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The Welcome Rise of Incidental Gay Characters in Fantasy and Historical Fiction!

6 Nov

You guys, I’m so excited. Literature reflects our society, whether that literature takes place in modern-day America, on the moon, or in a made-up world.

Which is why I’m so pleased to see gay and queer characters sprinkled throughout the young adult novels I’ve been reading. It’s not that this in itself is now- but it’s how it’s being done.

Just like including people of color or people with disabilities or other people who get less representation in fiction, there’s a right and a wrong way to write a queer character. I’m excited because I happened across two novels in a row with queer characters where:

  1. Being gay or queer wasn’t their only character trait, or even their central character trait.
  2. Like every character should do in a well-crafted story, they supported the central theme of the story and/or added a richer dimension to the novel’s world.

This kind of writing is exciting to see in any genre, but I’m most excited that I’m seeing it more in historical fiction and fantasy. The kinds of historical fiction and fantasy that feel the most rich and realistic include a wide cast of characters. Why would every person in a fantastical world be straight? And were there only straight people living in the past? Certainly not.

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*sigh* Just ignore the fact that the cover has yet another White Girl in a Prom Dress…

I recently finished Ash & Bramble by Sarah Prineas, a novel that deconstructs the idea of fairy tales and what happens when we go against the fate that “Story” has planned for us. It’s a fascinating allegory for creating your own path in life and going against societal expectations.

The main character, Pin, encounters two women who support this theme, Templeton and Zel. Neither of them followed the expectations that a fairy tale had in mind, and Templeton tells about how they subverted the classic “Rapunzel” story.

Templeton tells Pin:

 

“So the Godmother’s got the prince all picked out. He’ll climb up the tower, rescue her, true love, the end. Doesn’t matter what the prince really wants, or the pretty doll really wants. This is Story at work, you see? … But I got there first. I’d been visiting every night. Zel grew her hair out long as a rope.” She gives her arm muscles a proud flex. “We fell in love, and we wanted to be together,  no matter Story’s intentions. So I became a storybreaker.” (341-42)

Templeton goes on to talk about how she climbed up the tower, cut off Zel’s hair, and had a scuffle with the prince. Subverting a heteronormative love story serves as a perfect example of rebelling against Story’s (and society’s) expectations of what should happen.

I might have cheered and punched the air at this passage when I read it. Honestly, I should just write a blog post devoted to Ash & Bramble, because the novel is thoughtfully constructed and there are lots of fascinating thought puddles to dive into.

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This cover is so pretty…that font! *grabby hands*

Rae Carson’s most recent novel, Walk on Earth a Stranger, isn’t entirely historical fiction, as there’s a magical element, but other than the main character’s ability to sense when gold is near, the world is a very realistic 1849.

Lee escapes a dangerous situation in her hometown in Georgia, disguising herself as a boy to join a wagon trail to California.

Carson certainly did her historical research, which makes the journey come to life. She highlights the expectations of women, which turned into deadly dangers on the trail, as illustrated by one woman who undergoes a dangerous birthing process in Death Valley.

Lee disguises herself as a boy to avoid detection and to make her journey easier. Many of the people on the wagon trail are going to California to seek their fortunes, but Carson writes about other reasons why people braved the trail. Lee’s otherness isn’t missed by two men from Mississippi, who mistake her for one of their own:

“‘What do you mean I’m one of you?’

‘A confirmed bachelor. San Francisco is a new world, with more money than laws. There’s a place for us there. To live the way we want to live, without interference.’

[…] Jasper must trust me completely to be so frank. Or maybe secrets have a way of making people so lonely that they eventually take a risk on someone” (312-313).

 

The “confirmed bachelors'” (a term which, Rae Carson notes at the end, may or may not have been used in America during this time, although it was certainly used by their British contemporaries) desire to create a new life and identify for themselves underlines this central theme in the story, enriching Lee’s personal story and making the world feel more organic and alive.

The portrayals in both of these novels are well-done, although there is always the danger of using underrepresented groups in stories to back up the main, straight, cis-gendered, white person’s journey or perspective. I think, though, that these characters mentioned above are a step in the right direction.

Ultimately, I hope to go into a bookshelf and see a diverse mix of novels, to see stories with queer people or people of color as the main characters in stories that don’t center on that part of their identity.

The call for more diverse stories, and by extension more diverse writers, publishers, and editors, is becoming more and more vocal, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that YA literature is paving the way for more diverse stories. YA literature continues to dominate the book market, and I think – I hope – that it will lead in progress as well as sales.

What do you think? Is YA succeeding in diverse portrayals, or is there more work to be done?

 

 

Oh Great, Another Pretty White Girl: The YA Cover Art Conundrum

17 Nov

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Go into your local library or bookstore and briefly browse the young adult section. Do you see a trend in the cover art? Are you finding yourself wondering if you’re in the magazine section as you stare at each different white, airbrushed face?

I can’t blame you. The trend of putting photographs and illustrations of impossibly beautiful white girls on the covers of YA books started quite a while ago and is still going strong. And perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. Predominately Caucasian beauties decorate advertisements, TV shows, movies, CD covers and magazines–why stop at books?

Here’s why. Books give readers the singular chance to create their own personal image of the character in their head, filling in gaps left by the author. If the story is written well, these characters will feel realistic and relatable, at least in some capacity. When designers slap a pretty white girl on the cover, they set a standard of what these female characters–often strong, flawed, and admirable characters–should look like. Portraying these characters as unattainably beautiful women creates a barrier between the reader and the characters before the readers even open the pages!

It’s not just that these faces are flawless and that the bodies are perfect, though. Whitewashing, which has long been a trend in the magazine world, also seeps into YA cover art. This fantastic article on the ALA website discusses how racially diverse characters are often portrayed as whitewashed on YA covers, or in silhouette, masking their race. You needn’t look far to find examples of these–the article has a thorough rundown of examples. I myself have reviewed several books with art guilty of this (see the cover art in my review of The Lost Girl, which has an Indian protagonist).

YA writer Ellen Oh also wrote about this issue on her blog. She makes an interesting point that fiction aimed toward children and middle school kids doesn’t suffer this problem as often.

The thing about this trend is that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are some beautiful examples of cover art, both minimalist and intricate, that don’t fall into this trap:

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Above, for example, are two uses of silhouettes that aren’t masking race but are rather used to make a visually striking cover. I personally love the way silhouettes look from an aesthetic perspective, but the trend of using them to hide an ethnic protagonist is less than wonderful.

 

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Here are two opposite but engaging covers, one very minimalist and one more elaborate and atmospheric. I’m not here to say that every great book cover should revolve around inanimate objects, but a book doesn’t need an airbrushed model on the cover to pique readers’ interests. 

And let’s talk about the readers for a second. Not only does the “pretty white girl” cover perpetuate distorted ideals for female readers, but it also alienates any potential male readers from becoming interested. Some boys might assume that a female main character means it’s just a “girl’s book,” although this notion is swiftly changing. Take, for example, these two popular and well-marketed books featuring strong female characters:

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These books are marketed to look like the action-packed stories that they are, yet I see far too many books (fantasy in particular) that boys would enjoy if not for the cover art that screams “THIS IS A GIRLS’ BOOK FOR GIRLS ONLY” (I’m looking at you, The Girl of Fire and Thorns.)

Young adult as a genre continues to grow both its market and the age of its readership. As someone who’s not involved in the cover art and marketing scheme of YA, I can only hope that this detrimental “pretty white girl” fad will give way to some beautiful, innovative and appealing book art that celebrates the diversity of the characters and stories found in YA literature.