Why We Need Diverse YA Books That Represent Marginalized Characters In All Of Their Complex, Quirky Glory

Ad failed to load

When I think of John Green, I immediately think of The Fault in Our Stars' Augustus Waters popping an unlit cigarette into his mouth and calling it a metaphor. Green's characters have been described as adorably "quirky" for this reason precisely. They use big words, they listen to indie music, and they take their metaphors way too far. By the time TFIOS was published in 2012 Green had become a pop culture phenomenon, helping — along with many others — to usher in an exciting rise of visibility for YA literature. It soon became evident, though, that many marginalized authors were not being given equal space at the table. We Need Diverse Books was founded in 2014 in direct response to the desperate need for more stories by and about marginalized people, eventually leading to another reinvigoration of YA.

The non-profit organization was co-founded by authors Ellen Oh and Dhonielle Clayton, with the mission of putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of more children. In order to do this, the group advocates for the publication of books about all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities. And the results behind this movement have been astounding. Lee & Low released new data in 2017 which shows that more than a quarter of all YA books published in 2016 featured characters of color, compared to just 10 percent in 2013. In the last two years, we've seen more YA books than ever before covering crucial issues like racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, sexual assault, and mental illness.

But while the conversation surrounding diverse books has since expanded to include the call to prioritize Own Voices stories — books about diverse characters, which are written by authors from that same diverse group —publishing has been slower to catch up with this aspect of diverse books. According to the same Lee & Low study, only six percent of the YA books published in 2016 were written by Black, Latinx and Native authors combined. Which means, in essence, that we are only hearing six percent of their stories. Has this lack of Own Voices books unknowingly limited the way we define diversity in publishing?

Ad failed to load

It's a question I've been asking myself as a lover of YA, so I was nodding my head in agreement when debut author Arvin Ahmadi, whose YA novel Down and Across will be published on Feb. 6, recently brought the conversation to Twitter. Ahmadi took to social media to share some early criticism he has received about the characters in his novel. "I want to talk about a piece of criticism that's been bugging me lately," Ahmadi writes. "That certain characters are 'implausible' or 'too quirky.' Or maybe even 'unrealistic.'"

Ad failed to load

Ahmadi didn't elaborate on where the criticism had come from, but I think it does demonstrate a need to re-explore what readers expect from diverse books — and that conversation must start with the publishing industry. As has been widely noted, publishing is still overwhelmingly white and straight. A piece published in Publisher's Weekly in March 2016 shared the results of a survey in which it was determined that 79% of the overall industry was white. The same survey, published by Lee & Low, also stated that the overall industry was 89% straight/heterosexual, 96% non-disabled, and a shocking 99% cisgender. Equally importantly, book reviewers, too, overwhelmingly fall into the white, cis and straight categories.

Everyone is inevitably influenced by their own experience. So, I don't think it's a stretch to say that the lack of marginalized people helping to publish books by and about others from marginalized groups has a direct affect on the way these books are handled. And this has become readily apparent throughout the industry, not only in YA — in Nov. 2017, for instance, author Leonard Chang shared that his adult novel was rejected because his Korean-American characters didn't act "Asian enough."

YA author Adam Silvera, known for books like More Happy Than Not and History Is All You Left Me, both gritty, emotional takes on gay teen lives, chimed in to Ahmadi's thread with his own thoughts on the subject.

Ad failed to load

In my own experience of reading YA, I have picked up on the same trend that Ahmadi and Silvera have alluded to. I have struggled to find books, for instance, about Latinx American families that closely resemble my own. While I can't overstate the importance of shining a light on the harsh realities of immigrant lives and narratives about teens who are finding their voice within more traditional patriarchal or religious Latinx families, neither of those quite fit my own experience, or even my mother's experience. I've enjoyed these books, and I've learned so much about my own privilege by reading them, but they I don't really see myself in their pages. And I'm willing to bet that there are other Latinx readers who feel the same way.

It's obviously a problem when anyone decides that the only time marginalized characters are authentic is when they are representing more widely accepted portrayals, but there is something more subtle at play here, too — the incorrect insistence that all people from marginalized backgrounds are only living authentically if they are dealing with pain or abuse of some kind, most often directly related to their race, religion, or sexuality. In other words, white, cis, straight characters can be "quirky," despite whatever else they're going through, but marginalized characters cannot. This idea is doing a huge disservice to readers everywhere.

Ad failed to load

Yes, those lives are real, too, and those stories of pain and loss are crucial. The wide-reaching impact of Angie Thomas's powerful 2016 debut about racism and police brutality, The Hate U Give, is alone enough to prove the importance of this shift. Even John Green's latest book, Turtles All the Way Down, is a powerful Own Voices look at mental illness. But these are not the only stories. In order to truly champion diversity in publishing, we need to make sure we are making room for diverse authors who want to write the Latinx Fangirl, the black Paper Towns, the Asian Anna and the French Kiss. Books like Jenny Han's To All the Boys I've Loved Before series and Maurene Goo's upcoming The Way You Make Me Feel, out in May, are already paving the way for more diverse stories like these. But we need to insist on an inclusive publishing industry that recognizes all kinds of diverse stories as important, and one that allows marginalized people to exist, just as they are, "quirky" or not.

Because that teenage feeling of being socially awkward, the strangeness of finding love for the first time, the importance of discovering lifelong passions, and being supported by loving families — none of these things are exclusive to white, straight, cis people, and so should not be relegated to white, straight, cis characters. When we say that any one person's experience is only acceptable when it matches up to that of other people's experiences in that same group, we are perpetuating the dangerous stereotype that all "insert identity here" are the same — which is one of the biggest issues that diverse and Own Voices books are fighting against in the first place. With more marginalized people at every step of the publishing process, from writer to editor to publicist and beyond, we can start to insure that everyone's voice is truly heard, however many different molds they fit into.

We need more diverse books. Diverse books about important issues, diverse romances, diverse fantasies, diverse coming-of-age, diverse books so widely published that anyone, from any group, can see themselves represented within the pages. And the only way to ensure that is to let a wide variety of diverse people tell their own stories, however complicated, complex, and quirky they may be. It's not a problem that can be fixed overnight, but as Ahmadi says in his Twitter thread, "People are complex. Especially diverse folks. We should be allowed to be 'too quirky' or 'slighty implausible.'" Here's hoping that this is only the start of a new moment in publishing where we fight for these characters, and their stories, too.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

Your Weekend Love Horoscope For May 19-20, 2018

We’re constantly fascinated by what our zodiac sign says about our lives, whether it's which signs are most compatible or how each sign handles conflict in relationships. That's why Bustle has enlisted Mecca Woods, a New York City-based astrologer of…
By Mecca Woods

7 Last-Minute Royal Wedding Party Ideas Worth Waking Up Early For

We're only two days away from the royal wedding, so it's safe to assume Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are finished with their planning (we hope). But if you're a commoner who's procrastinated on planning a watch party, you still have time to decorat…
By Ayana Lage

10 Little-Known British Traditions Meghan Markle Will Learn When She Marries Prince Harry

As an American woman dating a Brit, I am no stranger to the mishaps that can result from the cultural differences between the U.S. and England. And while I'm sure Meghan Markle has a slew of royal traditions to learn, titles to remember, and fancy ha…
By Kristin Magaldi

16 Brand New YA Rom-Coms To Add To Your Summer Reading List

Ah, summer. Post-Memorial Day it's all about being outside in the sunshine, lazy pool days and exciting beach trips, warm weather treats, and — most important of all — tote bags packed to the brim with all of the biggest and best summer reads. Whatev…
By Kerri Jarema

I've Paid $18,000 To A $24,000 Student Loan, & I Still Owe $24,000

It all became real the summer before my senior year of college. It was 2010, and my home phone still had a cord, which I wrapped around my fingers as I waited not-so-patiently for the apathetic representative on the other end to tell me the bad news …
By Kaitlyn Cawley

12 Personality Quizzes That Will Help You Determine Your Exact Strengths

Learning more about yourself can be tough. It's so easy to observe others to learn what makes them tick, what areas they really excel in, and the things they could be better at. Doing that to yourself, however, is a whole different story. That's exac…
By Jessica Booth

5 Brand New Short Story Collections You Can Finish In One Sitting This Weekend

Since 2013, May has been known by book-lovers by another name: Short Story Month. If you're ready to kick off this year's celebration the right way, make sure to pick up a short story collection to read over the weekend. Modern life moves more than …
By Sadie Trombetta

I Got Styled By 'Queer Eye's Tan France & Realized I Still Have A Lot Of Fashion "Rules" To Unlearn

When I walked into a New York City Express store on May 2 to get styled by Queer Eye's Tan France, I was ready for anything. And I mean truly anything. I am such a massive fan of the show and Tan that if he had instructed me to wrap myself in tin foi…
By Olivia Muenter

It Isn’t Bad To Have A “Princess Fantasy” — Mine Made Me The Woman I Am Today

What do you want to be when you grow up? If you were anything like me as a kid, at some point, the answer to that question was "a princess." Thanks to good old-fashioned gender stereotypes, most little girls born in the '90s (and even now) grew up in…
By Nicole Pomarico

9 Mother's Day Gifts For Your Mom That Also Give Back

Mother’s Day is around the corner, and unless you’re the type who’s got gift-giving on lock months in advance — and seriously, who is that person? — you might be scrambling a bit for great Mother's day 2018 gift ideas. And while it’s important to cho…
By Carolyn de Lorenzo

Here’s How To Get A FREE 30-Minute Facial At Sephora That Sucks Your Pores Clean

Sephora has long been a mecca for both serious and amateur beauty lovers alike, where they not only have makeup artists that help answer questions about products, but free samples to let you play with new collections. But now they have upped the ante…
By Marlen Komar

Kris Jenner Is FINALLY Launching A Makeup Line With Kylie

Maybe you don't have a favorite sister of the Kar-Jenner clan, and that's perfectly fine. The one thing you can't deny, though, is that when it comes power, no one in that family has more than the world famous momager. Now, Kris Jenner x Kylie Cosmet…
By Shea Simmons

This Kendall Jenner “Diva” Moment Is Really Being Taken Out Of Context

The fashion always takes center stage at the Met Gala, but there's usually a little drama, too. And this time, a member of the Kardashian-Jenner family is involved. People are buzzing about how Kendall Jenner shoved someone at the Met Gala, but after…
By Nicole Pomarico

Feel Like You've Seen Everything On Netflix? Add These Movies To Your Watch List

The weekend may feel too far away, but if you're lacking formal plans, a Netflix marathon session is always a good idea. If you're an avid viewer, however, you probably feel like you've seen everything the streaming platform has to offer already. In …
By Ashley Rey

These 4 Zodiac Signs Are Going To Have The Best Luck In Love This May

Spring fever is here, but not all signs in the zodiac are dealt the same dose of lovin'. Some signs are going to have a better love lives than the rest of us in May, because that's just the way the cookie crumbles. According to astrologer Linda Furia…
By Kaitlyn Wylde

9 Hacks For Fighting Jet Lag That Actually Work

Jet lag is the worst. There's no doubt about it. And it's only natural to want to find a way to prevent it. Searching for jet lag cures online often means encountering expensive products and sketchy supplements. Luckily, there are ways to train your …
By Eva Taylor Grant

Hillary Clinton Says She's Ready To Fight Like A Republican — EXCLUSIVE

Hillary Clinton Is Not Going Away Quietly. Can Hillary Clinton Please Go Quietly Into The Night? Unlike Losers Before Her, Clinton Is Not Going Gently Into the Night. These headlines, which appeared in various news outlets over the course of the last…
By Catherine Thompson and Jenny Hollander

Here's The Very Best Time To Book Your Summer Vacation If You're Trying To Save Money

Summer is a great time to travel, for obvious reasons. The weather is better. Many offices are more lax about time off. If you have kids, they’re out of school. But there’s one very important element that makes summer not a great time to travel: Cost…
By Emma McGowan
)}