Many discussions on diversity in books centre on so-called issue stories vs. non-issue ones. Issue books, like you’d expect, focus on a particular social issue: a gay protagonist, for example, comes to terms with his sexuality or struggles with the after effects of coming out; an interracial romance where the major roadblock is the interracial-ness of the romance; a poor, inner-city black girl struggles to escape the social history that sees her born into a troubled family in a crime-ridden neighborhood.
Issue books are important. I’ll say that again for emphasis. Issue books, especially the ones written for marginalised young adults struggling to come of age in a world that too often tells them they are deviant in some way, are crucial. It is important for a young gay boy to be able to locate himself in a book, to see that there are others like him, to know in his bones that he is normal, his feelings are valid, his sexuality is good and true. If a book can do that for him then it’s worth its weight in gold. Similarly, it’s important for that little black girl to know that life can be better, that escape is possible, that you can make your own family, find your own place in the world on your own terms.
But there’s another kind of book too: the non-issue book. This is the book where the gay protagonist isn’t struggling at all. He’s already come out. The people who matter have accepted him, everyone else be damned. Maybe he has a boyfriend, or a long time crush. Maybe he’s also about to discover that he’s a wizard, and that’s what the book is about: an adventure story about love, friendship and believing in yourself. This imagined book, this non-issue book, is not firstly about being gay. It’s about magic.
When I started writing Everything, Everything, the protagonist was always going to be of mixed race — not because there was a particular racial issue I wanted to address, but because that is simply who she is. We live in a world where diversity is a fact of life. Diversity is the natural state of things. There are 20,000 species of butterflies on our planet. 23,000 different kinds of trees. The idea of a single homogenous anything, let alone “race” is a construct of culture that goes against everything in nature and our books should reflect that. We breathe oxygen. The sun rises and also sets. We are diverse.
Issue books are important. And non-issue books are just as important. I don’t spend my days thinking about race and where the colour of my skin locates me in the world. I spend my days as most people do: I work, I laugh, I worry, I dream, I strive to be happy. I believe in love. And magic. I hope that my mixed-race daughter will spend even less time than I do thinking about race. I hope she will read stories about people who are just like her and stories about people who are not. I hope that she’ll read scary stories, issue stories, funny stories, romantic stories and fantastical stories with dragons and beasts that need slaying.
And I hope that the heroine of some of these stories will look just like her.
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