Sunday, January 4, 2015

S.A.S.S.: Armchair Travel in YA

Last year I read my way through the S.A.S.S. -- Students Across the Seven Seas -- series. There are fourteen books, written by eleven authors; in each book, an American student takes off to a different country* as an exchange student for about three months.

As one might expect, mileage varies, though by and large it's an entertaining bunch of books.** Very quick reads, and good for one who wants to indulge in a bit of cheesy armchair travel (to which I say: always!).

It's hard to know how much direction the authors received from the publisher -- although some details remain consistent (each student is abroad for a semester; a number of the programmes include an environmental component; there is always, always a boy), there's variation in others. Some students stay in dorms, others with families; some attend local schools, while others talk only with S.A.S.S. students (in which case The Boy is a local exception); in Heart and Salsa, the protagonist goes to Mexico on a service trip rather than something more academic.

But my question is this: Where is the diversity? Of fourteen books, nine take place in (Western) Europe. The remaining five take place at sea, in Australia and the U.S., in Mexico, in Japan, and in China. Of the fourteen protagonists, twelve are white -- and of the two who are not, Cece (who is Chinese-American) goes to China, and Nori (who is Japanese-American) goes to Japan. To be fair, they are not the only two who go to countries where they have family ties -- both Elena (Spain) and Siena (Germany) have family history in their respective countries of study.

The diversity question isn't new in YA, and these books aren't super new either -- they were published between 2005 and 2010. Still, what a disappointment. Would it have been so difficult to write in a protagonist who was black, or Latina (and who didn't go to Africa or Central America)? To send a student to Vietnam, or Kenya, or Turkey? (Chile, Egypt, India?)

'Well, these programmes aren't cheap,' my mother said when I commented on how white the protagonists are. She's hosted half a dozen exchange students before; she knows how it works. It's true that white families are often more likely to have the necessary resources, or simply to have information on programmes. But this is fiction -- if the authors or publisher couldn't dream up an African American student with enough money to study abroad, surely they could dream up a scholarship or two.

At a guess -- given the range of authors -- the authors just, for the most part, wrote characters who looked like they did (come to think of it, while I've taken only a glancing look at the author makeup, that begs a few questions about author diversity). Ultimately that leaves me wondering about the publisher's choices: Did anyone question the lack of diversity, either in destination or in heroine? If no, why not? (If yes, why did we end up with this particular lineup?)

Again, I enjoyed the series -- easy, light books that I could finish in a day's worth of commuting. I would very happily have kept reading. But given how limited diversity in YA is, it seems that the publisher missed a big opportunity here.

*Both Pardon My French and French Kissmas take place in -- you guessed it -- France, with the same heroine; Up Over Down Under features two heroines (American and Australian) who switch places.

**Reviews, in the order in which I read the books: Girl OverboardPardon My FrenchThe Finnish LineThe Great Call of ChinaGetting the BootFrench KissmasNow and ZenWestminster AbbyWhen Irish Guys Are SmilingUp Over Down UnderThe Sound of MunichHeart and SalsaSwede DreamsSpain or Shine

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