The Nuanced Role of Diversity in Children’s and YA Books

If you’ve been at all privy to publishing discourse in the past few years, you’ll know that diversity and representation have become huge talking points, especially in the YA and children’s sectors. Mega-hits like The Hate U Give and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before have demonstrated young readers’ appetites for own-voice and minority-focused fiction — and while these books might have been contentious a decade ago, today they’ve laid the groundwork for an explosive trend that publishers big and small are determined to capitalize on.

As with all trends, this has begat varying results. Of course, many children’s books are unquestionably written and illustrated with great care, especially when the author or illustrator comes from the same background and has had the same experiences as their subject(s) — resulting in the aforementioned own-voice narratives.

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A prime example would be a creator like Yuyi Morales, who published her children’s book Dreamers in September 2018. Dreamers follows the true story of Morales’ 1994 move from Xalapa, Mexico to the U.S., where she made a home with her infant son. This tale of identity, immigration, and belonging, rendered through a combination of moving prose and evocative illustrations, has appealed widely to children and adults alike — appearing on the New York Times Best Seller list and netting Morales her sixth Pura Belpré Award for illustration.

Books like Morales’ play a crucial role in a) helping children understand cultural experiences besides their own, and b) providing much-needed representation for children who otherwise see very little of themselves in the stories they read. Fortunately, it would seem that most children’s authors and illustrators (indeed, many of which feature on this blog) are creators of a similar stripe: either working from personal experience or conducting in-depth research with interviews, consultations, and beta reads/reviews from the appropriate groups.

That said, the not-so-positive manifestations of diversity in children’s and YA books range from apparently well-intentioned blunders to more outright ignorant ones. Some readers may recall the 2015 controversy surrounding Emily Jenkins (pen name E. Lockhart) and Sophie Blackall’s picture book A Fine Dessert, which drew criticism for its sanitized depiction of American slavery. Readers and commentators took particular issue with illustrations showing an enslaved young black girl and her mother picking blackberries with smiles on their faces.

Author and illustrator have since clarified their intentions to “represent American life in 1810 without ignoring that part of our history” — no doubt a noble goal. But many have questioned whether this kind of representation, lacking critical context, is entirely responsible. Most people seem to agree that Jenkins and Blackall didn’t set out to whitewash slavery, and that to include more context than they did would have been out-of-place in an otherwise lighthearted book… but that doesn’t change the misleading, potentially harmful nature of the illustrations.

Arguably worse are books that appear genuinely representative, only for a closer examination to suggest that they’re predicated on minimal research and cultural stereotypes. This was the fate of e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce, a highly anticipated YA novel that received significant backlash for its portrayal of black teenagers and the invented “street slang” used throughout the book.

Reviewers attacked the author (who is Mexican-American) for appropriating another culture just to sell books, particularly in light of the dialect. Jennifer Baker — founder of the Minorities in Publishing podcast — said it showed “blatant disregard and lazy vocabulary creation that’s continually insulting in the hopes that it’s avant-garde.” Now, despite glowing advance reviews from major outlets like Publishers Weekly, When We Was Fierce has been indefinitely delayed.

All of this implies that the mere presence of diversity is not sufficient, especially in children’s books and YA literature: the representative characters also need to be three-dimensional and thoroughly researched, or drawn directly from the author’s personal experience. And while there’s clearly both the need and desire for diversity in these books, every author must approach it with immense caution and care.

Finally, authors and illustrators should keep in mind that, should their work come under scrutiny and emerge in a less-than-flattering light, they will be the ones blamed for it — while editors, advance readers, and publishers mostly walk free. Readers may be familiar with the case of Amélie Wen Zhao, whose YA fantasy Blood Heir was slated for a June 2019 release before allegations of racial insensitivity pressured her to pull it.

Zhao alone faced intense criticism on Goodreads and Twitter, despite being attached to a major publisher (Delacorte Press, a Random House imprint) that should have done due diligence before moving forward. And though Bloor Heir has now been partially rewritten and is set to come out in November, Zhao’s reputation has taken a serious hit — while Random House, needless to say, remains unaffected. Zhao’s individual collaborators also remain unnamed and unblamed, despite being similarly (if not more, in the case of her beta readers) culpable.

The inevitable conclusion here is that, when it comes to children’s and YA books, the diversity stakes and standards are extremely high. But then again, as success stories demonstrate, so are the rewards — for both authors and readers. And when you think about it, there’s a good reason that thoughtless and/or tokenistic diversity faces such severe consequences: because this kind of stuff really matters, especially to young, impressionable readers.

These stories help them form concepts of the world, and even a seemingly innocent omission can have a profound impact, often demarcating the line between superficial acknowledgement and true understanding. So if you happen to be an author or illustrator for young audiences, do not take the responsibility lightly. Children are the future, and you contribute to how they view the world — now and, very possibly, forever.