When my first books were published almost 20 years ago, I was often asked to specify their “lessons” or “messages.”

“No message,” I would say. “I don’t put messages in my stories.”

That answer was inevitably unsatisfactory to whomever had posed the question, so over the years, I’ve modified it. I still maintain that I don’t put “lessons” in my books, but I do explore questions. One question in particular—the same question for all my novels, without exception.

Life is unfair. Period. How do you respond?

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My stories are explorations of how people respond to the world’s unfairness. Some react with bitterness (Min, in A Single Shard) or paralyzing depression (Jim, in Keeping Score) or anger (Tae-yul in When My Name Was Keoko). Other characters choose to act with grit and perseverance and kindness and grace in the face of repeated disappointment or devastation. Tree-ear, Salva, Julia. Maggie. Raffa.

I wish ardently that any discussion of “diversity” could be grounded in the basic truths of unfairness. Rather than arguing about individual issues that flare and fade with the news cycle—race, gender, class, education level, religion, sexual preference, disability, the list neverending and everchanging—I wish we could all examine our roles in the world both close-up and long-range through the lens of systemic injustice.

Unfairness is the foundation of every bias that afflicts us. It is also something that every human being has experienced at one time or another, including those fortunate enough to live without unfairness as a defining condition of existence. Eliminating unfairness: isn’t that a goal we can all get behind?

What can I do to help make the world a fairer place? In practical terms, here’s my own personal list, which I hope might be helpful to others:

—Learn (read and listen)




—And especially: try hard to remember to speak and act with kindness and compassion.

Not answers or messages but questions and possibilities about the nature of unfairness and the prevalence of injustice. That is what I would like young readers to take from my books into their hearts and, from there, to the choices they make every day.