I’m a young adult author and I look like many YA authors: I’m white, I’m female, and I’m middle-aged.
What other young adult authors fit into that general category? Here’s a few names you might recognize:
- JK Rowling
- Stephanie Meyer
- Suzanne Collins
- Richelle Mead
- Veronica Roth (though she’s younger than us old ladies)
- Laini Taylor
- Cassandra Claire
Should I keep going?
There are exceptions to the white female best-selling YA author. On the NY Times list of best-selling young adult books, there are also James Dashner (white male), John Greene (another white male), Ransom Riggs (yup, white male), and Markus Zusak (you guessed it — white male). One of my favorite best-selling young adult authors is Marie Lu, and finally we see a person of color — Marie is Asian American.
White Authors Usually = White Characters
Thanks to all the white, female authors and white, male authors, young adult novels feature an overabundance of mainstream, middle-class white characters. In fact, if you think about it, when was the last time you saw a young adult novel adapted for TV or the big screen that didn’t feature a mostly white cast? And when there was some diversity (think of Harry Potter’s smattering of characters from southeast Asia, or The Maze Runner’s characters who appear to be of African descent), the people of color were usually sidekicks. Even Marie Lu’s female lead in Legend is a white member of a white aristocracy.
Not to Mention They’re Almost All Straight
Our beloved young adult genre also tends to lack gay characters. There are certainly more gay characters today than there were twenty years ago, but like the people of color, the gay characters most often tend to be relegated to bit parts — a token gay here and there to add a bit of humorous dialog (“Oh girl, I know you’re not wearing that!”) or condescending pity (“Aw, the poor misunderstood gay”). And when gay young adult characters are protagonists, they typically appear in books written specifically for a gay audience.
Authors Shape Societal Conversations
As authors, we shape how our society thinks about itself and talks about itself. Even if we’re small, independent authors with a small readership (like me!), our words are still starting a conversation with our readers.
A question we need to ask ourselves is: What are we contributing to that conversation?
If you’re like most of the white best-selling young adult authors out there, you’re sticking to an all-white or mostly white cast of characters, in which people of color, religious minorities, and people of different sexual orientations are relegated to the realm of “sidekick” at best, “minor character in a stereotypically token role” at worst.
I’m rebelling against that tendency.
Personally, I would be embarrassed to share my novels with my friends-of-color if I wrote an all-white cast. But I don’t include minority protagonists in my books just because I’d embarrass myself in front of my minority friends if I didn’t. I include minority protagonists because books and movies have long shaped our culture’s tolerance for diversity, and I want to be a part of shaping culture in a positive direction, away from stereotypes and away from entertainment tropes like “Gay Best Friend” or the tragic “Black Dude Dies First” (for example, answer this quiz: Q. The death of which minor-but-important character represents a major psychological turning point for Katniss in her first Hunger Games? A. That’s right — the only black female character in the book!).
Okay, You Caught Me — I’m Liberal
I live in a United States in which Donald Trump is winning support for suggesting things like turning around all Muslims at the border and building a giant wall to keep the Mexicans out. It’s the same United States in which Baltimore rioted for days after the death of a black male at the hands of police. Race is more contentious an issue than I think it ever has been in my lifetime. So I know that my writing this article risks antagonizing both conservative white author friends and some of my more conservative readers.
Nevertheless, I have to hold up this mirror to white writers anyway. Your readers — and probably your friends — aren’t all white, all straight, or all Christian. So why should your major characters be?
For me, I’m choosing to write worlds and characters that reflect an increasingly diverse society. I want minority characters who are more than two-dimensional sidekicks, and I want to write significant gay characters without being accused of writing a “gay novel.” I hope you’ll think about these points as you write and join me in making young adult fiction inclusive of all your readers.