By Arriel Vinson
When readers talk about their favorite YA novels on Twitter, they typically mention the tropes they love reading, such as enemies to lovers, chosen ones, spontaneous road trips, or any other popular trope. Sometimes, readers will specifically seek out novels that keep tropes in mind.
They’ll tweet asking for recommendations, and everyone replying to the tweet will be just as in love with that trope themselves. Tropes function as a way to connect with other readers and find the novels you love.
Recently, though, many children’s writers on Twitter have been debating about tropes. Some writers say they’re overused and don’t need to be used again. Other writers, especially YA writers of color, have a different opinion.
L.L. McKinney, author of YA fantasy novels A Blade So Black and A Dream So Dark, has been very vocal on her Twitter account about the use of tropes for writers of color, often calling out white book reviewers about their bias.
“Black people have been shut out of publishing for years, and have been shut out of genre fiction for even longer. That we can’t be princesses or be the center of love triangles or experience hate to love or any of the other things in storytelling we’ve seen others partake in just adds insult to injury,” McKinney told We Need Diverse Books. “How we tell a story differs in so many ways, and we deserve to explore every avenue finally available to us.”
A Blade So Black is an Alice in Wonderland retelling, featuring a black protagonist who battles monstrous creatures with the help of a mentor. But McKinney didn’t think of those tropes beforehand, it just happened.
“I just set out to tell a story about a Black girl doing things I wanted to see Black girls do in these types of stories. I wanted to get a crack at things I loved reading about but never got to see myself centered in,” she said.
The same goes for Leah Johnson, author of YA rom-com You Should See Me in a Crown, which uses a competitors-to-lovers trope where the protagonist, Liz, runs for prom queen and falls in love with the competition.
“Going into Crown, it was clear that Liz was going to run for prom queen—and her entire future was going to ride on winning—but something massive needed to stand in her way (as Save the Cat! Writes a Novel tells me is the foundation of any plot),” she told WNDB. “The trope is a jumping-off point, used to explore all sorts of other ideas. What does it mean to be a competitor when all you want to do is be free from competition? What does it mean to love someone who, ultimately, needs to fail in order for you to succeed? What is success, even? Who gets to have it and what do you have to give up in order to achieve it?”
The question of who gets to have success is also something writers and readers wonder about the publishing industry.
Tropes, it seems, have only just become overused, though many different types have been in novels and series throughout time. However, there is just now more space for writers of color in the publishing world to play around with tropes.
For Kristina Forest, author of YA romance I Wanna Be Where You Are, finding the nature of the protagonist’s and love interest’s relationship was difficult, but she found a way to “make it fresh,” while still using a trope.
“I wanted them to have history, and I wanted that history to be filled with tension to make the road trip more interesting. Enemies to lovers fit perfectly,” Forest told We Need Diverse Books. “I don’t think a trope can be overdone if writers of color haven’t had the chance to incorporate tropes into their own novels, let alone have their novels published.”
“The finish line is constantly in motion for authors of color. Princess novels are hot until too many Black and Brown folks get book deals for princess novels. Jane Austen retellings are all-the-rage until too many Black and Brown writers start working on Jane Austen retellings,” she said. “The reality is, this is an industry, a country, that has historically boxed out people of color and devalued our stories. We have always had to fight for every shred of dignity or recognition we receive. This issue of what is and is not overdone is directly in line with that tradition.”
As of 2018, only 10 percent of characters in children’s books were African or African-American. Only 7 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander or Asian Pacific American characters, and only 5 percent were Latinx. Lastly, 1 percent of characters were American Indians/First Nations. Alternatively, 50 percent of characters were white and the remaining 27 percent were animals.
Despite the numbers, some users on book Twitter just don’t want to read novels with tropes anymore, with their biggest complaints being about love triangles and forced bed-sharing. The debate happens every few days and has recently turned into a jar-filling meme.
But for these writers, regardless of what kind of trope it is, they believe they’re all useful.
McKinney said, “They’re a sort of shortcut in storytelling but without the con of losing out on the beauty of the scenic route. Human beings are amazing at pattern recognition, and when we recognize things in stories that we enjoy or are drawn to, it sets up this sort of excitement.”
Forest agrees that they can be useful, and even thinks they’re a tradition of YA. She says they offer readers a sense of comfort.
There’s no marker for what makes a trope overused and what doesn’t. Some say that too many tropes in one novel is the limit and some disagree.
But Johnson wants everyone to consider who children’s authors are writing for: the readers.
“The real harm is done to the children who rely on these stories to make sense of the world. Once we begin to tell kids that the narrative that best describes them is overdone, what does that say about the way we’re caring for that child?” she said. “At its core, to dismiss a trope is to dismiss the people for whom that trope is already real or may become real in the future. We can do better than that. We have to.”
Arriel Vinson is a Tin House Winter Workshop alumna and Hoosier who writes about being young, black, and in search of freedom. She earned her MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and received a B.A. in Journalism from Indiana University. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Catapult, Shondaland, BOOTH, Cosmonauts Avenue, Waxwing, Lunch Ticket, Electric Literature, and others. She is a 2019 Kimbilio Fellow.