Let me put this right up front: there is no YA or middle grade author of any gender, or of any race, who has put more diversity into more books than me. Period.
Want to challenge that? Go for it. I will send 100 bucks to the charity of your choice if you can prove your case. Hell, let’s make it a thousand.
Does that sound defensive? It is. People who don’t know me, don’t know what I write or have written, and who see only a (rather large) white face and a bald head indicative of age, leap to assumptions. I know, I know I should just ignore the morons on Twitter. But the problem is, I actually care about this issue.
I care enough that when people with their hearts in the right place, but their heads up their asses, say and do things that hurt the cause in the name of helping the cause, it bothers me. And then I say something. Because shutting up has never been a skill of mine.
I recently posted an encouraging tweet about getting published and various Twitter warriors demanded I amend that by telling writers of color that they don’t really stand a chance. I have 18,000 followers, mostly kids, many PoC or gay, and these nitwits think they’re helping the cause of diversity by demanding that I urge immediate and pre-emptive surrender by young writers who may be PoC.
Talk about losing the fucking thread.
Meanwhile, right-thinking Justine Larbalestier is writing a well-meaning but clueless post that has her effectively calling for literary apartheid where she and I as white writers just happen to get the biggest slice of the pie. And all in the name of diversity.
Preserve me from my allies, my enemies I can handle.
So, leaving out ghostwriting gigs, here’s what I’ve done as a writer:
With my wife: Ocean City, Boyfriends/Girlfriends (re-released as Islanders), Summer, Animorphs, Everworld, Remnants, Eve and Adam.
On my own: Gone, BZRK, The Magnificent 12, Messenger of Fear, and coming soon, Front Lines and Shade Darby (working title.) And what follows is by no means complete, I’ve written a whole lot of characters and don’t remember them all perfectly, or even at all in some cases.
- A female lead character who is brave, bold, aggressive and frankly dangerous? Rachel in Animorphs, (1995.) That would be about 20 years pre-Katniss, but Buffy-concurrent.
- Interracial relationship? Cassie and Jake in Animorphs,(1995.)
- Gay relationship? A pair of Andalites in Animorphs, (1995), Dekka and Brianna, Edilio and Roger in Gone, (2007.)
- Hispanic major character? Marquez in Summer, (1995), Marco in Animorphs, (1995), Mo’ Steel (Romeo Gonzalez) in Remnants, (2001), Edilio and Diana in Gone, (2007).
- Black major character? Chelsea in Ocean City, (1993), Aisha in Boyfriends/Girlfriends, (1994), Cassie in Animorphs, (1995), Jalil in Everworld, (1999), Jarrah in Magnificent 12, (2011), Dekka, Howard and Albert in Gone, (2007), Bug Man in BZRK, (2011), and coming soon, Frangie in Front Lines, (2016.)
- Asian major character? Nijinsky in BZRK, (2011) and Mara in Messenger of Fear, (2014.)
- Gay main character? Dekka and Edilio in Gone, (2007), Nijinsky in BZRK, (2011), and one important secondary I can’t talk about yet.
- Practicing Christians? April from Everworld, (1999), Astrid, Orc, Brittney, Edilio from Gone, (2007).
- Practicing Muslims? Not as major but as secondary characters in Gone, (2007) and Messenger of Fear (2014.)
- Handicapped or physically challenged characters? The auxiliary Animorphs from the series of the same name, (1995), 2Face in Remnants, (2011), and a very major character coming soon.
- Mentally challenged main characters? Jalil with severe OCD in Everworld, (1999), Little Pete with Autism in Gone, (2007), Mack with multiple phobias, Magnificent 12, (2011), Vincent with anhedonia in BZRK, (2011).
- Native American main character? No. Australian aboriginal main character, but not a Native American. Hmmm.
- Trans main character? Coming in 2017.
- Female characters? Please. Far too numerous to list, at least 50%, likely more.
That’s my record on diversity in books. And actually, I’m leaving out a lot. Like I said, 150 books, maybe a thousand characters, hard to keep track of.
I have a very simple approach to this. I’m an American. I live in a very diverse country. All those Americans out there in all their diversity are my potential cast. To produce a non-diverse book would require me to actively exclude various people which would be, A) Wrong and B) Stupid. So I write a lot of diversity. Not trying to save the world, here, just taking full advantage of the cast life has given me.
So, my reaction to We Need Diverse Books? About time. I’ve been on that for about 30 years now. But, good on ‘ya, kids.
Do I “accept” the fact that I have both white and male privilege? Duh. I’d have to be an idiot not to. Although the far better example of my white privilege isn’t about publishing at all, but my regrettable earlier life when I was involved in (non violent) crime. As for publishing, I’ve still written more books “as a woman” than as a man. But even though I’ve often been invisible to editors (early on), and in fact never met an editor face-to-face until I’d already written well over 100 books, I think it’s safe to say that editors assume I’m white. And it’s safe to say that my assumed whiteness is an advantage.
Do I get more invitations to do panel or to speak than an equivalent female or black writer, which is a complaint I hear? I don’t know. This is evidently a point of irritation for people who feel excluded, but if you knew how little I want to do either do panel or give speeches, you’d understand why I haven’t investigated this. But in just about every case of panel or speech I was brought in (often against my will) by women — editors, publicists, librarians, booksellers. If you’ve got a beef with that, if you want less Michael Grant on panels, that is more than fine by me.
Do I get paid more because I’m white? I don’t know.
Do I get paid more because I’m male? Well, forgive me if, as I sit here way below people named Jo and Veronica and Cassandra and Suzanne and Marie, I don’t just accept that allegation without some data. This ain’t Hollywood, Suzanne Collins isn’t Jennifer Lawrence and I’m not Jeremy Renner. The vast majority of writers who out-earn me are female, including (sometimes) my own wife.
Taking this forward, getting back to the actual, important issue of diversity in kidlit, people who know me know that I am much more a political animal than I am a literary type. I have very little interest in random explosions of undirected emotion, still less for smug, self-appointed guardians of ideological purity. I’m a practical person, not an ideologue.
So, here’s what I’d like to know, and what I’d hope to see:
- Data. We need data, because we need to get our hands around the size, the scope, and the specific areas of difficulty. Here’s what I mean: we don’t know whether there are so few writers of color (WoC) because essentially segregated and under-resourced schools aren’t producing enough potential WoC, or because qualified WoC have been discouraged by society at large, or whether there is either unintentional or intentional prejudice in publishing, or because there’s a problem at the market end. Or all of the above. Different problems in different areas require different solutions.
- If the issue is at the school level, then let’s look at mentorships, scholarships, etc… If WoC are being discouraged by societal pressure, then maybe the very last thing we should be doing is preaching despair in the guise of “honesty.” Because the failure rate for aspiring WoC may be 90% but the failure rate for WoC who don’t try is 100%. If the bottleneck is at the agents/editors stage, then we need pressure on the big publishers to try a harder to find editors who are not white graduates of Seven Sisters colleges. As for the market? Damned if I know, if I knew how to control markets I’d be a far, far more powerful creature.
- We need to clarify what we mean by We Need Diverse Books. Do we mean that we want more readers to be able to see characters that look like them? Or do we mean that we need more WoC? My answer is, ideally, both. But the focus should be primarily on readers, because 100% of writers start out as readers. More diverse books = more diverse readers = more diverse writers = more diverse books. And so on.
- Finally, can we learn some basic politics? Politics — and that’s what this is — is the art of the possible. Politics is (or at least should be,) about rounding up the largest base of support behind your issue. This always, always, always means that extremists will be dissatisfied. But we’ve just all been through a master class in the art of changing minds with the same sex marriage debate. That will be taught in poli-sci classes a century from now as an astonishingly effective turn-around of opinion. As a political nerd it takes my breath away. Another example, Black Lives Matter, is showing signs of being politically smart as well. Read Campaign Zero. That’s emotion being turned into power. If you want to turn emotion into power, you state clear, rational, achievable goals and lay out a pathway.
- I will do all I can to support this cause. If you’ve got a practical, real-world way for me to advance diversity in kidlit, I’m all ears. (And a lot of scalp.) I care about this. I’ve been producing diverse books for close on to 30 years, I didn’t just figure this out when I saw a hashtag. This is core character for me. This goes deep. If you have a practical idea, tell me. But if all you want to do is scold me in social media, you get blocked.
Okay? That’s my piece said.