BY GABY RODRIGUEZ ’22
Young adult (YA) novels rocketed into the public eye in 2008 when Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” came to the big screen. For years after that, Hollywood made blockbuster after blockbuster based on YA novels. Movies like “The Hunger Games” were able to adapt the book into something fans could love, while other movies, like “Divergent,” miserably strayed from the source material and completely flopped. YA has always been a genre that defied typical expectations; not quite children’s literature but not quite a full-fledged heavy adult narrative, YA is a rebellion against publishing norms. This boundary-pushing nature gives minority authors more opportunities to publish their work, creating a more diverse array of YA novels.
Diverse books are “set in a non-Western world or inspired by a non-Western world; or with a main character who is non-white, LGBTQ+, and/or disabled,” according to Diversity in YA’s website.
In response to the lack of diversity in publishing, authors and activists Grace Lin, Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña and Jacqueline Woodson, have founded the campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks in 2014 in response to an all-white, all-cis male children’s book panel. Since its inception, there has been a significant jump in the publication diverse YA books. Bustle explained, “According to the annual diversity statistics published by Cooperative Children’s Book Center […] the amount of diverse titles jumped from 28 percent in 2016 to 31 percent in 2017.”
At the same time, however, statistics show that increasingly diverse subject matter doesn’t necessarily translate to diverse authors. According to Lee and Low, a company dedicated to publishing multicultural stories, while there is an increasing number of “diverse” books being published, the number of diverse authors has barely shifted. “Black, Latinx, and Native authors combined wrote just six percent of new children’s books published [in 2017],” they explained. “[In 2018] the number is only seven percent.”
In response to this gap, another campaign founded specifically to promote the work of diverse authors is #OwnVoices. Founded by Corrine Duyvis, it promotes books written by marginalized authors telling their own stories. Its goal is not necessarily to promote autobiographical stories, but rather to ensure that marginalized authors have the space to write about characters from their own communities. For example, “Ash” by Malinda Lo, a queer woman, is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. “Does My Head Look Big In This?” by Randa Abdel-Fattah, a Muslim writer of Palestinian and Egyptian descent, follows the journey that 16-year-old Amal must make in her social life once she decides to wear her hijab full time. Both are the kinds of stories and authors that #OwnVoices strives to celebrate because they are so often sidelined.
More recently, Hollywood has also seemed to realize that there is an outcry for #OwnVoices stories. Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” which tells the story of a young black girl who witnesses the murder of her friend at the hand of a cop, spoke to thousands of young adult readers and soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Soon after publication, it was adapted to film, and in its opening weekend, grossed around $35 million.
“I think diversity in YA is getting better, even though the quintessential character is still the quirky white boy or girl. Representation is so important, which is why I loved the adaptation of ‘To All the Boys I Loved Before,’” said Jane Zhang ’20. “To All the Boys I Loved Before” is another example of an #OwnVoices story and a breakout success; Jenny Han’s debut novel, featuring a biracial Korean protagonist, spent 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was adapted into a hit Netflix original film several years later.
As the number of diverse books rises, other problems also arise. If these diverse books aren’t told by diverse authors, are they truly authentic? While campaigns like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices are working hard to uplift marginalized voices, the brunt of the work is still placed on those very people.
“[Stories by minorities] have an uphill fight to be read in the first place, to be recognized as legitimate, intelligent, captivating to the larger audience. Having our stories told by others can give a sense of legitimacy, but they are our stories to tell,” said Maggie Smith ’22. “It’s complicated because you don’t want to pigeonhole someone of a minoritized identity to have to write only about that minority identity — they are whole people. But representation does matter.”