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.
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)
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.