Are All Lists Created Equal? Diversity in Award-Winning and Bestselling Young Adult Fiction

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by Casey H. Rawson

Abstract

With increasingly diverse service populations, especially among younger patrons, libraries are in need of more titles featuring individuals from varied backgrounds. Librarians often rely upon preassembled title lists, such as YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) list or the Publishers Weekly bestsellers list, to make collection development decisions. This study examined three such lists for the prevalence of diverse protagonists, with the goal of determining which list most closely aligns with actual demographic data for U.S. teens. Award-winning, Teens’ Top Ten, and bestselling titles were included in the study. Overall, the award-winning title list included the highest percentage of protagonists belonging to most marginalized demographic groups, while the bestselling title list included the lowest percentages in these categories. However, all three lists underrepresented protagonists from certain demographic categories. Based on these results, it is recommended that librarians supplement list-based collection development with purposive collection of titles featuring minority protagonists and/or written by minority authors.1

Librarians who serve young adults are already seeing increasingly diverse service populations, and this diversity extends beyond race and ethnicity to include adolescents representing a wide range of religions, family backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and sexual orientations. Making collection development decisions that will meet the needs of such varied populations is a challenge compounded by the current economic climate, which has seen library budgets and staff positions slashed across the nation.

Numerous studies have emphasized the importance of giving young adults access to titles in which they can see a reflection of themselves—a character or author who shares their race, religion, living conditions, or sexual orientation. Yet in libraries with limited budgets and limited staff, determining which titles will accurately represent the diverse service population of that library might be considered too time-consuming. While popular review sources such as MultiCultural Review and VOYA provide author and character information for many young adult titles, perusing each issue of these sources is a lengthy process. Thus, many libraries rely heavily on preassembled title lists, such as YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) list or the Publishers Weekly Children’s Bestsellers list, to determine their acquisitions. In some cases, such lists are actually written into libraries’ collection development policies. But does either of these lists accurately reflect the diversity of the nation’s young adult population?

 

Selecting for a Diverse Population: Why Spend the Time?

Several studies report that, despite fears to the contrary, the majority of U.S. adolescents still read outside of school.2 However, national reading statistics, especially for minority students, paint a grim picture of literacy: while 41% of white students scored at or above proficiency on eighth-grade reading tests (a low number itself), only 14% of black students and 17% of Hispanic students reached proficiency.3 Similar results are obtained when family income is examined: only 16% of those eligible for the National School Lunch Program scored at or above proficiency, compared to 42% of students who are ineligible for the lunch assistance program.4

Given the poor literacy rates and growing numbers of minority students, strategies for improving variables relating to reading and literacy among these groups abound in educational and library science literature. One strategy which has received significant attention involves connecting young adults with literature in which they can find themselves accurately reflected.5 And while much has been written about literature for various races and ethnicities, it is important to note that diversity has many dimensions, including gender, nationality, religion, family status, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and disability.6 As stated in one study examining multiple dimensions of diversity, “Constricting the discussion of multiculturalism to groups identifiable by racial identity alone excludes other marginalized groups from the debate and perpetuates their marginalization.”7 A brief summary of the findings of studies that have looked at each of these variables is provided below.

Gender: While a number of studies have examined issues related to gender in children’s literature, less has been done concerning young adult literature. Among children’s literature studies, the focus has been on analyzing not only the numbers of male vs. female characters, but also the portrayals of those characters in comparison to stereotypical gender-specific behaviors or characteristics.8 While in general these studies have found that female characters are both underrepresented and stereotyped within the studied samples, at least one study found that portrayals of males and females in nontraditional gender roles are on the rise.9

Race and Nationality: According to demographers, 2010 marked a turning point for the United States: last year, for the first time in American history, more minority babies were born in the U.S. than white babies.10 By the middle of this century, minorities are expected to comprise a majority of the U.S. population; among the under-eighteen population, that landmark is expected to be reached in the next decade. Many studies have looked at the role of race in children’s and young adult literature and/or the prevalence of minority characters in titles for this age group. The seminal study was conducted by Nancy Larrick in 1965; this study looked at 5,000 children’s books published in the early 1960s and found that only 6.7% included at least one African American character.11 Since Larrick’s work, additional research has been done into children’s and young adult literature for or about African Americans,12 Hispanics,13 Asians,14 and Native Americans,15 among other minority groups. These and other studies have consistently found that minority-race characters are underrepresented in fiction for children and young adults, and that existing portrayals of minority characters are often riddled with stereotypes or otherwise negative images. Studies addressing nationality of authors or characters are less common. One study that dealt with the issue of nationality in fiction novels found that titles by American authors included a higher number of minority-race characters than titles by foreign authors; however, minority characters in books by U.S. authors were more likely to be one-dimensional and stereotypical in their portrayal than minority characters in books by foreign authors.16

Religion: “Sex, politics, and religion are the three traditionally taboo subjects in polite American society,” wrote Patty Campbell, “and in young-adult literature the greatest of these taboos is religion.”17 While little if any quantitative research has been done in this area, several researchers have completed limited content analysis studies on young adult titles which do have religious themes and characters.18 These authors conclude that given the prevalence of religion among adolescents and the U.S. population as a whole, there is a significant scarcity of titles dealing with religious themes being written for this age group.

Family Status: Despite the fact that adolescence is marked by increasing independence and separation from one’s parents or guardians, family structure is still an important element of diversity; the impact that a teen’s family setting has on the teen’s outside life cannot be ignored. Most studies in this area have focused on portrayal of families in television media; however, some authors have written about the role of family structure in the young adult novel, focusing on how teen fiction can be used to teach about the diversity of family types and other family issues.19

Sexual Orientation: Several content analysis studies have been published relating to the portrayal of LGBT characters in fiction for young adults.20 These studies have found that portrayal of LGBT characters varies from novels which present homosexuality as a problem to be overcome to novels which are sympathetic to the character or view homosexuality as simply one relatively unremarkable facet to the character’s personality and lifestyle. In general, most research on this topic agrees that while some instances of problematic portrayals of LGBT characters persist, the trend is toward a more complex, sympathetic representation of these characters.

Socioeconomic Status: The 2009 American Community Survey found that 20% of children under the age of eighteen are living below the poverty line.21 One study found that texts offered to children in poverty often present poverty as a temporary problem, a construct which is far removed from the systemic poverty actually experienced by these children.22 On the other end of the class spectrum, YA books about the fabulously wealthy (i.e. the Gossip Girl, A-List, and Privileged series) are enjoying robust sales despite what many see as negative or even damaging portrayals of teenage sex, drugs, and the “mean-girl” lifestyle. In a 2006 article, Naomi Wolf harshly criticized these books for their depictions of class issues: “In the world of the “A-List” or “Clique” girl, inverting Austen (and Alcott), the rich are right and good simply by virtue of their wealth…Success and failure are entirely signaled by material possessions.”23

Disability: Numerous studies have attempted to quantify and/or evaluate fiction for children and teens that includes characters with physical or mental disabilities.24 These studies stress the importance of such literature, especially in educational settings where disabled students are integrated into mainstream classrooms. As one researcher states, “Reading good literature can do much more than teach literary skills. Promotion of positive attitudes toward inclusion and students with disabilities must take place.”25

Thus, literature that includes diverse characters gives adolescents “an opportunity to see their own faces reflected in the pages of good books.”26 Yet it is not only their own reflections which are of value for young adults; encountering characters unlike themselves can be of equal value. As Hazel Rochman states in her book Against Borders: Promoting Books for a Multicultural World, “Books can make a difference in dispelling prejudice and building community; not with role models and literal recipes, not with noble messages about the human family, but with enthralling stories that make us imagine the lives of others.”27 Providing a diverse collection of young adult literature is not merely about increasing test scores or leisure reading; some researchers maintain that such literature is vital for overall success in life. One such researcher argues that adolescents who never see themselves reflected in literature may develop a decreased sense of self-worth and may come to believe that they have little value within either the school or social community.28

So if diverse texts are championed by research, why aren’t they more visible in libraries that serve young adults? Studies have identified several barriers to the use and collection of such titles. One barrier is a lack of education and training among educators and librarians regarding diverse texts.29 Another, perhaps more critical, obstacle is the scarcity of titles written by authors from diverse backgrounds.30

Despite these barriers, building a diverse library collection for young adult patrons is possible. Given time constraints experienced by all professionals, including librarians, identifying categories of items which fulfill a demonstrated need is an important goal of professional research. The study described below compares three categories of young adult literature in terms of character diversity; the goal is to assist librarians by providing guidelines which will help them identify booklists that more accurately reflect the diversity of their young adult populations.

 

Research Methods

Included Titles

Three categories of young adult fiction were analyzed to determine their relative levels of diversity in terms of protagonists. The three categories of literature included in the study are:

  1. Award-Winning Young Adult Fiction: This category included fiction novels which won either the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, the Printz Honor, or the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) award between 2000 and 2009. Fiction titles appearing on both the Printz and BBYA Top Ten lists were only counted once.  
  2. Teen-Selected Top Ten Fiction Titles: Each year, fifteen teen book groups at libraries across the country nominate a list of current young adult titles to be included in YALSA’s “Teens’ Top Ten” contest. In August and September, teens are allowed to vote for their three favorite titles through the YALSA website. The ten titles that receive the most votes are announced each year during Teen Read Week. Fiction titles appearing on this list between 2003 (the first year this list was published) and 2009 were included in the study. This group represents a middle ground between the award-winning books (which are determined by adults and are generally considered to emphasize literary quality over popularity) and the bestselling books discussed below.  
  3. Bestselling Young Adult Fiction: The ten top-selling young adult fiction titles for each year between 2000 and 2009 as determined by Publishers Weekly made up the third group of titles in this study. The Publishers Weekly bestsellers list includes both children’s and YA titles; children’s titles were discarded from the list and only items published for ages twelve and up (as determined by book review sources) were included in the study. Only “frontlist” books published in each calendar year were included to eliminate duplications.  

Books appearing in more than one of the above categories were counted once in each applicable category. The data collected were compared across subgroups and with the actual demographics of the United States teen population, as determined by U.S. census data and other demographic resources such as the National Center for Education Statistics.  

 Coding Categories

As discussed above, diversity has more than one dimension. This study examined dimensions of gender, race, nationality, religion, family status, socioeconomic status (SES), sexuality, and disability (presence or absence) for protagonists of each title. Most books had only one protagonist, but some titles had multiple main characters; in those cases, all protagonists were analyzed. For each dimension of diversity, the following categories were used:

  • Gender: Male and Female were the only categories included in this study; no transgendered or third-gendered protagonists were found.
  • Race/ethnicity: U.S. Census categories for race were used in this study: White, Black/African American, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian. An additional category of “Other” was included for protagonists who did not belong to any of these groups.
  • Nationality: Birth country was recorded for protagonists.
  • Religion: The category for this dimension included three major religions: Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Two additional categories were included: “Not Mentioned,” for titles which do not specify a religious background for their protagonists, and “Other” for titles in which the protagonist practices a religion other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.
  • Family structure: Categories for family structure were adapted from Nisse (2008).31 Protagonists were coded as having Dual Parents if they lived in a home with two biological parents or one biological parent and a stepparent. Protagonists were coded as having a Single Parent if they lived with only their biological mother or father. Two categories were used for protagonists being raised by non-parents: Guardianship by a Relative or Guardianship by a Non-Relative. If the protagonist lived on their own, they were placed into the Orphan/No Guardian category.
  • Socioeconomic status: Protagonists were coded as belonging to either the Low, Middle, or High socioeconomic class. “Low” was defined for this study as lacking some basic needs such as food or shelter, “Middle” was defined as having sufficient resources to meet all basic needs, and “High” was defined as having an abundance of resources.
  • Sexuality: Protagonists in this study fell into four sexual identity categories: Straight, Gay, Bisexual, and Questioning. In cases where the protagonist had no demonstrated romantic interest within the novel, the character was coded as being straight.
  • Disability: Characters were coded as either having a disability or not based on the criteria defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: “An individual is considered to have a ‘disability’ if s/he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”32

Two additional pieces of information—genre and setting—were recorded for each title. Genre determinations were made with the assistance of the NoveList database and tag clouds from LibraryThing. Even with the assistance of these resources, many titles did not clearly fit into a single genre, and in such cases the ultimate decision was made by the researcher. Four setting categories—Rural, Suburban, Urban, and Other—were used to describe the predominant location of each title. The “Other” category was used when a variety of settings appeared in the same book with no single setting achieving clear prominence, as in several of the action and adventure or fantasy books.

Literature databases were used as the primary data source for this study, with the actual titles being used when necessary to confirm ambiguous data or to determine missing data. The primary review sources consulted were NoveList and the Children’s Comprehensive Literature Database (CCLD), both of which contain basic bibliographic information and reviews for a range of titles. Reviews incorporated into each database record come from Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA), Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and a variety of other sources. Tag clouds on LibraryThing (http://www.librarything.com) were also consulted for some titles and were of particular help when determining genre. Characters were coded as belonging to one of the above categories where explicitly stated in the review sources or where clearly inferable from the original text. For some titles, even when the title itself was consulted, some characteristics of the protagonist remained ambiguous. In those cases, no further effort was made to acquire the missing data.

 

Results

A total of 248 unique titles were included in this analysis—114 award-winning novels, 74 Teens’ Top Ten novels, and 92 bestselling novels. Some books appeared on more than one of these lists. Over 90% of titles were successfully coded for all variables; of the remaining, no book had more than three uncoded variables. The key findings from this study are reported below.

Underrepresented Protagonist Categories

Several categories of protagonists were underrepresented in the data set across all three study groups when compared to actual U.S. demographic information. Urban-dwelling protagonists, who comprised roughly one-fourth of the overall sample, are one such underrepresented group. In reality, over half (58.2%) of United States residents live in urban areas (cities which have a population greater than two hundred thousand), with the remainder of U.S. residents evenly divided among suburban and rural settings.33 The award-winning category had the highest percentage of urban settings, at 31.8%; only 20.7% of bestsellers took place in urban settings. For a full breakdown of novel settings, see Figure 1.

 
 

 

 

 

a full breakdown of novel settings

 

 Minority-race (non-white) protagonists are also underrepresented across all three categories of titles. Overall, 81.1% of protagonists in the sample were white; this compares to a national percentage of 56.7% white among children and teens ages nineteen and under.34

The award-winning titles category exhibited the most racial diversity; in this category, 65.6% of protagonists were white, 10.4% were black, and 4.8% were Hispanic. The bestsellers category exhibited the least racial diversity among protagonists; in this category 92.6% of protagonists were white. Hispanic protagonists were particularly underrepresented among these books: Hispanic protagonists comprised 3.7% of this sample, but nationally, 21.3% of children and teens are Hispanic.35

Table 1 includes complete data for protagonist race.

 
 

Table 1 includes complete data for protagonist race.


LGBT protagonists were underrepresented within the bestsellers category, where all one hundred and thirty-six coded protagonists were identified as straight or as having no romantic preference within the novel. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual protagonists were found among the award-winning and Teens’ Top Ten titles, where their prevalence was similar to actual U.S. demographics among teens.37 See Figure 2 for a complete breakdown of results in this category.

complete breakdown of results in this category

 

Protagonists raised outside of a dual-parent home (68.2%) were overrepresented in this sample; nationally, 68.0% of children and teens live in dual-parent households.38 Similarly, roughly 20% of protagonists in this study were orphans or had no guardian; this is much higher than the actual national percentage of 0.4%.39 These percentages did not vary greatly among the three title categories. Results for protagonist family structure are shown in Figure 3.

Results for protagonist family structure

 

For award-winning and bestselling titles, higher percentages of protagonists were identified as belonging to the low socioeconomic class (33.6% and 28.0%, respectively) than the actual percentage of children and teens in poverty in the United States (20.0%).40 Full results for protagonist socioeconomic status are shown in Figure 4.

Full results for protagonist socioeconomic status

 

Cross-Category Comparisons between White and Minority Protagonists

Looking across all three categories of books, there were 241 white protagonists and 56 minority-race protagonists. When compared to white protagonists, protagonists of color were:

  • more likely to be featured in realistic fiction (42.0% of minority protagonists vs. 25.7% of white protagonists) and historical fiction (26.0% vs. 8.9%) titles;
  • less likely to be featured in fantasy (10.0% of minority protagonists vs. 31.9% of white protagonists), humor (0.0% vs. 8.9%), and action and adventure (2.0% vs. 5.8%) titles;
  • more likely to be male (58.2% of minority protagonists vs. 46.1% of white protagonists);
  • more likely to be identified as religious (25.0% of minority protagonists vs. 8.0% of white protagonists);
  • less likely to be part of a dual-parent home (25.9% of minority protagonists vs. 33.2% of white protagonists) and less likely to be raised by a related guardian (5.6% vs. 16.4%);
  • more likely to be an orphan or to have no guardian (27.8% vs. 18.0%) and slightly more likely to be part of a single-parent family (31.5% vs. 28.6%);
  • more likely to be in the low socioeconomic class (44.2% vs. 24.3%) and less likely to be in the high socioeconomic class (7.7% vs. 21.7%);
  • more likely to be identified as gay, questioning, or bisexual (5.4% vs. 2.5%);
  • more likely to have been written by a male author (59.2% of books featuring a minority protagonist were written by males vs. 48.9% of books featuring a white protagonist);
  • much more likely to have been written by an author of color (38.3% vs. 1.0%); and,
  • more likely to have been written by an author from the United States (83.3% vs. 68.4%).

 

Discussion

Where should librarians turn to find ready-made booklists that reflect the diversity of their service populations? The results of this study show that if YA librarians rely only or mostly on bestseller lists for collection development, many young adults from diverse backgrounds will be underserved. The bestsellers list was fairly balanced in terms of protagonist gender, contained a large percentage of foreign-born characters, and included a diverse range of titles as far as protagonist family structure and socioeconomic status. However, non-white, LGBT, and religious protagonists are underrepresented on this list, as are protagonists identified as having a disability and those living in urban areas.

The Teens’ Top Ten list fared a bit better than the bestsellers list in some categories and a bit worse in others. The Teens’ Top Ten list featured slightly more urban, LGBT, disabled, and non-white protagonists. However, this list also has deficits in comparison to the bestsellers list and to national demographics: male protagonists are underrepresented, as are protagonists in the low socioeconomic class, and religious protagonists are still rare.

Overall, the award-winning books most closely matched the actual demographics of the U.S. teen population, although even this list had some shortfalls. This list was fairly balanced in terms of its protagonist gender breakdown and included a higher percentage of urban protagonists than the other two groups. The award-winning titles had the highest percentage of non-white protagonists and included at least one protagonist from each racial group identified by the U.S. Census (the only list which did so). This list also included the highest percentage of religious protagonists and the highest percentage of protagonists from the low socioeconomic class (who are actually overrepresented on this list compared to national data). Award-winning titles featured LGBT protagonists at a rate that is consistent with national estimates. These titles also featured disabled characters more commonly than titles in the other groups.

So does this mean that librarians can fully rely on award-winning title lists? No. Aside from considerations of readability and popularity of these texts versus bestselling titles, the award-winning list still falls short in some aspects of diversity. Along with the other lists, the award-winning list:

  • lacks adequate representation of Hispanic protagonists,
  • underrepresents protagonists in urban settings,
  • underrepresents religious protagonists, and
  • is heavily skewed toward a small number of genres.

Hispanic protagonists are severely underrepresented on all lists in comparison with the actual demographic data for U.S. adolescents and children. This may be because there has not yet been a major movement among scholars, parents, teachers, and librarians to push for titles for and about Hispanics and Latinos as there was for titles for and about African Americans in the U.S. in the 1970s.41 As the Hispanic and Latino population in the U.S. continues to grow, a movement for titles in this arena may be on the horizon.

All lists underrepresent urban-dwelling protagonists. However, this may be at least partially explained by the large numbers of historical fiction and fantasy titles included in this study. While books were coded as having urban settings if they took place in cities of the past or in fantasy cities, large numbers of these books took place in rural settings or had other/mixed settings.

The need for more titles featuring religious protagonists is confirmed in this study. Across all categories, religious protagonists comprise a small minority; protagonists from non-Christian religions are particularly rare. Most protagonists in the “other” religion category practiced a fictional religion rather than an existing one (for example, two of the protagonists in G. P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer practice a religion which resembles Christianity, but is not). Religion is a major part of life for many, if not most, children and teens in the U.S.; one recent study found that 65.3% of children and teens ages six to seventeen participate in religious activities once a month or more.42 The lack of young adult titles which address this aspect of teen life is puzzling; the idea that authors view religion as somehow “taboo” seems to be an inadequate explanation since authors and publishers seem perfectly willing to feature other, even more sensitive, issues such as teen sex, pregnancy, drug use, and physical abuse. More research into this question is necessary.

Each of the three lists included in this study is heavily skewed towards one to two genres. Thus, relying on any one of these lists would result in a collection which is lacking in several key areas. The award-winning titles are biased toward realistic fiction and historical fiction; fantasy, science fiction, action and adventure, and sports novels (all popular genres) are comparatively neglected. Among Teens’ Top Ten books, fantasy and realistic titles are included at a high rate at the expense of other genres; among bestsellers, fantasy and humor novels together comprise the majority of titles.

Agosto, Hughes-Hassell, and Gilmore-Clough wrote about the scarcity of minority protagonists in genre fiction, particularly fantasy titles.43 This study supported their conclusions; 31.9% of white protagonists were featured in fantasy titles, versus 10.0% of minority protagonists. Of the five minority protagonists who were featured in fantasy titles, one was black (a protagonist in G. P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer), and the remainder were classified in the “other” category because they were described as being of a fictional race. Science fiction was a bit better; of the four minority protagonists, one was Asian, one was Hispanic, and two were other (alien). The tendency of authors to feature minority protagonists in realistic or historical fiction is an interesting trend and worthy of future research. This tendency may be an outgrowth of a repeated call among researchers for “culturally conscious”44 or “enabling”45 texts which challenge racial stereotypes, provide literary role models for minority teens, and connect with teens’ cultural heritages. Authors who feature minority protagonists may be choosing to create such texts by directly confronting historical or contemporary racial issues (a task to which historical fiction and realistic fiction are well-suited) rather than dealing with such issues indirectly in a different genre.

Another interesting finding was that in this sample set, non-white protagonists were more than twice as likely to be identified as gay, bisexual, or questioning as white protagonists. The reasons for this are unclear; perhaps it is the case that authors who feature protagonists who are marginalized in terms of race are more willing to also feature protagonists who are marginalized in terms of sexuality. Further research would be interesting to see if these findings would be duplicated across a broader sample of young adult literature.

Another question that this research does not address, but which would be a potentially fruitful course of study, is why so little protagonist diversity (at least in several of the dimensions studied here) exists in bestselling young adult novels. To some extent, the market controls what sells and what doesn’t, and it could be the case that books with minority protagonists are truly not as appealing to wide audiences. However, even if this is the case, we must begin to ask why that might be so. Are white, straight, middle-class teens uninterested in reading about characters who are different from them, and if so, could this be because the large majority of the books that they have read and enjoyed do not feature minority characters? Are minority teens not purchasing books, and if so is this because a) they simply don’t want to read, b) they can’t afford the books, c) there are not enough characters like them in the books to which they have easy access, or d) some other reason? How does the marketing of young adult titles differ between books featuring minorities and other books, and how much might those differences account for the dearth of minority protagonists on bestsellers lists?

Conclusion

The job of a youth services librarian in an era of decreasing budgets, decreasing staff, and increasing demand for services is not easy. Collection development is only one of many duties for a librarian, and reliance upon preassembled title lists such as those studied here is understandable when simply keeping a library open can at times consume all of a librarian’s work hours. However, study upon study has demonstrated the importance of building a quality collection for young adult library users—a collection in which all users can find themselves accurately portrayed while also experiencing rich portrayals of characters which are unlike themselves. This study has demonstrated that while award-winning lists include more diversity on the whole than Teens’ Top Ten lists or bestsellers lists, no single list, or even a combination of these lists, is sufficient across all aspects of diversity studied here.

What does this mean for librarians? It doesn’t mean that relying upon lists is necessarily bad—there are many valid reasons why both award-winning and bestselling titles deserve a place on library shelves. However, it does mean that these lists alone are insufficient, and purchasing plans which are based solely on such lists should be reevaluated to include more titles individually selected by librarians to increase diversity within the collection. Despite their lack of representation on commonly-used preassembled lists, such books do exist—the Library Booklists website links to hundreds of them (http://librarybooklists.org/fiction/ya/yadiverse.htm) and the journal MultiCultural Review, published four times annually, features new titles which include characters or subjects of differing “ethnicity, race, spirituality, religion, disability, and language” (http://www.mcreview.com/).

Whether or not libraries are ready for them, millions of children from diverse backgrounds will soon be finding their way into young adult collections for the first time. Whether they come back may well depend on whether the books they find there include characters whose racial, religious, socioeconomic, family, romantic, and health backgrounds reflect the diversity they see in themselves and in their communities. And whether they find those books depends on whether librarians are willing to embrace a broad view of diversity—looking beyond simply protagonists’ race or ethnicity—and take the time to locate and purchase titles featuring protagonists from marginalized groups who are portrayed accurately and compassionately. If, as a profession, librarians can commit to doing this, then the overall diversity of our collections will increase along with the rising diversity of the populations we are serving. And perhaps, if every library in the country begins ordering titles that feature diverse characters and/or are written by authors from diverse backgrounds, we might even rewrite the bestsellers list and in so doing help to change the face of publishing in the United States. That is a lofty goal, and one that only people—not lists—can achieve.

Endnotes:

  1. This paper is a redacted and edited version of a Masters paper. The full version may be accessed at http://www.unc.edu/~crawson/worksamples/caseyrawson.pdf.
  2. Stacy L. Creel, “Early Adolescents’ Reading Habits,” Young Adult Library Services 5, no. 4: 46-49; Tiffany Marra and April Witteveen, “Trends in Teen Reading 2001–2003,” Young Adult Library Services 4, no. 1 (2005): 17-21; Krista Swenor, “A Teen Take on Reading: Results from the 2005 Teen Read Survey,” Young Adult Library Services 4, no. 4 (2006): 42-44.
  3. National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2009 (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Education Sciences, 2009).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Yvonne R. Bell and Tangela R. Clark, “Culturally Relevant Reading Material as Related to Comprehension and Recall in African American Children,” Journal of Black Psychology 24 (1998): 455-475; Mary V. Feger, “‘I Want to Read’: How Culturally Relevant Texts Increase Student Engagement in Reading,” Multicultural Education 13, no. 3 (2006): 18-19; Jane M. Ganji, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Literacy Instruction: Realizing the Implications of the Proficient Reader Research,” Multicultural Review 17, no. 1 (2008): 30-35; Kira I. Pirofski, “Multicultural Literature and the Children’s Literary Canon,” http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/papers/literature.html (accessed October 15, 2010).
  6. Mark Winston, “Diversity: The Research and the Lack of Progress,” New Library World 109, no. 3/4 (2008): 130-149.
  7. Agosto et al., “The All-White World of Middle-School Genre Fiction: Surveying the Field for Multicultural Protagonists,” (2003): 261.
  8. Mykol C. Hamilton, David Anderson, Michelle Broaddus, and Kate Young, “Gender Stereotyping and Under-Representation of Female Characters in 200 Popular Children’s Picture Books: A Twenty-First Century Update,” Sex Roles 55, no. 11-12 (2006): 757-765; Frank Taylor, “Content Analysis and Gender Stereotypes in Children’s Books,” Teaching Sociology 31, no. 3 (2003): 300-311.
  9. Mary Dellmann-Jenkins, Lisa Florjancic, and Elizabeth B. Swadener, “Sex Roles and Cultural Diversity in Recent Award Winning Picture Books for Young Children,” Journal of Research in Childhood Education 7, no. 2 (1993): 74-82.
  10. Sam Roberts, “Births to Minorities Approach a Majority,” The New York Times (New York, NY), March 11, 2010.
  11. Nancy Larrick, “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” Saturday Review, September 11, 1965.
  12. Rudine Sims, Shadow and Substance: Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children’s Fiction (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1982); Joel Taxel, “The Black Experience in Children’s Fiction: Controversies Surrounding Award Winning Books,” Curriculum Inquiry 16, no. 3 (1986): 245-281.
  13. Arlene L. Barry, “Hispanic Representation in Literature for Children and Young Adults,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 41, no. 8 (1998): 630-637; Nina L. Nilsson, “How Does Hispanic Portrayal in Children’s Books Measure up After 40 Years? The Answer is ‘It Depends,’” The Reading Teacher 58, no. 6 (2005): 534-548.
  14. Ai-Ling Louie, “Growing Up Asian American: A Look at Some Recent Young Adult Novels,” Journal of Youth Services in Libraries 6, no. 2 (1993): 115-127; Peter E. Morgan, “A Bridge to Whose Future? Young Adult Literature and the Asian American Teenager,” ALAN Review 25, no. 3 (1998): 18-20.
  15. Naomi Caldwell-Wood and Lisa A. Mitten, “‘I’ is ‘Not’ for Indian: The Portrayal of Native Americans in Books for Young People,” Multicultural Review 1, no. 2 (1992): 26-35; Renee Tjoumas, “Native American Literature for Young People: A Survey of Collection Development Methods in Public Libraries,” Library Trends 41, no. 3 (1993): 493-523.
  16. Wendy Griswold, “American Character and the American Novel: An Expansion of Reflection Theory in the Sociology of Literature,” The American Journal of Sociology 86, no. 4 (1981): 740-765.
  17. Patty Campbell, “The Sand in the Oyster,” Horn Book Magazine 70, no. 5 (2004): 619-623, 619.
  18. Campbell, “The Sand in the Oyster,” 1994; Carolyn Caywood, “The Sky is Falling,” School Library Journal 43, no. 7 (1997): 41; K. L. Mendt, “Spiritual Themes in Young Adult Books,” The ALAN Review 23, no. 3 (1996): 34-37; Dara G. Shaw, “The Treatment of Religion and the Independent Investigation of Spiritual Truth in Fiction for Adolescents,” The ALAN Review 22, no. 2 (1995): 20-22.
  19. Janet Cosbey, “Using Contemporary Fiction to Teach Family Issues,” Teaching Sociology 25, no. 3 (1997): 227-233; Joyce Burner, “All in the Family: Parents in Teen Fiction,” School Library Journal 35, no. 15 (1989): 42-43.
  20. Michael Cart and Christine Jenkins, The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 19692004 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006); Christine Jenkins, “Young Adult Novels with Gay/Lesbian Characters and Themes 1969–92: A Historical Reading of Content, Gender, and Narrative Distance,” Journal of Youth Services in Libraries 7, no. 1 (1993): 43-55; Christine Jenkins, “From Queer to Gay and Back Again: Young Adult Novels with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969–1997,” The Library Quarterly 68, no. 3 (1998): 298-334.
  21. U.S. Census Bureau, American FactFinder: 2009 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates (2009). http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/DatasetMainPageServlet?_program=ACS&_submenuId=datasets_2&_lang=en (accessed October 2, 2010).
  22. Elizabeth Dutro, “Children Writing “Hard Times: Lived Experiences of Poverty and the Class-Privileged Assumptions of a Mandated Curriculum,” Language Arts 87, no. 2 (2009): 89-98.
  23. Naomi Wolf, “Young Adult Fiction: Wild Things,” The New York Times (New York, NY), March 12, 2006.
  24. Annette B. Heim, “Beyond the Stereotypes: Characters with Mental Disabilities in Children’s Books,” School Library Journal 40, no. 9 (1994): 139-142; Nicole Matthew and Susan Clow, “Putting Disabled Children in the Picture: Promoting Inclusive Children’s Books and Media,” International Journal of Early Childhood 39, no. 2 (2007): 65-78; Wendy M. Smith D’Arezzo, “Diversity in Children’s Literature: Not Just a Black and White Issue,” Children’s Literature in Education 34, no. 1 (2003): 75-94.
  25. Sharon E. Andrews, “Using Inclusion Literature to Promote Positive Attitudes Toward Disabilities,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 41, no. 6 (1998): 420-426, 422.
  26. Michael Cart, “The Renaissance Continues: Young Adult Literature for the 21st Century,” Catholic Library World 79, no. 4 (2009): 279.
  27. Hazel Rochman, Against Borders: Promoting Books for a Multicultural World (Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 1993), 19.
  28. Rudine S. Bishop, “Children’s Books in a Multicultural World: A View from the USA,” in Reading Against Racism, ed. E. Evans (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1992), 19-38.
  29. Lewis Asimeng-Boahene and Ana M. Klein, “Is the Diversity Issue a Non-Issue in Mainstream Academia?” Multicultural Education 12, no. 1 (2004): 47-52.
  30. Agosto et al., “The All-White World of Middle-School Genre Fiction: Surveying the Field for Multicultural Protagonists,” 2003; Anna R. Benedikt, “A Question of Diversity: An Analysis of the Young Adult Library Service Association’s Best Books for Young Adults, 1994–1998” (Masters diss., Kent State University, 1999); Shirley A. Fitzgibbons and Carol L. Tilley, “Images of Poverty in Contemporary Realistic Fiction for Youth: Preliminary Results of a Content Analysis Using a Social Psychological Conceptual Framework” (paper presented at the Unleash the Power! Knowledge-Technology-Diversity: the Third International Forum on Research in School Librarianship, Annual Conference of the International Association for School Librarianship, Birmingham, AL, 1999); Sandra Hughes-Hassell, Heather Barkley, and Elizabeth Koehler, “Promoting Equity in Children’s Literacy Instruction: Using a Critical Race Theory Framework to Examine Transitional Books,” School Library Media Research 12 (2009).
  31. Anthony Nisse, “Do You See What I See?: Portrayals of Diversity in Newbery-Medal-Winning Children’s Literature” (paper presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Convention, Chicago, IL, 2008).
  32. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Americans with Disabilities Act: Questions and Answers (2008). http://www.ada.gov/q%26aeng02.htm (accessed September 23, 2010).
  33. Federal Highway Administration, Census 2000 Population Statistics: U.S. Population Living in Urban vs. Rural Areas (2004). http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/planning/census/cps2k.htm (accessed October 2, 2010).
  34. U.S. Census Bureau, Annual Estimates of the Population by Race, Hispanic Origin, Sex and Age for the United States: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2008 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, 2009).
  35. Ibid.
  36. National Study of Youth and Religion, Religious Affiliation and its Significance (2001). http://www.youthandreligion.org/sites/default/files/imported/news/docs/1_-_Religious_Affiliation.pdf (accessed October 10, 2010).
  37. Debby Herbenick et al., “Sexual Behavior in the United States: Results from a National Probability Sample of Men and Women ages 14–94,” Journal of Sexual Medicine 7, suppl. 5 (2010): 255-265; Jennifer Robison, “What Percentage of the Population is Gay?” (October 8, 2002). http://www.gallup.com/poll/6961/What-Percentage-Population-Gay.aspx (accessed October 12, 2010).
  38. U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Census Bureau, Annual Estimates of the Population by Race, Hispanic Origin, Sex and Age for the United States: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2008, 2009.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Harris, “Have You Heard About an African Cinderella Story? The Hunt for Multiethnic Literature,” 1991.
  42. Jane L. Dye and Tallese Johnson, A Child’s Day 2006: Selected Indicators of Child Well-Being (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, 2009), 5.
  43. Agosto et al., “The All-White World of Middle-School Genre Fiction: Surveying the Field for Multicultural Protagonists,” 2003
  44. Hill, “Multicultural Children’s Books: An American Fairy Tale,” 1998.
  45. Alfred W. Tatum, Reading for Their Life (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009).

About the Author

Casey Rawson has an MSLS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is currently a doctoral student. Her research interests include multicultural literature for young adults and adolescents’ responses to information overload.

About Anna Lam

Anna Lam is a Communications Specialist for the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA).
This entry was posted in Volume 1 Number 3: June 2011 and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Are All Lists Created Equal? Diversity in Award-Winning and Bestselling Young Adult Fiction

  1. Hope you will check out the Notable Books for a Global Society Award List.
    Many of the concerns in this article are the very things we look for in our NBGS
    winners.

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