This month, several authors launched an online campaign to draw attention to the need for broader representation of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability and other factors among characters in books for children and young adults. The Twitter hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks was intended to launch a conversation about young people being able to recognize characters like themselves in the books they read.
But Utah author Shannon Hale was already charging into that conversation; her new book Dangerous features a protagonist named Maisie who is a female, half-Latina science geek with one arm. In recent weeks, Hale has taken to Twitter and her blog to speak eloquently about her passion for diverse characters in literature and pop culture.
City Weekly: When can you first recall being aware of the kinds of people you did and didn’t see as characters in books?
Shannon Hale: One of the most impactful books I remember was A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, which I read maybe 20 years ago. I defaulted to assuming characters were white, and I didn’t realize that until the end of the book—and she purposely didn’t reveal until the end of the book—that they were black. It made me realize that the landscapes of most books are made up of white people.
CW: Did you feel any pressure as an able-bodied white writer creating a disabled Latina character?
SH: I grew up in a very homogenous neighborhood, but then I went to West High School, and I loved being around people of different backgrounds, and [I wanted] to read books that reflected the world as it really was. But as a young writer, I felt hesitant to write stories about people I didn’t share a heritage with. I felt like I didn’t have a right.
It is always safer to write about white people and able-bodied people. I think it’s a default. We’re more comfortable with it. Over the years, I’ve tried to train my brain not to default my characters to “white, male, straight, able-bodied.”
CW: How did the idea develop of making Dangerous’s Maisie distinctive in the ways that you made her distinctive?
SH: With every story, a writer’s always asking what will make it more interesting. It just became a story need for the character to be bilingual … so I’ll make her mom Paraguayan. But also, I’m a mom, and … you spend so much of your time holding a baby doing everything with one hand, and [I imagined] what it would be like to have one hand. … And I wanted it not to be the “issue” of the novel. People with disabilities, their life isn’t about their disability.
CW: Is the publishing industry reluctant to rock the boat?
SH: In my experience, yes. And that’s not to say that some of their fears aren’t validated. There’s a lot of data showing that stories about people of color don’t do as well, especially if they’re on the cover. I’ll do signings where there are stacks of my books, and all of them will be gone except Book of a Thousand Days, which has an Asian on the cover. People think, “That’s not for me.” I think people are changing faster than the industry is changing, but …it’s a business. And I’ve truly never met somebody in the publishing industry who’s bigoted. They love books; it’s not a fat-cat industry. They’re trying their best.
CW: You also mentioned on Twitter the issue of diversity in characters as far as representing religion.
SH: I didn’t see that being discussed. If we look at the data of how many books are published with teen characters that are religious, compared to statistics about teenagers who are religious, it’s not even close. … A lot of people said they would not read a book about someone who prays, and those same people would never say they wouldn’t read a book about a black person, or about a mentally ill person. For a teenager who’s the only Muslim in their school, wouldn’t it be just as important to find a book that validates their experience?
CW: Is there more responsibility for a writer like you, who is now somewhat established, to push a little harder for changes?
SH: Somebody [at the publisher] told me after reading Dangerous that they would not have bought it if it had been a debut, but because I have a fan base, they would be able to get out of the red. … I think I’ve got a bigger responsibility.
CW: Were there ideas shared in the “We Need Diverse Books Campaign” that may have been a bit of a surprise to you?
SH: There were several writers of color who said, “White people, this is not your issue, stay out of it.” And others who said, “This is your issue, too.” With any movement, not everybody is going to agree. And that’s okay. I think the conversation is so much more important than agreement. As a white person, do I have a right to speak up about this? I decided there was more harm in staying silent.