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Guest Post: Liz Fichera on Writing Diverse Characters in YA

Thanks and welcome to Liz Fichera, who was so kind to join us today with her thoughts on writing diverse characters in YA! Liz Fichera is an American author living in the American Southwest by way of Chicago. Her YA debut, HOOKED, released in January of 2013. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review and said, “Not just a Romeo and Juliet story, the book examines the conflicts of white versus Indian and rich versus poor, giving it far more heft than the average romance. Bravo." Its companion, PLAYED, releases in May 2014. To learn more, visit www.LizFichera.com.


I’m one of those people.

The kind that likes to read contemporary YA with a little edge and reality to it. The kind that likes to read stories that dig deep, even make me feel a little uncomfortable. I’m also the kind of YA author (and reader) who feels that there are far too few diverse characters in middle-grade and young adult literature today. Don’t believe me? Look at the popular book covers at your favorite bookstore or library. What do you see? Or, what don’t you see? I won’t bore you with statistics but check out a recent survey from the Cooperative Children's Book Center. The numbers across all underrepresented groups are frightfully small.

Now, let’s establish something: diversity can mean a lot of things, not just in terms of ethnicity. There is sexual diversity, for example, even physical disability diversity and mental illness diversity. The bottom line is that literature with diverse characters helps children (and adults) to empathize with others who may be different from themselves. Conversely, it gives readers from underrepresented groups opportunities to relate to characters with whom they might share similar life experiences.

When I began to write YA five years ago, I was struck by the limited choices in terms of diverse characters. If I had stepped off a spaceship from, say, Jupiter and stealthily made my way incognito into a city bookstore or library, I would have thought that every girl (and boy) in popular YA literature was blond, blue-eyed, enrolled in a boarding school, lived in the Eastern United States and, of course, was gorgeous. That’s not to say that the literature is bad. Au contraire. I’m just saying that there’s room for more characters on the shelves, don’t you think?

To be frank, I was kinda pissed that there weren’t more stories set in the American Southwest too. (Hey, there’s a big world out here!). So, I set out to write one. I didn’t necessary plan to write a book with a diverse character—in my case, a Native American (Gila) heroine. It’s just that the setting and story called for one. It seemed odd to me to write a story set in this part of the world and not include a Native main character, especially when you consider that my state of Arizona is home to over 20 tribes.

Being non-Native and not sharing the life experiences of my main character, you can bet I got a lot of pushback and cautionary advice from friends, family, other writers, and publishing types—everything from good luck to are you bat-shit crazy? As a Caucasian, it’s hard enough writing an authentic Caucasian character, right? How could I write a Native character that readers (both Native and non-Native) could relate to?


In addition to research, I’m fortunate that I have many Native friends who served as beta-readers and I believe that is essential to writing a diverse character outside of your comfort zone and getting inside your character’s head. The real magic happens when you’re able to tap into an emotional tone that any reader can relate to and combine it with life experiences and circumstances that fit your character. That said, it’s not a one-size fits all. Just like there might be differences among people who live in the Midwest versus the East Coast, there are differences among, say, Navajos and Gilas. Within the Gila tribe, there are nuances between Natives on the Reservation versus urban. It’s not an exact science, just like it’s not an exact science with any group, nor should it ever be considered a science, for that matter. Writers should not be cookie-cutters. You can’t (and should never) paint a broad brush across any group. That is quite true for American Indian populations as well.

I often wonder if we’ll ever reach a point in children’s literature where a book won’t be promoted as having Diverse Character X but rather a story about people, who happen to be X. I’d like to see that in my lifetime.

Of course, we need more authors from under-represented groups and I didn’t intend to gloss over that reality in this post. Perhaps for another time or we can discuss in the comments.

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The opinions expressed in guest posts are the views of the designated authors and do not necessarily reflect those of YA Highway members.
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2 comments:

  1. Great post! I'm glad to see someone tackling the subject of diversity in YA, not just with this post but with your own work. I'm always on the lookout for something different and authentic; there are way too many "perfect" people in YA - privileged suburban boarding school kids (almost exclusively white), popular girls with perfect figures and fashion sense, and my least favorite YA stereotype, the brooding, buff buys they secretly (or not so secretly) desire. Certain descriptors just take me out of the story.

    The lack of diversity in location is frustrating, too. This is more of a problem with movies (not another New York love story!) but it's prevalent in novels as well. If I could custom-build a YA novel, it would include at least some ethnic diversity, kids who battle body image issues and aren't actually a size 0 (okay maybe one of them is) and it would take place in some random medium-sized city like Albuquerque or Des Moines :)


    That said, I totally agree that "...a writer, particularly someone from outside an underrepresented group should not insert a diverse character into a story simply because you have good intentions" because if it feels forced or the character is just a token minority the reader can tell, and imo that's almost more of an insult than a story that focuses exclusively on one group.


    The Pedestrian Writer

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    1. Thanks, Chris!

      I know what you mean about being "taken out of a story." Although the perfect story is different for everybody, you know it when you read it.

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