Library Resources | Jennifer Sawtelle, MLS| March 11, 2019
Read about five Young Adult (YA) authors who are making a difference for young readers by representing diverse characters in their books.
Representation matters. Literature featuring diverse characters provides not only a mirror for readers who want to see a familiar face and feel comfort, but also a window into an identity, religion or culture for those who may not have opportunities to connect with people unlike themselves.
More and more books for children and young adults are featuring marginalized characters with diverse experiences. These characters include LGBTQIA, people of color, people with disabilities as well as ethnic, religious and cultural minorities. In a post on Nerdy Book Club, Ellen Oh, co-founder and President of We Need Diverse Books, discussed the importance of representation in literature. “I didn’t know that the hole in my heart that had been filled with self-loathing and a wish that I could have been born white, had formed because of a lack of representation. I didn’t know that seeing yourself in the pages of a book would be life transforming.”
The following five YA authors understand the importance of representation and, through their stories, are creating “a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book” (We Need Diverse Books).
Jason Reynolds is a bestselling, award-winning author of books for children and young adults. Although he has written several books, he was a reluctant reader and didn’t complete a whole book until he was in his late teens. There weren’t any books he could identify with: nothing for young readers about being black in America, nothing addressing topics such as drugs or hip hop. He found inspiration in rap and hip-hop. He told Publishers Weekly, “Hip-hop saved me. It gave me permission to use language in a certain way. It validated my community and my friends. It gave our slang a certain elegance.”
In an AudioFile interview available via Literary Reference Center Plus, Reynolds said, “I see the increase in books like mine [featuring characters of color] not as a phenomenon or a trend but as a reflection of reality. Black and brown characters aren’t for black and brown children. Books are going to continue to be integral to change, and all kids need to read about all kids.”
Angie Thomas is the author of the bestselling novel, The Hate U Give, which was inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement. When asked about centering this story on a young back girl, Thomas told The Cut: “I want young black girls to read this and understand: Your voice matters, your life matters.”
Thomas grew up thinking violence was a normal part of life and that’s how so many children feel today. She told Publisher’s Weekly: “I remember the writer I.W. Gregorio saying that we as authors have a chance to provide mirrors and windows. I thought, OK, that’s it: I wanted to provide a little bit of both.”
Adam Silvera is the author of the bestselling novel, More Happy Than Not. Silvera wrote his debut novel as he thought about how sexuality falls within the nature versus nurture debate. He told Paste magazine, “[This] never made sense to me because I wouldn’t have chosen to be a gay teenager in the Bronx if given the choice. […] I wanted … to see what it would take to drive someone away from their heart’s natural desires and become straight instead of gay.”
When BookPage asked Silvera why it is important for him to write LGBTQIA stories for young adults, he said he dreams of having “so many books out there that we can fill entire bookcases. One person’s experience won’t reflect the masses, so we need as many voices out there as possible so more teens can see themselves and meet others unlike themselves.”
More and more books for children and young adults are featuring marginalized characters with diverse experiences.
Elizabeth Acevedo is a National Poetry Slam Champion and winner of a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her debut novel, The Poet X. She wrote this novel for her students and her younger self; to create a space that would feel familiar to Latinx teenagers and act as a mirror. She told Teen Vogue: “I want readers to walk away empowered to live in ways that feel truest to who they are.”
In PBS NewsHour’s “Brief but Spectacular” segment, available via Poetry & Short Story Reference Center, Acevedo explains her poem, “This is for us.” “It's very much thinking about those of us who wrote even when we didn't see ourselves as main characters and for those of us who are writing now, who hopefully will come forward with more examples, but who are also going to carry the torch of saying, our stories are just as important as any other story in the canon.”
Tahereh Mafi is probably best known for her young adult fantasy Shatter Me series. Most recently she published A Very Large Expanse of the Sea, a novel based on her own experiences growing up as a Muslim Iranian-American in America. The novel has been longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
In a 2018 interview with the LA Times, Tahereh Mafi talks about why she decided to write this novel: “I wanted to create something that stood on its own as a response to what’s happening in the world right now. I wanted to create something that spoke for me and I hope will speak for many other young people out there.”
Jennifer manages several EBSCO database products for the school and public library markets. When she’s not at work, she enjoys spending time with her children, reading, sewing and going on random adventures.
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