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Not Yet Postracial: a moment from the fourth wall

A lot of what we write here on The Hub is more about the actual literature we find ourselves reading than about any visceral, gut-wrenching reaction to big issues. But we in the YA world have found ourselves surrounded by nation- and worldwide reactions to a couple of very big issues, both regarding race. Here’s the rundown.

Cover of Revealing EdenIn October of last year, Victoria Foyt, who had already published a relatively popular YA fantasy novel in 2007, released her newest concept: Revealing Eden, the first book in her new dystopian series, Save the Pearls. In this novel, Eden Newman, a “Pearl,” is about to turn eighteen, at which point she must be mated lest she be sent to the surface to die from the Heat. Many other Pearls have offered to mate with her, but shedd rather die than mate with another Pearl. She wants to mate with a Coal, a member of the darker-skinned ruling majority who, according to Eden, hate Pearls. Secretly, she is dating Jamal, a Coal who also turns into a beastlike creature. She calls him her “Dark Prince.”

Eden hates herself. She considers herself ugly and unwanted and goes through the world wearing “Midnight Luster” to mask her blonde hair and pale skin and “pass” for a Coal. She’ll do anything in her power to survive, but she also wants to feel loved and beautiful. If you mix this with a lot of societal secrets and even turn her family against her, what will you get?

Well, apparently, you get a lot of backlash from your readership.

I am not white. I never have been and never will be. So perhaps I see more of what several one-star reviewers (and non-Goodreads bloggers) do when reading this novel: the world that has been created is one that makes a good premise, but is not presented in a way that makes me sympathetic to Eden — or anyone, really. When I look at Eden, I see an angry, racist girl who refers to Coals as “them” and apparently only knows one Coal who isn’t a bitch or a heartless bastard (her words), and he has a beastly second nature. Literally. So really, it isn’t just characterization that’s a problem here. It’s the author’s creation of this society in which all Coals as well as lower caste people of color including the Ambers (Asians) and Tiger Eyes (Latinos) are evil and heartless beings who will go out of their way to form an angry mob and kill the Pearl who was falsely accused of pushing her Coal boss onto the floor.

Like I said, fascinating premise. The writing’s not so bad, either. The execution gets to me and many of my fellow readers the same way. But I challenge you to read it for yourself and see what you think.

There’s also a book that I’ve put on my to-read list since reading the other reviews of Revealing Eden. Published in 2009, Cover of Noughts & CrossesMalorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses works under the same premise: a darker skinned ruling class with a “colorless” underclass, formed from a race that had once been enslaved by the Crosses. Two people in this society — one a Nought and one a Cross — have been friends since childhood, but enter into a forbidden romance, as Noughts and Crosses are not allowed to mix. This novel has received extensive accolades in the UK and was even made into a play by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Since I haven’t read it yet, I can only pose questions. What is the difference between these two novels? Is it the origin of the authors (one who grew up in the Southern United States, while the other is from the UK)? Is it the genre? Revealing Eden is distinctly a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which people live dangerously underground in a destroyed future Earth. Noughts and Crosses is a completely different human Universe — much like our own with one big difference. Or is it in the details themselves: Noughts and Crosses are symbols that have little distinction in contemporary conceptualization, while Pearls and Coals have distinct meanings in regards to appearance, value, and purpose. How much do these differences affect the way each of these novels are read?

But the blog posts and new exposure aren’t the only things happening in the YA world where race has been brought to the forefront.

A few months ago, National Public Radio ran a survey to all its readers to put together a list of the “Best Ever” YA novels and series (we wrote about this a few weeks ago). Between reader suggestions and the NPR Young Adult Fiction Panel, 235 finalists were selected. From those 235, 100 books or series were voted on for the 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels.

Laurie Halse Anderson mentioned on her blog that this list of 100 might be the “whitest YA list ever.” And if you look at the list, it’s kind of true. NPR’s official response to this and other people’s similar reactions explain that between a panel of four white experts and the majority of the readership, the 235 finalists and 100 resulting “winners” include three protagonists or authors of color. Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street is included, and Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in included, and one of the four girls in the Traveling Pants series is half Puerto Rican. As special mentions, I would throw in Dune (because Chani and the Fremen are sort of people of color) and Twilight (because, though people sort of forget, Native American Jacob is a main character, though I guess not a true protagonist). No author or protagonist of Asian or African-American descent is included in the top 100, though the finalists do include Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun, Walter Dean Myers’s Monster, Angela Johnson’s The First Part Last, Gene Yuen Lang’s American Born Chinese, and a few others of note.

I don’t honestly feel that this is a monstrous big deal. I love YA fiction and actually read very little written by non-white authors, just because of the genres that I tend to gravitate toward. My own selections in this grouping reflect that. Each person who participated in the selection of this list was allowed 10 choices, and those books or series with the most votes were put on the list of 100. So if we take the majority of NPR’s readership — 87 percent are white — and 235 books, those that a lot of people might not have read due to preference of genre (note how many fantasy and dystopia novels made the list) could very well have been shafted just because people haven’t read them.

The biggest problem responders have had with this list is that NPR has labeled it “Best Ever” when all voting is really about personal preference. Who is voting for their favorites? Who is voting for a book they might not call a favorite, but thinks was extremely well written? Who is voting for books they didn’t even really like, but might have won awards or been really popular? A format like this is difficult to regulate anyway, so how do we really say this best-ever list is better than the New York Times‘s Best Sellers list? NPR has also responded to the question of “Best Ever,” saying that they were hearkening back to “breathless teenage enthusiasm,” a teenage whimsy of something adored or anticipated being the “Best Ever.”

I can definitely get behind that. I can also get behind NPR potentially creating two lists — one of favorites and one selected by experts — as some members of the NPR Books staff have proposed. But then where would we get our controversy?

Literature is just another branch of popular culture.  We are moving forward as a society in which protagonists of color are not limited to works that have been created with an exclusively black or Asian or Latino audience in mind. But these two big issues — portrayal of race in a majority reversal that casts a bad light on not just one race, but all of them, and a final list of our favorites not including many people of color — show us that we are still many steps behind the postracial world many would like to say we are in.

But we’re getting there.

Or maybe in that world, it wouldn’t even matter.

— Jessica Pryde, currently reading Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman

3 Comments

  1. I love the idea of two lists, one of favorites and one from “experts.” The whole concept of experts tickles my funny bone. From my perspective, you would be an expert in YA, because you read a lot of it, and because you provide thoughtful responses about it.

  2. Clynell Reinschmiedt Clynell Reinschmiedt

    Great article, Jessica. It is refreshing to read well-written, thoughtful, non-biased commentary about YA Lit. I fear that statement may come off as arrogant on my part to some, but I do find there is much hysteria and “best ever” thinking in the commentary devoted to the literature we of the Hub love. Collectively, the points you address leave the reader considering the complexity and broad scope of addressing race in young adult books. Thank you.

  3. Guest Guest

    I remember the 1997 movie Eve’s Bayou and thought it was a book first. Had it been, that would have been a fantastic include on the list in terms of stories about teenagers of color/minority demographic. I haven’t read the list yet, though; was Precious on there? That strikes me as a young-adult novel with a female protagonist of color, since Precious is an inner-city black teenager.

    There was a recent book (the name escapes me) about a young black girl from, I believe it was Sudan or Sierra Leone, who struggles to survive because she is a lesbian in her hostile, fundamentalist and hyper-traditional native culture. I think Oprah recommended it. Maybe someone else here can fill in the blanks of the title.

    I also think the horrible comments made on twitter about the young black actress in the Hunger Games movie shows the state of race relations in our society. This is why I am one of the very few of my generation (born in the mid-1990s), who has no use for the stupidity and arrogance of facebook and social media. I don’t have any accounts and not even an email address. I’d rather be reading one of these books — or heck, writing one of my own — than throwing virtual punches at a movie actress I’ve never met and probably never will.

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