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Diversity in YA: Don’t BS the Change

This week writer Ashely Strickland published an article titled “Where’s the African-American Harry Potter or the Mexican Katniss,” revisiting the topic of diversity–or the lack thereof–in young adult books. Referring specifically to the almost total absence of protagonists/main characters of color in YA books despite notable writers bringing attention to the issue while creating compelling characters of color. 1

With demands for increased diversity in YA (and ALL forms of media) becoming more prominent in recent years, sites like Cindy Pon’s and Malinda Lo’s Diversity in YA, or promote works that present diverse perspectives and/or expose missed opportunities to diversify in natural ways. Check them out when you can. Additionally, my good friends Ellen Oh and Meg Medina address Diversity in YA beautifully and often on their own sites.

Here, I want to discuss a harsher side to the topic. The non-existent progress and outright opposition to diversifying YA (or anything).  To even discuss the topic attracts accusations of “race-baiting” or “playing the race card.” 2 21st Century rhetoric for striking down uppity minorities or supporters who DARE challenge continued exclusion. Because that’s what we’re talking about when you look at nearly twenty years of data showing minority main characters outnumbered by their white counterparts 9 to 1 (and it’s possible that I’m rounding up in favor of minorities; in 2012 the CCBC conducted a survey of 3,600 books and showed minority main characters accounted for 7-8% of all main characters in that year). This, in spite of expressed commitments to diversity from publishing’s gatekeepers.

In other words, nothing new.

Sites, articles, panels (like the one I’ll be participating in at this summer’s SCBWI conference in Los Angeles) receive all sorts of overt support. Adamant readers, writers, and representatives can seem as numerous as detractors if you’re inside the publishing industry like I am. Yet statistics remain unchanged.

There’s a popular saying,”Be the change.” I propose an alternative motto for the Diversify YA movement. “Don’t BS the change.”

Mission statements are great. So is continued discussion. But it’s time to move beyond examining this from a thousand different angles and start asking folks in power for answers and solutions.

1) Only 8% of main characters are non-white year after year. Is that acceptable to you? If you say yes, well, at least you’re being honest. No need to go further. I suspect most will say no, and some percentage of those people might mean it.

2) If you answered “no” to question 1,  and you mean it, what do YOU plan to do about it? This one I direct mostly towards the gatekeepers who select books for publication (though readers can certainly help by seeking diverse titles to read and discuss with others). We’ve quantified the numbers, to change them, there must be an active plan. Devise one. If that requires too much effort see the next question.

3)Editors, what percentage of last year’s acquisitions were books with diverse main characters? Whatever that number is, I bet it’s low. Dismally. You probably don’t want the public to know about it. So, let’s institute a plan to increase that number by 2% each year. 3 (Cue pained cries of affirmative action and how America has fallen apart. Whatever.)

4) Did you scoff at that 2% annual increase? Reconsider your answer to question 1.

5) Are you concerned that books featuring non-white main characters will sell poorly? If you said yes, it’s okay that you’re concerned. But, keep in mind that you have books on your list featuring white main characters that sell poorly. Which means your concern shows bias. All books run the risk of not finding an audience and there has never been a time when you considered excluding white characters due to poor sales.

6) Have you not seen much pro-level material from writers of color/featuring characters of color? You say yes, and think this let’s you off the hook. Ha! Change where/how you look. Consider hosting contests, or asking current writers on your list for referrals, or requesting  sympathetic writers on your list brainstorm ideas for introducing diverse leads to the market (including white writers…though not with the intent of continued exclusion of writers of color).

7) Are you marketing diverse writers/characters in the same manner you market books you EXPECT to do well in the marketplace? The keyword is “expect.” To make any of the above proposed steps with an expectation of failure, and marketing efforts that reflect negative notions creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Effective marketing doesn’t mean framing campaigns in a manner that presents the writer/character as an OTHER. A cool, diverse space opera should be marketed to “fans of STAR WARS!” not Black/Latino/Asian or some other subset of STAR WARS fans. Diverse books should be presented as if they have universal appeal BECAUSE THEY DO!

Enough for now. I’m not done, but I’m tired of typing (and you’re likely tired of reading). I might work this into a flowchart for easy viewing. Stay tuned.

In the meantime,  if this touched you, remember, don’t BS the change. Question lack of progress. Don’t accept garbage answers.

More soon.


  1. 1 A distinction lost on many of the commentators over at who misinterpreted the article title as a condemnation of established white authors for writing popular (white) characters. A telling assumption…that the speaker wants someone (white) to do the work that he/she can’t do. Though, if they took the time to read the article and note the quoted party, they’d understand the question came from Matt de la Pena, a popular writer who writes main characters of color. His question posed not as accusation, but with hope filled expectation that the Mexican/African-American/Asian/American Indian hero on par with Harry or Katniss or Tris has to appear any day now.
  2. 2 Tired phrases that mean nothing more than “shut up and maintain the status quo.”
  3. 3 The number is arbitrary. I’m just providing a starting point. Feeling ambitious, go 5% or 10%.
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