A Grand YA Rant // Our Thoughts on Characterization & Diversity in YA Novels

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It’s currently a rather rainy *bleh* sort of June day—and so the perfect time to do a blog post, obviously! The thing is…when we sat down to write this, neither of us were really in the mood to write something terribly concise and/or witty. So, we decided to enter into a discussion on (what else?) Problematic Occurrences in YA Books. We hope you find it mildly agreeable, mates.

Hermione: What is something you’d like to see more of in YA books?

Clara: Realistic romances between people with “walls.” A romance where the girl is pretending to love the boy to make him do something and kicks his butt in the end.

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Hermione: I’d be okay with that if it we’re talking about one of those spy novels, where the girl has to seduce the guy…and she ACTUALLY does it, instead of “falling” for him, and saving him instead of saving the world. Like…you know…Tangled Webs. Gosh, actually, I haven’t read a good YA historical fiction in FOREVER. I have mixed feelings about the YA genre all together, though…you?

Clara: I guess what I really want is a mean main female character. I think we’re all sick of these girly, wishy-washy YA leads that are “strong” and have a troubled past, but when it comes down to it, they’d rather sob and clutch their crush rather than do what they’re supposed to be doing. (i.e. Tangled Webs, when you hear all about “Lady A” but you never actually see Arista do anything to warrant grown men being afraid of her.)

Hermione: Yeah…listen people, if you want a good example of how to write THE MOST ANNOYING FEMALE CHARACTER EVER, just read Tangled Webs. I got it for my birthday last year…and I was really excited because it had a BEAUTIFUL cover…but no, it failed epically. The funniest part about it was Arista’s “friend” Becky was just referred to as “the maid.” I’m sorry… “the maid”?!?!?!?! That’s MY pet peeve. The fantasy/historical fiction protagonist who has this token BFF, who’s usually innocent and sweet and… pointless.

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Clara: Ahhh, the Mary Sue. This is the female character who basically is a badly written dramatic foil for the Strong Female Character®. Mary Sue really has no personality and DOES NO WRONG. Things get really interesting when you have a Mary Sue as the main character and she’s involved in a dramatic love triangle. Read the Traitor’s Wife.** The you can be treated to the dramatic saga of Mary Sue/Claire and “Call-me-Cal”—her annoyingly righteous love interest.

**also this isn’t a YA book, so…it’s rather irrelevant. But even if you are into Adult Historical Fiction…just DON’T READ IT.

Hermione: OH YES. The Traitor’s Wife. Talk about BADLY written historical fiction…sometimes I read a book so horrifically written that I think, “Gosh, if this garbage is publishable, I can get a book published in no time flat!” And then you read something fantastic…and think, OH MY GOSH MY NOVEL WILL STAY ON MY COMPUTER FOREVER. *how tragic* Oh, that’s right, Clara! Something else I wanted to ask you…currently there’s this sort of discussion going on in the blogosphere about having YA books (specifically contemporary YA books) set in different countries other than the U.S.A….or getting fantasies that derive from cultures other than the typical Medieval European Setting…something set in present day South America/New Zealand/Hong Kong…or a fantasy based on African mythology/traditional culture etc. What do you think???

Clara: Ooohhhh, I would love to read an African fantasy. Part of the reason I enjoyed Shadow and Bone so much was because it was set in a Russian-ish fantasy world. I think we’re all sick of reading typical European fantasies. I have more respect for authors who give their world a unique flavor, or create their own sort of culture entirely. The European fantasy cow is dead so STOP MILKING IT!!!!! If it’s not historical fiction about English monarchs, I don’t want to read it. I do love Scottish fantasies, though, so keep ‘em coming!

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Hermione: What Scottish fantasies have you read??? But, yeah, I totally agree. Also I want those foreign contemporaries. I mean, I want to travel the world, but realistically, there’s only so many places I can go. So logically, I’d like to read about 21st Century folk in other countries. I’d be much more inclined to read about Typical High School Girl and her Boyfriend Drama if said girl lived in Peru instead of Pine Woods, Ohio. I mean, what is Peru even like??? I know they have llamas in Peru, and that they make really colorful, woven cloth…maybe the protagonist could raise llamas??? (See, this is why I need these books! I sound like an idiot.) Another thing—move on from WW2, people. I love WW2 as a setting for historical fiction…but it, too, is getting rather old. Much like the Roaring Twenties. I mean, humanity has existed for 20 CENTURIES. WRITE ABOUT ALL OF IT.

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Clara: Blurp.

Hermione: Right, right, I know, you need a question. Um, what about the whole push for “disability representation” in YA lit?

Clara: I think it’s stupid. Okay, I understand if you have a wheelchair you don’t want every book in the world to be about some hiking girl who’s super athletic and all that. I don’t have an overall issue with a main character being disabled in any way. I think it’s stupid because the whole liberal “represent the disabled” movement doesn’t actually do anything except portray disabilities as disadvantages. Like in Everything Everything where the whole book is structured off making the mc’s “disability” an excuse for her not to do anything with her life. I much prefer a situation like the one in The Impossible Knife of Memory. The main character’s father suffered from PTSD. Instead of this being used as a plot point, it became something he struggled to overcome and live with.

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Hermione: Yeah, using a character’s disability as a cheat sheet for an “easy” plot is irritating. But I do get how someone with social anxiety or autism or whatever could see themselves in a story about a character struggling with the same disability that they—the reader—have, and how that could be empowering. And yet, disability representation doesn’t need to be in every single book. I can’t stand it when some authors so obviously just go off a “diversity checklist,” and create a Latina pansexual “girl” with autism just so that they can claim to have written about a Latinx pansexual person…because who needs plots when we have DIVERSITY? But heaven forbid your protagonist is a Christian!

Clara: Amen Sista! Sticking in just one diverse character is incredibly transparent anyway. Also you have to write to the climate of your setting. I mean, a white girl with her white friends shopping in South Africa might be a little weird. Or like an Atheist-Chinese-gay man selling his books about equality in the middle of the Bible belt…

Hermione: Wellllll….there are plenty of white people in South Africa, you know. But I get what you’re trying to say. Diversity for the sake of diversity is ridiculous. I enjoy reading about poc in novels—as long as they exist in those novels for a reason. Like, oh, this book is set in a large city in America where the population is 75% Black…and so 75% of the characters should probably be Black. Compare that to a book set in rural Montana…where everybody will be white. It just needs to make sense!  And for pity’s sake, no subtle messages of white guilt. Seriously, people.

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ANYWAY, we’re going to wrap this up now (otherwise this thing will go on for pages), so I hope y’all enjoyed our rambling discourse on YA books. Please keep in mind that this post was written to lightly touch on a bunch of different issues, and so all of our statements express very brief snapshots of our complete opinions. Yes, this is sort of breaking the cardinal rule of Expressing an Unpopular/Controversial Opinion on the Internet…because we really ought to fully flesh out everything we’ve gone over so that we don’t get labeled ‘stupid ablest bigots’ or something of that ilk. And if you have an issue with something we’ve stated, let us know, and we’ll expound on it in a later post.

Hopefully no one comes away from this too offended…we had no intention of purposefully offending anyone, but Clara and I have a right to our beliefs just like anyone else.  Let us know what you think down in the comments, and if you agree/disagree with us on any of these issues! We’d really enjoy some debates. (We also enjoy chocolate cheese cake, but alas alas it is rather difficult to leave a response of that caliber in the Comment Box).

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. I love this post and I agree with it so much! (Love the back-and-forth format).
    I would also just like to say that one of the major problems with trying to show-horn some kind of diversity checklist into a book is when it is a historical fiction, a token minority character is included, and all of the main characters have very enlightened, modern views with absolutely no regard to realism or exploration of those views.
    I get it, on the one hand, because no one wants a bigot for the main character, especially when that isn’t the main focus of the story. And the author wouldn’t want to be seen as embracing biggoted views, either. So it’s okay for a main character not to be racist or mysogynistic or whatever else, but at least be realistic and make it a source of conflict.
    It can be internal conflict. Like when Huck Finn can’t bring himself to view Jim as anything but a friend, even though his “conscience,” trained by his society to view black people as property, plagues him for it. Or, if there is no internal conflict, make it a source of external conflict, or confusion for the main character. This works especially well when the character is a child. Like when Rudy Steiner just wants to be Jesse Owens, and can’t understand why his father and neighbours think that is such a bad thing.
    Don’t want to deal with that much complexity? Your story was just supposed to be a light-hearted romance? Then take out the minority character. I think you do more disservice to minorities by simplifying the issue or pretending those attitudes never existed than by just telling the story you were going to tell and not worrying about people saying your book wasn’t diverse enough.
    Oops, sorry for ranting on your post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh no, Chloe, leave a rant ANYTIME!!! I absolutely loved reading your thoughts–and I’m so glad you liked the post!!! And yeah, I agree with you 100%. Trying too hard to be politically correct just cheapens any sort of, you know, *natural* diversity. Perfect examples with Huck and Jim–and heck, historical fiction is the natural genre to use anyway to explore concepts of race, and so it really makes no sense that such opportunities are passed over in favor of more modern race relations, like you said.
      AND DON’T YOU Dare mention Rudy Steiner because I am STILL not over his death…*wails incoherently* But again, thanks SO MUCH for your comment (always enjoy your response to the posts!). And no worries about your double comment, WordPress is weird…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re too sweet. And yes, exactly! I like what you said—“Natural Diversity.” That’s exactly it.
        *Wails with you* I know!!!! I just reread The Book Thief for the first time in a while and I’ve been internally crying over it all week. Rudy’s death kills me more than almost any other fictional death I can think of, which is strange because with Death’s constant spoilers you think it would be a little more bearable by the time you get there, but no! Nothing can prepare me or make it okay, no matter how many times I read it. He’s definitely one of my favourite characters of all time. (Aww, thanks! I’m trying to be better about staying caught up on my favourite blogs, and this is definitely one of them.)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. But of course!!! Aw, thank you, adore your blog too!!!!!♡♡♡ And maybe Rudy’s death hits us so hard because Rudy himself sort of represents innocence, innocence during war, innocence despite human cruelty and manipulation (Hitler Youth *cough cough*), and so his death really brings home the point that innocence, and Liesel’s (am I spelling her name right??) family/home is gone forever. I don’t know…just a thought…Regardless, you’re right, his death is absolutely heart-wrenching!!
        ~Hermione

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis.
        Gah, that book has some of the most vivid and heartbreaking characters ever, doesn’t it? Definitely one of my favourites, but infinitely painful.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Clara would like to add that it was cruel for the author to kill poor Rudi so near the end. My heart will never heal.

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  3. Speaking as a Latina who would love to see more Latino/a people in literature, and who is planning to write a paper on the need for ethnic diversity in kid lit: forced diversity is the worst thing ever. And “token minority character” is also the worst thing ever. like in the last Heroes of Olympus book where the author introduced like 5 new characters with one line each just to include every ethnicity ever–yet 3 out of the 7 leads were white. I definitely agree with Chloe’s comment–if you’re not willing to commit to researching your character’s Pacific Islander background and culture, just make them white. Also, it would be cool to see people with disabilities in books where the entire plot doesn’t revolve around the disability. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! Yeah, the Heroes Of Olympus series did seem too intent on making sure it was *diverse.* Like, here we have a Mexican, and a Black Girl, and an Indian, and an Asian, AND three White People–congratulations. Ugh, no. Too much focus was put on the character’s ethnicities, and it ruined any sort of natural/enjoyable diversity. And YES, I want a protagonist who is–I don’t know–missing a leg, or is deaf, or Autistic, and that’s just part of their life, and not the MAIN PLOT of the stinking novel. Thanks again for commenting! I really liked what I saw of your blog too btw. ♡
      ~Hermione

      Liked by 1 person

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