Diversity in YA Literature

Jasmine Cox discusses the representation of diversity and the LGBTQ+ community in some of the most popular and current YA books of the past year.

As a genre that has arguably only been a marketed category within in its own right during the last century, YA literature has rapidly progressed to the forefront of diversity discussions. Diversity feels particularly important with regards to the YA community because naturally, they are the next in line to push for intersectional representation.

In terms of mainstream publishers, such as Macmillan, Penguin Random House and HarperCollins, statistics show that the numbers of LGBTQ+ YA novels have been increasing rapidly since 2014; Malinda Lo gathered that in 2015, 54 LGBTQ+ novels were published by aforementioned publishers, and in 2016, figures rose to 79.

Although recent years show a positive rise in YA novels about sexuality, there seems to be a lack of literature being published surrounding the issues of gender representation. In 2015, 55% of LGBTQ+ YA novels within mainstream publishing were centered around cisgender male characters, and only 2% were representative of a non-binary or gender fluid character.

When I Google searched ‘top ten YA novels of 2018’, the four most recurrent novels in lists belonging to The Telegraph, The New York Times and some smaller online feeds, were;

The Belles by Dhonelle Clayton

Clayton’s novel is concerned with a society deeply fixated on external appearance and beauty, not dissimilar to our own, and a political inner grimness. The Belles are a select group of women who have the power of beauty in their blood to transform a society that is deemed ugly with their grey skin and red eyes.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Billed as the “Black Lives Matter novel”, Thomas’ protagonist 16-year-old Starr, witnesses the murder of her friend Khlalil, at the hands of a police officer. It’s a stark reminder to the YA community that if America is serious about keeping all of its citizens safe, they should look within their own borders and legal system where racism is still deeply ingrained.

Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

Ahmed’s protagonist, a young American Muslim girl called Maya Aziz feels torn between the two cultures to which she belongs. But after a terrorist attack stirs up bigotry, the book explores the more specific challenges of being a young Muslim, and a young Asian girl in an increasingly hostile and Islamophobic world.

Love, Simon by Becky Albertalli

A coming-of-age novel about a gay teen called Simon, whose personal life turns into a crisis when a ‘school nerd’ blackmails him by threatening to out him if he doesn’t help him impress the hottest girl at school. The novel puts a smart twist on the classic heteronormative rom-com narrative.

Although each of these novels are really important in terms of being representative of diverse, contemporary, and current political issues, there still seems to be a disparity between these issues and them being represented through the lens of queer people. Perhaps more significantly, there is a real underlying tone of ableism. I think this disparity is not telling of a lack of YA fiction being produced surrounding these communities, but rather, it is telling of the type of fiction that gets categorized and passed on to independent presses or self publication, meaning less people know about what diverse literature is out there. It is a problem that starts higher up in the chain of publication, as independent shops and presses have more freedom to choose which events are hosted and which books feature on the shelves; whereas chains and bigger corporations are under the pressure of representing the views of those in charge. This however does not make mainstream publishers any less responsible for the diversity that they represent, and this certainly does not discredit the work of independent presses and shops that unfortunately, too often go unheard.