I Have A Small Problem With David Levithan & J.K. Rowling | And Malinda Lo Is My Solution

So this post came out of nowhere. I have a vague list of possible post topics for this month, but this one’s not on it – because I got the idea for it only last night, after publishing a list titled 58 YA Novels That Would Be Better With Lesbians.

At the end of that post, I talked about how we need more diversity in fiction AND how those stories need to have fun, creative plots as well. One of my reading pet peeves is a lack of minority characters… and it also frustrates me when when I finally do find a story with lots of diversity, only to discover that the plot is, well, dismal.

My reading requests are quite simple, to tell the truth:

  • I want lots of diverse characters in fiction
  • I want those diverse stories to have fun, creative plots
  • I want diverse stories to acknowledge what makes their characters “different”

harry-potter-and-the-chamber-of-secrets-book-cover-294w531[1]You see, the idea for this post actually came from two places: The post mentioned above, and an earlier posted titled LGBTQ+ Stories Should Not Gloss Over Real LGBTQ+ Experiences.

In that post, I talked about how I’m tired of hearing readers – heterosexual readers – say they want stories in which the protagonist “just happens” to be queer. I don’t want to rant about it too much here because that would make this post unnecessarily long (and I’m trying to cut back on the average length of my posts), but the gist was that I am TIRED of reading stories that claim to have diverse characters… but instead, the author mentions a particular character’s minority status ONCE and then never mentions it again.

I don’t want to read stories that gloss over their characters’ diversity. I don’t necessarily want the diversity to make up the ENTIRE story, but I do want it to play a BIG role in the story.

In the case of LGBTQ+ novels, this could include frequent (and thorough!) discussions of coming out, falling in love with someone of the same gender, homophobia, transitioning, beginning to immerse oneself in queer culture, et cetera. There are soooo many possibilities.

I definitely don’t want stories where the characters “just happen” to be queer; that’s lazy, lousy writing. I want stories in which characters’ queerness is important and necessary to the plot. But their identity certainly doesn’t have to form the ENTIRE  plot.

It is surprisingly hard to find stories like this.

I’ve noticed that a lot of stories have either a great plot or lots of diversity: I haven’t read many that include both. Very few popular YA standalones/series have diversity.

two boys kissingAll stories need diversity. (All of them!) But all stories need good plots, too.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an excellent example of the first type of story: She creates GREAT plots. She developed richly detailed histories for each and every character, gave those characters marvelous and meaningful names, and created a complex, fascinating magical society. She writes amazing plot twists that leave me sitting there, open-mouthed, going, “I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming. I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming.”

She also SUCKS at writing diversity.

She didn’t include any canonically queer characters, and is only marginally better at including characters of different races. This is one of the reasons I slowly drifted away from the Harry Potter fandom and eventually left it altogether – because that’s just not what I want from the fantasy I read.

David Levithan’s books are a perfect example of the second type of story: Many (all?) of his novels have diverse protagonists. I REALLY appreciated the amount and variety of queer characters he included in Two Boys Kissing, for example, but the plot itself put me to sleep.

I love the amount of diversity in his stories. I don’t love how dull his plots are, though… and it doesn’t seem like he puts very much effort into thinking up a brand-new plot for each novel?! The first Levithan book I ever read (Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) was boring, and then all the others (that I’ve read) were the same! It made me a VERY SAD ENGIE because I was expecting… um, I don’t know, a bit more pizzazz?

So I just gave you two examples: One author who has wonderful plots but lackluster diversity, and another author who has wonderful diversity but lackluster plots.

Are there any authors who create wonderful plots and include loads of diversity? WHY YES THERE ARE. I’M SO GLAD YOU ASKED. I haven’t found nearly as many authors whose books belong to this third group of stories, but they definitely exist. It’s just a little harder to find them.

IMHO, the best in this tiny group of authors is Malinda Lo. She has published four novels (of which I have read three), one novella, and a smattering of short stories. AND THEY’RE SO SO GOOD.

Ash is a lesbian retelling of “Cinderella,” and Huntress (the one I haven’t yet read) is the prequel. Adaptation and Inheritance are a dystopian fiction duology with a bi main character. Her novella and short stories are also either fantasy or sci fi, and feature queer characters as well.

inheritanceAnd she is soooooo talented. I crave her writing more than, like, chocolate. That shows some SERIOUS dedication on my part, ha ha. But seriously:

  • Her characters are HELLA DIVERSE
  • Her plots are fun, creative, well-written, complex, intriguing, et cetera
  • Her stories don’t gloss over her characters’ queerness (or race!) ; instead, they explore how those attributes affect the lives of those characters

Her stories are emphatically not “Ooh, let’s put in some diverse characters and WHO GIVES A CRAP about having a halfway decent plot?!” No. Ash has all these wonderful themes about love and loss and loneliness and various other thingies that don’t begin with the letter L. Malinda Lo weaves this subplots in and out of the standard Cinderella story, all the while making frequent mention of her protagonist’s interest in other women.

Adaptation and Inheritance, meanwhile, are about aliens. And government conspiracies. And Area 51. And natural disasters. And in the midst of all those glorious plots and subplots, Lo finds time to discuss things like gender and biphobia and the mass media’s fraught relationship with queer celebrities.

I love this. I love what she’s doing in the world of YA fiction. It really makes a difference, having diverse stories that A) don’t gloss over their characters’ minority status and B) have fun, creative, unusual plots. I’ve had to reimagine many of my favorite stories because at times it seems like straight characters/couples get all the good plots. But there are definitely some diverse stories that meet these criteria, that meet my criteria. There may not be as many of them as I’d like, but thank god they exist… it’s just taken me a while to find them.

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About nevillegirl

Elizabeth, University of Iowa class of 2019. Double majoring in English & Creative Writing and Journalism. Twenty-year-old daydreamer, introvert, voracious reader, and aspiring writer. Passionate about feminism and lesbian positivity.
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17 Responses to I Have A Small Problem With David Levithan & J.K. Rowling | And Malinda Lo Is My Solution

  1. This is a really interesting (and honest) comparison of the two authors! Really interesting! I need to look at some of Malinda Lo’s books SOOOOO BAD. Awesome post!

  2. Bridget says:

    OH MY GOSH I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this to you before, but a while ago I read a really good book called Otherbound (by Corinne Duyvis). It’s YA fantasy and, I mean, it isn’t perfect, but it has an interesting plot and a really cool setting and it’s suuuuper diverse. The protagonist is bisexual and I don’t remember there being a single white character in the entire book (at least not main characters) and by this point I’m kind of gushing but I think it sounds right up your alley.

    • nevillegirl says:

      OH MY GOSH that sounds wonderful! I actually follow that author’s blog but… evidently not with a great deal of attention (yet) because I somehow never heard of this book until now! So I was like OMG IS IT THAT AUTHOR PERSON WITH THE COOL PINK HAIR WHY YES IT IS. 😀

      No book is perfect. 😛 I’m just looking for very, very good books… and this one seems to be exactly what I’m looking for! Thanks so much for the rec! Ehehe, and don’t worry about gushing – I gushed about Malinda Lo a LOT in this post. 🙂

  3. Clarice says:

    One of my favourite headcanons is that Hermione is dark-skinned. The fanart on that is gorgeous.

    I’ve actually always liked the reflective stories of David Levithan’s, but I can see why others would call it slow-moving. It depends on the story, though, because I don’t really like the ones he’d co-written, and some really are sort of dull. Have you read Everyday? I loved the pacing of that. And I absolutely loved Wide Awake, which is set in around fifty years into the future. It’s not very fast either, but he takes just the right amount of time showing how the world has (and hasn’t) changed.

    I have GOT to find a Malinda Lo book. 😛

    • nevillegirl says:

      YES. Black!Hermione is the only Hermione I accept. (And Indian!Harry, as well.)

      I guess… I guess I don’t like all the reflection and introspective stuff? I don’t know. I think it’s really, really hard to make that kind of story INTERESTING because by its very definition, there won’t be a lot of action. So. :/

      Yes! Yes, you do! 🙂

  4. AWESOME POST ❤ I definitely agree that diversity for diversity's sake is a stupid idea (and just becomes tokenism, really). But for some minority groups, their diversity isn't a big deal for them, and I do like those stories as well – a group of friends who have different cultures or ethnicities or whatever and that TALKS about those differences but doesn't…focus on them, I guess? Because for some people there are other more important things about their identity than their minority status. I'm just rambling here now, but basically, yes, J K Rowling needs to stop it with the white/cis/hetero characters, and David Levithan's books ARE so boring haha.

  5. Cait @ Paper Fury says:

    But Ash isn’t about coming out or anything, right? I mean I don’t remember it 100% because I READ WAY TOO MANY BOOKS (gah, this drives me nuts) but as I recall she just was queer and it was just a fact. But maybe I’m misremembering!! XD I totally get where you’re coming from, but I feel like there’s room for both? Books where characters ARE diverse and books where it’s ABOUT them being diverse. You know?? I don’t really feel like it’s lazy writing necessarily, although OMG I AGREE SO MUCH. WHY IS WRITING DIVERSELY SO HARD? I mean, I get it. It’s hard and worrisome to maybe get it wrong and misrepresent minorities and write falsely on accident. But I feel like, in this day and age, we should be picking up more sexually and culturally and GOSH EVERYTHINGLY (totally a word) diverse books. Where are theyyyyy.

    Write one, Engie. *nods*

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