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Telling the real story: diversity in young adult literature

There is renewed debate around the lack of honest representations of diversity in Young Adult books. Melanie Holtsman

Telling the real story: diversity in young adult literature

There’s a conversation gaining momentum in Australia about the lack of diversity in Young Adult (YA) and children’s literature. It’s been inspired in part by debate in the US, which many critics date back to a seminal essay by Nancy Larrick titled The All-White World of Children’s Books that was published in the Saturday Review in 1965.

The question of diversity has been raised periodically by critics, readers and writers alike – here and overseas – ever since. In the US, it was reinvigorated in May last year when a group of authors launched the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Its mission? To change the publishing industry so that it produced literature “that reflects and honours the lives of all young people”.

Sarah Ayoub. Courtesy of Sarah Ayoub

The campaign has quickly grown from a grassroots movement into a global phenomenon that’s also generated widespread debate in Australian literary circles.

Aussie authors who have written on diversity in youth literature include myself, Erin Gough, Gabrielle Wang, Danielle Binks, Sarah Ayoub, and Rebecca Lim.

There is, of course, no single diverse experience. I am an Aboriginal author (Palyku people), but there are differences between my experiences and those of other Indigenous writers, and indeed those of diverse writers more broadly. We Need Diverse Books defines diversity as:

all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of colour, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.

But while there are many differences between diverse peoples and identities, there are also points of intersection, and one of them is the degree to which our young people are being failed by literature.

Why is diversity important? Author Malindo Lo, one of the founders of We Need Diverse Books, gave this answer:

Diversity is not important. Diversity is reality … Let’s stop erasing that.

Many minority writers cite the experience of being erased from reality as the reason they began writing in the first place. As Lebanese Australian Sarah Ayoub recently said of her YA novel Hate is Such a Strong Word (2013):

I wrote this book to reconcile everything I felt as a teenager. When I go out and speak to schools with students from different cultures, I always say that you don’t have to change who you are to fit into the world and that your story is just as relevant as any white story.

A lack of diversity not only influences how diverse peoples see themselves, but how they are seen (or not seen) by those of the dominant culture. The situation is not helped by the fact there is often a long history of distortion of diverse identities in narratives written about the (so-called) “other”. In relation to Australian Indigenous peoples, Aboriginal writer Melissa Lucashenko has described this as “the great poisoned well of historic writing of Aboriginal people”.

The representation of diverse peoples, and especially of colonised or oppressed peoples by those who have inherited the benefits of colonisation or oppression, remains a fraught area. As Latino author Daniel Jose Older has commented:

Authors of colour struggle to get our voices heard, and publishing houses that espouse diversity publish more white authors writing characters of colour than anything else. Cultural appropriation matters in this context because it is about who has access and who gets paid, even beyond the problems of a poorly crafted, disrespectful representation.

Melissa Lucashenko. Mark Crocker/AAP, CC BY

As a diverse YA author I am often asked, usually by teens searching in vain for their own reflection in the novels they read, whether I think things will ever change. I do, mostly because I believe there is a limit to how long literature can peddle the fantasy of a non-diverse world to readers who are living in a diverse reality.

And in relation to cultural diversity, increasing minority populations will change readership and hence (eventually) world markets. In the US, the Census Bureau has forecast that by 2043 minorities will comprise a majority of the US population, while the 2015 UK Writing the Future report noted that predicted increases in minority groups meant the book trade would have to change to remain relevant:

[P]ublishers’ present concentration on People Like Us – White, aged 35 to 55 and female – will not reflect the society of the future, no matter how much that elides with their own current workforce […] the book industry risks becoming a 20th century throwback increasingly out of touch with a 21st century world.“

A country with as many voices as Australia has much to offer the children and teens of the globalised and pluralist 21st century. Except that, even within the Australian market, it can be difficult for Aussie voices to be heard (and correspondingly more difficult for diverse Australian voices to be heard).

This is where weneeddiversebooksau intersects with another campaign – that of LoveOzYA.

LoveOzYA was started this year, partly in response to concerns that Australian titles were struggling to be noticed among the onslaught of US blockbusters, many of which had been the subject of big-screen adaptions. In the words of Australian author Ellie Marney:

When a book is promoted online, on screens, in films, in print ads and bookstores and toy stores and fast-food outlets ad infinitum – it’s kinda hard to ignore.

LoveOzYa is not suggesting teens should stop reading books they enjoy. Simply that there may well be other Australian books they’d enjoy as much (but that were published in the comparatively tiny Aussie market and hence do not have the benefit of the marketing resources behind the US titles dominating the shelves).

In short, the goal is that Australian literature receives the proverbial "fair go”. Perhaps in this sense, the end game of both weneeddiversebooksau and LoveOzYA converges upon a vision of a more equitable future: a world in which all voices have an equal chance to be heard, and all voices are heard equally.