There was plenty of programming on the trade show floor of ALA’s four-day midwinter conference in Boston last weekend, but arguably the most well-attended was the YA panel on diversity, which was organized by We Need Diverse Books. There was standing room only for the discussion, moderated by author Malinda Lo (Ash, Little, Brown), she was joined by Marieke Nijkamp (This Is Where It Ends, Sourcebooks Fire), Kody Keplinger (The DUFF, Little, Brown/Poppy), Adam Silvera (More Happy Than Not, Soho Teen), and Heidi Heilig (The Girl from Everywhere, Greenwillow). The panelists discussed their latest projects, writing diverse characters when one isn’t a member of the group, and how librarians can help create more inclusive collections. Read some highlights below:

  • The current novel that Keplinger is working on features two protagonists – one blind, the other bisexual – and attempts to show a female friendship that is deep and intimate but not sexual in nature, “inspired by my actual high school experience, the author said. “I wanted to include characters I knew in my hometown.” Keplinger, who is legally blind, added, “I never read characters like me, but in a story where that’s not the main point.”

  • Nijkamp agreed, saying, “I never found myself in books, unless they were issue books that end in tragedy,” referring to books that feature LGBTQIA characters. And in books with disabled characters, Nijkamp lamented that often the books will “end with [the characters] being nicer and magically not disabled.”
  • Silvera also encouraged science fiction and fantasy as genres being more inclusive of sexual orientation. “You know there were mad gay Hufflepuffs,” he joked.
  • Heilig, who is biracial, said that she “can’t imagine not writing [a diverse experience], because it’s what I see everywhere.”
  • When Lo asked panelists what librarians should look for when adding to their collections. Silvera suggested librarians “focus on the universal themes,” even when books address experiences outside the librarian’s usual realm. As in his recent novel More Happy Than Not, which is “about the pursuit of happiness. [It’s important to] find the universality in the text.” Keplinger quipped: “Believe me, we’ve all read books outside our experience, and were able to empathize.”
  • And as far as writing outside their own experience, everyone on the panel emphasized listening. “You have to listen,” said Keplinger. “Able-bodied people can’t just imagine. I’ve had to ask sighted readers things [when drafting my own novels].” Nijkamp added that two of her main characters are outside her experience: one straight, the other Latino. “I read a lot of straight people’s experience” for research, she joked, and had Latino beta readers look at her manuscript “as soon as I had done as much research as I could possibly have done.”