As a life-long devotee of fantasy fiction, I’ve frequently defended the value of stories that feature dragons, magically gifted heroines, or angst-ridden werewolves. And while I’ve often stated that fantasy fiction isn’t necessarily an escape from reality simply because it includes magic or ghosts, even the most committed fan must acknowledge that the genre is incredibly disconnected from reality in fatal ways. For one, fantasy fiction remains an overwhelmingly white world–an area of literature where you might find vampires or psychic detectives but rarely characters of color.
This lack of diversity is a widespread problem in young adult literature and the larger publishing industry but speculative fiction is especially guilty of inequitable representation within its stories and industry. Just last week, The Guardian published an article by speculative fiction author & essayist Daniel José Older discussing the insidious ways that systemic racism and white privilege has permeated the science fiction and fantasy publishing & fan communities. At last month’s YALSA Young Adult Literature Symposium, there was an entire panel titled “Where Are The Heroes of Color in Fantasy & Sci-Fi?”, which Hub blogger Hannah Gómez recapped with great accuracy & insight.
So, how do we, as readers, fans, & promoters of these genres, demand & nurture fiction with imaginary worlds as diverse as the one we live in? To start, we need to read, buy, promote, and request titles by and about people of color. Accordingly, I pulled together some authors and titles to check out, focusing on fiction that falls on the fantasy side of speculative fiction. This list is far from comprehensive; for more titles, I recommend checking out Lee & Low’s genre-specific Pinterest board, Diversity in YA, and We Need Diverse Books.
2004 Edwards Award winner Ursula K. Le Guin has long been considered one of the best and most beloved high fantasy writers; she’s also consistently written stories with people of color as protagonists–although film adaptions & book covers have often blatantly ignored this, white-washing characters like Ged, the brown-skinned protagonist of A Wizard of Earthsea. The 2013 Edwards Award winner Tamora Pierce also includes characters of color in her novels; her Emelan books feature both black & multiracial protagonists.
Fans of thrilling adventures & complex heroines should try novels by Cindy Pon, Ellen Oh, or Malinda Lo for rich high fantasy tales rooted in a variety of East Asian cultures. Cindy Pon’s lush & exciting Silver Phoenix and its sequel, The Fury of the Phoenix follow young Ai Ling as she discovers her unique abilities and battles an ancient evil based in the royal palace. Ellen Oh’s Dragon King Chronicles (beginning with Prophecy) also focuses on a powerful young woman struggling to embrace her destiny–the yellow-eyed demon slayer Kira who might be the key to saving the Seven Kingdoms from destruction. Malinda Lo’s Ash (2010 Morris Award finalist, 2014 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults) and Huntress (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2012 Rainbow List, 2012 Amelia Bloomer List) are richly imagined, romantic novels I recommend to all fantasy readers!