Diversity in YA Lit – A True Mosaic?

In 2013, 2% of children’s literature books that were published featured an African American character.  TWO!

Wait!  What are you talking about?
Courtesy Creative Commons

This week I read some articles about the lack of diversity in young adult and children’s literature.  I learned some really shocking things.  The most obvious one is the extreme disparity in books that feature characters different from the majority population.  I’m talking about books that feature strong, intelligent people from all walks of life, all skin colors, all gender identities, all beliefs.  The statistic above is that 93 of 3,200 books published in 2013 for children and teens featured a character of African American descent.  Yikes!

Why is this happening?

That is the subject of numerous opinion pieces and articles.  Christopher Myers says it beautifully in this op-ed from the NY Times.  “The closest I can get to the orchestrator of the plot – my villain with his ferret – is The Market.”  Meyers is arguing that publishers and editors say no to books by and featuring characters with differences because no one would buy them or there is no market for this.  Really publishing industry?  Really?

Zetta Elliott, author of books for children, teens, and adults, brings the issue to the bare bones.  She writes,

What I am trying to say to children’s publishers is that the lack of books for children in our communities IS A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.  I am not asking you to level the playing field as a “favor” to people of color.  I am asking you to work with us in our efforts to transform children’s lives.

It is imperative that all students can see themselves in the books they read.  It is essential that they learn about others who are different in the books they read.

Walter Dean Myers wrote about books and  diversity.  He writes, “Books transmit values.  They explore our common humanity.” This is the crux of it for me.  When we read and share books with students, we are also sharing a snapshot of our values as a culture and society.  Our society doesn’t look like the ones in most YA and Children’s lit books.

So what can we do about it?

I think the first thing we can do is to realize that there is more we can do!  Again, Walter Dean Myers is a simple and effective voice.  “There is more to be done.” We as readers and educators need to do more to get books about all types of people into our students’ hands.

We can get these works in our students hands by buying them ourselves, reading them, book talking them, sharing them with students.  As teachers we have an obligation to show our students the truth of the world and inspire them to change it for the better.  If we don’t read these books, we can’t book talk them honestly or recommend them honestly.  It is our duty as teachers to do this.

I have been fortunate enough to grow up in an area where being different was expected.  I looked like some of my friends, and looked like the opposite of others.  We had different beliefs, customs, colors of our skin. I never knew the world to be any different from that – I thought everyone lived this way.

And yet, I live in a place now that this is not a reality for our community.  We are not a very diverse community.  I believe that is why it is especially important for me to put books into my students’ hands that reflect the world I know is outside our town.  I need to be sure to read diversely, book talk diversely, recommend diversely.

Courtesy Creative Commons
Courtesy Creative Commons

I hope that the books in my classroom library will represent the beautiful mosaic of our world.  I hope my students can see the beautiful picture made up of different sized, different colored, different textured pieces.  Maybe they won’t see the beautiful picture.  But maybe, just maybe, they will get a glimpse of that different colored tile – an experience different from theirs – and they will be able to honor and respect it.


Why do you read diversely?  What makes a diverse library?  Let’s talk below…


11 thoughts on “Diversity in YA Lit – A True Mosaic?

  1. I didn’t grow up in a hugely racially diverse community either and then I moved to Wyoming and unless you count Scottsbluff Latino community there is not much diversity out here either. I really want to work in an inner city school so collecting racially diverse books is going to be my goal for the next few years.


    1. I grew up in a pretty racially diverse area of Colorado and went to one of the most diverse high schools there. It was certainly a shock to move to Durango as an 18 year old and not seeing much diversity.
      I also lived in Berkeley/Oakland for 4 years and Wyoming. It is really been an interesting life of diversity and lack of diversity.
      I LOVE that you are interested in working in an inner city school! All schools need teachers who are well-read, passionate, and excited to work with students.


  2. Weren’t those statistics shocking? As I read, I became more amazed. How did only 2% of books have African American main characters in 2013? Honestly, I’d never really considered reading diversely before this class. I always just picked books that I liked and read them, but now I am starting to branch out (thank goodness for Book Bingo). Diversity is so important in our classrooms because we want ALL students to be able to read through both a window and a mirror. Great post!


    1. I know how crazy those statistics are! I read Manaic Magee past semester and had trouble keeping character’s races straight. I recommend it as an excellent example of why books should mirror real life.


  3. I think diversity is important and if you research the statistics, the percentages are on the rise for multicultural books. This means the industry is moving in a positive direction. Can more be done? Probably.


    1. What do you think is the best thing we can do to promote a diverse library? How can we get all groups represented in our libraries?
      I’m glad we are moving in the right direction, but you’re right to say we have a way to go.


      1. I think making a conscience effort is the first step. Also, I think having to read a variety of different types of books helps. I have read some great books that I want to add to my library.!i just try to be really open when I go book shopping.


      2. Me too! I think we all read what we like and really don’t think about going outside that zone until encouraged to do so. Some of my students are really excited about it!


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