Laura Costello

For a genre that’s been around for barely more than half a century, young adult literature has exploded in popularity, resulting in a multitude of diverse books that cater to the adolescent experience in its many forms. 

So why are so few of these diverse books acknowledged? 

Malinda Lo, YA author and co-founder of Diversity in YA, recently analyzed the Young Adult Library Services Association’s annual list of Best Fiction for Young Adults for 2014 – and to put it bluntly, the results are terrible.

Since Lo began her analyses in 2011, there has been no steady improvement in the inclusion of authors of color, characters of color, or characters with disabilities on YALSA’s list. All of these remain at dismally low percentages, with only a small number of the 98 selected books belonging to each of these categories.

And this is only part of a bigger, deeply engrained problem. In this week’s New York Times bestsellers list for YA books, there is not a single author of color in the top 10. In fact, white male authors comprise 80% of the top 10 books, with 2 of these white male authors (John Green, an undoubtedly powerful figure in the genre, and Ransom Riggs) dominating 6 of these 10 books. An author of color doesn’t make an appearance until #14, with Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and there is only one protagonist of color in the top 10. 

I could keep going, but the point is obvious. This is bad.

By favoring the experience of the white middle class teenager, the librarians of YALSA are narrowing the scope of books to which young readers have access, further marginalizing the books that already struggle to achieve mainstream success. Given the importance of the librarian’s role and the effect this might have on the imbalanced popularity reflected in the bestsellers lists, YALSA’s omissions – however subconscious – are inexcusable. 

Yet the mainstream media seems to pay little attention to this issue or even realize there’s an issue at all. The majority of the discussion surrounding diversity in YA takes place in academic circles, publishing companies, and alternative media. While organizations like Diversity in YA do a wonderful job of drawing attention to the issues that plague YA literature and the diverse books that often go unnoticed, it is not their job alone. It can’t be, especially when – as YALSA’s list demonstrates – some of the problems are internal. The media and the public must understand the discriminatory trends that exist in our culture’s exclusionary acknowledgment of books and make an effort to change them. 

This is not a denunciation of any book on these lists. I have read and enjoyed and been moved by many of the Times’ top sellers. I wholeheartedly recommend them. But they’re not the only books out there, and they are a grossly inaccurate representation of the diversity that exists in the vast genre of YA literature. Without greater recognition of this issue, these destructive trends will continue – and worse, some people won’t even notice there is anything wrong. 

Laura Costello is an editorial intern at Warscapes and an English and Journalism major at the University of Connecticut.

Image credit to Colin Thompson