When Jonathan kindly (and perhaps a little too trustingly) invited me to do a guest blog, I was befittingly flattered. When he came up with the topic for me, I was delighted. He’d unwittingly done all of the hard work and I could claim it as my own. This, by the way, is my modus operandi. What made it even more perfect, however, was that the topic seemed tailored for me. As in, if Jonathan had shadowed me for a week like a detective – or a stalker – he could not have posed a better question. Granted, had he done that, his question might well have been ‘Why is your cat the only one who loves you?’. I hate being left with loose ends so, FYI, I feed her. It’s not love so much as common sense.
Okay, so that previous paragraph? Procrastination. Level: expert. Let’s stop that and jump right into the topic at hand. What would I like to see more of in YA and where do I see the market heading in the future?
Surprisingly enough, the answer to the former is also the answer to the latter. Both are very simple. ‘What are they?’ I hear you ask. “More hot boys? More hot girls? More bunny rabbits?’ No, no…and a few more bunnies wouldn’t go astray but it wasn’t what I was thinking of.
I want diversity.
So yeah, simple. One word and we’re done…
Oh, I’m meant to explain?
Okay. I want to see the kaleidoscope of our world depicted in YA. I want major characters to be people of colour, gay people or people with disabilities. I want to read about women who own their stories, set their own pace and don’t let anyone push them around. Or, you know what? Throw me a combination. I can handle it. But it needs to be realistic, respectful, thoughtful. It needs to be researched.
And, for the love of all things holy, no consolation traits. I don’t want to read an Asian character who I am assured is ‘exotic’ in the hopes of making her more palatable. I don’t want a gay character who is just so super-lovable that I’ll forgive their sexual proclivities, a female character who can do everything to make up for all of the ones who can do nothing, or a paraplegic who is an amazing genius because what else could she have to offer? Like all characters, their personalities are what they have to offer. Make us believe in them and we won’t need a consolation prize for their supposed defects.
White, male, able-bodied and beautiful has to stop being the default for books everywhere. It is destroying our understanding of everything that matters. We live in an incomprehensible world where we can watch a movie and deeply empathise with three metre tall blue people who communicate with their flipping hair, but we can’t accept the amazingly talented Amandla Stenberg being cast as Rue in the Hunger Games because she’s African American. The problem with having such a standard mould for major characters is that even when we’re expressly told that a character shatters that mould, we don’t get it. So authors everywhere need to be smashing those moulds until we do.
And they are. I’d love to be able to say that it’s a snowball effect going on but, quite frankly, the snow is not yet falling fast enough to cover the ground let alone warrant snowballs (and this sentence here? This is why Joelene is not allowed into the metaphor jar).
I can see this changing, though (not the metaphor jar. Joelene will never be allowed into the metaphor jar. We’re talking diversity again). Some very brave authors are pushing diversity in their novels, hoping to help shape a more open-minded world than ours is yet. Some very brave agents are supporting them. And what better market to do it with than YA? The age where people are still evaluating and re-evaluating the world around them; not yet set in their ways. The age where they question themselves, their parents and the world in general.
It isn’t perfect yet but if we, as readers, buy and read and recommend books by or about (or, better yet, by and about) culturally, mentally and physically diverse men and women, we will be the catalyst for change. And it’s well past time to hear voices unlike the dominant voices in our stories, speaking from an unfamiliar background. This world is a beautiful, messy, confounding and diverse place. It is time that YA fiction reflected the truth of it.
Joelene Pynnonen embraces the life of an avid book lover in every way. Her household is ruled cruelly by a wrathful cat; and should a fire ever start it is doubtful that she would make it past the elegant stacks of novels to her room door. At least once a year she coerces her mother into watching the BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice with her, and will often follow up by re-reading the book.
When not reading or bowing to the will of the tyrant cat, Joelene likes to draw, make futile attempts at learning Finnish and occasionally work in a bookstore.