Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Avoiding Stereotypes in YA Fiction by Tara Willis

As an author of historical and multicultural YA fiction, I frequently find myself faced with a task; just as great and just as important as weaving together a credible, engrossing story for my future readers. This task involves presenting all cultures positively and in a way free of clich├ęs and downright ignorance. I have put down books I was reading in the past simply because different cultural/ethnic groups were presented inaccurately or painted with a wide brush, so to speak.
My first published book, multicultural YA fiction novel Carry Me Home is the story of Celina Montoya, a thirteen year old Mexican-Israeli girl growing up in modern day (give or take a few years) New Mexico. In my quest to present Celina and her family in a warm, positive and genuine light, I considered certain common stereotypes I regarding Hispanic Americans. Words like poverty, Spanish language, border controversy, illegal immigration, burritos, woven blanket, pottery, drug cartels and Latin America came to my mind.
These and others are stereotypes I try, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so, to avoid, in my portrayal of the Montoya/Gonzalez family. I determined that my main characters be presented in a fair and accurate light. For example, though Celina’s family is indeed poor before her mother’s marriage to Celina’s stepfather, their poverty though grim is not painted with a largely negative brush. The family is fiercely dedicated to each other, very hard working, loyal and approaches their situation with a mostly good attitude. The children, although they are a bit rough and tough (i.e. they speak roughly and even smoke some) as such a situation is bound to make anyone, have good manners, are helpful and protective of each other and their mother and even proud; sometimes too proud.
Even in abject poverty, Celina’s Russian born mother is determined to teach her three daughters to be “nice, young ladies,” to quote her directly, something Celina at times rebels against. She does not allow poverty to turn herself or her children hard. She works hard and lives in hope to the best of her ability.
Besides Celina’s own immediate family, sketching the character of her stepfather, Marcos Gonzalez presented its own challenge. Marcos is a prominent, multilingual attorney who we find emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with his parents as a boy. Marcos embodies the spirit of “the American Dream.” He is well educated, intelligent, relatively wealthy and very much his own person. Between Marcos and Giacamo, Celina’s father, two boys who emigrated from Mexico with their families at the same time, we see a clear picture of how individual and family circumstances, not race and ethnicity, help determine a person’s material success in life. But while Marcos achieved a degree of wealth and status that Giacamo did not, we see Marcos has also lived a personal existence of poverty unlike Giacamo whose wife and children loved him, cared for him and comforted him until his death. He was wealthy in the way that his financially stable friend was poor. Not wishing to spoil the story for anyone, I will not give away the circumstances
Celina is friends with children of all socioeconomic statuses. Her best friend, another Hispanic girl, comes from a middle class family “with plenty of money to buy good food.” Celina’s friend Josefina, who we meet later in the book, is an immigrant girl and lives with her single father who works hard but is poor in health and struggles to provide. Her friend, Edie, in Washington, is white and upper middle class, as Celina is now.
While no book is perfect and I am sure the occasional stereotypical flaw could be found, particularly that of the wealthy and pampered, bottle blonde princesses at Santa Fe Middle School whose goal it is to make Celina miserable, I take pride in the fact that I work hard as an author to present people of all nationalities and colors in a positive light and not paint them all with the same brush. People, no matter their background, have not and should not be molded with cookie cutters and, as in real life, it is best to get to know the person individually and let the rest take care of itself. Stereotypes harm quality literature in very much the same way they harm individuals and relationships. They should be avoided as much as possible. Present people in an individual light, as diverse humans and as individuals. Because that is what they are. J   
 I hope you will take the time to enjoy “Carry Me Home” and get to know Celina and her family and friend.
Follow Tara Willis on Facebook at TLW Circle of Authors andFriends.


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Excellent post, Tara!

Tara Willis said...

Thank you! It was fun to finally do this ��