Why We Need Diversity in YA Fiction

Imagine if, no matter how many books you read, you couldn’t find any main characters that you could see yourself in. Think of how alone you’d feel. Maybe you’d start to feel like something was wrong with you. Shameful. Or maybe you’d just feel not seen. Not having yourself represented in books is like being invisible. It’s like people are saying you don’t matter, you’re not good enough to appear in a book.

I think it’s important that we all have reflections of ourselves in books. And including many diverse characters, not just straight, white, able-bodied characters, is a more complete representation of our real world. I also think that if we have diversity in YA novels, if we normalize it (as i believe we should), it may eventually help some readers to be less homophobic, less racist, more accepting of many different people–all without preaching, just because they read books they love with characters who aren’t like them.

Right now, our real world of diverse human beings isn’t reflected much in YA fiction.

Malindo Lo looked at YA books published in 2012* and found only 44 YA books with LGBT main characters or even about characters dealing with LGBT issues–out of close to 5,000 YA books! So approximately 1.6% of all YA books in 2012 had LGBT content–and likely many of them did not have LGBT main characters or secondary characters. That is a dismal figure! AND out of that 1.6% of all LGBT YA lit published in 2012, LGBT publishers published 37% of those LGBT books. So right now, small presses are publishing a LOT of diverse voices that might not otherwise be heard. I hope that in the future, mainstream publishers will become more open and publish a lot more LGBT and characters of color books.

In 2009, Jacket Whys blog looked at 775 YA novels and found only 2% with people of color on the covers. Two percent?? That’s not representative of our society at all!

So what’s happening here?
I think that there are more white, straight, able-bodied authors being published than authors of color, LGBT, or differently abled. But I also think that many white, straight authors are afraid to write books with characters of races or sexual orientations that are different from their own–afraid of doing it wrong, of being attacked for trying and not coming up to exacting standards.

And then, too, there are the publishers themselves, the editors and marketing departments who may think that books that aren’t about straight white characters won’t sell. (Publishing is a business.) I also think it’s harder to get books with non-white, non-straight characters published if you’re a first-time author. It’s easier to start incorporating those elements if your books sell well, you have a readership, and publishers decide they can give you more leniency. But just because it’s harder doesn’t mean you can’t do it! My first book, Scars, has a lesbian main character in a happy relationship. My most recent book, Hunted, has a black love interest, and a lesbian friend.

The push-backs are real.
It took me ten years to get Scars published, and a heck of a lot of rejections–and during the last few years, I didn’t change the manuscript. I think it took finding the right editor and publishing house who was open to a queer main character (that also dealt with self-harm and sexual abuse). Megan Crewe was told by some agents that a manuscript she was working on–an urban fantasy set in Japan–would be very difficult to sell because of the location. Jessica Verday was told that the gay YA fairy story she submitted to an anthology was inappropriate for anthology and would have to change it to male-female (or straight). (I’m so glad so many authors pulled out of that anthology! But it’s still unacceptable to me–and yet a sign of how homophobic our society still is.) And think, too, of the many whitewashed covers in YA fiction, such as Justine Larebalestier’s Liar (Micah is black, but they put a white girl on cover), and Jaclyn Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass (they used a pale skinned model for a dark skinned character). There have been many more whitewashed covers over the years. It helps when, as readers and as writers, we speak out and let publishers know we’re not okay with such injustices. But I wish we didn’t have to do that at all.

What Can We do To Help?
As readers, I think it’s important to buy and read books that have diverse characters. And it also really helps to talk about, review, and get the word out about those books you’ve enjoyed!

As writers, I think it’s important to start consciously bringing in diverse characters when they fit the fabric of your story. Think about your main character–does she or he have to be straight, white, or able? Or your secondary characters. Think too about your walk-on characters. Do they really all need to be white or straight?

If more writers submit more books that have diverse characters, then there will be more books published with diverse characters. But we also need to help get the word out about the books that are out there, need to buy those books, so publishers will start to see that that books resonate, that people will buy those books, and then they’ll also put effort into marketing and selling those books.

How to incorporate diversity in your manuscript when it’s not your own experience.

If you’re a writer and you want to bring some greater diversity into your novels, how do you do it? Well, first, I want to say thank you; I’m so glad you’re thinking about it. If you’re going to write a character who doesn’t have your own cultural or sexual orientation experience, it helps to research it. Read books and articles, especially from people who have those experiences. You can also talk to people who have that experience, even join elists on the subject, if that’s permitted. And, if possible, get someone else who has that experience to read your story and give you feedback. But go for it! As writers, we write both what we know, and what we imagine. We try to put ourselves into other people’s lives, and help our readers do that, too. Writing books is the perfect way to explore lives that aren’t our own, or to have a voice when we may not have had one before.

Some Book Recommendations
This is only a starting point. You’ll find many others if you search the subjects online, or ask a librarian.

LGBT YA Fantasy
LGBT main characters in YA fantasy:
Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo
Tithe by Holly Black, and all her other books.
Hero by Perry Moore
City of Ruin by Mark Charon Newton,
Banshee by Hayden Thorne
Magic’s Pawn (The Last Herald-Mage Series, Book 1) by Mercedes Lackey
Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand.

secondary LGBT chararacters in many books including:
Hunted by Cheryl Rainfield
Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima
Many of Alyxandra Harvey’s books have LGBT characters in them.

LGBT YA Realistic
Keeping You a Secret (lesbian), Luna (trans) by Julie Anne Peters, and many others by Julie Anne Peters.
Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden (and many others by Nancy)
Empress of the World by Sara Ryan.
Shine and Kissing Kate and by Lauren Myracle.
Scars by Cheryl Rainfield
Money Boy by Paul Yee
Absolutely Positively Not (Sid Fleischman Humor Award) by David LaRochelle
Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, and many other books by David.
Babylon Boyz by Jess Mowry
Geography Club by Brent Hartinger
Totally Joe by James Howe (and many other books by James)
Perfect by Ellen Hopkins and many others by Ellen have secondary LGBT characters.
From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson, and many other books by Jacqueline.

For more suggestions, check out Lee Wind’s I’m Here, I’m Queer, What The Hell Do I Read? and BonjourCass’ LGBTQ Book Blogger Directory.

Multicultural YA Fantasy
Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo
Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix by Cindy Pon
Witchlanders by Lena Coakley
Hunted by Cheryl Rainfield
Tithe by Holly Black and all her other books.
Fair Coin and Quantum Coin by E. C. Myers
The Secret Keepers by Paul Yee
Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore
Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestir (Australian and half Aborigine),
The Wizard Heir by Cinda Williams Chima and all her other books.
The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress (Japanese character)
Circle of Magic series by Tamora Pierce (major black character)
Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Intruments trilogy (Asian love interest)
The Gathering series by Kelley Armstrong

Multicultural YA Realistic
From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson, and many other boosk by Jacqueline.
Illegally Blonde by Nelsa Roberto (Portuguese main character)
Money Boy by Paul Yee
Babylon Boyz by Jess Mowry
Liar by Justine Larbalestier

For more suggestions, check out Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon’s Diversity In YA.

Differently-Abled YA Fantasy
Every Day by David Levithan
Annerton Pit by Peter Dickinson (blind character
The Angel Experiment: A Maximum Ride Novel (Book 1) by James Patterson (secondary character is blind)
Farsighted (blind)
Stravaganza: City of Secrets (dyslexia)

Differently Abled YA Realistic
Girl, Stolen by April Henry (blind character)
Crazy Beautiful by Lauren Baratz-Logsted (character lost both hands)
Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson (deaf character)
The White Darkness by Geraldine Mccaughrean (hearing impaired)

See Top Fiction for Children, Teens, and Adults With Disabilities for more recommendations.

There’s also disorders, chronic illnesses, and mental/psychological issues to consider.

Have recommendations of other books? Leave them in the comments.

Most of the information in this post I talked about at World Fantasy Convention 2012, on the YA Diversity Panel, and some I heard from my fellow panelists Megan Crewe, Cinda Williams Chima, EC Myers, and moderator Kathy Sullivan.

*Malinda Lo’s post was created during Pride Month, June, so she may not have known all the books for the year coming out, but probably had a pretty good idea.

About Cheryl Rainfield

I write the books I needed and couldn't find as a teen. I write teen fiction--paranormal fantasy and gritty realistic fiction. I'm the author of SCARS (WestSide Books, 2010) #1 ALA QuickPicks, and Governor General Literary Award Finalist, HUNTED (WestSide Books, Oct 2011), STAINED (Harcourt, 2013), The Last Dragon (HIP Books, Sept 2009), and Walking Both Sides (HIP Books, 2011). I also enjoy drawing, surfing the web, connecting with people I like, doing crafts, and being with my dog.
This entry was posted in writing YA fiction, YA book recommendation, YA books, YA ebooks and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Why We Need Diversity in YA Fiction

  1. Sherry Soule says:

    I agree with this post. I don’t have any LGBT in my stories, but I do have a racial mix of characters. Asian, black, Hispanic, Native American…
    And I have mental/psychological in my debut novel, too! Oh! And my next YA series will feature a beautiful black girl on my cover! http://sherrysoule.com/?page_id=234
    So, I guess I might be considered having some diversity in my novelsโ€ฆ

  2. Glad to hear it, Sherry! Thanks for letting us know.

  3. E.Arroyo says:

    I totally agree. I recently participated in an online discussion on diversity in YA and people seemed to agree that the diversity should satisfy the plot. I say why? Why should we default to anglo as an MC just because. I shouldn’t need a reason to have my MC be Latina. Look around, diversity happens.

    Sorry, let me get out of my soap box. =)

  4. I’m so glad to hear that you talked about diversity in YA, too! It’s good to get more people thinking about it. And yes, I agree–we shouldn’t just default to white (and straight).

  5. Margot says:

    I would definitely add The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth to the YA realistic fiction list!

  6. Thank you, Margot. Always glad for more recommendations! ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Cheryl, thank you so much for writing this! It’s really telling that so few writers who are people of color find publishing houses for their books. It’s not for want of trying, of course, and then there’s the inevitable shelving in the back of the store in the “African American Literature” section with the other books that deserve more press and accolades. Thanks for including such great examples, too. Adding a bunch to my reading list now. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. E.C. Myers says:

    I forgot to mention when we were discussing small presses that Tu Books is dedicated to publishing multicultural middle grade and young adult fantasies, mysteries, and science fiction. Some of their diverse titles include TANK GIRL, VODNIK, and CAT GIRL’S DAY OFF.

    And if I can include a middle-grade title, I’d highly recommend THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY by Adam Rex.

  9. E.C. Myers says:

    Whoops! I meant TANKBORN, not TANK GIRL ๐Ÿ˜› I’m still a bit sleep-deprived from the convention…

  10. Alex says:

    For the differently abled YA realistic list, I would add “Marcelo in the Real World”, by Francisco X. Stork. The title character is a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome; the story is very moving.

  11. A. A. Riley says:

    Introducing Sophia Firecracker is the story of a nine-year-old black girl who thinks she’s a superhero.

    Thanks for your article.

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  13. David James says:

    I love this post so much.

    I focused on diversity in my YA novel LIGHT OF THE MOON. Although it’s a paranormal story, I wanted to focus on ideas of diversity as far as race and sexuality. One of my main characters, Kate, is racial mixed. In both sequels in the series, I focus even deeper on this and introduce new characters that have similar backgrounds. I found it interesting to include characters that were for everyone. Also, you’ll find in the sequels I bring up issues of love and sexuality and how they play within the YA field.


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  15. Teri Brown says:

    My first book, Read my Lips, (Simon Pulse 2008) had a deaf girl as the main character.

  16. Amanda Brice says:

    What a great list! And a very important article.

    My YA mystery series (Codename: Dancer and Pointe of No Return) is multicultural, featuring a mix of characters — Ukrainian, black, Hispanic, Asian.

    And Leslie DuBois’ books usually feature a black heroine (sometimes with a white love interest, although not always). In her Dancing Dreams series, which features a girl who pulls herself out of poverty to become a professional ballerina, she had a very difficult time finding appropriate cover art. Sadly, there isn’t much in the way of good stock art of black ballerinas.

  17. I can so relate to this post! It took me years to sell one of my Young Adult novels because of my main character being a gay male. I even received an email rejection from an agent who flat out told me she loved my book, but it would never sell because the readership for YA was straight females and no one would buy a book with a gay male protagonist.

    Thank goodness I persisted, and it’s finally paying off with the publication of my YA Post-Apocalyptic novel, THE CULLING, which features a gay male protagonist and will be released by FLUX Books in March of 2013 ๐Ÿ™‚

    Never give up!

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  19. B. A. Binns says:

    The good news is this issue is under heavy discussion. Next week I give my second of two lectures to state library conferences (Ohio and Indiana) because librarians want this issue addressed and want guidance. It was also a hot topic during two different presentations at the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Administration) YA literature symposium last week.

    In addition, the publishing industry as a whole is looking at themselves over this issue, with the Children’s Book Council Diversity Committee. There are publishers specializing in diversity (Lee & Low, Cinco Puntos Press, James Lorimar & Co to name a few) and books being written by authors of different nationalities, ethnicities, abilities and sexual orientation about with protagonists and issues that reflect the world they see. One of the things I will be talking about are the many bloggers who cover this issue, the awards specific to diverse and/or international books, and ways librarians and schools can help and activily increase the diverse nature of their collections.

    Diverse books are hidden in the haystack, we just have to keep looking and uncovering them.

  20. Sarah-Ann B. says:

    Thank you for the diverse book recommendations. I love meandering into bookstores and finding new, exciting things to read. But it’s challenging to FIND diverse books. Why do publisher and booksellers assume that white readers don’t want to read stories about diverse characters? I love exploring different cultures through literature. Books can really open your eyes to social justice issues.

  21. Tere, yes! I think all YA books should be shelved with YA books–not separated because of race of the characters or author (or sexuality). I want all readers to have access to the books and to find more books they enjoy that don’t have characters who are just like them.

  22. E C Myers, you’re right! I forgot to mention Tu Books; I remember when they were just starting out! I added a bit to their kickstarter fund. ๐Ÿ™‚ SO glad that they’re doing YA!

    David, Teri, Amanda, Steven, thank you for the book recommendations! I know people read the comments, and I’ll try to get them into the post as well. It’s always good to find more books.

    Steven, I’m glad you didn’t give up! Readers like to read about people who aren’t like them (as well as people who are), and I believe we need it!

    Funny–I forgot to mention that my new YA fantasy releasing this month has a character who has asthma.

  23. Barbara, that’s so good to hear! I’m so glad it’s being talk about and really looked at a lot more now. And I’m glad to hear you’re doing talks on it; it sounds like you’ve got a lot of good information to share.

  24. Sarah-Ann, I’m so glad to hear that you enjoy reading about diverse characters! Yay! And yeah–it can be hard to find them sometimes, but there’s more and more out there. And once you know titles, you can order them. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  26. I write diverse characters, but sometimes I worry that because I’m an able-bodied white male, it won’t be okay for me to write them. It certainly does seem harder to get published.

    Anyway, amen to you for writing this post, Cheryl. It’s an important conversation that needs to be had.

  27. Karen Prince says:

    Oh, thank you so much for the list. I was particularly interested in the YA multiracial fantasy section and will try to get hold of as many of those books as I can. I am an African and I have written a coming of age YA fantasy which included a couple of white kids and a whole bunch of black kids, all from different socio economic backgrounds, getting along together. It was taking too long to market to agents so I self published on Amazon. I was also told to change the milieu. It is called ‘Switch!’ by Karen Prince

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