Between Two Lockers: We get the dish from YA authors on their books, lives and secret crushes. See More...
There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom!: A member of the male species dares to step foot into our YA world. See More...

Heck YA, Diversity!: ‘Are You Even Qualified For This?’

FYA resident dude Brian puts on his author cap to talk about writing characters that are -- gasp! -- different than him.

Heck YA, Diversity!: ‘Are You Even Qualified For This?’

Welcome back to Heck YA, Diversity!. In this edition, FYA resident dude Brian talks about the response he received about the visible and sexual minority characters in his novels, Playing with Matches and Almost Perfect.

Diversity in YA
by Brian Katcher

It's always something I have to be very aware of, being a straight white guy from the Midwest. If I have all white characters, that's a poor reflection on America, and if I only have one POC (person of color) character it smacks of tokenism. If a minority character acts 'white,' then there's no point, but if I make them be 'ethnic', I risk falling into the worst kind of stereotyping.

I have a bad habit of giving my main characters two close friends, a serious POC and a goofy white guy. I worry that if I make a POC too silly, readers will think I'm playing him for laughs. A blogger once ripped me a new one of the character of Tim in Almost Perfect. He was both Asian and overweight, and the blogger accused me of making fun of him.

On the other hand, it's a lot of fun to create characters who are very different from myself. When writing Playing with Matches, I was working with a writers' group. About halfway through the book, someone asked me "Is Rob supposed to be black?" (this was mentioned, but not frequently). I answered that he was. "Well, that doesn't add much to his character, why not just make him white?"

I was kind of offended. True, I could have performed a race change without losing much of his character, but why? That was the way I'd always pictured him, and I didn't see the point of having an all-white cast. Rob was Rob, the cranky, sarcastic kid who could crack his joints. And he was black. End of story.

When I won the Stonewall Children's Book Award in 2011 (a prestigious LGBT award from the ALA), I think I may have been the only heterosexual speaker that day. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. But there are people out in internet land who disagree that a straight guy should get an award for writing about the struggles of a transwoman. Ironically, many of the complainers are either straight or cisgender (non-transgender) themselves.

I'm not sure how to respond to that. If I were a gay man, or a transman, would Almost Perfect be a different book? Should we only write characters that reflect ourselves, or should we challenge ourselves as authors and create people who aren't anything like us?

Another issue that we have discussed at FYA is the habit of assuming that if a character's race is not specified, then they are automatically white. To me, that's just lazy writing. A good author should be able to paint a mental picture in the readers' heads. If you read a character description and have no clue as to their race, then maybe this needs to be rewritten.

Also, as a teacher, it amuses me when I read illustrated versions of old stories and the characters suddenly undergo a race change (like Nate the Great or Ramona Quimby's teacher). It's funny, they were people I always pictured as white, and were white in the original illustrations, but the author never specified a race, so why not?

What do you think, readers? When authors write about a different 'diverse' than what they themselves are, does that influence your opinion of a book? And until otherwise stated, do you picture characters as white by default?

Brian Katcher's photo About the Author: Brian Katcher wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.