Wednesday, August 31, 2011

And now for something different, Diversity in YA literature

Hopefully one or two people here remember that when I reviewed Huntress (YA novel by Malinda Lo) that I linked to a contest of sorts that some YA authors had set up for the summer. The goal was to get more people reading books with more diversity in them (which I'll define in a second) and then to do a short write-up on what they read in a public place for a chance to win quite a few books. I like contests and I like books, plus I was going to spend my entire summer reading anyway, so I decided why not try this out and just be more aware of what I was reading. For the contest they defined the word "diversity" as meaning:

(1) main characters or major secondary characters (e.g., a love interest or best friend kind of character) who are of color or are LGBT; or (2) written by a person of color or LGBT author.
LGTB stands for a character who is lesbian, gay, transsexual or bisexual (and even within that group of characters you're far more likely to find a character who is a gay or lesbian versues one who is trannsexual, between everything I've ever read or seen I can't think of more than ten trans characters) and I'll also be using the short hand "PoC" which stands for Person of Color (basically anyone who isn't of predominately white European ancestry, I counted biracial or Hispanic characters as PoC). 

So, to start, I'll admit that I didn't go out and look specifically for authors with names that made me think that might fit in one of those above categories since, well, the only time I ever look up an author's name is to write a review here actually (that or if the writing is bad I check to see if it's their first book). That and the fact that when this contest was announced in late June I already had a super tall stack of books to read, some of which I've finished but haven't gotten around to reviewing yet. I will link to the reviews I've already written and I'll add in more links as I finish them up although that probably won't be for another three weeks at this rate.

To start with, the book that best fit the contest's description was Malinda Lo's Huntress which not only centers around two lesbians (without gay angst! they have real reasons that being in love is a problem!) in an Asian-inspired setting (as reflected by the book's cover, this also applies to her earlier book Ash) but the Ms. Lo is from China originally and is also a lesbian. This book was also one of the strongest books I read this summer which is a great, slightly darker take on the quest story archetype with (literal) young adult characters, both of which are things that I don't find in YA literature that much and would love to see more of. I think I still prefer her earlier book Ash just a little more (re-telling of Cinderella except the protagonist is also a lesbian, it's set in the same world as Huntress but a few centuries later) but that's just personal preference, both of the books are great and I'm really happy that I found these in libraries (ie, more people have a chance to read them as well) and plan on getting my own copy as soon as I can.

Next up is two different works by Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Angel and The City of Fallen Angels, two different series about a hundred years apart but with some overlapping cast members and similar villains. One thing that bugged me about Clockwork Angel is that it seemed like how everyone was talking about how Magnus Bane (a bi warlock, who is I believe part Asian) was coming back to this prequel series so I was expecting him to have a good sized role but he appears in very few scenes and didn't really seem to be needed in them. This being the first book in a new trilogy it's highly likely that he will play a larger role later on (his role in the first series certainly got bigger as the story went on) but I'm still miffed that one of only two diverse characters in the series is being billed as an important character when they only have a bit role. As for the other diverse character, well, there's a problem or two there as well. This character is Jem (a shadowhunter, think magical police made up of only the beautiful people) who is half Chinese half British and an interesting character but he comes off feeling a bit, flat. First off, it's strange that he identifies as half Chinese half British (shadowhunters hate anyone who isn't a shadowhunter, including "mundanes" so why they would choose to identify themselves with mundane words is strange), plus, for plot reasons, it sounds like Jem doesn't look Chinese at all, which also bugs me, and finally, Jem is living in a time period where British people didn't like Chinese people yet he experiences no discrimination at any point in the book. I'm not saying that someone who is LGBT/PoC has to be discriminated against in a book for it to feel realistic but here it seems to go against the setting since it didn't happen, it really makes it feel like Jem is a token minority who is needed for the "exotic" angle of the love-triangle being set up in the book.
Thankfully I had fewer issues with City of Fallen Angels, perhaps because all the characters were ones from the earlier books in the series. Magnus is back, with a slightly larger role, as is Alec (a shadowhunter who is now in a relationship with Magnus) and Maria, a biracial werewolf (who's also a gamer girl) whom I adore, probably since she comes off to me as one of the more rounded characters in the series. So I think that City of Fallen Angels does a little better in the diversity aspect than Clockwork Angel but neither are series that I would recommend based on the diversity alone.

A bit after these two books I read A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner (the review for that should be up Saturday) which I initially picked up because of the title, read the inside flap and then did a double take when I realized that the main character was a lesbian, being a bit cynical I hadn't expected to find two books this summer with lesbian protagonists and, while I probably would have read this book on my own anyway, the diversity challenge made me hesitate less about reading it and it ended up being my favorite book this whole summer. This story focuses so much on the relationships between the characters (platonic and romantic alike) and they were all done in such a down to earth and realistic way that I couldn't help but love this book. I'll write more about all of this in my full review but there was just something about the way the characters were written that made them feel like late high school kids who are starting to become adults that really made me love this book, it's another that's on my to-buy list for sure.

Another book that I haven't had a chance to review yet is Rosebush by Michele Jaffe which I had some, issues with, but one of the important supporting characters is a lesbian so the book gets a mention on the list. In fact, there was one section in the book about that I really liked, the main character (Jane) did some experimenting with her friend the summer before the book starts and later on in the book she regrets it since she knows that their relationship meant so much more to her friend than it did to her and that she was just using her friend. I didn't like most of the characters in this book but I did like this moment (probably because it was one of Jane's most self-aware moments) quite a bit.

And the last YA book I got to this summer that fit the challenge's requirements (I think) was Revolution (review) by Jennifer Donnelly. Like A Love Story, the story opens with a protagonist who is deep in grief over a dead loved one (in this case, a younger brother) but Andi and her mother are not dealing with this grief nearly as well so Andi ends up in Paris over her winter break where her father can keep an eye on her as she writes her senior thesis. Intially when I was putting together this list in my head I was wondering whether or not Andi's brother had been gay (there's a little line about him having a crush on Magneto but he's only ten at the time so it could easily have been non-romantic). And then I remembered Virgil, one of the people whom she meets in France whose parents are both from Tunisia. Not long after she meets him Andi asks if his whole family is-French he interrupts (she was going to say musicians) which sets an interesting tone. It doesn't feel like he resents his heritage but it does cause problems in his life (it sounds like he lives in a poor neighborhood, he mentions hate crimes at least once) and he's terrified that because of this he'll be stuck working as a cab driver forever. Basically his problems were the kind I expected to see with Jem in Clockwork Angel but never came up, his setting really had an effect on his life yet it didn't dominate who he was, a tricky juxtoposition but I thought Ms. Donnelly pulled it off well.

Finally, I was reading Anything But Typical by Nora Raliegh Baskin when the challenge was announced and I asked if disabled characters would also count. The answer was yes, although don't let that be all you read, and I honestly think they should count since I can think of about as many disabled characters in fiction (who are more than just a few cliches thrown together) as I can think of transsexual characters. Back to the story, Jason has a variant of autism and this is possibly the most sympathetic book about someone with that disorder that you will find in MG or YA literature. Jason is also the narrator and this let's the audience understand exactly what he's thinking and going through yet it's still easy to see how his actions seem strange and weird to the people around him. It's an amazing feat and incredibly well-written, thank goodness since I would hate to have a book about an autistic character and then not have the book be good enough to be worth recommending, that would be worse than not having any books to recommend at all.

Before I finish up this entry, comics! I know that the challenge didn't say anything about any other kind of media but this was some of the other stuff I read this summer. Plus, there has been a huge kerfuffle recently concerning women in comics (both as creators and characters) and, if comics are having trouble representing 50+% of the population then you can guess that things look hardly any better for minorities.

So I'm going to start off with a bit of an odd one, Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner which may have raised a few eyebrows. A couple of months back I saw a short article somewhere on the internet that called Jews "the invisible minority" which I thought was an apt description and I was thinking of that when I read the introduction to this book. Eisner says that he wrote this book because when he was a kid, all the Jews in the stories were bad (heck, I remember stories one of my religion teacher's told me about how Anti-Semitic Catholics, and I will assume some other Christian groups as well, were even a couple of decades ago) and he mentions in the afterword that Charles Dicken's even revised Oliver Twist later on to be less anti-Semitic (which is the story this one is a retelling of) but most copies today are based on the first edition. Because of that I think that yes, this is a story about someone who is a minority and written because the creator felt like this minority is being under-represented and discriminated against in all the stories they appear in, this counts in my book!

Continuing with Jewish characters I also read both volumes of The Rabbi's Cat by Joaan Sfar. Nearly every character in these books are Jewish (I do recall one or two Christian characters and a few more Muslim characters but it's a predominately Jewish cast) and many of the characters are Algerian as well (since the story is set in Algeria, some characters aren't given a nationality but it's clear that they are also African or Middle Eastern). Surprisingly enough there isn't tons of discrimination in this book (which surprised me since it's also set in the 1930s) but a lot of the story takes place in a predominately-Jewish community so it makes sense. I don't have much else to say since my favorite character was the titular cat but it was certainly an interesting read, everything willing a complete review should be up in the next couple of days.

Finally, I finished up an anthology of Native American tales (Trickster: Native American Tales) in the last few days of summer which I think also merits a mention. Given the nature of the book (and from an afterword that says how the book came about), I suspect that most, if not all, of the storytellers who worked on this anthology are Native American (I'll be looking up more about them once I get to writing a review) so that would fulfill the second requirement of the challenge. Some of the stories feature people but many more feature animals as their main characters so I'm not sure if it fulfills the character requirement but since it fulfills the other one it doesn't matter. Honestly I didn't enjoy this anthology as much as I had hoped but it's another title I'm glad that I found at a library since that means other people have a chance to read it and get exposed to different cultures (perhaps it might be better suited for the children's comic section instead of the teen section though).
Finally, a few shout-outs to some books I didn't get to this summer but plan on as soon as I have the time. Continuing with the comics, the manga Wandering Son by Shimura Takako just got it's first volume released in English this summer (I've seen the anime but held off from reading the manga since I knew this was coming) which I'm saving up to get. The story revolves around two transsexual kids growing up and trying to find their place in the world with some other LGTB side characters involved as well. I still prefer her other work better (Aoi Hana or Sweet Blue Flowers) but I can't wait to see the beginning of this story, especially since the anime started at a later point. Also on the list is Luna by Julie Anne Peters which I read years ago (early high school I believe, I didn't even know what a transexual person was so I knew I was missing something in the story but couldn't figure out what) which I recently discovered under my roommate's bed. I've been meaning to re-read it for a while (ever since Tamora Pierce's book Bloodhound came out which featured the only other trans character I had seen at that point) so I will certainly be borrowing that once they're done with it. Finally, if Hispanic characters count then Kit and Carmela from Wizards at War/A Wizard of Mars count for sure (one being a co-protagonist, the other being one of the best badass normal characters ever) which I've just gotten around to re-reading/on my to-read list, both of which are several years over due for it. Carmela is one of my favorite characters ever for the same reason I like Maria in City of Fallen Angels, they're closer to normal than most of the cast yet still manage to simply be very human and realistic characters which makes them interesting and incredibly likable. 

Whew, if you can believe it, this is only part one of my Diversity in YA post. I'm sure that some people, upon glancing at my "most popular posts" list on the sidebar wondered if I reviewed books at all (answer: yes, they're just my least popular reviews by far, happens when you hang out on anime forums mostly) and the fact is that books are only one kind of fiction I consume on a regular basis. So, to cover everything else (anime/manga/movies/tv shows/webcomics) I plan on posting a second post either later tonight or tomorrow. I know that if it goes up tomorrow it probably won't be eligible for the challenge (which is fine) and if it goes up tomorrow I am going to have to push my review schedule back by a day but I can make that work. The fact is that we don't just need diversity in literature, we need diversity in EV-REY-THING since this is a diverse planet, it's stupid not to reflect that. Once I get the second post up I'll link here, just check back in the evening tomorrow (EST) and it should be up by then for sure.   

EDIT 9/28: Howdy folks, time for an update! Since the deadline for the contest got pushed back a month I've taken advantage of that to read some more and let a few anime/movies play out that I hadn't had a chance to see/finish and that's why the second part of the review isn't up yet (it will be up in a day or two however). And I have a few things to add on here since I've done a good bit of reading in a month so here's a quick add on:
I did get a chance to reread Wizards at War and, as mentioned above, co-protagonist Kit is Hispanic and his sister Mela is a supporting character and a nice example of a supporting character that has become a little more important with each book they're in. Darryl, a young African-American kid who was at the center of the sixth book, returns for a quick cameo as well as two kids who I hope become more important in a later book, wizarding twins, whose names I can't seem to find at this moment, whose names suggest that they're from South-East Asia. I know this isn't a lot of characters and it might seem strange to even include the book but honestly it's hard to complain when half the cast are non-humanoid animals/aliens, makes it just a little trickier to have (Earth) diversity in there. 
Also read What I Saw And How I Lied which features a few Jewish characters in supporting roles and, since the book is set in 1947, that ends up being an important part in how the world perceives them. I won't name the characters, since it is a surprise, but I thought that since being Jewish wasn't something that was causally mentioned but something that colored all the other characters perceptions of them that they were worth mentioning here. Also, since the story is set right after WWII there are a few veterans and there was a line from one of them that I really liked. He says that he thought things would be different after the war, after all the Jews and others were horribly persecuted and their deaths had shocked the world, but yet nothing seems to be and that really reminded me of how I felt back in middle school at times. You go through world history, learn about all these terrible things and you (or at least I did) think to yourself "well clearly this all was wrong and we're not doing it now so everything is better" and it's so painful to learn that no, many things haven't been fixed even if people have known they were wrong for years and so I just really liked that line, it made the character human to me.
Had a chance to read some more manga as well and found another Jewish character (I am slightly spooked by just how often they are showing up on this list) in Adolf by Osamu Tezuka. I've only had the chance to read the first volume but the story starts off by saying it's the story of three Adolfs, clearly the first is the dictator of Germany but the other two are two boys living in Japan, one who is half Japanese half German (whose German father is a member of the Nazi party and forbids him from playing it), the other is a Jewish boy who is all German and resents his classmates for treating him differently even though he is born and raised in Japan. Since the half German Adolf is about to be sent off to Germany to join Hitler's Youth I wonder if his biracial nature is going to come into play later on, I expect it to and I'm curious about how some other Japanese characters will continue to be important once the story changes locations again.  
Finally, I've also had a chance to read Journey Into Mohawk Country which is a comic book which takes all it's text from the journals of Van den Bogaert, a Dutchman in New York in the 1600 or 1700s who is exploring the countryside and attempting to create new trade agreements with the local Native Americans. I was rather glad for my fifth grade history class so I recognized the names of the various tribes (abet I had to pronounce all of them to figure out what they were, the spelling is quite different from the way they are today, he deals with members from some of the Iroquois League) and honestly I think it would be a book that fifth graders would be interested to read after their history class. While all the main cast are Dutch (Bogaert and his two companions, they were traveling through so many territories none of the Native Americans were with them the whole time) all of the supporting characters were Native American and Bogaert portrays them in a very honest manner, he seemed to be very interested in the way they lived their everyday lives.

THAT should cover all the books and comic books then, here's what I have written so far for part two (only had enough time to cover the anime section since I wrote a lot about each title) but I hope to finish the rest, erm, soon, think I need to deal with homework first.



  1. I like diversity in the novels but... I don't get the emphasis on LBGT characters or who are of color. When it comes to unusual characters, I find those with disabilities (mental, social, emotional, physical) way more interesting.

    Kinda off-topic 1: I did not like the Cassandra Clare books because the plot got me bored. But since you liked it (and has a bisexual? Oooo), that got me pretty interested on it again...

    Kinda off-topic 2: Gah, I miss reading. I wish I'll be able to find time to read more books. My novels are so angry at me for ignoring them, ahaha.

  2. The emphasis here on PoC/LGBT characters was because there really aren't a lot of them in stories these days and, since we live in a diverse world, there really should be. And it's certainly fine to like reading about disabled characters more, I was excited to see that one of the supporting characters in Guilty Crown is in a wheelchair, really hoping it doesn't just turn out to be a gimmicky thing that they use to completely define her prsonality.
    And honestly I don't like Cassandra Clare's books as much as I used to, even though I do still like some of the characters pretty well. Maaaaybe I'll get back into them later but right now I'm not waiting on bated breath for the next volumes to come out.
    And I think I'm not going to be able to do as much reading soon either, my classes are slamming me already, and I already miss being able to do this much reading. ;-;

  3. There aren't much of them? Really? o_O ah... maybe I had manga in mind. The LBGT characters... especially LG.. are quite easy to find.

    At least the crippled girl in Guilty Crown doesn't seem as helpless as Code Geass's Nunnally. So hopefully she be that bad.

    Maybe those Cassandra Clare books really aren't for me... but their popularity makes me curious >_<

  4. I'll admit that it's easier to find L/G characters in manga sometimes (ie, the shonen-ai/yaoi and shojo-ai/yuri genre) but those characters are expected (and necessary!) to those genres (plus those have their own problematic cliches/tropes attached to them). In more realistic fiction manga (stuff that I would say is more comparable to Western YA in terms of plot, not a perfect comparison however) the characters are always straight or their "gayness" is played as a comic relief/gag sort of thing. That's how it comes off to me anyway.
    If you mean in fiction in general I would say that I'm seeing more and more L/G characters lately but still usually as side character, never as the main character in a non-romantic story that just happens to play for the other team.
    As for Clare's books, I think it's the allure of the sexy-looking-acts-like-a-bad-boy-but-is-really-a-good-guy trope there, one that I've never quite got (except in Fruits Basket but it was a little different there). XD