Color in YA Publishing


What’s the status of color and other forms of diversity in YA publishing? How does YA publishing compare to the state of things in the industry as a whole?

A couple of weeks ago, Roxane Gay of HTMLGiant published A Profound Sense of Absence, a thought-provoking post on the lack of diversity in the celebrated Best American Short Stories anthology for 2010. Her observations generated a lot of responses, some thoughtful, some contentious. Roxane says of this year’s BASS:

What I felt most while reading BASS was a profound sense of absence. Sure there was a story about black people (written by Danielle Evans, coincidentally) and there was a story about a mechanic, to bring in that working class perspective and there was a story set in Africa, but most of the stories were uniformly about rich white people (often rich, white old men) doing rich white people things like going on safari or playing poker and learning a painful lesson or lamenting old age in Naples. Each of these stories was wonderful and I don’t regret reading them, but the demographic narrowness is troubling. It’s not right that anyone who isn’t white, straight, or a man, reading a book like this, which is fairly representative of the work being published by the “major” journals, is going to have a hard time finding experiences that might, in some way, mirror their own. It’s not right that the best writing in the country, each year, is writing about white people by white people with a few splashes of color or globalism (Africa! Japan! the hood!) for good effect.

I absolutely believe that getting recognized is generally harder for writers who aren’t white and wealthy. This hardly seems like a point worth discussing. My question is: are things any better for YA writers?

While YA publishing has been shamed by recent events (like the whitewashing of covers by Bloomsbury), overall, I’d say that there is a generally positive response to writers who are from underrepresented groups themselves or who feature characters from minorities. I’ve been fortunate to find an agent and an editor who are sympathetic to my work.

(Picture books are a different story. Now that I’m a mom, I’ve been pretty shocked at how white and homogenous the kids’ section at the library is.)

I would like to think, along with the friend who turned me onto Roxane’s post, that part of what makes the YA market robust (in contrast to the anemic general market) is its receptivity to diversity. The hugely talented Sherman Alexie, for example, finally won his first National Book Award with his hilarious YA title, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. As he said when he won the award, “Well, I obviously should have been writing YA all along.” (You can see his acceptance speech here, although you have to skip to 4:38 to get past all the introductory hooplah.) 

Was the YA world able to appreciate something in Alexie that adult publishing professionals failed to? Or am I hopelessly and wrong-headedly optimistic?

There’s more I have to say on this topic, so keep an eye out for thoughts on the representation of culture and race in YA lit and the moral imperative that (maybe) persists in publishing for kids and teens.


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