Spend enough time in the YA book world, and you’ll hear a writer—or several—speak with a stricken look about the stumbling process of writing a second book. Sometimes it happens on second published books. Sometimes it happens on second manuscripts, whether those books become agented or published or not. I wish I could tell you what it is about the second book that catches so many of us. I can’t.
But I can tell what it was for me.
Writing my second book, I told myself to be patient. Well, one part of myself: the queer part. I was already writing about characters of color, including Latinx characters that reflected my own experience. But I told myself this wasn’t the time to go further and include LGBTQ characters. I could do that on my third, or fourth book, when I’d earned it. Yes, this was how I thought, that incorporating two aspects of my identity into one book was something I had to earn.
So I wrote a very straight book…and, well, considering how I started this post, you can guess how it went. My critique partners patiently gave notes on different versions. My agent tried to shepherd me toward a better direction. My editor shared what was working and what wasn’t. But despite the help and advice of everyone I had in my corner, I kept turning out one forced, bloodless draft after another.
When my fear of writing a book I couldn’t stand behind overcame my fear of writing LGBTQ characters, I surrendered to this story. I gave in to its wishes. I made this book the queer, of-color book it wanted to be. A story about a Latina girl who grows roses from her wrist, and a transgender Pakistani-American boy who paints a hundred versions of the moon. A story in which they understand and love each other’s bodies, and in which they have sex on the page.
I turned in the book that had now become When the Moon was Ours, ready for someone to say, “We can’t publish this.” But what I heard instead was, “Yes, this is what this book was supposed to be.”
Until then, I hadn’t let this story be what it wanted to be, because I had been afraid of what I was. In the same way I sometimes feared there wasn’t space in the world for queer girls of color, I worried there wasn’t a place for this story I had in me.
This is what I’ve learned, not to resist what a story wants to be, especially if it’s because I’m afraid there is too much different about me for the world to accept. What’s at the heart of us is who we are. These are our stories. And when our stories ask us to speak from our hearts, from everything we are, they won’t let us go until we answer.
Anna-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. Her debut novel, THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS (out now from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), was a Junior Library Guild Selection, named to YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults list, and a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Award. Her second novel, WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, will be released on October 4, 2016, and WILD BEAUTY is forthcoming in 2017. You can find Anna-Marie at annamariemclemore.com or on Twitter @LaAnnaMarie.
Every book I have written is a book of my heart, but WANT is especially dear to me. A near-future thriller set in Taipei, it is an ode to my birth city, the vibrancy of which is deeply rooted in me. The feel of the air, the smells, these colors shaped my childhood and who I am today. I tried to capture that in WANT. This book is also special because it is the first non-fantasy novel I have ever written and challenged me in so many ways as a writer. But I loved my characters in this book, especially my hero and heroine, and I loved portraying this city I adore, a character in itself, so close to my heart. It is the first YA speculative fiction I’m aware of published by a big US publisher set in Taipei, if not the first young adult set there. So many fantastic firsts!
The WANT cover is stunning and amazing and everything I could have hoped for as an author. I hope you love it too!
Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits, protecting them from the pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by his city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.
With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.
Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgment, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is, or destroying his own heart?
Following is a conversation I had with Jen Ung, my Simon Pulse editor, on our thoughts about this cover!
Cindy: I wasn’t expecting it at all when WANT’s first cover iteration dropped into my email. It came as a complete surprise! My reaction? *screaming* and *lying face down* ha! WANT is the first non-fantasy novel I’d ever written, and one of its draws for me was my #cuteasianboy hero Jason Zhou. To see him rendered so wonderfully and featured and centered on the cover, with the lights of Taipei reflected on his helmet—I honestly cannot describe all my feels. I know everyone has a different preference and opinion for book covers. But personally for me, the more Asian faces I can get onto my novels, the better!!
Jen: WANT’s original editor, Michael Strother, and I were also all for showing a #cuteasianboy on the cover! When the designer for the project, Karina Granda, read the first draft of WANT, she described the read as feeling atmospheric and “wet,” and wanted to evoke this with the cover art style. She decided to hire artist Jason Chan, who does a lot of work in the video game space. He also regularly illustrates MG/YA book covers, so she knew he could do a fantastic job applying his video game art style to a YA book cover. The cover you see here is one of Jason’s original concepts, and I think it’s stunning.
Cindy: I feel so so lucky because Jason Chan is an amazing artist, and he really captured the feel of the novel so well. I also love that Karina described the atmosphere of WANT as “wet”. This novel was truly an ode to my birth city, Taipei, which is a very humid city with many rain showers (and typhoons!), and I wrote all that into the book. I’m just so pleased that she picked up on that as a perceptive designer! When I saw the original cover, with Jason’s white blonde hair and eyes closed, I was already blown away. Michael was kind enough to ask if I had any feedback. I did. My main concern was that readers might not see with this first cover iteration that Jason is indeed Asian. I don’t think it’s an unfounded fear, as there are so few Asians featured in young adult novels today, much less Asian boy leads. In fact, I’m certain that WANT will likely be the only YA cover with an Asian hero so prominently shown in 2017. This representation mattered to me. I really appreciated the dream-like quality of having Jason’s eyes closed, but he is such an active hero in the novel, I felt opened eyes and a direct look from him was more suitable. And although he starts with blond hair in the novel, the majority of the story he wears it black. Jason Chan was able to incorporate both suggestions, and I truly feel so happy and fortunate. I don’t think there is any room for doubt that my hero is an Asian boy on the WANT cover. I adore this cover so much.
Jen: We loved Cindy’s suggested changes, and I agree that the tweaks ultimately made for a stronger, more active image. Representation in YA—in terms of both covers and content—is something near and dear to my heart, and I just know that WANT is going to mean so much to so many readers, for so many different reasons. I’m very grateful to the designer and artist for so perfectly capturing the essence of the book, and to Cindy for writing such a fantastic story!
Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow Books), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. Serpentine (Month9Books), the first title in another Chinese-inspired fantasy duology, is a Junior Library Guild Selection and received starred reviews from School Library Journal and VOYA. Sacrifice, the sequel, is also a Junior Library Guild Selection and received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Learn more about her books and art at http://cindypon.com. Chat with her on twitter: @cindypon or follow her on instagram: @cindyponauthor
I’ve lived with depression and suicidal ideation since I was a teenager, much of it stemming from an overwhelming need to live up to my parents and my own expectations, along with never feeling I was good enough, and never feeling like I fit in. I was ashamed of myself, ashamed that I was a burden on my family, ashamed that I had failed in every way: school, career, relationships, and more.
It was a long road to recovery with my depression, and it’s still a work in progress. There’s a huge stigma surrounding mental health, especially in the Asian American community where we were raised to “save face.” Learning the patience to work out what I needed emotionally from my family and friends and being able to voice it has been a long journey.
I escaped into books, devouring anything and everything, disappearing into endless possibilities of worlds, delighted in travelling alongside my favorite heroes as they saved the universe.
And yet at the same time I was always a spectator; I felt wrong and broken for being attracted to more than one gender, because I hardly ever saw it portrayed in novels, especially in speculative fiction. I wasn’t white or straight like the heroes of renown, and I had internalized that adventures and saving the world and falling in love and happy-ever-afters were not for people like me.
I started writing because I wanted to write the books I wish I could have read as a teenager. I want romance and adventure and fantasy and science fiction and horror and every genre imaginable.
My novel Not Your Sidekick began as a project that was born out of frustration. I was tired. I was tired of characters of color being sidelined in supporting roles, I was tired of stories where girls who fell in love with other girls were met with tragedy at every front.
I’ve always loved the superhero genre because there are so many ways you can talk about identity, super or otherwise. One of the things Jess struggles with in Not Your Sidekick is living up to expectations. Since she doesn’t think she’s going to get superpowers, she’s struggling to prove herself. Her parents are immigrants, and she and her siblings are the first born in this new country— similar to my own experience growing up, albeit Jess lives in the year 2132. This theme of redefining success really hits close to home for me, and I wanted to show how first-generation children really feel that pressure.
Not Your Sidekick is lighthearted and and often skirts the line of ridiculous. I don’t take myself too seriously, and the novel doesn’t either; I poke lots of fun at superhero tropes and secret identity shenanigans. While I touch on issues that are important to me, like the theme of expectations and defining your own success— I want most of all to bring joy and laughter and silliness and light. I want readers to have fun.
I hope readers will find joy in the novel, as I have bringing it to the world.
C.B. Lee is a bisexual writer, rock climber and hiking enthusiast based in California. She is a first-generation Asian American and has a BA in Sociology and Environmental Science, which occasionally comes in handy in her chosen career, but not usually. Lee enjoys reading, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. Her first novel, Seven Tears at High Tide, was published by Duet Books (Interlude Press) in 2015 and named a finalist for two Bisexual Book of the Year Awards. Ms. Lee is also a Lambda Literary Emerging LGBTQ Voices Fellow.
When I was in college, I started work on a novel about about a boy who travels into the afterlife to find his dead sister. It was set in a small mountain town similar to my own–it had the same smell of pine, the same dry heat, the same graveyards–and I poured into that manuscript so much of what I loved: beautiful prose, paragraphs that reverberated like the tolling of brass bells, magic (of course), grief, wonderfully twisty formatting.
But when I met with my creative writing professor, a Japanese-American author, her main comments were these:
Why are you writing about a white boy? White boys write about themselves all the time.
Why don’t you write about a Chinese girl? A Japanese girl?
And my reaction was this:
I can write about whoever I want! This is the story I have to tell. The one about this small white town, the one about this white boy grappling with death.
You see, I’d been reading about white boys for years. I studied them in school. I joined them on their adventures in Narnia and Middle Earth and Hogwarts. I watched them battle super villains on TV. I knew white boy stories–perhaps, I think, even better than I knew my own. I could write white boy stories.
However, as with many first novels, it went nowhere. I didn’t even finish it. Didn’t know how. Didn’t feel that driving need to get to the end. As soon as I graduated, I let that story go.
Years later, I decided to give myself a real shot at being an author, and I thought about the stories I had to tell. The stories that I wouldn’t let go, no matter how difficult or challenging they got. The stories that were a part of me, at my glowing molten core, and wouldn’t let me go.
And I wrote The Reader.
There’s a lot of what I love in this book too: beautiful prose, cowboy-pirates and adventurers, magic (of course), loss, interesting formatting, long hikes through the forest and vast open spaces.
And a main character, Sefia, who looks like me.
To be clear, The Reader isn’t an Asian-inspired fantasy. If anything, the world is more like a heavily romanticized American wild west (which is also near and dear to my heart), and because it’s all made up, our categories of race don’t apply. I can’t say Sefia is Asian or Asian-American because Asia and America don’t exist. But she has straight black hair and teardrop-shaped eyes, and she’s small but mighty, which is generally how I feel about my own stature. She looks like me. (Although if you look closely, you’ll see some hints that in our world, she’d actually be biracial.)
I wrote her this way for a very specific reason.
Because ten years after my creative writing professor suggested I stop writing about white boys, I finally understood why.
When I was a kid, I clung to Trini the Yellow Ranger and Tina Nguyen from Ghostwriter and Mulan and Cho Chang because they were the only sci-fi/fantasy characters, out of all the books and comic books and TV shows and movies, who looked like me. And that made it nearly impossible to imagine myself in these stories. Because among the Goldilockses, Red Riding Hoods, Belles, Auroras, Wolverines, Raphaels, Susan Pevensies, Striders, Samwise Gamgees, Harry Potters, Hermiones, Lyras, and Wills, I–effectively–didn’t exist.
I had no story. I couldn’t even imagine having a story.
So when I set out to find the story I had to tell, I discovered that I needed to write a main character for me, and for girls like me–Asian and Asian-American girls who need more heroes who look like them, heroes whose image they could step into.
I wrote The Reader in 18 months, and not once did I feel like I wouldn’t finish it. I spent another 12 months revising it with my editor, and not once did I feel like I’d run out of power.
This story, with this character, was too important, too much a part of me, to let go.
I’m not sure if this will happen, but if there are readers out there who need this story the way I needed it when I was younger, I hope they find it. I hope it helps them, in some small way, to embrace their own stories, the ones they have at their glowing molten cores. The ones they have to tell.
Traci Chee is an author of speculative fiction for teens. An all-around word geek, she loves book arts and art books, poetry and paper crafts. She studied literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and earned a master of arts degree from San Francisco State University. The Reader is her YA debut.
There’s a photograph and a biography at the end of this post. Check it out now if you want. What’s your first impression of the person represented there? A pale-skinned, bespectacled blonde. British. First published quite young. Likes animals. That’s usually enough to give people a strong idea that they know who I am. But it’s not all there is to know.
If there’s one thing fiction is brilliant at, it’s proving to readers that nothing is as it seems.
In 2014 my first urban fantasy and the opening novel of my trilogy came out in the US. The Name of the Blade presented readers with Mio Yamato, a British-born Japanese heroine who is good with swords and almost recklessly valiant, her supernatural and seemingly perfect boyfriend, and a smart-mouthed best friend, Jack. Mio’s parents are out of the country on holiday and it’s up to Mio and crew to save London before those pesky adults get back and ground Mio for unleashing the monsters of Japanese myth onto the streets. Cliché cliché cliché. Right?
Well, I hope that the first book proved the characters had inner life and unexpected depth, and their world was darker and more complex than that.
But in Darkness Hidden, the second book of the trilogy, it was really time to start ripping back the reader’s assumptions. Mio, still suffering from the events of the first book, becomes paralysed with fear of making the wrong decision again, and all her ass-kicking becomes a sort of avoidance technique to distract her from taking more meaningful action. The perfectly devoted supernatural boyfriend is revealed to be psychologically fragile, maybe even broken, a habitual liar who seeks to protect himself by keeping the full truth from Mio. Tough, protective, physically capable Jack is left vulnerable and hurt. And the parents I’d so conveniently dispensed with in the first book? Turn out to have a great deal more to offer the story than either readers or Mio expected in this one.
I’m committed to diversity in my writing. Out of seven published YA novels, six have a protagonist who is a woman of colour (it will surprise no one that the single book with a white heroine is the most successful in terms of sales). Many of my books deal with mental illness and disability, and portray a whole spectrum of different sexualities and gender presentations. Sometimes people ask me why I ‘bother’ to do this, clearly assuming that my default must be the same as theirs — straight, white, able-bodied and cis. Surely it must be a lot of effort to include all these, you know, minorities and whatever?
It never crosses their mind that I might be among the minorities.
I don’t think authors should have to play privilege points in order to justify their choices. If someone wants to write books that are diverse, those books should be judged based on how good they are and nothing else.
But things aren’t always what they seem. That’s a good lesson for real life as well as fiction.
I hope readers will be intrigued and entertained by what I’ve attempted to do in Darkness Hidden — the gradual breaking down of what seemed at first to be the over-used tropes of urban fantasy. I hope they’ll come to see that their first impressions of the characters weren’t necessarily wrong, but that, just like in real life, what we can observe about a character at a single glance does not define them.
In choosing to write this particular series, which is set in contemporary London, has an all PoC cast, and pansexual, genderfluid and lesbian characters, I’m doing something that is vitally, personally important to me. Subverting the unquestioned assumptions I see in far too many YA novels. Taking characters whom all too often are pushed to the margins of the narrative, or even erased altogether, and offering them a voice, a point of view, and a story of their own.
I’m committed to diversity because I know how important it is to see your reflection in fiction growing up. I didn’t have that advantage, sadly.
What — not enough white-skinned blondes, you wonder? Oh yeah, plenty of those. But no one like me.
What my picture doesn’t show you, what my biography doesn’t reveal, is that I’m disabled, and have suffered with depression and anxiety all my life (I can quite clearly remember having my first suicidal thought when I was about eight). That my much-beloved family is mixed race. That I’m asexual, and after many years of work am now comfortable considering myself queer — although plenty of people (both gay and straight) like to tell me that I shouldn’t.
How many protagonists like me do you think I read about as a kid?
The best YA novels are not what they seem. They have unexpected depths and insights to offer that a reader will never discover unless they read on. And YA novelists — in fact, all people — are the same. Which means that, just as judging books by their cover is a bad idea, so is judging authors by their official biographies.
YA novelist Zoë Marriott lives on the bleak and windy East coast of Britain, in a house crowded with books, cats, and an eccentric sprocker named Finn (also known as the Devil Hound). Her folk and fairytale inspired fantasy novels are critically acclaimed and have been nominated for many awards, even winning a few, including a USBBY Outstanding International Book listing forThe Swan Kingdom, and the prestigious Sasakawa Prize for Shadows on the Moon.
Maybe the title of this post is a little tongue-in-cheek, but not entirely.
When I was pitching my debut novel, Silver Phoenix, in 2008, one of the first editors I met at a local conference read twelve pages and said two things that stuck with me. First: This reads like Crouching Tiger crossed with The Joy Luck Club. Why is it fantasy? Second: Asian fantasy doesn’t sell.
My internal thought to the first was: But doesn’t Crouching Tiger have fantastical elements? And why is he saying it like this is a bad thing? My thought to the second was: Oh.
I immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when I was six years old, which means I learned English as a second language. I remember vividly my first grade teacher having to write my name onto the chalkboard because I didn’t know the alphabet. I remember staying home to work on my English while I watched the neighborhood kids play outside. So, when sometime in the third grade I began reading—and reading a lot—it seemed as if magical worlds had been opened to me. I had worked so hard to gain access to these story treasures!
I fell in love with books, and fantasy was one of my favorite genres. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized I had never seen a character who looked like me in any of the fantasy novels I had read. That’s why I wrote Silver Phoenix.
It was incredibly disheartening to be told by the first professional editor I’d met as a budding writer: Don’t bother. No one wants this.
Well, Silver Phoenix did sell to Greenwillow Books, and it was published in 2009, a difficult time in publishing, and an even more challenging one for debut authors. That year, my novel was the only Asian-inspired YA fantasy released by a major publisher, and now, six years later, I can still count on one hand the number that are released any given year. There have been strides, but not many.
When I began writing Serpentine, which was published on Sept. 8, I knew it was a risk. I was writing another fantasy set in my fictitious Kingdom of Xia when the sales numbers for my other books had not been strong. But if you know me personally, you know that no one tells me what to or not to do, and I am a stubborn-headed goat. When I do find a story idea, I always write that novel. Serpentine was on submission for two years, with a handful of editors giving very positive feedback, but asking to see something “entirely different” from me instead.
I was ready to self-publish when Serpentine and its sequel were acquired by Month9Books, and it has been a fantastic journey with this amazing small press. But those two years on submission gave me time to realize all the things that made Serpentine “not commercial” by the standards of what is popular in YA fantasy’s current market.
1. “Too many Asians”
My novels feature casts that are almost entirely Asian, which is very rarely seen in YA books. I’ve also come to realize that the setting itself, inspired by ancient China, is severely othered by the average Western reader, even those who are enthusiastic fantasy readers. Ancient China is more foreign and seen as less commercial than Mars or the moon.
2. “Always the handmaid, never the princess”
I’m very familiar with fantasy’s love for royalty, the princes and princesses who must be smart, brave, and persevere to save their kingdoms. I have read and loved many of these fantasy stories, but have never been drawn to writing them myself. My heroines have always been underdogs, and it is no different in Serpentine. Orphaned at birth, the main character Skybright has been a handmaid and companion to her mistress her entire life. She is pragmatic and hardworking, until one night she wakes to find the lower half of her body has morphed into a long serpentine coil. This changes what she thought she knew about herself and her life forever.
3. “Sisters before misters”
I knew from the outset that I wanted a strong female friendship to be the focus of Serpentine. It was something that was lacking in my Phoenix novels, but also, it was a tribute to all the fabulous women friends I have in my own life, who have boosted and encouraged me in my writing career. And although there is a strong romance between Skybright and a boy she meets, I do believe the core of the story is the friendship between Skybright and Zhen Ni.
4. “Different but not that different”
I think the true irony is that I always think I am writing to market. Shapeshifters are a popular staple in fantasy, both urban and traditional, and are part of the mythos and lore of many cultures worldwide. But one of my critique readers found the idea of a serpent demon heroine “gross”, and an editor said that despite my beautiful storytelling, a half serpent with a forked tongue would be a “tough sell” to the YA readership. Well, damn. Why can I never just fit nicely in the YA Fantasy Expectations Box? I blame my fascination with the idea of monstrous beauties, as well as the Greek mythology of Medusa, who was a beautiful woman herself before she was changed into a monster.
As for whether or not Asian fantasy sells, I think that it can, if these titles are given the same strong publicity and marketing push as other Western-inspired YA fantasies. I have yet to see this happen, and when there is strong buzz from the big publishers, it has often been for an Asian-inspired fantasy written by a white author.
So I’m especially grateful that Serpentine has had the chance to enter the world—and that the reception, so far, has been so welcoming. And if you decide to take a chance with a non-commercial YA fantasy, reader, I hope you enjoy Serpentine.
Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. The sequel to Silver Phoenix, titled Fury of the Phoenix, was released in April 2011. Serpentine, the first title in her next Xia duology, is a Junior Library Guild selection for Fall 2015. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Visit her website at www.cindypon.com.
Signed/personalized copies of Serpentine may be purchased from Mysterious Galaxy Books, and if you do so by Sept. 12, you will receive a brush art card (with art by Cindy Pon) with the book.
Many discussions on diversity in books center on so-called issue stories vs. non-issue ones. Issue books, like you’d expect, focus on a particular social issue: a gay protagonist, for example, comes to terms with his sexuality or struggles with the aftereffects of coming out; an interracial romance where the major roadblock is the interracial-ness of the romance; a poor, inner-city black girl struggles to escape the awful social history that sees her born into a troubled family in a crime-ridden neighborhood.
Issue books are important. I’ll say that again for emphasis. Issue books, especially the ones written for marginalized young adults struggling to come of age in a world that too often tells them they are deviant in some way, are crucial. It is important for a young gay boy to be able to locate himself in a book, to see that there are others like him, to know in his bones that he is normal, his feelings are valid, his sexuality is good and true. If a book can do that for him then it’s worth its weight in gold. Similarly, it’s important for that little black girl to know that life can be better, that you can find your own place in the world on your own terms.
But there’s another kind of book too: the non-issue book. This is the book where the gay protagonist isn’t struggling at all. He’s already come out. The people that matter have accepted him, everyone else be damned. Maybe he has a boyfriend, or a long time crush. Maybe he’s also about to discover that he’s a wizard, and that’s what the book is about: an adventure story about love, friendship and believing in yourself. This imagined book, this non-issue book, is not firstly about being gay. It’s about magic.
When I started writing Everything, Everything, the protagonist was always going to be of mixed race — not because there was a particular racial issue I wanted to address, but because that is simply who she is. We live in a world where diversity is a fact of life. Diversity is the natural state of things. There are about 20,000 species of butterflies on our planet. 23,000 different kinds of trees. The idea of a single homogeneous anything, let alone “race,” is a construct of culture that goes against everything in nature, and our books should reflect that. We breathe oxygen. The sun rises and also sets. We are diverse.
Issue books are important. And non-issue books are just as important. I don’t spend the majority of my days thinking about race and where the color of my skin locates me in the world. I spend my days as most people do: I work, I laugh, I worry, I dream, I strive to be happy. I believe in love. And magic. I hope that my mixed race daughter will be able to spend less time than I do thinking about race. I hope she will read stories about people that are just like her and stories about people who are not. I hope that she’ll read scary stories, issue stories, funny stories, romantic stories and fantastical stories with dragons and beasts that need slaying.
And I hope that the heroine of some of these stories will look just like her.
Nicola Yoon grew up in Jamaica (the island) and Brooklyn (part of Long Island). She currently resides in Los Angeles, CA with her husband and daughter, both of whom she loves beyond all reason.
Everything, Everything is available for purchase here.
Rider began with visuals in my head: a golden-furred pterosaur soaring overhead and a figure striding towards me, dressed in riding leathers and boots. As visuals go, this refused to budge and I found myself writing, first a short flash piece and then followed by longer chapters. A month was what it took for it to crystallize and take final form. The second and third books were written a few months later.
The series has pterosaur-like aliens who speak in images and colors. It also have a main character who is the descendent of Chinese colonists, a girl with a burning desire to be a Rider, like her older sister (oh, the sibling rivalry!). The world is a desert planet, terra-formed by the settlers. Yet the desert is slowly creeping back and reclaiming the land as its own. I first tested the ground with a raw draft on Smashwords and the response was generally good. They liked it! Even my older girl, my taste-test for all things YA, liked it and wanted more. Later, I pitched it to a local independent press, Math Paper Press, and Kenny Leck, the publisher, liked it too.
So, here we go: my first published YA SFF series in print. A series that resonated with me and my daughter liked. Yet, I found it an uphill task when Rider and Speaker went on Amazon. The uptake was slow and I was disappointed. Then the reviews came in. Mostly good, but some were really hurtful and surprising. One remark I got was that Rider was “too Asian” and I shouldn’t have mentioned so many Asian things like food and culture. One-star. The irony was that the person who wrote this review was also Chinese.
I found it shocking. We are all asking for diversity in MG and YA lit, but are our readers ready for it? In a fast-changing world where privilege goes hand-in-hand with discrimination and bigotry, are we truly ready for a diverse YA lit-scape?
The Singapore market
Of note: I am Singaporean-Chinese, living in Singapore where the YA scene itself is slowly growing, but the readers still consume mostly US-centric YA books. Walk into a bookstore and it is all US-centric and dominated by the big publishing houses. You hardly see any local YA books there and even then, the local books are tucked in a small unnoticeable corner. Reception is cold and most of the time, it is not there. Mainly because, perhaps, Singapore is a small market.
The publishing houses that are putting out YA and MG books are a mixture of big and small presses. Marshall Cavendish, Epigram Books, Select Books and Math Paper Press. The MG books seem to be doing much better than YA books, simply because the marketing has been consistent and targeted at a sizable portion of the population: kids. YA, however, seems otherwise. This is not to say that there is no interest in YA books written by local authors. There are government-funded initiatives to encourage local aspiring YA writers. At the same time, there are self-published YA authors like Low Kay Hwa who rely on word of mouth and volunteers (i.e. local school kids!) to get people buying.
I always joke that Singapore bookstore chains are only known to carry textbooks and assessment books (books created specifically for home practice ) and any market-savvy writer would be smart enough to become a textbook or assessment book author. There is a great demand here, simply because well, Singapore is an exams-mad/academic-orientated country with parents wanting their kids to excel in school. Independent bookstores like Books Actually and big book chain name Kinokuniya though do carry more YA books, even by local authors, though Kino tends to put local books under the Singapore/local section.
Despite such challenges (!), there is some sign of interest in Singaporean and Southeast Asian YA/MG. We have the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, a conference where authors, agents and book publishers discuss issues in children’s fiction. We also now have a one-day conference targeted at young writers too, many of whom are also writing YA. I am cautiously hopeful to see these events bear fruit.
To the future and beyond
I really hope the Rider Trilogy will take off (no pun intended) and I am eternally optimistic, even if the task is challenging and sometimes emotionally draining.
Joyce Chng is Singaporean-Chinese and lives in Singapore. She writes science fiction, urban fantasy and YA. She can be found at A Wolf’s Tale, talking about writerly stuff and Life, and as @jolantru on Twitter.
A couple of weeks ago we were asked for books about Southeast Asian American characters. Southeast Asia is a big region of the world, and yet it’s very difficult to find books about Southeast Asians in the contemporary United States. Some of the books here are technically upper middle-grade, but because it was so hard to find them, we included them anyway. Descriptions are from WorldCat, and links go to Barnes & Noble.
After the upheaval of the Vietnam War reaches them, twelve-year-old Kia and her Hmong family flee from the mountains of Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand and eventually to the alien world of Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Having fled Cambodia four years earlier to escape the Khmer Rouge army, seventeen-year-old Sundara is torn between remaining faithful to her own people and enjoying life in her Oregon high school as a “regular” American.
While in St. Petersburg, Florida, to give her grandmother a Cambodian funeral, fourteen-year-old Grace, who was raised in Pennsylvania, finally gets some answers about the father she never met, her mother’s and grandmother’s youth, and her Asian-American heritage.
Fourteen-year-old Henry, wishing to honor his brother Franklin’s dying wish, sets out to hike Maine’s Mount Katahdin with his best friend and dog. But fate adds another companion–the Cambodian refugee accused of fatally injuring Franklin–and reveals troubles that predate the accident.
After ten years in a refugee camp in Thailand, thirteen-year-old Mai Yang travels to Providence, Rhode Island, where her Americanized cousins introduce her to pizza, shopping, and beer, while her grandmother and new friends keep her connected to her Hmong heritage.