Why Are There So Few Minority Characters In YA Books?

Representation in all walks of life has been in the spotlight recently. And one area that is full of controversy is what young people are exposed to in books that often help inform them during some of the most important years of their lives.

A study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that out of the 3,400 books that they received for 2015, 106 were by Black authors and 269 were about Black characters, and 58 were by Latino authors and 82 were about Latino characters.

Malinda Lo, a YA novelist, has been following the uptick in LGBT+ YA.

According to Lo, “In 2014, mainstream publishers published 47 LGBT YA books. This is a 59% increase from 2013, when only 29 LGBT YA books were published by mainstream publishers.”

Yes, these statistics look optimistic, but they are still not what they should be.

So what is the damage done when proper representation can’t be ascertained?

All groups suffer because such lack of representation fails to encapsulate the differences between different people; essentially, one person is not the whole.

“I think the tendency has been to reduce Latino characters as this one thing or Asian characters as this one thing, Muslim characters as one thing, and the fact is that we’re people,” Meg Medina, a Cuban-American writer of YA books and an Advisory Chair for the group We Need Diverse Books, said in a interview with RISE NEWS. “And all of those very specific identifiers and experiences shape how we move. It’s what makes us people.”

Meg Medina, a well known Cuban-American YA author. Photo Credit: Meg Medina/ Facebook.

Meg Medina, a well known Cuban-American YA author. Photo Credit: Meg Medina/ Facebook.

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The effects of poor representation of minority groups are not limited to people of color.

Alex Gino uses the singular they pronoun and wrote George, a YA book about a trans girl that won the 2016 Stonewall Book Award.

“It’s important to remember that each trans experience is unique and different the way that each cis experience, the way that each trans experience, the way that each gay or queer experience is unique,” Gino said in an interview with RISE NEWS. “And so I wouldn’t even say that one trans story can cover it, or one gay story would cover it. There’s nothing quite like finding someone like yourself in a book.”

Leaps and bounds have been made in representation, however, despite this work, there are still advances to be made.

For example, Lo estimated that 1.9% to 2.4% of YA books published in 2013 had LGBT+ characters or dealt with LGBT+ issues.

YA author Alex Gino at a book signing in 2015. Photo Credit: Alex Gino/Facebook

YA author Alex Gino at a book signing in 2015. Photo Credit: Alex Gino/Facebook

“There is a lot of work to be done. I think that we only started to drill down into the many experiences that make up being a young person,” Medina said. “I think there are lots of questions in publishing now, like who’s writing these stories? Are they authentic, are they not authentic, are they written from sort of an outsider point of view, people imagining what it’s like to be x y or z, are they generally writers of color? I think when we have many people at the table with many points of view, the books that get published are richer, are more nuanced, are truer stories of real peoples’ lives.”

Gino seemed to agree with that sentiment.

“I think that we are scratching the surface of the stories that are available to be told, and the stories that are available to read,” Gino said. “I think that we need more books by diverse people and we also need more diverse groups of people publishing the books, so that stories that are being picked have more things to offer.”

RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in the world. You can write for us.

Cover Photo Credit: Amber McKinney/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

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