Tag Archives: Science Fiction

WANT Cover Reveal

By Cindy Pon

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!

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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.

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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!

WANT (Simon Pulse) releases June 2017! Add it to your goodreads shelf!


imageCindy 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

Empathy Machines

By Tim Floreen

floreen-willfulmachinesHere’s the setup of my young adult sci-fi thriller Willful Machines: in a near-future America, conscious, self-aware machines have just become a reality, and it has people seriously freaked. Members of the newly formed Human Values Movement insist machines can never be considered truly alive, like humans, because humans have something special: free will. Unlike computers, people don’t follow programs. Their actions and identities are up to them.

It sounds like a nice idea. But Human Values hardliners are now arguing seemingly fixed traits like sexuality are choices too. That’s bad news for the book’s main character, 16-year-old Lee Fisher, who happens to be both the son of the Human Values Movement’s founder (now the President of the United States) and gay.

In writing my book, I drew inspiration for the Human Values Movement from certain real-world groups and individuals who also call sexuality a choice. According to a recent study by Pew Research Center, four in ten Americans continue to think being gay or lesbian is “the way some choose to live,” and it always intrigues me how anyone could arrive at this belief. I don’t know for certain, but I have a theory it all comes down to a failure of empathy. I’m guessing people who hold this view have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that someone else could be so fundamentally different from them, so they end up assuming LGBTQIA folks are just like them but have chosen to be different.

Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself into another person’s place, and people fail to do it all the time. I’m pretty sure you could trace a lot of the world’s problems—maybe even most—to failures of empathy. Luckily, there’s a cure: the novel. When you read a book, it plops you in someone else’s shoes—often someone very different from you—and it takes you on a walk. And hopefully you become a more open-minded and compassionate person as a result. That’s the novel’s super power. Novels are empathy machines. It’s even been scientifically proven! A couple years ago, Scientific American reported on a study that showed reading literary fiction markedly improved subjects’ “ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions” and called fiction “a valuable socializing influence.” So there you go. You can’t argue with science. (Unless, of course, you still think sexuality’s a choice.)

Another cool thing about fiction: writing it can be just as mind-opening as reading it. As an author, I try to empathize with all my characters, including the ones whose motivations and values and beliefs differ radically from mine, because I know it’s absolutely necessary if I want to make my characters convincing.  When I wrote Willful Machines, I found Lee Fisher’s dad, the Human Values guy, pretty unsavory. But I did my best to understand him and how he’d arrived at his worldview, and in the end, though I still didn’t subscribe to his beliefs, I found myself caring about him.

In my book, the new (and very cute) kid at Lee Fisher’s boarding school, Nico Medina, has a thing for Shakespeare. He says when he acts in Shakespeare plays, the characters he portrays “might seem really different from me at first, but the more I read the lines and play the parts, the more I can relate to what they’re feeling.” Nico then quotes his drama teacher, who likes to say, “Reading Shakespeare helps us become more human.” (Of course, to complicate matters, Nico may also be an android—which would mean he would really need to study his Shakespeare—but you’ll have to read the book to find out more on that.)

I’d go one step further and say reading just about any literature makes us more human. Especially the stuff written from a point of view far from our own. The novel’s ability to foster empathy, to help us all understand each other a little better, is exactly what makes reading so important. It’s also what makes the We Need Diverse Books movement so vital. Readers—especially younger ones—need to see themselves represented in fiction, and they need to see people very different from them there too. If you ask me, it’s the only way we’re ever going to learn how to coexist peacefully. And then when the conscious, self-aware robots do show up, we’ll know exactly what to do with them too: just hand them a stack of novels. And maybe ask them if they’d like to write a few of their own.


timfloreenTim Floreen lives in San Francisco with his partner, their two cat-obsessed one-year-old daughters, and their two very patient cats. In a starred review, Kirkus called Tim’s first novel, Willful Machines,“gothic, gadgety and gay”—which is an accurate assessment. His second novel, Tattoo Atlas, comes out next year. You can find out more about Tim and his secret obsession with Wonder Woman on the Internet at timfloreen.com and on Twitter at @timfloreen.

10 Recent Diverse* YA Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels

* Diverse = Set in a non-Western world or inspired by a non-Western world; or with a main character who is non-white, LGBTQ+, and/or disabled

Avoiding “Special” Narratives About Disabilities in The Change Series

By Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

brown-smith-strangerRachel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


brown-smith-hostageSherwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we’re not going to write them.


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

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

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

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Truths and Lies About Diversity in Speculative Fiction

By Corinne Duyvis

duyvis-otherbound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the opposite. It’s honesty.

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

I want them to resonate here, too.


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

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

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Writing as an Ally

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

By Alexandra Duncan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sound is now available.

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

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Letting the Lizard Speak

In Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz, fifteen-year-old Kivali (aka Lizard) is a bender teen in a gender-rigid futuristic society navigating her way through a tricky maze of rules and ethics at the Gov-run CropCamp, where teens leave their childhood behind.

By Pat Schmatz

schmatz-lizardradioI was scared to write Lizard Radio. Scared through the first draft, scared through revisions, scared to have it critiqued. Scared when it sold! Scared when the release date was set! And yes, scared now that it’s launching into the world.

Writing for young people is all I’ve ever wanted to do. The books I read between the ages of four and sixteen kept me alive physically, emotionally and spiritually. They taught me about other people’s insides. I loved the characters who were outcasts, and I most loved the characters who were deeply afraid, like Johnny Cade in The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Johnny and others — major and minor characters — gave me dreamscapes and hope, friendship, and creative survival strategies. I wanted to write like that. I wanted to give back what those authors gave me.

I took a turn into escapism in my teens, and got sober in my mid–20s. Once I cleared away the drugs and alcohol, I asked myself what I wanted to do and there was only one answer. I wanted to write. I finished my first YA novel in 1988, and a writing mentor gave me the gift of candor. “I’m bored,” she said. “Your character has no heart. I don’t care what happens to her, and nobody else will either.”

Well, no wonder. I was a young, genderqueer dyke, and the world had so far not been kind to me. The images roiling inside of me were disturbing, furious, and offbeat. In trying to write for kids, I had stripped out all of the passion and most of the truth. I wanted to write the kind of book that had saved me but didn’t know how. I was still scared, and wrote my first four books with protagonists who could pass in the ways I tried to pass as a kid, long before I understood what passing was. One was a “tomboy” and one had gay friends, but none were overtly queer.

The idea for my fifth novel first appeared to me in 2009 as a sketch of a lonely lizard. The lizard wore headphones with a cord that went nowhere. The lizard was trying desperately to get a signal. From where? That’s the question that started the story. For the first time, I followed the answers without caution. I let that young lizard speak freely.

The lizard had a lot to say about the dominant paradigm in her world. She had a lot to say about authority, about rules, and about living in reality. She had a bold heart. She had the courage to make decisions I was not able to make at her age.

The thing about fear earned as a child is this: a social movement and some changed laws don’t make it go away. Thanks to the legalization of same-sex marriage and increasing understanding of transgender people, the derision and danger that came with being myself have faded, but things are still rough out there for queer kids. Some of them speak and write with fierce voices that blow me away. They challenge me to deal with my own leftover nightmares and write from my core.

I’ve learned some things by writing with the shadows of fear crouched on my shoulder. Fear unleashes all kinds of energy. You can feel it when you shiver, when your heart pounds, when you can’t quite catch a deep breath. When I stepped fully into that energy and embraced it as an ally in the creative process, it propelled my writing along avenues that surprised me. I began to understand the cost of self-censorship.

It has taken me years to write through the fury and fear, and more years to learn the craft of creating story from that tangle. Now Lizard Radio is getting ready to launch. My queer protagonist is scared and so am I, but we’re walking forward together. Heads up and hearts open.


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Pat Schmatz is the author of five books for teens, including the award-winning Bluefish from Candlewick Press. Lizard Radio, Pat’s 2015 young adult novel, also from Candlewick, has garnered two starred reviews. Kirkus Reviews calls it “Sophisticated, character-driven science fiction, as notable for its genderqueer protagonist as for its intricate, suspenseful plot.” Pat grew up in rural Wisconsin, and after stints in Michigan and California, now divides her time between Wisconsin, Minneapolis, and various travels. A lifelong language learner, she currently studies Japanese, Spanish and Italian, along with music and art to bolster her writing.

Lizard Radio is now available.

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DiYA’s Fantasy & Science Fiction Month Giveaway

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This month (well, roughly — we mean Sept. 7 – Oct. 7, 2015) we are doing something special here at Diversity in YA: focusing on fantasy and science fiction with main characters who are non-white, LGBTQ, and/or disabled. What does it mean to have diversity in fantasy and science fiction? How do you do that in a secondary world fantasy that isn’t set in our real world, or in a novel that’s set in the future on a distant planet? Some authors this month will be writing about these questions, and others will be sharing the stories of how they came to write their fantasy and science fiction novels.

To kick it all off, we’re starting with a giveaway of five new and upcoming YA fantasy and science fiction novels that present worlds filled with diversity:

Here are the giveaway rules:

  • Five winners will be drawn; each will receive one book.
  • Winners must have a U.S. mailing address; we are unable to ship internationally.
  • Each person can have one free entry.
  • Teachers and librarians are allowed an extra entry.
  • Additional entries are available if you’d like to signal boost. (And thanks!)
  • The deadline to enter is Oct. 6, 2015. Winners will be contacted shortly afterward.

To enter, fill out this Rafflecopter form: (Note: If you’re reading this on Tumblr it may not show up on your dashboard. Go here instead.)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Good luck and we hope you’ll enjoy our journey into fantasy and science fiction!

Mental Illness, Stigma, and Dystopian YA

By A.J. Steiger

steiger-mindwalkerIn my young adult dystopian novel, Mindwalker, people live under the watchful eye of the Institute for Ethics in Neurotechnology—a government organization which sorts citizens into categories according to their perceived psychological stability. Those deemed mentally unstable are treated as ticking time bombs and constantly tracked. Suicide is now legal, to allow potential threats and “unfixable” people to remove themselves from society. A mandatory treatment called Conditioning keeps everyone else in line. The Institute decides who is sane and who is insane, who has rights and who doesn’t.

At first glance, this might seem like a farfetched vision of the future. It’s unlikely, after all, that the government would go to the trouble to create psychological profiles on every citizen. Or is it?

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre famously blamed the government’s “refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill.” A lot of time has passed since then, but this statement still gives me the creeps. Whenever I hear it referenced, a wave of nervousness sweeps over me. Yes, LaPierre is just one loud-mouthed pundit, and he’s already been widely criticized for his remark. But his views, and the prejudices behind them, aren’t uncommon.

I remember the 2013 raids in California, during which police confiscated thousands of guns from law-abiding citizens who had been flagged for mental health reasons. In one case, the authorities visited the house of a woman named Lynette Phillips and seized her husband’s rifles and ammunition because she had been admitted to a hospital for anxiety. In the eyes of the law, anyone who has been involuntarily hospitalized for psychiatric reasons at any point is a potential threat, regardless of whether they’ve ever done anything violent.

Set aside, for the moment, your feelings on gun control—whatever they are—because that’s not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking about how society views people with mental illness.

For many individuals struggling with these conditions, social stigma is already a huge barrier. Imagine if LaPierre’s suggestion were actually implemented. What would be the effects? Would everyone with a diagnosis suddenly face obstacles to getting hired or finding housing? Would they be barred from certain types of work? Prevented from running for political office? In such a world, would anyone want to seek help? Or would we all be justifiably afraid to tell anyone about our problems, lest we end up on “the list?”

This is exactly the world I portray in Mindwalker. It’s a world that’s not too far removed from our own.

Whenever media figures blame a psychiatric condition for the latest shooting or bombing, they’re further stigmatizing an already vulnerable group of people. Already, there are voices within our culture urging legislators to make it easier for sick people to be hospitalized and medicated against their will—which, as the California gun legislation demonstrates, can have a very real impact on individuals’ legal rights.

Some of these voices are well-meaning. No doubt it is frustrating and painful to watch a loved one refuse treatment when they’re clearly suffering. But stripping away the hard-won civil liberties of patients is not the answer.

To understand the risks, all you have to do is look at the shocking abuses that occurred before the rise of deinstitutionalization and patients’ rights in the 1970s. While writing my novel, I researched some of those abuses, and what I read gave me nightmares. History is littered with damaging treatments such as the trans-orbital lobotomy, which involved hammering a metal spike through the eye-socket and into the frontal lobe. Often, this procedure was inflicted on an involuntarily committed patient such as Howard Dully. He received his lobotomy when he was twelve, after a mistaken diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia.

It is hard for me to imagine a violation more invasive, more personal, than the coercive manipulation of someone’s mind.

It is important to state, of course, that psychiatry can also be a force for good—that it can save lives and ease suffering. Making medication and therapy easily accessible to those who want it is important, and desperately needed. But involuntary treatment is an assault on individual rights and basic human dignity. And as a measure for preventing crime, it’s simply ineffective. Statistically, the vast majority of people with mental illness are no more violent than anyone else. The causes of tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook are numerous and varied. They are political, social and economic as well as psychological. It’s natural to look for answers, but we don’t do ourselves any favors by oversimplifying a complex problem.

The boundary between sanity and insanity is a social construct. It is fuzzy, highly permeable, and subject to the biases of the time. This is most obvious when we look at historical diagnoses such as drapetomania, the “medical condition” that allegedly caused slaves to attempt escape—or female hysteria, which in extreme cases was treated with removal of the uterus. Until uncomfortably recently—1973, to be exact—homosexuality was still classified as a mental disorder, and doctors were still using methods such as electrical brain stimulation in an attempt to “cure” it.

To the modern, enlightened observer, these are obvious examples of bigoted pseudoscience. But hindsight, as they say, is twenty-twenty. Do we imagine that our contemporary medical system has transcended such biases? A look at the past can make us wonder—which modern psychiatric practices will appear barbaric and inhumane to future generations? We can’t really know, and so it’s best for lawmakers and mental health professionals to exercise caution and restraint. So should we all. The greatest delusion of all is to believe that you are totally objective.

In recent years, society has made great strides toward understanding the human mind and what causes mental pain. But the stigma remains. “Nutjob” and “whacko” are common insults. Most people who use this language do so without realizing that they are implicitly buying into a worldview which conflates being neuro-atypical with being a bad person. And even when we are aware of the connection, it’s easy to slip up, because the prejudice is so ingrained and pervasive. There is a tendency to see the mentally ill as having less free will than everyone else—as if the illness were a demon inhabiting and controlling the person’s body. This attitude may seem compassionate, in that it mitigates blame somewhat, but it’s ultimately patronizing and dehumanizing, reducing the individual to little more than a broken machine.

Whether human beings are causal agents or products of their brains and environments is a complex subject, and one which philosophers will probably be arguing about for centuries to come. The thing is, we all have brains and are all affected by our environments. Those with atypical neurology have as much or as little free will as anyone else, and they deserve to have their choices respected.

I went through a period of serious depression when I was younger. I suffered from social anxiety—and still do, though not as severely. To most people I interact with, I probably appear pretty normal. But nonetheless, I am aware that if a serious witch hunt swept the country, I could easily become a target. So could many of my loved ones.

And that’s a big part of why I wrote Mindwalker. Because I don’t want to see that world become real. Because I wanted to create a reminder that we’re all flawed, we’re all broken, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t make us dangerous. It makes us human.


ajsteigerA. J. Steiger graduated from Columbia College in Chicago, where she majored in fiction writing. She has lived her whole life in the Chicago suburbs, though she enjoys regular visits to other galaxies and dimensions in her mind. She’s a freelance writer and transcriptionist with an enthusiasm for anime and pancake houses. Follow her on Twitter @AJ_Steiger.

Mindwalker is now available.

Envisioning a Diverse Science Fiction Future

By Fonda Lee

lee-zeroboxerBy now, we all know that diversity in books is a big deal. We’ve seen the statistics about how the skewed demographics of protagonists in YA novels doesn’t come close to reflecting the reality of our society. We’re aware that readers are very much in need of books that present minority perspectives in both historical and current day stories.

But how does the concept of diversity come into play when you write, oh, say, action sci-fi about futuristic zero-gravity prizefighting?!

My novel Zeroboxer released last week, and amid the reviews describing it as “gripping,” “smart,” and “action-packed,” nowhere is it being hailed as advancing the cause of diversity or shining a light on underserved segments of the population. It’s just not that kind of book, nor was that my intent as the author. However, writers like me, who write commercial genre fiction, play as much a role as anyone in making sure diversity is part of the literary landscape. We all make choices in our writing that send messages to readers.

Remember the 1996 alien invasion movie Independence Day? It might as well have been sub-titled America Saves The World because in the film, the population of Earth presumably sits around waiting for the Americans to figure out how to defeat the aliens before belatedly joining in to support Bill Pullman’s heroism. Contrast that with the 2013 film Pacific Rim, which depicts a diverse cast of characters waging an international effort to combat the Kaiju monsters. Both films are big-budget commercial spectacles—but the choices the scriptwriters made regarding characters, story, and setting result in very different depictions of the future—one far more inclusive and diverse than the other.

When I was a child, I devoured fantasy and science fiction that was, to put it gently, lacking diversity in all respects. They were written in different times, but it’s still a downer to look back on works that I greatly enjoyed and realize now, as an adult, how misogynistic and euro-centric they are. When I was creating the futuristic world of Zeroboxer, I thought about what kind of future I wanted to portray. More accurately—what kind of future would be plausible. Because any plausible future that extrapolates from our society today would be a diverse one.

In Zeroboxer, humans have colonized the inner solar system, and Mars is emerging as the fast-growing, more economically and scientifically advanced planet. In many ways, the relationship between Earth and Mars has parallels to our current global state—the economic rise of Asian countries in the last several decades, and the resultant anxiety that has provoked in the West.

That’s reinforced by assumptions that I make in my world building; the early colonists of Mars would be ones motivated to leave Earth because of environmental chaos and limited economic opportunities. They would come predominantly from parts of Asia and South America disproportionately affected by climate change and overpopulation; only a minority would hail from first-world nations like America that are already at the top of the pecking order on Earth.

So in the future, Mars has cities like New Nanjing, and a space station named after the Hindu sun god. The main character in Zeroboxer, Carr Luka, has a girlfriend that is half-Martian of Asian descent, and back on Earth, mixed race lineage is so prevalent that it’s a marketing boon that Carr is an ethnic mash-up and thus representative of typical Terrans. The future is diverse—but it’s not without problems. New racial tensions emerge between Martians, who’ve embraced genetic enhancement, and Terrans, who’ve outlawed it. None of these aspects of the story ever takes center stage in my high-action sports sci-fi novel—but they’re there, subtly but deliberately painting diversity into the background.

Even so, sometimes you slip up. In one of my early drafts, I had Carr fighting a major match on Thanksgiving Day. One of my beta readers astutely pointed out, “Thanksgiving is an American holiday. Isn’t this an international city space station? Why would Thanksgiving be a big deal?” Good point, and nice catch. It saved my book from an Independence Day style gaffe.

Diversity isn’t just a cause to be advanced by authors who write “issues novels” about characters living in the Civil Rights era, or immigrant stories, or coming out as gay in small town stories. All those stories are incredibly important and will always be the ones that get spotlighted for exemplifying minority perspectives. However, just because you’re writing sci-fi thrillers, romance, or funny middle grade books about dinosaurs, doesn’t mean you aren’t part of the conversation. If anything, unsung depiction of diversity in commercial genre fiction is the subtler and truer measure of progress.


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Fonda Lee writes science fiction and fantasy for teens and adults. She is the author of the high-action YA science fiction novel Zeroboxer (Flux/Llewellyn, April 2015). Fonda is a corporate strategist who has advised and worked for several Fortune 500 companies, a black belt martial artist in karate and kung fu, an action movie buff, and a fan of tasty breakfasts. Born and raised in Canada, she now lives in Portland, Oregon.

Zeroboxer is available for purchase.