When was the last time that you saw yourself represented in a book that you read? Did you relate to the experiences of the characters or perhaps you saw similarities to their physical appearance? Often, this luxury has been exclusively reserved for white people.
The lack of representation of people of colour in fiction has been a point of discussion for several years, but if the recent success of young adult titles such as The Hate U Give (T.H.U.G) by Angie Thomas, Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi, and Opposite of Always by Justin A Reynolds is anything to go by then the future looks bright for diverse representation across fiction. Readers of young adult (YA) fiction might be familiar with this surge of books featuring Black protagonists, but even if you are oblivious to the world of YA fiction, it’s likely you are familiar with one of the several popular film adaptations of YA novels such as T.H.U.G, which have acted to popularize the movement further and increased the demand for more diverse stories. But why is YA leading the charge in diversifying content?
Crucial to the growth of the genre over the past decade has been its community of readers who have used social media as a tool to become key players in promoting and criticising the latest releases. Through navigating YouTube, blogs and Instagram YA readers have earned themselves a direct stake and influence in which books make it to the shelves. The importance of #BlackLivesMatter and its transcendency across social media, including within the online reading community, cannot be emphasized enough. It’s evident that readers of young adult care deeply about this social and political equality movement so it is no surprise that the call for better representation of people of colour has entered the book world through the YA genre.
In recent years this community of readers hasn’t shielded away from criticising and calling out books and their authors for a lack of diversity or issues of misrepresentation. One example of this online fan force in action was during 2016, when Keira Drake’s The Continent was pushed back for rewriting after an outpouring of negative reviews. Across BookTube and Goodreads the unreleased book was heavily criticised for racist depictions of indigenous peoples and for embracing the white savior narrative. This collective attack of bad reviews demonstrated the power of YA readers to cancel a book that perpetuates racist stereotypes. In doing so this taught a useful lesson to authors and publishers about accountability from their readership who have taken to demand #OwnVoice diversity in their books more.
A new era of diversity might be dawning in young adult fiction, but the discussion of representation is far from over. Although the genre as a whole is doing well, comparatively the sub-genre of YA fantasy is often embroiled in diversity controversies. One of the best-selling YA fantasy authors, Sarah J Maas, has been at the centre of this debate for several years. Maas’s books often feature a large cast of characters, yet only a small minority of them are not white. Further still, the one or two characters of colour included have either been misrepresented, pushed to the margins or even killed off. This kind of token diversity is a real problem, and the situation of white authors including a Black character for the sake of meeting diversity quotas needs challenging just as much as the absence of Black characters all together.
By adding poorly researched marginalised characters to a book a great deal of damage can be done to readers who rarely see their identities represented in the first place. When this happens, it is often due to merely including side characters of colour in the story. It is crucial authors don’t just include these characters, but actually focus on authentic representations of Black protagonists. Many readers believe that marginalized stories should be told by marginalized writers – this is not to say that white authors should not write non-white characters if done so in a culturally sensitive way- but only to argue that the most authentic characters of colour will likely be penned by writers of colour.
It is now generally seen as the responsibility of publishers to ensure fiction is reflective of the stories and voices of all communities, but is it not also the responsibility of the wider community of readers to support Black authors to ensure the continuing success of diverse YA fiction? Now is the time for other genres to sit up and take note of the progress being made in young adult fiction, that way when a person is next asked when they last felt represented in a book, they won’t have to think too hard to find an example.