For this week's installment of Heck YA, Diversity!, please welcome blogger and YA writer Stephanie Scott. Stephanie's here to talk about YA lit set outside of the U.S.
As a majorly avid reader, books have always been my gateway to other cultures. What better way to experience life in another place than through a character? Growing up, we were the family who spent vacations at museums and watched PBS on weekends. Learning about other cultures was consistently encouraged, as was awareness of diversity in my own life (as my mother once demonstrated at a parade in a very white Chicago suburb when she asked (loudly), “Where are all the black people?”).
As our world becomes more global, there are a zillion ways to connect with cultures beyond our own—even this website lures readers from around the world. But I still appreciate a good book that delves into culture, especially when a character is transformed by their surroundings.
One common device authors use to show culture is to send a character abroad. Hapless Jane’s unfamiliarity with a country’s customs is an easy way to show readers cultural aspects without paragraph-long infodumps that read more like a textbook. We want to be shown that experience, and a clueless tourist/ex-pat offers a realistic narrator.
The authors who use this device best tend to use culture shock to further develop their characters. The girl with the scripted life travels abroad and shucks convention, like in Gayle Forman’s Just One Day, and Kirsten Hubbard’s Wanderlove. In Just One Day, Allyson returns to the U.S. traumatized from her European excursion after having drifted from the school trip itinerary to frolic with Cute Boy in Paris. The following semester in college, she emerges from depression by exploring her experience, and we see her personal journey is only beginning. Her experience literally changes the course of her life. In Wanderlove, Bria ditches the group tour for backpacking and cramped hostels. She struggles with her identity as a tourist, but beyond that, with what she wants from life, and realizes what she’s learning about herself clashes with how she’d been defined back home. Her journey through Central America mirrors her personal struggle. Along the way you experience culture through an American filter, but a filter that is evolving.
Europe and the Americas are fine and all, but what about countries we see less often in YA? Amanda Sun’s Ink sends American-born Katie to Japan to live with her aunt, where she initially resists the experience. Food, customs, and language and described in detail, but Katie even notices the way teenagers relate to each other is different. Katie is our Western-minded guide to Japanese culture and traditions. She is essentially the “other” immersed in a world she doesn’t yet understand. In an attempt by her parents to straighten her out, Miriam in Rebels by Accident by Patricia Dunn is sent to live with her grandmother in Egypt just as a revolution is brewing. Readers experience the real-life political demonstrations through Miriam, and meanwhile we see her grow to understand her own heritage and how that culture shaped her family, including her parent’s strict views.
Historical fiction is another great way to experience culture, since understanding the past can help us fully realize our present (there’s my museum experiences chiming in). I’d like to say I’m fairly well-versed in the World War II-era German occupation, but I knew next to nothing about Stalin’s horrific reign over the Baltic nations until I read Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray. Lina’s story begins with daily concerns similar to many teens, anxiety over school and friends, until she and her family are taken during the night and corralled into a dark train car destined for work camps. What keeps this from feeling like a history lesson on wartime refugees is how each leg of Lina’s journey focuses on the people she meets, her own drive to tell their stories through her art, and the hope her mother and the other survivors refuse to squelch. Good historical fiction surpasses basic setting descriptions and demonstrates culture through the characters themselves; their actions are driven by their beliefs and their motivations source from their upbringing. Lina’s heritage is essential to the journey, and key to showing us why the survivors kept their stories secret for so long.
Sharon Draper’s award winner Copper Sun features teenaged Amari who is taken from her African village and put on a slave ship bound for the Carolinas. Everything Amari knows and understands has been shattered. How she interprets her surroundings, her emotional reactions, and her resilience show us her heritage throughout her extremely difficult journey. And I can’t write this without mentioning Jennifer Donnelly, whose time-travel(ish?) mash-up Revolution mixes 18th century France with modern day Paris and Brooklyn, which is such wonderful immersion into history you kind of forget you (should have) learned this stuff in school.
Seeking out books about places we are unfamiliar with expands our understanding of people, culture, the world. The best books take culture and weave it fully within characters in ways that influence the story, and ultimately, the readers.