When I was 11 years old, a friend of mine took me by the hand and led me to a shelf in our elementary school library where there was a book that she said I “absolutely had to read.” That was the day I discovered A Wrinkle in Time and my life, no joke, was changed forever. I’ve read the book dozens of times since then, read it out loud to my son, bought it for several young members of my family, and never forgotten the exact moment that it was first put into my hands.
As the issue of diversity becomes a bigger and bigger topic within the publishing world I’ve been thinking a lot about what A Wrinkle In Time meant to me and how important it was at that specific time in my life to read that particular book. (Bear with me, I know the main characters are all white, but I’m going somewhere with this.)
In the past year, every time someone championed diversity in YA writing, a counterpoint seemed to promptly appear asserting the industry was under attack from censorship or suffering from political correctness run amuck. As I write this piece, a negative article about sensitivity readers recently ran in the New York Times that made it sound as if Caucasian authors were terrified to create characters of color. Meanwhile, author Joyce Carol Oates was engaging (yet again) in what could charitably be termed extremely ill-advised comments about diversity and publishing on Twitter. (She was promptly schooled by YA author Dhonielle Clayton.)
In the past, I would largely ignore all of this noise while delving into my Year in Review. I would have written about titles and authors that caught my eye while also considering if anything came close to tackling the vampire or dystopian crazes of the past. (Quick answer to that question is an emphatic “No.”) But for 2017, which has been a bizarro year in so many ways, I am choosing not to ignore the topic of diversity in YA fiction because I know only too well how important it is for young readers to see themselves in books.
To be blunt, a book can save your life, and if you are lucky, as I was with A Wrinkle in Time, it will keep on saving you as long as you need it.
As a kid, I saw a lot of myself in Meg Murray. Beyond similarities in appearance and a mutual love for liverwurst sandwiches (which had never appeared in any other book I had ever read and made a huge impact), there was her unwavering determination to save her trapped father. Meg traveled across the universe and challenged IT to bring him home. She taught me it was okay to be angry at the way things are and to never stop trying to change them. Looking like me, facing a challenge presented by a relentless all-consuming darkness that seemed just like the lifelong depression that stalked my father, she gave me hope at a time that I desperately needed it.
A Wrinkle in Time made me believe that maybe, someday, my father would also be free.
In 2017, there were many YA SF and fantasy authors who showed how creating characters who mirror their readers (and our society) can make a great story even better. Daniel José Older’s Shadowhouse Fall continued the thrilling adventures of Afro-Latina Sierra and her Scooby band of teen warriors who battle nefarious magical forces while simultaneously navigating the indignities of high school metal detectors and a justice system that skews heavily in favor of corrupt cops. Older peppers the narrative with Spanish language references (and slang) that fit right in with this smart and determined crowd of gay, straight, white, brown, black, living, and dead characters.
In Anne-Marie McLemore’s Wild Beauty, the five female Nomeolvides cousins must get to the bottom of a curse that has dogged their family for generations or lose the girl they each have fallen in love with. Saving her propels them to enact extraordinary magical measures ushering in a new mystery with deep historical revelations about desperate immigrants and the evil that all too often awaits them at border crossings. (Could there be a more timely plot line?) Filled with lush descriptions of the gardens of La Pradera where the cousins live and work, the author’s Mexican American heritage is clearly evident in this beguiling narrative that proves love conquers all.
In Dreadnought, April Daniels introduced Danny, who is hiding behind a mall, painting his toes with stolen nail polish when he watches the world’s greatest superhero die in front of him. Transformed by the fallen hero into the brand new mighty Dreadnought, Danny also becomes his truest self: the girl she was always meant to be. In the pages that follow, Daniels unfolds a combination superhero saga/coming-of-age transgender story that manages to be heartwarming, infuriating, enraging, and triumphant. In the sequel Sovereign, she ratcheted up the drama of superhero survival while never straying from Danny’s personal evolution, which is, in every possible way, even more compelling than the more traditional good vs. evil vs. approaching alien technology tale that readers will also love.
There were so many seamless ways in which diversity enhanced YA SFF novels in 2017. Kekla Magoon continued her retelling of the Robin Hood legend with a Reign of Outlaws, which catalogs even more challenges for its biracial female protagonist, Robyn Loxley (AKA “Robyn Hoodlum”) and her band of merry teens. Philip Reeve returned to the galaxy spanning Great Network of Railhead with more adventures including his sentient trains and brown-skinned protagonist Zen Starling. His new book, The Black Light Express, is about cut-throat politics, dinosaur-descended aliens, train murder, planet hopping, the complicated course of inter-species love, and how hard it is to reintegrate into society when you’ve been frozen in a futuristic prison. Also, a lot of rich people are jerks but happily, they pretty much all get what they deserve.
In what I consider to be the year’s most dazzling and absolutely must-read title, Sarah Rees Brennan took a smart-ass, thoroughly disagreeable 13-year-old, dosed him with a helping of potential “chosen one” fairy dust, and let readers follow along as he dropped down a metaphorical rabbit hole in her whip-smart, funny, intense, poignant, and exceedingly timely novel, In Other Lands. That she accomplishes all this while also making a serious statement about the power of diplomacy (as opposed to knee-jerk use of the military), and also includes one of the most touching romances in YA fiction makes the book damn near perfect; that this romance involves two teenage boys is just the icing on the literary cake. In Other Lands is a phenomenal novel, a true game-changer for YA fantasy from start to finish.
What all of these authors do (along with so many others including Ibi Zoboi in American Street, Kate Milford in Ghosts of Greenglass House, Libba Bray in Before the Devil Breaks You, and F.C. Lee in The Epic Crush of Genie Lo), is successfully include diverse ethnicities, religions, sexualities, settings and family relationships in their plots, and their books, as has been shown again and again, are all the better for their efforts. That is the lesson from 2017 that needs to be driven home, loudly and often, until everybody gets it, (even, we can only hope, Joyce Carol Oates).
Supporting the great work done by writers of color and good books that feature diversity should be a primary consideration for reviewers. It is, quite frankly, the very least that we can do.
I am looking forward to a lot of things in 2018 including Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles, and Emily X.R. Pan’s The Astonishing Color of After, but more than anything it is Ava DuVernay’s big screen version of A Wrinkle in Time that has me excited. I’m already half in love with Storm Reid’s portrayal of Meg Murray from the trailers, but what I really hope is that the movie is such a box office monster that it propels the book to even greater heights of popularity. There are plenty of kids out there who need to face down their own ugly version of IT to save someone they hold dear. I needed a brave girl who lost her father to help me be brave a long time ago; here’s to all the authors in 2017 and beyond who create characters who look like, and live like, America’s actual real life teens. Your truth will help to set us all free.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the February 2018 issue of Locus.