Diversity in young adult fiction

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Young adult fiction and children's literature in general have historically shown a lack of diversity, that is, a lack of books with a main character who is a person of color, LGBT, or disabled. The numbers of children's book authors have shown a similar lack of diversity.[1] Diversity is considered beneficial since it encourages children of diverse backgrounds to read and it teaches children of all backgrounds an accurate view of the world around them.[2][unreliable source?] In the mid-2010's, more attention was drawn to this problem from various quarters.[3] In the several years following, diversity numbers seem to have improved: One survey showed that in 2017, a quarter of children's books were about minority protagonists, almost a 10% increase from 2016.[1]

History of diversity in YA[edit]

One of the foundational elements of young adult literature is its representation of diverse ideas.[4][5] Looking at The New York Times bestseller list for young adults in the late 2010s demonstrates the selling power of diverse narratives.[6] This dedication to and emphasis on diversity is a fairly recent[when?] concept.[7]

Pre-1980s era young adult[edit]

For a large portion of history, young adult fiction focused on cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied characters and authors.[8] In the 1920s and 1930s, "diverse" children's stories emphasized stereotypical characteristics of people of color. The 1940s sparked a change in the conversation surrounding black narratives. Those in black communities began demanding the publishing of books that actually depicted their lives.[9] In 1965, Nancy Larrick published the article "The All-White World of Children's Publishing", which analyzed the literature and found that only 6.4% of the more than 5,000 books published for children between 1962–1964 featured children of color.[10] A year later, the Council on Interracial Books for Children, which demanded that more books be published by people of color, was created.[11]

Diversity in the pre-1980s era was not limited only to racial diversity. In 1969, John Donovan published I'll Get There. It Better be Worth the Trip, which was the first young adult novel to feature a gay teen.[12] In 1979, Rosa Guy published Ruby, which became the first young adult novel featuring a lesbian woman of color.[12]

1980s to new millennium[edit]

The 1980s brought a greater awareness to the need for diverse youth literature. The population in the United States of America became much more diverse: the Hispanic population more than doubled and the population of races other than white or black increased exponentially.[13] The publishing industry took notice of demographic changes and became more vocal about representation. In 1985, the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) began to track the percentage of books written by African American authors. That year, they reported that African Americans authored less than 1% of all children's books. In 1994, the organization began to track the number of Asian and Pacific Islander, Native and Latino authors as well. In their report, the CCBC found that, collectively, authors of color published about 9% of all books directed towards children and young adults. By the end of the millennium, that percentage dropped to 6.3%.[1]

2000s to present[edit]

The genre of young adult bloomed in the 2000s. In the late 1990s, only 3,000 young adult books were published annually. By 2010, that number increased to 30,000.[14] While the number of diverse books has increased, the numbers are not reflective of the United States demographic breakdown.[8] The statistics gathered by the CCBC and various other independent researchers show that the market does not reflect the diversity of the U.S.[8] In 2013, less than 9% of best-selling novels featured characters with disabilities.[15] In 2014 and 2015, found that 85% of all children's and young adult books feature white characters. This statistic has remained fairly stagnant since the 1960s.[16] In 2017, a 20-year analysis of National Book Award winners between 1996–2015 found that only 5 of the novels were written by non-white authors.[10]

In 2014, spurred by an all-white, all-male discussion at the 2014 BookCon festival, young adult author Ellen Oh created the twitter hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks to protest the lack of diversity in young adult and children's literature.[3] This movement developed into the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books (WNDB). WNDB's goal is to increase the representation of diverse communities within the world of children's books.[17] This movement changed the conversation surrounding diversity in YA and has influenced the number of diverse options on the market today.[18] In 2017, a quarter of children's novels were about minority protagonists, almost a 10% increase from 2016.[1] In the UK 90% of the best-selling YA titles from 2006 to 2016 featured white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, and heterosexual main characters [19] The numbers of children's book authors have shown a similar lack of diversity.[1] Between 2006-2016, eight percent of all young adult authors published in the UK were people of colour [19]

Importance of diversity[edit]

The mission of WNDB is to change the publishing industry so it features diverse characters and "reflects the lives" of young people.[17] This is part of the reason why diversity and inclusivity is so important in YA.

One of the largest arguments for diversity is that it encourages self-reflection among readers. This self-reflection creates a sense of comfort. People like to see themselves and identify with the stories they read.[20] This is not possible when 85% of children's and young adult books feature white characters.[16] By featuring multicultural characters experiencing real-life problems, readers can see that they are not alone.[21] On the other hand, if diverse experiences are not visible, it further alienates disadvantaged minorities.

When a reader identifies with a minority or disadvantaged population, seeing characters that resembles their experiences can be empowering.[20]

Diverse literature can also be a catalyst for acceptance. Portraying and reading about characters that are different from the reader helps to reduce stereotypes.[22] These narratives alleviate the "otherness" and make the different seem less strange.[22] Studies have found that reading about people from different cultures increases empathy. This is especially true in fantasy and science-fiction novels because readers are already immersed in a "different world".[23] Being surrounded by diverse characters and cultures builds a "tolerance for and appreciation of" those cultures which helps to eliminate prejudice.[21] With the increasingly diverse population and more diverse public schools, young adults constantly interact with people that are different than them.[24][25]


Walter Dean Myers speaks at the Powell Branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library, August 2013

The "#ownvoices" movement, which has spread beyond young adult, promotes books about diverse characters written by authors from the same diverse identity. It originated in September 2015 when author Corinne Duyvis created the Twitter hashtag #ownvoices.[26] Duyvis is a young-adult author who specializes in science-fiction and fantasy; she is also the co-founder and senior editor of the website Disability in Kidlit.[27] Proponents of this movement argue that it is not enough to just have diverse characters. There needs to be someone propelling these stories along within the community.[28] It increases the authenticity and power of the story being told. In recent years, more authors of color are publishing novels, but the numbers do not indicate significant changes in the amount of "own voices" novels.[29]

This is not a new concept. In 1986, Walter Dean Myers published I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry, an article in The New York Times detailing how few black narratives were determined by black authors.[11] In 1998, Jacqueline Woodson published Who Can Tell My Story in the Horn Book Magazine posing the same questions.[30] In the article, Woodson said, "I realized that no one but me can tell my story."[30]

White-washing of book covers[edit]

Ursula Le Guin signing a book in 2013

Publishing companies commonly distort the perception of diversity on book covers to conform to traditional standards based on the assumption that book covers with diverse character representations are less marketable than those with white, heterosexual, and able-bodied models, resulting in a white-washing effect.[24] Typically either a white model represents a character of color or the character's image is distorted beyond complete recognition.[31] Ursula Le Guin was a champion for dispelling the "white sells" phenomenon. At the 2004 BookExpo America convention, she specifically criticized this practice, saying,

"Please consider that 'what sells' or 'doesn't sell' can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If black kids, Hispanics, Indians both Eastern and Western don't buy fantasy – which they mostly don't – could it be because they never see themselves on the cover?"[32]

A high profile instance of white-washing in YA was Justine Larbalestier's 2009 novel Liar.[31] In the novel, the protagonist is described as an African American, but the advance reading copy (ARC) featured a white cover model.[33] The publisher remedied this after Larbalestier complained.[34]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Children's Books by and About People of Color". ccbc.education.wisc.edu. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  2. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". We Need Diverse Books (WNDB). Retrieved 4 November 2018.
  3. ^ a b Charles, Ron (3 January 2018). "'We need diverse books,' they said. And now a group's dream is coming to fruition". Washington Post. Retrieved 4 November 2018.
  4. ^ "Social Responsibility | Penguin Random House". PenguinRandomhouse.com. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  5. ^ HarperCollins Publishers. "Corporate Social Responsibility". corporate.harpercollins.com. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  6. ^ "Young Adult Hardcover Books – Best Sellers – The New York Times". Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  7. ^ Corbett, Sue. "Editors, Agents, and Authors Take the Pulse of Today's YA". PublishersWeekly.com. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  8. ^ a b c "Book Challenges Suppress Diversity". Diversity in YA. 2014-09-18. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  9. ^ "The Changing Image of the Black in Children's Literature". The Horn Book. 1975-02-01. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  10. ^ a b Bickmore, Steven; Xu, Yunying; Infante Sheridan, Myra (Spring 2017). "Where Are the People of Color? Representation of Cultural Diversity in the National Book Award for Young People's Literature and Advocating for Diverse Books in a Non-Post Racial Society" (PDF). Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education.
  11. ^ a b Myers, Walter Dean. "I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry". Retrieved 2018-03-23.
  12. ^ a b APA: Campbell, Edith, ed. (n.d.). "50 Years of Diversity in Young Adult Literature". Retrieved 5 April 2018.
  13. ^ Hobbs, Frank, Stoops, Nicole (2002). "Demographic Trends in the 20th Century: Census 2000 Special Reports" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2003-03-15.
  14. ^ Brown, David W. "How Young Adult Fiction Came of Age". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  15. ^ "Diversity in 2013 New York Times Young Adult Bestsellers". Diversity in YA. 2014-04-21. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  16. ^ a b Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth (2016). "Stories Still Matter: Rethinking the Role of Diverse Children's Literature Today". Journal of Language Arts. 94 (2): 112–120.
  17. ^ a b "About WNDB". diversebooks.org. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  18. ^ "LGBTQ YA by the Numbers: 2015–16". Malinda Lo. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  19. ^ a b Ramdarshan Bold, Melanie (2018). "The Eight Percent Problem: Authors of Colour in the British Young Adult Market (2006–2016)". Publishing Research Quarterly. 34 (3): 385–406. doi:10.1007/s12109-018-9600-5.
  20. ^ a b Wopperer, Emily (2011). "Inclusive Literature in the Library and the Classroom" (PDF). Knowledge Quest. 39 (3): 26–34. Retrieved 7 November 2018.
  21. ^ a b Schwartz, Gretchen (1996). "The Power of Foreign Young Adult Literature". The ALAN Review. 23 (5). Retrieved 7 November 2018.
  22. ^ a b "Kids need to be exposed to diversity in books to prepare them for the real world". Newsweek. 2017-02-07. Retrieved 2018-04-03.
  23. ^ "Embracing Diversity in YA Lit". School Library Journal. Archived from the original on April 6, 2018. Retrieved 2018-04-03.CS1 maint: Unfit url (link)
  24. ^ a b "Straight Talk on Race: Challenging the Stereotypes in Kids' Books". School Library Journal. Archived from the original on March 22, 2018. Retrieved 2018-04-03.CS1 maint: Unfit url (link)
  25. ^ "Why Diversity in Fiction Matters". TCK Publishing. 2017-06-21. Retrieved 2018-04-03.
  26. ^ Gall, E. (2017). "Empower kids with #OwnVoices: My students weighed in on diverse representations in books". School Library Journal. 63 (5): 14.
  27. ^ "Biography • Corinne Duyvis". Corinne Duyvis. Retrieved 2018-03-23.
  28. ^ "Why We Need Diverse Authors in Children's Literature". Brightly. 2016-02-23. Retrieved 2018-03-23.
  29. ^ Parravano, Martha (2017). "The CCBC's Diversity Statistics: A Conversation with Kathleen T. Horning". Retrieved 2018-11-06.
  30. ^ a b "Who Can Tell My Story". The Horn Book. 1998-01-03. Retrieved 2018-03-23.
  31. ^ a b "It Matters If You're Black or White: The Racism of YA Book Covers". YALSA.
  32. ^ Le Guin, Ursula. "Some Assumptions about Fantasy". ursulakleguin.com. Retrieved 4 November 2018.
  33. ^ "Ain't That a Shame (updated) | Justine Larbalestier". Justine Larbalestier. 2009-07-23. Retrieved 2018-04-04.
  34. ^ "Bloomsbury backs down over book cover race row". The Guardian. 10 August 2009.

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