Celebrating Racial Diversity in Young Adult Fiction

HPU Libraries has an extensive collection of teen and young adult fiction for checkout, including approximately 1,000 titles housed on the shelves at the Wanek Center third floor Learning Commons as well as hundreds more at the School of Education Resource Center. Although this genre is marketed for teens between the ages of 12 and 18, many college students and older adults still enjoy YA novels as they are quick and interesting reads with fast-moving and engaging plots.

There is, however, one problem with the genre that persists despite long-term efforts to alleviate it, and this is the lack of diversity of YA characters.

Nancy Larrick first called attention to this problem in 1965 with the publication of The All White World of Children’s Books. With the launch of the Coretta Scott King Book Award in 1969, and later the Pura Belpré Book Award in 1996, the degree of diversity in young people’s literature started to rise. Still, according to annual statistics kept by the CCBC, only 8% of the 3,400 major children’s and teen books published in 2016 featured African American characters. Even fewer featured protagonists of Hispanic, Asian, or other heritage. Sadly, these numbers do not represent the proportion of non-white teens in the population who often wonder why they see so few characters like themselves reflected in their literature. Even more perplexing is that this “newfound diversity”  since the 1960’s is seen mostly in picture books for young children. The YA end of the spectrum struggles to keep up.

I recently attended a conference at which Jewel Davis, the Education Librarian at Appalachian State University, gave an eye-opening presentation highlighting this deficiency. Not only is there a severe shortage of diverse protagonists in YA literature, Davis says, even those books which do feature non-white characters often show either  a “whitewashed,”  racially ambiguous, or vague silhouette of this character in the cover art. Some even omit depictions of the characters entirely, opting instead for an abstract representation of the book’s content. I was inspired by her presentation to look through our own collections to find examples of books which seem to celebrate diversity rather than obscure it, and to share those findings with you.

I was pleased to discover numerous titles in our young adult collections featuring non-white protagonists, love interests, and supporting characters. The following is just a sampling of what I found. These award-winning selections are notable not only for giving a voice to an underrepresented population, but for just being outstanding examples of YA literature.

You can click any of the book covers below to read a description and check the book’s availability for checkout.































If you would like further recommendations, please do not hesitate to ask an HPU Librarian!

-Blog post by Leanne Jernigan, Wanek Center Librarian