A Look at Diversity in Books, and Why There Seems to be None
Often, the fiction sections of libraries and bookstores are absent of books written with a diverse main character. Memoirs and other nonfiction works that are written by people of color, people with disabilities, people of the LGBT+ community, etc., are great for teens to read because they show real life experiences of someone they can look up to. However, fiction books create new worlds with heroic characters, and if these characters aren’t relatable to the readers, they won’t read them.
Books are important, especially for adolescents and young adults because they contain characters that the readers identify with and look up to. However, they aren’t going to be able to identify with a character that doesn’t truly represent them. Being able to see that someone similar to you achieve or do something is empowering, but if a Chinese girl only sees and reads about white characters, she might not be able to associate herself with them as she could if the main character was also Chinese.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Fault in our Stars, Divergent, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter: All these books are extremely popular, and their main characters are all white. “Where’s the African-American Harry Potter or the Mexican Katniss?” Matt de la Peña, author of six young adult novels including Mexican WhiteBoy and The Living, said during his CNN interview with Ashley Strickland. In fantasy and science fiction novels, the main character is almost always the hero, and the fact that strong and heroic protagonists are almost only being written in one race, however unintentionally, gives the impression that all heroes are that one race.
There are many different organizations and online groups who are pushing for diverse authors and novels to be published. Rich in Color, WNDB, and DiYA are just a few, all focused on different aspects of the readers and writers. Rich in Color dedicates themselves to writers and characters who are of color or from the First / Native Nations, We Need Diverse Books focuses on finding diverse characters in children’s books, and Diversity in YA obviously looks at young adult novels. Having a place where readers can find novels written by and / or starring diverse protagonists is extremely beneficial, especially since many bookstores and libraries don’t have an official section exclusively for diverse books in their stores, including Barnes and Noble.
Barnes and Noble is one of the most popular chain of bookstores in the United States with a total of six hundred and forty stores, selling everything from adult thriller novels to children’s alphabet books. Unfortunately, they don’t have a section in their store (or on their website) where you can browse just the diverse books. A quick Amazon search of young adult novels with minority protagonists brings you a good selection of books, but it’s still not the same as walking right into the store and getting what you wanted. This means that if you want to buy a book with an African American protagonist for an African American teen you’re going to either have to try to find one to order online, or you’ll have to search all of the fiction shelves in the store. Having to tell which books will have diverse characters in them just based on the cover is not an easy task—they can be misleading.
I’m not at all saying that there aren’t books out there with main characters who are people of color. However, even some of these books end up falling victim to the publisher’s commands. Creating cover images with models who do not at all portray the character is one of the ways that these publishers try to control the sales of the book. The three things that could happen to a book cover with a POC character are that the character is portrayed by a model who is white instead of the character’s race, the cover model’s race is purposefully ambiguous, or the character is just put completely in silhouette, says Annie Schutte, a blogger for YALSA, the Young Adult Library Services Association. “As a librarian, I actively seek out stories that feature protagonists of all races, ethnicities, sexualities, and backgrounds. But looking at the shelves, you can barely tell sometimes because the books featuring non-white characters fade into the background behind the eye catching, white faces that stare at you from so many covers.”
Some publishing companies are, and have been, getting away with white-washing covers of novels for years, and they don’t seem to be stopping. Some people could argue that since they are still publishing the novels, it doesn’t matter what the cover looks like—but I would not. If these companies continue to publish novels that have minority protagonists with white models on their covers, not only will minority readers not connect with the books the way they should, but also these companies will be showing that portraying a minority person as white is okay.
But is it all the fault of the publishers?
There are many lists online of the best novels of 2016 that include books with a diverse protagonist or books written by a minority author, however we don’t see them on the best-sellers lists. The question now is: are the publishers not publishing diverse books, or are the readers just not reading them? If the readers are consistently buying these books instead of books written by minority authors, that gives the publishers the incentive to keep publishing similar books.
Jessica Powers, an editor at Cinco Puntos Press, believes it’s not a matter of the books not selling, but how the sales are being represented. Since the best-sellers list is comprised of the sales of only a few bookstores, the list is skewed and can not be fully accurate. One of Cinco Puntos’ best selling authors, Joe Hayes, has sold over one million copies of his book to children in schools. Those sales aren’t represented in the best-sellers lists because they didn’t take place through a certain bookstore. She says, “I don’t think the problem is so much that people aren’t buying those books, the question is where are they buying those books and how can people be aware of that so that there can be an even greater transformation of publishing in the U.S.?”
And how can we make more people aware? Corporate publishing companies sticking to the status quo will continue to keep them wealthy, but that’s not their only option. Powers thinks “if mainstream publishers realized they could make money doing it, they would start publishing more. But for them to realize they can make money doing it, they have to start looking at the whole system differently and transform all of it.”