Let’s Talk: Diversity and Representation in YA Books

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Hello, internet! I was looking up diverse reads to add to my TBR, when I came across a lot of lists that had books that I would never consider diverse. Also, there has been a lot of talk around diversity and representation in literature lately, and I wanted to give my two cents (and hear your thoughts on the matter as well!)

I should preface this post by saying these thoughts represent my views alone, and I don’t speak for anyone else. For context, I’m an avid reader, and while I read different genres here and there, I usually reach for YA fantasy. I’d also like to point out that I’m not trying to shade any of the books/authors I talk about in this post. I simply want to give examples to help illustrate my point.

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To start off, I want to give my personal definitions of “diversity” and “good representation” in literature (these are not the official definitions):

Diversity: the state where the story/characters showcase different backgrounds and cultures

Good representation: the characters’ cultures are portrayed in an accurate and respectful manner

Equal representation: all groups of people in the book have roughly the same amount of main characters representing them

To not make this post too confusing, I’m going to focus on diversity and representation in terms of race, but they can come in all shapes and sizes (ei. ethnicity, sexuality, gender orientation, religion, cultures, etc.).

So… what makes a book diverse?

I usually look at the characters/cultures and how they’re portrayed to determine whether a book is diverse. To me, if the novel expands the representation available in the book market, I’d consider it diverse. For example, if a YA book has a majority of non-white characters, I would label that as a “diverse read,” because there aren’t a lot of books out there that are told in the perspective of POC characters. That’s starting to change recently, with publishers making efforts to include different voices. However, we still have a long ways to go.

Series like The Lunar Chronicles, Throne of Glass, and Six of Crows are not diverse. The fact that they have two or three POCs doesn’t make them diverse. If you look at the characters, the vast majority of them are white. Does having a mainly-white cast of characters broaden the representation in YA books? No. It means they’re just adding to what most of the other YA books already represent.

Representation in literature

If representation is done well, it presents a culture (or sets of cultures) in an accurate, thoughtful way. You have to be very careful around stereotypes. It’s easy to get caught up in them, but it will do more harm than good to base a character off of their culture’s stereotypes. There is much more to a person than that, and it’s dangerous to blow one idea of a culture out of proportion. People are three-dimensional, and to reduce someone to a single pigeonhole would be hurtful and not do them justice.

I truly believe that most authors don’t write stories to purposefully hurt their readers. However, just because their intentions are good doesn’t make misrepresentation/lack of diversity hurt any less. Let me put it like this: Person A is cooking and is using a knife to cut ingredients. Once they’re done, they walk with it to the sink to wash it, but before they get there, they accidentally slip and cut Person B in the arm (who was just walking by). Sure, it makes Person B feel a bit better that Person A wasn’t intentionally trying to harm them, but at the end of the day Person B is still wounded and in pain. Similarly, authors might not want their books to hurt people, but regardless their stories can harm readers if done incorrectly. The cooking example might be a bit extreme, but you get my drift.

Also, accurate representation is very important. The way an author presents a certain race adds to how pop culture views said race. It can do a lot of good (if done correctly), but also it can do a lot of harm.

The catch-22

I see a good amount of readers on social media demanding that authors start to include a diverse cast of characters in their books. I agree that we need more books with more than one or two POC characters. A lot of white authors are getting the most heat, which is understandable given that they tend to write characters who are from the same background as they are and sometimes portray POC characters in an inaccurate/hurtful manner. At the same time, they get a lot of backlash for writing characters from cultures they aren’t a part of. The best example I can think of is when Becky Albertalli released Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. At the time of publication, Albertalli identified as heterosexual (she now identifies as bi). The LGBTQ+ community had mixed emotions about a (at the time) straight woman writing a book about a gay boy.

The situation is a conundrum. On one hand, people want established YA authors (who are majority white) to include more diverse characters. On the other hand, if an author writes a POC character, the people from those communities aren’t happy (with good reason), saying it isn’t the author’s story to tell. It puts both the readers and authors in a bit of pickle. Also, I’ve heard that some authors are scared of writing characters outside their own culture in fear of getting it wrong, getting backlash, or getting canceled because of it. Which brings me to…

Cancel culture

I don’t agree with cancel culture, and I don’t think I’m the only one. Fighting negativity with negativity isn’t going to result in something good. The only time two negatives equals a positive is in algebra.

It’s okay to like books that aren’t diverse. Heck, most of the mega-popular books in YA don’t have good representation. It’s okay to like these books AS LONG AS you acknowledge the problems they hold. I love the Throne of Glass series. Is it diverse? Does it have good/equal representation? Absolutely not. But just because I love this series doesn’t mean it’s perfect and the author can do no wrong. There is no need to cancel someone for liking a not-so-diverse book as long as they realize there’s a lack of representation and they’re not promoting the book as a “diverse read.”

I’m a firm believer that in order to create change for the better, we need to have conversations, especially with people who have different views than us. These conversations should less aim to convince that your viewpoint is right and more to inform about your side of the story. It might look impossible to get along, but once you talk to people you’d be surprised what you can have in common. Even if both sides leave the conversation without changing their stance on an issue, at least you provided a point of view that they might not have considered before and vice versa. It’s that consideration of different viewpoints that can help us grow.

However, cancel culture closes that door for a conversation. Canceling someone is definitely a way to send a message, but it’s much harder to learn from the mistake and grow. It’s like when a parent yells at their kid for doing something wrong. Sure, there’s an off chance that the kid will stop doing the thing because they understand that it’s wrong, but it’s more likely they will stop in fear of getting yelled at again. Nothing was really learned. The kid will more likely fix their mistake when the parent talks to them in a calm manner as to WHY what they did was bad.

What can we do?

The young adult genre has grown considerably over the past couple decades and has gained many, many readers across the world. Mistakes are bound to happen. It’s okay to feel hurt, angry, or sad when you’ve been wronged. In fact, it’s normal. However, lashing out because of those emotions is not going to do good. If someone does something wrong, let them know and hold them accountable in a respectful manner. Hate pages, hate comments, hate posts, etc. aren’t going to create change. They only create an environment that invites more negativity.

If we want to make it more diverse and representative of all people from different backgrounds, we as readers need to continue to demand change. We need to continue to read/buy/borrow/promote diverse books to show publishers and authors that these are the kinds of stories we want and that they should continue to write/publish more.

[Author’s edit: I’d like to include that something that established authors and book influencers can do is amplify the voices that are often ignored and suppressed. It’s quite difficult to write characters while understanding their nuances and complex cultures, so using your platform to bring attention to authors who are bringing in diverse voices in a respectful manner is one way people in the book industry can encourage diversity and representation in the literary world.]

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Diverse reads recommendations

I realize I sound rather preach-y in this post, but I want to leave you with a few of my favorite diverse reads. I’ll probably dedicate a whole post to all my favorites later, but I thought I’d include three for now (click on the cover to go to its Goodreads page):

Spin the Dawn Elizabeth Lim The Blood of Stars Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender book cover 9781250766571

If you want to see some of the 2021 diverse YA books I’m excited for, you can check out that post here!

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If you’ve made it this far, thank you for taking the time out of your day to read this long post. I want to know your thoughts! What is your take on diversity and representation in YA books? What do you consider to be “diverse”? Do you agree with some of the things I said? Disagree? What are some of your favorite diverse books? What do you want to see more of in the YA genre in the future? Any of your thoughts, I’d love to hear them. Let’s have a conversation in the comments!

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Stay awkward and amazing! ❤

8 thoughts on “Let’s Talk: Diversity and Representation in YA Books

  1. Cherry | Letters To The Lost 03/27/2021 / 12:26 pm

    I agree with you on so many levels! It’s incredibly important to have diversity in books, because so many of us grow up surrounded by them, and they make up such a huge part of how we grow up seeing the world. At the same time I think cancel culture is so so toxic. Many authors have made honest mistakes on culture and background, and got canceled even though they apologised, and it just makes more and more authors wary of writing characters that they don’t identify with, particularly as a MC. Being negative isn’t going to fix the problem and still leave room for growth and understanding; your analogy of the kid was spot on! Great post! 💙😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jessica 03/29/2021 / 10:39 pm

      I’m glad you were able to connect with some of the things in this post! I was a bit nervous to put this one out into the world. I’m big believer of being able to disagree while still being respectful, which is why I find cancel culture to be so confusing. Glad I’m not the only one who thinks that way ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  2. LitforQueers 04/10/2021 / 11:25 am

    I totally agree with you on so many points! The thing that irks me every time is when people assume an author is straight because they haven’t publicly come out and so they aren’t allowed to write queer characters. That is dangerous game to play because 1 authors might be questioning 2 they might not feel safe revealing their sexuality/gender identity to a bunch of strangers online 3 sexuality is fluid. Restricting what authors can and cannot write is simply not fair, I think. White authors should be able to write diverse stories with diverse characters (and vice versa) and so should straight authors/queer authors. The issue is when cultures, behaviours and people get stereotyped, which is not always the case.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jessica 04/11/2021 / 9:22 pm

      I agree that authors should not be restricted in what they can and cannot write. However, they have to be very mindful when writing characters that are not from the same culture as they are. I do hope that we will have even more diverse books in the future 🙂

      Like

  3. Marta @ of waves and pages 04/20/2021 / 11:03 am

    This was a really interesting post! I agree on the importance of diverse stories, of course, and it still amazes me how many people don’t even *bother* to try and branch out. The thing with diverse stories and white heterossexual cis people though is that sometimes they can be ridiculous and say they didn’t like a book because they couldn’t relate (I’m sure they could relate to characters from Fantasy worlds too) or authors trying to appropriate. The whole ownvoices thing is also quite controversial, as what with happened with Becky Albertalli, when she was forced to come out. The community can be really harsh sometimes! But the best we can do is continue to push for these books to be noticed!! I loved your recommendations too ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jessica 04/23/2021 / 2:33 pm

      I totally agree! I find that I can relate to characters that aren’t from the same background/culture as me. I hope as more people push for diverse stories that more readers start branching out. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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