Diverse Debuts: Writing Stories for Us All – Sabaa Tahir, Nicola Yoon, Francesca Zappia, Miranda Paul, Adam Silvera, Fonda Lee, Sona Charaipotra, IW Gregorio, and Danielle Paige
Video by David Yoon (yoonco.net)
Moderated by Danielle Paige, NYT-bestselling author of DOROTHY MUST DIE, this is a panel discussion including members of We Need Diverse Books™ and authors from the Diversity League, a group of 2015 MG/YA debut authors committed to diversifying library shelves, one book at a time. After a discussion on how panelists’ books add to the diversity of children’s literature, authors discussed how best to introduce diverse books to library patrons in a way that emphasizes their universality.
I.W. GREGORIO: I’m Ilene Wong Gregorio and on behalf of the Diversity League and the We Need Diverse Books Team, I wanted to thank you all for your passion for diverse books and diverse authors. If there’s anything that we’ve learned this year it’s that diverse books change lives, and librarians are truly on the front lines of that fight.
And we want to thank you again. We have so much gratitude for your willingness to continually search for new voices and untold stories.
Moderating our panel today is Danielle Paige. Danielle is a graduate of Columbia. In terms of young adult literature, after working in the TV industry, — she’s the winner of a Writers Guild of America Award and was nominated for several Daytime Emmys — her debut novel, Dorothy Must Die and its sequel, The Wicked Will Rise, have been pitched as Kill Bill meets Wizard of Oz.
DANIELLE PAIGE: Hi, everybody, I’m so excited to be here. I love ALA. It’s my first time and I love librarians and libraries. So, yeah, I’m going to skip the part where I introduce myself. She just did it for me!
I am just so thrilled and honored to be here, and this week and the last couple of nights, I’ve had the honor of reading these wonderful awe-inspiring, breathtaking, heart-breaking, amazing books. So I’m going to start by introducing everybody.
Sona Charaipotra is an entertainment journalist who’s written for everyone from the New York Times to Teen Vogue. She’s the author of the dance drama Tiny Pretty Things, co-written with Dhonielle Clayton, the co-founder of CAKE Literary, a boutique book development company with a decidedly diverse bent. And, yeah, she totally wanted to be a ballerina when she was little. Me, too!
Ilene Gregorio is a practicing surgeon by day, masked avenging YA writer by night and author of None of the Above, pitched as Middlesex meets Mean Girls, about a homecoming queen who discovers in her senior year that she was born intersex, neither a girl nor a boy but something in-between.
Fonda Lee is a recovering corporate strategist and the author of Zeroboxer about a young man battling to make it to the top of the world battling zero gravity, prizefighting and brewing interplanetary conflict between Earth and Mars.
Miranda Paul is a former teacher and a picture-book author whose debut One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of The Gambia celebrates ingenuity and grassroots activism through the inspiring story of five villagers who launched a fair trade cooperative in the 1990s.
Adam Silvera is a book seller and a book reviewer and author of More Happy Than Not, a speculative novel about a sixteen-year-old boy in the Bronx who wants to undergo a memory alteration procedure to forget he’s gay.
Sabaa Tahir is a lover of all things and author of An Ember in the Ashes, a book about an orphan girl fighting for her family and a tormented soldier fighting for his freedom.
Nicola Yoon grew up in Jamaica and Brooklyn, part of Long Island. Everything, Everything is about a girl who literally is allergic to the outside world, so allergic, in fact, that’s she’s never left her house in all of seventeen years. When a new family moves in next door she begins a complicated romance that challenges everything that she’s ever known. The narrative unfolds via vignettes, diary entries, IMs, texts, charts, lists, illustrations and more.
Francesca Zappia is a senior at the University of Indianapolis — how can you write this stuff so early? I’m so jealous! – Her debut, Made You Up, pitched for fans of Wes Anderson, is about a girl with paranoid schizophrenia who struggles to tell the difference between reality and delusion and who, in her senior year of high school, finds out that sometimes there really is someone out to get you.
So we’re all going to answer the same two questions, or you can choose to answer one of them:
What book was the book that was the mirror for you, the first book that you found yourself in? And what book was the window for you, the first book that you found another culture, another person, another point of view?
I’m going to answer, too. I’m way older than all of you, so I was reading, like Sweet Valley High and then lots of classics, and there weren’t any options, well, no diverse options, and just not a lot of options when I was a kid. So my first African-American author that I read was Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which was beautiful, but not my personal experience. But I loved it because it showed me that a Black woman could write so wonderfully and that she could do so well, and she was… for me… it’s the story about a nine-year-old who’s mute because something horrible has happened to her, and she still ended up writing and surviving. And I was a little girl who wanted to write and I got to do that. So that’s my first answer. And my second one is about a window, and I would say that there still weren’t a lot of options for me so I stole a book from my mom’s night stand, and it was Like Water for Chocolate, which was not a teen book but it was a story about girls who were growing up and there was magic and it was a different world, magical realism, which I’d never read before. And it was really beautiful and I loved it.
SONA CHARAIPOTRA: The mirror for me didn’t come until I was about nineteen, which is saying a lot about diversity. But it was a book called Bombay Talkie by Ameena Meer, and it wasn’t considered YA back then but it would be YA now. And she [the author] came to Rutgers and I went to the signing and met her, and she was like a real person who was brown who had written and published a book. And in my book she wrote, “I know you’re going to be golden” because she knew I wanted to be a writer, too, and that really changed my perspective on who can be an author or storyteller.
I. W. GREGORIO: My mirror book is The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord, which by now is a classic. I think it’s been out for several decades. And I remember the flash of recognition that I experienced when I first saw the cover and I saw an Asian girl on the cover. It was amazing because the main character is Shirley Temple Wong and my last name – my “secret” last name – my real last name is Wong. And I just remember being so flabbergasted by that. At the same time though, looking back, I think that book is telling because it was so not my experience. Shirley Temple Wong was a first-generation immigrant in a metropolitan area of New York where there were lots of other Asian children. I grew up second generation in upstate New York, like central New York, the Alabama part of New York, and I was one of two Asian kids in my school. It just goes to show that there is diversity within diversity. Although even though there are diverse books out there, like “Oh, look it! There’s this diverse book! You can read that!” — it’s not the same. There are so many stories within each subcategory that I’ve never seen.
The window book that I always talk about is actually Mercedes Lackey’s Magic Pawn series, which is a fantasy series that I picked up not knowing what it was about, and learning half-way through that the main character was gay. And, again, I grew up in central New York, upstate New York, where “gay” was a slur, you know [when] people talked about, gay equaled… being gay meant being uncool. And I used that word not thinking, and that book completely changed my life, and single-handedly erased any latent homophobia I may have had.
FONDA LEE: I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy when I was growing up. Obviously, I write it now. And, if anything, I think, my genre was particularly egregious for lacking in diversity when I was a kid. I read a lot of elves and druids and wizards. I read a lot of Asimov. I mean, those are not what you would think of as diverse reads, and you know I never really pictured myself in those worlds, even though I loved them so much and I devoured them. I think for me the first book that I considered a mirror was Katherine Paterson’s Sign of the Chrysanthemum and The Master Puppeteer, and those were really the first books that I read that had Asian protagonists. And, I think, it was probably about fifteen or twenty years later that I read Alison Goodman’s Eon / Eona duology, and I think that kicked off for me a love of… a renewed love for YA because I realized that, wow, there’re all these stories, all the fantasy worlds that I’ve experienced so far are really Eurocentric. And there were stories that my dad would tell me when I a little kid that were Asian-based that I kind of never paid attention to because I was so in the world of druids and wizards and so on. So that was a really transformative experience for me.
MIRANDA PAUL: I’m actually going to start with my window book. I was a very early reader and one of the first books that I remember seeing a brown character in was Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, still one of my children’s favorite books, a classic. I hope it never, ever goes out of print. And then I’m going to talk about a mirror book. I was in college before I ever read a book that had an interracial couple or an interracial family, and that was Pay It Forward. And when the movie came out and the character who was Black in the novel is white in the movie. And so Hollywood had made that change, and I remember being so upset because that book, for me, was the first time that I ever saw… it was in the book and it wasn’t a major issue, I mean, you know there’re issues that come up but it wasn’t labeled an issue book. I mean, it was an amazing book that went on to sell a lot of copies and has a wonderful message. And then Hollywood made a very conscious choice to change the race of a character.
ADAM SILVERA: My window book, I mean, the book [I wrote] is about a gay teenager so I guess there aren’t tons of middle grade or chapter books about gay kids at this point in time, but I think for me it was Stellaluna by Janell Cannon, which taught me a lot about empathy because it’s about this fruit bat who gets separated from her family and has to live with these birds for a good [long] time. And she has to learn how to sleep right side up and just go against her bat nature and everything. I think that was very informative for me, especially, as a kid.
My mirror book would just [echo] what Sona said. I didn’t really read a solid LGBT book until I was, maybe, let’s say, twenty. I’m twenty-four now. Actually, no, I lied, I was twenty-two when I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and that book really just blew me away. Of course, I’m growing up in a generation where there was a wider selection of LGBT books out finally, but I think I was having a hard time finding them. Obviously, Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, not just because he’s in the audience but because that book kept me up until, like four a.m. it really gave me the history that I personally missed out on and wished other books had accomplished sooner.
SABAA TAHIR: You’re twenty-four? That’s not fair. His book is wonderful. My mirror book was called Seven Daughters and Seven Sons. It was – yes! – it was the first time that I had seen a woman from my part of the world who was not pressed, who was strong, who was portrayed as someone who was not just loyal to her family but who was brave and who was going to buck tradition and go out and find her fortune. The character’s name was Buran. In the book she leaves her family because they’re really struggling and she goes to make her way in the world as a man. It was in fourth grade, I found it on a back shelf, and I actually, probably in two years I read this book twenty times. Yeah, I know, I was obsessed. And I actually asked the librarian if I could have it and she was really cool and she [said] “Well, you could lose it.” And I didn’t because I was a goody-goody but I did find a copy later which is in a holy place in my house.
My window book was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I did not realize what the South was like for African Americans and it was actually weirdly reassuring because it was sort of my experience growing up in my home town which was very isolated. So it really showed me that: (1) I wasn’t alone and (2) it gave me a better sense of what was going on in other parts of the country.
NICOLA YOON: My mirror book would have to be The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. It’s just so beautiful, it’s important. It just affects you to see yourself on the page, which is why being a part of this organization is so amazing because I would love to see my daughter see herself on the page. My window book, I have a few things. The God of Small things by Arundhati Roy, which is beautiful. Harold and Kumar, which is a movie, but I love this movie and it’s my entire college experience. I love that there are Korean kids and Indian kids who get to screw up like everyone else, and they smoke a lot of pot and it’s wonderful. And The Little Prince, which I think is great. It’s just one of my favorite books of all time. You know, in the book he literally travels to different planets and meets different people. Our world is so big and the universe is so big, you know, and we’re all a part of it and it’s important that everyone sees themselves.
FRANCESCA ZAPPIA: Okay, being a white, straight little girl from the southern part of Indiana gave me a lot of mirror books so, um… But my window book… the library where I grew up was not very big and most all of the books were about straight white children. So the one I found when I was in, I think, fifth grade, was The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, which is a scifi book set in a near future Mexico, I believe, and it was just really cool because it wasn’t about them being in Mexico but their culture and the landscape and everything tied in to the story, and it was like, oh, they’re just doing adventure stuff, like people in other adventure stories do. It’s not weird, it’s just how the book is. I still love that book and I need to read the second one.
DANIELLE PAIGE: So, my next question’s also a two-parter because we don’t have a lot of time. One, do you guys worry at all about getting pigeon-holed for writing something that’s diverse, and two, do you get any push-back for having difficulty finding a home for your book? And we are going to end with you Sona, because we want you to talk about Cake Literary.
I.W. GREGORIO: Why don’t we start on the other end?
DANIELLE PAIGE: We’ll start on the other end.
FRANCESCA ZAPPIA: Ok, so do I worry about being pigeon-holed and, is it…?
DANIELLE PAIGE: What was your publishing experience? Did you get any push-back? Was it finding a home for your book? How was it?
FRANCESCA ZAPPIA : I don’t really worry about being pigeon-holed because you should put diversity in your books anyway. It shouldn’t be like a thing that you have to be like, “Oh, I’m going to make my book diverse!” It should just be, these are people, they should go in a story. I don’t think it’s a question of being pigeon-holed. Push-back, it was kind of like, when I was submitting this they were like, “I don’t know about mental illness,” and “I don’t know if this is portrayed completely right,” and, “it’s kind of a touchy subject.” Well, then we need more books about it if it’s that touchy.
DANIELLE PAIGE: I agree.
NICOLA YOON: Yeah, I don’t worry about being pigeon-holed. I mean, I’m writing for the world that I…you know, my daughter is going to grow in. I’m writing for a world where we don’t necessarily have to call out diversity because it just is a part of everything. So I don’t worry about that. What was the other question?
DANIELLE PAIGE: What was your publishing experience?
NICOLA YOON: My publishing experience has been just unbelievably good. And I have the best editor in the world who’s sitting right there. And I’ve had such a good time and I just feel like now is the time for us to make Harry Potter with an African-American kid, or an Indian kid, or someone who’s gay. We just need stories of people of color that are universal and adventurous and you know, not an issue book, and I think we’re getting there.
SABAA TAHIR: I definitely don’t see my book as pigeon-holed. It’s a fantasy, and it’s a high fantasy, and that’s pretty much it. I don’t think that as someone who happens to be South Asian that I should be forced into writing books about the immigrant experience. I think that I should be able to write whatever I want. That’s why America is awesome! So, I definitely don’t worry about it being pigeon-holed because it’s just a fantasy, that’s what it is at its heart. I’m sorry, I forgot the second question.
DANIELLE PAIGE: Was it hard finding a home for your book?
SABAA TAHIR: Absolutely not. I had no push-back. Yeah, no issues there–it’s been wonderful. It hasn’t even really come up, which is again what makes this experience so wonderful. It’s not about, ” Oh, you’re brown and so you should do this,” it’s just been about the book that I have written.
ADAM SILVERA: I don’t think I was ever intentionally trying to write a diverse book, like I had this “gay story,” you can say. Even the narrator is Hispanic, and I maybe only touch on that three times because my growing up experience as a Puerto Rican was just very, I don’t know–not typically traditionally Puerto Rican…and everyone I think kind of expects me to cook tostadas and everything, or speak Spanish…and you just heard my accent, and I do not do either. And so… a couple of people were like, “Have you considered just making him a white gay teen then? Are you just kind of like shooting yourself in the foot twice by making him a gay Hispanic teen?” And I was like, well, I could have but..I think I can be a Puerto Rican and just be a human too without all these other elements. As for like push back, there was (I will not name a name)…an editor who asked my agent “Has he considered making his character not gay?” …You mean, the book about the boy who wants to through the procedure to forget that he’s gay? What’s my book [about] then? So we were like, “no,” and we pass on your offer, but thank you. The [SOHO?] team was very amazing about staying true to the book.
MIRANDA PAUL: Well, I guess as a white writer up here it’s a different question entirely: who has authority or authenticity to write what story? And for me and One Plastic Bag I do get the question a lot because I teach other writers. Who can write diversely? What stories? Write what you know. I tell people I used to live in the Gambia, I know this woman, I worked with the women in this village. This is a non-fiction story. It’s based on a real woman– a grassroots environmentalist from West Africa, and this book from the time I had the seed of finding out about their story, ’til publication (which is tomorrow), is twelve years. So I tell people that I think there is a responsibility when you’re going to write outside your culture, and that’s the thing that I would want to impart, is that there is a responsibility to immerse yourself in that culture, be with people who the story is about, or [are] like your character because there are things that you think you know, and you do not know. And that would just be the message that I would want to put out there about how I feel myself for writing diversely. I also have an interracial family… there are things you won’t know unless you fully take that risk and be brave and immerse yourself, surround yourself with people who are in the culture of your character that you are writing.
FONDA LEE: So I have no worries about Zeroboxer in particular being pigeon-holed. It’s a science fiction that does not specifically address diversity although there is diversity in it, but I think as an author who is a minority–and this kind of touches on some a few things that Miranda was saying–you do worry to some extent about having expectations placed on you. And you worry about people saying, “Well, why aren’t you writing about your background? Why aren’t you writing about your culture? You should be kind of the poster child for these issues and why aren’t you writing more about that?” …If you think about diversity there’s two elements to it, right? There’s diverse authors, and there’s diverse books or diverse protagonists in books. And those are not a circle. They’re not overlapping, they are like a Venn diagram: diverse authors who are writing very mainstream books that maybe touch upon diversity but [that is] not the core issue, and then you’ve got authors like Miranda who are not minorities but are writing about issues that are very pertinent to other cultures, and then you’ve got those in the middle.
So I guess I do worry a little bit that the responsibility of writing diversity starts to fall on those who are visibly diverse. That is something that I worry about a little bit. I don’t personally worry about being pigeon-holed in so much to the extent that you’ve got to write what you’re passionate about. If you’re passionate about issues in Africa, write about that… if you’re passionate about LGBT issues write about that… if you’re passionate about prize fighting in space, then write about that. I think there is room, hopefully, for the community of writers to reflect the community of the world at large but also all the diversity to become a shared responsibility among both minority and non-minority authors.
I.W. GREGORIO: I think the issue of pigeon-holing is two-fold. There’s the sort of pigeon-holing where I, as a diverse author, do feel a little bit of responsibility. When you come from a community whose voice hasn’t necessarily been heard it would be sort of insensitive to me not to realize that I have this platform. The other issue is the pigeon-holing of our books, because I think that diverse books really have the unfortunate nature of being easily put onto the diversity shelf, and brought out…African-American books are brought during African-American history month, when they should be read all year ’round. I’m not the first person to say that, trust me: at least four or five other people in this audience have said that. You know, I have been struggling with my book being pigeon-holed as an LGBT book, you know, and great, yeah, it’s making all these lists, but it’s about a girl who happens to be intersex. It’s not necessarily a book about intersex.
The fact is that people look at diverse books as if, “Oh these are for people who view them as mirror books.” But they are also more important, probably even as crucially, for people who need to view them as mirrors. The second question was about my submission process. The submission for None of the Above was awesome. I mean that the people really loved it. But my first book, which had an Asian American main character, was a thinly veiled autobiography didn’t sell because three different editors at three different houses said that this book is too similar to another book with an Asian American protagonist that we have on our list. And I made a conscious decision when I created an intersex character not to make her diverse ethnically because I was afraid it would be too hard to sell. And that’s honest, and I hope that people don’t hate me for saying that.
SONA CHARAIPOTRA: I think it’s an important thing to say because it’s the truth. As far as writing diverse characters, that’s always been something that I think is part of my experience growing up, so I have to utilize that I can’t disengage from that. That’s not to say I haven’t written books with white protagonists, I have. And I try to incorporate some kind of diversity into those books as well, but when Danielle and I started writing this book she had taught at a ballet academy and her experience–she saw Asian dancers, black dancers, white dancers. So we wanted to be true to the diversity that actually existed in that world and represent that. That’s why there’s not an Indian dancer in here, but there is a Korean-American dancer, because that’s what the reality was.
I have to say as far as the publishing experience goes, it’s a high concept book, so we didn’t have trouble in that way, but I was talking to Ilene yesterday and I did say, if there weren’t three narrators, if it was just a black narrator and a Korean narrator, I think it would have been a harder sell than with the three narrators and having the white narrator in there as well.
DANIELLE PAIGE: Sona, I want you to talk a little a bit about Cake Literary.
SONA CHARAIPOTRA: Tiny Pretty Things is the first book from Cake Literary. Danielle and I are the co-founders of the company and we did write this one ourselves. But what it is, is a boutique book packaging firm with a strong bent on diversity. Our focus is on bringing high concept, commercial fiction to the market with organic diversity in it. I have a five-year-old and a one-year old and they’re still not going to see a lot of themselves reflected in mainstream American literature, which is sad. So that’s what we’re trying to do with Cake. We’ve just started to do the write-for-hire books I think. We’re really excited about what we’re going to be putting out there. I think they’re going to be fun reads.
DANIELLE PAIGE: That sounds great. We’re going to be opening up to questions but maybe one last question for everybody, really quick-fire. Where do you see diversity in YA in ten years?
SONA CHARAIPOTRA: I’m hoping that the We Need Diverse Books movement will no longer be necessary in ten years. I think that’s a long shot, but that’s my hope.
I.W. GREGORIO: That’s always the hope, but you know, there are the statistics. Fifty percent of schoolchildren are kids of color, but only ten percent of books are… I don’t think we’re going get to fifty percent to ten years, I’m hoping we’ll get to twenty-five.
FONDA LEE: The end goal is exactly what Sona said, not needing this movement. But I think maybe a more short term goal is for every child who is going into the library now to be able to find books that are mirrors for their experience, and are also windows into other cultures. And I think if we can get to that point where there’s diversity, not in a specific section, but throughout libraries in the country, that would be huge.
MIRANDA PAUL: My first professor in children’s literature was Lucille Clifton, and she has been fighting this for a long time. And she’s passed away now, but I hope that being part of the We Need Diverse Books team is that we can carry that legacy, expedite that, and not only that we have the diverse books for all the wide range of kids, but when an author comes to the school –I want there to be a range of authors that come to every school–so that every kid can say “I can be an author too”… that that’s a possibility.
ADAM SILVERA: I hope that our kids are feeling braver about reading certain books and asking for certain titles…this is one of my deep reader shames, and I confessed this to David, but when I read Two Boys Kissing on the subway (I live in the Bronx), I moved the jacket because I was scared that people would kind of see me, and [say], “Oh, he’s reading a book about two boys kissing. He’s probably gay. He’s probably a homo.” So I just kind of squashed that altogether. It’s terrible, but that’s…I think that’s the atmosphere that we unfortunately have, so I hope [that] ten years from now, we have…a lot of stuff resolved there.
SABAA TAHIR: I don’t know what will happen, but I hope that in publishing itself publishers and editors will look at books, and they will not look at a book that’s written by a diverse author that’s about diverse characters and the first thing they think is, “This is a diverse author and this is a diverse character.” I want them to look at that book and think, “Wow, this story is bomb!” That’s what I’m hoping.
NICOLA YOON Yeah, I’m hoping that eventually we don’t need these panels and these organizations because it’s just a part of the world that we live in. My daughter is half me, and half my lovely husband who is Korean, and I want her to see herself…I want her to see herself in that world because that is the world we live in. So she should be in books, and everyone should be in books and I’m feeling really hopeful that we’re going to get there.
FRANCESCA ZAPPIA : I don’t know what I have to add to that. I feel like everybody did a really good job. I’m sitting down here at the end like, “Oh no, I don’t have anything to say.”
DANIELLE PAIGE: It sucks to go last.
FRANCESCA ZAPPIA : That was everything that I was thinking. So, good job guys!
DANIELLE PAIGE: What are your comp titles?
SONA CHARAIPOTRA: Ours are Pretty Little Liars meets Black Swan.
I.W. GREGORIO: I guess my comp titles are Luna by Julie Anne Peters and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.
FONDA LEE: My book was actually pitched as Rocky meets Gattica.
MIRANDA PAUL: As a picture book mine can be compared really to any kid who likes to read picture book biographies, or true stories, non-fiction. You know, kids eat that up, but really stories like Mama Miti or The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind are very similar to this book.
ADAM SILVERA: I would have never dared to compare myself to Benjamin Alire Saenz, but I have been told that it’s for fans who like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
SABAA TAHIR: I think Ember is Legend meets Gladiator (the movie).
NICOLA YOON: I’m going to choose two movies. I’m going to say Say Anything which I love, and The Boy in the Bubble, an old, old TV movie.
FRANCESCA ZAPPIA : Mine was Silver Linings Playbook and Liar.
DANIELLE PAIGE: This has been so much fun. Thank you panelists.