We Need More Diversity in YA

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You’re probably aware there’s a big campaign for more diversity in YA. If you’re not, check out these links:

http://www.diversityinya.com/2014/04/want-more-diversity-in-your-ya-heres-how-you-can-help/

http://www.katemessner.com/more-than-words-a-challenge-for-everyone-whos-been-asking-for-more-diversity-in-kids-books/

(I pre-ordered The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson!)

http://diversityinya.tumblr.com/

There is a lot of support from numerous authors.

I’ve long felt the desire, the need for more diverse characters in YA, in all fiction. When I was a child, I devoured books by Judy Blume and Paul Zindel and M.E. Kerr – and often wished at least one of those characters looked like me. I think the only book I read when I was younger that had a Japanese-American character was Farewell To Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, and while it was a fascinating story about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, it wasn’t something I could directly relate to (although my father had been interned).

I am a third generation Japanese-American. I grew up in West Los Angeles where I was surrounded by friends and classmates of all races. It wasn’t until as an adult when I moved from California that I was forced to think about race a lot more. I’ve lived in the Midwest, the East, New England, Mexico, and China. I’ve had great experiences and not-so-great experiences. I am proud of my heritage, but for the most part I very much identify with being American. While I appreciate and enjoy reading stories about immigrant experiences, I also love to read contemporary stories where Asian-American characters (or any characters of color) deal with romance, friendship, hard issues, family, etc.  I love seeing Ming-Na Wen in television’s Marvel’s Agents of Shield and Lucy Liu as Watson in Elementary, where their race isn’t an issue. I’d love to see more of that in YA literature.

Here’s an incomplete list of books with diverse characters. Please feel free to add to it in the comments section.

Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri

Dust of Eden by Mariko Nagai

Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth

Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee

See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith

Wolf Mark by Joseph Bruchac

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park

Geography Club by Brent Hartinger

I also want to make special mention of an adult novel with an Asian-American main character who is a lawyer in Manhattan: The Partner Track by Helen Wan.

This is not a full list – but let’s face it, we still need more! My friend’s young daughter (of Asian heritage) often bemoans the fact that there are “no books out there with characters that look like” her. My college-age daughter is half Japanese, a quarter German and a quarter Irish. Where are the characters that look like her? Act like her?

One of the reasons I’ve heard that publishers give for not publishing more books with diverse characters is that they don’t feel that their audience will be able to relate. I’ve been reading books with mostly Caucasian characters for decades – I enjoy those books very much. I can relate to the characters’ feelings and their experiences. I get to learn and grow and experience through the lives of these characters. I doubt very much that young kids who are not of color would be alienated by these books with diverse characters.  I would also love to read stories about characters more like me. It’s one of the reasons I mention The Partner Track by Helen Wan above. I’m not a lawyer gunning for partner, but some of the experiences the main character has as an Asian-American living and working in a big American city were exactly like some of my own. Wouldn’t it be nice if kids of color could see themselves in some of the characters in books – to be able to say, “Hey! I know how that feels!” I could seriously go on and on, but in the interest of time, I’ll stop here.

Let’s make some noise and put our money where our mouths are. Buy books with diverse characters! Share them with friends. Help the publishing world let go of the notion that kids (or really buyers) don’t want to read books with diverse characters.

Thanks for your support!

 

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15 responses »

  1. Great post, Debbi. Every child should be able to experience the moment when they can relate and see themselves in a story’s character and experiences. Because then, and only then, does every child feel heard and a part of the greater community.

  2. Great post!

    I would add:

    If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth

    I am J by Chris Beam

    Every Day by David Levithan

  3. This is a great post, Debbi. Love your book recs. Really hope that this book campaign will make a difference. I’m passionate about this issue, but know I can do better with my own book choices and book coverage on my blog.

  4. One of the many wonderful things about books is being able to experience lives different from our own. I don’t want to read about an exact copy of my life. I want to see the world through a diversity of eyes. And this comes from reading about characters with diverse backgrounds. Let’s give kids the chance to explore the world in this way. I’m with you, Debbi!!

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