The Ongoing Problem of Race in Y.A.

In 1965, 11 years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools, Nancy Larrick wrote an article titled "The All-White World of Children's Books" for the Saturday Review. Much has changed since then. Some has stayed the same.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Y.A. for Grownups is a weekly series in which we talk about Y.A. literature—from the now nostalgia-infused stories we devoured as kids to more contemporary tomes being read by young people today.

In 1965, 11 years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools, Nancy Larrick wrote an article titled "The All-White World of Children's Books" for the Saturday Review. Marc Aronson, author of Race: A History Beyond Black and White, described that piece to The Atlantic Wire as "a call to arms." Larrick had been inspired to write the piece, which criticized the omission of black characters in children's literature, after a 5-year-old black girl asked why all the kids in the books she read were white. According to Larrick's survey of trade books over a three-year period, "only four-fifths of one percent" of those works included contemporary black Americans as characters. Further, the characterizations of pre-World War II blacks consisted of slaves, menial workers, or sharecroppers. Via Reading Is Fundamental, "'Across the country,' she stated in that piece, '6,340,000 nonwhite children are learning to read and to understand the American way of life in books which either omit them entirely or scarcely mention them.'"

In 1969, the Coretta Scott King Award was created to "promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples and their contribution to the realization of the American dream," and to foster racial diversity of authors and also subject matter. In 1983, Rudine Sims asked, "What Has Happened to the 'All-White' World of Children's Books?" in a piece in the Phi Delta Kappan referring to Larrick's seminal work. In 1985, the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison started to keep a record of children's books published in the U.S. about people of color. In 1995, Osayimwense Osa wrote a book sharing Larrick's title (and including that original piece) exploring the issue. And in 2012, certain viewers of the movie The Hunger Games were so alarmed that two important characters were black, having not understood that fact in the books, that Jezebel's post by Dodai Stewart on the matter has attracted more than 2 million pageviews and more than a thousand comments. Discussions of race in children's and Y.A. literature have clearly not ended. (In other recent conversations on the topic, though not in Y.A. or children's media specifically, the lack of racial diversity in the HBO series Girls has been a topic of much conversation and dissent of late.) Editors, writers, librarians, and publishers tend to agree that we've improved in terms of racial diversity, with not only black but also Native American, Asian, South Asian, Hispanic, and other ethnically diverse characters reflected in books for kids and teens. But those in the business and outside of it also tend to agree that we're not quite there yet.

What are the options in terms of racially diverse content for kids and teens?

Rita Meade, a children's librarian in Brooklyn, listed a few picture books for younger kids that came to mind as reflecting racial diversity: I'm Your Peanut Butter Big Brother by Selina Alko, which explores the feelings of a child about to become a big brother in an interracial family; More More More Said the Baby: 3 Love Stories by Vera B. Williams, a 1990 book that shows different kinds of families playing games with their babies; and Whoever You Are by Mem Fox, which "celebrates the differences of people from all around the world." Personally, as a child growing up and reading in the '80s, I remember books like Judy Blume's Iggie's House; Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, and of course, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. There's One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. But to be entirely honest, most of the books I, a white girl, read growing up were about white girls, from Anne of Green Gables to Laura Ingalls Wilder to Meg Murry. And, more recently, the three most popular Y.A. series, the triumvirate of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, all feature main characters who are white. (In Twilight, you get Native American characters, to be fair, though the actor who plays Jacob has only "'distant' Native American ancestry.") And we're all too aware of the surprisingly vehement racism that came out in reaction to two characters—including a little girl that we all fall in love with—in The Hunger Games being black. It is a sad truth that each girl in my recent list of "The Greatest Girl Characters of All Time" are white. It shouldn't be that way—but those are the books most of us of a certain age (and class and race) read growing up. The black characters we did get in our books were often peripheral, or were caricatures—or possibly, made to stand as a statement, to educate, to teach a diversity lesson. The latter is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a bad thing if it's the only way races other than white are portrayed, and continues to be so.

Walter Dean Myers, current National Ambassador of Children’s Literature, has been one of the most prolific writers of books for young readers featuring black characters. He told The Atlantic Wire that when he was growing up in the '40s and '50s, however, he read mostly British writers. "What happened as a result, in retrospect, was that I devalued my own experiences. I decided at about 14 I would stop being Negro—that was the phrase then. Books transmit values, and if you don’t find your life in books, bingo, you have to reach the conclusion that you are less valuable. That affected me, until I happened upon a short story by James Baldwin called Sonny's Blues. I was stunned to read this story, which took place in Harlem, where I lived. I never knew I needed permission to write about Harlem or its people until I read that. I met Baldwin and mentioned that to him. He said he’d experienced much of the same thing."

As for diversity in books for young people at that time, "Nothing much was happening," said Myers. "Much was semi-racist—I remember some of the Bobbsey Twins books; there was an occasional black person, but the only depiction was slaves." Myers came into writing books for young readers because of Nancy Larrick and her article. "As a result of that, the Council of Interrracial Books ran a contest. I won the contest, which got me writing about young people. I thought childrens' books were going to change," he said. "They did for a while, but it fluctuates."

Coe Booth, author of Tyrell, a book featuring a black teen that won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2007, and its sequel, Bronxwoodtold The Atlantic Wire that as a kid growing up around the same time as this writer, she hated reading until she discovered Judy Blume. "Those made me into a reader," she said, "because the books we were forced to read that had black people in them, I didn’t relate to them. As a little black girl growing up in the Bronx, I had no connection to books about sharecroppers or those books that took place in the ‘50s. I discovered Judy Blume. In those books, the perspective was always from the white character; the black character was the 'other.' In the '70s and '80s, the blackness of the person was the story."

An example of what Booth is talking about can be seen in Iggie's House, in which Judy Blume writes of her main (white) character Winnie's reaction to finding out the new family who has moved into her best friend's Iggie's house is black:

The green station wagon rolled into Iggie's driveway. Winnie peeked out from behind the bushes. The car stopped. The back door opened. Two boys and a girl jumped out and ran toward the house. Winnie's mouth fell open. She couldn't believe her eyes. In her excitement she leaned so far forward that she lost her balance and fell over into the mud. She covered her mouth with a muddy hand and kept her eyes on the new people. The mud was soaking through her jeans. She tried not to think about it. The three kids were followed by two grownups. Winnie guessed they were the parents. They were talking and laughing as they hurried toward the house....

[Winnie rushes home to tell her mom]

...Winnie shook her head impatiently. "Mom, never mind about the mud. I saw them, Mom. I saw the new people. And guess what Mom? They're Negro! All of them. The kids and the parents. The whole family's Negro!"

"Yes, I heard about that," Mrs. Barringer answered quietly, without smiling.

This is not to criticize Blume, who published the book in 1970 and who did much to further diversity in YA., whether we're talking about ethnic diversity (Sally J. Freedman is a Jewish girl, if you'll recall) or diversity in terms of content topics for kids. Blume writes on her website of Iggie's House, "The late sixties was a turbulent time in America. Racial tensions were high, especially following the assassination of Martin Luther King. The ongoing fight for racial equality affected all of us, one way or another. At the time, I was almost as naive as Winnie is in this book, wanting to make the world a better place, but not knowing how."

Forty years later, however, the options have not improved as drastically as Blume likely hoped, though there are writers like Booth, Myers, Sherman Alexie, G. Neri, Torrey Maldonado, Neesha Meminger, Virginia Hamilton, Marina Budhos (who is married to Aronson), and Jacqueline Woodson contributing to the racially diverse fare available for young readers. And there is support from the publishing houses. Tracy van Straaten of Scholastic told The Atlantic Wire that diversity has "always been a priority for Scholastic and continues to be." She sent along a list of books for middle grade and Y.A. from the past two years. On it are books like Augusta Scattergood's Glory Be, Pinned by Sharon G. Flake, Sarwat Chadda's The Savage Fortress, Bobby the Brave (featuring Bobby Ellis-Chan) by Lisa Yee, and The Evolution of Evelyn Serrano by Suzanne Manzano.

Yet characters are still, unfortunately, "white by default," as Booth says. "You see books where the character is black, and they have these long descriptions about skin color and so on. That’s so irritating; you never do that if they’re white." And sometimes it's more insidious: Booth also gave examples of book covers that portray white characters when inside of the books those characters are black—Jaclyn Dolamore's, for example.

There's also the rather unfair expectation put upon writers of books featuring non-white characters that they still have to make a statement, or that they're speaking for all people of that race. "It does get frustrating when your book comes out and other people think you’re making a statement about all black people," says Booth. "There are so few books featuring black characters, with the one or five that come out, there's so much pressure to represent all of this particular race." That's not a problem white writers have. People in the industry "need to open up the thinking about what a book by a person of color is supposed to do," she adds. "It’s not an education; why do books by authors of color have to have that much more responsibility? It’s just supposed to be a book. As writers start realizing that, and publishers and teachers and librarians start embracing that, more books will become available."

But the problem is an ongoing and multifaceted one, as entrenched in economics and culture as is racism itself, perhaps. "I think that it will get better, says Booth. "But I’ve gone to conventions and you look across the entire convention floor and see only Jackie [Woodson] and Walter Dean Myers; those are the only black books represented. It’s getting better, but as a percentage, it looks very low." In terms of ethnicities represented, however, there does appear to be improvement. Aronson says, "More recently there’s been a growth in the past less than a decade of representations of Asians and South Asians, because you have a middle-class set of English-speaking writers writing about India, Pakistan, etc. Also, on the Native American side, Sherman Alexie’s Part Time Indian is one of the great books of Y.A. But there aren’t 15 of him, he comes to represent the whole field." Further, some genres within the category are doing better at diversity than others, especially with the popularity of dystopian fiction and fantasy for kids (areas in which it is not being done particularly well). "I think one of the issues is the whole category of Y.A. realism has declined in the face of fantasy and dytopia," said Aronson. "And generally that [fantasy] world, while not particularly white, is not deliberately multi-cultural. I have seen fantasy worlds with gender-bending, with Asian-seeming characters. But it has seemed whiter [than, say, realistic genres]. I expect the next wave to expand or overlap with fantasy/dystopia."

Aronson points out that nonfiction is a genre within Y.A., and that there is a certain amount of mixed-race writing reflected in the category. There are also reported books about immigrant teenagers, for example. Those books tend to come before the novelized versions. But, he says, "The cycles are bound to go faster now, because we’re in a faster world."

It's also possible that some things have gotten worse before they've gotten better, in adult as well as Y.A. markets. As Myers said, "Back in the '70s I could name offhand ten black male writers writing adult fiction. But you can’t do it today. We’re in the recession, books are a discretionary item. Apparently so is diversity. Poor people don’t order books. You need the marketplace to change. It’s very, very difficult." Myers cites three markets for books: bookstores, which follow economic demographics; the library market, which follows geographic demographics, and the educational market, in which teachers make choices. "You don’t find black books in bookstores," he said. "Go outside of New York and there’s just nothing there." In terms of geography, he gave the example of Texas, a huge market, but "people in Texas are very, very conservative, so you’re not going to get too much black or Latino stuff in Texas, and you’re rarely going to get any kind of gay or lesbian literature." The education market, however, is where the change is occurring: "There are more and more African-American teachers, and they’re asking for books," he said. With two main markets not addressing the problem, however, there's a further conundrum, which is that writers who might want to write non-white books simply can't make enough money to sustain their careers. Publishing houses often have "one or two" writers of a particular ethnic (non-white) background, says Booth. Myers adds, "If I write a book that sells 10,000 copies, I think of someone like my friend Jack Gantos, his may sell 30,000 copies. His perceived market is much broader. It’s a demographic thing, which may pressure me out of the market. Many of the writers I came in with weren’t making enough money."

In last week's Y.A. for Grownups, we talked about what "Young Adult" means. In writing today's piece, a sentence from that previous post kept coming to mind. Exploring what Y.A. means for the Young Adult Library Services Association, author and former YALSA president Michael Cart wrote the following:

YALSA finds another of the chief values of young adult literature in its capacity to offer readers an opportunity to see themselves reflected in its pages. Young adulthood is, intrinsically, a period of tension. On the one hand young adults have an all-consuming need to belong. But on the other, they are also inherently solipsistic, regarding themselves as being unique, which – for them — is not cause for celebration but, rather, for despair. For to be unique is to be unlike one’s peers, to be “other,” in fact. And to be “other” is to not belong but, instead, to be outcast. Thus, to see oneself in the pages of a young adult book is to receive the reassurance that one is not alone after all, not other, not alien but, instead, a viable part of a larger community of beings who share a common humanity.

As Aronson said, "in Y.A., you’re trying to speak directly to the reader, for the reader to feel that jolt, that impact, that’s me." Myers shared the story of an 8-year-old girl who came up to him praising his picture book about a dog that plays the blues. "I said, 'You like the blues?'" he told us. "She said no. I said, 'You like dogs?' She said no. I said, 'What did you like?' She said, it looks like me.' If you have a black kid on the cover, black kids will pick it up faster."

The flip side of this is a brutal one: What does it mean when kids don't see themselves on, or in, the books intended for them? As Myers told us, "I was asked by some teachers, 'What's the effect of video games on reading?' At first I was thinking it’s not that much, but a video game will give you more self-esteem than a book [especially a book that you don't see yourself in], so you go for the video games. Air Jordans will give you even more esteem. At 13 or 14, you’ve assessed yourself. You know if you’re good-looking, you know if you’re hip. So many black kids are looking at themselves and saying, 'I ain't much," he said. "This is why you need diversity."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.