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.

does my headThe first is Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. The novel follows the story of an Australian-Palestinian girl named Amal who decides to begin wearing the hijab full-time. As an American teen living in a relatively conservative area, this book (which I read at ten years old) was an eye opener for me on Muslim culture. I knew next to nothing about Islam at the time, and it felt almost educational to read the novel and be exposed to both Muslim culture and the hardships faced by Muslim women passionate enough to endure the discrimination they experience while wearing the hijab. (For those who don’t know, the hijab is a headscarf worn by Muslim women [and sometimes men] because of a set of verses in the Quran in which Allah (God) tells men and women to lower their gaze and dress modestly.)

bi normalNext is Bi-Normal by M.G. Higgins, about a high school football star named Brett Miller who begins to question his sexuality. My favorite thing about this book is the way it depicts Brett’s struggle to understand his sexual orientation. Brett is uneducated on the LGBTQ community–he doesn’t even know what it means to be bisexual–which I think is an important factor to include in his life, because many people who experience some sort of confusion about their identity (sexual or gender) have no idea that what they’re experiencing is completely normal. Also, I love that the book represents the bisexual community specifically, because it is a community that faces discrimination from the LGBTQ community as well as non-LGBTQ individuals. Non-LGBTQ individuals will hopefully come to better understand the confusion some LGBTQ people experience through reading Bi-Normal.

read my lipsThe last book I want to talk about is Read My Lips by Teri Brown. I admit that Read My Lips wavers on the cheesy side, with its high school cliques and questionable character choices, but I also think it stays very true to the daily struggles of deaf people. Read My Lips follows the story of “the new girl” named Serena, a deaf teen just trying to fly under the radar (which, of course, does not at all work). I can specifically remember reading scenes where Serena must ask her parents to repeat something because they don’t look at her as they speak, or where part of a word is  lost in translation as she tries to read lips. As a reader without much experience being around deaf people (or people hard of hearing), Serena’s story definitely made me more self-aware.

In writing this post I realized another reason why diversity in YA literature is important: education. It’s important for people outside of these groups–people who are not facing the same adversities–to be more aware of themselves and other people in order to help everyone be given equal opportunities. The term used by my generation to describe the differences in how people are treated based off of characteristics that make them diverse is “privilege.” Despite being Mexican American, I physically look white, allowing me what is called “passing privilege,” because although I identify as Mexican, I do not face the same discrimination obviously Hispanic people do. Reading about the struggles of diverse groups hopefully allows readers to experience a life outside of their own, something that is both fun to do, and opens the eyes of readers as they realize their own privilege. I hope that knowing one’s own privilege will allow readers to make an effort to ensure all people experience situations with equal amounts of struggle, regardless of their physical appearance, or any other contributing factor.

will grayson thirteen reasonsOf course there are many other books that promote diversity (John Green and David Levithan’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson; Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why) but talking about books with diversity will hopefully produce more of them, which is what I, as a YA reader, yearn to see.

–Destiny Burnett


Destiny Burnett is a Senior at Patrick F. Taylor Academy in Avondale, Louisiana. She is President of the Patrick Taylor Book Club (Bookmarked) and Vice President of the Patrick Taylor Gay-Straight Alliance (SAFE), and is active in the Student Government Association and National Honor Society. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, listening to music, writing, and bettering her high scores in Dance Central.

One thought on “Diversity Matters: Privilege & Representation in YA Lit”

  1. Destiny–I want to commend you on writing such an insightful post on the importance of reading stories that include characters that come from diverse backgrounds. I’m happy to read that there are teens like you who make the conscious choice to read books about people whose realities are so starkly different from your own. It is only by exposing ourselves to other people’s realities that we begin to realize that we are not really that different at the core. Thank you Destiny for writing about this, I definitely want to read the books you recommended, especially “Bi-Normal”!

Comments are closed.