought leaders in diverse fiction: given YA audiences today, this is also solid business.
Thanks for having me. And I hope you’ll have your readers check out On the Move by K.V. Flynn on Amazon, B&N, Smashword—wherever they love finding books—in eBook or paperback!
On The Move by K. V. Flynn (@OnTheMoveBooks)
Goodreads | Amazon | B&N | Smashwords
Callum Vicente and his middle school skateboard buddies are spending the best summer together ever, grinding and doing tricks all day at their SoCal skate camp, PEAK. But when a major war breaks out, they’re stranded, and use their wits and resources, along with a secret network of skate parks and message boards, to travel miles to the north and reach their families in the Safe Camps—skating all the way! This clean-read and boy-centric skating adventure features a diverse cast of friends as they skate their way through California and Oregon.