Perhaps you’ve seen the post on Publishers Weekly, “Authors Say Agents Try to “Straighten” Gay Characters in YA.” If you haven’t, go read it. It says many important things, including this: “Forcing all major characters in YA novels into a straight white mold is a widespread, systemic problem which requires long-term, consistent action.” Acknowledging the problem is crucial. And I also appreciate the excellent What You Can Do section, with specific actions for editors, agents, readers, and writers.
I’d like to suggest another action for those in the position of recommending books to others — librarians, teachers, booksellers, bloggers, writers, agents, and anyone else who finds themselves regularly consulted about what to read — Consider multiple vectors of identification.
Some types I’ve identified with: smart kids, nerds, fat kids, queers, bohemians, tomboys, sophisticates, theater people, musicians, writers.
They could be different from me in any number of particulars, as long as there was one vector of identification. When I was in love for the first time, I identified with every fictional lover. And I remember reading a book about slavery in third grade, shortly after I’d dislocated my knee. When I learned that if you were a slave and you got injured, you’d still have to keep working, my knee throbbed. I can’t recall the book’s title, but I identified so strongly with that detail that to this day, I can make myself flinch just by thinking about it.
I was talking about it then in relation to characters, but vectors of identification — or to use a more common, market-y term, “appeal factors,” apply to plot, setting, and tone as well. So for instance if you happened to be recommending Empress of the World, instead of saying, as I often do, “It’s about two girls who fall in love at a summer gifted and talented program,” you could say “It’s about a bunch of nerds and the hijinks that ensue when they’re all cooped up together for the summer,” or “The main character overanalyzes everything,” or “It’s about the first time you make friends that aren’t connected to your hometown.” You get the idea.
And sure, you could call this approach bait and switch. But if the bait means a reader connects to a book they otherwise never would have opened, I say it’s okay.
ETA 9/16: Boy, did the reactions to that piece (not mine, but the one I was responding to) take a lot of swerve-type turns. I like this summary of the developments since I wrote the above.