Diversity in Books (and Why We Need It)

May 29, 15 Diversity in Books (and Why We Need It)

Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Tris Prior, Percy Jackson, and Clary Fray, what do these names have in common? They all belong to the Caucasian, heterosexual, cisgender, and able-bodied protagonists of young adult books. Open most of any novel in this genre and you’ll find a story following a character that fits this same description. They are formed with an identical mould, shaped with a cookie-cutter that can only create one type of person, when in actuality our world is much more diverse. This is a problem. The lack of representation of minority groups in young adult literature is an issue that runs deeper than one would think. It perpetuates racism, homophobia, and other forms of hatred. It keeps the kids who do fit into this mould ignorant of the real people that are out there, and leaves the ones who don’t without someone like them to look up to.

The world is a rainbow of colours that authors are painting white. Perhaps it’s an involuntary sort of discrimination, but when the protagonist of nearly every YA novel out there is of the same race, what are the readers of other races supposed to assume: that their stories aren’t important? That they only deserve to be side characters? Statistics from 2013 show that, in children’s picture books, 89.43% of human characters are Caucasian. The number decreases slightly as the age range increases, but it’s those first books we read that affect us the most. This whitewashing gets ingrained into our minds and changes the way we think and act as adults. It may be because of this that racism is still a very relevant issue in society today.

22 year old Toronto resident Calvin Dao stated in the Huffington Post article, Whitewashing in Media Made me Self-Conscious About Being Chinese, that there is “a systematic lack of representation in the media, a problem that still pervades my thoughts and affects who I am today.” Dao isn’t the only one feeling this way. It’s everybody who’s been underrepresented and it doesn’t only apply to race.

Novels, more often than not, will have some element of romance, if not as the main story than as a side-plot. These love stories tend to be the typical boy meets girl, but why should they be? General acceptance of the LGBT community in our society has been rising significantly with gay marriage becoming legal in many areas and celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Bruce Jenner publically coming out about their gender identity. While these sorts of characters aren’t unheard of as protagonists in novels, they aren’t common in the mainstream and seem to be there for one purpose. LGBT protagonists exist only as a plot device. An example of this is the recent hit Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, which follows a gay teenager named Simon. The entirety of the plot circles around his sexuality. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a long ways away from a gay Harry Potter, a bisexual Katniss, or a transgender Percy Jackson.

Even further away in the future is the idea of a person with a handicap starring in their own story. Not only would this shed a light on the struggles of these people, and help them to make further connections to the characters, but it could also help with self-esteem issues. Imagine if Tris from Divergent were in a wheelchair, for example, and she did the physically challenging Dauntless initiation. She would struggle and succeed, overcoming her own limitations. Getting stories like this into the world would show people that those with these handicaps are capable of doing anything they set their minds to, and could help to stop the discrimination that comes from able-bodied persons. There are no excuses for authors not to do this, as it works wonderfully as a plot device.

“I do find that the market for books and movies in general is really oversaturated with the typical white male protagonist,” stated Alex Stever, a student in grade 11 at Bathurst High School. “Diversity is important because I think it gives a more relatable aspect to some of the characters. If you have this really athletic person, and the person reading has no legs, it makes it harder for them to relate and get involved in the character.”

This isn’t an issue that only affects minority groups, it affects us all. Those that do fit into the typical protagonist description are kept blinded and ignorant of the diversity that exists in our world. Many Canadian high school students, especially in smaller areas such as Bathurst, are under the impression that discrimination like racism, homophobia, etc. is a thing of the past. This could not be a more inaccurate statement, especially if we don’t diversify our novels.

“I believe it (diversity in books) is important because it allows people to see the true struggles of those characters and it also helps people who are similar to those characters relate more,” stated Jillian Dobson Levesque, a grade 11 student at Bathurst High School.

The lack of diversity in young adult and children’s novels can make a lasting impression on the reader that will lead to self-esteem issues and greater prejudices later on in life. The protagonists of these books are all the same, but people aren’t like that. Every human is unique in their race, sexuality, gender identity, and physical capabilities and the stories that mark our generation should be ones that embrace and celebrate these differences. Changes need to be made, but it isn’t just up to the authors and the publishers. Yes, the authors must write these more diverse novels and it’s on the publishers to get them out there, but the most important role is that of the reader. It’s our responsibility to speak out about this issue and make our voices heard, because if nobody says it than nobody will listen.