Why I Write Teen Books With Diverse Characters
As a high school teacher for many years, I primarily taught kids of color. And yet, in the books and stories we read in class, almost all of the characters were Caucasian, and most with reasonably stable home lives. I decided as an author to write about the kids I knew best – kids of color, gay kids, marginalized kids, poor kids, kids with disabilities, gang members, and incarcerated kids – because I want all youth to see themselves represented in a positive light within the pages of teen literature.
To that end, I crafted a five-book social justice-oriented series called The Children of the Knight Cycle that takes a fantasy concept – King Arthur resurrected in modern-day Los Angeles – and used it to showcase a laundry list of crimes this society perpetrates against kids who don’t “fit the norm,” or won’t be shoehorned into the “one size fits all” mentality of public education, or don’t want to be a mini-me version of their parents. Virtually all the main characters in my series are teens of color, including Native Americans. Some of them are gay. All are dynamic, memorable individuals that readers can relate to. Every day in America such kids are kicked to the curb. We don’t want them in our homes or classrooms or in our books. We’d rather they just disappear. In recent decades, we’ve decided we like putting them in prison. A staggering number of states incarcerate children younger than ten and charge them as adults for imitating the anti-social examples of adults, or for copying illicit behaviors our popular media models every day.
I present these kids as real human beings with the same hopes, fears, needs, and wants as everyone else. My characters benefit from adults who choose to love them no matter what, and who show them how to do what’s right, rather than what’s easy. The kids don’t care what race or skin color the adults represent – they just want to be cared for and loved for who they are, like we all do. They learn that every one of them can make a positive difference in this world, and that’s a message the students in my urban, working-class high school seldom got from the books I was forced to teach them. In those books, mostly “white” kids succeeded.
In my teen horror thriller, Spinner, I highlight the other forgotten kids I taught for many years – those with disabilities. These kids tend to be the most overlooked of all high schoolers because it is “assumed” by adults that they will never amount to much in life. Kids with physical or learning disabilities are no different from those without them – they can learn and achieve, but maybe not in the same cookie-cutter fashion teachers like to employ. I know what I’m talking about because I have a disability of my own – hearing loss. I’ve lived with a severe sensorineural hearing impairment my entire life, and did not even have access to hearing aids until I was in college.
I also didn’t know a single kid like me until after graduate school. I was one of a kind growing up, and that can be isolating. However, my isolated childhood gave me true empathy for every youngster who is “different,” and likely directed me to seek out such kids and work with them. After graduate school, I joined the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, wherein adults mentor kids with no father in the home. I was matched to a 14-year-old boy with hearing loss, and the experience was revelatory. Even as an adult, I felt an almost palpable relief to finally know someone who’d grown up with hearing loss. Imagine what it’s like for kids like me to see themselves in books they read, to understand that they aren’t alone or broken or crippled, to see hope for their lives because they see others like them achieving greatness. We all need to understand that being different is not wrong. In fact, being apart from the norm is more often than not a net positive, and it’s a major theme throughout all my writing, including within several as-yet unpublished works.
We spend way too much time in this country focusing on what we perceive to be the weaknesses in others. The teen characters in my books prove that our strengths always outweigh our weaknesses, and our differentness should be celebrated, not hidden away. If more adults would focus on the natural talents and gifts of kids instead of always trying to make everyone “fit in,” then all children would have a real chance to soar.
No matter what we look like or how much money we have or how smart we are; no matter our race, gender, or orientation; no matter our abilities or disabilities – at the end of every day we’re all the same. We’re all human. We’re human first, and everything else second.
As a writer of teen lit, my goal is to empower every kid, not just the ones most Americans “look like.” Hopefully, more authors will do the same.