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.
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!