"You're half Chinese and half European, I'm half Indian, a quarter Mexican and a quarter Irish. We're mixed up. We're not really one or the other ethnically. We're like human lattes."
So explains Asha, the main character in Sarah Jamila Stevenson's debut novel, The Latte Rebellion.
To raise money for a class trip she and her friends began as selling a few T-shirts and labeled the effort the Latte Rebellion. But the movement soon became something much larger than they could have anticipated.
Seen through the eyes of adolescents, Asha and her friends tackle the complexities of identifying as multiracial during adolescence, when identifying as anything seems like a challenge.
"At the time I was writing it ... there were still some news stories about South Asians who were getting harassed and insulted, and even assaulted," Stevenson said in an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin. "And because I'm part South Asian myself, it really hit close to home. It had me worried about my relatives who live in the United States. So I felt pretty strongly about working that into my book somewhere."
Stevenson's writing is informed by her own coming-of-age experiences. The various dimensions of growing up in a multiracial household played into the characters' way of navigating an identity that included all parts of them.
"I feel pretty lucky that I grew up in a really diverse community in Southern California. As far as my own home life, I did feel a little bit of pressure from my dad's side of the family to identify pretty strongly with the Pakistani side because he wanted me to be sure that I knew what it meant to be part of his culture," she says.
Though the young adult genre often gets dismissed as simply summer reading for teens, Stevenson approaches these delicate race matters in a sophisticated way that still manages to be light and even humorous.
Addressing the difficult matters of racism and who decides how a multiracial person is important to her.
"It's not simply because I'm writing for young adults that I felt like I had to lighten the topic. In fact, I think a lot of people think of young-adult literature as either you have the books with vampires, and then you have the books with drama. I didn't want to do either of those things," says Stevenson. "And I really did want to write a book that had some humor in it and dealt with some interesting and important and weighty issues, but reminded us that that's really not always, or even really ever, the whole story."