As a white person, it’s pretty easy to find popular literature and genre fiction with people who look like me on the book jacket. While these cover girls and boys might be younger and better looking than I am, their skin color typically matches mine and their stories don’t usually require me to think outside of my experiences—both real and literary—as a white person of privilege.
Similarly, it is easy for me to find those more literary teen offerings that describe a spectrum of social and familial challenges—some familiar, some not—and feature characters with lives that both resemble and differ from my own. More often than not, it is among these novels that I find the stories that speak to the experiences of people of color, whites living in poverty and characters of multiple ethnicities.
These characters don’t typically make their way out of the problem novel and into the popular-fiction world where I do most of my reading. I’m not sure if this is a problem I can blame on publishers or readers of YA literature.
Where are the people of color in popular YA literature? Where are the paperback originals and popular novels for teens who take diverse communities, situations and characters of color for granted? Contributors to blogs like Reading in Color, The Happy Nappy Bookseller, and The Brown Bookshelf have been asking these questions for a long time and raising awareness of the racial gap in YA popular fiction.
Authors like Mitali Perkins and Paula Chase-Hyman have pointed out the faulty assumptions that drive the popular publishing industry that more often than not preempt the creation of popular literature featuring characters of color. One of the biggest misperceptions is that people of color—namely African-Americans—don’t read. As a result, making an effort to publish books by and about people of color, which white people, who apparently do read, wouldn’t buy anyway, is a zero-sum game. The success of Harlequin’s Kimani Press, which publishes popular YA paperbacks featuring characters of color in its Kimani Tru line, refutes this assumption, as does the expansion of Kensington’s Dafina line of books for teens.
It’s this belief—that teens of color don’t read—as well as the assumption that those teens of color who do read need certain kind of books, especially the serious and heavy stuff, that contributes to the dearth of popular fiction for those readers. As a white reader, I can choose to read something “literary” or “popular” about my community from the stock at my local library or bookstore, but readers of color don’t necessarily have that option. Especially when bookstores and libraries buy into the whole “people of color don’t read” hype.
TAKE A LOOK AT SOME OF THE YA BOOKS WE'VE REVIEWED FEATURING TEENS OF COLOR.
The good news is that slowly but surely a multifaceted world of popular literature is establishing itself, and it’s up to all of us to nurture its literary expansion. For those of us who have already exhausted Scholastic’s ubiquitous Bluford High series, L. Divine’s Drama High series (Dafina) offers a nice alternative. Stephanie Perry Moore’s Beta Gamma Pi novels (Dafina) and Nikki Carter’s So For Real series (Dafina), which offer romance and social drama within their characters’ faith communities, are great additions to libraries where white author Melody Carlson is popular.
Additionally, I’m excited about Lyah B. LeFlore’s Come Up series (Simon Pulse), which focuses on a clique of mid-Atlantic teens testing the waters as entertainment promoters (think Diddy without Dirty Money) and features artwork by D.L. Warfield, the former creative director of LaFace Records.
I’m going to keep my eyes on The Brown Bookshelf, too. This February, the blog profiles “the best and brightest” authors of color in children’s and YA fiction. See you there!
Amy Pattee is an associate professor of library and information science at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston. She documents her reading on her blog, YA or STFU, at alanis.simmons.edu/blogs/yaorstfu/.