I play a game at work where I walk down the teen fiction aisle and count the books written by and for marginalized voices. I compulsively monitor their sales numbers and make space for them on displays on which they aren’t included. For over a year I have fought for a diverse fiction display in my department. Managers accommodated me with a table every now and then, but it wasn’t long before corporate commitment to the status quo stripped me of that space and those colorful, wonderful books were once again relegated to the margins of the book world.
Young adult fiction is one of the most conceptually fluid and dynamic categories of fiction and yet every aspect of its publication, authors, editors, agents, and marketers, is overwhelmingly white. According to data collected by publisher Lee & Low “roughly 80 percent” of the children book market is white. Discrimination against creators of color is pervasive and criticism often goes unheeded. The statistic that indicated homogeneity on the level of publishing does not reflect the readership. Readers of young adult fiction span all ages and demographics, races, ethnicities and sexual orientations. The question of audience and intent are integral to understanding the rise and proliferation of young adult fiction. While there are many canonical texts that appeal to younger readers such as Alice in Wonderland and The Three Musketeers, young readers were not the intended audience for these texts. This is fiction and romance and fantasy and realism and horror, written for young readers. But the books that ultimately end up in our local bookstores are the stories of young, white, cis-gender and able-bodied protagonists.
Those who champion diversity are the readers and writers who are themselves marginalized. They speak passionately about diversity and call out those who fail to meet the most basic standards of representation. We Need Diverse Books is a collective of marginalized children’s and young adult authors who publish and promote diverse titles. Cake Literacy is an agency working to develop new and diverse talent from the ground up. And things are changing. Angie Thomas’s debut novel The Hate You Give has topped the New Yorks Times Bestseller list for young adult fiction since February, only the second novel written by a Black woman to do so. The protagonist, Starr, a young Black girl, comes of age after she witnesses police shoot her unarmed friend. It is a specific story with a specific voice that thanks to this novel, many are now hearing.
Character and audience in young adult fiction are a reflection of each other. I went through my adolescence reading everything and anything, but the only time I encountered protagonists who looked like me, they were either slaves or suffering under the burden of Jim Crow. That black and brown children can be sensitive, angry, terrified, in love and under pressure was not a reality present for me as a reader in the 1990s. While progress has been made in the name of diversity in publishing, we still have a long road to travel. Dr. King once said that progress “is neither automatic nor inevitable…every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
This blog represents my own tireless exertion of publicizing books by marginalized voices. These stories matter; they are meant to be shared and discussed and it is my hope that by the end of this journey my readers become as passionate about diversity as I am.