When writing about racial tension for a young adult audience, take a hint from Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches, a story that presents a society with two classes of made-up creatures: The Star-Belly Sneetches are the elite and the Plain-Belly Sneetches are the oppressed.
I loved reading that story, especially when the machine removed and added stars to so many Sneetches’ bellies that no one could tell the Star-Bellies apart from the Plain-Bellies anymore.
As a kid, I had no idea it was a giant metaphor for discrimination.
In Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, the bestselling YA authors also draw clear distinctions between groups and explore the tension with respect to “made-up” ethnicities– instead of Sneetches, they write about muggles vs. wizards, vampires vs. werewolves, and Capitol citizens vs. the districts.
This lets them easily explore race as an abstraction, without tip-toeing around political correctness, even when invoking familiar demons like “blood” differences and intolerance.
By writing about racial tension this way, the authors explore meaningful issues through an elaborate metaphor, and raise the tension as the different societies clash.
1. Introduce a secret society made up of a different group.
They never invited the Plain-Belly Sneetches.
They left them out cold, in the dark of the beaches.
Hit Lit explains that a bestselling novel features some form of secret society that the hero penetrates during his journey. For our YA heroes, this society is a different group of beings all together.
- In Harry Potter, the Wizards and Witches keep their magic society a secret from the Muggles. Prof. McGonagall explains: “A fine thing it would be if, on the very day You-Know-Who seems to have disappeared at last, the Muggles found out about us all.” (HP Ch.1).
- In Twilight, Jacob tells Bella that the werewolves agreed to keep the vampires’ society a secret. “So my great-grandfather made a truce with them. If they would promise to stay off our lands, we wouldn’t expose them to the pale-faces.” (TW Ch.6).
- Katniss has never been allowed into the Capitol before entering as a tribute. “Of course, I’ve never been on a train, as travel between the districts is forbidden except for officially sanctioned duties.” (HG Ch.3). When the train enters the Capitol, she explains “The cameras haven’t lied about its grandeur….the oddly dressed people with bizarre hair and painted faces.” (HG Ch.4).
2. Show tension between the groups with negative commentary.
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”
The characters on both sides– the good guys and the bad– dislike the other for being different.
- Harry Potter’s uncle, Mr. Dursley, dislikes wizards. “. . . he couldn’t help noticing that there seemed to be a lot of strangely dressed people about. People in cloaks. Mr. Dursley couldn’t bear people who dressed in funny clothes.” (HP Ch.1).
- Billy Black, a member of the werewolves, disapproves of Bella’s relationship with a vampire. “I noticed you’ve been spending time with one of the Cullens.” “Yes,” I repeated curtly. His eyes narrowed. “Maybe it’s none of my business, but I don’t think that is such a good idea.” (TW Ch.17).
- Katniss thinks “I can’t stand the sight of the Capitol people myself.” (HG Ch.4). For example, one of her stylists is “a plump woman whose entire body has been dyed a pale shade of pea green.” (HG Ch.5).
3. Stir up some deep-seeded discrimination.
They kept them away. Never let them come near.
And that’s how they treated them year after year.
Much like real-life racism, the made-up races have had differences going back for generations.
- Draco Malfoy asks Harry whether his parents were “our kind.” Harry responds, “They were a witch and wizard, if that’s what you mean.” Draco replies “I really don’t think they should let the other sort in, do you? They’re just not the same, they’ve never been brought up to know our ways. . . .I think they should keep it in the old wizarding families.” (HP Ch.5).
- Jacob explains that vampires “are traditionally our enemies. But this pack . . .didn’t hunt the way others of their kind did — they weren’t supposed to be dangerous to the tribe.” (TW Ch.6).
- Katniss and the Capitol citizens have had so little exposure over the years that neither considers the other to be human. Katniss thinks: “…they’re so unlike people that I’m no more self-conscious than if a trio of oddly colored birds were pecking around my feet. The three step back and admire their work. “Excellent! You almost look like a human being now!” says Flavius, and they all laugh.” (HG Ch.5).
Why it Works
Like socioeconomic tension, racial differences are a source of tension that many young adults can relate to, no matter how different the fantasy world is from their own.
It magnifies the conflict as the hero tries to be a part of a group and at the same time learn how to be himself.
Unlike The Sneetches, the groups in Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games do not see a “happily ever after” ending of unity.
Instead, this theme carries on to an even greater extent into the second book of each series: The next Harry Potter book focuses heavily on a hunt for “mud-bloods” and the next Twilight book contains direct conflicts between the werewolves and vampires.
P.S. Are you wondering about real diversity in these novels? What’s really interesting is that when these books do show “real-life” racial or ethnic diversity, it is glossed over with a quick physical description and the story moves on.
- In Twilight, Bella sees “the shining, straight black hair and copper skin of the newcomers, teenagers from the reservation come to socialize.” (TW Ch.6). There is no other description as to how they fit in socially.
- Similarly, in The Hunger Games, Katniss explains that Rue “has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor.” (HG Ch.3).
It appears that any “real-life” tension is a non-issue in the YA adventure.
So, do you agree? Is this the way we should write about race for young adults?