When authors write YA novels, there are many aspects that we're all trying to achieve: a well-written story with a good plot and interesting settings.
For me, the most important aspect is to have realistic characters who struggle with relatable problems. Including diverse characters simply reflects the people I meet in my daily life or the lives of my family.
I have a day job at a software company. We're located in the middle of a region with many universities and technical companies. People come here from all over the globe to get college degrees--and they stay to work. When my daughters were in their teens, they attended urban magnet schools with diverse student bodies. They're now in their 20s, with diverse colleagues or university classmates.
Ethnic, cultural, economic, religious, gender, and physical diversity has always been around me. The characters in my books grow out of the world I live in. Sometimes, I make it clear that a character is biracial or Hindu or experiences life differently. And sometimes, the diversity is just there without being explicitly called out.
With contemporary characters, I start by researching them through books, films, websites, and blog posts. I ask questions either online or through interviews. I've also begun to seek sensitivity readers--people who are intimately familiar with the differences I'm writing about.
Whisper Falls series: For people in the 18th century (and throughout history), physical disabilities were devastating, especially for women. In A Whisper in Time, Susanna's sister Phoebe sustains a serious hand injury that will threaten her livelihood. In Whispers from the Past, Susanna's dearest friend Dorcas may never be able to attract a husband because she is "crippled".
I Wish series: I interviewed a biracial friend who helped me to create the backstory for Eli--who has a black mother and white father. In book 2, Kimberley's memory disability is a major conflict. We did extensive research of people with memory disabilities--and received a sensitivity read of Wishing for You from a nurse who cared for patients with brain injuries.
The Possibility of Somewhere - Ash Gupta is the son of wealthy Asian Indian immigrants. I was fortunate that Indian colleagues and friends were generous with their patience and time to answer my questions about what Ash's life might have been like.
Fade to Us - My next book, Fade to Us, releases in February 2018 (writing as Julia Day). This story is set during a summer musical theater program for teens, with a Chinese director and her biracial son (Chinese and white). A Chinese friend and her two biracial teen sons helped me with these two characters. Another Chinese friend gave a sensitivity read. However, the biggest role that diversity plays in this book comes from the heroine's new stepsister. Natalie is a 15-year-old on the autism spectrum. My daughter, who also has Asperger's Syndrome, helped with Natalie's character development and speech. My daughter is the sensitivity reader for this book.
It's my hope to portray a character's diversity as authentically and respectfully as possible. But truly, a character's personality comes from their background, faith, family, education, life experiences--and their differences. All must work together to form a complete, interesting, sympathetic character.