As the Page Turns / Diversity in Young Adult is crucial
Published 12:00 am, Thursday, March 1, 2018
While reading Carrie Firestone’s young adult novel “The Unlikelies” last summer, I encountered something I haven’t before in my 20-some odd years of reading: a character with a background like mine.
As a white woman, I’m never hurting for representation in the media. But with Middle Eastern roots on my dad’s side, and a last name to match, I really can’t remember reading about too many characters with the same background as mine, a weird mix of European and Middle Eastern roots, dominated by Irish and Syrian heritage. But Sadie Sullivan, the protagonist of “The Unlikelies” has a Persian mother and Irish father.
It was kind of cool having a character like me in a book which got me thinking about diversity in young adult literature and how it must feel for readers who see themselves represented far less than I do to see themselves in a novel. I’ve mentioned before the diversity in this genre is what keeps me coming back for more. Recently I finished “Love, Hate and Other Filters” by Samira Ahmed, about an Indian-American Muslim teenager confronting Islamophobia in her hometown and “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas about Starr Carter, a Black teenager growing up in a poor neighborhood who sees her childhood best friend shot by a police officer.
Aside from having strong voices of teenage protagonists (an age group which I’d argue has some of the strongest most valuable voices), I love these books because they expose me to viewpoints I wouldn’t know otherwise. But even more importantly, they give other young readers a chance to see themselves in the media.
“It’s been a long time coming and it’s fantastic,” Firestone said of the movement to increase diversity in young adult books. “It didn’t happen accidentally. It’s a wonderful movement.”
Firestone is based in Avon, outside of Hartford. She published her first novel, “The Loose Ends List” two years ago when she was 45 and “The Unlikelies” came out last May.
Firestone began seriously writing when she turned 40 and originally leaned toward writing middle-grade novels for a younger audience until she found her old high school diary duct taped together in a box.
“I cut through duct tape and read through my high school journal and I was so struck by teenage voice,” she said. “My own teenage voice inspired me to write Maddie, the protagonist of my first novel.”
Before getting into writing Firestone worked as an ESL teacher in New York City where she taught students from all over the world. That diversity is reflected in her writing. Sadie’s Persian side came from a Persian woman Firestone once knew and another character in the book, a Haitian teen affected by the 2010 earthquake, was inspired by some of Firestone’s prior Haitian students.
“My characters in all my books, they’re kind of a mix of my own characteristics and people I’ve met and learned about and people who’ve shared stories with me my whole life,” she said. “I’m not Persian in my background, but that part of Sadie came from a woman I knew many years ago who shared her stories with me and I was so taken I said ‘Someday if I write a book, you’re going to be in it.’ I write the essence of people.”
Firestone said it’s equally important to know when to step back and know when not to write a story. She said she shelved a book whose main character was a Pakistani boy when she felt she didn’t have enough experience to write from that perspective. She said her books have also been read by sensitivity readers who review manuscripts for issues of bias, cultural inaccuracies, insensitive language and representation.
“As an author it’s really important to think about these things and figure out the best way to approach every page in every book,” Firestone said. “It’s important to defer to other people’s feelings on how my work is read. There’s going to be moments where people read something wrong but in general, I think it’s important to defer to readers and deepen my understanding on how to be a better author and deepen characters.”
While YA is changing and is, in my opinion, still one of the more diverse genres out there. But there’s still work to be done and the real way to initiate change is by publishing more diverse writers. Firestone agrees.
“If we want to have diversity in any literature, to really put time and effort into inspiring and teaching young people from all schools and districts about writing and reading,” Firestone said. “My goal is to nurture young readers and writers so they can tell their own story directly...the big change will come when we have representation of all voices. Everyone in this world has a story. It’s way bigger than me.”