What are you working on now? What’s coming next? I hear these questions almost daily. They make me anxious. Amid all the conversation about the need for diverse teen books and fresh voices of authors of color, I sometimes struggle with the sense of responsibility to my readers vs. the sense of responsibility to my personal art—the stories I most want or need to tell.
As a reader, I crave diversity in books, I search for it, I rejoice when I find it. There is no question in my mind that I want to weave diversity into everything that I write, if for no other reason than it is the only way to accurately reflect who I am as a person as well as an author.
Yet, I find I can’t approach the blank page with the pure intention to write diversely. When I started work on Camo Girl, my contemporary middle grade novel (Aladdin/S&S 2011), I didn’t know for sure if my main character was black, white, biracial (as she ended up being) or something else altogether. Midway through the first draft, I found myself wondering, will the novel be “diverse enough” if the character doesn’t deal with her race at all?
Certainly, I was being too hard on myself. Since then, I’ve realized that I panicked partly because my first novel, The Rock and the River (Aladdin/S&S 2009), was a civil rights era historical novel, in which skin color plays a significant, specific role. I was worried about making the transition from such a direct, race-related story to a quieter, contemporary exploration of what it means to be black or biracial as a teenager today. Though the world is not so black and white anymore, even the subtleties can be trying.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry. Skin color found its way into my novel, and it’s important to the story, but not the defining characteristic. I’m very comfortable with that balance. In the end, I think, I want to tell a universal story, but one that is made specific and relatable by my unique character’s experiences, personality and worldview.
Camo Girl deals with friendship in middle school, and at first glance, I think readers might expect the story to be about the value of true friendship and loyalty vs. perceived friendship and popularity. But the conflict Ella faces isn’t so easily broken down.
Digging deeper, her story is about finding truth, learning self-acceptance and discovering what friendship really means. Ella struggles to belong among her peers—something anyone who’s ever been in middle school can relate to—but her attempts to fit in are undercut by cruel bullies, her own insecurities, and mostly, the strength of a beloved childhood friendship that hasn’t “grown up” yet. Ella’s journey requires her to stretch the bounds of what’s familiar and take the first steps out of her safe place into the unknown. She has to learn that true belonging doesn’t equate with popularity, but with being comfortable in your own skin.
Hmm. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for the author, as well. I’m telling myself now not to worry so much when people ask about my work. The beautiful thing about diversity is that it comes in all shapes and sizes. It seems like that should go without saying, but it never hurts to remind myself that no matter what I write, it carries my voice. My individual voice, with all my quirks and experiences. Score one for diversity.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/012411keklamagoon175.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Kekla Magoon is a New York City-based author, editor, speaker and educator. Her second novel, Camo Girl (Aladdin), was just published this month. Her debut novel, The Rock and the River (Aladdin, 2009), won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent and was nominated for an NAACP Image Award, in addition to being named an ALA/YALSA Best Book for Young Adults. For more information, visit www.keklamagoon.com.[/author_info] [/author]