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Diversity in YA Novels, a Decatur Book Festival Panel

This weekend I attended the Decatur Book Festival for the first time. And I LOVED it!

Diversity Panel
Diversity Panel

Great selection of authors, interesting discussion panels and you can’t beat the location. Downtown Decatur is a fabulous mix of trendy shops and yummy restaurants. I will be going back to Cafe Alsace for the eggs Benedict and the ridiculously delicious honey-lavender ice cream.

Saturday morning I sat in the Diversity in YA panel with authors Cece Bell, Carmen Agra Deedy, Varian Johnson, Andrew Smith. Becky Albertalli and Soniah Kamal moderated.

Enjoy the notes!

How do you define diversity? What do you look for? How do you introduce diversity?

Andrew: I want to fairly represent the community that I live with and interact without making their characteristics define the arc of the story. I get asked, why do you have a gay/bisexual character? Because they are part of the world that we live in. The most important element of a diverse book is that we show the spectrum of humanity that constitutes American society without making an issue of the things that are identifiable in human beings. We have diverse literature but we want a diverse pool of people writing those stories. All authors want the ability to write whatever they want to write. Doesn’t matter the ethnicity.

Carmen: The placement of the character where it be culture, faith, color of skin… when the character is endearing and their story heartbreaking we don’t care about those things. Let’s write book with great stories with all kinds of people

Cece: My story is a personal story about my own hearing loss. As a child I felt so, so different from everyone in school because everyone else could hear and I couldn’t. I write this book partly to get a hold of those feelings for kids today. To tell them it’s not that big of a deal. Children through reading these books need to know that there are other people having the same experience they are having.

What kind of responses have you received on your diverse stories?

Cece: I got one negative response from a teacher for the deaf that felt it was wrong for me to show the hearing aid I was wearing at the time. I grew up in the 70s. (Cece showed a really big hearing aid). They felt it took away from all the progress.

Andrew: I get hate mail from every book I’ve ever written. The best feedback I get is from kids that send me a letter saying this is exactly like me. Or adults that say I really wish this book would have been written when I was 14 or 15 years old because this is exactly what I was going through.

Carmen: What is literature without backlash? You are going to offend someone.

with Carmen Agra Deedy
with Carmen Agra Deedy

Varian: There is an expectation that the author will be the spokesperson of a people, a race or a culture. This is unrealistic.

Discuss the importance of enhancing characters that belong to more than one marginalized group?

Andrew: When a character become a spokesperson for one segment of society that really dehumanizes that character.

Varian: We want realistic tridimensional characters. I have all these different things that influenced me. Yes it’s important. Our job is to make our characters as human and realistic as possible. We have to reflect that on the page.

Carmen: We just want real characters and if they happen to have more than one problem or more than one pathology… so be it.

Cece: I’m an illustrator. My picture books are almost always animals. I think animals are such a great way to include everyone. Everyone is a little bit of everything and that is what we write.

Closing remarks:

Varian: You have the right to write whatever you want. Do your research and write it.

Andrew Smith at book signing
Andrew Smith at book signing

Andrew: Publishers are really hungry for honesty and they want something that is real and true. They want to see something fresh and honest and it doesn’t matter who it’s coming from.



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