Grow a Backbone, Lady: Diversity in Young Adult Novels

4 years ago

A few weeks ago, I drove down to The Writers Place in Kansas City, Miss., (full disclosure: I serve on the board of directors) to talk to a group of around twenty upper middle-school kids about writing fiction. We ended up talking about race.

I didn't start there. I started with writing process. I talked aboout how I wrote my first novel in ever-lengthening Word documents saved by date and how the novel I'm working on now is coming together thanks to software called StoryMill. How this time I'm writing in scenes, not chapters, because it's totally easier for me that way. Their eyes glazed. I passed around my scene list and long outline for my new novel. They shuffled the paper around the room. I was losing them fast, and I still had the better part of an hour to go.

The group of kids was diverse. There were black kids and white kids and Asian kids and biracial kids. So I threw out a question that has been nagging at me ever since I learned that children's book publishing hasn't kept pace with census data regarding racial demographics. How did the kids feel about a white author writing nonwhite characters?

Credit Image: juhansonin on Flickr

So I asked them that. I told them I had an Asian character in my first novel, but that was about it for diversity -- mostly because my novel was set in small-town Iowa in 1990, and there wasn't a lot of diversity in my experience in that setting. This time, I told them, the new novel is set in present-day Chicago, where there is quite a bit of diversity. Where should my nonwhite characters be in the novel? And did I have any business writing them?

It's a question being raised in the children's book community. On the Lee & Low books blog, School Library Journal blogger Betsy Bird asked:

Finally, we need to officially address how we feel about white authors and illustrators writing books about people of other races. Is it never okay? Sometimes okay? Always okay?

The kids had seen my scene list before I asked them about race but barely glanced at it. Afterward, they were studying it closely. Here are some of the quotes they gave me about a white author writing nonwhite characters that they gave me their permission to share.

  • "You just need to grow a backbone and put them in there."

  • "Don't have just one black character. My mom calls that 'blackground.'"

  • "I read this book where black kids and white kids and Asian kids and Hispanic kids were all hanging out together, and it wasn't even a boarding school. That would never happen."

  • "Don't describe anyone as having olive skin. Just say what they are."

After discussing my scene list and my character collection, the kids recommended I make one of the main engineers in the power plant that my main character talks to a lot black. They thought that was the most organic place to introduce a character of color. They weren't sure why I cared if there were nonwhite characters in my book in the first place, and I told them I didn't want to be another white author writing only white characters. Clearly, there's a problem of books not reflecting the make-up of the population, and so it's important to me to not be part of that problem. Because the kids told me not to just add one nonwhite character, I'm going to look for other places to add diversity, as well. I don't want to have blackground, after all.

The conversation veered into how race came up in their lives in general and left my work, but that was okay with me. It was a little awkward, and we talked about that, how discussing race can be awkward, can be hard. It is way easier for me to just write white characters, but I don't want to do that. No one in the room seemed mad at me for bringing up race, and nobody's body language was sinking into the floor.

I hope other white authors will share their experiences regarding the race of their characters and the thought process that went into casting their books, whether it's simply dropping in references to all races of people in passing, as Veronica Roth does in the DIVERGENT series, or a conscious development of diverse characters, as Ruta Sepetys does in OUT OF THE EASY. And authors of color -- do you write white characters? Why or why not?

In the end, I asked them to write me if they would like to read how I wrote the characters we discussed. So far, I haven't heard from any of them, but I'm hoping that changes. What do you think about white authors writing nonwhite characters?

Rita Arens is the author of the young adult novel The Obvious Game & the deputy editor of Find more at

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