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Diversity in YA Literature

Updated: May 3, 2018


"Imagine a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book" - We Need Diverse Books

My classroom library is one of my biggest points of pride in my life, not just my profession. I am constantly seeking new books, making lists of wishlist books with my colleagues, and scanning the shelves of bookstores to add to DonorsChoose projects. I've worked really hard to build a classroom library that is pretty diverse, but as a teacher and avid reader, it is very clear to me that there is still a huge need for more diversity in YA books.

All students should be able to find a book with a character who looks like them.

I've noticed some similarities in YA literature and I have some concerns:

1. How often do authors of color make it to the top of the best sellers list? When they do, was a character's race one of the focal points of their story?

2. Where are the persons of color of color in LGBT relationships? And when we can find them, is the entire story about coming out? Coming out stories are important, but it's also important for young adults to see LGBT characters just living their lives. I recently read Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills and was so relieved when the main character casually mentions that two girls were named the "cutest couple" at school. She never once addressed their sexuality; it just was fact, and I love that!

3. Girls of color deserve to see themselves as worthy enough to be princesses, superheroes, Homecoming Queen and part of the "in" crowd.

I did a little bit of digging around with this topic and found some resources that I think are very interesting:

The Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) gathers data each year surrounding diversity in children's books (which includes YA). Of the 3,700 books they received in 2017, 122 were by African American authors, and 340 were about African American characters. 38 were by American Indian authors and 72 were about American Indian characters. Asian Pacific authors made up 274 of the collected authors and 310 of the books. There were 116 Latino authors accounted for and 216 books. While that does not mean that the remaining 75% of books were necessarily about white characters, as some were about animals, shapes, colors, etc., it is not enough. It is evident that while there has been a significant increase in the number of diverse books that make it to publishing, we need more.

Part of this lack of diversity stems from the lack of representation in publishing and marketing. This article describes a study conducted a few years ago. "In 2015, Lee & Low Books, an independent publisher of multicultural children's and young adult literature, launched the first major study of staff diversity in publishing. Over 40 publishers and review journals participated. The findings revealed that across the board, nearly 80 percent of those surveyed who worked in publishing self-identified as white."

According to the U.S. Census, by 2020, half of America's people under the age of 18 will be part of a minority race or ethnic group. Luckily organizations such as We Need Diverse Books exists as to help the push toward more diversity in literature so as to represent more of our nation's youth.

Author Matt de la Peña asks, “Where’s the African-American Harry Potter or the Mexican Katniss?” In this article he also said, “When you are writing with race as one of the elements of the story, early on, you write about race. As you do more work, the race becomes part of the story and not the story. I think that will be the biggest boost for multicultural literature." Hopefully, as we continue to progress as a society, we see more persons of color on the cover of books and a declining need for a "Social Justice" shelf.

Matt de la Peña also commented, "But on the flip side, I get worried about people who make the character black on the outside, but not on the inside.” This blogger addresses POC representation in contemporary books. She points out the importance of having culturally correct food, beliefs, education, and more.

While we still have a way to go, it would be unfair to ignore the incredible diverse literature that exists and all that is on its way.

Here are some lists that feature diverse characters:

42 Diverse Must-Have YA Titles for Every Library (I have 15 of these)

31 Young Adult Books with Diverse Characters Literally Everyone Should Read (I have 17 of these)

17 #OwnVoices YA Books Coming Out This Year We Can't Wait to Read (I have 10 of these already!)

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