by Anila Y.
When we think about a facet of life that lacks body diversity, we tend to think about movies, TV shows, and social media. But when it comes to young adults, there is another form of media that we don’t always notice – books. Books, like other forms of media, affect young adults and their perceptions of beauty, normalcy, and our society.
It is easy to overlook the fact that fictional works can lack body diversity. After all, isn’t all reading good reading for a teenager? And it can be, but there are many aspects of a novel that make it award-winning, inspiring, or simply entertaining. One of those components is the characters, and in the popular culture of YA books there is a lack of diversity, including, but not only limited to, race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality.
Surprisingly, it is not even just that there is a lack of books, where these types of diversities are discussed, but that they are not being represented by the popular reviewers, publishers, and organizations that affect the book market. In fact, according the writer Roxanne Gay, almost 90% of books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white authors.
This shows that the voices of authors of color are not being represented in the mainstream media of books. And while white authors could potentially write from different perspectives, like many already do in terms of gender, not many are doing so. Furthermore, there are experiences specific to different groups of people that authors of other social groups may be unable to comprehend or express, which is why the voices of different types of authors need to be promoted.
In August 2015, the New York Times YA Bestsellers featured only two novels that showcased main characters of different ethnic backgrounds, one was “An Abundance of Katherines” by John Green, which discussed the view of a teenage Muslim boy and dating. The other was entitled “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie and Ellen Forney. However, Green’s novel was on the list for only 55 weeks, while Alexie and Forney were there for 22 weeks. Comparatively, Green’s other novels, which depicted white main characters, were on the list for over 100 weeks.
Another example of popular YA authors, who decided to incorporate different types of characters is Cassandra Clare who created some gay characters in “The Mortal Instruments” series. However, though they were major characters, they were not the main characters.
Alongside Clare and Green, there are many other well-known YA authors, such as: Sarah Dessen, Suzanne Collins, and Veronica Roth. All have written a great number of books, but very few, if any, of them feature a main character, who is either LGBTQ, a person of color, possess different body shapes, or are from a different country.
Teenagers deserve to be able to identify with their story book heroes, and even though the description of a character in the storyline may not seem relevant to that, it does affect what we conjure up in our minds. The media gives us the images of what is mainstream, but our brain creates the images that are detailed by books.
YA novels will often feature a greater variety of female characters, but the main male character is often described as “muscular”, “fit”, “blue eyes”, “green eyes”, “dangerous”, “tan” and so on – the stereotypical ideal man. For young girls who are reading these novels, this creates an unattainable definition of a “handsome” and “hot” young man. For boys, this can make them feel lesser than themselves, and unable to ever be like their book hero.
There can sometimes be a cultural aspect to these different forms of diversity, such as the different forms of systematic oppression and racism different races feel. However, the entire novel does not have to revolve around said culture or experiences. Often times, YA novels do not address the cultural barriers in our society, because they create a reality and society of their own. For example, “The Lunar Chronicles” by Marissa Meyer, features a main character of Asian origin, but her race is not central to the plot of the book, which focuses on a universal war between planets, humans, and cyborgs.
Similarly, C.J. Archer, a successful indie author, discussed the plight of a mixed-raced young woman during the Victorian Era in London, in her novel “The Medium”. The novel focused in on the supernatural aspect of the main character, while also revealing problems she faced in her society, proving that adding little bits of culture, without taking over the novel, is possible.
Many of the YA novels are Fantasy and Dystopian, concepts that break the barriers of reality, and if these novels cannot transcend the discrimination of our own society, then what will? It shouldn’t be too fantastical to have more diversity in these novels.
And as an author myself, I would like to say that I can be guilty of this as well. It is easy to get caught up in writing a novel with our own storylines and go to the first “ideal” form of a character that we can think of.
This is why authors should also start pushing the boundaries within their own brains. Diversity and culture does not have to encompass the entire novel, but it could be a subplot, or a small (important) detail. Publishers and reviewers should also focus on broadening their horizons to review novels written by non-white authors, and novels that discuss or present (even to a minor degree) diversity.