Society isn't all white, so why is our kids' literature?

To avoid any fan-girl embarrassment, I'm going to start off by thanking Young Adult authors for writing books so magnificent that I had to lie down on my bathroom floor for several hours after I finished. "Looking For Alaska" by John Green, "Where Things Come Back" by John Corey Waley and "Every Day" by David Levithan ripped a hole in my heart in their own special way. 

OK. Now that I've gotten that out of the way, I can say what I've been itching to know ever since I first became a lover of books — why are there no minority characters in children's or YA novels? Or, rather, why are there no people of color who play major and significant roles in these aforementioned novels? 

Young Adult or YA novels are "for readers aged between 12 and 18", typically in which "conflicts the characters go through are relevant to teens." With more and more YA novels being made into movies, it's more vital than ever to have diversity in novels. Not only are young people reading these books they are racing to the movies to see them on the big screen.

If I had to choose a book that truly spawned my love of reading, then it would be "Holes" by Louis Sachar. I was introduced to "Holes" by my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Paulie, who I both respected and adored as deeply as a 10-year-old could. As usual, Mr. Paulie did not disappoint. "Holes" brings about a sort of nostalgia I usually reserve for Christmas movies and Big League Chew bubble gum. And, hey, the Disney movie isn’t half-bad either.

What really spoke to me about "Holes" — what makes me able to reread it to this day —  was that the characters were racially diverse. The main protagonist, Stanley Yelnats, is white, but other characters (and perhaps one of the most important characters) are not. There is a wide range of racial backgrounds in the book. As a young woman of color in a predominantly white school, this was remarkable. I was finally reading about kids who were like me. Granted, they were in a boys' detention center, but hey — you take what you get and you don't throw a fit.

When you're growing up as a minority, positive role models whether in books, film or television are hard to find. Everywhere you look, the people who are popular, the people who are successful, the people who are rich, the people who are big and beautiful and everything you hope to be are white. Yes, we have our exceptions. We have our Oprah's, our Obama's, our Amal Alamuddin's, our Sonia Sotomayor's but they are the rarities. They are the exceptions to the rule; they are the ones who defied the odds. Most of us will never be the President of the United States and we can only pray to have even a measly quarter of the wealth and fame Oprah Winfrey has accumulated. So, who else can we turn to?

While I understand that there are novels have some people of color as characters, the roles that they play are almost never major. They are always the token friend like Takumi in "Looking For Alaska." It's an exhausting underrepresentation to constantly see minorities as sidekicks and token friends rather than protagonists and love interests. 

A study out of Northern Illinois University found that of the 455 children's books published in 2012, "75 percent of human main characters were white; blacks were protagonists in 15 percent of the books while other cultures combined for less than 6 percent of lead characters." 

These results have not differed much from a 1965 study of the same thing. Koss explained to NIU that her findings confirm that “children’s literature is not authentically portraying our multiethnic world.”

This is not to say that it's impossible to relate to a character that doesn't share your racial or ethnic background. Maybe it's even selfish to want to see yourself in books, but we are entitled to a little selfishness now and then, especially in our childhood. 

As a society, we should encourage the youth to read and if they see more diverse novels then they're be more inclined to do so. I have watched people who never even thought to pick up a book before become engrossed once they find the right one. That is beautiful. That is remarkable. That is so important because in today's world libraries are becoming extinct and reading is becoming a punishment or chore rather than a magical pastime that can take you to a whole new world (I apologize for this Disney reference and any others to come). We still have a long way to go and diversity should be a priority.

Authors often write what they know, so I can understand that adequately writing characters of color when you are not be difficult, particularly when trying to avoid stereotypes and clichés. No matter what color an author's skin is, they should try to write more diverse stories to reflect an extremely diverse world. It's important to remember that these characters are just people. There are no guidelines or rules to writing about them.

We can't leave the weighty responsibility of diverse novels solely on the shoulders of authors of color like Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian," Jenny Han's "To All The Boys I've Loved Before" and Matt De La Peña's "We Were Here." 

People who look like me need a minority protagonist. Little black girls need a character who's bold like Alaska Young and brave like Hazel Grace Lancaster. Little Hispanic and Latino boys need a character who's clever like The Colonel and funny like Ryan Dean West. Little Asian and Pacific Island girls need a character who's spunky like Norah Silverburg and true-to-herself like Lennie Walker. Middle Easterners, South Asians, Native Americans and the list goes on and on.

I'm an adult now (gross). I'm moving on from teen angst, high school days and YA literature. But I have a younger sister. I want her to be able to pick up a book from the library and read about characters that look like her. I want her to know that she can be bold and brave and clever and funny and kind and true-to-herself and still be a woman of color. She is all of those things and more. I want her to know that despite the looks of surprise she gets from peers when she's sits down next to them in honors English, that she is all of those things and more. 


Reach the columnist at nlilley@asu.edu or follow her on Twitter @noelledl_

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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