Thursday, April 10, 2014

Character Diversity in Young Adult

Whoa. A serious post. *RUN*

Come back - it'll be fun! 

I was inspired by a recent article I read about authors of different ethnicities asking that we embrace and center more characters of color in YA literature. 

Poor YA. It gets yanked around so much. Some people don't even think that YA books are actual literature. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am a fan of YA literature. I personally do not care what the ethnicity, name, SES, haircut, etc. etc. of a character is because ultimately, in my opinion, what matters is how the character is written and whether or not I feel something for that character. 

With that said, yes, there are a lot of white characters in YA fiction. I'll even say that it's so in most fiction. Period. It's so bad, that if the cover of a book is ambiguous, I assume the character is white before I even read the book. 

This is bad. Does it mean that these books aren't worth reading? No, of course not. That's insane. It just means that a lot of fiction has become cookie cutter and that gets boring. 

It's also important for me to mention that I dislike that the fiction that does include people of another ethnicity usually has the ethnicity or culture at the center of the story. Again, this is not bad, but that pattern is just another cookie cutter and it also gets very boring. 

Take me, for example. I am Mexican American. My parents are originally from Mexico and I've been across the border more than a few times to visit family and eat the delicious food (I live right next to the Mexican border). I have very strong beliefs concerning immigration, I enjoy Mexican music, etc. etc. However, my Spanish isn't very fluent, my skin is not dark and I much rather watch a Korean drama, Supernatural or Doctor Who than any tv series in Spanish. I read more about the Korean culture than Mexican culture. 

Am I ashamed of my upbringing? Heck no. I am just interested in much more than what I've experienced. 
We cannot assume too much because of a person's background or ethnicity. 

And this has been done! It has been done very VERY well! Take for example characters from two of my favorite books. The first two being Eleanor and Park from Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park. Eleanor is a white, overweight and poor female character and Park is a half-Korean middle class male character. The two are very different from each other and characters from other books and they convey a beautiful story that is not about Eleanor being white or Park being half-Korean. No, the book is about their families, their likes/dislikes and what it means to fall in love with someone. The author took two people from different backgrounds and created a beautiful story that is purely about those characters. 

The other character from a favorite book is Junior from Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. Now, in this work, Junior's background is part of the story and in many of Alexie's work, there is talk of the Native American culture and beliefs. However, Alexie does such a great job of weaving these details in what is really the focus: the character. So we don't think of Junior as this poor Native American boy. No, Junior is portrayed as a bright young man who draws to keep sane and has to deal with bullies and extremely insensitive people at his all-white school. We come to care about Junior as a character first. 

I would love to read and care about characters such as Eleanor, Park and Junior. Books were made for characters like them. It just so happens that they are from different cultures/ethnicities/backgrounds. Both books are very popular and mainstream. Perhaps we need to incorporate these details of ethnicity and economic background in white-dominated genres like YA fantasy and science fiction...even paranormal romance. I believe all the reader and some authors are asking for is something aside from the cookie cutter storyline and characters. And for the sake of reading? That is really not too much to ask. 

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