Envisioning a Diverse Science Fiction Future

By Fonda Lee

lee-zeroboxerBy now, we all know that diversity in books is a big deal. We’ve seen the statistics about how the skewed demographics of protagonists in YA novels doesn’t come close to reflecting the reality of our society. We’re aware that readers are very much in need of books that present minority perspectives in both historical and current day stories.

But how does the concept of diversity come into play when you write, oh, say, action sci-fi about futuristic zero-gravity prizefighting?!

My novel Zeroboxer released last week, and amid the reviews describing it as “gripping,” “smart,” and “action-packed,” nowhere is it being hailed as advancing the cause of diversity or shining a light on underserved segments of the population. It’s just not that kind of book, nor was that my intent as the author. However, writers like me, who write commercial genre fiction, play as much a role as anyone in making sure diversity is part of the literary landscape. We all make choices in our writing that send messages to readers.

Remember the 1996 alien invasion movie Independence Day? It might as well have been sub-titled America Saves The World because in the film, the population of Earth presumably sits around waiting for the Americans to figure out how to defeat the aliens before belatedly joining in to support Bill Pullman’s heroism. Contrast that with the 2013 film Pacific Rim, which depicts a diverse cast of characters waging an international effort to combat the Kaiju monsters. Both films are big-budget commercial spectacles—but the choices the scriptwriters made regarding characters, story, and setting result in very different depictions of the future—one far more inclusive and diverse than the other.

When I was a child, I devoured fantasy and science fiction that was, to put it gently, lacking diversity in all respects. They were written in different times, but it’s still a downer to look back on works that I greatly enjoyed and realize now, as an adult, how misogynistic and euro-centric they are. When I was creating the futuristic world of Zeroboxer, I thought about what kind of future I wanted to portray. More accurately—what kind of future would be plausible. Because any plausible future that extrapolates from our society today would be a diverse one.

In Zeroboxer, humans have colonized the inner solar system, and Mars is emerging as the fast-growing, more economically and scientifically advanced planet. In many ways, the relationship between Earth and Mars has parallels to our current global state—the economic rise of Asian countries in the last several decades, and the resultant anxiety that has provoked in the West.

That’s reinforced by assumptions that I make in my world building; the early colonists of Mars would be ones motivated to leave Earth because of environmental chaos and limited economic opportunities. They would come predominantly from parts of Asia and South America disproportionately affected by climate change and overpopulation; only a minority would hail from first-world nations like America that are already at the top of the pecking order on Earth.

So in the future, Mars has cities like New Nanjing, and a space station named after the Hindu sun god. The main character in Zeroboxer, Carr Luka, has a girlfriend that is half-Martian of Asian descent, and back on Earth, mixed race lineage is so prevalent that it’s a marketing boon that Carr is an ethnic mash-up and thus representative of typical Terrans. The future is diverse—but it’s not without problems. New racial tensions emerge between Martians, who’ve embraced genetic enhancement, and Terrans, who’ve outlawed it. None of these aspects of the story ever takes center stage in my high-action sports sci-fi novel—but they’re there, subtly but deliberately painting diversity into the background.

Even so, sometimes you slip up. In one of my early drafts, I had Carr fighting a major match on Thanksgiving Day. One of my beta readers astutely pointed out, “Thanksgiving is an American holiday. Isn’t this an international city space station? Why would Thanksgiving be a big deal?” Good point, and nice catch. It saved my book from an Independence Day style gaffe.

Diversity isn’t just a cause to be advanced by authors who write “issues novels” about characters living in the Civil Rights era, or immigrant stories, or coming out as gay in small town stories. All those stories are incredibly important and will always be the ones that get spotlighted for exemplifying minority perspectives. However, just because you’re writing sci-fi thrillers, romance, or funny middle grade books about dinosaurs, doesn’t mean you aren’t part of the conversation. If anything, unsung depiction of diversity in commercial genre fiction is the subtler and truer measure of progress.


fondalee

Fonda Lee writes science fiction and fantasy for teens and adults. She is the author of the high-action YA science fiction novel Zeroboxer (Flux/Llewellyn, April 2015). Fonda is a corporate strategist who has advised and worked for several Fortune 500 companies, a black belt martial artist in karate and kung fu, an action movie buff, and a fan of tasty breakfasts. Born and raised in Canada, she now lives in Portland, Oregon.

Zeroboxer is available for purchase.

Everyone Has Dark Secrets

By Janet Gurtler

One of my crushes in high school was on a cute Asian boy. Of course, like most of my crushes (and yes there were many), it was unrequited. We were good friends but he thought I was a little too wild with my drinking and partying ways. In my heart I knew I wasn’t as wild as he imagined. I wanted him to look harder and see the real me I thought I was, but alas, we were not meant to be and so I continued my wild ways for a while longer and moved on to other crushes.

I had him in mind when I wrote my character, Flynn, in The Truth About Us. But in my story, he gets to see a little bit more of the wild girl and discover that sometimes things and people aren’t as they seem. Of course, my Flynn is fictional, and much more brooding and angry than my old crush. I created a boy who has a lot to be angry about. Flynn’s stepfather gambled away his mom’s money and then took off and left her with credit card debt. Flynn’s pitching in to help her get back on her feet and also helping raise his little brother. There’s not a lot of money and he needs to swallow his pride and ask for help sometimes. Life is not easy for my Flynn.

Jess, who on the surface has everything, enters his life. She’s white and pretty. She’s rich and she’s spoiled. However, underneath the pretty smile, she’s troubled and trying to cope with a dark secret about her mom, something no one in her family wants to talk about. In fact, no one in her family wants to talk period, and it’s eating away at Jess. She responds with self-destructive behavior. (Something I can relate to because as alluded to above, I was kind of good at that behavior when I was a teen.)

Flynn doesn’t see Jess for who she really is, or who she really wants to become. Jess begins the journey to change, but she needs to find that person herself. And Flynn has some issues of his own to deal with. On a primal level, they kind of get each other. Maybe they even need each other. But can they make it work?

I like dark secrets. I think most people have at least one. Something they would never want most people to know about them. I like having dark secrets in books. I think dark secrets make characters interesting and show the reader that things and people aren’t always black and white. There’s a lot of grey in life and in people. Good people have done bad things. And I wonder, do bad things cancel out the good?

If a person is in their essence, decent and morally right, can we forgive bad things they’ve done? Shameful things? How bad is bad and how do bad things define who we are? Can we forgive others and also ourselves if we truly move past those black moments? Can people change and do they deserve second chances?

To me that’s the core story in The Truth About Us. People who begin to discover the truth about themselves and others, and then have to decide if they can forgive and move past it.


A Rita Award Finalist and Crystal Kite Award Finalist, Janet Gurtler’s young adult books have been chosen for the JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION and as BEST BOOKS FOR TEENS from the Canadian Children’s Book Center. Janet lives in Okotoks Alberta, Canada with her husband, son, and a chubby black Chihuahua named Bruce who refuses to eat dog food.

The Truth About Us is available for purchase.

One Asian Book is Quite Enough

By I. W. Gregorio

A groundbreaking story about a teenage girl who discovers she was born intersex … and what happens when her secret is revealed to the entire school. Incredibly compelling and sensitively told, None of the Above is a thought-provoking novel that explores what it means to be a boy, a girl, or something in between.

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When I was at the NYC Teen Author Festival panel on representation a couple of weeks ago, there were a flurry of Tweets that quoted me:

“There’s always diversity within diversity.” @IWGregorio @diversebooks #NYCTAF (Important for all of us writers to remember.)

“There is diversity within diversity…no one book is going to tell every story.” -@IWGregorio at #NYCTAF

“There’s a huge gap in terms of intersectionality in young adult books. We need more diversity within diversity.” @IWGregorio #NYCTAF

In fact, it was A.S. King who first put this earworm of a phrase within my head during the first few days of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, back when we were still “just” a hashtag. As anyone who’s ready any of her books knows, Amy is absolutely brilliant. And here’s some more evidence:

@IWGregorio @TerraMcVoy …I have yet to meet a human being who fits into the box allowed to them by their race, religion, or sexuality.

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Her words mean so much to me because of my experience with my first novel. As so many newbie writers do, I took the old adage to “write what you know” to heart, and unsurprisingly wrote about a second-generation Asian-American girl in Central New York. Like a lot of first novels, that book didn’t sell (though it did land me an amazing agent).

The fact that it didn’t sell didn’t in itself bother me; indeed, looking back, I’m very happy that book never saw the light of day as it clearly wasn’t my best work. What disheartened me was the type of feedback that my agent got from editors. Much of it was all over the map, with one exception: Three different editors from three different publishers said that it was too similar to another book with an Asian-American protagonist on their list.

In all honesty, I think that these editors were probably looking for kind ways to say that the book wasn’t up to snuff. Publishing as an industry was going through a very, very tough time. Of course houses didn’t want to take on a book that was too similar to something they already head – it was difficult enough to market the titles they already head. But still.

What comments like this tell me is: “We’ve filled our quota.”

It tells me that publishers think: “One Asian American book is quite enough, thank you.” And what did I do for my next book, with an intersex main character? I subconsciously whitewashed it. I had internalized the rejection of my ethnicity so deeply that I didn’t even think of making my main character a person of color, let alone Asian.

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Thank goodness that things are changing. At around the time my first manuscript was dying a slow death, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on the Danger of a Single Story went viral (It’s been viewed by more than 8 million people – pic to the left courtesy of amightygirl.com). We Need Diverse Books has give me hope that for my next book, I can revisit the land of thinly-veiled autobiography. Because you know what? No one’s yet told my story, even though you would think that someone had – after all, I spent my formative years in Central New York and went to the same high school that Newbery Honor-winning author Grace Lin went to. I love Grace’s books so much (I’m reading Dumpling Days to my daughter right now). I see a lot of myself in her characters.

imageAnd at the same time, I don’t see myself at all.

Here’s why: Although I’m ethnically Chinese, my father was born in South Africa and grew up in Malaysia. He and my mother (who was from Taiwan) divorced when I was two. I was raised by a grandfather who had lived most of his life in South Africa, and a grandmother who lived the first half of her life in Mauritius, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of Madagascar. Neither of them spoke more than a few words of Mandarin. Because we didn’t travel much, I didn’t have dim sum for the first time until high school. My grandmother cooked South Asian curries for dinner (and my grandfather had a serious addiction to Vienna sausages in those tiny little cans).

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My grandfather meeting the Sultan of Malaysia

Anyone who met me when I was thirteen years old would think that I was such a cliché: An Asian American girl who plays the violin, is a straight-A student & whose (grand)parent is a doctor. Look closer, though, and I’m hardly the “typical” Asian (whatever that means). My school pic shows why: I was one of only two Chinese students in my school. Even today, I speak less Mandarin than some of my Caucasian friends who have lived overseas. I didn’t got to my first traditional Chinese wedding until medical school. And, to my husband’s chagrin, I know how to do a basic Asian stir fry but that’s pretty much it.

The thing is, the more people realize the diversity within diversity, the more stereotypes crumble. ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat hooked me from its first scene, when the close-up of someone getting dressed listening to hip hop pans out to a Asian middle-grader.

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In the end, we’re all just people, none of us defined by race, religion or sexuality. So let’s tell our stories in all our multitudes–and let’s read them so we can see each other in all our complexity


I. W. Gregorio is a practicing surgeon by day, masked avenging YA writer by night. After getting her MD, she did her residency at Stanford, where she met the intersex patient who inspired her debut novel, None of the Above (Balzer & Bray / HarperCollins, April 7, 2015). She is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books™ and serves as its VP of Development. A recovering ice hockey player, she lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. Find her online at www.iwgregorio.com, and on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram at @iwgregorio.

None of the Above is available for purchase here.

New Releases – March 2015

Fifty Yards and Holding by David-Matthew Barnes (Bold Strokes Books)

Book Description: Victor Alvarez is in serious trouble. Now seventeen and flunking out of high school, he’s been chosen as the leader of the violent street gang he’s been a member of since he was thirteen. Riley Brewer has just broken a state record as the star of their high school baseball team. When Riley and Victor meet by chance, a connection begins to grow. When friendship turns to love, both young men realize their reputations contradict who they really are. Once their secret relationship is discovered, Victor realizes their lives are at risk. Refusing to hide in order to survive, Riley vows that only death can keep him apart from Victor.

Eye Candy by ReShonda Tate Billingsley (Dafina)

Book Description: Dishing on celebrity love games made Maya Morgan a media queen. But choosing her prince means working her wildest, most personal scoop yet…

She’s gone from gossip reporter to half of the entertainment industry’s newest power couple. And hot singer J. Love’s mad string of hits definitely makes him a good look for Maya—and her career. But she’s feeling something more for laid-back, mellow “civilian” Alvin. A lot more. Now J. Love is using every dirty-spin trick in the glitterati book to humiliate Alvin—and sink Maya’s brand if he can’t hold onto her—and their celebrity-couple perks. With her empire on the line and her rep at stake, Maya will draw on every reliable source and every crazy scheme she’s ever played to save what she’s earned—and prove she can have love and fame.

Deviate by Tracy Clark (Entangled Teen)

“As a member of the Scintilla, 17-year-old Cora possesses the rare ability to see people’s auras, making her both an object of desire and a target for harm. … Cora, possessing both her own powers and a fierce determination to protect those she loves, is no shrinking violet. … Passion and power are the driving forces behind this series that continues to deliver.” — Kirkus

Honey Girl by Lisa Freeman (Sky Pony Press)

Book Description: The year is 1972. Fifteen-year-old Haunani “Nani” Grace Nuuhiwa is transplanted from her home in Hawaii to Santa Monica, California after her father’s fatal heart attack. Now the proverbial fish-out-of-water, Nani struggles to adjust to her new life with her alcoholic white (haole) mother and the lineup of mean girls who rule State Beach.

Following “The Rules”—an unspoken list of dos and don’ts—Nani makes contact with Rox, the leader of the lineup. Through a harrowing series of initiations, Nani not only gets accepted into the lineup, she gains the attention of surf god, Nigel McBride. But maintaining stardom is harder than achieving it. Nani is keeping several secrets that, if revealed, could ruin everything she’s worked so hard to achieve. Secret #1: She’s stolen her dad’s ashes and hidden them from her mom. Secret #2: In order to get in with Rox and her crew, she spied on them and now knows far more than they could ever let her get away with. And most deadly of all, Secret #3: She likes girls, and may very well be in love with Rox.

Painless by S. A. Harazin (Albert Whitman Teen)

Book Description: A first kiss. Falling in love. Going to prom. These are all normal things that most teenagers experience. Except for 17-year-old David Hart. His life is anything but normal and more difficult than most. Because of the disease that wracks his body, David is unable to feel pain. He has congenital insensitivity to pain with anhydrosis–or CIPA for short. One of only a handful of people in the world who suffer from CIPA, David can’t do the things every teenager does. He might accidentally break a limb and not know it. If he stands too close to a campfire, he could burn his skin and never feel it. He can’t tell if he has a fever and his temperature is rising. Abandoned by his parents, David now lives with his elderly grandmother who is dying. When David’s legal guardian tells him that he needs to move into an assisted living facility as he cannot live alone, David is determined to prove him wrong. He creates a bucket list, meets a girl with her own wish list, and then sets out to find his parents. All David wants to do is grow old, beat the odds, find love, travel the world, and see something spectacular. And he still wants to find his parents. While he still can.

Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation edited by Brett Fletcher Lauer and Lynn Melnick (Viking Juvenile)

“Lauer and Melnick team up to present a poem apiece from 100 ”younger“ poets who’ve published in media ranging from Twitter to the New Yorker. This cross section of contemporary poetry is promoted for grades nine and up, making no concessions to youth. The language and themes of a number of these selections are as adult as they come, probing suicide, mental illness, drug abuse, rape, racism, police brutality, AIDS and other cataclysmic life events, along with tamer reminiscences of home and more common rites of passage like heartbreak, sexual and recreational drug experimentation, and identity formation. … Incisive and occasionally brash.” — Kirkus

The Infinite by Lori M. Lee (Skyscape)

Book Description: The walls of Ninurta keep its citizens safe.

Kai always believed the only danger to the city came from within. Now, with a rebel force threatening the fragile government, the walls have become more of a prison than ever.

To make matters worse, as Avan explores his new identity as an Infinite, Kai struggles to remind him what it means to be human. And she fears her brother, Reev, is involved with the rebels. With the two people she cares about most on opposite sides of a brewing war, Kai will do whatever it takes to bring peace. But she’s lost her power to manipulate the threads of time, and she learns that a civil war might be the beginning of something far worse that will crumble not only Ninurta’s walls but also the entire city.

In this thrilling sequel to Gates of Thread and Stone, Kai must decide how much of her humanity she’s willing to lose to protect the only family she’s ever known.

Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee (Putnam Juvenile)

Book Description: Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

This beautifully written debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship.

The Agency 4: Rivals in the City by Y.S. Lee (Candlewick)

“Intrigue, romance and the rich details of Victorian life are the focus in the fourth installment of this mystery series featuring a complex female detective. As the book opens, heroine Mary Quinn is living a life she could not have imagined in her earlier years. She is independent and beginning a detective agency with her fiance, James Easton, who would like to marry soon. Her sense of gratitude causes her to take one more case for the Agency, where she learned her trade. … Readers of the series will find this addition deeply satisfying as both a mystery and a historical romance.” — Kirkus

Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story by David Levithan (Dutton)

“Tiny Cooper, the memorable best friend from Levithan and John Green’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson, gets his own star turn in this companion volume, which contains the script and lyrics of the autobiographical musical he wrote and staged in the original novel. … Though billed as a “musical novel,” there is no sheet music yet written for Tiny’s magnum opus. Levithan is hoping for a crowd-sourced soundtrack, encouraging amateur and professional composers to put music to his words. Broadway, are you listening?” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

The Crimson Gate by Whitney Miller (Flux)

Book Description: Harlow Wintergreen has been named the new Matriarch of VisionCrest, the powerful religious organization previously led by her father. There’s just one problem. The real Harlow is trapped inside a Cambodian temple, and her double, the evil Isiris, is out in the world masquerading as her.

With VisionCrest at her command, Isiris moves all the pieces into position for her genocidal endgame. To stop her twin from unleashing a super-virus designed to eradicate civilization, Harlow must escape the temple and reunite with the Resistance. But in trying to save the people she loves, Harlow gets a taste of the power Isiris wields … and her battle against the horror takes on a new and dangerous dimension.

Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz (Simon Pulse)

“High school junior Etta juggles many identities, none of which seem to fit quite right. She’s bisexual, but shunned by her group of friends, the self-named Disco Dykes, who can’t forgive her for dating a boy. She has an eating disorder, but never weighs little enough to qualify as officially anorexic. She’s a dancer, but just tap these days, not ballet, because as a short, curvy, African American teen, she doesn’t seem to have the right look for ballet. … Moskowitz masterfully negotiates all of the issues, never letting them overwhelm the story, and shows the intersectionality of the many aspects of Etta’s identity.” — School Library Journal

King by Ellen Oh (Harperteen)

“In this final installment of the series, Kira continues her quest to collect the lost treasures, unite the seven kingdoms, fulfill the ancient prophecy, and, in so doing, defeat the evil forces invading their lands. … Overall, this is a fulfilling end to an action-packed trilogy with characters that readers will be sad to let go.” — School Library Journal

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed (Nancy Paulsen Books)

Book Description: Naila’s conservative immigrant parents have always said the same thing: She may choose what to study, how to wear her hair, and what to be when she grows up—but they will choose her husband. Following their cultural tradition, they will plan an arranged marriage for her. And until then, dating—even friendship with a boy—is forbidden. When Naila breaks their rule by falling in love with Saif, her parents are livid. Convinced she has forgotten who she truly is, they travel to Pakistan to visit relatives and explore their roots. But Naila’s vacation turns into a nightmare when she learns that plans have changed—her parents have found her a husband and they want her to marry him, now! Despite her greatest efforts, Naila is aghast to find herself cut off from everything and everyone she once knew. Her only hope of escape is Saif … if he can find her before it’s too late.

What Waits in the Woods by Kieran Scott (Point)

“City girl Callie Valasquez agrees to go camping only to impress her new, popular girlfriends, Lissa and Penelope. After moving from Chicago to upstate New York, she’s hoping to foster new friendships like the ones she left behind. Inviting her new boyfriend, Jeremy, doesn’t hurt either. As the group surrounds a glowing fire, Lissa relates the tale of the Skinner, a murderer who committed atrocities in the very woods they sit in and was never found. Of course, it isn’t long before things begin to go awry. … Scott weaves palpable tension and masterfully ramps it up toward a truly thrilling conclusion. Cinematically paced, it’s tough to put it down. Readers will be kept up late, shocked to discover the depth of the darkness that lies in the woods.” — Kirkus

The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith (Dutton Juvenile)

“Smith (Grasshopper Jungle) turns in another audacious performance, this time a wild tale of summer camps, adoptive families, mad bombers, masturbation slang, illegal biological research, and an icebound 19th-century ship. Ariel, a 14-year-old orphan caught up in a civil war in an unnamed foreign nation, has been brought to the U.S. by an executive from the mysterious Merrie-Seymour Research Group. … Fans of Smith’s raunchy, profane, and provocative work will find this funny but morally serious tale deeply appealing.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

My Best Everything by Sarah Tomp (Little, Brown)

“Luisa ‘Lulu’ Mendez dreams of leaving her dead-end small town behind. She cannot wait to immerse herself in the University of San Diego’s biochemistry program in the fall. So she is devastated when her dad admits that he has lost her college funds in a bad investment. Lulu is determined to make her college dreams a reality, and when a confiscated distillery turns up at the junkyard where she and her best friend work, she sees it as a bit of serendipitous luck. Although Lulu is not a party girl, she is aware that the moonshine business, illegal or not, is still thriving in the rural mountains of Virginia. … Lulu narrates the story in second-person, as a confessional of sorts to Mason, and readers will race to turn the pages as it becomes apparent that Lulu’s gamble may result in the destruction of the people she cares about the most. A wholly original and most satisfying debut.” — School Library Journal

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten (Delacorte)

“What would it feel like to wake up normal? It’s a question most people would never have cause to ask—and the one 14-year-old Adam Spencer Ross longs to have answered. … Adam’s first-person account of his struggle to cope with the debilitating symptoms of OCD while navigating the complexities of everyday teen life is achingly authentic. Much like Adam, readers will have to remind themselves to breathe as he performs his ever worsening OCD rituals. Yet Toten does a masterful job bringing Adam to life without ever allowing him to become a one-dimensional poster boy for a teen suffering from mental illness.” — Kirkus, starred review

Game Seven by Paul Volponi (Viking Juvenile)

“Sixteen-year-old Julio Ramirez Jr. dreams of being a junior Nacional and playing for Cuba against the best young players around the world. Baseball is ‘practically a religion’ in Cuba, and Julio’s father was like a Cuban god, an all-star pitcher for the Cuban National Team. Now, having defected, he’s a star for the Miami Marlins. But instead of pride, Julio feels resentment toward his father for abandoning his family to a life of poverty while he, the great El Fuego, lives the high life in Miami with his multimillion-dollar contract. … An entertaining tale of baseball, family and loyalty.” — Kirkus

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein (Disney-Hyperion)

“In her latest World War II-era novel, Wein returns to themes of aviation and the enduring bonds of platonic love and friendship. Best friends Rhoda, a white Quaker, and African American Delia were ”barnstorming“ pilots, a team who performed in air shows across the United States as White Raven and Black Dove, their children, Emilia and Teo, in tow. When Delia is killed in a plane crash, Rhoda commits to fulfilling Delia’s dream for Teo—to live in a land where he wouldn’t be judged by the color of his skin—and moves them all to Ethiopia, where Teo’s father was born. … Wein continues to present multidimensional characters within her effortless prose.” — School Library Journal, starred review

Yo Miss: A Graphic Look At High Schoool by Lisa Wilde (Microcosm Publishing)

Book Description: Yo, Miss – A Graphic Look at High School takes the reader inside Wildcat Academy, a second chance high school in New York City where all the students are considered at-risk. Through strong and revealing black and white images, the book tells the story of eight students who are trying to get that ticket to the middle class – a high school diploma. Whether they succeed or not has as much to do with what happens outside the classroom as in, and the value of perseverance is matched by the power of a second chance. It is a story that shows these teens in all their beauty, intelligence, suffering, humor, and humanity (and also when they are really pains in the behind.) A view from the trenches of public education, Yo, Miss challenges preconceptions about who these kids are, and what is needed to help them graduate.

Playing a Part by Daria Wilke (Arthur A. Levine Books)

Book Description: The first young adult novel translated from Russian, a brave coming-out, coming-of-age story.

In June 2013, the Russian government passed laws prohibiting “gay propaganda,” threatening jail time and fines to offenders. That same month, in spite of these harsh laws, a Russian publisher released PLAYING A PART, a young adult novel with openly gay characters. It was a brave, bold act, and now this groundbreaking story has been translated for American readers.

In PLAYING A PART, Grisha adores everything about the Moscow puppet theater where his parents work, and spends as much time there as he can. But life outside the theater is not so wonderful. The boys in Grisha’s class bully him mercilessly, and his own grandfather says hateful things about how he’s not “masculine” enough. Life goes from bad to worse when Grisha learns that Sam, his favorite actor and mentor, is moving: He’s leaving the country to escape the extreme homophobia he faces in Russia.

How Grisha overcomes these trials and writes himself a new role in his own story is heartfelt, courageous, and hopeful.

The Kidney Hypothetical: Or How to Ruin Your Life in Seven Days by Lisa Yee (Arthur A. Levine Books)

“The downward spiral of popular high-school senior Higgs Boson Bing, named after the elusive “God particle,” begins when a classmate asks him a hypothetical question about his willingness to donate a kidney to his girlfriend, Roo. Higgs’s hesitant answer does not bode well for his relationship with Roo, resulting in their breakup and a full-blown hate campaign against him. … Alternately heart-wrenching and hilarious (“The Asian Jewish English American thing was a real stumper when it came to filling out my college applications,” Higgs reflects), Yee’s (Absolutely Maybe) portrait of a flawed superstar introduces a cast of vibrant, memorable characters and an eloquent message about following one’s desires.” — Publishers Weekly

Out of the Dragon’s Mouth by Joyce Burns Zeiss (Flux)

Book Description: After the fall of South Vietnam, fourteen-year-old Mai, a young Vietnamese girl of Chinese descent, is torn from a life of privilege and forced to flee across the South China Sea in the hold of a fishing trawler. Mai finds tenuous safety in a refugee camp on an island off the coast of Malaysia, where a greedy relative called Small Auntie offers her a place to stay—but her hospitality isn’t free. With her father’s words “You must survive” echoing in her ears, Mai endures the hardships of the camp, which are tempered only by her dreams of being sponsored by her uncle for entry into America.

But when an accident forces Mai to leave the safety of Small Auntie’s family, she meets Kien, a half-American boy who might be the only person who can keep her alive until she’s sent to the United States.

Coinciding with the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, Out of the Dragon’s Mouth is a poignant look into life ripped apart by the ravages of war.

The Inspiration Behind “Defying Doomsday”

By Tsana Dolichva

Apocalypse fiction rarely includes characters with disability, chronic illness and other impairments. When these characters do appear, they usually die early on, or are secondary characters undeveloped into anything more than a burden to the protagonist. Defying Doomsday will be an anthology showing that disabled characters have far more interesting stories to tell in post-apocalyptic/dystopian fiction. 

Defying Doomsday will be edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, and published by Twelfth Planet Press in mid 2016. Defying Doomsday is currently crowdfunding via Pozible. To support the project go to Pozible


The idea for Defying Doomsday came to me when I was reading Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. The book is set largely in a Nazi concentration camp for women, and amid the usual low-level torture that comes with this sort of situation, the prisoners were forced to stand around outside for hours on end. Anyone who moved too much was shot. I can’t stand for long periods of time without fainting so my reaction was “Well I wouldn’t last long there, how depressing. Good thing I was born in a safer place and time.”

But in the same book, the author included a group of girls and young women on whom the Nazis conducted medical experiments. Some of them did not survive the experiments, some were executed and most of them were left disabled on some level. But, miraculously, most of them survived the war. This was thanks to help from other inmates. And it really made me think about why disabled and chronically ill characters are so often written off in fiction.

Apocalyptic or dystopian fiction, which deals with difficult physical or social environments, tends to be completely devoid of such characters. The implication is often that they all died really quickly as soon as disaster struck or were killed off-page for being a burden. But in this real world historical context a large group of these people survived, so why can’t fictional characters?

And so the idea for Defying Doomsday was born. I wanted to put together an anthology which showcased disabled and chronically ill characters actually surviving difficult circumstances. Since I’m a fan of speculative fiction, apocalypse-type scenarios seemed like the perfect setting to really push this concept.

For Defying Doomsday we want to collect stories featuring characters who face a variety of external and internal obstacles and take them in their stride. We want to show that disabled and chronically ill characters can have interesting stories, just like anyone else. We’re going to be holding an open submissions period in May and June, but we can already reveal that we have contracted stories from Corinne Duyvis and John Chu. We should have one or two more author announcements soon, so be sure to keep an eye out!

(Link to more information about the above-mentioned concentration camp survivors.)


Tsana Dolichva is a Ditmar Award-­nominated book blogger. She is editing the anthology Defying Doomsday with Holly Kench, the managing editor of Visibility Fiction. As editors and readers of science fiction, who also live with disability and chronic illness, Tsana and Holly have often noticed the particular lack of disabled or chronically ill characters in apocalypse fiction. They are excited to share Defying Doomsday, an anthology showing that people with disability and chronic illness also have stories to tell, even when the world is ending.

To support the anthology or to preorder a copy of Defying Doomsday, visit: Defying Doomsday on Pozible. Your support is greatly appreciated!

A Climb That Inspired a Story

By Lisa Yee

“Where do your ideas come from?” is the second most asked question I get. (The first being, “Do you want fries with that?”)

You know, it’s weird, but my ideas mostly come from that mysterious region in my brain that collects odd facts, interesting faces, and bits of fluff and memory leftover from childhood. That said, although it’s rare, every now and then I’m able to pinpoint an inciting incident that has caused a novel to materialize.

I always write my endings first. Even though I revise the hell out of a manuscript, the ending never changes. Never. I guess I focus on the finish line. Speaking of which, when my daughter was in high school she ran cross-country track. One afternoon, she was meeting with other girls on the team, and so I dropped her off at one of their houses.

A couple hours later I got a phone call.

“Mom, Mom can you come pick me up right away?” Her voice sounded shaky.

“Honey, is everything okay?”

When she replied, “Don’t worry, I’m safe,” I began to worry.

Not my proudest moment, but I probably broke a dozen laws speeding to get to her. When I pulled up to the curb, she flung herself into the passenger seat. She had been crying.

“Honey?”

Then my daughter said the words no mom ever wanted to hear…

“I wanted to talk to you first, before the police called.”

It seemed that the girls had hiked to the water tower on the top of the hill. The chain link fence was broken and despite the “No Trespassing” sign, they trespassed. I’m not sure which one had the brilliant idea, but they dared each other to climb to the top of the water tower.

Guess who volunteered to go first?

When I raised my daughter to be brave and embrace challenges, this was not what I had meant. Nevertheless, she began her ascent. She was halfway up before she realized that not only were none of the other girls following her, but they had company. The police ordered her to come down, but panic set in and instead of coming down, she kept going up until she reached the top.

When I heard this, I thought of all the things that could have happened to her. What if she had slipped? What if she had fallen? What if… What if… What if… it was after midnight, and she was wearing a bathrobe, and the police thought she was suicidal, and that she wasn’t a girl, but a boy, and… and… and that’s where the idea for The Kidney Hypothetical: Or How Ruin Your Life in Seven Days came from.

When I began to write the novel, this was what I knew. That at the end of the book a boy, a senior in high school who was scared of heights, would be trapped on the top of a water tower, with the police down below. Oh, and he’d be wearing a pink bathrobe.

My latest YA chronicles the last seven days of Chinese English Jewish American high school senior Higgs Boson Bing — Harvard-bound, prom king, valedictorian, boyfriend to the most popular girl in school. But someone is trying to bring him down and succeeding. As his once idyllic life crashes and pain, chaos and confusion set in, Higgs is faced with the question: What if the person you are meant to be, is not the person you want to be?

As for my daughter? Well, I’m pleased to say that her life of crime ended there. Well…except for that one thing. She graduated from college and is now an editorial assistant in New York. In the acknowledgements of The Kidney Hypothetical, it reads, “To (my daughter) who climbed the water tower and lived to tell about it. I love you, but don’t ever do that again.”


 Lisa Yee’s debut novel, Millicent Min, Girl Genius, won the first Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Since then, she has written ten more novels including Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time, Warp Speed, and Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally), plus books for American Girl. She has also written for Huffington Post, NPR and Twitter (those these are mostly photos of food). Lisa’s most recent YA is The Kidney Hypothetical: Or How To Ruin Your Life In Seven Days. Accolades include Chinese American Library Association Best Book of the Year, Fox Sports Network’s “American in Focus” for Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, and USA Today Critics’ Top Pick.

Visit Lisa at www.lisayee.com or catch her procrastinating on Facebook.

The Kidney Hypothetical is available for purchase here.

Taekkyon and the End of the Prophecy Series

Ellen Oh’s Prophecy trilogy follows the journey of Kira, a young female warrior in ancient Korea; this week the final book, King, is published.

By Ellen Oh

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When I first started writing Prophecy, I wanted to develop a kickass girl warrior who was also a master martial artist. But this was set in the 3rd century, and Tae Kwon Do, as we know it, didn’t develop until after the Japanese occupation of Korea ended in 1945. In large part, this was because of the banning of all martial arts by the Japanese. And right there, I was fascinated. Martial arts banned. So how did Tae Kwon do form then? The answer led me to Taekkyon.

Taekkyon is one of the oldest martial arts of Korea, if not the oldest. Research is a bit divided on its relation to Tae Kwon Do. There are some that believe that Taekkyon is the source of Tae Kwon Do, but Taekkyon purists like to point out how different the two forms are from each other. I think the link is kind of clear, but in either case, the history of Taekkyon is fascinating.

Mural paintings dating back to the Three Kingdoms period of Korea (3rd century) show that Taekkyon was a popular art form practiced mostly by the ruling classes and military. In fact, it was part of the soldier’s exam up to the 10th century.

But by the 14th century, Taekkyon had spread to all classes and Taekkyon matches were popular contests at festivals and holiday events, along with archery, sword fights, and wrestling.

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This photo above is dated between 1890 and 1900 and was taken by a missionary of a children’s Taekkyon match. Young children competed in Taekkyon and these would be the opening games for annual Taekkyon contests, before the adult matches began.

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, 1910-1945, Taekkyon was completely banned and almost vanished. Legend has it that a sword-wielding Japanese soldier was killed by an unarmed Korean man using only Taekkyon. The Japanese immediately outlawed the practice, stating that it was too deadly, and killing anyone associated with or continuing the teaching of Taekkyon. After many years, the art was nearly forgotten until not that long ago, when an 80-year-old man was seen practicing the movements and an ancient art was reborn.

The truth is probably that Taekkyon was banished because the Japanese did not want Koreans to gather together in large groups — like the Taekkyon contests, and to prevent the spread of Korean nationalism. Because of the Japanese occupation, Taekkyon almost disappeared. After Korea regained her independence, Master Song Duk-Ki (1893∼1987) was the only remaining practitioner of Taekkyon. It was due to his efforts to continue to teach and train people in this ancient martial art form that allowed it to survive. It was designated by the Korean government as an “Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 76” on June 1, 1983.

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In the Prophecy Series, Kira and her brothers are trained in Taekkyon. It is an important part of their military training, but for Kira, it is also something special she received from her father. As she practices, she can hear her father’s voice in her head.

“How you fight in combat and how you practice forms are two very different things. The first is self-defense, but the second is art. It is your connection between mind and body.”

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The movements of Taekkyon are graceful. They are, at their root, dance steps.

“She remembered when she was five years old her father had taken her to see saulabi practicing their taekkyon forms. As they watched the perfect choreography of the soldiers in motion, her father had said, ‘There’s no dance as perfect as this one.’” 

King, the final installment of the Prophecy Series, is now out and I am both happy and sad to see the end of the Prophecy Series and Kira’s story. I loved every minute I spent in this fantasy Korea. And I especially loved the characters that peopled the story, especially Kira. I grew as a writer along with Kira (at least I think I did — and belief is a powerful thing!). Kira’s not strong because of her tiger spirit or her Taekkyon training or her proficiency with the bow; she’s strong because of family bonds and love and friendship and a growing belief in her own self-identity. We all have moments where we doubt ourselves and others. Nobody is perfect and nobody has it completely easy. But that is what makes each person so interesting, those moments of humanity where we mess up and learn a lesson. Yeah, I’m mostly talking about myself and my mistakes. :o)

I learned so much from traveling this journey with Kira and her brothers, Taejo and Jaewon, Brother Woojin, Nara and Gom. They will always hold a very special place in my heart. Thank you for letting me share their story with you.


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Originally from NYC, Ellen Oh is Co-founder and President of WeNeedDiverseBooks and a former entertainment lawyer with an insatiable curiosity for ancient Asian history. She also loves martial arts films, K-pop, K-dramas, cooking shows, and is a rabid fan of The Last Airbender and the Legend of Korra series. She is the author of the YA fantasy trilogy, The Prophecy Series. Ellen lives in Bethesda, Maryland with her husband and three daughters and has yet to satisfy her quest for a decent bagel.

King is available for order here.

5 Things I Learned While Writing “Written in the Stars”

By Aisha Saeed

saeed-writteninthestars1. You will get criticism. It’s part of putting your work out there in the world.

When I first began writing my novel, a family member asked me what my book was about. When I told her the novel was about a Pakistani American girl who is forced into a marriage against her will, her immediate response was: great, because that’s just what we need, another story to make Pakistanis look bad. That strong reaction really threw me for a loop and worry settled like a seed in my heart. I never considered not writing this novel but I did get worried about how people would react to it. The truth is, I had friends who were pressured into marriages against their will and while yes aspects of this book are not flattering to a culture I belong to and love, I did feel it was an important story to share. The reaction I got about the novel’s premise made me realize I would get pushback and negative responses for writing about a problematic part of my culture. Ultimately, I continued writing it and I stand by what I wrote because while I do address a problem, as a Pakistani American who loves her culture, I wrote this story from a place of love. The novel shows the complexity of Pakistan which includes the warmth of its people, the beauty of its surroundings, and the nuance that abounds. It’s a fine balance and its never fun to get criticism but it’s part and parcel of creating art- it’s subjective and everyone is entitled to how they feel. You have to do the work you believe in anyways.

2. Forced marriages are a cultural problem, not a religious problem. 

As a Muslim I have always known forced marriages are condemned in Islam just as they are in every religion on earth. I did not however know that people thought forced marriages were approved of in Islam until I got asked this question over and over again. The truth is, forced marriages are not a problem limited to Muslim countries, forced marriages happen in many different countries and also take place among different faiths as well. Unchained At Last, a fantastic US based organization successfully challenges this misconception and highlights people here in the United States who were coerced and forced into unwanted marriages. Realizing the link many people would make between the problem highlighted in my book and my religious faith, I felt it was important to include an author’s note to address this misconception. I also made sure it was clear to readers that Naila actually found comfort in her faith and did not blame her religion for the predicament she was in.

3. Writing a book takes a lot of time. Make peace with that. 

I’ve read about how agents brace themselves for the post NaNoWriMo submission surge and tell writers to wait and make sure the book they submit is the best book it can possibly be. They are right. Revising is a labor intensive and exhaustive thing to do. I have lost track of how many revisions I’ve done. For example, Written in the Stars began as a third person past-tense novel. After some time with it though I realized the story would have a deeper sense of immediacy and urgency if it was narrated in the present tense and in the first person by the protagonist, Naila. This required a complete line-by-line rewrite but it was completely worth it because the effect of writing it this way helped the story come to life for me in a way the other format wasn’t doing. It’s frustrating to keep changing things and revising but for me that’s part of the writing journey. I also believe being this critical helps the novel become better and it also helps you become a better writer ultimately.

4. When it comes to writing, particularly writing about marginalized groups, take the time to research and get it right. 

Yes it’s fiction but if you are writing a novel you have a responsibility to do your best to write a respectful and honest representation of whatever it is you take on. That responsibility is huge because what readers are reading may be their one and only introduction to the culture you are writing about. I am Pakistani American and much of my novel takes place in Pakistan but because I haven’t been to Pakistan in some time, it was important for me to make sure the details were accurate. To this end I had many beta readers including my parents. Most of Naila’s time in Pakistan is spent in her parent’s village. That setting is entirely fictional but loosely based on my parent’s ancestral village. For this reason I had them read each line and give me feedback to make sure that the representation was as accurate as possible. Friends also gave me feedback in areas where more nuance could be added and where more complexity could take certain characters from being black and white to more complex. In a world that is still battling racism and bigotry on a daily basis it is so important to not stereotype and resort to clichés and it is also important to portray people, particularly marginalized people, respectfully even if you’re addressing difficult topics. Take the time, even if it delays the manuscript going out on submission, even if it takes going through a lot of people to double and triple check, but get it right.

5. I love writing and I hate writing. 

In the prologue of Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please, she says writing is like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver. I laughed out loud at her description because that is what writing feels like to me. The truth is, writing is something that feels like a calling and it’s something I love to do, but in the same breath I also find writing one of the most challenging and difficult things I take on. I hate the self-doubt and the frustration of going through the first draft [which is my least favorite draft] and wondering if all the work will even amount to anything or if this will remain the rubbish it seems to be. I’ve learned through reading many memoirs of many lovely writers whom I admire that this is normal. For most writers, writing is hard work and it doesn’t get easier the more you do it. I’ve made my peace with it because while I don’t love the act of writing out the first draft, I do love the feeling of finishing writing a novel. I think it’s the act of finishing writing a story I’m proud of that pushes me through the painstaking process of creating.


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Aisha Saeed is a YA author, attorney, and educator and one of the founding members of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. Her upcoming debut Written in the Stars will be released in 2015 by Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons. Visit her online at www.aishasaeed.com or follow her on twitter and tumblr: @aishacs.

Purchase a copy of Written in the Stars here.

The Cowgirl and Cowboy Behind “Under a Painted Sky”

By Stacey Lee

lee-underapaintedskyThe idea to write a story about a Chinese cowgirl came about more through inspiration than thought.  It was only after writing the story that I examined why I had written it.  I realized that the reason was bifold: mother, and father.  For many Chinese people, family history is important, which might explain why dinners with extended family take so long.  Elders in my family are introduced by their relationships. (“This is your mother’s, father’s second wive’s cousin’s eldest daughter’s first son.  Don’t forget.”.  It could also explain why we eat such elaborate banquets, because by the time we get to the food, we’re starving.

My mother’s first recorded ancestors in the United States came during the late 1800s.  I was intrigued by the attitudes towards Chinese people during this time.  Back then, to catch a glimpse of a “Celestial” was a rarity.  If you saw them at all, they probably would have been sailors, tea merchants, or the occasional circus act.  China at the time had only recently opened its doors to trade, and so not much was known about China by the average American.

My father immigrated to the United States in the 1950s when he was only 11. He came by boat with his brother, who was 14, to a country which didn’t necessarily want two more Chinese kids.  Many people don’t know that up until 1964, the United States was still a segregated society.  Like many who immigrated, the 1950s were a time when the movie western was in its cinematic heyday.  My father loved John Wayne movies, and would often play cowboy music for my sisters and I, so that was essentially the music of our childhood.  I think, like many immigrants of that generation, the western appealed to him because in westerns, the hero is faced with an often-hostile country, and must go it alone.

This is the central problem in Under a Painted Sky.  The heroines Samantha and Annamae quickly realize that they won’t get very far on their own, especially Sammy, who has always been a bit of a city girl.  Their survival is in their own hands.  Not only do they face the problem of being girls, and all the restrictions that go along with that, but they are racial minorities and fugitives.  I think that’s what makes this story quintessentially American, the idea that in America, we are in charge of our own destinies.  And that it helps to have friends.


staceylee

Stacey Lee is a fourth generation Chinese-American whose people came to California during the heydays of the cowboys.  She believes she still has a bit of cowboy dust in her soul.  A native of southern California, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall.  After practicing law in the Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because she wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain.  She plays classical piano, wrangles children, and writes YA fiction. Her historical YA, Under a Painted Sky, debuts March 17 from G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Follow her on twitter @staceyleeauthor.

Get a copy of Under a Painted Sky here.

Diversity in YA’s 2015 Anniversary Giveaway

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Diversity in YA launched online in January 2011, and in February 2013 we joined tumblr. This winter marks our fourth anniversary overall, and two years on tumblr. We’re a little tardy on marking our anniversary this year but the wait was worth it, because we have assembled a giveaway of truly epic proportions to celebrate four years of celebrating diversity!

With generous donations from publishers and authors, we are thrilled to be giving away 100 books with main characters who are of color, LGBT, and/or disabled. Here they are:

For a complete list of books in the giveaway, go to this Google doc.

Giveaway Details

  • We will choose 20 winners at random to receive prize packs of 5 books each (we will choose the 5 books for simplicity’s sake).
  • All series titles will be kept together, so you don’t need to worry about getting a random book two in a trilogy.
  • Everyone may enter once for free.
  • Additional entries are available for signal boosting the giveaway on your social media of choice.
  • Teachers and/or librarians can also receive an extra entry.
  • You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter. We’re sorry but the publishers are unable to mail to non-U.S. locations.
  • The deadline to enter is Friday, April 10, 2015.

Enter here via this Rafflecopter form:

a Rafflecopter giveaway