Navigating one’s teen years is challenging, especially when it’s important to feel a sense of belonging.
When being different is part of a tumultuous adolescence, it’s even worse for young adults who are multi-ethnic, trans-racially adopted, cross-cultured or have interracial relationships, or identify as bisexual, gay or trans-gendered. Standing out is inevitable — at a time when it’s imperative to “fit in”.
Young adult novels about teenagers with unique identities have recently flooded the market. Are these books a trend, or part of a larger movement?
Below, IE speaks with two writers of Young Adult (YA) literature on this topic.
Cindy Pon is the Chinese American author of “Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia” and “Fury of the Phoenix”. Both fantasy novels feature young Chinese heroines in ancient China.
Malinda Lo is a biracial Asian American lesbian and author of two fantasy novels. In “The Huntress”, two 17 year-old girls on a mission to save the world fall in love while “Ash” is the retelling of Cinderella.
IE: “Why are YA novels that explore identity so popular right now?”
Pon: “The teen years are exactly the time when a person begins to come into her own, and questioning as well as forming, self-identity. So interest in reading books that address the same might be expected.”
Lo: “Young adult fiction has always explored identity, since adolescence is prime time for figuring out who you are. I’m afraid I don’t believe that YA novels exploring multiracial or sexual identity are truly popular right now — though I’d love to see some sales figures that prove me wrong — but I do think that awareness of diversity, or the lack of it in YA fiction, has increased in recent years. I’m sure that some of this awareness was prompted by a couple of incidents in which book covers were whitewashed by the publisher, obscuring a main character of color. After those cases (particularly with “Liar” by Justine Larbalestier), I think that many more readers and gatekeepers (librarians, teachers, etc.) became aware of the difficulties that exist in marketing books about minorities to a mainstream audience. However, those difficulties still exist.”
IE: “Is this a movement in the making or just a trend?”
Pon: “I do think there is more awareness and interest in writing and reading about these issues and topics. I don’t believe it’s a trend in that it’s only temporary. I think it’s a trend in that it’s a movement and change that will stay.
This is why Malinda and I spearheaded the Diversity in YA tour as well as the website (http://diversityinya.com). We felt the time was right for bringing awareness and celebrating diversity in children’s and young adult books.”
IE: “Is your audience interested in your storytelling, or your focus on identity?”
Pon: “I think the majority of my readers are reading for pleasure — which was my intention as the author. Some have picked up my novels due to an interest in Asian culture, but I suspect it’s a small percentage.”
Lo: “I think that my readers are interested in my work for two reasons — one is because they’re looking for a good story, and I truly value that because I do my best to focus on storytelling over issues. Secondly, I know that many readers, especially queer women, come to my books because they’re seeking stories about queer girls in which their sexual orientation is not an issue. So while I do work with identity as a theme, that’s largely because my books are about young adults; it’s not because I see sexual orientation as an issue that needs to be examined.”
IE: “Besides your own books, are there others you feel specifically and successfully address identity issues?”
Pon: “I don’t read many novels written to specifically address identity issues. Nor do I write them. I read for pleasure first and foremost, and appreciate books that touch on identity as part of the storyline and character development. I really love Francisco Stork’s “Marcelo in the Real World” and “The Last Summer of the Death Warriors”. I also recommend Malinda’s “Ash” and “Huntress”, unique in that they are wonderfully written fairytale and fantasy novels featuring girls in love — but that is simply part of the stories.”
Lo: “I think the most successful YA novels do not focus on identity as an issue; instead, a character’s sexual orientation or racial/ethnic identity is simply part of their character and growth. A couple of my favorites from the last year include “Sister Mischief” by Laura Goode, which is about a queer girl who falls in love with her South Asian best friend, and “Fury of the Phoenix” by Cindy [Pon], which is an Asian-inspired fantasy.”
As the number of YA books about racial or gender identity continues to grow along with a diverse population, stories once considered unique will, hopefully, become mainstream.