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Why writing a diverse YA novel meant more to me than making a buck

Valerie Tejeda is an entertainment journalist who spends her days reporting on books, television and all things pertaining to pop culture, and spends her nights writing novels for teens. Her stories have appeared on a variety of differen...

Diverse books are so important in young adult literature — here's why

It all started with a dream. I know that sounds incredibly cliché, but it's true.

I had a dream Marilyn Monroe did not die of a drug overdose but instead was killed by a witch who happened to live in Hollywood. When I woke up the next day, I got to thinking, "Why in the world would a witch want to kill Marilyn Monroe?" So I came to the conclusion this witch must have been trying to steal the youth and beauty from this classic icon. From there, the idea of Hollywood Witch Hunter was born.

If you are unfamiliar with my debut novel Hollywood Witch Hunter, it’s a young adult urban fantasy about witches and witch hunters living in this magical world hidden in Hollywood. The story follows a girl named Iris who is sassy, smart and can hold her own with the boys. When I started crafting this story, I knew I really wanted it to be a fun, urban fantasy (reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) — but also a satire, so to speak, about our society’s obsession with youth and beauty, with underlying themes of sexism and racism. For me, it was a no-brainer to make Iris Latina, as I am part Latina myself.

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Growing up, I never saw myself represented in books, TV or movies. I loved Disney films, Sweet Valley High books and couldn’t get enough of Nancy Drew. But the thing was, none of them had a main character who was like me.

I wrote Hollywood Witch Hunter during Nano Writing Month and once I was finished, I sent it off to a friend to take a look at the draft before I got to editing. After diving into the book, her knee-jerk response was, "I love the concept! But people might give you hell for making your main character Latina." For the record, this friend of mine is Hispanic.

When she said this to me, I didn't really think too much about it. Since Hollywood Witch Hunter is a non-issue book, I didn't see the big deal in making the main character Latina. Why do we always have to default to white? Plus, the story takes place in Southern California, which has a huge Hispanic demographic, so it would have been silly to have no Latinos in the book. So I brushed off my friend’s comments and got to editing with the dream of possibly publishing this book one day.

Once the editing process was complete, I started querying agents. The query did not specify that Iris was Latina or that book was full of diverse characters from all walks of life. This wasn't something I chose to mention because it wasn't something I viewed as a big deal. About a day after I started querying, to my surprise, a handful of agents wanted to take a look at my book. I was incredibly excited, and I couldn't wait to hear their thoughts.

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A couple weeks went by and slowly but surely I started to hear back — but not with the news I expected. Instead of getting the typical "I didn’t connect to the book" rejections, I kept getting told the same thing over and over: "Your book is not marketable because of the Latina protagonist." A few agents even went so far to say they would be willing to look at Hollywood Witch Hunter again if I changed the main character’s race because that would make the book an "easier sell."

Naturally, this was frustrating. For me, the ethnicities of my characters was nonnegotiable, and I would rather not publish my book than sell out by whitewashing my characters.

So I started pitching Hollywood Witch Hunter again, and this time I decided to bypass the agents and go straight to publishers who were open to receiving un-agented books. Months of fast-food visits and late-night binges with Ben & Jerry went by; but in time, I finally got an email from an editor at Bloomsbury Spark who wanted to publish my book. The best part? She loved that Hollywood Witch Hunter was full of diverse characters, and she wanted to embrace them.

I was head-over-heels excited, but in the back of my mind I wondered if the "let’s support diversity" attitude would change after I signed the deal. To my surprise, it did not. My editor was completely supportive of my diverse characters, even going as far as to use a Latina model on the cover of Hollywood Witch Hunter — something that never happens with a YA fantasy.

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As my release date got closer, the anticipation of publishing a book with a Latina heroine started to become real. The little girl inside of me who craved a character like this as a child was finally starting to feel at peace. Even more mind-blowing, I started to get emails from Latino readers thanking me for writing Hollywood Witch Hunter months before my book came out. I even met a girl in person who cried because it meant so much to her to finally see herself represented in books. Reasons like this are why diverse books are just so important in young adult literature.

The thing is, if we want to see more diverse books, we need to support the ones that are out there. We need to tell people about them, purchase them if applicable, and just spread the word so people from all ethnic backgrounds can feel represented and valued in entertainment.

My hope is that in the years to come, there will be so many diverse books that it won’t even be an issue anymore. I mean, how wonderful would that be? Diversity needs be a normal part of books because everyone, no matter what race, gender or sexual orientation, deserves to have their story told.

Diverse books are so important in young adult literature — here's why

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