Confessions from (an Unpublished) Author of Young Adult Novels: Diversity

I have been reading and writing young adult novels, especially romance, for the better part of two decades. I used to be embarrassed to admit it. Five years ago, next to no one knew I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words, and if they did know, I’d known them for a very long time. It felt strange to continue to grow up, but to keep reading (and writing) books about people who never got any older.

Now I’m 31, and somewhere along the way (I think between when my feminism became unapologetic and becoming a parent), I embraced it. I love reading young adult romance novels, but I love writing it even more.

To be honest, my writing falls more in the “new adult” genre than young adult. My characters are older. They get married. They have kids. There’s sex, because it’s as fun to write as it is to read. They have real life problems. Since I’ve admitted (out loud) that writing is what makes my heart pump, I’ve written nine novels. Since National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2014, I’ve written so many words I don’t want to open all the Google docs to tally them because they take a while to load when they’re 200 pages a piece. Suffice it to say, it’s somewhere near 750,000 words. In the past month, I have changed four of those nine novels from third to first person, which is an extremely involved process. I reread what I’ve written and I edit nonstop.

The editing is interesting. The editing brings me back to who I was when I started the project. Some of the things I’ve finished over the past two and a half years were things I started nearly a decade ago, before I recognized something glaringly obvious to me now. Roxane Gay wrote an essay about privilege that everyone should read. It’s point is simple: Identify and acknowledge the privilege you have. I am a straight, upper-middle-class-ish, white woman. There are a bucket of privileges I am afforded because of those things. I could talk about any of them in detail, but when it comes to my writing, there’s one I want to focus on.

I can always see myself in a female protagonist because nearly all of them are also straight and white.

I would say that young adult has done better than a lot of other genres in trying to close those gaps, but there’s a long way to go. And when I look back at a lot of the things I’ve written, my cast of characters also tended to be straight and white. Since 2014, I have actively tried to avoid it, and it’s important. My protagonists are still usually white and straight, because I’m white and straight, and I write first person. My protagonists also nearly always live or wind up in Minnesota, many have issues with miscarriage or fertility, because we write what we know, right?

It’s a shitty excuse, and I’m trying to do better. In the nine novels I’ve written since 2014, all but two focus on an interracial romance. Several blur lines of traditional straight monogamy with an acknowledgment that sexuality can be fluid. There’s an intentional message of self-awareness and an acknowledgment that being black or gay or poor is harder than being straight, white and middle class.