#WeNeedDiverseBooks kicks off today!!

I’m sure you’ve seen me talking about this EVERYWHERE else, but I’m posting this here too just to be sure. If you don’t know what #WeNeedDiverseBooks is, check out the original post on Tumblr. Then share YOUR picture that completes this prompt: “We need diverse books because ___________.”

Simple, right? But it’s not all talk. There’s another step: recommend great diverse books, then go out and #DiversifyYourShelves (more at the link above). This weekend we’re heading out en masse to buy diverse books at our local bookstores and online. If the book you’re looking for isn’t in the store, ask for it! Booksellers pay attention to books they’re not carrying get requested a lot over time. If you don’t have the money to buy a book right now, ask for more diversity (request specific titles) in your local library.

Follow all the discussion—and there’s a LOT, as it’s trending right now!—on Twitter, and check out the pictures that have been submitted to the Tumblr starting at 1pm EDT.

Then today at 2, join us for a #diverselit chat on Twitter with Shannon Hale, discussing diversity, specifically writing “specific” vs. “neutral” characters.

Is my character “black enough”

I recently got this question from a writer, who agreed that answering it on the blog would be useful:

My hero is a fifteen-year-old African American boy [in a science fiction story]. A few of my alpha readers (not all) have said that he doesn’t sound “black enough.” I purposely made him an Air Force brat who has lived in several different countries to avoid having to use cliche hood-terminology. I want him to be universal.

Do you have thoughts on this either way?

Is there a possibility that my potential readers could really be offended that a) I am “a white girl writing a book about black people” and b) that my character doesn’t sound black enough? I’ve looked through your blog and website and haven’t found anything specific to my needs on this particular question. Perhaps I missed it?

…should I use Ebonics or not use Ebonics?

First of all, black people—just as white people or Latino people—are a very diverse group of people. There are people who speak in Ebonics [ETA: which I believe would be more accurately referred to as BVE–Black Vernacular English] and people who speak plain old suburban English, people who speak with any of a variety of Southern accents and people who have Chicago accents, people who speak with French or Spanish accents (or who speak French or Spanish or an African language). So the question of whether a particular character in a particular situation sounds “black enough” is a complicated question, one that even the African American community can’t necessarily agree on. Within the community (and I say this because I asked a coworker who is African American, who can speak with more authority on the subject than I can) it’s often a question that draws on complicated factors, such as money, privilege, “selling out,” skin tone (relative darkness or lightness—literally, being “black enough”), and hair texture, which all relate to how much a part of which community a person might be.

The question, then, is fraught with loaded meaning not only to do with stereotypes, but also socioeconomic meanings. [And, edited to add, because it might not be clear enough: The question can also tend to be offensive because of that diversity and the loaded meaning the question carries.]

Which leads me to the question of your alpha readers. What are their demographics? Is it a diverse group? What is their experience with the military? Is more than one of them African American? When writing cross-culturally, you’ll want to be sure that your beta readers include sufficient numbers of the member of the group you’re writing about. Every individual experience will be different—one person’s opinion on whether a character reads as African American will probably differ from another person’s, especially if their socioeconomic background and regional experiences are different. An African American from the St. Louis suburbs will have a different life experience than someone who grew up on a farm in Louisiana, whose experiences will probably be different from a kid who grew up in Harlem or someone else who grew up in Seattle.

If your local writing group isn’t very diverse, you might need to branch out for beta readers who you can rely on to comment on that particular element of your story—perhaps through an online writing group, perhaps through the SCBWI. You might even approach a local high school and ask if any of their students who come from a similar background to your character might be willing to give you feedback on your manuscript. Do you have connections with a local Air Force base? Perhaps you might network with people you know in the military to find someone who can give you feedback on that aspect of the character building.

To answer your other questions: it’s always possible that someone will be offended by a white person writing about a person of color, but generally, most readers I’ve talked to who care about diversity in fantasy and science fiction want that diversity to come from everyone, not just writers of color. This is why I emphasized alpha readers—it’s important to make sure that if you’re not from that background, you do your research (which it sounds like you have) and then run it past someone other than yourself who understands that culture or background (in this case, you’ve got two cultures going on: African American and military, particularly Air Force, which has a completely different culture than Army).

A few someones is even better, to ensure that you get different points of view and can mesh that feedback into something that works for your particular character, who will be an individual in his own right and not a representative of a group that plays into a stereotype.

Which leads into your next question: should you use Ebonics? And the answer to that is: I don’t know. Do African Americans in the military use Ebonics? Do only some of them, and does it depend on their family history/region of origin? Do their kids speak to each other in Ebonics? Or do they have their own way of speaking that’s particular to the Air Force community? (My uncle was in the Air Force and I have a couple cousins who might read this who may be able to answer that question; they’ve never spoken anything but “Midwestern” to me, but they might have spoken differently to their friends who were also Air Force brats.)

And that’s important too: people often have different vocabularies when talking to different groups of people. When my roommates from Georgia talked to their family, their accents became stronger. When I talk to my rural family, the word “crik” has been known to creep back into my lexicon. So ask yourself, “what’s the context my character is in?” as well.

And of course, that’s just me spouting off from the point of view of an editor. Readers, feel free to chime in and help out writers who write cross-culturally: what other issues should they be aware of when writing African American characters?

Book lists: Multicultural SF/F for MG and YA

ETA: If you’re just googling into this list now, please see my booklists over on Pinterest, which I keep much more up-to-date than this page from several years ago. I break them down by age group and genre. I also publish diverse science fiction and fantasy for young readers at Tu Books now. See the sidebar or the Tu Books page for more information.

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Over at Color Online, they do a meme challenge every week “designed to encourage readers to broaden their reading habits.” This week (well, actually, it was last week; I’ve been working on this list for a few days in spare moments), they’re challenging people to discuss science fiction and fantasy where people of color are the leads.

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, as we’ve already discussed, but let’s talk about books I’ve already read in which the main character (not a supporting character) is a person of color. Obviously, a lot of the manga I’ve been reading lately features people of color — at least, the ones set in Japan can reasonably be assumed to be people of color. (There’s an ongoing discussion among people who know more about manga than I do that addresses this, because many people unfamiliar with manga assume that the characters are white because of the range of hair colors and because eye shape isn’t characterized with the fold that is so common to Asian people, but from what I understand, it’s just an artistic choice, not a statement on the race of the characters. It certainly makes it easier to distinguish different characters when you’ve got a range of hair colors, especially in black-and-white manga. But that’s not what this post is really about.)

So what science fiction and fantasy — specifically, for young readers — have you read lately that feature a main character of color? Here’s my list (note that even though this is a “multicultural” list, I’m deliberately leaving out fantasy inspired by Celtic culture unless it features a character of color, because such fantasy is usually the most predominant in the market. I love it, but it’s not what this list is for):

SFF books for young readers that feature multicultural characters that I’ve read

  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, 2009, by Grace Lin. I’m still working on reading this fairy-tale retelling-like tale, but so far it’s beautiful.
  • Wildwood Dancing, 2007, by Juliet Marillier. This one’s a little bit of a stretch, but it is set in Romania, which is a culture we don’t see too often in non-vampire stories.
  • Book of a Thousand Days, 2008, by Shannon Hale. Mongolia-inspired. Lovely, lovely fairy tale retelling. My favorite of Shannon’s books (and that’s saying something, because she writes some good books!).
  • The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, 1994, by Nancy Farmer. Set in Zimbabwe in the year 2194.
  • The House of the Scorpion, 2002, by Nancy Farmer. Set in the zone between the U.S. and Mexico, main character is Latino.
  • Flora Segunda, 2007, by Isabeau S. Wilce, and its sequel Flora’s Dare. Set in a fantasy world inspired by a fun mix of medieval, fashion-forward, and Spanish-inspired cultures (Spain-Spanish, given how the language is used, I’m thinking, but I could be wrong).
  • Little Sister,1996, by Kara Dalkey, and a sequel for which I’ve forgotten the name. Japanese folklore. This is actually one of the first multicultural fantasies I discovered way back in college, and I loved it so much, but at the time couldn’t find many more books like it.
  • Magic or Madness, 2005, and its sequels by Justine Larbalestier. Reason Cansino, the main character, is an Australian of mixed race.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Leguin. This one has had a lot of misunderstanding over the years due to publishers in the 60s and 70s putting a white Ged on the cover, when in fact Ged and many of the other characters are dark-skinned.
  • Eternal, 2009, by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Miranda is Chinese-American.
  • Tantalize, 2007, by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Main character Quincie is English-Italian-Texan, and non-POV character (but featured in a graphic novel sequel) Kieren is Mexican-American. (This one’s kind of a stretch, because Quincie isn’t technically a person of color–unless that Texan part is Latino?)

ETA: How could I forget Lawrence Yep? I have one of his books, but I’m not sure where it is. The ones I’ve read of his feature Asian characters in Asian settings (Chinese? I can’t remember off the top of my head). His books are great reads.

SFF books written by authors of color (where I’ve been able to identify them) in which characters may be of ambiguous ethnicity, or ethnicity simply not mentioned

Sucks to Be Me

    , 2008, by Kimberly Pauley

Multicultural science fiction and fantasy on my TBR pile

  • Silver Phoenix, 2009, by Cindy Pon. Set in ancient China.
  • Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, 2008, by Nahoko Uehashi, and its sequel, Moribito II. Written by a Japanese author (originally published in Japan and translated to English) and set in a culture inspired by medieval Japan.
  • The Shadow Speaker, 2007, by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu. Set in Niger, 2070. I’ve had the ARC of this since 2007, and have been wanting to read it for forever, and keep misplacing it when I actually think of it! It’s an oversight I need to correct.
  • Zahrah the Windseeker, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu.
  • Extras, 2007, by Scott Westerfeld. Main character, Aya, is Japanese, I believe. I LOVED the first three in the series (and somehow have misplaced my signed copies of the first two books 🙁 ) but haven’t had a chance to catch up with this one.
  • How to Ditch Your Fairy, 2008, Justine Larbalestier
  • Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, by Cynthia Leitich Smith–the above-mentioned sequel to her Tantalize.
  • The Animorphs series
  • Chronus Chronicles by Anne Ursu
  • Doret says that she’s been told the Pendragon series apparently has a black girl protagonist, despite the white boy on the cover? I’ll have to investigate that–perhaps it’s alternating viewpoints, or perhaps she’s introduced at a later point in the series? I know there is a follow-up series once the main boy protag grows up, so perhaps she’s in that?
  • Devil’s Kiss, by Sarwat Chadda
  • Libyrinth, by Pearl North
  • The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
  • Sword and Wandering Warrior by Da Chen

Multicultural fantasy that never came to be, and I lament it

Books 7 and 8 of the Hallowmere series by Tiffany Trent, which was canceled at book 6. I was so looking forward to editing Mara’s story (former slave, probably the most interesting of the Hallowmere girls because of her backstory) in book 7 and Chumana’s story (Hopi girl who Mara was going to meet in her travels through the raths) in book 8.

And books to add to my TBR pile thanks to shweta-narayan

  • Across the Nightingale Floor and its sequels, by Lian Hearn. Japanese historical fantasy. I had a copy of this in Seattle, and I’m not sure where I put it. I think I must have lost it in the move to Utah.
  • Annals of the Western Shore series by Ursula K. LeGuin. I remember the controversy over this cover, too–originally when Gifts came out, they’d put a white kid on the cover, too, and given LeGuin’s long history of having the cover of Earthsea whitewashed, that was a pretty big fight, and the final book ended up with I believe an Indian or Pakistani boy on the cover instead.
  • Un Lun Dun by China Mieville. I keep forgetting to read this one, though people keep recommending it to me. I even have a free copy from ALA a few years back.
  • The Two Pearls of Wisdom (or Dragoneye Reborn as it’s known in the US) by Alison Goodman. I’ve been meaning to pick this one up. The whole mythology is inspired by Asian culture (Japanese? I can’t remember which one).
  • Lavender-Green Magic, by Andre Norton.
  • A Posse of Princesses by Sherwood Smith. (Is this YA?)
  • Stormwitch, by Susan Vaught
  • The Dragon Keeper, by Carole Wilkinson
  • A Girl Named Disaster, by Nancy Farmer
  • The Wizard series by Diane Duane
  • The Green Boy, by Susan Cooper
  • Jin Shei trilogy by Alma Alexander
  • The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, by Virginia Hamilton
  • Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed, by Virginia Hamilton
  • 47, by Walter Mosley
  • Pemba’s Song, by Marilyn Nelson and Tonya C. Hegamin
  • The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi
  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie
  • The Night Wanderer, by Drew Hayden Taylor

There are also books in which the ethnicity of the character is neutral/unclaimed, as in The Hunger Games, in which most of those who work in the Seam are dark-skinned, but of an unspecified ethnic origin (Mitali Perkins discussed this on her blog a while back), so I’m not counting it on this list but it’s still a great book.

As you can see, there are some really great books out there already, but the list is still pretty short. Can you guys help me add to it? Especially the TBR pile, though I know I’m also forgetting books that I’ve read that I just don’t have copies of. What am I missing?