Ari is founder of the excellent book review blog, Reading in Color, which focuses on YA (young adult) literature about people of color. A teenager herself and an avid reader of YA fiction, Ari noticed that books about people of color were underrepresented on the book review blogs she read. She founded Reading in Color to help fill this gap.
As a book reviewer who is also a teenager, Ari is ideally positioned to write about young adult fiction from the perspective of the genre's target audience. In addition to discussing issues of diversity in fiction in her blog, Ari has started letter-writing campaigns to publishers and booksellers in an effort to change the way that fiction about people of color is marketed and distributed.
In this interview, Ari talks about these campaigns, as well as about her favorite young adult books, and her advice for authors.
Q: On your blog, you have written about several recent cases in which a Young Adult book with a protagonist of color was given a cover that showed a white or racially ambiguous protagonist. Could you talk about your reaction to these book covers and what you have learned about the decision-making behind them?
A: I was very upset when I saw these book covers because they send a not-so-subtle message that we teens of color are worthless and even stupid. Worthless because by not showcasing us on covers, they send the message that we don’t matter, we don’t deserve to be on the cover of books. They send us a message that we are stupid because they assume that we will not notice (or care) that the person on the cover is white, but the character in the book is supposed to have brown skin. No teens are worthless or stupid, and I’m hurt and insulted that some publishing houses think this way (or at least, they are ignorant of the hurtful messages these covers send which shows they need to change their perspectives).
I never knew that authors had little-to-no say in the design of their covers. I’m a big believer that authors should at least be consulted about the appearance of the characters (if characters are to be put on the cover) to make sure the publishing house gets it right.
Q: Could you talk about your letter to Borders, your goals for the letter-writing campaign, and update us on the response?
A: Along with learning about issues with book covers, I also learned that you can’t just blame the publishers, bookstores are also at fault. If the bookstores won’t even consider selling a book with a poc [person of color] on the cover, then publishers are not going to publish them because they want to make money. The big bookstore chains especially, seem to think that books with poc on the cover won’t sell. I’ve seen informal polls on this subject done on other blogs, and at least amongst bookworms, people will buy the book if it sounds good. Regardless of the race of the person on the front. Out of this realization, I decided to write a letter to Borders.
I wrote the letter after learning that the paperback cover of Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon had been whitewashed along with the cover of the sequel, Fury of the Phoenix. The hardcover of Silver Phoenix features an Asian girl in a pink kimono on the cover. It’s beautiful. And the book is a great read (Action! Food! Young love! Monsters and mayhem!). However now the cover of the paperback and sequel feature a racially ambiguous girl and that’s not right for a book where the main character’s Asian heritage plays such a large role in the story. The publisher could have dropped Ms. Pon altogether; instead, they are changing the covers but still publishing the sequel; they believe in her. Ms. Pon has stated that Silver Phoenix did not reach as many of its readers as it could because Borders refused to sell it and Barnes & Noble only sold it in select stores. On the basis of a cover and summary alone, two of the largest bookstore chains in the U.S. refused to feature the book. It’s mindboggling.
My goal for the letter writing is to demand that Borders and Barnes & Noble sell more books by/about poc, especially for teens. They have a pitiful collection and that’s not right. I want to get as many people as I can to send emails and write letters to both chains. I received a rather standard response. It was polite, thanking me for my feedback and telling me to look online. While I’m glad I got any sort of response, I wasn’t particularly satisfied with it.
Q: On your blog, you strongly advise authors of color to develop an Internet presence. Could you explain why this is so important?
A: This is crucial! Authors of color are already at a disadvantage because editors/bookstores/whoever tend to dismiss our books merely as “ethnic” stories and forget about them. They think that they won’t sell. You MUST drum up support for your book; make it a highly anticipated release not only via word of mouth but through the Internet. You must work to promote your book -- your publishing house is not necessarily going to throw all their weight behind you and start some big marketing campaign. That’s on you. If you have good sales around the time your book comes out, there’s a better chance that more bookstores will carry your books. Every author needs a website and it’s even better if you either: (a) actively update your website, (b) have a blog, and/or (c) have a Twitter account. These social networking tools will not only keep your current fans updated but will make it easier for new fans to find out more about you and your work.
There’s nothing better than receiving a response from an author after you’ve emailed/tweeted them about how much you loved their book. Being able to read tidbits of their new books coming out and read their thoughts on various topics? Heaven! Authors of color need to get online and realize the value of ARC [Advanced Readers’ Copy] tours, especially the ones in which you do guest posts or interviews. You have to be careful to avoid oversaturation (at the same time, I always remember the name of books that have been on long blog tours. It’s just not always a fond remembrance) but the tours are a great way to get your name out there. If you’re a debut author, connect with other debut authors (for example: The Tenners [an online community for authors with a debut YA or middle grade book with a 2010 release date.]). You don’t need to do a ton of interviews, but a few would be nice.
Q: What are some Young Adult books that you wish someone would write?
A: More boarding school novels with diversity! I can count on ONE hand the number of books about a poc set in a boarding school and I would love to see more of them. Especially non-angst filled ones. Obviously race is going to be a factor in these stories, but it’s not the only factor. I don’t mind an African American girl reflecting on being one of a few African Americans on campus and facing some instances of subtle racism, but she should also talk about other issues she has with boarding school as well as what she likes. I always thought boarding school would be fun, but the ones about poc never make it seem that way.
More interracial and inter-culture romance. I want to see more writers (regardless of ethnicity, as long as you do your research) have a books where the main character is a poc who falls in love with a poc of a different cultural background or the main character falls in love with a poc (or vice versa). I think part of the reason I may really dislike romance books is because they are all about white people falling in love. Brown people fall in love too. My parents are proof.
Q: What are some typical mistakes which authors make when writing YA fiction?
A: I don’t read too many books where authors make ‘mistakes’ per se -- it’s more of something about the book just doesn’t work for ME, personally. In general, a mistake in writing YA would be “dumbing down” content and forgetting who your audience is. Oh, and if you write a book where another language is spoken, include a glossary in the back if you must, but don’t include the exact translation next to the word (i.e. “Hola. Hello” she says), it sounds awkward. Give your readers some credit, they will figure out what the word means based on context, look it up or just move on.
Q: What are some books that you would recommend as models for writers who want to learn how to write YA fiction?
A: Ah that’s like picking favorites! Ok I adored Girl Overboard by Justina Chen Headley. It starts slow but not only is the premise unique (Chinese female snowboarder), there’s also intercultural romance and a whole lot of other stuff going on. The author brings up many issues and it’s a lot to juggle, but she handles it well. The book starts off slow but it’s one of my favorite books because I loved every.single.thing. about it. Even the slow intro.
Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves is an excellent example of a book where the main character is bi-racial -- it’s mentioned a few times, but then it’s let go. Being bi-racial is a part of the main character, (Hanna), but it’s not the only thing that defines her, and the story’s main focus is not race relations. It’s wonderfully bizarre and a pleasure to read. Also read it for the world building. The author has a very active imagination and it’s fantastic to read about the world of Portero, Texas.
A Wish After Midnight is a wonderful example of historical fiction done about a time period that may seem over-exposed (the Civil War), but that puts a fresh spin on the time period by creating unforgettable characters and chronicling a lesser-known event of the time period (the Draft Riots of 1863). Plus, even though I read the book a year ago, I can still passionately debate the Judah vs. Paul issue (Team Paul!) and I intend on re-reading it soon.
Finally, I would recommend Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher. Another one of my all-time favorite books, this is a great book to read to learn about how humor and sadness go together. I would laugh so hard tears would come into my eyes, later on, I would actually be crying (this is the first book I ever cried over).
Did you enjoy this interview with Ari about YA fiction? You might also like our interview with Meredith Sue Willis onwriting novels.