I’m not a fan of cussing, cockroaches, or conflict. So why do they show up in my new novel, What Can’t Wait?
Because they’re part of life, especially life as my students in Houston know it. I write the world like it is for them, not like I wish it were. That’s also why my main character, Marisa Moreno, moves in a world that is not very diverse.
If Marisa and her buds looked like something out of the promo material for Diversity U, What Can’t Wait wouldn’t reflect the world of my students. Like Marisa in my novel, who goes to a majority minority school, most of the people in my students’ school, neighborhood, job, and church are Mexican-American.
For me, the diversity that matters is less about what the cast of characters looks like and more about the experiences reflected in a book. I guess you could say that even if I didn’t write diversity in What Can’t Wait (most characters are Latino/a), I write toward diversity on the bookshelves of libraries and stores.
In fact, I wrote What Can’t Wait because my high school students in Houston told me that there was a book they wanted to read but couldn’t find. Brace yourselves for the shock of the century: the book they wanted to read was one about them, about their world, about their challenges, about their hopes.
We read for lots of reasons—to travel, to imagine other realities, to test out alternatives, to be challenged, to be comforted. But almost all of us, at some time or another, read to relate, to recognize a world that is real to us. For teens, this need and desire is especially powerful. Often, the book that served as a gateway drug to reading for my students was one in which some aspect of the story spoke to the reader’s personal experience.
I didn’t write What Can’t Wait out of my own experiences; in fact, I enjoyed so much support for education in my family that it never occurred to me until I started teaching that in many households, making ends meet trumps making it to college. What Can’t Wait is stuffed full of my students’ stories, and it deals with a concern that was particularly salient to them: how does a driven teen—confronted with the daily expectation to drop everything and help out at home—find her or his own path?
Ashley with a former student, Rey Mejía
That’s the challenge my students wanted to see. Too many books, they told me, made it seem easy to go to college, like all it takes is a scholarship and a good work ethic. “In books, everybody’s parents are all about sending them to school,” my student Elizabeth told me one day. “My family doesn’t get why I don’t want to stay at home and help out while I go to community college. They say, why isn’t a school here good enough for you? Why do you want to leave us?”
To write What Can’t Wait, I had to get inside my students’ perspectives, consider the norms of their world, and imagine challenges that would be real to them and avenues to success that they could believe in. Marisa isn’t a copy of any one student, but virtually every situation in the book was influenced by the stories my kids told me and wrote in my class. My goal was not for readers to say “this is my life”—there’s infinite variety in our experiences, after all—but to say “this is my world.”
I don’t send my words out into a void. I don’t write for my agent or my editor. I write for my students. I write because Rey Mejia told me to keep it real. I write because I want Diana Alvarez to know that she’s not alone with a senior year that would break a lesser woman. I write because I want Brianda Morales to see how college is for her. I write because I want my students to find books that resonate with their experiences, books that honor their particular challenges, books that remind them that they can chart their own path, books that don’t pretend that life offers easy answers.
I’ve heard from a few readers frustrated that they didn’t “get” the Spanish the characters in What Can’t Wait sometimes use. They wondered why the book didn’t have a glossary. The answer is that most of my students wouldn’t need a glossary. To include a glossary would have been to say, “Actually, this book is meant as a barrio tour for gringos. See? It comes with a travel guide…”
No. What Can’t Wait has lots to offer to readers of all backgrounds, but I wrote it for my students. My contribution to diversity in YA hinges on the fact that I know my audience, and I care about what they find when they go to the bookshelf.
Este libro es para mis scholars. Les quiero mucho.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/ashleyperezcrop.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Ashley Hope Pérez has taught bilingual kindergarten, Montessori grades 1-3, and high school in Houston. Currently she is working on a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Indiana University. She also teaches undergraduate courses for her department, including Vampire Literature and a course on women writers of the Caribbean. What Can’t Wait, published in March 2011 by Carolrhoda Lab, is her first novel. Visit her online at www.ashleyperez.com.[/author_info] [/author]