Tag Archives: young adult literature

5 Simple Rules for Writing YA for People of Color (Part I)

Willow Smith being just as unique as she wants to be.

Willow Smith being just as unique as she wants to be.

So I have been writing YA for almost four years now, and Interlopers, my first book, has been available since late 2010.  What that means is that I am still new to the YA game, wet behind the ears if you will.  Even so, in that time I have learned a few lessons about what it means to write for this age group and particularly to write stories that young people of color will enjoy.  Believe it or not, it all comes down to 5 Simple Rules.  Because Troy has so graciously invited me, I will share what wisdom I have gained with you.

1.  Understand that people of color are not a monolith.  What does that mean?  It means that young people of color have a variety of life experiences.  Not every black boy lives in or near the hood.  Not every Latina girl is a first generation immigrant from Puerto Rico, El Salvador, or Paraguay (see, you probably thought I was going to say Mexico).  Not every Native American girl lives on the Rez with her shaman grandfather.  Some black boys have daddies who are doctors.  Some Latina girls have families that have lived on U. S. soil since before California was a state.  Some Native American girls were born and bred in the city and may only go to the Rez occasionally.  Getting away from that perception—that the experiences of people of color are all generally similar and, worse, parsed out along stereotypical lines—is freeing for a writer.  It allows you to write the story that you want to tell, rather than the story that you think you should tell to reach some mythical monolithic demographic.

In my series, fraternal twins Nate and Larissa Pantera live in the suburbs/country. Why, you ask? Well, it makes sense for them.  They are shapeshifters; their parents are shapeshifters.  In my universe, shapeshifters would never willingly live in a city.  They want the solitude and space of the country, so that’s where they live.  Also, their father, Robert, is a lecturer in history at the local university and their mother is a freelance journalist.  Is this the expected pedigree for such a family—maybe not, but it probably strikes a cord with a lot more kids than you think.

2. Young people of color, like most people, want to be able to see themselves in some (not necessarily all) of the books that they read.  But seeing oneself is more than just encountering a character with ebony dark skin and (I don’t know) an afro-puff; though the appearance of the characters is really important.  It’s about seeing characters, families, events, and reactions that resonate with them.   Early, to spot tokenism, the youth learn.  All that means is that you should really try to know and understand the communities that you are writing about.  That kind of knowledge does not come from watching “Black in America” or “Latino in America” on CNN. (By the way, where is the “Native American in America”? “Asian in America”?)  Nor does the fact that you might be a member of the community that you are writing about automatically exempt you from having to be thoughtful about how you depict these communities in your work.

One of the aspects of my book with which young people of color might connect is the way that extended family is so important for the twins.  I chose to create a family unit that is more than the typical “nuclear” family because I was, in part, thinking about my own experience growing up and the village that helped to raise me.  I think that’s something recognizable for a lot of young people of color whose grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins are as (or nearly as) influential as mom and dad.

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Stay tuned for Part II of 5 Simple Rules tomorrow.

*Four ways to enter:  Leave a comment; like the post, follow me on Twitter @ShiftersNovels, and Tweet the blog.  Each thing gives you one entry and contest ends 12/16 at midnight, so that the winner will receive prize by Christmas.

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