Tag Archives: Malinda Lo

Interview With Rainbow Rowell

By Malinda Lo

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Rainbow Rowell’s newest novel, Carry On, tells the story of Simon Snow, a boy wizard at a British boarding school — with a twist. Carry On is about characters that Rainbow first created for her novel Fangirl, but Fangirl wasn’t about those characters (well, not exactly). In Fangirl, college freshman Cath Avery spends much of her time writing fan fiction about Simon and his roommate Baz, who come from a Harry Potter-like series of novels written by the fictional Gemma T. Leslie. Cath’s magnum opus is also titled Carry On, but Rainbow’s novel isn’t Cath’s novel; it’s Rainbow’s version of the Simon Snow books.

Confused? Then forget about my attempt to explain Carry On’s meta origins, because you don’t have to understand any of that to enjoy this book. Carry On is a fantasy novel about a boy wizard named Simon, set in a fantasy world that is much like our own but with several key differences (magic being one of them). It’s about Simon’s identity as a chosen one, and how he struggles with that responsibility. It’s also about Simon’s first love, his roommate Baz, who happens to be a vampire. Their love story is a central element in Carry On, and it’s their love story that makes it clear that this is a Rainbow Rowell book.

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Carry On and asking Rainbow a few questions about her latest novel.

Malinda Lo: How would you describe Carry On?

Rainbow Rowell: Carry On is a chosen one story that’s also about chosen one stories. I think my UK editor Rachel Petty summed it up better than anyone else so far: “It’s is a love story to love stories and the power of words — it’s an homage to every ‘chosen one’ who ever had more on his mind than saving the world.”

ML: Carry On is your first full-length fantasy novel, though you wrote several Simon/Baz scenes in Fangirl and you’ve also written fan fiction based on fantasy novels. However, you’re best known for your realistic fiction. What did you find to be the biggest challenges in writing fantasy instead of realistic fiction? And what aspects of fantasy came most easily for you?

RR: I’ve always read more fantasy and sci-fi than realistic fiction, but I never thought I could write it myself. It seemed too much to get my head around. When you write realistic fiction, all the walls are already built, in a way. The laws of gravity apply. Plus I was a newspaper journalist for so long that even realistic fiction felt like too much lying at first.

I think that the Simon Snow scenes in Fangirl were a way for me to experiment with writing fantasy without risking too much. To splash around in the water without leaving dry land.

But those were my favorite parts of the book to write. And the first six months of writing Carry On were the happiest I’ve been as an author.

I have read so much fantasy in my life. I realized that there were so many tropes and magical situations that I wanted to play with. Carry On was supposed to be a short story about Simon and Baz falling in love, but it quickly became this whole big story with eight different narrators.

The most challenging part was definitely the plot. This book reads like one of my books; it’s character driven and relationship-driven. But I wanted it to have a big plotty engine under the hood. And I wanted the plot to make sense. (Even though I love so many fantasies with plots that disintegrate when you look at them too closely…)

ML: Obviously, one aspect of fantasy that is not present in realistic fiction is magic. In Carry On, rather than turning magic spells into Latin words the way J. K. Rowling does in Harry Potter, you use everyday English phrases that are heavily weighted with meaning. The students at Watford in Carry On even take a class called Magic Words to teach them how to construct their spells with phrases ranging from “U can’t touch this” (only relevant if the target of the spell knows the song) to nursery rhymes. How did you develop this idea? It seems so ingenious and I wish I had thought of it! Words do have power, even in our world without magic.

RR: Thank you! Well, it’s a familiar idea, I think, that there’s magic in belief and recognition. In Peter Pan, it’s our belief in fairies that keeps Tinker Bell alive. And in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Bill Willingham’s Fables, regular people give gods and fairy tale characters power by telling their stories.

I don’t know how I came to this exactly — the idea that certain phrases would be more powerful the more that normal people say them.

It was so freeing to build the foundation for Carry On — the magical rules and the way the society worked — while I was writing Fangirl. Because there was no pressure! I felt like I was playing.

Once I had the Magic Words idea, it was so much fun to come up with the spells, and to think about what would make a powerful magician in Simon’s world. Like, one of the reasons Simon is such a crap mage is that, even though he has infinite power, he trips over his words.

Probably it’s not that surprising that someone like me would imagine a world where words are the most powerful currency. They’re my only currency!

ML: If the World of Mages existed and we lived it and you could do magic, what spell would you use to get through a difficult writing day?

RR: Ohhhh … Maybe “Coin a phrase!” That would be a super powerful spell. Like a wish for more wishes.

ML: You’re well known for the romances in your realistic novels, which are all heterosexual. The central romance in Carry On is between two boys. Did you have any worries (writing craft-wise or otherwise) about writing a same-sex love story?

RR: Well, I wanted to be thoughtful about it. I knew how I didn’t want it to feel: like a homoerotic tease, all subtext and nothing real; or fetishized.

But mostly I just wrote Simon and Baz falling in love the way I always write characters falling in love. I want my love stories to feel real. I want them to have depth and texture.

ML: As you and probably everybody out there knows, same-sex love stories hardly ever make it onto the bestseller lists. David Levithan and John Green’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson did, but only for a short time. Given your fan base, Carry On really does have a shot at making it onto those lists, and if it does, it certainly is poised to change a lot of publishers’ minds about same-sex stories. How do you feel about this?

RR: I hope it’s successful, of course. (I mean, of course.) And I’d love for it to be part of a huge wave of bestselling books about queer characters. But I try really hard not to think about the lists.

I wrote my two most popular books when I was in a place of not caring at all what would be successful — and not having any hope for success. After my first book, Attachments, didn’t do anything sales-wise, I wrote Eleanor & Park and especially Fangirl, feeling like I may as well write whatever I wanted because I couldn’t afford to keep going. I’d used up all my spare time and money and my family’s good will, and it felt very final.

Only later did people say things to me like, “Eighties stories don’t sell” and “Asian characters don’t sell” and “Fanfiction is a dirty word in publishing.” I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was writing!

So the publishing lesson for me has been: Keep your head down. Don’t listen to conventional wisdom. Write the book that you want to spend a year of your life on.

Carry On was that book for me.

ML: Carry On isn’t exactly fan fiction since you created the story, but it is definitely a metafiction of some sort. So I have to ask you a meta question. Fandom often generates a lot of love for secondary characters — Draco in the Harry Potter series is one of the biggest examples of this. If someone were to write fan fiction based on Carry On, which secondary characters do you think would generate the most (and unexpected) fandom love? (My money’s on Ebb. Honestly, I’d like to read some fanfic about her.)

RR: Yes! I love that about fanfiction! I really think people are motivated to read and write fic because of what they don’t see in the stories they love. It’s about filling gaps and exploring the unexplored.

And, oh, I’m glad you like Ebb! I loved writing the adult characters. And I’ve already thought about writing more about Baz’s aunt and her ex. Like, how they hook up again and become vampire-hunters.

I’d also like to write a story about Ebb’s true love, and how that person reacts after the events of the book. (That was a hard sentence to write without spoilers.)

ML: Oh, I would so love to read that story! Will you be writing more fantasy in the future, or is it back to realism for you?

RR: Oh God, I don’t know. This is the first time in my writing career that I haven’t had at least the first draft of my next book written when my book was coming out. The future is wide open, I guess.

But my next project is a graphic novel. I have two outlines — one fantasy, one sci-fi.

I think I’d like to stay flexible, writing about teens sometimes and adults sometimes, and moving between genres and media. I want to keep feeling completely engaged by whatever I’m working on.

ML: I have one more question, and it’s a selfish one for me. You now write across adult and YA, fantasy and realistic fiction. I think that genre and category boundaries are useful for readers in terms of finding books, but how do they affect the way you write, if at all?

RR: I agree, they are useful for readers — and useful for marketing; you don’t want people to be confused about what you’re selling. Unfortunately, categories and genre don’t seem to be useful for me as a writer.

When I get done writing a book, the last thing I want is to start something similar. I want fresh air and a new challenge. And my ideas are all over the place.

So I’ve decided to just write what I feel driven to write, and to hope that my readers follow me — or that new readers find me.

I think I’m going to be a sharper creative person and a happier person if I keep moving.

Some of this comes, I think, out of my career so far. I was a newspaper columnist. Then I was an advertising creative director. I’m really glad that I kept taking risks and trying new things.

I’ve been lucky to work with a literary agent and editor who support and encourage me on this path.

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Visit Rainbow Rowell’s website or follow her on twitter. Carry On is now available.

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

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

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.

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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.

10 LGBTQ Young Adult Authors to Know

In honor of LGBT Pride Month, here are 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer authors of young adult fiction to know:

T Cooper

  • Co-author with Allison Glock-Cooper of Changers Book 1: Drew, and several books for adults
  • t-cooper.com

Sara Farizan

  • Author of the Lambda Award-winning If You Could Be Mine and the forthcoming Tell Me How a Crush Should Feel
  • @SaraFarizan

Nina LaCour

David Levithan

  • Author of the Lambda Award-winning Two Boys Kissing, Boy Meets Boy, and co-author with John Green of Will Grayson, Will Grayson; and more
  • davidlevithan.com

Malinda Lo

Alex London

Patrick Ness

Julie Anne Peters

  • Author of Lies My Girlfriend Told Me, the National Book Award finalist Luna, Keeping You a Secret, and more
  • julieannepeters.com

Benjamin Alire Sáenz

  • Author of the Printz Honor book Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Last Night I Sang to the Monster, and several books for adults
  • @BenjaminAlireSa

Tess Sharpe

10 Asian Pacific American YA Authors to Know

Swati Avasthi

Melissa de la Cruz

Andrew Fukuda

Jenny Han

Malinda Lo

  • Author of Adaptation and Inheritance, William C. Morris Award finalist for Ash, and co-founder of Diversity in YA
  • malindalo.com | @malindalo | Tumblr

Ellen Oh

Cindy Pon

  • Author of Silver Phoenix, Fury of the Phoenix, the forthcoming Serpentine (Month9Books, 2015), and co-founder of Diversity in YA
  • cindypon.com | @cindypon | Tumblr

Padma Venkatraman

  • Author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning novels A Time to Dance, Climbing the Stairs, and Island’s End
  • padmasbooks.com

Gene Luen Yang

  • Author of the National Book Award finalist and LA Times Book Prize winner Boxers and Saints, the Printz Award-winning and National Book Award finalist American Born Chinese, and co-author of Dark Horse Comics’ Avatar: The Last Airbender
  • geneyang.com | @geneluenyang

Laurence Yep

  • Author of dozens of books for children and young adults including the Gold Mountain Chronicles, winner of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, and two-time Newbery Honor winner
  • Wikipedia page

New Releases – September 2013

Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi, illustrated by Craig Phillips (Knopf)

“Avasthi (Split) delivers a superb novel about grief, friendship, and mental illness, mixing in graphic-novel elements and themes from Hindu mythology.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Rumor Central: You Don’t Know Me Like That #2 by ReShonda Tate Billingsley (KTeen Dafina)

Book Description: Gossip show “Rumor Central” has gone beyond Miami to national syndication. So now’s the time for Maya Morgan to really make her brand blow up. But her brand starts to blow up in her face when a super-fan takes over her online life, trashing her reputation, and putting her gossip future at risk. Now Maya will need every down-and-dirty move–and a little help from her frenemies–to manage this disaster and save everything she’s dished so hard to get…

Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac (Tu Books)

“This near-future dystopia starring an Apache female superhero has the soul of a graphic novel, if not the art. … A good bet for fans of superhero fiction and graphic novels and readers in search of superpowered female warriors.” — Kirkus

Romeo and Juliet adapted and illustrated by Gareth Hinds, based on the play by William Shakespeare (Candlewick)

Book Description: “Gareth Hinds’s stylish graphic adaptation of the Bard’s romantic tragedy offers modern touches — including a diverse cast that underscores the story’s universality.”

The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer (Atheneum)

“This highly anticipated sequel to Farmer’s National Book Award–winning The House of the Scorpion (2002) begins soon after the funeral of the drug lord El Patrón and the murder of nearly everyone who attended the event. Fourteen-year-old Matt, the dead drug lord’s clone, was originally created to provide spare parts for El Patrón, but is now the Lord of Opium…. Once again, Farmer’s near-future world offers an electric blend of horrors and beauty. Lyrically written and filled with well-rounded, sometimes thorny characters, this superb novel is well worth the wait.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Dead Ends by Erin Jade Lange (Bloomsbury)

“Lange (Butter) explores the friendship that forms between a rage-filled 16-year-old named Dane and his new neighbor, Billy D., who has Down syndrome. Although Dane is a bully, he draws the line at picking on the disabled (“Standards, y’know?”), and when he’s offered a chance to avoid suspension by helping Billy out, he accepts it reluctantly.” — Publishers Weekly

Inheritance by Malinda Lo (Little, Brown)

“As in the first book, dialogue rings true, and the characters are appealing. … The alien and political machinations provide menace, a brisk page-turning plot and lots of fun.” — Kirkus

Invasion by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic)

“D-Day, June 6, 1944, is the setting for Myers’ powerful prequel to Fallen Angels (1988) and Sunrise over Fallujah (2008). … An action-packed novel that will help young readers understand the brutality of war.” — Kirkus

More Than This by Patrick Ness (Candlewick)

“This haunting and consistently surprising novel raises deep questions about what it means to be alive, but it doesn’t try to console readers with easy or pat answers. As the story opens, teenage Seth is experiencing his own death in painful detail. … As he tries to survive in and make sense of his strange yet familiar surroundings, he is plagued by intense flashbacks of his life before he died: his guilt over the tragedy that befell his little brother, his burgeoning romance with another boy in his small town, and the events that led to his (dubious) death.” — School Library Journal

Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices edited by Mitali Perkins(Candlewick)

“Ten writers and artists, including Varian Johnson, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Francisco X. Stork, offer brief works of fiction and nonfiction “about the between-cultures life.” As Perkins notes, “Humor has the power to break down barriers and draw us together across borders,” and the stories within bear that out, though few qualify as laugh-out-loud funny. Most offer a subtler, uncomfortable brand of situational humor.” — Publishers Weekly

Untold by Sarah Rees Brennan (Random House)

Book Description: In this second book in the Lynburn Legacy, the sorcerous roots of Sorry-in-the-Vale have been exposed. No one in the town is safe, and a decision must be made: pay the sorcerers’ blood sacrifice, or fight. Will the townspeople (magical and not) become “owned” by the sorcerers who believe it is their right to rule? If Kami Glass has anything to say about it, evil will not win.

Takedown by Allison van Diepen (Simon Pulse)

“Multidimensional characters convincingly play on the sympathies of readers in this realistic and suspenseful urban drama. … A smart and believably gritty tale of the streets with genuine heart.” — Kirkus

Asher’s Fault by Elizabeth Wheeler (Bold Strokes Books):

“A study of how sad and treacherous it can be for an LGBTQ teen—or any teen—to achieve self-acceptance. The rhythm of the text often falls into short phrasing, making it read the way photographers might digest their surroundings: in rapid-fire observations of the tiniest details. A book of subtlety that … could make a world of difference to LGBTQ teens grappling with identity.” — Kirkus

The Chaos of Stars by Kiersten White (HarperTeen)

“Sixteen-year-old Isadora talks a bit like a spoiled California teen, but she doesn’t actually become one until her mother sends her to San Diego to keep her safe. Until that point, Isadora lives in an ancient temple complex in the Egyptian desert—this is because her mother is the goddess Isis, and her father is Osiris. … White (Mind Games) uses her technical prowess with narrative forms to break up the story, and she brings an irreverent sense of humor to Egyptian myth.” — Publishers Weekly

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang (First Second)

“With a superbly executed “diptych” of graphic novels, Yang (American Born Chinese) employs parallel storylines to represent two opposing Chinese experiences during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century. … Yang’s artwork and storytelling are sober and accessible, and his character-driven approach brings compassion to a complex historical clash.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Race, Sexuality, and the Mainstream

By Malinda Lo

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Yesterday my novel Inheritance, the sequel to Adaptation, was published. Inheritance picks up minutes after the end of Adaptation, and I think of the two books as one big story cut in two halves. They’re X-Files-inspired science fiction thrillers about a 17-year-old girl, Reese Holloway, who has to uncover what exactly happened to her and her friend David Li while they were unconscious at a secret military base in Nevada following a freak car accident.

My first two novels, Ash and Huntress, were YA fantasies about queer girls. Ash was a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, and Huntress was inspired by Chinese and Japanese traditions. I am both a lesbian and a Chinese American, and the subject of my identity comes up often when I do interviews or panels. So, when Adaptation came out, I was known for writing YA about nonstraight, nonwhite characters. That’s fine — up to a point.

Last fall, I did several events to promote Adaptation. At one of them, someone in the audience asked, “Is Reese white and straight in order to make Adaptation more mainstream?”

(Talk about a loaded question!)

I answered, firstly: “What makes you think Reese is straight?”

The person who asked that question had only read the first paragraph of the jacket copy, which described Reese’s feelings about David: “Reese and her debate team partner and longtime crush David are in Arizona when it happens.”

She hadn’t read down to the end yet, when a girl named Amber is mentioned: “When Reese unexpectedly collides with the beautiful Amber Gray, her search for the truth is forced in an entirely new direction…”

The jacket copy didn’t spell it out because we didn’t want to spoil the plot (although personally I think it’s pretty suggestive), but let me tell you: Reese is not straight. This is an assumption you should never make — not in fiction, and not in real life.

But the question of whether I made Reese white in order to make the book more mainstream has a much more complicated answer.

Was I tempted to make her white because … well, everybody knows that books about white people sell more? To be honest, of course that thought crossed my mind. It probably crosses the mind of every author out there writing about people of color. And if it doesn’t cross their mind, someone will suggest it to them.

But let me ask you this: Should authors who have written about people of color in the past never be allowed to write about white people?

And here’s another question: Since I’m a person of color, should I only write about people of color?

The answer to both questions, in my opinion, is no. As a writer, I’m allowed to write about whatever the hell I want. As a writer of color, I’m allowed to write about people who are not like me. The same goes for every writer out there.

Also: It is not a crime to want your book to do well in the marketplace. Some writers write only from the heart; others write almost entirely thinking about the bank. I’m going to bet that most writers fall somewhere in between, like me. I need to be creatively inspired to write, but at the same time, I know that the creative decisions I make can push a book in various directions: literary, niche, commercial, somewhere in between. I’m lucky that I’m married to someone who has a “real job,” and I don’t need to depend wholly on the income from my writing to support myself.

Because of that privilege, I have the luxury of writing the books I want to write. In Adaptation, the main character is white. Does that make the book more mainstream? I don’t know, because not only is she not straight, she’s involved in a bisexual love triangle with another girl (Amber) and a boy who is Asian American (David).

And there are so many racist stereotypes about Asian men.

In Hollywood, Asians are rarely if ever leading men because Asian men are either kung fu experts (who still don’t get the girl) or nerds. Bruce Lee or Long Duk Dong. There’s no in between. And in real life, plenty of women — women of all races — embrace these stereotypes by saying they would never date an Asian man.

Bruce Lee (left) and the character Long Duk Dong (right) from the movie Sixteen Candles.
Bruce Lee (left) and the character Long Duk Dong (right) from the movie Sixteen Candles.

I have a father who is half Chinese. I have a Chinese American brother. I’m married to a woman now, but my ex-boyfriend, whom I was with for five years, was also Chinese American. Those stereotypes about Asian men make me really angry. That’s why I wanted to write a book in which an Asian American boy was a romantic lead. I wanted him to be sexy and strong and smart.

And I admit I thought his desirability would be underscored if he dated a white girl. I would be flipping the established, often very racist practice of white men being with exotic Asian women. I was purposely subverting that stereotype.

For me, the decision to make Reese white was tangled up in all of these complicated things. It wasn’t a simple, white = commercial success decision. And while I do think Adaptation andInheritance are more commercial than my previous books, it’s not because the main character is white. It’s because the style I wrote it in is more commercial. It is, frankly, less literary thanAsh or Huntress. It’s a science fiction thriller, and things actually do explode in it. There are conspiracies, and men in black, and Area 51, and a love triangle that I think is pretty darn sexy.

Whether or not it’s “mainstream” is for the market to determine, not me, though I freely admit that I’ve always written more for the mainstream than for the experimental fringe. I know that mainstream can have connotations of blandness and whitewashing, but it can also indicate acceptance and success. I don’t think it’s wrong — especially not for an Asian American lesbian — to hope for some of that.

Inheritance is now available. Visit Malinda Lo at her websitetumblr, or follow her on twitter.

 

Beyond Diversity 101: Tackling the Tough Issues

By Malinda Lo

So, wow! The response to the Diversity in 2012 Bestsellers posts was incredible! Thank you for your thoughtful notes and comments. I’m going to answer some of your questions today and will be posting some longer responses over the next few days.

The first thing I want to mention, though, is that I noticed your responses have moved well beyond Diversity 101 — something that I’m really excited about. I think it’s important to talk about introductory issues with regard to race and representation, but after awhile, in order to move the conversation forward, we do have to start digging into the really meaty, messy issues — and you totally did that.

(I’m not saying that I don’t welcome more basic questions/responses — I do! And we’re working on putting together resources for those of you who wrote in asking things like how do I write diverse characters? Hang on!)

That said, this is where things get really sticky. Sometimes in internet discussions on race and representation, I get the feeling that people are playing Gotcha! Like, they’re waiting for someone to slip up and say something offensive. I understand the desire — I get it too. But since the very beginning of Diversity in YA in 2011, Cindy Pon and I wanted to make sure DiYA was a safe space for many different perspectives. We wanted to emphasize positive change, and while that approach may not work for some people, we think it’s necessary in order to create a space where all of us (and I mean all) can have discussions about race and representation. We don’t want people to be afraid to speak up for fear that they’ll put their foot in their mouth.

And honestly, I am perfectly capable of putting my foot in my mouth, too. Nobody is perfect, and discussing these issues is one of the quickest ways to mess up in public. But I think this is a discussion we all need to have — not only in terms of YA, but in terms of everyday life.

That’s why I’ve personally made the decision to try very hard to not be offended in these discussions. Sometimes that’s impossible, but I hope I’m able to temper my response — to take a moment to think about why I’m offended if I am, and to think about why that person (who is a human being) said whatever they said. Did they say it out of malice or out of simply not knowing any better? I think the latter is better addressed with generosity than accusation.

That’s what I’m trying to do, and I hope you’ll keep that in mind too as we delve into some really advanced issues about race and representation in YA.

But first up: I answer some simpler technical questions about the Diversity in 2012 YA Bestsellers posts.

Over at my website, Donna asked: How did you figure out which books included diverse main or secondary characters? Did you look up the titles online? or were you familiar already with the majority of books?

My answer: I found out about the diversity through a variety of means. I’ve read some of the series, but also I googled. The good thing about limiting myself to the PW list is that these are major bestsellers, and most of the books have specific wikis devoted entirely to them, with character descriptions galore. That’s not something you have with books that aren’t bestsellers.

lilomedina commented: Um, does it count for diversity that in the Lorien Legacies, the characters are not from Earth? (They’re aliens, sshhh!!)

My answer: I actually seriously thought about this, because science fiction and fantasy rely heavily on metaphor, and aliens are a clear metaphor for difference. However, I did read I Am Number Four, and the aliens in that series are distinguished by…their French accents. (It struck me as kinda funny when I read it.) So these aliens resemble Europeans and explain their difference by being vaguely European. Of course, Europe is a big place, and plenty of Europeans these days are not white. But the vaguely Europeanish aliens in the Lorien Legacies certainly seemed (to me) to pass as white, and the story did not engage with issues of race, sexual orientation, or disability as far as I could tell. (Which is fine! Not every book needs to to do this. I’m not saying this book is bad because of that.) So that’s why I did not include the Lorien Legacies as “diverse.”

halfasleep-hearingvoices asked: Hi! I was reading your Diversity in 2012 YA best sellers posts and was wondering where the Rick Riordan books were. The link to Publisher’s Weekly page had Mark of Athena as #1 on the Hardcover Frontlist (viewpoints of a Native American girl and a Latino boy) and Serpent’s Shadow as #3 (told in alternating perspectives of biracial siblings). While Rick’s original Percy Jackson series may be middle grade, I believe the length and character ages put these two series firmly in YA. Thanks!

I primarily determined which books were YA using the publisher’s categorization of the title. The Mark of Athena is published by Disney Hyperion, which categorizes the book as for ages 10 and up. Technically, this does include YA, but by starting the age range at 10, the publisher is primarily targeting middle grade readers. This may sound really weird, and it is really weird, because YA and MG often overlap in the 10–12 age range.

So for books like Rick Riordan’s, I also look at trade reviews and where the book is categorized by bookstores. Barnes & Noble categorizes The Mark of Athena as for ages 9–11, which is definitely middle grade. While I couldn’t find reviews of these two titles because they’re later books in the series (often only the first book in a series is reviewed), the first book in the Kane Chronicles series, The Red Pyramid, is categorzed by Publishers Weekly as for ages 9–12, and by School Library Journal as for grades 4–9, both middle grade (see B&N for those reviews).

I’ve also read The Red Pyramid, and to me, it felt distinctly middle grade, not young adult. However, this doesn’t mean it can’t be read by teens, and I’m sure it often is. I’m actually really impressed that Rick Riordan has been so inclusive of diversity in his main characters, and I hope that since it’s obviously possible to have middle grade bestsellers with main characters of color, young adult will get there soon, too.

Diversity in 2012 YA Bestsellers, Part 4: Covers and Conclusions

By Malinda Lo

In Parts 1, 2, and 3, I examined diversity in 2012 YA bestsellers in individual titles and series. Today I’m looking at representation on covers, and then drawing some conclusions.

Among all of the titles surveyed, only two had covers that clearly conveyed the diversity of its content:

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  1. Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare — This is the only YA bestselling novel to unarguably feature a character of color on the cover.
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie — The diverse content is clearly telegraphed on this book cover by the title and the illustration.

Two books feature debatably diverse covers:

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  1. Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles — The boy on the cover looks like he’s of color to me (in the book he’s Latino), but I can easily see someone arguing that he passes as a white guy with a tan.
  2. Fated by Alyson Noel — The dream catcher/feather earring is a well-known and often clichéd indicator of American Indian mythology. The girl could be Latina; or at least, she’s not unambiguously white.

Conclusions

In Part 2, I noted that 17 individual titles on the PW list, across all formats, included diverse main characters. That list included 109 individual YA titles overall. What proportion of the YA titles on the PW bestseller list, across all formats, were diverse?

There are two ways to count this, both of them imperfect.

1. If you count every title on the list individually, meaning every single Pretty Little Liars book is counted separately, then it turns out that 17 out of 109 titles is 15.6%.

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The problem with this percentage is that it does count every single title individually. So for example, there are 10 Pretty Little Liars books on the PW lists, but there is only one Emily Fields; it’s not like there are 10 different minority characters.

2. If you condense the series so that those 10 Pretty Little Liars books only count as 1 series, and do the same with all the other series on the PW list, that adds up to 53 total YA properties (I know, I had to come up with a word). Those 53 include both standalone books such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and series such as The Infernal Devices. After condensing the list, you arrive at 7 diverse properties out of 53, or 13.2%:

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Now, I have been working on these spreadsheets for weeks, and I lost all my data at one point. Luckily my Mac allowed me to revert to previous editions, and I think I corrected my mistakes. However, I was the only person working on this. I didn’t realize what a giant project this would turn out to be. So I could have made mistakes — I probably did! Nevertheless, I don’t think I’m too far off with that 13.2%.

And after spending way too much of my time scrutinizing these numbers, I’ve come to the following conclusions:

  • These days, it’s totally normal to have diversity in the supporting cast of a bestselling YA series. While I personally am tired of having minorities relegated to best friend status, I do think this is a good step toward increasing diversity among main characters.
  • Cultural appropriation remains a real problem, particularly for representations of American Indians. There are three books or book series on the PW lists that feature American Indian characters and cultures: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, and Alyson Noel’s Fated. These books vary widely on the scale of cultural appropriation vs. cultural authenticity, and yet they all do contribute to increasing visibility for American Indians in YA literature. Whether or not that visibility is positive is a different issue (one that I’m not going to delve into here because it is too huge).
  • I was pleasantly surprised to see that Pretty Little Liars has made a very comfortable home for itself on those lists, because I’m often asked whether having LGBT main characters is a problem. I know that the B is not the same as the L, G or (especially) T, but still: I’m thrilled to see a bestselling series with a queer girl lead selling so well.

TL;DR: There’s more diversity in the PW lists than I initially thought there would be, but some of that diversity is problematic. Does this sound like a mixed bag to you? It sounds like that to me, too. What did you think about this series of posts? Feel free to share your responses with us, or if you have questions about my methodology etc., please ask. I’ll post some of your thoughts over the next couple weeks as they come in.

Diversity in 2012 Young Adult Bestsellers, Part 3: The Minority Best Friend

By Malinda Lo

In Parts 1 and 2, I focused on books with diverse main characters. As you could tell from the last two posts, the majority of PW’s YA bestseller list is dominated by series. In this post I’m focusing solely on diversity in YA series.

While only two of those bestselling series — Pretty Little Liars and The Infernal Devices — include diverse main characters, I wanted to find out how many of the other series included secondary/supporting characters of color or secondary/supporting LGBT or disabled characters.

The good news is that among the top 10 bestselling YA series (incorporating PW’s sales figures across all formats), 8 out of 10 include diversity in their supporting cast — and they’re the top 8 bestselling series overall.

1. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic; 27,700,000 sold) — Supporting characters include Rue and Thresh, who are black; Peeta Mellark and other characters deal with disabilities. There has also been a continuing discussion online among readers as to whether Katniss is biracial, although Suzanne Collins has said “They [Katniss and Gale] were not particularly intended to be biracial.”

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(Amandla Stenberg as Rue, Dayo Okeniyi as Thresh in The Hunger Games movie)

2. The Divergent series by Veronica Roth (HarperCollins/Tegen; 2,054,302 sold) — Supporting characters include main character Tris’s friend Christina, who will be played by Zoe Kravitz in the upcoming movie.

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(Zoe Kravitz has been cast to play Christina in the Divergent movie)

3. The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown/Tingley; 1,129,754 sold) — One of the two boys the main character Bella Swan is in love with is Jacob Black, a Quileute Indian, although there has been widespread debate over the representation of the Quileutes in the series.

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(Taylor Lautner as Jacob Black, and other actors portraying Quileutes in the Twilight movies)

4. The House of Night series by P.C. and Kristin Cast (St. Martin’s Griffin; 878,014 sold) — Supporting characters include Shaunee Cole, a biracial Jamaican American.

5. The Maze Runner series by James Dashner (Delcorte/Random House; approx. 846,034 sold) — Supporting characters include a boy named Minho, who is of Asian descent.

6. The Pretty Little Liars series by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen; 781,972 sold) — One of the four main characters is Emily Fields, who is bisexual.

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(Shay Mitchell as Emily Fields [right] kissing Lindsey Shaw as Paige McCullers [left] in the Pretty Little Liars TV series on ABC Family)

7. The Mortal Instruments trilogy by Cassandra Clare (Simon & Schuster/McElderry; 756,712 sold) — Supporting characters include Alec Lightwood, who is gay, and Magnus Bane, a bisexual half-Asian warlock, with whom Alec has a romantic relationship. Notably, Magnus Bane has become so popular he will have an entire series of ebook short stories about him published in 2013, The Bane Chronicles; he also appears in The Infernal Devices trilogy.

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(Godfrey Gao as Magnus Bane in the City of Bones movie)

8. Fallen by Lauren Kate (Delacorte/Random House; approx. 737,684 sold) — Supporting characters include Arriane Alter, who is a lesbian (she comes out in Fallen in Love), and a gender-nonconforming character named Randy.

9. The Matched trilogy by Ally Condie (Dutton; approx. 684,711 sold) — As far as I can tell, there is no diversity in this trilogy.

10. The Lorien Legacies by Pittacus Lore (HarperCollins; 613,653 sold) — As far as I can tell, there is no diversity in this series.

In Part 4, I’ll look at representation on covers, and draw some conclusions about YA bestsellers and diversity.