A 2018 upper-middle-grade title I recently read contained a throwaway comment by a character who commented that his family seemed “almost normal” in comparison to someone else’s. This was a 12-year-old boy from a family of white, cisgender, straight, middle-class people. What made this character’s family seem not normal were that his parents were divorced and he had a stepdad and half sister. The fact that only about half the children in the U.S. are growing up with two married parents speaks to the fact that “normal,” in reality, includes diverse family structures.
I mentioned my discomfort to an adult who had also read the book, and her response was, “All kids think their families aren’t normal!” While this may be true, this was fiction, not memoir. These were words chosen by an author in a world she created, a world that has the power to question norms—or reinforce them. Some kids grow up continually bombarded with implicit and explicit messages that their families are not normal, and I strongly suspect they will not feel seen when they read this passage.
Of course it is terribly hard to adjust to divorce, remarriage, new siblings. But feelings of marginalization, while real, may not reflect reality. The adult parallel is the way that some majority groups embrace a narrative about “feeling” marginalized, which leads some members to take out their anger and resentment on disenfranchised people through verbal and physical violence. The scene in the book—one for readers old enough to think critically about these concepts—could have been written in a way that supported those wrestling with difficult feelings about family without excluding anyone. It was a missed opportunity to do what literature does at its best: expand perspectives.
I’d argue that what some readers need is not more validation (which they get in spades from the dominant culture) but perspective. Not in an “aren’t you so fortunate compared to those poor people” way but by offering the reality check that comes from learning that how you live is not how everyone lives. What you value is not what everyone values. Some readers have too many mirrors and too few windows. Books can help remedy that but only if authors are conscious of the messages they are sending with the words they choose.
Of course, there are many subtle ways to marginalize readers without ever mentioning the word “normal.” Here are a few titles that do a superlative job of creating inclusive worlds where some readers will experience the joy of finally being validated in print and others will get a gentle nudge to help broaden their horizons.
Color Me In by Natasha Díaz (Delacorte, Aug. 20) is about identity—the protagonist is biracial; her mother’s family is black and Baptist, and her father’s family is white and Jewish. Books about biracial characters too frequently present angst-ridden stories that make it seem as if being multiracial is a sorry state of affairs. Our reviewer praised this title for breaking the mold, saying that, “in Díaz’ skillful hands, the many aspects of Nevaeh’s intersectional identity are woven together so that they are, as in real life, inextricable from each other,” adding that it was “free of the melodrama often associated with half-this, half-that issue books.”
How often do we get to see a fat, queer, black girl as the star of a lighthearted interracial romance? The protagonist of the delightful graphic novel Pumpkinheads, by Rainbow Rowell, illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks and Sarah Stern (First Second, Aug. 27), is working at a pumpkin patch with her longtime friend, a buff, blond, white boy. The story of falling in love with someone who has been right under your nose all along is not new (although it is arguably a highly satisfying story arc), but what is new is the way this title presents the characters’ identities as completely natural. It is an important corrective in a genre dominated by cookie-cutter portrayals.
The graphic novel Stage Dreams, written and illustrated Melanie Gillman (Graphic Universe, Sept. 3), is on one level another Civil War/Western adventure story. However, its protagonists are a white trans woman and a brown-skinned woman, two types of characters who rarely get to feature in historical fiction. The story of their “engrossing escapade with a heart-stealing queer romance,” as our reviewer described it, is set against the backdrop of a world where racial and gender restrictions of course have an impact on their lives, but their dreams and love for one another—and their daring heist—are the focus.
Two titles coming out later this fall are also worth looking out for:
The science-fiction adventure Rogue Heart by Axie Oh (Tu Books, Oct. 8), a sequel to 2017’s Rebel Seoul, is reminiscent of popular futuristic, techno-driven stories with the notable distinction that, as our reviewer points out, “Asian people, as well as their families, lovers, partners, friends, and cultural practices, are the main characters here instead of simply an exotic backdrop.”
Because nonfiction is frequently written with an educational purpose, the potential for othering readers through unconscious assumptions is particularly high. You Do You: Figuring Out Your Body, Dating, and Sexuality by Sarah Mirk (Twenty-First Century/Lerner, Nov. 5) does a remarkable job of using inclusive language in a kind, natural way. For example, regarding menstruation, it says “for people with ovaries, the brain releases hormones….” Another author might have written “women and girls” and limited mention of queer people to a special section rather than addressing all readers, queer or not, throughout the text.
Laura Simeon is the young adult editor.