Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

Dear John Green: An Open Letter About Diversity from a Little Brown Librarian

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On February - 19 - 2013

 Dear John Green: An Open Letter About Diversity from a Little Brown LibrarianDear John Green*,

After watching your fireside chat with President Obama, I got inspired to write you a letter. I am a middle school librarian at Harlem Village Academies in East Harlem, New York, and an up and coming MG/YA writer represented by the lovely Victoria Marini of Gelfman Schneider/ICM. My library has several copies of all of your books, and they stay in constant circulation with my students. I was first introduced to you as an author in David Levithan’s Teen Lit course in my MFA in Writing for Children program at The New School. We read Looking for Alaska, and your prose, your characters, and the heart of the novel blew the class away.

There’s no denying it. You’re great!

I don’t need to tell you that you’re an awesome storyteller and that the stories you tell connect with millions and millions of readers. You’re a New York Times bestselling author, and what you write turns to gold!

I just have a question for you: Why is there a lack of racial diversity in your work?

Granted, I know that it’s probably unfair of me to ask you this question. I am a writer and don’t want to ever be told what to write or to be questioned about what I choose to write, but after watching you with President Obama, I couldn’t help but think, Can Sasha or Malia find themselves in John Green’s books? Is there someone who looks like them in his universe? Would someone who looks like them ever be the main protagonist in one of his awesome novels?

A child or teen (or a person, really) can connect to anything if there’s a thread of universality present or an emotional core that transcends race or class or ethnicity or religion. I get that. I’ve experienced that. You’ve done that in your works.

But what’s sad is that I get questions like this from my students when they visit the library weekly:

“Why is the library filled with books about white teens?”

“Why is everyone in books white?”

“Why have I read every single book about kids like me?”

“Do any books with brown kids – besides Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – hit the New York Times best seller list?”

You might say that there’s no way my students are asking these types of questions. That I made them up to suit my open letter.

Come visit and see! Harlem Village Academies are full of the brightest young minds, kids who are challenged to read 50 books a year as a requirement to go from grade to grade. They devour everything I give them, and they ask a lot of insightful questions about life and the world. When you can’t find yourself in the books you’re told to read, it brings up a lot of thoughts and questions about the world of books.

You don’t have to care about these questions. You don’t have to think about them as you write, even.

But I wish that you would consider them. There’s a pervasive whiteness to the stories you write. I don’t mean to be inflammatory or rude in this observation, and I could call out a hundred other YA authors who do the same thing. I’d like to ask you about it though. Maybe whiteness is all you know. Maybe that’s what your life journey and upbringing has afforded you. Since we’re supposed to write what we know, maybe that’s what you’re doing. I can’t fault you for that. Your stories reflect an earned authenticity.

As a minority in this country, I have a different experience as you probably already know from countless other minorities shouting from rooftops or PC culture, etc. But the fact remains that I am surrounded by white people. My identity has formed in contrast or in conjunction with whiteness. I am/was/will always be the smudge. The stories I write will always be multicultural because that is my experience. I don’t have the luxury to write about an all-anything world because that isn’t reflective of where I come from. So white people and children will always be written into my stories. You don’t have to have this experience. But it has given me a sense of creative responsibility to write invisible teens and people into the YA book world.

Do you feel a sense of creative responsibility?

I don’t have a lick of fame, yet I feel this overwhelming sense that I need to do something meaningful and inclusive with my creative work. Maybe this is all a function of my identity as a minority and my upbringing as a person from an oppressed group. I don’t have an explanation for this. It’s a feeling that runs parallel to my aspirations.

I often argue with my adult writer friends about the topic of creative responsibility. We’re a semi-diverse, motley crew made up of the ladies who blog on TeenWritersBloc.com. At our biweekly critique meetings, we sometimes discuss TV shows. At one dinner a few weeks ago, we had a fruitful discussion about whether writer/producer Lena Dunham should have meaningful diversity on her HBO show Girls. I always bring up the fact that I think she should have minorities present on her show. It’s the same argument I’ve had about other shows in the past – Sex in the City, Friends, etc. Some of my writer friends, whom I love no matter what they believe, assert that it isn’t Lena Dunham’s responsibility, and bring up a great point about why white men aren’t pushed to include minorities, yet white women tend to be pushed to do so. I always posit the following question at the end of this never-ending conversation: Even given all of that, why not include them?

So I’ll posit the same question to you – Why not include racial minorities in your work? What’s the harm?

I know the publishing industry is very different from the TV/film industry, and one of the ugly rumors floating about is that books with minority teens don’t sell. Their faces on books alienate white readers and their white parents, who buy the books their kids read.

I just don’t know. It makes me sick to think about it being true. And it really isn’t your problem. It’s mine. It’s something that I will have to face as a writer who includes teens/children of color as main protagonists.

But your career makes me wonder if someone with your fame and clout could change the game. You’ve done it in so many different ways already. If you wrote a book about a non-white teen, would it explode like The Fault in Our Stars? Or would it be the one book you wrote that flopped and didn’t make all of those best teen books lists? Would your white fan base say the book isn’t for “them”? Would angry minorities come after you for writing a book from a non-white protagonist and earning money from it?

I don’t know.

I’d just like to challenge you to write a book with some color in it, or at least consider it. I know if anyone can do it, it’s you. Even if nothing comes of this letter, I’d love to start the conversation about the lack of diversity in teen books.

Happy Writing!

Dhonielle Clayton, a little brown librarian (and writer!)

*NERDfighters do not attack, put the lasers down, this open letter comes from a warm and fuzzy place, and I am a small, humble librarian who wants no trouble. I speak my words in peace. Thanks!

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7 Responses to “Dear John Green: An Open Letter About Diversity from a Little Brown Librarian”

  1. [...] lack of diversity. Dhonielle Clayton wrote an interesting plea to Greene in her post “Dear John Green: An Open Letter About Diversity from a Little Brown Librarian” that expresses the frustration of reading whiteness in critically acclaimed books and the [...]

  2. mclicious says:

    This is a completely excellent letter! I feel the same sense of discomfort when I read his books, too, since I can see how much I would have identified with his books as a teen and also how problematic it is that EVERYONE in books that I identified with, with literally no exceptions I can think of at the moment, was white. And I’m not. (well, half) While I always felt that twinge, it’s only as an adult that I see how much only seeing people who looked like me in situations and contexts that were nothing like mine (because minorities exist almost exclusively in ghettos, historical fiction, or stories about confronting racism) and people who were like me on the inside who would have no idea what it was like to be me physically. It’s a serious problem, and I worry when authors with as much clout and influence as Green refuse to address it and possibly can’t even comprehend what’s wrong with their limited worldview. I was going to say that he can’t help that he’s famous, but in a way he can, because he’s quite aware of his status, and he chooses to do his youtube series and all that. I would love to see how he responds to this.

  3. [...] author Dhonielle Clayton, a YA literature fanatic and little brown librarian in Harlem, wrote an open letter to John Greene about his lack of diversity in any of his novels. And they had a conversation over twitter, one YA [...]

  4. Edi says:

    I share much of this sentiment with you!

    I lived in Indy,quite near the neighborhood where Fault set and Iknow that area quite well. I know how diverse it it. Given that people write what they know, I wonder how diverse Green’s personal world is. I think it’s best for authors to write what they know and IF what Green knows is an all white world, then so be. Don’t force diversity into a book to appeal to the growing numbers of black and brown people in this country, to more accurately address what our children see in their schools or to make your books just that more relate-abe. I’ll choose not to read any more of his books. Both John Green and I will be fine with that decision. While it’s disappointing that an author so many people choose to admire does little to recognize or promote diversity or to see what the world looks like, he still has the right to promote the world through his myopic sight.

    I’d also have to say that I try not to criticize a book for what’s not there. What caught me most about Greens book wasn’t really the lack of characters of color (I’m 56 and have lived in American all my life. I’m used to that.) My take away was that his somewhat snobby and classist characters would have little regard for the likes of me. I felt that I was or would be dismissed from that world on the bases of race and or class. I need to be able to related to characters to like a book and given that I don’t relate to his characters for those reasons, I don’t care for his books. Again, there are plenty of others who do!

    Oh, I’d love him to prove me wrong!

  5. Love this letter!! Thanks for bolding saying what many of us are thinking. And I love John Green’s books too. As a South Asian YA Author writing in NY, I wholeheartedly agree. What’s the harm in spicing it up and reflecting the world around us. Looking forward to adding my own dose of rainbows to American Library bookshelves. :)

    -Rajdeep, author of Swimming Through Clouds

  6. […] had pretty much the same thoughts earlier this week when I read and commented on a blog post addressed to John Green and the lack of diversity in his books. I wrote a quick impulsive response, […]

  7. This is an awesome letter! Thank you for writing it. As a Puerto Rican kid growing up, I didn’t read about kids who looked like me, my family or any of my African American friends. Yes, that is sad but what’s even sadder is that I never expected to. When I started writing for middle school children, I wanted to (needed to) portray brown kids and their families in a way that said, yes their skin color was something other than white but that was the only difference. Faith, friendship, love and hate will always look and feel the same. Both my book covers by the way, feature brown children.

    During a recent school visit, a child stood up and asked me why I decided to make my characters people of color. My answer was because we exist. I want to get to a point where that question won’t ever have to be asked again.

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