Diversity In YA: An Interview With Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon

If you read a lot of YA (and, let’s face it, if you read this column you definitely do), then you’ve probably noticed that most YA characters tend to be white. And straight. And, well, sort of the same. The YA books that get the most attention and promotion are noticeably lacking characters who are nonwhite, LGBT or disabled. And that, to put it bluntly, totally sucks.

There are so many reasons that diversity is important across all areas of literature, not just YA. For starters, we all become better, smarter and more open-minded people when we read about people who have different backgrounds, cultures and viewpoints. But, even more importantly, young people need to see themselves represented on the page. When kids never or rarely see characters who look like them, they feel invisible. What a terrible way for any kid to feel.

Luckily for us, many people are devoting their time and energy to promoting diverse YA books. Two women at the forefront are Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo. They’re both extremely accomplished authors in their own right–Cindy’s books include Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix, and Malinda’s books include Adaptation, Inheritance, Ash and Huntress–but in addition to being kick ass writers, they also run Diversity in YA, which sheds light on YA books that might otherwise fly under the radar.

Malinda and Cindy were nice enough to take time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions about DiYA, the challenges they face and the best romances with diverse characters (duh, you guys know I had to ask that question).

Q: For starters, what was your mission when you started Diversity in YA, and what did you think the YA landscape was missing?

MALINDA: Cindy and I started DiYA back in 2011 when we both had Asian-inspired YA fantasies coming out (mine was Huntress, Cindy’s was Fury of the Phoenix). We thought that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for us — it’s pretty unusual to find any Asian-inspired YA fantasies, much less two in one month! — and we wanted to celebrate that.

CINDY: Yes. It started out as a joke. I would say to Malinda, we should tour together! And then, my book release was moved back six months near Malinda’s Huntress release, and we really could tour together! Celebrating diversity as a theme just seemed absolutely right, especially given the dialogue that was taking place within the industry, and among readers and librarians, etc, at the time.

Q: What do you think everyone–readers, writers, and publishers–can do to increase diversity in YA?

MALINDA: I’m going to be blunt: Buy the books you find with diversity in them. This goes for everyone. The only way more diverse books will be published is if there’s a demonstrated demand for them.

CINDY: Putting money where your mouth is always helps. But in addition, word of mouth is so important. If you loved a novel you read that featured diverse characters, tell your friends about it. Blog about it or tweet about it. I know I’ve gained many new readers due to awesome fans who have supported me by spreading the word. And make it a point to actively seek out diverse young adult books to read. Because honestly, they are usually harder to find.

Q: Have you noticed any changes in the YA landscape since you started Diversity in YA?

MALINDA: In the last year alone I’ve noticed a huge increase in online buzz about diversity. Several new blogs have launched and the Children’s Book Council’s Diversity Committee has taken off too, advocating for diversity within the publishing industry. I think it’s great that so many people are talking about the importance of diversity in YA now.

CINDY: I agree. I’ve seen much talk and discussion. And more sites dedicated to increasing awareness about diversity in kidlit and diverse books within kidlit. Numbers wise, I’m not certain if there has been dramatic changes as far as books published. Honestly, at times, change seems painfully slow.

Q: What’s the coolest, most memorable, or most exciting thing to happen to you since starting DiYA? And on the flip side, what’s the most frustrating thing you’ve run into?

CINDY: Well, my highlight was touring with Malinda! We worked so hard to put together the Diversity in YA tour back in 2011. And each author that agreed to join us in various cities and on our panels—it felt like a victory with every yes. I think the most frustrating is when people won’t acknowledge there is a problem. There is a difference between being unaware of the issue, and heatedly denying there is an issue at all. Or to think our effort is simply an attempt at political correctedness. No. I think it is so important for young readers to read broadly about many kinds of people, cultures and experiences. It’s also so important to see themselves reflected back once in a while in the pages.

MALINDA: I will say it gets a little old to be constantly having diversity 101 discussions, but at the same time, I realize that not everyone has spent years talking about race, sexual orientation, and disability! So it’s great that people are taking notice, and I try to remember that whenever I’m asked to explain, say, what LGBT stands for. The most fun part for me was also touring with Cindy. She’s a great tour buddy! And the audiences who came out to see us were wonderful. I especially loved doing an all Asian American panel at the San Francisco Public Library because it was so unusual for me to be among so many Asian American readers and writers at the same time. That was wonderfully affirming and I felt like a real part of the Asian American community.

Q: And lastly, this is a question that’s mainly for my own selfish interests. I’m always looking for more YA romances to cover in my HelloGiggles column…do you have any favorites with diverse characters?

CINDY: Oh yes! I would recommend Legend by Marie Lu, a fantastic YA sci-fi series with a great romance between the hero and heroine. I really also loved Pantomime by Laura Lam — such an original and unique fantasy with an equally great protagonist. Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unspoken is also amazing with a to die for romance set in the English countryside, and the sequel Untold, just released in September.

MALINDA: Everything Cindy recommended! I’m a big fan of all those writers. Also, since I’m a lesbian and I always hear folks asking for happy ending romances with lesbian characters, I’m going to recommend my own first novel, Ash, which is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. I promise you a happy ending!

A HUGE thanks to Malinda and Cindy for answering my questions. You can check out their websites at www.cindypon.com and www.malindalo.com, and of course be sure to follow Diversity in YA on Tumblr!

What about you guys? Have you read and loved Malinda and Cindy’s books? Let me know in the comments! And, as always, I love to hear your suggestions for books to feature in Young Adult Education. Leave a comment, email me at youngadulteducation@gmail.com or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn.

Image via Shutterstock

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