single kid who is underrepresented in books (and that’s a lot of
kids) that their lives, experiences, and stories are not worth learn-
ing about and listening to. And that’s just shameful. Our readers
deserve more effort and courage from us than that.
OLDER: I think it’s a mistake to see it as binary. Writers are
always writing “the other”; there’s no way around that. A question that also must be asked is: Can we write ourselves? What
we don’t see much of are books by white people examining the
meaning, power, and depth of their own whiteness (All American
Boys, 2015, is an excellent example of one that does). Same is
true about maleness, and cisness. I think the questions go hand
The most notable way that people of privilege jack up writing about people with less privilege is by, subconsciously or not,
trying to protect themselves and their complicity with power imbalances. Conversations about this tend to end with the singular
notion of research, but there is so much beyond the acquisition
of knowledge that goes into creating real human characters from
other backgrounds. It’s a question of soul searching, of accountability, of history, of contextualizing both within the publishing
industry and the world at large. And sometimes, if we’re honest,
the answer is that it’s not our story to tell.
REAGAN: With fantasy, the lines are, perhaps, a bit more blurred
than they are with historical or contemporary fiction. How do the
above concerns come into play in this genre especially?
OLDER: It’s funny, because people talk about fantasy as if it’s
just now becoming political because more and more kinds of
folks who don’t fit into the same old “white straight dude” category are finding their voices in the genre. But, of course, fantasy
has always been extremely political; it’s just been so normalized
from a very white Western patriarchal construct, and fans that
fit within this demographic don’t see it as anything but just the
way things are. For those of us who don’t, we’ve been forced to
translate ourselves or see ourselves only in the troll hordes, the
clowns, the denizens, and demons.
This all falls within that most political realm of representation:
the triumph of the noble colonizers over the savages. It’s cliché
at this point besides being harmful. If we’re going to get excited
about the power of literature to change lives (and we should)
because it is powerful, then we also have to be honest about the
destructive power literature can have on the vast numbers of
people who haven’t been able to see themselves reflected as protagonists for literally centuries. That is why counter-narratives
are so important and why this is such an exciting time to be a
fantasy writer. I’m thrilled to be alive and writing and reading at
TAHIR: Fantasists run the risk of making cultural generaliza-
tions in an attempt to include diversity in their fantasy worlds.
For example, some fantasy books might have a sort of generalized “Asian”-inspired race with “Asian”-sounding names and a
mishmash of “Asian” cultural traits. And, in fact, there is no one
Asian culture. There are scores of distinct cultural traditions in
Asia. You can apply this to the Middle East and Africa, too. Nuances matter, so my hope is that modern fantasists recognize that
and reflect it in their work.
SMITH: It sounds counterintuitive, but in fantasy we can be
REAGAN: What would you like to see more of in the YA canon
more on point, more blunt. A device like speech making, which
would skew preachy in a realistic novel, can work when the
speaker is a teen werecat outing herself—owning her furry, spot-
ted awesomeness—via national media in a human-dominated
world. Fantasy readers have no problem extrapolating fantastical
fact patterns to their daily lives.
today? Are there things we aren’t talking about yet that you think we
TAHIR: I think this year has seen a great many wonderful
diverse books. Mostly, I’d love it if publishers could not only
keep that up but expand. And, beyond that, I’d love it if books
traditionally labeled as “diverse” (sometimes, that’s the only label
they have) could instead be recognized for the universality of the
story they tell.
SMITH: The lower-middle- and, for lack of a better term,
middle-middle-class experience is oddly absent from the body
of youth literature. What about characters that aren’t poor or
affluent but work a part-time job (or two) or aspire to skilled
trades? Likewise, where are the fictional families of faith, wherein
religion is simply interwoven into daily life and not a point of
We’re also struggling to acknowledge that diversity can be
more complex than character or content representation. It can
go to worldview. In particular, Native authors, authors of color,
and enfolded members of our communities often still tiptoe
around the mainstream comfort zone. I’ve had allied non-Indian
librarians tell me, one way or another, that they’re committed to
telling stories about “real Indians” and go on to clarify that they
mean alcoholics living in reservation communities. As if, say, my
tribal town and urban characters were somehow less “real.” I’ve
had students ask me, “How do I write this without freaking out
the white folks?” And yet authors hold back at the peril of young
readers. Those who share our perspectives go invalidated, and
those who don’t are never exposed and enlightened.
OLDER: Certainly, YA as a whole has a long way to go in terms
of really addressing race and power. There are so many important
elements of race that we’ve barely even been able to touch on
because just getting to the basic truth that we are more diverse
than the bookshelf has been such a struggle. Beyond that, we
need to unsubscribe from the simplistic notions of both hetero-normativity and gender as a binary. Ableism also goes largely
unaddressed, both in terms of physical and mental disabilities.
The work for writers, editors, and industry folks in general is to
see this as a healthy, creative challenge rather than a checklist or
an appeasement game. How do we create an industry that can
speak to these long-standing difficult questions from experience?
Folks tend to see right through transparent and facile forms of
box-checking diversity. Ultimately, this is a question of cultivating a more honest, more soulful, more literary YA canon. This is
about telling better stories to more people and getting at deeper
truths. What are we waiting for?
Daniel José Older Cynthia Letitch Smith Sabaa Tahir