Gabbing with the YA Diversity Book Club | Dive Into Diversity

Dive Into Diversity Reading Challenge

Greetings, friends! Estelle here. A new month and another opportunity to diversify your bookshelves! I’m so psyched to share May’s DID post with you today. I’ve been an avid reader of the YA Diversity Book Club posts — made up of Sandie at Teen Lit Rocks, Kristan @ We Heart YA, Lucy @ The Reading Date, and Kristina @ Gone Pecan — where the crew discusses one diverse read a month and talks with the book’s author too. Not only is a great example of expanding your reading but this group is an example of the book blogging community at its best – not only collaborating but thoughtfully discussing together. I’m so happy to chat with them about the book club, their definitions of diversity, and, of course, their book recommendations. (Psst. Kristina was knee deep in ACOTAR research for her moderating gig a.k.a. rereading all the sexy parts so she was unable to take part this time. Hope it went well, K!)

Happy (diverse) reading!

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1. Hello YA Diversity Club! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today for May’s Dive Into Diversity post. One thing I was not personally expecting were so many questions about whether specific titles were “diverse” or not when we started this reading challenge. It’s always a difficult question for me to answer so I pose it to you guys: what makes a book diverse to you?

The Reading Date: We have an author questionnaire for every book we read and I liked how Elizabeth Wein answered this question: “the world is a diverse place” and she just “writes about people!” Everyone should be able to see themselves represented in books, and reading diverse books can show how similar people are despite differences.

We Heart YA: I don’t think there’s a perfect set of rules, and our group has definitely discussed whether certain books meet our criteria. I guess sometimes you just have to evaluate case by case. For example, AN EMBER FOR ASHES was one we debated. I really enjoyed the book, but it doesn’t fall within my personal preferences for a diverse read. (Generally I want a diverse book to expand my understanding of an underrepresented culture or demographic.) Nevertheless, after a brief discussion, I agreed with the group that EMBER still fits the mission of diversifying YA literature, because it was written by a woman of color!

Teen Lit Rocks: Since I volunteer with the We Need Diverse Books organization, I have sort of adopted their stance on what makes a book diverse. I think for me the book has to pass a litmus test of either having an author or a main character who identifies as being from a non-majority group. But if it’s the latter, the author better have done his/her research to authentically represent that identity/culture.

2. Can you give a little background about how you started the YA Diversity Club up? Did you know each other beforehand? How do you make it work? How do you pick what titles you are going to read?

The Reading Date: Sandie invited me to join about a year ago and I’ll let her answer how the idea came to be. We keep up-to-date with new releases that may be a good fit for our group. We noticed that we were reading a lot of contemporary so we added some fantasy to the mix for some variety. We chat via Google Hangout or Google Docs. Sometimes it’s tricky to find a time to chat since we are in different time zones. But, I love our discussions and they give me a greater appreciation and understanding of the books we read.

We Heart YA: Ditto what Lucy (the Reading Date) said. 🙂

Teen Lit Rocks: I was part of a multi-blog group that read/reviewed/featured books together on a monthly basis. After a couple of years, we started to feel overwhelmed and pulled in different directions/ interests. One of those areas for me was the desire to promote diverse books, because I’d heard from other girls in the group that they weren’t interested in the movement, they just wanted to read good books, regardless of who wrote them or what they were about.

I talked a lot about this issue with Kristina from Gone Pecan (who had also been part of the other group), and she mentioned that she just needed more recommendations for diverse books/authors. She wasn’t sure where to start. I had the idea of starting an online book club with other bloggers to help other book lovers “discover” diverse books, and once Kristina said yes, I reached out to two other bloggers I respect and admire, Lucy at the Reading Date, and Kristan at We Heart YA.

3. What’s one book from your book club reading you can’t stop recommending?

We Heart YA: For me, recommendations always depend on who’s asking and what they’re looking for. But personally, BLACK DOVE WHITE RAVEN is probably my fave read from our book club so far.

The Reading Date: My fave so far is LIES WE TELL OURSELVES by Robin Talley.

Teen Lit Rocks: I have really enjoyed several of the books we’ve read; my favorites are “Black Dove White Raven” by Elizabeth Wein; “My Heart and Other Black Holes” by Jasmine Warga; “Lies We Tell Ourselves” by Robin Talley; and our very first pick, “Like No Other” by Una LaMarche.

4. What diverse topic would you like to see in YA that you haven’t seen yet (or seen enough of)?

The Reading Date: One way I felt isolated as a teen was from my social anxiety. It would have been helpful to read a book with a character that dealt with the same issue. (I still would like to see more books about mental illness and social anxiety!) I’m also very passionate about LGBTQIA books.

We Heart YA: I don’t think we have progressed far enough for me to identify just one weak spot… YA lit stills needs a lot more diversity of all kinds. But I’m glad we’re at least moving in the right direction!

Teen Lit Rocks: I think there’s sort of a golden age of LGBTQIA books for teens, but I think there still needs to be more progress with books about underrepresented minorities like Latinos (especially those who aren’t Mexican) and teens dealing with disabilities or size issues. And because my kids are multi-ethnic, I wish there were more books where the characters were “other” rather than just one minority.

5. Can we talk about “token” diverse characters? I saw a comment about this on Twitter recently, and while I understand and I’m sensitive to this happening, I wondering — how do you really know? What if the author doesn’t think about the character as a “token” and the reader interprets it this way? Is this up for debate or am I just thinking too much?

We Heart YA: Everything is up for debate, haha. It’s what makes conversations about diversity so hard — but so important, too.

The Reading Date: Agreed: I think it’s up for debate. I don’t think we’ve come across this in any of our books so far.

We Heart YA: For a moment I was going to disagree with Lucy (the Reading Date) but upon reflection, I agree that we haven’t seen tokenism in any of our picks. To me, tokenism is checking off a box and wanting brownie points. “Look, I put a black character in! Aren’t I great?” Whereas I think what we saw in one book was actually just an author who was enthusiastic about diversity but overly ambitious. For me, this author’s portrayals of diversity didn’t ring true enough or deep enough — but it wasn’t for lack of good intentions. And I guess that speaks to your question: How do we know? Truthfully, we don’t, really. We can only go off what’s on the page and the impression that we get. But that’s how reading works…

Teen Lit Rocks: Nothing is more disheartening than seeing your culture or identity depicted in a half-assed, phoned-in manner. It’s always obvious to me when an author didn’t get his or her facts straight or had someone “vet” her characters. For example, when an author randomly has Latino characters speaking in Spanglish or eating foods that are from a different Latino culture, I just nod my head, roll my eyes and want to throw the book against the room. Anyhow, I do think it’s up for debate, but any author attempting to write outside her experience (something I applaud) should take the extra steps necessary to make sure that voice and character is authentic and not just a stereotype.

6. Personally, what are your hopes for the emphasis on diversity in reading as of late?

The Reading Date: I want to keep the conversation going. This isn’t a fad, and there’s still a long way to go.

We Heart YA: I hope that people will understand that the emphasis on diversity isn’t some literary Affirmative Action program; it’s simply a desire to reflect the world that we already live in. A world that has always been diverse. A world that is only going to become more diverse as we progress.

Teen Lit Rocks: Ditto what Kristan said. I hope that the word doesn’t scare people away the way it seems to in certain circles. I want my friends to ask questions and be open to responses. I want my white, straight, comfortable friends (for lack of a better way to describe them) to take a chance and read about characters who aren’t anything like them, and on the flip side, I want people who don’t fit into the majority to discover books with characters that ARE like them, at least a little bit.

YA Diversity Book Club


What’s up next for the YA Diversity Book Club? This month, they’ll be reading Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. I hope you’ll follow along! Big hugs to Sandie (Teen Lit Rocks), Lucy (The Reading Date) and Kristan (We Heart YA) for hanging out today!

Estelle: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin TalleyLies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: September 30, 2014
Publisher: HarlequinTeen
Pages: 304
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: historical fiction, 1950s, segregation, LGBT, family
Format read: Paperback ARC from HarlequinTeen. (Thanks!)

Summary: Sarah is one of the first African American students to enter a predominately white Virginia high school in 1959. The other students are not happy about it and are determined to make the black students feel as uncomfortable and unwanted as they can. When Sarah is paired with Linda and her best friend, Judy, on a French project, they are not expecting to become friends and Sarah is increasingly enraged by Linda’s close-minded proclamations. While it’s not so surprising being that Linda’s dad is one of the town’s most prolific supporters of segregation, Sarah sees little hints that Linda might not be like the other students in school; perhaps she can get why this treatment is not okay. As if things aren’t difficult enough, Sarah finds herself thinking about Linda in a way she doesn’t think God will approve of…

Imagine starting a brand new school with no welcome committee. Instead people are calling you names, telling you that you smell bad, not wanting to sit next to you, automatically thinking you are dumb because of what you look like, and even going a step farther than verbal abuse. They want to hurt you and they want to hurt you bad.

This is exactly the situation that Sarah and her friends are walking into as they step in Jefferson High School for the first time in 1959 Virginia. There is very little support from the administration a.k.a. the adults of the school, and even keeping your head down doesn’t stop them from singling you out. Sarah is miserable. She loved her old school, enjoyed her classes, got to sing in the choir, and now she’s stuck in remedial classes, doesn’t have any friends, and can’t participate in extracurricular anything. It’s hard to think she is “making a difference” like her parents remind her when she is dealing with this crap every single day. Scared for herself, her sister, and her friends. Instead, she feels lost and she’s not sure she will survive the few months until graduation.

Linda, a white girl in a few of Sarah’s classes and the daughter of someone who isn’t quiet about how these changes make him feel, feels like Sarah and the other African Americans have ruined her senior year. No prom, so much distraction. She can’t stand it. But so many of her opinions are formed from her father’s. A very busy man who has no time for his daughter and her opinions. Despite Linda not wanting Sarah and her friends in the school, she finds herself standing up for them a few times. When she is assigned a French project with her best friend (Judy) and Sarah, Linda acts like she has all the answers when it comes to Sarah returning to her old school and even why that school couldn’t afford enough books or equipment for all students. Calmly though passionately (most of the time), Sarah tries to explain why things are the way they are, and you can practically see the little cracks starting to affect Linda’s beliefs.

It was fascinating to watch Linda process what was happening around her and what was right vs. what she has always been told. So many times, I could see how close she was to realizing that her school’s treatment of Sarah and her friends was completely wrong. Then another wall would appear and we would move a few steps backward again. As much as people in this town and at Jefferson High did not want integration, it’s interesting to think how much of that was because they truly felt that way or because they were just listening to the arguments of others, believing that people with different skin type were actually lesser beings. Lies We Tell Ourselves does not shy away from how truly ugly people can get in the face of change and the unknown, and I had to close the book so much as I was reading because I was utterly disgusted. But by Linda’s character raising questions and asking why, we are able to gain more insight into this treatment without excusing it.

There is absolutely so much to discuss in this novel (book clubs and schools, take note!) but I wanted to say how nervous I was when I saw this book would also include a lesbian storyline. Conflicts because of integration is a lot to take on in the first place but to add in a plotline where Sarah and Linda fall for each other? Would it be too much? I shouldn’t have doubted Robin Talley and I won’t ever again; the feelings growing between the two never overpower the book and I thought that was a good move. It’s hard enough for the two to be seen in the same classroom, much less pursue a relationship but it was authentic and great to see each of their thought processes (was something wrong with them? were they going to hell?) and how the time period reflected their hopes for the future.

For all the pain and all the judgement in this book, there are also beautiful moments which shocked me with how much they affected me. (I would be crying and not even notice.) From the wonderful first moment Sarah shares her voice with two strangers, the bond between Sarah and her lil sister, Ruth, how Linda found strength in her own words, and the bravery that both girls had to tap into to move forward in ways I never would have predicted. Lies We Tell Ourselves  is an important book and not only for the treatment of this sensitive and confusing time in our history but for how well it manages to fold in the conflicts and changes between family, friends, and how we see ourselves.

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