Diversity Matters: Privilege & Representation in YA Lit


October is an exciting month for any YA lit fan, because it includes Teen Read Week! In honor of this annual celebration of young adult literature, YALSA invited book-loving teens all over the world to apply to share their enthusiasm for reading in a guest post for The Hub. Thirty-one talented young writers were chosen, and we’ll be featuring posts from these unique voices all month long. Here’s Destiny Burnett from Louisiana.

courtesy of flickr user  patries71
courtesy of flickr user patries71

As someone who’s been an avid reader and lover of YA novels since I was nine years old, I can comfortably say that over the past eight years I’ve accumulated my own little library. In total, today, I own 382 books. Now, books I own are not all that I’ve read, of course, but out of the books that I own (and have read) 27 feature some sort of diversity amongst the characters.

Let me begin by clarifying that I consider a diverse book to be one that features a person of color, a person of a non-Christian faith, an LGBTQ theme or characters, a person with a mental illness or physical disability, or a setting in a lower class area. I consider these factors diverse for YA literature for three reasons

  • most of these are considered a form of diversity in the real world
  • people living with any variation of these characteristics experience an unfathomable amount of adversity
  • these factors are under represented in YA literature, and do not reflect the real world.

So why is representation important in YA literature? To answer that question, one must consider why they read. I read for the enjoyment of experiencing a character’s story. What makes me enjoy a story? Identifying with the character. This is why representation is important; every person who wants to read a book with a character they can identify with should have access to ones where their culture and identity is present. The reality of the situation, especially for YA readers, is that these kinds of books exist very few and far between.

Today I want to recommend some (maybe lesser known) books that promote diversity. Continue reading Diversity Matters: Privilege & Representation in YA Lit

Diversify Your YA Contemporary Reads: A Flowchart


October is an exciting month for any YA lit fan, because it includes Teen Read Week! In honor of this annual celebration of young adult literature, YALSA invited book-loving teens all over the world to apply to share their enthusiasm for reading in a guest post for The Hub. Thirty-one talented young writers were chosen, and we’ll be featuring posts from these unique voices all month long. Here’s Summer Khaleq from California.

Most of us can attest to the fact that the ever-growing Young Adult genre is one of the most boundless and honest genres in modern-day literature. In terms of innovation, YA wins the gold.

Yet despite the ever-expanding horizons of YA, diversity in general seems to be a taboo topic. There aren’t nearly as many books featuring POC, LGBTQ, and/or disabled characters as there should be, with authors taking the safe route and opting for white heterosexual leads.

I’m certainly not the first to notice this, though. Campaigns supporting and advocating for diversity have been popping up all over the internet (such as the popular #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign), and if you aren’t familiar with any then you’ve either been a) living under a rock or b) hiding under a rock while reading a book. (Really, isn’t it sad the amount of campaigning that must be done in order to implement something that should be expected in this day in age?)

For those who are new to the movement, I’ve created a nifty little flowchart, since it can be cumbersome to look for potential diverse reads (insert expression of disappointment and irritation here). Even for those who have been following the campaigns for years, there are quite a few lesser-known books here that you should definitely give a try. Continue reading Diversify Your YA Contemporary Reads: A Flowchart

The Big Five (+1) in YA: Islam

Welcome back to The Big Five (+1) in YA: a series of posts on religion in young adult novels.  Previously, I’ve posted about Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism.  Today, we are moving on to Islam. I’d like to start by saying that I feel the following books provide insight into a religion that is all too often stereotyped and villainized in American society. However, as I was putting together this list of books to feature, I also noticed that every novel but one includes an Islamic terrorist act or organization as part of the story line.  Within the context of each individual novel, I don’t feel that any of them perpetuate the negative stereotype of “Muslims are terrorists,” but taken as a trend, it is somewhat disturbing to think that four out of five of my featured books deal with violent acts by Muslims.

Borderline by Allan Stratton

Sami Sabiri, the only Muslim student at his school, faces daily bullying from his classmates and increasing distance from his Iranian father at home. Then the FBI implicates Sami’s dad in the plotting of a terrorist organization, and Sami has to find out the truth behind their accusations.

The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

Paterson’s novel focuses on a Muslim group that some students may not realize exists: Muslim Albanians, who faced incredible persecution in the Kosovo war. Brought as refugees to the United States, the Albanian family in this novel also face intolerance from their small Vermont community after the events of 9/11.

Continue reading The Big Five (+1) in YA: Islam

Why YA in the Classroom

Recently a report on high school students and reading levels came out with an alarming headline: “High Schoolers Reading at 5th Grade-Level.” Covered previously here at The Hub, the report gathered data suggesting that a majority of high school students are reading below grade level. It also asked an important question: what should kids be reading? One answer to this question is using more young adult literature in high school classes to increase interest and reading levels. YA is more popular than ever thanks to a certain dystopian series being turned into an insanely popular movie. But this strategy is not without its drawbacks.

Last month a teacher in South Carolina was suspended for reading aloud a passage from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, a YA science fiction book considered by many a classic and often taught in schools in units dealing with identity and morality. The Arizona State Legislature passed legislation last year effectively banning YA titles that had previously been used in successful multicultural studies curriculum. John Green recently defended his book Looking For Alaska (the 2006 Printz Award winner) on Twitter after it was removed from a school reading list on the basis it is “pornographic.”

YA books are far from being universally accepted in school classrooms. Their inclusion presents unique challenges (sometimes literally) but also amazing opportunities. A compelling reason to include YA literature in classrooms is content. Teens, like most readers, appreciate characters and situation that are familiar to them and their lives. Readers have a stronger connection to the text when they can see themselves and their struggles in the story. YA literature also offers readers diverse characters, compelling stories, and high quality writing. When incorporated into literature curricula, YA titles can offer a wide spectrum of views on popular themes like identity, conflict, society and survival. YA literature can be easily incorporated into classroom through literature circles, supplemental reading lists, multimedia projects, and of course being paired with canonical texts typically used in classrooms.

Here’s a list of YA titles that would fit into the classroom, organized by theme.

Continue reading Why YA in the Classroom

Diversity in YA Literature: Muslim Teens

I have been watching with interest the increasing attention placed on diversity in literature for teens in recent years. The public library in which I work is smack in the middle of the most diverse school district in the entire nation* and at 2:30 every day the library is a riot of languages as students flood in to use the computers and look for materials. The library is heavily used by teens and, while we have been able to provide strong collections in some areas (Bollywood films, Spanish language materials), we simply fall short in others (books for teens in Burmese or Nepali? Dream on). With a significant Muslim population in the community, many of whom are serious readers, I constantly struggle to find relevant titles that will speak to teens wanting to see themselves reflected in what they read.

For a while, it seemed like the only books out there featuring Muslim teens were either about suicide bombers or victims of post-9/11 racial discrimination. With the success of Randa Abdel-Fattah‘s books about everyday Muslim teens who just happen to be struggling with different aspects of their faith, publishers seem to have realized there is a market for them and some have even responded, but it’s happening veeeery slowly. Here are two recent books featuring Muslim main characters:

Continue reading Diversity in YA Literature: Muslim Teens

Reading for April: The Many Month Month

It’s an interesting time, April.  April is a month of excitement.   Spring starts to come (and with it Spring Break for many of us).  Trees and flowers bloom; you can start to wear shorts and sandals (unless, of course, you’re in one of those places where it’s still snowing).  And the list of random (and sometimes obscure) holidays is long and varied.  There are three subjects that are up for discussion all month as well.  Two should be celebrated; the others are more for pondering and deep consideration either on your own or with friends or peers.

National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month.  As a lit freak, I considered, for a moment, making you all read, discuss, and dissect Yeats’ The Second Coming. But instead, I’ll leave that to the English teachers, and we’ll look at a couple different kinds of poetry.

The Realm of Possibility was published in 2006, so many of you might have read it already.  But if you haven’t—go. Find. It. Now.  If you have, you might want to revisit it.  David Levithan can seriously work in any textual medium.  I was drawn to the book itself because it has a claddagh on the cover—and I love claddaghs.  But then, I started to read.  Using all different voices and styles, Levithan tells us the story of a bunch of high schoolers of all different backgrounds and situations.  And the short text is strangely satisfying.  Check out the excerpt on his website.  You won’t be disappointed, even if you don’t like poetry.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Langston Hughes’ Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz.  I came across this collection twice this year—when I first got a new copy of the Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, and later when I found myself singing a recent composition to the poem “Gospel Cha Cha,”  one of the “moods.”  Each one is a two column poem—the first column is the poem itself—and while they range in subjects, “Gospel Cha Cha” is still my favorite.  The second column is Hughes’ description of the music he heard in his head, how he wanted someone to set it to music should they decide to do so.  There have been a few musical collections made, and people are still making them.  So if you happen to see an advertisement for a reading or performance of it, check it out.

It’s also National Poetry Writing Month (or, NaPoWriMo).  So, if you are a writer, skilled or dilettante, now’s your time to write something.  If you want to share it with the world, go to NaPoWriMo’s website.  If you want to write something, but don’t know what, or don’t want to take on the challenge or endeavor of writing for the rest of the month, check out this previous post on Figment, a website for writers to write, read, discuss, and collaborate.

National Arab American Heritage Month

April is also Arab American Heritage Month.  This particular celebratory time doesn’t get the attention it deserves, mostly because there’s still a scary stigma about Arabs in this country–but Arab Americans are Americans, too, so let’s celebrate their heritage here, even if it is only through a couple of books.

Because it says it in much better words than I ever could, check out this review of Naomi Shibab Nye’s Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose on Teen Book Review.  Nye’s book of poems and short prose is not only an intriguing discussion of what it is like to be an Arab American in the current age, but is also some darn good poetry.

Does My Head Look Big in This speaks the voice of a Muslim teenager in the western world in an open and endearing way.  While Amal, the main character, lives in Australia instead of the United States, her issues are similar to those of a girl growing up in the states–image, school, friends, faith.  Check out this interview with Randa Abdel-Fattah, the author.

For a look into other Arab lives as well as other cultures, this month or any, have a look at this list, a Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults segment from 2003.

Sexual Assault Awareness/National Child Abuse Prevention Month

While we can’t keep every child from being abused or every person from being sexually assaulted, we can still discuss the problem, and maybe think about what we can do to prevent it in our own lives and maybe even the lives of others.  Novels are only one person’s story, but they can still make us think about what we see, what we do, what we don’t do, and what we’d like to do.

If Push didn’t go on your to-read list when you saw Precious, or when I mentioned it for Black History Month, it should definitely be considered a point for discussion during this month for both awareness and prevention.  Similarly, even if you’ve read it already, have a discussion with yourself or with others about the things that go on—and what could have happened differently—in Margaret A. Edwards Award winner and Printz Honoree Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.

A different kind of read for contemplation of this topic is David Klass’ You Don’t Know Me, a novel told by John, a teenager being abused by his mother’s boyfriend.  The more common stories that are told about child abuse seem to me to deal with the sexual abuse of small children, or even older children—mostly girls.   But this is neither about sexual abuse nor about a small child.  This story tells us in a way that is rarely seen that, even for the big kids, the bullies aren’t always at school.

Oh, and it’s just a great novel, too.  So read it (and everything else I’ve talked about) next month if you have to, even next year, but read it.

Finally, just for a little fun, here’s a little ditty in honor of Earth Day and Arbor Day.

Trees by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.


–Jessica Pryde, Currently reading Safe House by Meg Cabot, cause she couldn’t find the 1-800-WHERE-R-YOU books when she was in high school.