I Hate The Phrase “Character Just Happens To Be X-Marginalization,” And Here’s Why

This was originally posted as a discussion post for the class LIS 566: Resources for Digital Age Teens at the UW iSchool in Winter 2018. I really liked this post and I put a lot of thought into it, and I wanted to share it here as well.

I have somewhat of an unpopular opinion: I don’t believe that we should be upholding characters who “just happen to be X-marginalization” as the ideal for characters in YA literature.

The reason I don’t like this phrasing? If a character holds a marginalized identity, that identity is ingrained in their character. It is essential to who they are, and it affects how they live their everyday lives. For instance, my life isn’t about my ADHD, my OCD, or my other mental illnesses, but they are essential to how I approach things in life because they make me think differently from how neurotypicals think. My life isn’t about my queerness, but my constant code-switching between closeted, semi-closeted, and not closeted affects me in ways that non-queer people never have to think about. I just read Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy, and the Black love interest character had to explain to the white main character why she doesn’t have to think as hard about trespassing on the property of a gun-owner as he does because he is astronomically more likely than she is to actually get shot.

By saying a character “just happens to be X-marginalization,” we are implying that even though they are part of group X, they still act “normal” — “normal” is usually implied to be non-queer, non-disabled, and white because that’s what dominates publishing. If their marginalizations do not actually affect their lives even the tiniest little bit, are they really part of that marginalization? If we make “just happens to be” the standard and these characters’ marginalizations do barely affect their lives, then what kind of message are we sending to teens who share those marginalizations and want to see them fully-fleshed out on the page?

A book about a marginalized identity is a different thing entirely; if a book is just about the identity itself, then it’s not really a story. It’s also not the ideal because we don’t need diverse books to educate non-diverse people; we need diverse books to show marginalized teens that we have good books that have characters like them that they can relate to and love. We need stories about these characters with these identities, not about the identities.

I believe the ideal shouldn’t be characters that “just happen to be X-marginalization;” I believe the ideal should be characters that embrace being X-marginalization. I want more books like You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon, which has Jewish twins in a bilingual Hebrew-speaking household (set in Seattle!) who are dealing with the prospect of terminal illness and the slow loss of their mother and first love and constant fighting between each other. I want books like Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh (out on January 23rd) that have badass bisexual necromancers who are dealing with grief and addiction and the humongous task of protecting their city. I want books like North of Happy by Adi Alsaid that have a Mexican main character dealing with grief and loss and love and a heavy desire to cook (also set in Seattle!). I want characters who are unapologetically themselves, letting their identities affect them in the way that fits them. This can mean different things to different characters; characters can be unapologetically Muslim whether they choose to wear a hijab or not; You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone has one twin who embraces both her Jewish heritage and Jewish religion while the other embraces her heritage but not the religion.

(All of these books are amazing, by the way, and you should totally read them!)

By saying that a character “just happens to be X-marginalization,” we’re telling the teens who share that marginalization that we don’t believe that their marginalization is important to the book. I don’t think that this is the message we want to be sending to them; do we really want to be sharing the message that we care more about whether the general public can “relate” to a character than they relate to a character?

Top Ten Tuesday: New-To-Me Authors from 2017!

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

This week’s topic is new-to-me authors from 2017! Admittedly, most of the authors I loved from last year were new to me primarily because of my reading slump from the several years before it. Because of this, there are A LOT of authors that could qualify for this list, and it’s hard to pick just ten. Here is my list:

10.) Sarah Glenn Marsh
Book read: Reign of the Fallen

Image of book cover from Goodreads

I primarily placed Marsh as number 10 on this list rather than higher because this is a 2018 release that I read JUST before 2017 was up, and it hasn’t been released yet! My review of Reign of the Fallen will be up next week, so be sure to watch for it!

9.) Kathryn Ormsbee
Book read: Tash Hearts Tolstoy

Image of book cover from Goodreads

Ormsbee wrote some wonderful asexual rep complete with relationship drama and an accidental viral sensation! Tash Hearts Tolstoy drew me in, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

8.) M. Hollis
Books read: Ripped Pages and A Night At The Mall

I received ARCs for both of these shorts, and I was not disappointed! Ripped Pages in particular was a favorite of the year for me, and I highly recommend it (AND A Night At The Mall) if you haven’t read it yet already! M. Hollis is a talented writer, and I can’t wait to see what else she has in store.

My review of Ripped Pages

My review of  A Night At The Mall

7.) Adi Alsaid
Book read: North of Happy

noh

I have a couple more of Adi Alsaid’s books on my iPad, and after reading North of Happy I’m definitely going to be reading them in 2018! His writing sucks you in and doesn’t let you go, and I loved it.

6.) Alex Gino
Book read: George

Image of book cover from GoodReads

I didn’t know just how much I was in need of some happy trans rep until I read Gino’s book. Now I need more of it. A LOT more of it. Gino’s writing is entrancing and easy to read, and I’m excited to see what they have coming up next.

My review of George

5.) Nic Stone
Book read: Dear Martin

Image of book cover from GoodReads

Nic Stone will take your heart, break it into pieces, and take a hard look at the realities of this world. If you haven’t read Dear Martin yet, get on it!

My mini-essay about Dear Martin

4.) Francesca Zappia
Book read: Eliza and Her Monsters

Image of book cover from Goodreads

Very few times has anxiety rep hit me as hard as Zappia’s did. It’s raw and honest and so, so relatable. I cried while reading Eliza and Her Monsters, and I think I needed to.

Review of Eliza and Her Monsters coming up next!

3.) Angie Thomas
Book read: The Hate U Give

Image of book cover from Goodreads

You can’t not go through 2017 without at least hearing about Angie Thomas. And if you haven’t gotten around to reading The Hate U Give yet, you should really do that. This book should be required reading, in my opinion. I have Thomas’s next book On The Come Up on my preorder list, and I’m excited for it!

2.) Becky Albertalli
Books read: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda and The Upside of Unrequited

Becky Albertalli wrote some of my favorite reads of the year (even if I was a TAD late coming to Simon vs.). This may be an unpopular opinion, but I actually enjoyed Upside more than Simon vs. (and that was already a high bar); Molly Peskin-Suso was one of the most relatable characters I have ever read, and she spoke to me like few have ever done before. 2018 is going to be a big Albertalli year with TWO new editions of Simon vs., a paperback of Upside, a new release with Leah on the Offbeat AND a new release with What If It’s Us co-written with Adam Silvera, AND the LOVE, SIMON movie. Are you excited? I’m excited.

1.) Adam Silvera
Books read: More Happy Than Not, History Is All You Left Me, and They Both Die At The End

It was admittedly very challenging to pit Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera against each other for the top two spots, but Adam took the spot primarily because 1.) he visited my area in December and I got to meet him, and 2.) I read THREE of his books while I only read TWO of Becky’s. Adam made me cry on MULTIPLE occasions this year with some of the best mental illness rep I’ve read, and then I got a hug at the end of the year so it was all good. Have I mentioned that I’m excited for What If It’s Us yet? The release date is too far away…

My review of They Both Die At The End

 

My top 10 new-to-me authors of 2017 are ones that are probably going to stick with me for a long time, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store in the future!

What are some of the best new-to-you authors you read in 2017? Let me know in the comments!

 

How Reading More Diversely Broke My Reading Slump

I loved reading as a kid. New books were the most exciting thing in the world for me — during Scholastic Book Fair seasons, my mom would buy up all of the books that I said I wanted, and then she’d keep them hidden in a cupboard and give them to me every so often throughout the year. Barnes and Noble’s summer reading program was exciting because I could get a brand new book at the end of it, and all I had to do was read! I spent countless hours volunteering in a small library when I got a little older, and During those childhood and early teen years I couldn’t get enough of books.

Something changed during my late teens.

During my early teens I didn’t know I was going to end up being a bi, demisexual, non-binary, neurodivergent, disabled* person. That was a scary thing to start figuring out as a teen because I lived in a rural, conservative community with conservative parents and no real support in that regard. All of a sudden, I found myself wanting books that represented my newfound queerness especially, and yet I learned that getting my hands on them was exceedingly difficult. I got tired of all of the white allocishet abled characters and their white allocishet abled romances because the only thing that I had in common with them was that I was white.

I still had my books and I still collected new (mostly used) ones, but from the ages of about 17-21, I almost entirely stopped reading. I didn’t make a lot of time for it, it didn’t feel fun to me anymore, and yet I still liked the idea of it. The idea of reading good books sat so well with me that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in libraries. I felt at home surrounded by books, but I couldn’t get myself to read them.

In early 2017, I made a concentrated effort to read more diversely, and my world expanded. I found bi characters who understood me so well that I couldn’t stop grinning. Trans characters who knew how I felt so much that I cried. Characters with OCD who understood what was going on in my brain so well that I had to sit back and just let that fact sink in.

I didn’t just find characters like me; I found characters that weren’t. Even though I could no longer relate to those white allocishet abled characters from my early teens, it’s still a fact that I know far more about that culture than I do other cultures I don’t share. I read more books by Black authors. Latinx authors. Jewish authors. Muslim authors. I fell in love with these characters, and while these books didn’t make me an expert by any means, they did help me grow as a person. They got me outside of myself and into the shoes of others, and I grew more empathetic than I’ve ever been in my life.

Diverse books made me feel excited about reading again. I feel alive when holding one in my hands, and I feel so much more deeply when I read than I’ve ever felt before. Despite being a full-time graduate student with three jobs and hardly any time to breathe, I’ve managed to read 91 books so far this year, and I am well on my way to finishing 100 before December ends. Without diverse books, I don’t think I would have even managed half of that this year. Not every book I read WAS diverse (I’m still on a quest to finish every Stephen King book, I did a Harry Potter re-read, and I read quite a few Lurlene McDaniel books for the Hey Lurlene! podcast this year), almost all of my favorites were by diverse authors about diverse characters, and the excitement I felt while reading those stories kept me wanting more. I’ve pre-ordered and bought more new books this year than I ever have in my life, and all but one of those books was diverse. I found my happy place while reading again. I found that spark.

Part of me wonders whether I would have had such a long reading slump at all if I’d had access to diverse books earlier in my life. I can’t say for sure, but the genuine happiness I feel while reading these books now is something that I probably could have used as a teen. If I were to give my teen self a gift, I’d give them a letter saying “yeah hi YOU’RE NOT CIS OR STRAIGHT FIGURE IT OUT ALREADY” and a box of my favorite diverse reads from this year. I’d like to think that I would have turned out just a little bit happier.

Books I’d include in the box to myself (in the order in which I read them this year, and linked to either my review or the book’s Goodreads page):

These books brought joy back to reading for me. I wish teen me could have had them.

 

*I still have trouble claiming the term “disabled” for myself, but I’m figuring that one out.

**If you’ve read my review then you’ll know that I didn’t think TATWD was THAT great for a YA novel, but the OCD rep in this book hit me so hard that I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to my past self. It would have done wonders for me.