Sandra Farag | July 6, 2016
For the last few years, we have seen an increase in the demand for diverse books. This has been especially true for children’s and YA literature. Growing up in New York City, I was surrounded by diversity, which for me, was the norm. However, anything I read growing up portrayed families that in no way resembled my own. Most stories were based on white, middle class families who lived in a house, with a yard, with 2.3 children and a dog. Most importantly, these families did not look like me or most of the people I knew. I read these stories, and even enjoyed some, but I always felt like I needed something more. Amelia Bedelia could only get me so far. Where were the books about the food I ate, the people I knew and the neighborhood I grew up in?
As an adolescent, it was unfortunately the same story. Aside from some of the classics, I still couldn’t find books that I felt had been written “just for me.” I needed books to help me deal with or learn about substance abuse, eating disorders, mental illness, suicide, LGBTQ, body issues and interracial relationships. Unfortunately, those books were few and far between.
Fast forward to the present and there is finally a noticeable shift in the books that are being published for YA. Little by little, we are seeing more and more books teens can relate to. A few of my personal favorites include, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero which features a latina protagonist and explores teenage pregnancy and LGBTQ situations; Placebo Junkies by J.C. Carleson deftly deals with mental illness, promiscuity and body image. Titles such as More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera and Simon vs. the Homosapien Agenda by Becky Albertalli focus on teens identifying as LGBTQ, and would appeal to male readers. When I was Greatest by Jason Reynolds captures what it is like to be male, different and grow up in New York City. Finally, for those on the younger end, It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas, flawlessly features an Iranian family growing up in California during the Iran crisis in the 1970s. While these titles are a good start, there is always more that can be done.
“Our job as librarians is to make sure we are familiar enough with our collections to ensure that the right books get to the right kids.”
As a librarian and a Youth Materials Selector for two of the largest library systems in the country, I am constantly on the lookout for new, exciting, quality books that feature diversity to include in our collections. Currently, in all three New York City public library systems, the most popular items checked out by teens are manga, followed by all the YA bestsellers. The question becomes: is that all there is or are teens not finding the books written “just for them”? Our job as librarians is to make sure we are familiar enough with our collections to ensure that the right books get to the right kids. As the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign pushes on, time will tell if there will be another shift in what teens are finding popular.
In addition to traditional publishing, there has also been a rising trend in authors choosing to self publish. Some also elect to release their books digitally. The Library Journal Indie Ebook Awards were set up to reward those exemplary works which have taken the nontraditional route of self publishing and going digital with their books. As the final judge for the YA novel segment, it has been my pleasure to speak with Aaron Galvin and Rita Arens, whose novels were selected by Library Journal to be included in the SELF-e Select ebook collections. Here are some of their responses:
What does diversity in libraries/publishing mean to you?:
AG: I think you hit the nail on the head by linking libraries and publishing together. Thus far, libraries have only been able to offer books traditional publishing provided them with, though many librarians I’ve spoken with have mentioned the need for different voices and perspectives… Traditional publishers haven’t provided much in the way of content for YA male readers in search of darker, non-romance focused books/series. Something I have been excited to see is some libraries featuring graphic novels, comics, etc. for male audiences interested in those reads.
One of the things I’m enjoying most about the self-publishing wave is that it has brought forth many new, diverse voices and stories that would have been otherwise stamped out because they weren’t previously considered by traditional gatekeepers. Also, the rise in technology is now allowing platforms like Library Journal’s SELF-e program to highlight those unheard voices and aid readers searching for new stories that speak to their interests.
RA: …Publishers need to look at their lists and their organizations and recognize if they only see 30-year-old white people as authors and as editors and marketers. If they do, they need to actively seek out diversity to round out their talent pool. Talent is everywhere, and it’s easy to fall into a habit of going to the same wells looking for it. That’s a mistake, and it’s one the publishing industry has made for far too long.
Libraries in particular have so much influence over young people (and their parents) by what they highlight and present in the displays, on the websites, on the shelves, in the summer reading programs and in the schools. I see libraries as needing to take a leadership role in bringing diverse voices to kids from the outset of their reading. That way it won’t be something they need to figure out later in life — they’ll already have favorite authors who are diverse.
What is your favorite YA novel that shows diversity and why?:
AG: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is my current favorite, specifically for its take on class distinction… Yes, it features a white girl heroine in a love triangle with two equally dreamy guys, but at its heart, The Hunger Games is about classism and what history has proven will befall any nation with an uneven distribution of power and resources… My favorite example is the illusion that all competitors are supposedly equals when cast into the arena, though clearly they are not. Katniss looks at the tributes from Districts 1 & 2 as the top dogs, noting they are provided more food, training, etc. to help them win the games. Yet she also sees the advantage that she, a tribute from a poor district, holds over them: she knows what it’s like to live with hunger, adapt and accept help where (and from whom) she can find it.
RA: I’ve got a lot of favorites, so I’ll just list them out. They may not all be shelved as YA but they are all about teens.
- The Unraveling of Mercy Louis by Keija Parssinen: there is so much going on in this book — almost more conflict that can be imagined — but the characters are so skillfully drawn it’s not a problem.
- Retaliation by Yasmin Shiraz: this book was hard to read at times, but after doing so I felt like I understood gangs and gang violence a lot better.
- Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne: … I included it because its cast of characters is diverse in almost every way possible — age, socioeconomics, race, sexual orientation — but they are forced together in the same very terrifying situation and forced to make the best of it.
As a librarian, I am thrilled to be a part of these new trends in publishing and librarianship. With authors, publishers and fellow librarians working together, I look forward to a time where we can stop asking for diverse books and come to a place where diversity is as commonplace as Amelia Bedelia.
Sandra Farag is a librarian and Youth Materials Selector through BookOps in New York. She is also the final judge for the YA category of Library Journal’s Indie Ebook Awards.