YA’s Single Story: Musing Over YA’s Diversity Problem

I often work on my assignments in the GRC, a specialized library on our campus devoted to resources for the faculty of information and media studies (FIMS). At one point last semester, I wanted a break from the paper I was writing and began browsing some of the library journals on display. I’ve had a long term interest in multiculturalism and depictions of race in YA literature so when I noticed an article in one of the journals on multicultural YA I used my break time to skim it. It left me feeling very sad.

After getting a couple paragraphs into Sandra Hughes-Hassell’s Multicultural Young Adult Literature as a Form of Counter-Storytelling I realized it was sounding very familiar. Surprise! It was the mystery article from last term. Reading it more closely did not lessen my initial sense of disappointment. Why, you ask? It’s a great article. The point she makes about multicultural YA “[challenging] the stereotypes often held by the dominant culture, [giving] voice to marginalized youth, and [presenting] the complexity of racial and ethnic identify formation” is a good one.

It’s nothing to do with the argument. It’s that in an article citing nearly a dozen varied examples of multicultural YA novels I have read nearly every single one of them. Some of her titles — like Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused and Nikki Grimes’ Bronx Masquerade — I’d read as long ago as middle school and early high school. How little multicultural YA is being published that I can read an article in 2013 and come across almost nothing that’s unfamiliar to me?

If the numbers for YA are anything like multicultural children’s books publishing, the answer is not much.

The cuteness makes it slightly less depressing!

About a month ago I was spending some time with a friend of mine who’s an aspiring writer. We were chatting at the YA section of the Chapters at Yorkdale because we are absolutely the nerd stereotypes who treat bookstores as social spaces. She’s currently in the midst of editing her YA urban fantasy novel, sharing it with friends for critique. She was telling me about how one person she’d shared the novel with commented on how multicultural it was. It hadn’t been deliberate on her part. She’s lived in Toronto her whole life, she was just writing characters that looked like the people she went to school with. But looking at the bookshelves surrounding us we could see why her friend felt it was worth commenting on. YA — especially the YA that gets marketing campaigns and store displays and movie adaptations — is incredibly white.

Yes, there are exceptions. I mean look at the current New York Times Bestseller list! There’s Eleanor and Park with Korean-American Park as one of the two protaganists! And there’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian right there at number 14! And of course there’s…

Well. How about that. I guess that’s it for current YA best sellers with non-white protaganists.

But that’s probably not indicative of anything. Could just be a bad month! Let’s jump back a year, I’m sure there’ll be more.

A lot of familiar titles here! But look at that, there’s Marie Lu’s Legend and Prodigy, which reviews inform me features a part-Asian protaganist. Just like one of the love interests in title 15, Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Prince. 3/15: a slight improvement?

I was going to continue on that vein but I think my point’s been made. Besides, my initial intention with this post was to use Sandra Hughes-Hussell’s article to lead into a review complimenting Marguerite Abouet’s Aya: Life in Yop City. Accidentally foiled by my intense feelings on YA’s lack of diversity, oh dear.

(But really though, read Marguerite Abouet’s Aya, it does a great job of sketching a picture of Nigeria in the 70s that runs counter to the dominant image of Africa in North American media. And if that’s not enough, it’s basically a hilarious soap opera, I was highly entertained.)

I think the most neutral way I know how to sum this up is: books perform a lot of functions for their readers. Books can give us people to identify with, they can confirm that you’re not alone in your experiences. They can be transformative, introducing you to ways of thinking and living that you may not have considered before. And because they perform that function for everyone, they can also influence how other people see you. Sandra Hughes-Hussell makes a great point about YA’s potential to counter stereotypes and provide voices to marginalized youth. I just wish it did it more often.


One thought on “YA’s Single Story: Musing Over YA’s Diversity Problem”

  1. Very insightful post. I’m afraid I’m not much of a connoisseur when it comes to YA, but the lack of diversity is unfortunately one I’m too familiar with in science fiction. Granted, things seem to be getting steadily better, but we are still far from perfect.

    By the way, I’m a huge fan of librarians. They were basically my secret weapon all throughout high school 🙂

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