Posted in Longer Posts, Reading, Words, Writing

How YA Lit Leads the Way in Representation

You may have noticed that each year, the books on shelves of libraries, schools, and the Internet have characters and topics that would not have been popular, or even published at all, a few years ago. But what role does young adult (YA) literature play in the evolution, and how far have we come?

Representation in History

It is important to understand that diversity has come a long way since fifty years ago, and what seems like the norm now might have been groundbreaking in the past. Kelsey, who specializes in teen books at my local library, remembers how hard it was for her to find books with a female protagonist in the ‘90s, let alone other minorities. 

She remembers loving the series Dear America, stories about girls going through major historical events. However, while some starred non-white characters, the authors were all white. Kelsey continues, “And one of my favorite ones was the story of a girl who had been kidnapped by Native Americans, and it was this whole white savior thing. Reading back on it now, I read and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this was my favorite book as a kid.’”

Nate, who orders the YA collection for my county’s library service, seems to agree. “I would say there is a recent trend—last 10 years—of more diverse representation in YA books, in terms of the characters and cultures being depicted, as well as an increase in more #OwnVoices authors.”

Now, many books have characters who identify with minorities, and according to Kelsey, teen books are the trailblazers. “I read a book last year, and the entire book was in text messages. … And an adult book is coming out now that is all messages, that’s like, teen did that first.” Young adult is often the category with stories that may be controversial, but pave the way for diversity.

Sometimes, authors and publishers have trouble catching up to the increasing demand for representation in YA literature. Kelsey mentions the new novel Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao, which is inspired by Chinese history and mythology and features a polyamorous relationship. “Publishers were saying, like, ‘No, I’m not publishing that, no one wants to read about that.’ And guess what—it was a number 1 New York Times bestseller.”

Why Representation Matters

You may have heard the phrase “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors”. Coined by Rudine Sims Bishop, this means that everyone should read mirror books they can see themselves in, window books where they can look into the life of someone different, and sliding glass doors to find a new world and immerse themselves in it. These three are important to representation, but some people don’t consider them all.

“I have talked with other librarians who work in predominantly white communities who don’t feel like they need to buy books about people of color because their community is not people of color, which is nonsense to me because I think it is the responsibility of the library to open up the world for our patrons through the books that we’re choosing,” says Kelsey.

#OwnVoices

The hashtag #OwnVoices was created in 2015 by Corinne Duyvis, YA author of On the Edge of Gone, The Art of Saving the World, and more. It pushed for not only diverse characters, but characters written by authors of the same minority. 

There has been controversy over whether it is an effective term. Some believe it is worth raising awareness of, because as Kelsey mentioned, many books about people of color are by white authors. On the other hand, this movement may limit authors’ freedom in the stories they are “allowed” to write.

A chart from 2019 depicting the percentage of books by people of the same race/ethnicity as the main character. 

“It is the responsibility of the library to open up the world for our patrons through the books that we’re choosing.”

Kelsey

Students’ Reading

The following charts show the diversity of the books approximately 60 students at my school enjoyed recently. 

Race/Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity is a complicated topic with blurry lines for which is which. For the sake of simplicity, I have organized the chart grouping them together in this way.

This data is just the findings of one grade in one school, and the results would likely be different if I did the survey elsewhere.

Sexuality

Queer books have gained popularity in YA literature, but gay or MLM (Man-Love-Man) books are much more popular than lesbian/WLW.

Books can be diverse in a lot of ways besides these four—religion, economic status, fame, location, language, traditions, education, et cetera.

Gender

Unlike past times, the male-female ratio is almost exactly equal.

Only one character in all the books was Black, and two were not cisgender. Most characters were white, cis male, straight, and not disabled, but it is much less of an overwhelming majority than before.

Disability

“Disability” is very general, and some prefer other terms. In this graph, physical disabilities, mental illnesses such as depression, and chronic disease are all considered disabilities.

How To Find Diverse Books

A pride flag of over 100 queer YA books. 
Credit for the individual cover images: Amazon and Goodreads, graphic created by the author.

There are countless opportunities for teens interested in reading diverse books. According to Kelsey, the public library displays and websites, as well as social media, are great resources. Also, many organizations put together lists. Viviyanka, a representative of The Word, recommends their resource page

When providing children and teens with valuable stories, one of the most important goals is making sure they can both see themselves in the characters and learn from a new point of view. With YA literature changing the standard, and representation improving considerably every decade, hopefully soon, diversity will be even more equal in the wonderful world of books.


Click here to view the author’s note, sources, and more.

While unprofessional for an article, interviewees have been only identified by their first name to protect my and their privacy. Their specific job and location has also been kept vague for this reason.

More Information

CCBC Race Diversity Statistics 1985–present

New York Times Opinion: The Apartheid of Children’s Literature

Book Riot Report: 2019 Diversity in Children’s and YA Literature

Organizations

We Need Diverse Books

LGBTQ Reads

Lee & Low

The Word

Sources

#OwnVoices: Diversity in Children’s and Young Adult Books

Same-Race Author Statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center


You might also like: Book Review: What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

Author:

A teenager obsessed with words of all kinds. When I’m not reading or writing, I like drawing, musical theatre, and D&D.

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