My friend Ariana Sani Hussain—librarian, Kirkus critic, and founding member of the young readers’ literature blog Hijabi Librarians—recently reached out, urging me to read Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping. It’s clear, concise, and truly extraordinary—essential reading for reviewers, educators, and anyone else who would like to engage more deeply with the processes of reading and writing. He provides a framework that makes visible many tacit, unquestioned assumptions in Western conversations about literature, particularly subjective evaluative terms such as innovative, relatable, and believable. “What is considered ‘good writing’ is a matter of who is reading it,” Salesses writes.
Salesses helped me understand the common yet puzzling phenomenon in which those who angrily speak out against diversifying reading lists typically add that they themselves are neither Victorian street urchins nor Russian aristocrats and yet they enjoy books about such individuals. Inadvertently proving the very point they are trying to contradict, they omit examples from non-Western literary traditions as they extol their ability to appreciate books about people unlike themselves.
Western YA literature is expanding to include more works that go beyond an older type of “diversity” that shoehorns a multiplicity of voices, story structures, and perspectives into the narrow expectations of an implied, equally narrow audience. Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad Is Untrue (2020) and Darcie Little Badger’s A Snake Falls to Earth (2021) are two recent examples of novels for young people that refreshingly break free from traditional Western narrative structures.
What follows are some 2022 releases that speak to Salesses’ points about what is assumed to be familiar versus what is overtly explained as well as the importance of being more expansive in our appreciation of what makes for a compelling story arc or skillful characterization. He observes that while “the fulfillment of expectations is pleasurable” for readers, and “research suggests that children learn more from a story they already know,” there is also a cost to sticking with the known. After all, “what they do not learn is precisely: other stories.”
Diamond Park by Phillippe Diederich (Dutton, March 15): Mexican American teenagers on a desperate road trip seek justice following a murder, arrest, and threat of deportation.
Right Where I Left You by Julian Winters (Viking, March 15): Queer Black and Latinx teen boys grow up, fall in love, consider the future, and celebrate the present.
The Color of the Sky Is the Shape of the Heart by Chesil, translated by Takami Nieda (Soho Teen, April 5): Familiar themes of identity and marginalization are explored in the context of descendants of Korean immigrants to Japan.
High Spirits by Camille Gomera-Tavarez (Levine Querido, April 12): This collection of stories immerses readers in a multigenerational tale extending from the Dominican Republic to the U.S.
Confessions of an Alleged Good Girl by Joya Goffney (HarperTeen, May 3): Purity culture, parental love, and personal growth collide for the daughter of a Black Baptist preacher in Texas.
The Summer of Bitter and Sweet by Jen Ferguson (Heartdrum, May 10): A Métis teenager wrestles with her sexuality, painful family history, changing friendships, and the question of where she belongs.
Breathe and Count Back From Ten by Natalia Sylvester (Clarion/HarperCollins, May 10): A coming-of-age story that centers Peruvian American Vero, a young woman negotiating physical disability, faith, shame, romance, and family.
Flip the Script by Lyla Lee (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins, May 31): A bisexual Korean American actress who is a rising K-drama star negotiates a love triangle and societal pressures.
Laura Simeon is a young readers’ editor.