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Debates > Lack of Diversity in YA books

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message 1: by Sean (last edited Feb 11, 2014 06:18AM) (new)

Sean Thompson (stchrisjr) | 16 comments As I'm sure you all know, there isn't much difference in the way protagonists and antagonists look in the YA books we love. There are hardly any people of color, people from the LGBT community, people with disabilities, etc. given significant roles in the stories being marketed and published. It's not as if these stories aren't being written, and it's not as if some of them aren't great. I'm opening this up to the group. How do you think we can reverse this state of affairs? Mention some of the books that you read. How are we supposed to promote acceptance and understanding without the diversity? Talk to me, people. Let me hear your thoughts.

message 2: by Kirstyn (last edited Feb 11, 2014 07:16AM) (new)

Kirstyn | 32 comments I think the best way we can go about getting more diversity is by demanding it. A lot of authors are on social media, we should politely voice our concerns to them. We should look for books that may not be well known but feature people of different races,orientations, or people with disabilities. If we have any authors in the community we should encourage them to write a story featuring diverse characters ad help them improve it, and if they publish it, support the book.

message 3: by Amy (new)

Amy (amystorn) | 3 comments I think this is a great point. I'd love to hear people's suggestions for demanding and supporting it, respectively. I also wonder if we can't do more to promote it within groups such as this, with many members who can bring visibility to authors who are writing stories with rich diversity.

message 4: by Sean (new)

Sean Thompson (stchrisjr) | 16 comments Diversity in the literature is a battle, I think, that has to be fought on many different fronts. There are publishers worried about the bottom line. They erroneously believe that if the main characters aren't mostly white, they won't sell books. Unfortunately, there are also readers, who lead the publishers to believe that kind of nonsense. One need only look at the recent uproars over the castings of Rue and Beetee in the Hunger Games movies. Promoting these types of issues and discussing them in forums such as this can be great. Forcing readers, publishers, writers, etc. to question the status quo and push against it are necessary. I'm reminded of something Audre Lorde once said, "It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences." As we continue to make strides in the "real" world (though, more certainly need to be made) those same strides have to be made in the fictional ones that we delve into.

message 5: by Wren (last edited Feb 14, 2014 05:59PM) (new)

Wren Figueiro | 80 comments I think perhaps it's not that there aren't books out there that celebrate diversity, but rather that they're not always hyped as much. I'm guessing that all depends on the media and publishing industry. If people don't buy a book, it's not going to get press.

Also, remember that authors write about what they know. That's how they make a connection with the reader. If they choose a character from a culture that they don't know intimately, the character may not be as well written as could be.

Here's a few books to look at though:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Of course, all of those are pretty much classics. Not too many pop in my head that are recent releases. Maybe that's a trend, maybe we just can't find them. I don't know. But here's one I just started reading that's independent:

Hope Defined by Shannon Humphrey

Also independent I think: Hope Bleeds In by Michael Martin

Oh, and anything by Michelle Cornwell-Jordan!

message 6: by Sean (new)

Sean Thompson (stchrisjr) | 16 comments I doubt it was intentional, but in your comment I found part of the problem Wren. We've been conditioned a certain way as readers. When we're introduced to characters in books, unless explicitly stated otherwise, we imagine them as white. With your comment about authors and cultures, I'm guessing you immediately imagined the authors as white and unable to write about different cultures well enough to connect with readers. While I disagree with writers having to write what they "know," it's as I said in my initial post - it's not like these diverse stories by authors from all walks of life aren't being written. I do agree with you about the hype.

message 7: by Wren (new)

Wren Figueiro | 80 comments Sean wrote: "I doubt it was intentional, but in your comment I found part of the problem Wren. We've been conditioned a certain way as readers. When we're introduced to characters in books, unless explicitly ..."

Actually, I was imagining authors in general. It seems that in general, white authors write about white characters, Latin authors write about Latin characters, Asian authors write about Asian characters. Not always, of course, but it does seem the trend. But you're right, in the U.S. We picture characters as white unless otherwise stated ( and sometimes in spite of it being stated like in the Hunger Games). Makes you wonder how readers in other countries are conditioned and if they do the same thing.

message 8: by E.D. (last edited Feb 14, 2014 07:24PM) (new)

E.D. Lynnellen (EDLynnellen) | 247 comments I've written a main character who's black, lesbian, and an FBI agent. I'm an old white guy, straight, with a sometimes unhealthy disrespect for authority. I use "dirty" words, "dirty" body parts, and don't hesitate to mention social behaviors that are divisive culturally. I don't believe any of that capable of corrupting a young mind. I don't think "alternative" ideas do damage. Diversity is more than just "different than what I'm used to".

"They" sell you what you buy. Buy something different, "they" will be happy to make more available. :}

message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

I have never given much thought to this subject. But looking into all the books I've read recently I'm hard pressed to find main character of any different ethnicity. Several of the few I can think of have been more of a bit player than a main character and a few even seemed to have been written in a way that is almost trying to 'shock' the reader.
They also come with stereotypical backgrounds,
For example an Asian character who's a computer geek.
I wonder if it is a lack of cultural understanding on behalf of some authors or just a fear of not getting the 'right' target readers.
The other problem seems to be that a lot of the books then set different races against each other as well.
The Nought and Crosses series (cannot remember the authors name off the top of my head I read them quite a long time ago) was an enjoyable series from what I remember. But it also places weight in society's belief of an interracial relationship being 'wrong'. Some of the books where I had pictured one of the many characters as somebody of a different culture, when flicking back though I've realised that's not how the author has written them, they are merely tan from the sun, or European. And then it's generally from well known European countries as fitting in with stereotyping surrounding that.
It seems also that the disabilities is also lacking as it's not 'desirable' in a main character. Few books have I read where the main character has some kind of disfigurement. The only one on the top of my head now is Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake series, and again this is somewhat 'shock' stuff I think. The book becomes more and more pornographic almost like it's trying to shock/horrify readers (some of the stuff borders on illegal)
Most YA books seem to share the two leads, tall, muscly, white, dark haired male, who everyone thinks is 'hot' and a non descript light haired girl who believes she isn't pretty. This is tired and overdone. It would be great to read of something different, but looking through my TBR pile, the only different love interest is Russian...
Are there any books out there?

message 10: by Jade (last edited Mar 07, 2014 10:30AM) (new)

Jade (jadeirene) I really wish there were more PoC in books as well as LBGTQ+ characters. Even if one of the main characters is not white, this fact is often overlooked by fans.

For example, Katniss Everdeen is olive skinned, so is Gale. When casting for the movie, (I love the movie, but I feel like this needs to be said) they asked for caucasian actresses.

(There was even an backlash on twitter when Rue was casted, people said disgusting racist things saying that they didn't even want to see the movie because Rue was a black girl and that their feelings for her in the book changed completely.)

Rainbow Rowell's novel, Eleanor and Park features a korean character, Park, and she has fans often asking her, "Why is Park Korean?"

I guess what I'm trying to say is that a lot of white people seem to have an issue if they can't relate to every character.

I think the idea that white authors tend to write about white characters isn't entirely true, because Marissa Meyer is white and her main character Cinder is asian and from Beijing.

Cassandra Clare is white and she has several PoC in her books.

I think it might be that some people don't want to do their research on different cultures and learn the background and decide to just make their characters white. It also might be that some people are worried of offending people of that race as well and decide to just play it safe.

But I do also agree that authors try to write what sells, but why can't we try and make the new norm that PoC are just as important and should be just as included as white people?

Jessica (The Psychotic Nerd) (goldenfurproductions) | 4586 comments With the lack of characters with disabilities, I believe that the reason why there's so few of those is because it's difficult. It's hard to write a book from the point of view of someone with a disability because you don't fully know what it's like with that disability unless you actually have it. Authors still can do it, without having the disability, but you have to be extremely talented in order to make the characterization believable.

Am I making any sense at all?

message 12: by M (last edited Mar 07, 2014 12:37PM) (new)

M (thelasthours) | 28 comments Jessica (Goldenfurpro) wrote: "With the lack of characters with disabilities, I believe that the reason why there's so few of those is because it's difficult. It's hard to write a book from the point of view of someone with a di..."
Yup. You are, and thats a great point. I completely agree with you.
If you are looking for a good book about someone with a disability, Out of My Mind is really great but it's children's. (Just thought I should point that out, considering how we are a YA group and all.)

message 13: by Ayla (new)

Ayla (ex_libris_ad_astra) | 213 comments I think part of it is that most characters have traditionally been white. It is hard to break the social norm, but in most books written more recently I have noticed more ethnic diversity. As for the fact thatg not too many characters have disabilities, most people read to kind of escape from their world. Most people want to escape into a nicer, more perfect world. Have fanciful problems is one thing, but have a very real kind of problem is the kind of thing that people don't want to have to deal with in their ideal world.

message 14: by Sean (new)

Sean Thompson (stchrisjr) | 16 comments An article I read by Sarah McCarry - How Divergent and The Hunger Games Avoid Race and Gender Violence.

message 15: by Chameleon (new)

Chameleon (goodreadscomchameleon-author) | 4 comments Jessica (Goldenfurpro) wrote: "With the lack of characters with disabilities, I believe that the reason why there's so few of those is because it's difficult. It's hard to write a book from the point of view of someone with a di..."

Jessica, you're right on the money. As an author with 2 legs, it's hard for me to imagine what it would be like not to have them, or to use prosthetics. I could talk for hours to someone who does, and while I may understand a good deal of what they have to go through every day, I still wouldn't be able to feel it in my soul. I think any character that is written without that feel, comes across rehearsed, not natural. And that is the kind of characters authors avoid like the plague. We must be able to put forth characters we can feel, or it just doesn't ring true with readers.
I can understand the frustration, though, in readers wanting diversity, but as another poster mentioned, authors mostly create characters they can identify with. It makes the characters come across much more real.

message 16: by Sean (new)

Sean Thompson (stchrisjr) | 16 comments I feel that if all writers stuck solely to what they know, or what they themselves have experienced, there would not be much progress. Especially given that the authors who receive mainstream attention and are given the most opportunities are usually white males.

message 17: by Fairley (new)

Fairley Lloyd (fairleylloyd) I believe that the lack of diversity in books and the entertainment industry in general is mostly because the people writing the books tend to be straight, white and have no disabilities. If it was the other way around, then they wouldn't. And, like others have said, people tend to write characters whom they can relate to, which typically includes characters that look like them.

With that being said, more diversity would be nice. I noticed that they had a few black characters in Divergent, a few of them secondary characters (notably Christina and Uriah), and one of them was Asian (Tori). Also, most of the characters in District 11 in The Hunger Games were black. But none of them were main characters.

But that also shows that the majority of people writing these books are of middle-class Caucasian descent, which shows inequality in diversity in the writing industry in general. That's a whole other argument, though.

As others have said, I've noticed a change in equality over the years. Hopefully it will continue on like this. In the meanwhile, I honestly think the best way to go about it is to make it known, but paying in dollars proves to the writers to write what you'll buy, which is also saying something. Now I'm not saying we should boycott every book that doesn't have diversity, but if we praise books that do have it (and by praise, I also mean buying them), then that could promote more diversity. Also, maybe not buying books that show inequality would help. Honestly, though, I'd be too offended to pick up a book like that.

message 18: by Edacheeky (new)

Edacheeky | 636 comments I think it's best to just express the character's personality and leave the looks and potentially ethnicity up to the reader. Those parts are insignificant unless it serves the plot in some way.
Also, the main characters tend to be typically Caucasian/white since the authors themselves are of the same ethnicity and so it's hard to write from the POV of another ethnicity. Writing about your own ethnicity just comes naturally because you know what it's like. It's understandable. That's why I think it's better leaving it ambiguous since there's also the risk of inaccurate and/or stereotypical portrayal of an ethnicity/culture.

message 19: by E. C. (new)

E. C. McRoy (ecmcroy) | 89 comments A lot of people have already mentioned it, but I have to agree. It's a lot harder to write a character that you know nothing about (though not impossible, it just takes more research beforehand). Really, I think we should encourage more PoC to write and then actually market them cause I think so many don't get enough attention and then they get shuffled into the "niche" categories like they can't be marketed with white authors cause they're about PoC or something.

But about the Katniss thing... The author made D12 in a mining community in Appalachia. Whoch is a really poor primarily white community. So, it isn't weird to assume that she was white, because that's typical of the setting. I'm not saying that it couldn't have been otherwise, it could have sunce it was a dystopian novel, but caucasian would have been par for the course given the area.

message 20: by D.B. (last edited Jun 23, 2016 11:10AM) (new)

D.B. Woodling | 39 comments So happy readers are so passionate about this subject. In nearly each of my novels, the central characters aren't all Caucasian (Final Claim, Shannon's Land) or straight (The Turning of Nick Torok, a soon-to-be-released YA novel). One of my favorite characters from both Write Off and Final Claim is wheelchair-bound. Life isn't boring, novels shouldn't be either.

message 21: by Lynne (new)

Lynne Stringer | 321 comments In my own writing, I have a few characters who I know aren't caucasian, but I find it difficult to find a way to state that they're not white in a way that gels with the story. This is especially the case in my sci-fi books, if they're humanoid aliens. The extremely different aliens are easy, the others, not so much.

message 22: by Marie (new)

Marie (darkmistress) | 1 comments Lack of diversity typically stands for nowadays as lack of mainly black characters. if actually bothered to go into any library or bookstore would see there is hardly a lack of diversity in YA fiction or even nonfiction concerning "people of color" and "lgbt". except perhaps outside on the front of books containing people with disabilities. which sadly there is mainly just ones about autism which is the flavor of the month at the moment.

message 23: by Amanda (new)

Amanda | 254 comments I'm not sure if I'm the only one who's noticed this but I find it annoying that every time a person of color is described they are usually compared to the color of a caffeinated beverage. I don't know if it's just me but this seems to be a common theme throughout the YA genre. Thoughts?

message 24: by Jeanette (last edited Jun 19, 2016 05:37AM) (new)

Jeanette | 6 comments Jade wrote: "I really wish there were more PoC in books as well as LBGTQ+ characters. Even if one of the main characters is not white, this fact is often overlooked by fans.

For example, Katniss Everdeen is o..."

Cinder herself is not Asian but Emperor Kaito & the first book is set in New Beijing is & you could argue that's she's disabled with prosthetics (her cyborg parts) - and later, Princess Winter, has hallucinations. So I think your point is valid.

Mariam Forster's A City of A Thousand Dolls is based on Asian culture with many PoC characters.

I know it's not YA but one thing I loved about Neil Gaiman's The Anansi Boys is that his main character is Jamaican - but he gets this across in a very subtle way, so that it gradually dawns on you as you read further.

In the fantasy books I'm writing, most of my characters have darker skin tones with only a few with white skin. I wanted to do that because of the common presumption that characters have white skin unless otherwise stated. Writing a main character with a disability if more difficult because I think you would really have to think it through & get it right. A few of my secondary characters do have disabilities though.

Anne Hamilton has written a middle-grade fantasy Daystar in which one of the main characters is autistic.

It can be done - but it requires thought & then, of course, it's a question of agents and publishers pick up as well.

message 25: by Y.A. (new)

Y.A. Marks (yamarks) | 5 comments Diversity is a tricky subject. It can open an author up to a lot of criticism, some valid and some not, and sometimes issues arise because of the jealousy of getting the book published. I've sat in numerous panels at Book Fairs and Cons with this subject being discussed. And honestly, I don't think there is a right answer.

I think people go for a certain "type" of hero(ine) because they want to sell as many books as possible and don't want to worry about loosing out. I hope though, that authors are smart enough to make the race clear. I personally don't like ambiguous races. They make it difficult for the story to grow beyond the pages and imagination. If S.Collins had stated directly Rue is Black and made mention of it at least twice, I wonder if there would have been such an uproar. Dark skinned and curly haired, could mean Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Spanish (from Spain), Latino, etc. There are too many variables.

Modern controversy with Hermonie is the same. In the new play, Hermonie is Black not White. In the book, she was never stated to be "White" but it was assumed. And when you see the girl with curly hair (Emma Watson), it was assumed this is what J.K. Rowling meant. Now there's anger again, when just saying hey this character is this or that removes much of the problem.

Also I disagree when it comes to writing PoC or anyone for that matter. At the end of the day we're all people. If an author writes about say... a Black person. What can they safely assume? The answer is nothing. I know Black people who hate Rap and love Rock and Roll. I know Black people who are into motorcycles or love anime or love to read or are filthy rich. Truth is you can't assume, when you do a stereotype is created. I believe an author should let the character come out first. If the author wants the character to be of a certain race or culture add that to the character, THEN the author has the difficult task of figuring out if the character is influenced by the culture.

I believe the authors must do what's in their heart to do. I would "hope" they would see beyond stereotypes and create fun, passionate, characters that are different and stand out in the marketplace.

message 26: by Amanda (new)

Amanda | 254 comments All of the characters in my book are Japanese

message 27: by L.C. (new)

L.C. Perry | 700 comments I've always thought diversity was complicated and I feel many people read too much into it. I LOVE diversity in books but I was shocked when it took me so long to realize that my main characters in my very first book (NOT the one I have published!) were all white. It's so common that you don't even notice sometimes, you know? I think it's important to have diversity but not to the point where we are overly sensitive by how each character acts. It's strange because in the book I have published now, people are of mulitple colors. It's a big difference to my first book which I think is a good thing. The more diverse, the more relatable in my opinion.

message 28: by Damarcia ♡ (new)

Damarcia ♡ (amourmarci) This is such an interesting thread for me to read because personally when I'm reading, I don't tend to attach a race to any of them characters unless the author specially states it in their writing. I would however love for an author to feature an LGBTQ+ character and not make a big deal about it when bringing it up. Make it casual because it's a normal thing. I hope that makes sense lol because I was a little unsure how to word it properly.

message 29: by L.C. (new)

L.C. Perry | 700 comments Yeah that makes perfect sense. I was kind of trying to say the same thing when I was talking about people making a bigger deal than it should be or being too sensitive about it.

message 30: by Y.A. (new)

Y.A. Marks (yamarks) | 5 comments I try to bring up all types of diversity when appropriate. In my books I have almost any type of person that I see from LGBTQ+ to different races and cultures. I guess I see those people around me everyday, so it's easy. I think if someone lived in an area where they didn't have as much diversity, it would be more difficult to write.

message 31: by Rowan (new)

Rowan Simetra (aliceinwonderland13) | 5 comments I am an individual with a disability who is looking to get an service dog, and does not use a mobility device. Speaking from this experience, why can't a person with a mobility device have an awesome adventure? It's a fantasy book, make them have a magic wheelchair or be an powerful sorceress! They don't have to be the main character but be featured as a villain, hero, ally... And of course, I want a protagonist who is disabled. I also wish I saw someone like be with a life-altering disease but is still confident and does not commit suicide. I understand how depressing it can be sometimes and that disabled people face this problem but I don't want Will from Me Before You. I would rather see a individual who has zest for life and is badass! I also think while it may be difficult, there are blogs of disabled people who share their opinions for authors to use as references and to get into the mindset. This has just been my opinion and I hope anyone reading this has a wonderful day!

message 32: by Funky Fish (new)

Funky Fish (goodreadscompetitcroissant) I agree that writing from a perspective that you haven't experienced before can be extremely difficult, but I honestly get rather bored when all the YA books that I read have a similar protagonist. I think that, even if they're not the main character, every book should include someone of a different ethnicity or orientation or disability, etc. Plus, I get a bit frustrated when a certain type of person plays into society's stereotypes. I mean, everyone is their own person and stereotyping can make the character feel less real. When I write, I try my hardest to add in all different types of people, but I definitely understand that it can be hard to get into the mindset of someone who you are not :)

message 33: by S.L. (new)

S.L. Bynum (slbynum) Y.A. wrote: "Diversity is a tricky subject. It can open an author up to a lot of criticism, some valid and some not, and sometimes issues arise because of the jealousy of getting the book published. I've sat in..."

Interesting that you mention stereotypes because it does seem that when a character is black, they are expected to act "black". But not all black people are the same. I'm black and here are some of the stereotypes that I don't fit:

Black people like to go to the club and party a lot. Me, I've never been to a club in my life. I'd rather sit at home and read a book because I'm shy and a huge nerd. If some black people knew this about me, they'd look at me like I was from another planet.

Black people like hot sauce on most food. I hate anything spicy.

Black people listen to rap/hip-hop music. I like some of this music, but not most of the stuff from new artists these days. I actually listen to more Justin Timberlake, Meghan Trainer, and other pop artists more than I listen to rap.

I'm an author, and I try not to make all my diverse characters fit a certain stereotype. But writing diverse races can get tricky.

message 34: by Tammy (new)

Tammy | 31 comments Personally, I love diversity of every kind...not just race. I love even the shortest description of what they look like to start forming my idea of them. It sucks when the characters have nothing to differentiate themselves and they blend together, or even worse, don’t develop a look in your imagination...just a blurry face.

I guess the YA I’ve read isn’t diverse really but I’ve read a lot of other stuff that has been. I can’t imagine why some think it’s hard to work in what race a character is. It’s so easy!

(I wish this thread was still active. I read all the comments but wish there were more.)

message 35: by Erin (new)

Erin Glover (erinxglover) Maybe it’s closed because it is no longer true. This year alone, I’ve read at least 6 YA novels with diverse characters and/or protagonists. It’s late in the evening but a few that come to mind are The Astonishing Color of After, Leah on the Offbeat, The Hate U Give, Dear Martin, and there are several more like the crossword playing Iranian protagonist in the book called Up and Across or something like that. A lot has changed in YA in four years since this thread began. Thank goodness for that.

message 36: by Laura (new)

Laura Hughes (piecesofme42) | 1 comments Josh Sundquist, an excellent YA author, has a prosthetic leg and writes about characters with disabilities. In Love at First Sight, the main character is blind and falls in love with a girl whom everyone thinks is disfigured (she has a birthmark on her face). Then he gets a surgery that restores his sight. I won't say much more because you'll have to read the book.

Another book with diversity is The Fold by An Na, an Asian teenager who feels pressured to get eye surgery so she can look more American. She's a regular teenage girl who works after school at her family's Korean restaurant, has a crush on a popular guy, a beautiful older sister, and a younger brother who's a pest, and she clashes with her parents' traditional views.

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