Today, I welcome Leah Thomas the author of Because You’ll Never Meet Me, to my blog, who stops by to chat about diversity.
Creating Diversity in YA Fiction
I wonder if anyone in the world ever watched a movie about high school and thought, “Yeah, that’s exactly my school experience. Uncanny!” Witty banter and unbelievably shallow personalities, a year that revolves entirely around a dance or a sports game. The vast majority of movies about high school take place in the whitest of schools, and the core cast includes blonde cheerleaders, blue-eyed jocks, pasty goths. Token others.
I’m not saying there aren’t people who, on the surface, may seem to fit those bills – but you rarely see, in those concentrated depictions of people (people who have to fit into a prescribed runtime) the kids that most of us see or saw at school: the German-American girl I knew who was obsessed with drawing turtles and only turtles, the blind boy who was an absolutely shameless flirt, the friend in the grade above who used to break Crayola colored pencils whenever I planted them on him (because he would only draw his Star Wars Lego portraits with Prismacolor, okay.) I remember a guy who whistled like it was a chronic illness, a girl who was already wiccan in 7th grade, praying from the volleyball bleachers that girls on opposing teams would scuff their knees.
The weird little intricacies of everyday people aren’t even lost in high school movies – they don’t exist to begin with.
But you know, I have to less complain about than others. I am white. The town I was raised in is even whiter, and small, small. A place where Opening Day of hunting season means a school holiday in November. And while I’ve never seen a movie that captured the weirdness of the people who populated my school, who populate any school – my well-meaning friends who dressed a dead pet chipmunk in a tux for his funeral, the boy who one day brought a samurai sword to the library just because he thought it was neat, kids who carved faces into bananas in the cafeteria and chased people around with them – while I haven’t seen anything real as that, I have seen at least an approximation of what a large portion of our high school was to outside eyes. Pale, often straight, often middle-class, often Christian.
Yet I can’t imagine what it feels like to see a film and not even see the pale imitation of what you are, not even see the failed attempt. For so many young people in our country, that was the reality for years.
But this is why books can always win out. And gosh, diversity in YA has come so far I could cry about it (and I have.) Because people are truly tired of seeing the common denominators. We want to see characters who live and breathe and experience life from all angles, from every perspective. Who aren’t caricatures of themselves, or else homogenized, flattened by what they may seem to be. America is no after school special.
In writing Because You’ll Never Meet Me, I wanted to subvert the expectations of what it is to be a teen in the modern age. I wanted Ollie to be as many things as a person can be, good and bad and weird. I wanted the same for Moritz, and I wanted him to see it differently. I wanted masculinity to be challenged. Because I knew a jock in high school who started lactating and only laughed about it, because in our school there were kids who sang lead in musical and played football, too.
Because I don’t know anyone who doesn’t sit just outside the norm, in one way or another, who doesn’t long to read a book and recognize themselves or those they care for – be they PoC, LGBTQ, disabled, or just plain odd. People don’t fit into categories, and YA is happy to exist somewhere in the in-between, too.
Ollie and Moritz are two teenagers who will never meet. Each of them lives with a life-affecting illness. Contact with electricity sends Ollie into debilitating seizures, while Moritz has a heart defect and is kept alive by an electronic pacemaker. If they did meet, Ollie would seize, but turning off the pacemaker would kill Moritz.
Through an exchange of letters, the two boys develop a strong bond of friendship which becomes a lifeline during dark times – until Moritz reveals that he holds the key to their shared, sinister past, and has been keeping it from Ollie all along.