YA fiction has always been my favorite genre, from before I could sound out the words to an adulthood spent creepily loitering in the YA racks of the library. YA fiction is brave. It has been occasionally dismissed as unserious or shallow, but my experience defies this interpretation (as do the facts: approximately 55 percent of YA books are purchased and read by someone older than 18). But if you aren’t sold, consider that YA fiction is consistently darker, more multifaceted, and more vital than adult fiction. I find YA engaging, challenging, compelling, and meaningful – not just as literature designed to cushion for teens some of the greatest blows of growing up, but as something with value to someone who is a grown-up already.
But a few years ago, as I was teaching middle school English, I began to wonder why all the characters in the books I read were straight, and white, and culturally, religiously, and physically similar to me. The people I saw in the real world – and my students – sure weren’t. One of the loveliest talents of literature of any kind is its ability to expose readers to perspectives, settings, experiences, struggles, and triumphs different from our own. The staggering monochromatism and heteronormativity of YA, then, is something more than flawed: When my students – many of whom were black, and some of whom were gay – cannot look to the literature directed at their demographic to find people who look, think, and act like them, then where can they look? Being able to engage with cultural figures who look like you, who represent you, is a fundamental part of identity and visibility. Representation is a human right sorely absent from most YA fiction.
There are, I’m sure you’ll be quick to mention, a few easy examples of queer characters or protagonists of color in the cultural mainstream – like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for instance, or Katniss, who is described in the books as having “olive skin,” “dark hair,” and “gray eyes.” I think you’ll notice, though, that Jennifer Lawrence, for all her admirable performance in that role, could hardly be described as “olive.” And when truly terrifying amounts of racism came out of the Internet woodwork when African-American Amandla Stenberg was cast to play Rue, a character author Suzanne Collins herself identified as black in the book, you can’t really argue that representation in YA lit isn’t an issue.
In fact, according to a survey of YA books over a three-year period, only “four fifths of one percent” of those books featured contemporary black Americans as characters, and black characters in books set prior to WWII featured most prominently as slaves and sharecroppers. The representation gap is even larger when you consider other cultures, ethnicities, and religions: about 37 percent of Americans are people of color, but only 10 percent of childrens and YA books feature multicultural content or characters of color. Perhaps more bafflingly, the number of YA books featuring characters of color hasn’t increased significantly in more than 18 years. Imagine, then, being one of my students, and rarely, if ever, reading a book with characters who look like you. Imagine seeing your favorite stories make it to the screen and they are nothing like you, and you learn a little more that only those colors of people can be heroes.
LGBTIQA YA literature is even harder to find, and even fewer queer-friendly YA titles exist for fantasy and sci fi fans. Publishers produce only a handful of queer-friendly YA books every year, and agents have gone so far as to ask authors to “straighten” gay characters in their books. Less than one percent of YA novels feature queer characters, but about 20 percent of Americans self-identify as something other than strictly straight. That’s a pretty staggering difference. Imagine learning as you grow that queer people aren’t protagonists because the world we live in has erased queer presence so completely from our fiction. Imagine never finding an escape in fiction from the erasure and discrimination gay teens – and adults – experience.
In the face of all this lack of representation, then, how were my students to find protagonists who looked and acted like them? How was I to find fiction that challenged the white-centric, patriarchal, heteronormative version of reality that I’d always read about?
If those are your questions, too, and you want braver, more representative fiction in your world, then: (1) check out the following YA titles, listed in no particular order; (2) vote with your dollar and your voice for diversity in publishing, and; (3) if I missed any books that deserve a mention below (as I’m sure I have), leave your suggestions in the comments.
The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson, is a sci fi story about a futuristic, matriarchal Brazil, and a society deeply embroiled in the tension between tradition and technology. June Costa, the protagonist, is an artist and a warrior for progress who falls for the city’s new Summer King, Enki — as does her best friend, Gil. The sexuality of characters is never addressed directly: the words “gay” or “straight” are never used, and Enki’s and Gil’s affair, like Enki’s and June’s, is not sensationalized. It simply is, which, combined with Johnson’s skillful worldbuilding and complex characters, creates a rich and compelling read.
The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller, is a beautiful reimagining of Homer’s Iliad. It’s by turns moving, profound, ruthless, action-packed, and tender – much like its source material – all tied together in gently flowing prose that will keep you turning pages. Miller’s debut novel retells the story of Achilles and star-crossed love, laced with the themes of fate, gods, and men that are so paramount in Greek storytelling.
The new incarnation of Ms. Marvel, as written by G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by Adrian Alphona of The Runaways, has created wide ripples in the comic community for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the protagonist, Kamala Khan, a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager who takes up the mantle of the heroine Ms. Marvel. Kamala’s cultural impact in both her universe and ours has been wide, from offering readers a female protagonist with a new perspective, to combating real-world Islamophobia: Some graffiti artists/vigilantes in San Francisco have been covering Anti-Islam advertisements on the sides of buses with images of Kamala to help fight bigotry.
Proxy, by Alex London, is a futuristic, science fiction homage to The Whipping Boy. Penniless Syd is a proxy, and must pay for the wrongdoings of those richer and more privileged than he. When his patron, Knox, kills someone, Syd is sentenced to death for the crime. Syd realizes his only chance is to save/kidnap Knox and flee the city – the ensuing pursuit is a fast-paced adventure that tackles themes of identity, debt, privilege, choice, and opportunity. Syd presents readers with the perspective of a gay person of color, and addresses through the lens of sci fi some very extant issues in modern society.
Orleans, by Sherri L. Smith, takes place after the end of New Orleans and most of the South as we know it. Devastating hurricanes and waves of plague have transformed the city into a flooded wasteland where people are segregated by blood type – the only way they can keep the plague from spreading. Fen is an O-Positive, and when she flees an ambush with her group leader’s newborn, she is determined to get the baby to a better life over the wall, outside the quarantine. Written in an accented stream of consciousness, the story jumps between Fen and Daniel, a scientist from beyond the wall who wants to find a way to cure the plague. Heroine Fen is fierce, brave, and determined, and removed from the romance which frequently drives YA; she is her own. Orleans tackles issues of racism and environmentalism boldly, just like Fen.
Wildfire, by Karsten Knight, is the first of a trilogy starring Ashline Wilde, an adopted Polynesian-American teen who is sent away to Blackwood Academy when an act of astonishing violence (in which Ash may or may not have figured) leaves a girl in her hometown dead. Blackwood, though, has its own secrets, from supernatural monsters that roam the woods around campus, to the host of reincarnated gods and goddesses who call it home, to Ash’s own murderous sister, who has stalked her across the country. The story follows Ash as she uncovers the shadows in her own history and identity, and presents a novel wherein the most important relationship is the one between sisters, and the one with one’s own past.
Huntress, by Malinda Lo, is the fairy-tale-esque adventure of Kaede and Taisin, two girls called upon to restore balance to the human world. Their journey to the fairy kingdom of Tanlili is filled with mystery and danger, and despite their lack of common ground, the girls grow into friends and, perhaps, something more. The story is rife with Chinese mythology and imagery inspired by the I Ching, and is by turns romantic and action-packed. Lesbian relationships are one of the least represented kinds of gay relationships represented in YA fiction*, which makes Malinda Lo’s writing all the more important.
This entry is a little bit of a cheat, because it’s part four of a series, but Wolfcry, by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, follows Oliza Shardae Cobriana, the heir to a torn and mistrustful kingdom. Her people, anthropomorphic shapeshifters, come from two nations who have always been at war, and she is descended from both of them. This complicates the issue of her marriage: tying herself more closely to either nation she rules could mean bloodshed and discord for years to come. Before she can decide, she is kidnapped by mercenaries, and faces different choices altogether, some of which get at the root of her own identity and desires. You can read about the history of Oliza’s kingdom in The Kiesh’ra, starting with volume one: Hawksong.
**If you know of any books I missed, please note them in the comments below! Let’s share the wealth and continue to foster diversity in YA fantasy and sci fi.