A Beginner’s Guide to Researching Your Diverse* Fantasy or Science Fiction Novel

This month for Fantasy and Science Fiction Month, we’ve invited Asks about writing diverse fantasy and science fiction. This answer comes from writer and DiYA co-founder Malinda Lo.

* “Diverse” = a book with a non-Western setting or inspired by a non-Western culture; or with a main character who is non-white/non-Western, LGBTQ+, and or disabled


iwouldrobabanktosavemylibrary said: Hi! Thanks so much for doing this. What suggestions/resources do you have for a white writer writing other races? I’ve found the writingwithcolor tumblr, know I need to find some beta readers, listen and process, and do more and more research, but do you have some great resources that are almost sure to help? Especially ones that have intersectionality? Most of my MCs are not white (and I am), so I’m trying to find everything I can to write as genuine a character as possible. Thanks!

daybreaksgaze said: In regards to writing diverse sci-fi/fantasy, how does one go about researching cultures other than their own (if they’re using other cultures)? And how do you know when ‘enough is enough’ in regards to research?

Questions about how to do research are among the most common questions I hear when it comes to writing books based on non-white cultures. Often the questions are like the first one: “do you have some great resources that are almost sure to help?” (emphasis mine) The answer is: no. There is no guarantee that any resources will be universally seen as true and right. The first thing you should do is forget about hoping for a 100% accurate resource. The second thing you should do is forget about the word “genuine” when it comes to writing a character, because “genuine” implies “authentic.” It implies that there is a true way to be something (e.g., an “authentic” Chinese person), and in reality, everybody is different. You should aim to write a character who is multifaceted, complex, and human.

That said, it is certainly very important to research the cultures you’re writing about, and although many writers know that they need to do research, they often seem flummoxed by how to do it, as the second question illustrates. That’s why I’ve put together this beginner’s guide to How To Do Research. It is truly a beginner’s guide, so if you feel like you have a handle on how to do this, the post may not be for you. Toward the end of the post there are some more advanced research ideas, as well as links to further reading.

One thing I want to stress is that this is a long process that takes a lot of work. If you want to write about cultures you know little about, you have to put in a lot of time. You cannot expect to get all your answers from one person or one website or even one day at the library. There are no shortcuts to doing research properly. If you’re not willing to put in the time, then it might not be a good idea for you to write this kind of book.

A second thing I want to say up front is this: If you’re interested in writing about a culture different from your own, do you have any friends who are from that culture? I mean relatively close friends — someone you can talk to about your families. If not, then why do you want to write about that culture? I fear that if a writer has no personal knowledge of that culture via at least a close friendship, they may have a difficult time seeing the culture as a living experience. Research can tell you a lot, but shared, personal experiences between you and a close friend can tell you a lot more.

Because this post is quite long, I’m putting the rest of it behind a cut. Continue reading

Normalizing Marginalized Identities in Fantasy and Science Fiction

This month for Fantasy and Science Fiction Month, we’ve invited Asks about writing diverse fantasy and science fiction. This answer comes from writer and DiYA co-founder Malinda Lo.


gogglor said: Suppose your sci-fi universe is more accepting of people with marginalized identities. Does portraying a universe like this run the risk of downplaying or erasing the prejudices that people with marginalized identities today have to face? For instance, if a black character faces very little racism in this future-society, is that in a way an insult to black readers today who face a great deal of prejudice?

writingandbooksandthings said: I’m having troubles with deciding how I want LGBT+ people to be perceived in my fantasy world. I want to show the struggle/issues so it would be relatable to people, but part of me wonders if it would be better to show a world where sexuality, gender, etc. isn’t seen as an issue by almost anyone. I feel like doing so would make readers see it really can be considered “normal” by a society and with no consequences. At the same time, I feel obligated to acknowledge real issues. What do you think?

These questions, like many questions about writing diversity, are framed in a way that hopes for a yes/no answer. However, the answer to the vast majority of questions about writing diversity is maybe. There simply are no black-and-white answers to writing fiction with characters who are traditionally marginalized, and the first thing writers should do is accept this. Whatever choice you make as a writer can be questioned by readers and critics, especially when it comes to writing diversity, which has often been done poorly and thoughtlessly. Again, whatever choice you make can be questioned, so it’s important to think carefully about why you made those choices, keeping in mind that your book is yours, and your duty as a writer is to be true to the story you want to tell.

It is not inherently insulting or wrong to write a book in which people of color and LGBTQ+ people are considered normal. It is a choice you can make as a writer of science fiction and fantasy — a choice that writers of realistic fiction simply do not have. If a book is set in the real world, people of color and LGBTQ+ people are not considered normal by the majority of people. Any realistic book that includes characters with these marginalized identities has a responsibility to incorporate that inequality in some way.

However, in fantasy and science fiction, things are different. That is one of the reasons that fantasy and science fiction can be so liberating and wonderful: We don’t have to create fictional worlds that are exactly like the real one. We can imagine a world in which it is normal to be non-white or LGBTQ+. I dare say that would be a better one.

One thing I find extremely frustrating about a lot of fantasy and science fiction is that many writers don’t seem to realize that everything in a secondary world is up for re-imagining. If you’re going to put unicorns or faster-than-light spaceships in your book, you can certainly also have equality for people of color and LGBTQ+ people.

Sometimes folks believe that equality for marginalized identities is unrealistic. When my first novel, Ash, was published, I was on a panel at a fantasy convention in which an audience member commented that it was unrealistic to have a fairy tale in which lesbians were normal. I responded, “There are also fairies in the book. Do you think fairies are more realistic than lesbians?”

That said, creating a fantasy or science fiction world in which people of color and LGBTQ+ people are normal does not mean you can simply wave your magic wand and everything becomes a shiny happy rainbow of equality and perfect joy. You have to build this equality into your world from the ground up.

For example, let’s think about a fantasy novel set in a preindustrial past, before the advent of modern science. If LGBTQ+ people are normal, you have to consider very basic biological things, such as how do LGBTQ+ people have children? Do they adopt others’ children? Do they have children with the assistance of magic? Do they not have children at all? Is there a place in this society for childless queer people? If you’re writing about rulers in this fantasy world, one of the most important thing to think about is heirs — how would a gay king choose an heir, if he hasn’t fathered any children? Additionally, if LGBTQ+ people are normal, how will you describe them? If it’s normal, would people even discern between those in same-sex relationships and those in opposite-sex ones? Will you use the word “gay” at all, especially because “gay” is a very specific English word with a clear history?

In a science fiction novel set in the future, other questions may also arise. If people of color in your futuristic world are normal, would they remain in separate racial enclaves (Black people in this part of town, Asians in that part of town), or would they have interracial relationships? And if they are in interracial relationships and have children, that does not mean their children all become a nice shade of tan; nor do they necessarily act like contemporary white people. Children in mixed race families do not always look the same, and you need to consider genetic inheritance and what a mixed race population would realistically look like. Additionally, cultures are passed down through generations and undergo changes. People always will have ancestral practices, so even if Chinese people are normal in the future, they probably are still going to retain specific Chinese cultural practices. Those practices also may have seeped into the wider popular culture. How would they be practiced by people who don’t have ancestors of that heritage?

Basically, normal does not mean white and straight. It’s very important to remember that, because if you normalize people of color and LGBTQ+ characters and then essentially turn them into white and straight-acting characters, that would be an insult. But if you normalize these marginalized identities in a thoughtful way that is built into the world itself, I think it can be a truly liberating experience to read.

Marginalized people in the real world don’t get very many opportunities to read books in which their identities are normal — and not erased. It is totally possible to do that in fantasy and science fiction, and I think that’s one of the best qualities of this genre.

Further reading:

Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, most recently the duology Adaptation, a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of 2013, and Inheritance, winner of the 2014 Bisexual Book Award. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA, a project that celebrates diversity in young adult books. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner and their dog, and her website is www.malindalo.com.

Avoiding “Special” Narratives About Disabilities in The Change Series

By Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith


Everything I write stems from personal experience, even if it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where people have mutant powers and the trees can eat you. When Sherwood and I first created the world of the Change, we wanted it to feel real and be true to our own lives and experiences. Fiction often shuts out people like us—old women, Jews, people with disabilities—but our actual lives have contained plenty of excitement, adventure, and romance. We wanted to write about heroes who were more like us and the people we knew.

In the Change series, we created some rules of thumb about disabilities to express what we believed to be true. One was that there are no miracle cures. There is a doctor with a mutant power that he uses to heal, but what it actually does is speed up time, to heal a wound quickly. If it’s not the kind of wound that could be healed with nothing more than time, his power won’t help. When young prospector Ross Juarez badly injures his wrist in the first chapter of Stranger, Dr. Lee saves his life but can’t fully restore the function of his hand. Ross spends the rest of the book doing physical therapy and learning to adapt; at the end he acquires a prosthetic gauntlet. And then he spends the entire second book learning to adapt to the prosthesis. Sherwood and I have both done physical rehab for various reasons, and we wanted to depict how long and difficult that can be.

Another world-shaping rule we had is that disability and accommodation to it is common and normal. We don’t normally think of nearsightedness as a disability, but it would be without glasses. (We both are so nearsighted that without glasses, we can’t recognize people from across the room.) So we have characters with glasses. We have characters who use wheelchairs. We have homes built to accommodate family members who can only see ultraviolet. We have characters who are disabled via injury, birth, life experience, or mutation, and show how they adapt and how society accommodates them—or chooses not to.

We also wanted to avoid certain types of narratives. Sherwood has a particular loathing for the cheap sentiment of the inspirational story, where the disabled hero does something heroic and is then exalted as extra-special. It tends to make the disabled person into a symbol rather than a character. We also didn’t believe that one heroic act is enough to get all prejudiced people to drop their biases. In real life, they’re more likely to keep their prejudices but decide that one person is an exception to the rule.

I especially dislike the disability tragedy stories, in which people with physical or psychological issues are ruined forever, typically dying at the end while everyone wrings their handkerchiefs and says it’s for the best because they were suffering so much. Apart from just being the flip side of the glurgy sentiment of the inspirational story, it sends a terrible message to people who do have those disabilities. Do we really want to tell readers that if they have Disability X, their life is ruined and they might as well kill themselves?

I can attest to the pernicious effect of the disability tragedy narrative. In my life, I’ve had severe depression and PTSD. Unlike some disabilities, those have a lot of inherent pain and suffering attached. In my own experience, those are not conditions of life, like being dyslexic or nearsighted, but illnesses that require treatment. So that’s hard to begin with. But you know what makes it ten times harder? When almost everything you’ve ever read with a character with depression or PTSD concludes with either a fake miracle cure, or with them dying and all the rest of the characters saying they were better off because no one who has been through the trauma they’ve endured can ever recover, let alone find happiness.

I did eventually find some exceptions to that narrative, and I treasured them. They gave me hope that it’s possible to go through terrible things, but to survive and find happiness, even if you do have scars. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo can’t find peace on Middle Earth and must sail into the West for his healing. But Faramir and Eowyn, who were also deeply scarred by trauma, find healing where they are. Several of Robin McKinley’s books, such as The Hero and the Crown and Deerskin, also offered the possibility of hope that I could believe in.

In my own personal experience and also in my work as a PTSD therapist, I have found that healing is very possible and very real. It’s not easy, but what worthwhile thing is? So I wanted to show that process in fiction, rather than the fake and cheap choices of miracle cure vs. death and despair. The other thing I wanted to show, in regard to trauma, is that it affects different people differently. Not everyone who goes through a traumatic experience gets PTSD! And for those who do, everyone’s PTSD is different and everyone’s path back from it is different.

In Stranger, our five POV characters all fight in the same battle. But they don’t all emerge with a cookie-cutter set of flashbacks, nightmares, and depression. One focuses on the life she saved, and remembers that with joy and pride. One gains insight into himself and his place in the world. One uses it to reaffirm what she already believed was true. One finds insight and still yet more trauma in a life that was already full of it. And one spends the entire next book quietly falling apart inside.

But in the end, for all of them, that battle and its effect on them was just one piece of their entire lives. PTSD has a huge effect on Ross, but it’s not all he is; trauma will always affect him, but it doesn’t ruin his life. Much like the linguistic shift from “disabled people” to “people with disabilities,” in our books, we tried to put the people first.


In the mid-eighties, a conversation with Jane Yolen crystallized my thoughts about a great deal of writing about disabled people. She wished writers would stop submitting variations on “The Special Little Animal With The Broken Tail”: well-intentioned but sentimental tales about an animal that has some kind of disability but whoa, it develops a special power or does something extra heroic, that makes everybody cheer about how special they are!

Those stories have been around for a long time. I read some when I was a kid, half a century ago and more. The “feel good” didn’t feel good past the ending of the story, even to me, as a not-very-savvy kid reader. Once you turned away from the story, the kid in the class who had some kind of problem still had the problem. And what does it say if the only way anyone will like a disabled person is if they get special powers or leap into a burning building and save a family? Even worse, the stories seemed to be saying that one’s ability issue was one’s identity.

Years later, my twenties, I knew people with various disabilities. In those days, society began to experiment with various terms, including differently-abled. A lot of people scorned that as pablum, but the verb that seemed the most appropriate to me was “adapt.” People with various types of issues (including us lefties in a world that is largely oriented right-handed) figured out workarounds. Some small, some awesome, like the paralyzed painter who used her toes. When you saw the end result, you weren’t thinking Blind! Wheelchair! Missing Fingers! Club Foot! You saw the result of the person’s skill or art or inspiration or wit.

One of my regular crowd during those days was a guy with albinism who was also legally blind, who I’ll call Pat. His eyes were also super-sensitive. His thick glasses had plastic extensions that fitted around his face so that no air could get to his eyes. Pat had been a chess champion in high school, and he was a math whiz, carrying everything in his head. If Pat heard it, he remembered it, and he navigated by memory, knowing pretty much the entire bus route of L.A. He fell into our group when brought by another science fiction enthusiast, and he loved the same sick puns and jokes and was also a dedicated Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan listener.

We were all barely out of college and still struggling to find jobs that paid minimum wage, so we all either got rides or drove junkers that were constantly breaking down. One day one of the group, I’ll call him Bob, came storming in to say he needed a ride. He turned to Pat and said, “Hey, if you can drop me at X, then swing by and pick up Y …” Then his mouth dropped open—he was appalled at his own insensitivity. The room went silent until we all saw Pat shaking with laughter.

That moment was proof to Pat that people saw him as Science Fiction Loving, Pun-Cracking, Dylan Quoting Pat, and not Blind Guy With Weird Glasses Pat. He was one of the crowd who happened not to drive because of his eyes, just like Bob was a rotten speller, and Tina was diabetic, and I was dyslexic. (We didn’t know the word “dyslexia” in those days, but everyone knew I could never dial a number correctly, ever, nor could I repeat numbers correctly or do math. So I had to repeat numbers several times, and even then everyone knew to double-check.) Nobody in our group was identified solely by their physical or medical or neuro-wiring issues.

I took that to heart when I became a teacher. Nobody wanted to be the “special kid” … unless they were playing us, which is a coping mechanism like any other. So I never gave talks about “specialness” or let anyone define anyone by whatever their issue was. And I refused to write variations on the Little Animal With The Broken Tail.

When Rachel and I began developing Las Anclas and its denizens, we let the characters define their identities. This was easier because we’d designed a world in which all kinds of variations on human life were seen everywhere—variety was everyday.

Early on in the first book Ross, who has some severe emotional issues, also gets wounded in one hand, which becomes a permanent disability. The other characters don’t see Ross The One Handed Guy, they see a guy who struggles to use a hand that used to be deft. One of the ways he and Mia Lee cement their friendship is her delight in finding ways to engineer workarounds for him.

Jennie’s mother is deaf, and reads lips. Everyone is used to making certain that Mrs. Riley sees them face on when they talk to her, but she is not defined by her deafness. She’s kind, and skilled with horses, and Changed, and African-American, and loves her family, and is deaf. No one attribute makes up all of a person’s identity.

As for Jennie, she’s always been a leader, but being a leader causes her some devastating emotional fallout. Afterward Jennie herself begins defining herself by her emotional issues, until she can slowly get a handle on herself.

Out of all categories of identity, the one that people in our books are most likely to use to define themselves is the Change, which is human mutation. It’s one of the few identities that’s still the focus of prejudice, so people often react to that by either hiding their Change out of shame or fear, or embracing it in defiance or pride. It’s also the identity most likely to have other people perceive as the only important thing about that person. They’re not seen as a complete person, they’re seen as That Changed Girl. Probably Las Anclas has stories about “The Special Little Animal With The Change.”

But we’re not going to write them.

sherwoodsmith-smallSherwood Smith (left) writes fantasy, science fiction, and historical romance for young as well as old readers. Her latest story is “Commando Bats,” about old women getting superpowers.

rachelmbrown-smallRachel Manija Brown (right) is the author of all sorts of stories in all sorts of genres. She has written television, plays, video games, poetry, and comic books. She writes urban fantasy for adults under the name of Lia Silver, and lesbian romance for adults as Rebecca Tregaron. In her other identity, she is a trauma/PTSD therapist.

Stranger and Hostage, the first two books in The Change series, are now available. Rebel, Book 3 of The Change series, is coming in January 2016.


New Releases – September 2015

Wonders of the Invisible World by Christopher Barzak (Knopf Books for Young Readers)

“Aidan lives on a farm in Temperance, Ohio, that’s been in his family for generations. When Jarrod Doyle returns to finish his senior year after many years away, Aidan doesn’t recall him at all, let alone believe that they’d been best friends in elementary school. Jarrod reminds him that he used to tell stories of seeing strange things that no one else saw. … Telling the tale in Aidan’s deliberate, meticulous voice, Barzak strikes a nice balance between contemporary teen issues and paranormal adventure. Part ghost story, part love story, this page-turner is a captivating exploration of the power of place, family, memory, and time itself.” — Kirkus

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow (Margaret K. McElderry Books)

“Once there was war, until an artificial intelligence named Talis took over the world. Four hundred years later, Talis still rules; he has made the world peaceful, but the price is the blood of children. Should a government declare war, its heir, raised in a U.N.- (and Talis-) controlled Precepture, a monasterylike enclave, dies. Greta, Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy, is one of those Children of Peace. … This is no cookie-cutter dystopia. Talis (whose voice lends a sharp, outsize, and very dark humor to his every word and scene) may not be a bad supreme ruler. The boy (Elián) is not Greta’s love interest (Princess Xie is), and anyway the love story is only a piece of a much larger story about love and war, forms of power, and the question of what is right when there is no good answer, all played out on a small and personal stage.” — Kirkus, starred review

A Whole New World: A Twisted Tale by Liz Braswell (Disney Press)

“In a Disney-authorized riff on the animated film Aladdin, one crucial plot twist has horrifying results. The first quarter of the book serves up a straightforward novelization of the film, until evil vizier Jafar traps the roguish protagonist underground—in this version, without the magical lamp. Aladdin escapes to find that with the genie’s aid, Jafar has publicly murdered the feckless sultan, imprisoned the princess Jasmine, and terrorized the people of Agrabah into submission. Fortunately, Aladdin can call upon the Street Rats to spearhead a revolution, but can a gang of petty thieves prevail over Jafar’s black magic? Briskly paced, with nonstop action and clever allusions to classic horror tales …” — Kirkus

Trail of the Dead by Joseph Bruchac (Tu Books)

“In Volume 2 of this post-apocalyptic series, Lozen leads survivors of the insurrection against Haven’s technically augmented human rulers through gemod-infested wilderness to the hidden valley her Apache family once called home—it doesn’t go as planned. As Lozen’s powers to read the now-unwired world around her have grown, so have the responsibilities and stresses of leadership. … To unravel and heal her PTSD requires confronting the toll that killing takes on warriors, however noble their motives or those of the leaders who’ve ordered it. … Bruchac’s focus on these consequences adds welcome emotional depth to Lozen and to the story itself, while her search for healing and wholeness highlights the strengths of a cultural heritage that is up to the challenge. This second act offering deeper characterization and resonant themes enriches an already compelling tale.” — Kirkus

The Suffering by Rin Chupeco (Sourcebooks Fire)

“Seventeen-year-old Tark has adjusted pretty well to life with Okiku, the vengeful spirit that accompanies him wherever he goes. Tark is able to control Okiku’s blood lust, harnessing and aiming it at only those that truly deserve it. When an old friend, Kagura, goes missing, Tark and Okiku travel to the Aokigahara, a forest in Japan infamous for suicide, to search. As the location’s dark past is revealed, Okiku begins to lose sight of her moral compass, and Tark begins to feel that nothing will ever be the same again. The novel’s horror set pieces are the real highlight. Chupeco establishes a creepy, sinister tone early on but never veers into camp or overwrought darkness.” — Kirkus

One by Sarah Crossan (Greenwillow)

“Grace and Tippi are 16-year-old conjoined twins attending private school after only being homeschooled. With an alcoholic and unemployed father, an anorexic sister, and a mother frantically trying to hold her family together, the girls cling to new friends Yasmeen and Jon, two outcasts who defend the girls and treat them as equals. Just when Grace falls for Jon despite Tippi’s warning—“We can never ever fall in love”—the girls learn that an illness in one jeopardizes both. … In asking important questions about how bodies shape identity, Crossan’s novel achieves a striking balance between sentimentality and sisterly devotion.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

The Courage to Compete: Living with Cerebral Palsy and Following My Dreams by Abbey Curran with Elizabeth Kaye (HarperCollins)

“This uplifting memoir about a young woman living with cerebral palsy who competed in the Miss USA pageant is sure to inspire readers. … Abbey later went on to win Miss Iowa 2008 and to compete in Miss USA. She comes across as positive and hopeful, and her tone is breezy and enthusiastic (”I was just beside myself. I did it! I had made the Top Ten!!! Amazing!!!“). The teenager is honest about her struggles, from wearing leg braces to coping with her parents’ divorce. She exudes hope, confidence, determination, and bravery.” — School Library Journal

The One Thing by Marci Lyn Curtis (Disney-Hyperion)

Book Descriptioin: Maggie Sanders might be blind, but she won’t invite anyone to her pity party. Ever since losing her sight six months ago, Maggie’s rebellious streak has taken on a life of its own, culminating with an elaborate school prank. Maggie called it genius. The judge called it illegal.

Now Maggie has a probation officer. But she isn’t interested in rehabilitation, not when she’s still mourning the loss of her professional-soccer dreams, and furious at her so-called friends, who lost interest in her as soon as she could no longer lead the team to victory.

Then Maggie’s whole world is turned upside down. Somehow, incredibly, she can see again. But only one person: Ben, a precocious ten-year-old unlike anyone she’s ever met. Ben’s life isn’t easy, but he doesn’t see limits, only possibilities. After awhile, Maggie starts to realize that losing her sight doesn’t have to mean losing everything she dreamed of. Even if what she’s currently dreaming of is Mason Milton, the magnetic lead singer of Maggie’s new favorite band, who just happens to be Ben’s brother.

But when she learns the real reason she can see Ben, Maggie must find the courage to face a once-unimaginable future…before she loses everything she has grown to love.

Untwine by Edwidge Danticat (Scholastic Press)

“Giselle, an art lover, and Isabelle, a budding composer, are 16-year-old Haitian-American twins living in Miami. After the SUV carrying the girls and their recently separated parents is hit, Giselle’s world unravels. Danticat (Krik? Krak!) vividly represents the path from shock to healing as Giselle and her parents grapple with Isabelle’s death. … Danticat’s gracious and poetic language haunts as Giselle moves through “star-blinding pain,” both physical and emotional, discovering the inner world of her sister and reconciling the guilt she feels at being the surviving twin.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Dagger by Steven dos Santos (Evernight Teen)

Book Description: When Ultimate Evil engulfs the entire world, only Dagger can pierce the Darkness—even if the Apocalypse falls on a school night! Dagger Beaumont is a High School senior who’s been recruited by D.U.S.T.—a covert governmental organization dedicated to battling supernatural terrorism all over the globe. However, Dagger’s unresolved conflict over his missing brother could be his undoing, as he races around the world battling the Dark Reich, a diabolical organization on a quest to possess an ancient artifact and unleash a mystical plague to enslave humanity. If that weren’t treacherous enough, Dagger must juggle his life as a secret agent with his social life, where he faces romantic rivalry for the guy of his dreams, a mysterious and handsome new student at his haunted boarding school. But in a high-stakes world where nothing is as it seems, and death lurks in every shadow, love rides shotgun with survival!

Sound by Alexandra Duncan (Greenwillow)

“Miyole forged her papers to work on the Ranganathan, a 128,000-acre research-and-development ship. She’s 16, not the required 18, but she’s always wanted to travel into space and was impatient to leave Mumbai, where she was taunted as ”the darkest“ and ”the exotic outlier“ because she’s Haitian, not Indian. Onboard, she bioengineers bees and butterflies to pollinate terraformed planets. Then life takes a sharp turn: pirates attack a nearby spacecraft, and Miyole meets a girl named Cassia. … Connections among her personal history, her ancestral history (the real-life Haitian Revolution; the science-fictional destruction, centuries ago, of Haiti by floods), and the atrocities she discovers in deep space are meaningful and well-wrought, as is the portrayal of Miyole’s tender and bumpy romance with Cassia. Unpredictable plot, vivid settings, and a queer, dark-skinned black girl as a protagonist in far-future science fiction: essential.” — Kirkus, starred review

Michael Vey 5: Storm of Lightning by Richard Paul Evans (Simon Pulse/Mercury Ink)

Book Description: Michael, Taylor, Ostin, and the rest of the Electroclan go on their most dangerous mission yet as the thrilling action continues in this electrifying fifth installment of the New York Times bestselling series!

The resistance movement has been compromised. The Voice is in hiding. Their families are missing. Can the Electroclan pull together to defeat the Elgen once and for all?

Either the Beginning or the End of the World by Terry Farish (Carolrhoda Lab)

“Almost 17-year-old Sofie lives with her fisherman father and dog on the rugged and unforgiving Pisqataqua River in New Hampshire. … An early closure of the shrimping season forces her father down south to the Chincoteague, but not before he unequivocally warns Sofie not to see Luke, a volatile deckhand returned from duty as a medic in Afghanistan. With her father gone, her long-absent mother and grandmother move in to take his place. She grudgingly begins to learn more about their life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge … Poetic, spare, and sometimes near stream of consciousness, Farish’s writing is haunting. She paints broad strokes and excels at setting a tone that pervades every word and action. The sexual tension between Sofie and Luke is palpable. Beautifully written and briskly paced, the sparse prose evokes the rugged, bleak landscape, the simplicity of Sofie’s former life with her Dad, and the immediate, unspoken union between her and Luke.” — School Library Journal, starred review

Brazen by Christina Farley (Skyscape)

Book Description:Jae Hwa Lee spent her sixteenth year in Seoul, trying to destroy the evil immortals who had been torturing her family for centuries. The last thing she expected was to be forced to become their assassin. Trapped in the darkest part of the Spirit World as a servant to the Korean god Kud, fighting to keep her humanity, and unable to contact her loved ones, Jae Hwa is slowly losing hope. Kud, god of darkness, will do anything to keep her as a pawn in his quest for power over all of Korea, her entire family thinks she’s dead, and Jae’s true love, Marc, believes she is lost to him forever.

When Kud sends Jae to find and steal the powerful Black Turtle orb, Jae sees an opportunity to break free and defeat Kud once and for all…but first she needs to regain Marc’s trust and work with him to vanquish the darkness that threatens to overwhelm Korea. There’s much to lose as Jae struggles to save the land she’s come to call home.

Juniors by Kaui Hart Hemmings (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers)

“Moving to Hawaii and enrolling at prestigious Punahou midyear, Lea feels isolated and, despite her island roots, uncertain where she fits in the complex cultural mosaic; everything changes when her mother, Ali, accepts Eddie and Melanie West’s offer of their guesthouse in upscale Kahala. … As in The Descendants (2007), Hemmings turns her plot on intergenerational family complexities and contradictions, secrets and revelations. Appealing and volatile, Lea’s a quintessential teen, by turns hypersensitive and hypercritical, impulsive and cautious, insightful and clueless. Hawaii, Hemmings’ closely observed home turf, is more than interesting wallpaper; details of island life (including tensions among natives and newcomers, locals and vacationers) resonate with theme and plot. Wryly funny, generous-hearted, garnished with sun, surfing, and shave ice—a genuinely literary beach read.” — Kirkus, starred review

Edge: Collected Stories by M. E. Kerr (Open Road Media)

“Family, honesty, and status emerge as themes in a collection of prolific author Kerr’s short stories for teens. A girl’s ne’er-do-well adopted brother returns to her as a ghost. A Holocaust survivor understands her lesbian granddaughter better than the girl’s mother fears. A school outcast visits an inmate at the town prison, pretending to be his son, and thinks he’s lucked into a fortune. Most stories here were originally published in the 1990s, but despite occasional dated preoccupations, the subject matter still feels fresh and the telling, crisp. … Expertly crafted, with enduring relevance.” — Kirkus

Don’t Fail Me Now by Una LaMarche (Razorbill)

“After Michelle’s drug-addicted mother is arrested, 17-year-old Michelle is left to fend for her two younger siblings. Again. With virtually no one to help them, Michelle (who is half-black) feels lost until her previously unknown (and “the-color-of-tracing-paper white”) half-sister, Leah, shows up with her stepbrother, Tim. Buck Devereaux—the long-absent father that Michelle, her siblings, and Leah all share—is dying, and he wants to see them. After some persuasion, all five step-siblings pile into Michelle’s broken-down station wagon to travel from Baltimore to California. … [Michelle’s] budding relationship with Tim adds a sweet-natured romantic dimension to this sibling-centered story.” — Publishers Weekly

Dream Things True by Marie Marquardt (St. Martin’s Griffin)

“Sixteen-year-old Alma Garcia-Menendez is a brilliant girl from a loving Mexican family living in Georgia, part of a community of undocumented immigrants. Evan Roland is the privileged son of a socialite, the nephew of a powerful senator, and a friend to boys who think sexual assault is a game. It’s love at first sight for Alma and Evan, but the threat of deportation looms for Alma and everyone in her life. … readers seeking a star-crossed love story with a twist won’t be disappointed.” — Publishers Weekly

The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore (Thomas Dunne)

“Like all Paloma girls, Lace was born with small escalas decorating her body, “a sprinkling of scales off a pale fish, a gift from the river goddess Apanchanej.” Life revolves around performing as sirenas in her itinerant family’s popular mermaid show, a tourist attraction rivaled only by that of their nemesis family, the Corbeaus, who have feathers instead of scales, and dance high in the trees. … when Cluck, a Corbeau, saves Lace during a chemical rainstorm caused by a nearby adhesive manufacturing plant, he unwittingly dooms Lace’s future with her family. McLemore’s prose is ethereal and beguiling … The enchanting setup and the forbidden romance that blooms between these two outcasts will quickly draw readers in.” — Publishers Weekly

Breaking Up Point by Brian McNamara (Bold Strokes Books)

Book Description: Brendan Madden is starting his freshman year of college and, although excited, he is sad to say good-bye to his high school boyfriend, Mark. After a rough transition, Brendan carves out a place for himself at school, where he has new friends and newfound independence. With the added strain of distance, however, he now finds it hard to maintain his relationship with Mark, especially due to the fact that Mark still must hide the relationship from most of his friends. Brendan’s college life allows him to be open and honest about who he is. He debates whether he is willing to compromise this for Mark, especially since staying in the relationship means forgoing the possibility of finding new romance at college.

Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian (HarperCollins)

“A high school senior struggles to understand himself after he falls for Brandy, a sophomore girl, while at the same time he and his friend Angus, who is openly gay, make out one night while stoned and drunk and then are continually drawn back to one another. … Intense, honestly described, and sometimes awkward sexual encounters will ring true for teen readers, and many will identify with the family strife, too. Pitch perfect, raw, and moving.” — Kirkus, starred review

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez (Carolrhoda Lab)

“A Mexican-American girl and a black boy begin an ill-fated love in the months leading up to a catastrophic 1937 school explosion in East Texas. … Naomi has begrudgingly left behind her abuelitos in San Antonio for a new life with her younger half siblings, twins, and their long-absent white father, Henry. … Their one friend is Wash, a brilliant African-American senior from the black part of town. … the story ultimately belongs to Naomi and Wash. Their beautifully detailed love story blossoms in the relative seclusion of the woods, where even stepfathers can’t keep them apart. … A powerful, layered tale of forbidden love in times of unrelenting racism.” — Kirkus, starred review

Serpentine by Cindy Pon (Month9Books)

“Pon returns to Xia, a realm inspired by Chinese folklore and introduced in Silver Phoenix (2009), for the first in a duology. Abandoned at birth, Skybright feels lucky to be handmaid to the wealthy, vivacious Zhen Ni, who for 16 years has treated her more as beloved sister than servant. Yet Sky, already bitter with jealousy over her mistress’s new companion and passionately enamored of the charming monk-in-training Kai Sen, hides a dreadful secret: at night, she transforms into a demon, half human, half monstrous crimson serpent. … The economical narrative conjures an entire world, drenched in color and texture and scent, rich in evocative mythology and heady action, and filled with vivid characters. … A fast-paced and engrossing read for anyone weary of the same old hackneyed storylines.” — Kirkus

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books)

“In this painful and all-too-timely book, two authors—one black, one white—present a story of police brutality. Reynolds (The Boy in the Black Suit) voices Rashad, the innocent victim of a police beating; Kiely (The Gospel of Winter) writes Quinn, a horrified witness. … The scenario that Reynolds and Kiely depict has become a recurrent feature of news reports, and a book that lets readers think it through outside of the roiling emotions of a real-life event is both welcome and necessary.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

The Inker’s Shadow by Allen Say (Scholastic Press)

“In this continuation of Say’s graphic memoir, Drawing from Memory (2011), he travels to the United States and receives a decidedly mixed welcome. Arriving in southern California in 1953, 15-year-old Allen first settles in a military academy but is soon asked to leave because his sponsor comes to believe that he won’t be (as Say’s own openly hostile father puts it) ‘a wholesome American.’ … all along the way, his determination to become a cartoonist never fades, and at low moments Kyusuke, the free-spirited alter ego created for him back in Japan by his mentor and sensei, Noro Shinpei, pops into view to remind him that it’s all an adventure. This small but firm step on an artist’s journey is both inspiration to his fellows and an informative window into a particular slice of the nation’s history.” — Kirkus

Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa (Balzer + Bray)

“Scelsa debuts with an evocative novel about finding friendship, love, and oneself, as well as the pain that often accompanies the journey. When Jeremy, a shy artist who has kept to himself after a humiliating incident at school left him scarred and vulnerable, meets Mira and Sebby, two sophomores with troubled pasts, the three form a strong bond. Mira, who is struggling to tame debilitating depression, makes Jeremy feel a profound sense of belonging, while his attraction to Sebby, an openly gay foster kid, ignites a passion he’s never known. … Themes of betrayal, forgiveness, and resilience resonate strongly, while the characters’ stories are so beautifully told and their struggles so hauntingly familiar that they will stay with readers long after they have finished the book. ” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz (Candlewick)

“In a dystopian future, Kivali Kerwin, nicknamed Lizard, is sent to prepare for adulthood at a government-run CropCamp. Lizard’s adoptive family has always resisted authority, but attending camp as a teen makes it easier to avoid being sent to the prisonlike Blight as an adult. As a midrange bender—roughly equivalent, in today’s terms, to having a nonbinary gender—Lizard is at risk of being sent to Blight. At camp, Lizard unexpectedly forms deep connections to other campers. At the same time, Lizard increasingly suspects something sinister behind the camp’s strong community spirit. … Sophisticated, character-driven science fiction, as notable for its genderqueer protagonist as for its intricate, suspenseful plot.” — Kirkus, starred review

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash (Candlewick)

“Thrash chronicles one monumental summer at an all-girls’ camp where she experienced her gut-wrenching first love. Every summer, Maggie, an Atlanta native, attends Camp Bellflower, an all-girls’ camp in Kentucky, complete with tents, shooting, and Civil War re-enactments that have been a camp tradition for nearly 100 years. The summer that she turns 15, however, she falls in love for the first time. She meets Erin, a 19-year-old counselor who studies astronomy and plays guitar. … Thrash’s remembrances are evinced with clear, wide-eyed illustrations colored with a dreamily vibrant palette. She has so carefully and skillfully captured a universal moment—the first time one realizes that things will never be the same—that readers will find her story captivating. A luminescent memoir not to be missed.” — Kirkus, starred review

Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, Deborah Biancotti (Simon Pulse)

“This may not be the first tale of a group of crime-fighting teenagers with supernatural powers, but its talented writing team get points for creating some fresh and original superpowerd abilities. Scam has a seemingly omniscient inner voice, which can speak for him and get him out of trouble or, all too often, into it. Flicker is blind but can perceive what others see. Crash can take down any computer and finds the experience embarrassingly—and dangerously—enjoyable. Bellwether can control the energies of the group and unite them in a common purpose. And Anonymous—well, never mind, no one seems to remember anything about that guy. These five, plus one unpredictable new addition, make up the Zeroes … For fans of superhero fiction looking for a character-driven tale and those who enjoy stellar writing.” — School Library Journal, starred review

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon (Delacorte)

“Suffering from ”bubble baby disease,“ Madeline has lived for 18 years in a sterile, sealed house with her physician mother. … Her life is turned upside down when a troubled new family moves in next door and she sees Olly for the first time. Olly, a white boy ”with a pale honey tan“ and parcours moves, wants to meet her, but Madeline’s mother turns him away. With the help of an indestructible Bundt cake, Olly perseveres until he gets her email address. Madeline—half Japanese, half African-American—chronicles her efforts to get to know Olly as she considers risking everything to be with him. … This heartwarming story transcends the ordinary by exploring the hopes, dreams, and inherent risks of love in all of its forms.” — Kirkus, starred review

Truths and Lies About Diversity in Speculative Fiction

By Corinne Duyvis


I don’t know who first said it, but there’s this idea of getting “One Big Lie” as a science-fiction/fantasy author. That Lie is generally the one speculative element in the book that distinguishes the world from ours: it can be that there are vampires amok, that some people are born mutants, that there’s an unstoppable alien virus spreading through the population, or a thousand other things.

A Lie doesn’t have to be an outright lie, of course. In this context, it’s simply an element of a story we’re asking the reader to accept, one which can be hard to take at face value. It can be a speculative element, but it can also be something else particularly implausible, like a teenager working for the CIA or a completely outrageous family.

The point is that, beyond their one Big Lie, authors need to work with what they’ve got. Adding in more Lies can make the story fall apart, requiring too much suspension of disbelief and mental gymnastics to keep track.

Of course, having multiple Lies can work wonderfully. There’s a wealth of stories out there, and we should never let arbitrary rules limit us.

That said, I do like the sentiment behind this “rule.” To me, the Lie is often the story, and the aspects beyond the Lie—keeping it true to life where possible, allowing your characters to react in realistic, human ways—are what ground that story and give it heart.

What I find fascinating (read: bizarre), however, is the implicit idea that an author writing diverse science-fiction and fantasy automatically engages in multiple Lies.

While every genre has a diversity problem, contemporary literature included, it feels particularly severe in speculative fiction. It’s as though having a protagonist who doesn’t fall into the straight-white-cis-abled-thin paradigm is automatically stretching believability and putting a burden on the reader. This is particularly the case when authors actually realistically address their characters’ marginalization rather than keeping it to surface mentions.

According to this idea, majority characters are the normal, unseen default, and a character with any other kind of background is a distraction. After all, why clog up a book with the microaggressions that a character from a marginalized group might encounter? Why deviate from the expected internal narrative by having a character consider issues that need never cross the minds of many privileged people? Why add in something so unnecessary as diversity, when we’ve got an asteroid hurtling toward Earth or an outbreak of zombie zoo animals to worry about?

As you can probably guess, I’m not a fan of this line of thinking.

For one, it assumes that majority characters really are invisible to everyone. This is true for many—marginalized or not—as a logical result of growing up in a society like ours. But for plenty of people, it’s the opposite. The more aware you are of imbalance, the more you see it in the word around you. I notice actions a character might take that only white characters would be able to get away with; I notice lines of thinking that make it clear the character has never had to worry about their mental health or disability; I notice heteronormativity and gender binarist assumptions. I notice stories that pretend I don’t exist. And so do plenty of other readers.

In other words, an attempted lack of distraction can be a noticeable and bothersome distraction to many. In particular, a lack of diversity and understanding of marginalization often results in oversights when it comes to the many complex social issues that can be tackled in speculative fiction.

For another, it’s skewed to think of it as a distraction or unnecessary element, rather than a reflection of human life. Writing stories with speculative elements doesn’t magically turn the world homogeneous, and it’s disingenuous to pretend that writing the story in any other way would be “too much” or a “distraction.” Marginalized people are not an optional add-on—we’re just as much part of the world as anyone else.

A lot of these ideas are deeply embedded into our brains, however. That means that the best way to go about countering these narratives is to be aware of them and purposefully defy them. To me, that is a large and important part of writing diverse sci-fi/fantasy.

duyvis-ontheedgeofgoneSo I take my Big Lie in Otherbound—a boy from our world seeing into the eyes of a girl from another, magical world every time he blinks—and take the rest of the world as it is. That means a Mexican-American family, physically disabled characters, bisexual characters, all having the same adventures and conflicts as any other protagonist in a fantasy novel might.

I take my Big Lie in On the Edge of Gone—a comet will hit Earth in 2035, and the wealthy are escaping the planet before it’s destroyed—and stick to the world around me for everything else. That means Surinamese-Dutch characters, autistic characters, trans characters. And, just as now, my Amsterdam of 2035 has gentrifying neighborhoods, structural inequalities, people who are racist and ableist and clueless despite their best intentions.

My other stories have their own Big Lies, and I explore those to the fullest; at the same time, I include asexual lesbians, abrasive trans boys who haven’t yet discovered they really are a boy, insecure teen girls dealing with severe anxiety … Sometimes, these identities play a significant role in the story. Other times, they’re entirely incidental.

When it comes to science-fiction and fantasy, I write precisely what I want to read; to me, none of these elements are extra Lies that confound and distract.

It’s the opposite. It’s honesty.

Fact is, even when my books aren’t set on this world, they will be read here.

I want them to resonate here, too.

corinneduyvisA lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing speculative young adult and middle grade novels. She enjoys brutal martial arts and gets her geek on whenever possible. Otherbound, her YA fantasy debut, released from Amulet Books/ABRAMS in the summer of 2014. It’s received four starred reviews—Kirkus called it “original and compelling; a stunning debut,” while the Bulletin praised its “subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege.”

Find Corinne at her Twitter or Tumblr. She is a co-founder of Disability in Kidlit and team member of We Need Diverse Books.


Writing About a Transgender Character’s Transition

This month for Fantasy and Science Fiction Month, we’ve invited Asks about writing diverse fantasy and science fiction. This answer comes from writer Everett Maroon.


silvermarmoset said: I know that one of the characters in my fantasy novel is a transgender woman, but I don’t know how to properly handle her transition. Is it disrespectful to have the transitioning process be easy, by magic? I’ve read divided opinions on this. Thank you!

Short Answer: It depends.

Long Answer: Asking if a plot point, character, narrative arc, or other aspect of your story is disrespectful is a great way for any writer to begin a project, and I appreciate that you’re coming from such a careful place. Let’s back up a step and ponder a question you’ve probably already answered: why is this character transgender? Put another way, why are you writing a trans character? This is, of course, the question I ask myself when I’m in the weeds of my character sketches, and I ask it no matter what string of identities I layer into the actors in my story. After all every choice you make as a writer opens up some possibilities for the story and closes down others, so I ask myself: what am I trying to communicate via the characters I’m establishing to tell the story?

The final analysis answers the question, does this character have to be transgender? If your answer is no, then you are risking tokenizing trans people through the placement of this character, and you should probably reconsider making them trans.

If your answer is yes, then great, write them as thoughtfully as you can. To be thoughtful, however, isn’t a simple task. First, you need to avoid stereotypes that have so often been attributed to trans characters, especially trans women — here I’m talking about as victims of violence, as sex workers (think, Law & Order: SVU), as lonely and unloved, as perverts, gay men and/or drag queens who can’t deal, as narcissists, broken men, and on and on. You need to be familiar with these stereotypes because 1: they amount to lazy, bad writing, 2: they’ve been done to death and aren’t interesting subjects, and 3: they actively hurt trans women by making the myths about their community persist in an untrue way in the popular culture consciousness. It is not an overstatement to say that people ignorant of trans issues will turn to someone they know who is starting transition and use these stereotypes that they’ve seen on television (I’m looking at you, NCIS), and matter-of-factly explain that they’re doing it wrong because so and so on TV did it this other way, or that they shouldn’t transition because yo, they’ll wind up dead in the street, etc. When writing for a mainstream audience, authors need to think about how the marginalized characters they’re portraying represent that community, because readers are real people who take our stories into their hearts and minds, and because marginalized people read books.

For more reading about trans stereotypes, there are many folks on the Web who write about them in a nuanced, helpful way (Casey Plett, Monica Roberts, and Janet Mock are a good start). But there are also tropes to avoid — let’s think about tropes as tiny pieces of narrative that become overused and that sometimes support the stereotypes in question. For trans women, tropes include putting on makeup (Amazon’s Transparent does this almost the time, and while I know the show just won major Emmys, this is not a reason to continue the trope), buying pretty clothes (or shoes) in a boutique, getting shunned by some relative, and there are many more, but they largely do include some aspect about transition. How one presents a transition can be problematic, so I’m glad you’re wondering about it. And if you really want to go against stereotypes and tropes, do something really radical and don’t show it at all. As a trans reader myself, I love reading trans stories that aren’t about transition, just like many gay and lesbian readers enjoy stories that aren’t about coming out. Those are our beginnings, full of trauma and conflict and revelation, it’s true, but ultimately they turn LGBT characters into their genesis when there is so much more to relay. Don’t pick the simplest story to tell when there are far more compelling ones out there.

There are other problems with depicting transition: if you show transition as a magical experience, you may present it as easy, when in real life, transition is anything but. If you show it as super onerous (which I just said it can be), it may come off like one of those stereotypes about trans people. So I ask again, writer to writer: Do you have to depict her transition at all? If you’re looking to write respectfully, your trans character may be best represented in your story after (thus, apart from) her transition. Also, remember that every identity aspect of every character needs careful thinking through — we don’t write in Mexican characters just to have someone dropping Spanish into the dialogue, so we don’t really need to write trans characters in order to have a transition in the story, either. A great example of handling transition without making the story about transition is Susan Jane Bigelow’s story “Ramona’s Dreams” in The Collection from Topside Press.

So, as with any kind of character work, research, research, research. Beginning writers are told ad nauseum to write from their own experience. If all writing were limited to that mantra literature would be a pale cousin of its actual self. But the further afield you push from your own lived reality, the more preparation, thinking, and reading you need to do in order to respect the people that character represents. And happily enough, that you’re asking around is a good sign you’re already on the right track.

Everett Maroon is a memoirist, humorist, pop culture commentator, and fiction writer. He is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association and was a finalist in their 2010 literary contest for memoir. Everett is the author of a memoir, Bumbling into Body Hair, and a young adult novel, The Unintentional Time Traveler, both published by Booktrope Editions. He has an essay, “In a Small Town, Nothing Goes Wrong, in the anthology Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity, from Ooligan Press, and a short story, ”Cursed,“ in the anthology The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, from Topside Press. He has written for Bitch Magazine, GayYA.org, Amwriting.org, RH RealityCheck, and Remedy Quarterly. He has had short stories published here and there. Everett’s blog is transplantportation.com.

Writing Disabilities in Fantasy and Science Fiction

This month for Fantasy and Science Fiction Month, we’ve invited Asks about writing diverse fantasy and science fiction. Several questions focused on disability, so we’ve rounded them up in one post, answered by writer Marieke Nijkamp.


acrossthetracksrebounding said: I have a main character in a fantasy story who uses a prosthetic right arm powered by magic. Her supply of magic has varied over the years, so sometimes her right arm works just as well as her left and other times it doesn’t. My concern is that, if it’s a prosthetic that’s so analogous to a ‘normal’ arm, does it count as a disability?

There are two interesting things going on in this question. First of all, the use of the phrase “normal.” While here it’s obviously set apart with scare quotes, the dichotomy of disabled vs. normal is (pardon the pun) quite normal. And very clearly something to be aware of, because by juxtaposing disability with normality, it’s easy to set up disability as abnormal. (See also the medical model of disability, that sets up disabled people as broken, in need of being fixed or cured.) This has long since been society’s understanding of disability.

These days, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes the social model of disability as being the prevailing paradigm. The social model differentiates between impairments (a medical condition that leads to disability) and disability (the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and, basically, the way the world’s set up). The social model of disability sees disability as:

“the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and an environment filled with physical, attitudinal, communication and social barriers. It therefore carries the implication that the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment must change to enable people living with impairments to participate in society on an equal basis with others.
“A social model perspective does not deny the reality of impairment nor its impact on the individual. However, it does challenge the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment to accommodate impairment as an expected incident of human diversity.
”The social model seeks to change society in order to accommodate people living with impairment; it does not seek to change persons with impairment to accommodate society. It supports the view that people with disability have a right to be fully participating citizens on an equal basis with others.” (See: http://ift.tt/1O7DBbx)

Which brings me to the question: “does a [magical] prosthetic count as a disability?” That then depends on quite a few things. Does this prosthetic allow your character to navigate physical barriers in their world? Does it depend on her energy and how does it depend on her energy? Would that be akin to a chronic illness maybe? What is society’s attitude toward her? Is her society systematically and inherently ableist, like ours is? How would she personally identify? What fits best with the way she looks at and understand the world?

And on that note, did you research or talk to people about living with prosthetics? Because representation matters, and even representation of magical prostheses can have repercussions in the real world.

gnomer-denois said: I am writing a fantasy novel and one of the secondary characters I have is a veteran from a war about 20 years prior where she was a surgeon, mostly just sewing people up because of her tailoring/embroidery skills and now she’s working as a tailor again, pretty high end. I was considering that she might have lost a limb in the war, and I lean toward her non-dominant hand. Still a set back for a tailor. There is magic in this world that might aid a prosthetic to be more like current ones. But I’m still not sure if this would be an unrealistic portrayal of an amputee’s ability because I don’t want magic to just fix the disability like it isn’t there, but more allow a prosthetic to receive some input from the skin interface and have some return of mobility for grasping, etc. Or if there is a more accurate way to show how someone missing a hand/lower arm would be able to sew, etc. If I can’t figure out how to do it realistically, I may change the disability, but I wanted to try.

Let’s divvy this up in a few steps too, because that’s a lot of information to process.

First of all, I think it’s important to make clear what “fixing” disability means and what it doesn’t mean. The dreaded magical cure or fixing disability usually presents itself by way of erasing the disability. Either through magic as a complete solution or by retconning the disability entirely. This often includes both the impairment, to use the terms above, and the way the disabled person interacts with the world. For example, a girl who has limped the entire book gets magically healed by the end of it is suddenly who she was always meant to be: whole, normal, and seen like that by everyone else. (And despite having learned to compensate for her limp, becoming suddenly non-disabled does not cause her to relearn to walk. After all: she is now “whole” and “normal.”) Her disability, and everything around it, gets completely erased.

This is very much informed by the medical model mentioned above, by the way, which claims that disabled people are broken and need to be fixed. Only then can they have a happily ever after. (This also happens the other way around — the “healing” happens in the interactions with the world because the character becomes more “likable” and as a result of that, they are healed.)

Hopefully you get why both of these options are super problematic — not to mention ignorant of the fact that for a lot of us, disability is an important part of our identity, exactly because it shapes the way we interact with the world. It actively informs us and that isn’t something you can easily erase.

Now assistive/adaptive technology (prosthetics, orthotics, and assistive devices), on the other hand, does no such thing. They make living with disability and interacting with the world easier, but they do not erase the disability completely. Using assistive technology is about accessibility. It’s about independence. As someone who uses canes and braces, in my experience it can even be about pride. (The flip side of it is that is doesn’t always change attitudinal barriers — and can even increase those.)

So whether or not this is about magically fixing disability depends on a lot of nuances. And those questions mentioned in the previous answer come into play here again. (On that note, let me also point out that I am no amputee and I have never used prosthetics, so please do be mindful of your research.)

Now, as for the second part of the question: how would someone be able to sew one-handed? By pinning material to a pad. By using a sewing bird — a table clamp that pins fabric to a table. By using a sewing brick or other weights. By using different needles, perhaps. In any case by adapting her process. By adapting to the situation. In a way, these are assistive devices too, after all.

thefrostbackbasin said: One of my main characters is disabled due to traumatic injury to the spine but my sci-fi story takes place in the far future so I’m concerned how developed the medical community should be in terms of ‘fixing’ disability

About a year ago, I was asked to be part of a panel called “We can rebuild you: disability in science fiction” about precisely this question. Considering we spent a good hour talking about it, I can tell you now there’s no easy answer — and a lot of it is up to the world you build.

There are a lot of variables in this equation. The most important one we’ve already discussed — the way society views disability. There’s a lot you can extrapolate from that in terms of how developed the medical community should or shouldn’t be. (And ask yourself: is the medical community as developed as it “should” be now? Under what paradigm? Should by whose measurement?)

The second point to consider has less to do with development and far more with accessibility. Even if the medical community is as developed to immediately fix traumatic spine injury … is that development accessible to all? What are the costs? The conditions?

And also — what are the costs to hospitals? Or to pharmaceutical companies? Is “fixing” all disabilities cost-efficient? There are plenty of medicines that exist in theory, could be produced, and could improve quality of life. If only their target audience wasn’t so small. Ask yourself how politicized the medical community in your world is and what the ethical discussions are about.

And if a solution is available: what are the physical costs? What kind of technology is used? What effects does that have on the body? How lasting is this solution? Is it a solution that’s surgical or based on medication? If the latter, what is society’s perspective of that? Because I can tell you from experience that even something as deceptively simple as taking daily pain medication is frowned upon by people who do not live with chronic pain.

Or look at it from a different perspective: if the medical community has evolved to a point where spinal injury cures are as common place as flu jabs, what does that mean for the overall development and society’s perspective of human health? Is life extension or enhancement normal? And if so, what effects does that have on the way injuries are perceived? The way disability in general is perceived?

In the end, there are a hundred different ways in which to portray disability in the future. There are a hundred different reasons why the medical community will have developed well enough and a hundred different reasons why they won’t have yet. In the end though, it’s your story. So go for what works best for you, your character, and their society. Just be mindful that it is and remains respectful or real lived experiences, whatever you do.

Marieke Nijkamp is a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, geek. She holds degrees in philosophy, history, and medieval studies, and wants to grow up to be a time traveler. Her debut young adult novel This Is Where It Ends will be published by Sourcebooks Fire on January 5, 2016.

Writing as an Ally

In Alexandra Duncan’s Sound, 16 year-old Miyole risks everything to help the girl she loves rescue her brother from a band of pirates who attacked their spaceship.

By Alexandra Duncan

duncan-soundSometimes, like the adult that I am, I can be a little dense.

When I was fourteen, my dad and stepmother had a baby girl, my little sister M. When I visited them and wheeled her around the grocery store or carried her on my shoulders through the park, strangers often assumed I was her teenage mother and gave both of us the stinkeye. I adored her, but the gap in our ages and the fact that we lived in different states — her in Louisiana, me in North Carolina — meant that our relationship was more like that of an aunt and niece, rather than two sisters. At times, I envied her, growing up in a stable home with wealthy parents, a stay-at-home mom, and encouragement to develop her artistic skills. M has always been a remarkable visual artist.

I should have known that even with all of that going for her, things wouldn’t be as easy or perfect as they seemed.

M started dropping hints that she was unhappy a few years ago, when she entered high school. “I feel so different,” she told me over the phone. “I don’t fit in.” I sympathized, but I was sure it would pass. I had definitely felt like a dysfunctional weirdo in high school, stuck in a small, conservative community, and her high school was in an equally conservative, if larger, city obsessed with keeping up appearances. It was not her scene, but she would be away at college in a handful of years.

Then, last summer, my husband and I went to visit our Louisiana family. M had been having a particularly hard time that year, and I wanted to see her. I brought books for her and my other younger sister, like I always do, including Brandy Colbert’s exquisite and painful Pointe, about a young ballerina coming to understand and overcome her past sexual abuse by a pedophile. We had several wonderful days to hang out, share silly Youtube videos, play board games, make waffles out of cake mix, and catch up. One afternoon, M and I were sitting in the living room reading, like the introverts we are, when she let Pointe fall to her lap.

“Ugh. This is just like my life!” she said.

“What!?” I said, monumentally freaked out and ready to break kneecaps.

“This thing with Hosea,” she said. “It’s just like this girl at school.”

I calmed down marginally. Hosea is the sort-of love interest in Pointe who toys with the main character’s affections, not a creeper who preys on teenage girls. But in my momentary rage-cloud, I missed the really important part of what M said. There was a girl at school. Not a boy, a girl. It didn’t sink in until later. M was opening up to me about an important part of her life, and like an idiot, I’d missed the opportunity to talk to her about it.

M did end up dating the girl at school, and it wasn’t a Hosea situation at all. They really like each other, and as of this writing, have been together for a year. However, my desire to break kneecaps was back soon enough. While my father and stepmother supported M, the kids at school and her girlfriend’s parents reacted exactly the way you would expect in a conservative Bible Belt town. Bullying. Friends abandoning her. Lectures about Hell. Demands that the two of them break up. The whole nine yards.

Around the time all of this was coming out, I had been writing Sound. Miyole, the main character, is lesbian, but I wasn’t getting the chemistry between her and Cassia, the love interest, right. Their relationship was either moving too fast or not hitting the right notes. I knew love was love, but I hadn’t yet figured out that the power dynamic in a relationship between two women is very different than it is in a heterosexual relationship. I was getting it so wrong that my editor had suggested I pull back and make the two female characters friends. I was seriously considering her suggestion, though I felt like a massive failure.

Hearing about what M was going through strengthened my resolve to keep trying to make Cassia and Miyole’s relationship work on the page. I might have botched my chance to talk to M during our visit, but maybe this was a small way to make it up to her, to show her I supported her. Science fiction helped me escape a bad home situation as a teenager. I wanted to give M and other teens in her shoes a chance for escape, as well. I read more books with lesbian narrators, which are surprisingly harder to find in YA than those from the point of view of gay male narrators. I asked a friend and her partner to read my draft and give me feedback. I rewrote and rewrote, and with each draft, my book got a little closer to what I wanted.

Writing as an ally is tricky. Do you have the right to tell this person’s story? What if, despite all your research and your best intentions, you get it wrong? Are you helping or hurting the people you want to support? I’ve thought about this a lot while writing Sound (at least, when I wasn’t thinking about sci-fi pirates and sea monsters). What I’ve decided is that, even if I fail or only partially succeed, the only way to get better is to keep trying. If, along the way, one girl sees herself having fantastic adventures that she wouldn’t have seen otherwise, it’s all worth it. If M knows she’s not alone, it’s all worth it.

alexandraduncanAlexandra Duncan is an author and librarian. Her YA science fiction novels SALVAGE (2014) and SOUND (2015) are available from Greenwillow Books. She lives in the mountains of North Carolina with her husband and two monstrous, furry cats. You can find her online at www.alexandra-duncan.com.

Sound is now available.

Don’t forget! You can enter to win Sound and four other wonderful YA SFF novels at our Fantasy & Science Fiction Month giveaway (deadline Oct. 6)


Where Our Magic Lives: A Queer Latina on Magical Realism

Anna-Marie McLemore’s debut novel, The Weight of Feathers, tells the story of two rival families of traveling performers. In the midst of a bitter feud between the Palomas, who swim in a mermaid show, and the Corbeaus, who wear wings while dancing in the tallest trees, Lace Paloma and Cluck Corbeau confront not only their feelings for each other, but the truth about their families and themselves.

By Anna-Marie McLemore

mclemore-theweightoffeathersSo what is magical realism?

Right after “What made you tell a story about mermaids and winged tightrope walkers?” this is probably the book question I get asked most. And understandably so. Category classifications are hard enough, and magical realism defies labeling. It’s both a genre and not one. It’s as much a worldview as a category.

Magical realism is a literary and cultural language. I might be able to tell you its name, and its origins. But it’s hard for me to say what it sounds like because I grew up speaking it. I hesitate to give a brief, one-sentence definition of magical realism for the same reasons I hesitate to give a short definition of what it means to be Latina. I know what it feels like, but because it’s what I am, it’s hard for me to say how it differs from being something else. When the moon speaks in Lorca’s Blood Wedding, or when Tita turns to fire in Like Water for Chocolate, I take a deeper breath not because these things seem impossible, but because the moon’s words, and Tita’s desire, stay with me.

Okay, Anna-Marie, so you’re saying you can’t tell us what magical realism is?




Let’s look at this through the lens of a different question: How does magical realism differ from realistic fiction with supernatural elements, realistic fiction with fantastical elements, or even realistic fiction with touches of magic?

Though the distinctions can be as subtle and various as the differences between two cultures, here are the two main ones that come to mind: how the idea of the magical is handled, and the fact that magical realism has roots in oppression.

How the sense of the magical is handled

Magical realism isn’t just about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. In a culture of oppression, seeing the magical in the midst of the tragic, the unjust, the heartbreaking is a way of survival, for people, for communities, for cultures. We must find our magic where it lives, or we will lose it. Our spirits depend on not overlooking that which might be dismissed or ignored.

In magical realism, that sense of magic belongs not to individuals, but to communities. Characters may be worried over extraordinary events, but they’re not shocked or incredulous about them. The other side of this coin is the knowledge that oppression is a force that waits, and hovers. The world is more brutal than so many people believe, and more beautiful they than imagine.

Magical realism has roots in oppression

Take Lorca, one of my favorite authors of magical realism, who I mention above. In his late thirties, in the midst of the start of a war, he was executed for motives related to his politics and his sexual orientation. The pain and beauty threading through his work comes from the same places that made him a threat to those who ultimately ended his life. And this, heartbreakingly, is not an unfamiliar story. Some of the most transcendent art—magical realism and otherwise, literature and other forms—comes from artists all too familiar with oppression.

Am I saying that white/straight/cis writers can’t write magical realism? Absolutely not, no more than I’d say that a writer from one culture can’t write a character from another culture. (I recently swooned with joy when a white writer told me she’d taken special care to be respectful of the origins of magical realism when she wrote her novel.) Like a language, magical realism can be learned.

But like a language, it takes work. And though there are no limits to who can enjoy reading or who can write magical realism, it’s a language that might sometimes come a little quicker to those from marginalized groups. Being familiar with oppression, of any kind, can leave you more open to the idea that the magical belongs to everyone, and that trying to possess it is often an insidious incarnation of privilege.

Where Our Magic Lives

I’m blessed not to have grown up during the times of unrest that bore so many beautiful works of magical realism. But I come from cultures of oppression that taught me this world. It’s a world where magic is more heartening or frightening than it is surprising. Where you are always both yourself, and a single facet of your jagged, shimmering community. Magical realism is a place where magic spreads, and endures, and refuses to fit in any single set of hands.

A few book recommendations

  1. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. Traditional magical realism against the landscape of familial closeness and conflict. Not technically YA, but I read it as a teen, and it was one of the books that made me a reader. It shares themes of becoming your own and making your own choices with many of my favorite YA books.
  2. Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. For an example of classical magical realism, play special attention to how the girls in this sister-story interact with la llorona, a mythical figure who takes on a different persona than how she’s historically cast.
  3. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma. Nova Ren Suma’s novels defy genre; it’s one of many reasons she’s one of my favorite authors. In her latest, you’ll find hints of magical realism mixed in with other elements that are uniquely her own.

Thank you to Diversity in YA for having me, and thank you to everyone for stopping by and reading one queer Latina’s take on magical realism. Un abrazo fuerte, and happy reading!

annamariemclemorewebphotoAnna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, raised in the same town as the world’s largest wisteria vine, and taught by her family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. She is a Lambda Literary fellow, and her work has been featured by The Portland Review, Camera Obscura, and the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press) is her first novel. You can find Anna-Marie at annamariemclemore.com or on Twitter @LaAnnaMarie.

The Weight of Feathers is now available.


Code Switching in the Fantasy World of “Court of Fives”

In Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives, Jessamy must navigate between different cultures, classes, and languages, as she competes in an athletic tournament and struggles to save her family.

By Kate Elliott

elliott-courtoffivesCode-switching refers to the practice of switching back and forth between two or more languages, or between two dialects of the same language. When I was a child, we spoke both English and Danish in our house because my mother is Danish and my father Danish-American. Out shopping my mother would often switch into Danish if she wanted to say something she didn’t want the people around us to understand.

Code-switching also refers to switching between “identities,” in both cultural and interpersonal situations.

My family has lived in the state of Hawaii for thirteen years. Originally settled by Polynesian seafarers (and later illegally annexed by the USA), Hawaii became an increasingly mixed community in the 19th and 20th centuries. Because English was the second language of many of the immigrants but also the only one they all had in common, a creole English called “pidgin” developed that incorporated elements of Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Tagalog. (Here’s a 4 minute excerpt from a documentary on pidgin by my friend Marlene Booth and her co-director Kanalu Young: Hawaii Pidgin The Voice of Hawaii.)

While it is absolutely common today to hear people switching from Standard English to pidgin and back again, the use (or non-use) of pidgin also became a marker of status and assimilation as well as a means of discrimination. Decades ago, schools in Hawaii were segregated in part according to speech. My friend Gin recalls how her older sisters schooled her in Standard English when she was five so she could “test into” the “academic” elementary school instead of the school where the pidgin speakers were sent. This is a form of code switching as well.

In Court of Fives, code-switching is a constant part of the heroine’s life. I wanted to explore what it would be like for a girl who not only code switches between languages but also between cultural expectations and sub-cultures.

Jessamy’s parents come from different ethnicities, Saroese and Efean (also called Patrons and Commoners in the book). She knows both languages, is fluent in both, and can switch easily between the two in contrast to most of the population, who only speak either Saroese or Efean depending on their ethnicity.

But because Efea is a conquered country, and because the Saroese are the conquerers, she also must negotiate a far trickier form of code-switching: That between the class divide created by the privileged and powerful Patrons and the conquered and looked-down-upon Commoners.

Raised by a Patron father, Jessamy and her three sisters are expected to behave like Patron girls in their speech and their conduct in both private and public. The eldest and youngest sister look enough like their father that they can “pass” as Patron girls, but the situation for Jessamy and her twin Bettany is particularly complex because they are obviously mixed. To look at them is to see they have one Saroese and one Efean parent, a pairing not approved of and fairly uncommon in this society because it is literally illegal for a Patron to marry a Commoner. At the same time, even when Jes speaks Efean to Commoners, they can tell by her looks and speech and behavior clues that she “acts like a Patron,” and they see these ways of acting as pretentious and delusional (because what is the point of acting like a Patron when no Patron will actually accept you as one).

So, yes, I can and do describe Court of Fives as “Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior in a fantasy society inspired by ancient Egypt.” It is definitely a fantasy novel about sisterhood and family loyalty in the wake of treachery, a conquered country ruled within a rigid social hierarchy, a popular game called the Fives that’s more than it seems, and one girl’s challenge to run the Fives even though it is forbidden to her.

But embedded in that story is a girl caught between, who code switches as a constant and regular part of her life, and doesn’t quite have a place in either of her parent cultures. Jessamy has to find her own path, and it’s not going to be an easy road.

kateelliottKate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing, like breathing, keeps her alive. She is the author of over twenty science fiction and fantasy novels, including her YA debut Court of Fives, as well as Cold Magic, Spirit Gate, King’s Dragon, Jaran, and her short fiction collection, The Very Best of Kate Elliott. A new epic fantasy, Black Wolves, arrives in November. She lives in Hawaii. She lives in Hawaii with her spouse, paddles with outrigger canoe club Ka Māmalahoe, and nurses along an aging schnauzer. Her website is at www.kateelliott.com.

Court of Fives is now available.


Don’t forget! You can enter to win Court of Fives and four other wonderful YA SFF novels at our Fantasy & Science Fiction Month giveaway (deadline Oct. 6)