Embracing Diversity in YA Lit // Shelley Diaz

Shelley Diaz is School Library Journal‘s review team manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. Diaz has a MLIS (Master of Library and Information Science) in Public Librarianship with a certificate in Children’s and YA Services from Queen’s College.

School Library Journal is a publication for school librarians and information specialists who work with children and teenagers. For 60 years, School Library Journal has published award winning articles on literacy, best practices, technology, education policy, and other interests to school libraries and the greater community.

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In Embracing Diversity in YA Lit, Diaz discusses the topic of diversity in children’s and young adult novels, and specifically about how the demand for diverse books is growing. There have been many discussions and initiatives in the past few years, especially with the goal of spreading diverse books and putting them into the hands of young readers. Diaz writes about the importance of creating a better and greater access to diverse books, and how it “helps foster acceptance and understanding of different people,” along with allowing diverse children to see themselves represented in the books they read. Diaz also discuses the struggles and difficulties of publishing diverse books, and how that can be remedied by librarians and books sellers everywhere.

Embracing Diversity in YA Lit

By Shelley Diaz on September 12, 2013

From social media to publishing industry-led initiatives, the call for diversity in children’s and young adult literature has steadily grown into a loud roar in the past months. As part of School Library Journal’s SummerTeen virtual conference, the “Embracing Diversity” panel featuring Karen Arthurton, Jonathan Friesen, James Klise, and Amanda Sun led to a lively and ongoing conversation about the importance of not only publishing books for kids by and about diverse people, but also getting them in the hands of readers. SLJ spoke to industry professionals who are raising awareness on the need for different perspectives in young adult books, and compiled a list of resources to find these titles.


The CBC Diversity Committee was established in 2012 as one of the committees created by the Children’s Book Council, the national nonprofit trade association for children’s trade book publishers. It strives to increase the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to children’s and young adult literature. Alvina Ling, executive editor at Little, Brown, is a founder and chair, and has edited titles by Grace Lin, M


atthew Quick, Bryan Collier, Libba Bray, and Karen Healey.

Ling says that it is important for young readers to have access to books with diverse characters because “it helps foster acceptance and understanding of different people. These titles are for that child who is not seeing himself in the books he’s reading or a child from a different culture to have compassion towards people who are not like him.”

Stacy Whitman, editorial director of Tu, multicultural publisher Lee & Low’s young adult fantasy and science fiction imprint, agrees. She adds, “In our growing multicultural killer of enemiesworld, kids need to know what it is to empathize with people that are different. I think fantasy and science fiction does that best, because you’re already putting yourself in a setting that is already so different.”


Whitman cites recent projects such as Joseph Bruchac’s Killer of Enemies—a postapocalyptic Apache steampunk novel—and Karen Sandler’s conclusion to the Tankborn trilogy, Rebellion, as examples of non-Northwest European and Tolkien-influenced fantasies.

In recent weeks, #DiversityinSFF was a trending conversation on Twitter, of which Whitman was an avid participant. And though according to her it is very similar to the Race Fail 2009 discussion—in which fantasy and sci-fi fans lamented the lack of diversity in the genres—she hopes that this recent flare up will stir into action those with influence in the industry. “The recent Twitter conversation pushed agents to change their submission guidelines, encouraging people of diverse backgrounds to send their work. The publisher Tor also changed their guidelines. I hope others will do the same.”

And while Putnam editor Stacey Barney agrees that the clamor for more diverse books isn’t a recent one, she has noted a change in the discussion in recent years. “It’s creeping up to the top of more people’s agenda. The tenor in the conversation has changed in a positive way. It’s moved beyond ‘we need to have more black characters or black authors’ to ‘we need characters of color who are experiencing everyday events,’ not historical landmarks or in an urban setting.” She cites Crystal Allen’s How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy (HarperCollins, 2011) as a great example of this.

Barney, who has edited several books with diverse characters, such as Tara Sullivan’s Golden Boy (2013), about the albino killings in Tanzania, and Kristin Levine’s The Lions of goldenboyLittle Rock (2012, both Putnam), does believe that more can be done to market books and authors of diverse backgrounds.

“I think people miss the point when they argue that there should be more editors of color, which I think is true,” Barney says. “However, what we lack is an infrastructure that will support these books once they’re published. We’ll see more acquisitions when we have more success stories. We have to remember that this is a business. Editors want to acquire books that will get the best marketing launch possible. We just don’t have that in place yet.”

The desire to promote their books is what inspired Malindo Lo and Cindy Pon to start the diversityinya-tumblr-headerDiversity in YA tour and website in 2011. The two authors discovered that they were both publishing Asian-inspired fantasies that year, and wanted to celebrate them and all diverse teen literature with this initiative. Relaunched in 2012 with a Tumblr account, Pon and Lo continue to promote books about all kinds of diversity, from race to sexual orientation to gender identity and disability.

And while Lo agrees that there’s been a recent explosion in the blogosphere about the subject, she’s also discovered that writers continue to struggle to get their LGBQT books to the public. “As I have talked to more authors, I have heard stories about many of them—published and unpublished—who have been blocked in their endeavors,” she says. “I’m getting this impression that we’re in this stuck point. I’m hoping that the continued discussion raises awareness of this issue, and that there will be considered effort to change that for the better.”

What can librarians do? Whitman suggests, “The last few years people have been talking about the need for diversity, but it’s time to put our money where the mouth is. Librarians have always had finger on the pulse of what their readers need, but these resources haven’t always been available to them.”

Responding to the point that Sun made during Summer Teen about the importance of diversity in YA book covers, one attendee asked how librarians should act in regards to cases of “whitewashing.”

Logo for Disability in Kid Lit website.

Klise, an author and a librarian replied, “I work at an urban high school in Chicago, and know that to engage my very diverse student population in reading for fun, I need to display books with faces they can identify with. We have to be aware of the disabilitykidlit[whitewashing] cases. It makes for really provocative conversation for my book club at school. The teens share my outrage—and outrage, when funneled into activism, is what makes the world change for the better.”

Whitman adds that librarians can make sure to include diverse books in their collection development budget, even if their communities are not diverse. “Look for awesome books no matter what the characters’ backgrounds may be. Even if your community isn’t diverse, the world is. Buy your books accordingly. Seek out resources to help you booktalk those titles. The resources are out there; become aware of them and use and share them with your colleagues.”

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