My husband and I had a conversation about diversity and racism the other day. Our son (8 years old) is one of just a few white kids in his circle of friends, but he doesn’t even notice.
He doesn’t care whether his friends are black, white, indian, or anything else. They’re just … *gasp*… people. I love that our school and community has helped to teach him this, but it’s also lulled me into believing this is true everywhere. I mean, it’s 2012, aren’t we past racism and segregation by now?
I really thought the photo of a teenage boy looking out onto his neighborhood would attract the attention of the audience I had in mind when I was writing the book — teenagers, especially boys, who don’t usually find a book that speaks to them. And I’ve since heard from lots of teens who tell me that it was the cover that initially drew them to the book.
The thing I never imagined was that the cover (and the covers of my subsequent books) might create an automatic ghettoization of my work.
I had no idea that there were separate genres called “Street Lit” and “Urban Fiction”. Why do we even need them? Why wouldn’t these books just be shelved with general Young Adult or Adult fiction? Here’s the Goodreads description of Tyrell:
Tyrell is a young, African American teen who can’t get a break. He’s living (for now) with his spaced-out mother and little brother in a homeless shelter. His father’s in jail. His girlfriend supports him, but he doesn’t feel good enough for her – and seems to be always on the verge of doing the wrong thing around her. There’s another girl at the homeless shelter who is also after him, although the desires there are complicated. Tyrell feels he needs to score some money to make things better. Will he end up following in his father’s footsteps?
Do the words “African American” really need to automatically put this book in a genre other than Young Adult? It sounds like this book is about a teenager who is dealing with some family, personal, and romantic struggles while coming to age. Isn’t that what the Young Adult genre is all about?
Race and Sexuality — Not So Different
Usually when I’m thinking about issues like diversity, acceptance, and equality it’s in the context of sexuality because that’s a common component of most of the stories I want to tell. I hadn’t considered before now that my books, when published, could be shelved under LGBT or Gay/Lesbian fiction.
I really, really hope that doesn’t become the case. The stories I want to tell aren’t because my characters are gay or deal with issues that only someone who is gay would be interested in. They’re stories about teenagers on their paths to becoming adults who just happen to be gay. Just like a character just happens to have brown hair. Or is tall. Or short. My character being gay is part of the story, but it’s not the story.
But most importantly, by separating books into these specialized genres, we’re sending the message that they wouldn’t appeal to the “average” young adult reader. That only “certain readers” would be interested. Well, of course only “certain readers” would be interested — no one person likes all books — but whether the reader is gay or black is not that deciding factor.
Shelving books with characters who are not white or not straight under general young adult fiction would be one small but important step towards normalizing what society considers “different.”
I’m proud of my son for knowing that people are people, regardless of race. As he grows older and sexuality becomes something he’s more aware of, I have confidence it will matter just as much to him, which is to say: not at all because people are people.
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