I was pretty excited when I saw the previews for the supernatural teen movie, Beautiful Creatures. Well, not The Hobbit excited. I damn near did cartwheels when I found out that Peter Jackson and his crew finally got their ish together in New Zealand, and the prequel to Lord of the Rings was making its way to theaters. But I had been eagerly anticipating Beautiful Creatures too. I read the first book in the series and thought the young adult, Southern Gothic, paranormal tale was well written and pretty interesting. It had its faults, but overall—I enjoyed it.
So when not too long after, my editor shot me an email saying, “Hey, have you ever considered writing YA?” you would think I would have been ecstatic, right? Here was my chance to write my own Beautiful Creatures series and it could possibly make it to bookstore shelves. But my first reaction when I read her email was pretty frank: “Umm, not really.” And I guess that reaction has to do with my relationship with young adult (YA) books, particularly books geared to a 12- to 17-year-old demographic. They aren’t the Sweet Valley Twins and Baby-Sitters Club books I remember. Plus, very few that I now see on shelves reflect the reality I remember of being a teenager — and I mean more than just there were no vampires, werewolves, or archangels floating around when I went to high school.
My teen years weren’t cute — as I’m sure many black nerds can attest. I wore smudged glasses, had busted hair, and carried at least three book bags at any given time, like I was some Sherpa about to take a multi-day trek up the Himalayas. No one asked me to prom, and when I finally worked up the courage to ask a guy that I liked, his response was “I’ll think about it.” (Needless to say, he was not my date.) So when I hear about books where the quiet, withdrawn girl suddenly draws the attention of the cutest most popular boy in school (who may or may not have mystical powers), I gotta call bullshit on that one. Not only does that rarely if ever happen, but if it does happen, you probably can be sure he’s only talking to her because he wants to get into her pants. I may be willing to suspend disbelief and read a lie like that, but was I willing to write it?
The other issue that I have with the YA books that seem to be tearing up the bestseller lists is that have you noticed how few black people are in them? Twilight… The Hunger Games… The Clockwork series… Divergent… Reached… Where are all the damn black people? That’s not to say that black YA books don’t exist. Kensington has KTeen, which has several black books series. (In full disclosure, I write for Kensington.) Harlequin has the Kimani Tru book imprint starring African American teens. There are also writers like Tanita Davis, Janet McDonald, and Sharon M. Draper who earn critical acclaim, but you may have to hunt a little harder for their books. And let’s not even get into what some publishers have done with their YA books that star black characters. Some publishers — to make the books more marketable — have even white-washed the book covers.
In fact, there was a big author and reader outrage when the cover for the 2010 suspenseful paranormal YA book, Liar, by Justine Larbalestier was first released. It showed a white girl on the cover, even though the book was actually about a half-black girl with supernatural powers who has issues with telling the truth. The publisher, Bloomsbury USA, later pulled the cover and reissued another with a light-skinned curly haired girl on the front. The same publisher did another switcheroo with the book, Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore. Even though the character was described as having brown skin and exotic features, that wasn’t what was on the original cover! Again, when people started squawking, a new cover suddenly appeared with a truer visual representation of the main character.
So, considering all this, can you see why initially reacted the way I did to my editor’s question? But you know, after thinking about it, I was like... “Well, why not?” You can moan and complain about the unrealistic stories, the lack of black representation in the genre, and white-washing, but that isn’t going to change anything! I figured if I wanted a better reflection of the reality of my teenaged years, then I might as well try to write it. And even if I think the story is totally unrealistic, I’m still psyched to see Beautiful Creatures. The special effects look awesome!
- Black Girl Nerds Contributor, Shelly Ellis