Some musings on diversity in Young Adult literature

Equity and diversity in Young Adult (YA) literature is an ongoing discussion. Research articles and opinion pieces dedicated to race, diversity and representation of non-white people and other diverse characters in YA literature pop up more and more often now, with organisations like We Need Diverse Books fighting the good fight.

As a voracious reader and a writer of YA fiction myself as well as a non-Anglo woman living in Australia, naturally I feel strongly about the need for a better representation of diverse voices in YA books. Despite the increasing calls for better representation of characters of color, gay characters and otherwise different/non-mainstream protagonists and love interests, you still need to specifically venture out looking for 'diverse' books, which are not readily available and not necessarily on everyone’s radar.  

An important note to make at the early stage of this discussion is that when we (by we I mean bookish community, industry, etc) talk about diversity, we talk about diversity in the cast of characters, not what goes on behind the scene. 

What about the diversity of authors who write these diverse characters? When we advocate ferociously for the diversity of our protagonist but do not care as strongly or at all about the authors behind these protagonists, are we becoming Matt Damon telling Effie Brown that diversity is something you do in the casting of the movie, but NOT behind the camera [paraphrased].

Let's come back to this question a little bit later...

There are helpful resources if you’re on the hunt for 'diverse' reading material. The above-mentioned We Need Diverse Books compile and update lists of websites for organisations or blogs discussing books with non-white characters, LGBT characters an other characters who are off-mainstream. Websites like Dark Fantastic or Lambda Literary. GoodReads also has a list for Best YA Books with Non White Protagonists.

Looking at my own YA GoodReads shelf which currently lists 59 books (this is not an exhaustive list and not all of these books I would personally endorse), 'diversity stats' are slim: 

But finding diverse books is a struggle. You don't just come by these book randomly, nor can those be classified as those books that make the 'hype' taking the literary world by storm. We all know that in dystopias and paranormal romance characters of colour are rare and if they do exist in dystopian literary spaces, they normally don’t fare well (I once read a paranormal book where the protagonist’s Black best friend was briefly introduced and then eaten by a shark within the book’s first chapter... never to be mentioned again... It was awful and a WTF for me).

I am not the only one with these befuddling experiences: Victoria Law wrote about the struggle of finding books with Asian protagonists for her child to read; Sharon G. Flake discussed the matter. On another note, Justine Larbalestier, the author of Liar, wrote about the persisting phenomenon of whitewashing book covers – which is an ongoing issue where diversity of protagonists is concerned.   

Two versions of cover for Liar by J Larbalestier. (The main protagonist in Liar is Black.)

All this contemplation on diversity in YA books brings me to two points which I think are (often/mostly) missing from the discussion.

 Point # 1: Tokenism is not Diversity

If you introduce a 'Black best friend' only to have her eaten by a shark in the first chapter... Stop. And think long and hard about what you’re doing and why. The same question goes for your gay characters... more often than not those are just thrown into the mix for diversity sake and everything they say or do serves to show how ‘diverse’ they are… In other words, don’t introduce a character of colour only to show how diverse your cast is – this will come off as tokenistic and your readers will judge you. I will judge you.   

And Point # 2: To make books more diverse, diversity among writers must be supported 

I am so happy that women authors totally dominate YA, (even in the science fiction which historically was a man’s domain). But the next step would be to create more opportunities for diverse/women/non-white authors to ensure they get the acknowledgement they deserve. Putting pressure on white/mainstream authors to write more diverse characters will lead to tokenism and cultural appropriation, and possibly do more damage to the very people this 'diversity-drive' is supposedly trying to help. I can bet that books written by authors of colour are a plenty - there are publishing houses specialising in publishing Indigenous authors in Australia, for example - but where are they, how do you find them, why are those books never hyped? Please consider these questions before you set out to write your own YA novel... 


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