The recent death of celebrated author Walter Dean Myers has seemingly left a void in that corner of Young Adult literature that is aware of representation and diversity, and produces works of fiction populated with a rainbow coalition of characters. It seems like every week I’m reading something about the lack of diversity and representation in YA (as well as comics and films and whatever else you care to throw into the mix), much like this piece, The Soapbox: Black Nerds, Escapism, & Why We Need More Diverse Books. And now that Myers is gone, he can join the list of authors frequently cited as those that did the most for those who are represented the least. Unfortunately, while he was alive, a significant amount of what was written about the lack of diversity in YA failed to mention Myers and his work—which speaks to a problem almost as bad as the lack of diversity itself. That problem, of course, is the lack of dialog about those books and those writers who do put in the work to ensure diversity and representation.
I’ve already written about this before, and I talk about it all the time, and yet few people seem to be paying attention. Yes, there is a lack of diversity and representation when it comes to YA (and just about everything else, for that matter). But there are books out there that do have diverse characters—and most of those are never mentioned in the “there’s-not-enough-diversity” conversations. I can walk into any well-stocked bookstore, go to the YA section, and point out at least a dozen books that grapple with diversity and representation, and yet none of these titles are ever mentioned in anything I ever read about the need for more diversity. I’ve mentioned some of these books on this site—More Than This, Drowned Cities, The Offenders, Devil’s Wake, to name a few.
Recently, I got around to reading Jonathan Mayberry’s Rot & Ruin series (a bit late, I know). Admittedly, the zombie apocalypse may not be your cup of tea, but the series features a Japanese-American hero, his brother, his best friend (who is Chinese-American), and three strong female characters. Perhaps it is because the writer is a white man, but I don’t understand why these books are not mentioned in conversations about diversity in YA. Is it because the writer is white? Is it because the books are about zombies? Or is it because most people complaining about the lack of diversity and representation in YA aren’t bothering to look for or mention the books that are offering what they are looking for?
It’s time to face some very real truths—if we want greater diversity and representation in YA, we need to realize that the publishing industry is not going to give us what we want, just because we write some passionate blogs, or because we use certain hashtags. Rather than talking about what we don’t have, we need to pay some attention, and balance that conversation with what we do have. Yes, it’s great to refer to Walter Dean Myers and Octavia Butler—both were tremendous talents. But you know what? Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes are both tremendous talents, and they are both still alive and producing incredible work. How come so few people mention their books Devil’s Wake and Domino Falls?
If you are concerned about diversity and representation, complaining about the lack of either is not enough. You, me—all of us—need to talk more about what is out there. We need to find books that deliver what we want, and then we need to share recommendations with our friends, family, and social circles. If we can’t do that, then we are as bad as the publishing industry that we keep complaining about, and maybe just a little bit worse. After all, there are publishers putting out the books we claim to want, but in our frustration and rage, some of us don’t talk about those.