It can be said that 2015 is the year of diversity amongst YA novels. There is more demand than ever for diverse characters, diverse authors and diverse issues within YA. Worryingly, the demand for diversity is so high that there are fears it is but a trend that will be left in the dust – alongside books about vampires and dystopian fantasies.
(Cough, cough.) If that wasn’t enough motive for concern, there is also the possibility that existing diversity in YA may be swallowed up and forgotten; simply because the call for diverse YA Issues books is so strong.
One such book that deserves to be brought out from where it is currently residing under the radar – in Ireland, at least – is Martha Brockenbrough’s The Game of Love and Death. Set just before WWII, it tells the story of Henry, a young middle-class white musician, and Flora, a black girl from a poorer background who dreams of flying around the world to finish what Amelia Earhart started. Both come from different worlds. Both are players in the game of Love and Death. The Game begins when Love and Death choose a baby player each. They set the rules, set a date for when the Game ends, and then sit back and wait 17 years until the Game begins.
What I love about The Game of Love and Death is that Flora’s character is not a victim of her diversity; the colour of her skin serves a purpose in the plot rather than this ethnic detail existing for the sake of Brockenbrough bending to the will of the diversity demand. The Game of Love and Death| takes place in a time when racism and segregation were rife, and relationships between black and white people were not only discouraged but massively frowned upon. I’ve found of late that it is very easy to get swallowed up in books about middle or upper-class super-attractive white girls or boys – just look around the shelves of your local book retailers
(and I mean REALLY look) and you’ll see cover after cover with a pale, beautiful white girl or a dark haired, incredibly attractive boy staring back at you. The beauty of The Game of Love and Death lies in the fact that Flora is not described as being stunningly beautiful; Henry is not described as a typical YA hero. Both characters are inexplicably drawn to the other – encapsulating the essence of what love actually is, and discouraging the notion that love is based solely on physical attraction.
Another wonderful thing about this book was the inclusion of the secondary cast – Henry’s best friend Ethan was brilliant, intelligent, and articulate, yet struggled with reading and writing; the implication being that he is dyslexic. I can think of one single book other than The Game of Love and Death I have read since I was a child that included a character with a learning difficulty. Due to the supports available for individuals with dyslexia – not to mention the widespread availability of audiobooks, YA books need more diversity in terms of characters with learning difficulties, developmental disorders and the like in order to be more accessible to even more YA readers. Brockenbrough beautifully introduced the fears and issues Ethan’s inability to read brought to the plot in a gentle, yet firm, manner.
If that wasn’t enough, Ethan is also revealed to be struggling with his sexuality – which, again, is introduced smoothly and without an air of obvious insertion; the fact Ethan is gay is intrinsic to the secondary plot. Additionally, Henry’s timid exploration of what it means to be attracted to someone (and indeed a well constructed narrative on sexuality) was well supported by Death’s alias, acting as Ethan’s cousin, Helen. Flora experienced a similar exploration with the support of Grady, a suitor she reluctantly entertained.
All in all, Brockenbrough successfully created a diverse cast of characters, who are each dealing with YA Issues, in a way that did not isolate or inspire a sense that any individual character was there simply for the sake of it. The Game of Love and Death is a beautifully written, beautifully paced novel that befits the current demand for diversity and is well deserving of your attention.
Go buy it. Immediately. If not sooner.