Diversity in Young Adult Literature, a guest post by Zoë Dean

Zoë Dean is a senior at Southern Oregon University, majoring in business and minoring in English

What is Young Adult literature?

The general assumption between the book industry and readers is that young adult books are suited for ages twelve to eighteen years old. But the definition what is really “young adult” varies, The Educational Resources Information Clearinghouse (ERIC) defines young adults as those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) streches that definition up to 25. (Nilsen and Donelson). Alleen Pace Nilsen and Kenneth L. Donelson wrote that their concept of YA could “mean anything that readers between the approximate ages of twelve and eighteen choose to read either for leisure reading or to fill school assignments.” This is a pretty broad statement but it captures the somewhat vague boundaries of the genre. YA is a relatively new genre. In 1942 Maureen Daly wrote what is considered to be the first book written and published explicitly for teenagers Seventeenth Summer. But it was only in the 1960s that the Young Adult Library Services Association actually coined the term “young adult” with books like S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, paving the way for the first boom of young adult literature in the 1970s, including the works of Judy Blume, Lois Duncan and Robert Cormier. The 1980s saw the rise of R.L. Stine and series dramas like Sweet Valley High. A dip in the ‘90s due to low birthrates in the ‘70s meant less readers and the Young Adult Library Services Association to launch Teen Read Week in an effort to encourage teens to read in 1998. But it was in this time period that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series took off, leading the way for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and into the modern genre of today’s YA literature.

A hallmark of the young adult genre is transformation, ranging from realistic portrayals of growing up to the paranormal transformation of a teen werewolf. It mirrors the teenage mindset of being “caught between two worlds, childhood and adulthood,” remarks Jennifer Lynn Barnes, a young adult author, Ph.D. and cognitive science scholar. “Teens wanted things that were real, that they connected with,” Levithan said. “It doesn’t have to reflect reality directly. They love ‘The Hunger Games’ not because it’s real in that it happens, but the emotions there are real, and it’s very relatable” (Strickland). Now the YA genre itself is transforming. Molly Wetta, a collection development librarian, acknowledges there has been a trend of mature content in YA books. “Many books are being labeled with a 14 (or even 15 or 16) and up target audience, instead of 12 and up.” It is Wetta’s conclusion that YA is expanding to include a more mature audience, adults. These “mature” young adult novels are being designated to a category called New Adult. Goodreads explains, “New Adult fiction bridges the gap between Young Adult and Adult genres. It typically features protagonists between the ages of 18 and 30… focusing on issues experienced by individuals between the area of childhood and adulthood, such as leaving home for university and getting a job.”

The argument for (diverse) Young Adult literature

In a 2011 article titled “Young People are Reading More than You” Withers and Ross found that “kids are buying books in quantities we’ve never seen before… We are right smack-dab in the new golden age of young adult literature.” In 2010 Kids & Family Reading Report found that 43 percent of the children ages 9-11 believe the most important outcome of reading books for fun is to open up the imagination, and 62 percent of the same demographic say they read books for fun “to be inspired by storylines and characters.” Half of the 9-11 year-olds surveyed by Scholastic said they read books to “help you figure out who you are and who you could become.” Michael Cart acknowledges this:

Teenagers urgently need books that speak with relevance and immediacy to their real lives and to their unique emotional, intellectual, and developmental needs and that provide a place of commonality of experience and mutual understanding…young readers need to see not only their own faces but also those of people who are different from them, for it’s in this way that books show them not only the differences but also the commonalities that comprise their humanity. By acquainting readers with the glorious varieties of the human experience, young adult literature invests young hearts and minds with tolerance, understanding, empathy, acceptance, compassion, kindness, and more.

Scientific American backs up these claims reporting that “Even reading short stories about friendship between in- and out-group characters is enough to improve attitudes toward stigmatized groups in children…[reading] results in keener social perception and increased empathy — empathy being defined more or less as the ability to alternate between different perspectives on a particular person or situation.” (Stetka). Alvina Ling, executive editor at Little, Brown, says that it is important for young readers to have access to books with diverse characters because “it helps foster acceptance and understanding of different people. These titles are for that child who is not seeing himself in the books he’s reading or a child from a different culture to have compassion towards people who are not like him” (Diaz).

The influence of young adult books on their readers present perhaps the strongest case for diverse literature. Research backs up the claims that reading improves empathy and compassion, expands world views, and decreases negative bias. Reading diverse stories helps instill insight and compassion, not to mention bringing diversity into stories make things interesting. Junot Diaz reminds us that is was issues of race that created the X-men, the extermination of Indigenous people laid the foundation for science-fiction’s first contact stories, a history of colonialism and imperialism created Star Wars.

What is diversity?

The We Need Diverse Books movement says diversity is “All diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA+, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities.” Malinda Lo, co-creator of DiversityInYa.com and YA author, expands on this by saying diverse books need to have a main character or one of the primary point-of-view characters fall under one or more of these categories. As Lo puts it, “Characters of color, LGBT and disabled characters deserve to be the heroes of their own stories.”

Rudine Sims Bishop at the Ohio State University wrote an article on the concept of “windows and mirrors” in children’s literature. “[Reading] becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books… When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part of.” Bishop’s paper explains that children in dominate social groups often see themselves in the books they read, their own lives and experiences are mirrored back at them. Not only does this harm the children who do not see themselves in literature, but it denies the children who only see reflections of themselves the opportunity to see through a window to other’s lives. The books that portray the multicultural world that they live in help them realize their connections to all other humans.

In an interview, Junot Diaz laments the lack of representation he saw when he was growing up, “You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought is… if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves” He reflects back on his childhood, thinking that there was something wrong with him because the society he was part of seemed to deny the existence of people who looked like he did. As a writer he became inspired to create mirrors that would reflect kids that were like him, so that they “might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

Challenges diverse books face

In 2014 there were 65 YA fiction titles on the best seller list, among them only 10 featured a main character of color, which is only 15 percent. To put this number in perspective, 38 percent of the children living in the United States in 2014 were people of color. In the 65 bestselling YA titles, eight included LGBT main characters and only two featured characters with disabilities (Lo). And, just because this representation was technically there, it does not mean that it was truthful or positive. Many books lack quality representation, side lining the diverse characters to best friend roles off to the side, or worse creating culturally appropriate or negatively stereotypical characters that give a distorted view of a real people’s experience. The movement for diversity in YA books asks for cultures to be authentically represented, reflective of the many diverse lived experiences. The worlds in books provide one of the first opportunities children have to explore the world.

There is one category where diverse books have a strong presence, unfortunately, it’s on banned book lists. It seems diversity is slim— except when it comes to book challenges. “Among the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000–2009, 52 books included some kind of diversity — that’s 52%… Over half of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000–2009 addressed issues about race, sexuality and/or disability; or were about non-white, LGBTQ and/or disabled characters” (Lo). Often books what fall outside the white, straight, abled mainstream status quo are challenged for reasons such as explicit language, but Lo argues that often explicit language is a discussion of minority perspectives. By banning these books result in “closing off dialogue and preventing readers from experiencing stories and lives outside the mainstream” (Lo). There’s a reason for this, Lo points out, and it’s not a pretty one: institutional racism and heteronormativity. “these are not simple issues, and there are no brief sound bytes that can explain the way that racism and heteronormativity are embedded in everyday life for everyone living in the world today” (Lo).

The good news

It had been two years since Malinda Lo conducted her research of young adult literature, and things have started looking up. There is a positive trend towards more diverse books. More are being published, and gaining widespread acceptance. More and more people are connecting with these stories.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz wrote Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a book about the love story of two Mexican-American boys in the 1980s to reflect his own experiences. But, that didn’t stop a teen girl in 2015 from identifying with the novel, “even though she wasn’t a gay boy…the tight-knit Mexican-American families reminded her of her own” (Wetta). Alaina Leary, a writer who self identifies as a queer, disabled woman, was often disappointed to read stories where characters that she related to were killed off, magically cured, or otherwise forgotten in some way. That changed in Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows series, published in 2015: “In this series, we’re given scenes where disabled characters face their limitations, as well as scenes where the disability isn’t a major player, which is the lived experience of pretty much every disabled person I know. Our disabilities are important, but aren’t always a factor. … it does show that a character can be badass and disabled, that limitations aren’t inherently bad.”(Leary). Six of Crows has also been praised for its diverse characters who represent a range of experiences and deal with issues of disability, internalized ableism, and mental health. Issues like homophobia aren’t brought up in the fictional world that Bardugo creates, which is an important and purposeful choice. Normalizing diversity in fantasy worlds helps in normalize it in the real world. This falls under Malinda Lo’s advice to writers, to take responsibility for the worlds they create, and be conscious of the effects that they have on real people.

Michael Cart believes no other literary form or genre is as important as young adult literature. “Books show not only the differences but also the commonalities that comprise humanity… By acquainting readers with the glorious varieties of the human experience, young adult literature invests young hearts and minds with tolerance, understanding, empathy, acceptance, compassion, kindness, and more” (Cart).

The future is bright for diverse young adult literature. Looking into 2016 and beyond we are seeing more books tackling issues ranging from blindness and agoraphobia to the story of a transgender Italian-Pakistani painter. The world of YA is being filled with all new windows and mirrors for people of all ages to see not only themselves, but others in.

Works Cited

    Booth, Heather. “Embracing Diversity in YA Lit.” School Library Journal. N.p., 12 Sept. 2013. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
    Donelson, Kenneth L., and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Literature for Today’s Young Adults. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1980. Print.
    Dwyer, Liz. “Closing the Diversity Gap in Young Adult Literature.” TakePart. N.p., 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
    “FanBrosShow Episode No. 30 – The Junot Diaz Episode.” SoundCloud. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
    Leary, Alaina. “Alive, Disabled, and Essential: How Leigh Bardugo’s ‘Six of Crows’ Series Made Me Feel Real.” Brooklyn Magazine. N.p., 30 Nov. 2016. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
    Lo, Malinda. “2014 LGBT YA by the Numbers.” Diversity in YA. N.p., 16 Dec. 2014. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
    Lo, Malinda. “Book Challenges Suppress Diversity.” Diversity in YA. N.p., 18 Sept. 2014. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
    Lo, Malinda. “Diversity in 2013 New York Times Young Adult Bestsellers.” Diversity in YA. N.p., 20 Apr. 2014. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
    Stetka, Bret. “Why Everyone Should Read Harry Potter.” Scientific American. N.p., 09 Sept. 2014. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
    Strickland, Ashley. “A Brief History of Young Adult Literature.” CNN. Cable News Network, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
    Tauber, Daveena, and Meg Elison. “The State of Publishing: Young People Are Reading More Than You.” McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. N.p., 8 Feb. 2011. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
    We Need Diverse Books http://weneeddiversebooks.org/ Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
    Wetta, Molly. “Who Is Young Adult Literature For? – The Hub.” The Hub. N.p., 18 Sept. 2015. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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