Joining us this week in Heck YA, Diversity! is author Whitney A. Miller, who's here to talk about celebrating all kinds of beauty in YA lit.
I have a confession to make: I’m a sucker for a good escapist fantasy. Stylish, whipsmart heroines that have hint-o’-wavy locks down to their appropriately slim waists and the adoration of every boy in a ten-mile radius are super fun to read about—they just are.
But everyone who’s human knows that beauty isn’t standardized. It doesn’t come in a strictly size 2 container, exist solely in shades of white, or reside only in fancy neighborhoods. It isn’t free from disability, doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all sexuality, and refuses limit itself to physical aspect. Beauty—real beauty, starring role type beauty—comes in all shapes, sizes, races, genders, sexual orientations, social circumstances and personalities. In other words, beauty is diverse.
Unfortunately, we are inundated with messages, both overt and subliminal, through TV shows, movies, music, and magazines about the standard of beauty. Often this standard is homogenized, unattainable, and even undesirable—like a fleet of sexy robots (if that sounds like an oxymoron it’s because IT IS). This one-sided view doesn't reflect the breadth and dimension of true beauty. When diversity in YA is done well, it makes a critical contribution to the conversation—by reflecting through its characters beauty in its myriad manifestations, it helps us to recognize the beauty in ourselves.
Permit me to diverge, if you will, into a love letter to Rainbow Rowell’s sublime Eleanor & Park, which provides us with an example of how diverse characters can reveal to us the many hidden faces of beauty. (If you haven’t read it yet then for the love of all that is holy, run screaming directly to your local indie bookstore, buy it, put Joy Division’s "Love Will Tear Us Apart" on your headphones, read it right there on the floor, join a Forever YA book club and talk about it, then come back to us. God.)
The first time Eleanor walks on the bus, Park is disgusted—angered, even—by her flagrant other-ness. What Park sees in those first moments is what Eleanor imagines when she thinks of herself: an oafish, poorly-dressed, red-headed mess. What Eleanor sees when she first lays eyes on Park is some “weird Asian kid.” Not for long. As they’re pulled into the tiny universe that exists between them, layers of beauty unfold. To Park, Eleanor is surprising; she is clever; she is a bombshell. She is, as Park observes, “like art”—hers is the kind of beauty that “is supposed to make you feel something”. To Eleanor, Park is also a work of art. He is disarming; he is kind; he is…sigh…unbearably cool. Eleanor and Park transform for us as they transform for one another—from the glass-shard surface of first perceptions to the soft-focus of what is discovered in the knowing of someone. Real beauty shines from within. I love Eleanor & Park because it hits the prism of beauty from so many different angles—physicality, race, socio-economic status, even family dynamics. So many opportunities for us to recognize a glimmer of ourselves in the characters, and realize that we are beautiful and lovable, too.
I adore reading about the cover-girl debutante. Hanging out with her is a delightful diversion from reality. But it's equally wonderful to read books that celebrate other kinds of beauty—the undiscovered continents within us. What lies beneath is so much more interesting. Sometimes all it takes is a great book to shine a light on what was waiting patiently to be discovered all along.