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Race in Young Adult Fiction

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Race in Young Adult FictionI recently read this article in the Atlantic Wire about race in young adult fiction, and I’ve decided to address the topic here, since I think it’s an important–if sometimes touchy–issue.  Why is it that YA fiction does not represent the diversity that we see in the “real” world?  When I look at my middle-school-age daughter’s group of friends, I see a wide range of races and ethnicities represented.  Yet in most young adult novels published today, the protagonists are white, and surrounded by a cast of mostly white characters.

Oh, there are some young adult novels where the full cast of characters are people of color–and these are generally written by people of color, and somehow relegated to “niche” books no matter how mainstream their content is (as if only latina readers will appreciate the story of a girl’s Quinceanera, for example).  There are also books where race is an important issue–often the central issue–the wonderful If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson, for instance (which examines an interracial relationship between a  Jewish girl from Manhattan and a black boy from Brooklyn in the 1980s).  But as far as most popular, “blockbuster” YA titles, the characters are overwhelmingly white.

As a writer, I’ve found it to be somewhat tricky to address the issue of race without it becoming an “issue” in the story.  When I first started writing HAVEN, I envisioned my heroine’s best friend/roommate, Cece, as black.  Another friend, Marissa, is Asian in my mind–actually, half-Asian, half-caucasian.  So, how to describe them?  I’ve heard some readers complain about authors describing a black character’s skin (i.e. “coffee colored skin”) when they don’t describe the white characters’ (as in, white is the “default”–any other race must be carefully described, usually using a food-themed word).  But then I’ve also heard complaints when a character’s description is vague to the point that readers don’t even realize that the character is a person of color.

With Cece, I decided that it’s important that readers realize she’s black.  It plays a (minor) part in the story where her love life is concerned, and it’s important because of her family’s history/background.  On the other hand, Marissa’s ethnicity isn’t really important to the story–and she’s a less important character, besides.  When I read the passage first describing Marissa, it’s clear to me that she’s at least part Asian, but it could be interpreted differently by readers.  I think that’s okay, because I also see the risk of appearing as if I’ve tried too hard to include “token” ethnic characters–you know, those books where there’s the “black friend”, the “Hispanic friend”, or the “Asian friend”.  They almost become stereotypes, pulled from Central Casting to fill the approved roles.

And this is tricky, too–avoiding stereotypes, while at the same time avoiding “white-washing”  characters of other races.  In other words, what’s the point of making a character black, if their race isn’t important to or evident in the story?  On the other hand, once you make race important/evident with story details, you might be reinforcing stereotypes.  I struggled with this with very minor details–a stack of magazines on Cece’s bedside table, for instance.  If I included, say, Jet magazine, am I reinforcing a stereotype (or tossing in an author intrusion, like waving a red flag that says “Take note, readers:  this character is black!”)?  But If I only included People, Vogue, and Teen, did I miss an opportunity to fully develop the character as a person of color?

I don’t know the correct answers–and when I asked around, I got wildly differing viewpoints.  And my guess is that this is exactly why some authors simply avoid the possible pitfalls by not populating their books with characters beyond their own race.  They worry too much about getting it wrong — i.e., if I write an Asian-American character who is super-smart with strict parents, am I perpetuating a stereotype?  But if I write an Asian-American character who’s the class slacker and doesn’t have strict parents, is it obvious that I’m trying to turn the stereotype on its head?  Are those details important to the story?  Should they be, once I’ve  included her race?  If I use the term “black” will those who prefer “African American” be offended?  But if I use “African American” won’t those who prefer “black” be offended?

You have to stop asking these questions, and just WRITE.  Develop real, three-dimensional characters who are more than their skin color, because people are more than their skin color.  To me, avoiding diversity in your books because you’re afraid of making “mistakes” is (potentially) worse than the “mistakes” you might make.  Fiction is supposed to reflect real life, and real life is a rich, diverse place.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue of race in young adult fiction.

Kristi’s YA debut, HAVEN, was released by Simon Pulse in Feb. 2011. She also writes adult fiction (historical romance) as Kristina Cook and Kristi Astor. Visit her online at www.kristi-cook.com.
  1. This is one reason why I keep from describing my narrator’s appearance in my current WIP. In my mind, he’s in a strange stage between “white” and “bi-racial”, and it depends one what kind of perspective I’m thinking of him from.

    Eventually, I’ll get a more strong image of his “real” appearance, but for now, I enjoy the kind of ambiguity he’ll attract. Sure, I might frustrate some readers, but it’s not like I’m the first author to do it.

    Oh, and a short story I’m trying to do at the side has an black protagonist–for now. It’s a little harder imagining him as such, but it just feels right for him to be a minority, as supposed to being the standard “white handsome male”.

    Speaking of which, something about the “white pretty protagonist” is amusing, even though “pretty” is often disputed in many ways.

    I’ll be watching this blog.

  2. You raise a solid point with this article. I am a black-American female writer, and the protagonist of my story is suppose to be black-American.

    I did not write her race into the story as I am quite unsure how to describe her. People have read the first two chapters of my story, and I am assuming they are envisioning someone Caucasian.

    I believe I will have the book cover reflect her race rather than describing it within the description. I am just having a rough time finding a cover to reflect my protagonist.

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  1. Diversity in the Publishing Industry: Young Adult Book Covers | Every Person Is a Philosopher - [...] This is in large part due to the general absence of prominent non-white characters. It is well-acknowledged that white …

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