Young adult readers crave real-life issues

Sexuality, identity among concerns | You don’t have to be a reader of young adult fiction to know some of its heroes and heroines.

Sexuality, identity among concerns

You don’t have to be a reader of young adult fiction to know some of its heroes and heroines.

Miles Sanguinetti/VANGUARD STAFf

SARA RYAN, a young adult author, spoke at the Thursday event.

Who doesn’t know Harry Potter and Hermione Granger?

Young adult books make up a genre of literature that is beginning to take up more space on best seller lists and movie screens.

The genre, which targets readers between 12 and 18 years old, and its norms were the topic of a discussion Thursday evening at the Smith Memorial Student Union, “Beyond Judy Blume: Identity and Sexualilty in young adult literature.”

Panelists included Sara Ryan, a local comic book author and Multnomah County librarian; Carter Sickels, a local novelist; Michelle Roehm McCann, a children’s book editor and author as well as an instructor at Portland State; and Vanessa F. La Torre, a youth HIV-prevention educator at the Cascade AIDS Project in Portland.

The moderator, a high school student, began the discussion by asking if panelists felt that reading YA literature was an important part of a young adult’s life. The answer was a resounding yes.

“I want to encourage my students [in the publishing program] to change the picture to reflect more of who we are now,” McCann said. She said that more teens are reading than ever before and that, until now, no best-selling book from this expanding genre has ever included a gay character.

“Maybe I should change genres, because people are still reading YA,” Sickels said with a laugh. He recently published his first novel.

The moderator also questioned the panelists about the importance of giving readers characters they can relate to.

miles sanguinetti/VANGUARD STAFf

Michelle Mccann, a PSU instructor, spoke at Thursday’s event.

“I could always relate to Hermione because she was a know-it-all and I was a know-it-all,” the moderator said to laughter from the audience and panel.

“Meg from A Wrinkle in Time was our Hermione,” McCann said. Reading this YA novel as a teen, McCann said, jump-started her addiction to science fiction.

Ryan brought out a few books that she felt showcased a more progressive inclusion of ethnically and sexually diverse characters, including I Will Save You, by Matt de la Pena, and Adaptation, by Malinda Lo. As a librarian, Ryan said that it’s important for her to have books that offer a multitude of identities for young adult readers to choose from.

Before drawing to a close, the panelists discussed some grimmer realities facing YA writers and readers, such as the “straight-washing” scandal of last year, in which two YA authors wrote a blog post for Publisher’s Weekly describing an agent who offered to buy their manuscript on the condition that the authors change a character’s sexual orientation.

This scandal brought to light other shortfalls in providing diversity within YA publishing, which McCann discussed with some statistics that Malinda Lo had published on her website. Namely, Lo found that less than 1 percent of YA characters are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and that 50 percent of those LGBT characters are male.

La Torre suggested that communities need a broader dialogue about sexuality to decrease the stigma of having LGBT characters and sexual content in YA literature. Sexuality, she said, is a broad topic.

“I’ve seen attitudes change after someone was introduced to a book,” La Torre said.

The event was planned by Ashley McAllister, the merchandise coordinator for Bitch Media, in conjunction with a grant from the Oregon Council for the Humanities.

McAllister said that she came up with the idea for the panel after noticing the popularity of YA literature in the publishing world right now.

“Human sexuality seems to be a contentious issue and an important issue,” she said, also mentioning that teens often find comfort and hope from reading stories about characters they can relate to.

Kari Anne McDonald, a second-year student in the PSU Master of Public Administration program and a graduate assistant for Portland State’s Women’s Resource Center, helped Bitch Media in planning the event. She related Thursday night’s talk to a larger effort to represent women in the publishing industry, starting at Portland State.

“I would be interested to know how many women hold higher positions in publishing on [Portland State’s] campus,” she said. “It’s important to talk about how women’s stories are not being heard.”

While including more diversity within the pages of YA books, powerful roles within the publishing industry will need to be held by people with diverse backgrounds before readers will see a shift in the portrayal of LGBT characters, MacDonald said.

“Some writers might think they’re doing a good thing by including [queer characters],” she said, while noting that merely adding diverse “token” characters does not serve to alter a “narrative dominated so much by heterosexuality.”