Conversations about Race in YA literature

I’ve seen a few conversations going on this week about the frequency and way in which race is portrayed in young adult literature. I think it’s great that this discussion is taking place.

The first is part of a larger topic that effects the literature community: the adoption of Common Core standards.  Now that much of the fiction is being eliminated from the curriculum, an important question is what this means for the growing population of students from nonwhite backgrounds. The New York Times ran an article: “For Latino Readers, An Image is Missing” which elicited several responses that approached the question from another angle or questioned the assumption of the piece. Though the article focuses on younger students, I think it’s an important question for all age groups.

The issue of what type of reading should be required in class is a complicated one. Since I share my life with an educator, it’s a common topic of conversation at my house. Mister BS, my partner, is so bogged down in preparing students for assessments, writing IEPs, and just making sure that his students can read and do basic math, he has little time (or energy) left to promote reading for its own sake or pleasure. He spends his evenings calling home to parents, trying to get kids to come to school. He worries about what happens to them if they don’t show up. He’s dealing with kids who think it’s no big deal to come to class under the influence. He’s dealing with kids who think their best chance is to join a gang. Last night he was worried about illicit boxing competitions taking place in bathrooms, I kid you not. The school where he teaches does have a program where students are encouraged to read material of their own choice for 20 minutes a day and there are incentives to do so, and those who want to read, do. For those who aren’t interested, they generally have more pressing problems than a lack of suitable reading material, sadly enough.

For those that do read at his school, and for the diverse population that visits my library, I made a deliberate effort to seek out these sorts of books (I make personalized lists for Mister BS’s students who do ask, too). A particularly great resources is Vamos a Leer: Teaching Latin America through Literacy, which includes not only a list of books by Latino authors and books with Latino characters, but also educator resources. Cindy Rodriguez has an extensive list of Hispanic authors here.

I think everyone needs to read books about and by people of color. It’s as important to read books that reflect your own experience as it is to read books outside your own scope. I think more need to be written. I think they need to be visible and accessible in both curriculum and libraries.

The second topic related to race and YA lit is whitewashed covers on young adult books, prompted for this post on YALSA’s The Hub (full disclosure: I also contribute to YALSA’s The Hub but am not the author of this post). It Matters If You’re Black or White: The Racism of YA Book Covers is a rather comprehensive look at covers of books that obscure or present a false image of the race of the protagonist.

One of the novels included was Diane Peterfreund’s For Darkness Shows the Stars (one of my top ten favorites of 2012) which I think has a beautiful cover, even if the girl is very pale. Diana explains in her post that she doesn’t feel it misrepresents the race of her character, and that cherry-picking words out of a character description is taking it out of context. Which speaks to the larger issue of how we talk about race and what certain words signify. Particularly for stories that don’t take place in our historical or present-day world or in a society that might think about race in a different way, the issue is even more complicated. Her post also outlines some covers that aren’t mentioned in the YALSA post that prominently (and accurately) depict the character’s race.

Joe Monti, one of the editors of the Diverse Energies collection of short stories, had another recent post on the subject of race in book covers. His approach is to create iconic covers, rather than ones with character images, because they simply sell better. He outlines a lot of the complicated issues surrounding how covers are chosen and the post is worth a read in its entirety. I have to agree that I like covers without character images on them. I think that the covers identified in the YALSA post as silhouettes are very attractive. And we really do judge books by their covers.

Another interesting question: as important as it is to have characters on covers that teens feel reflect themselves, do prominent depictions of people of color make it less likely that white teens will read it? Because I think it’s important to get these books in their hands, too. It’s complicated. And as difficult as it is to have these conversations about race, I’m glad to see them taking place. It definitely prompts me to reflect on my own personal biases. What’s great about both the YALSA post, Diana’s post, and Joe’s post, is that they’re great lists of books that do feature diverse characters.

What do you think about Common Core standards and less literature in the classroom? What resources do you use to ensure diverse selection in reading materials? What are your opinions about the way race is depicted on YA book covers? 

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4 thoughts on “Conversations about Race in YA literature

  1. What an excellent post! It’s been sitting in my inbox all weekend because I knew I wanted to read it.
    About fiction in classrooms: I think that it is absolutely essential! My husband read the first adult fiction book of his life (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) last week. You know what he said when he was done? “I think I just never read books for fun because the ones we read in school weren’t fun. I didn’t know a book could be like this.”
    And your conversation about race in cover designs is awesome. Personally, I prefer covers without character pictures at all. (I like to imagine those people!) But the number of YA covers picturing white girls with straight, perfect hair is annoying, to say the least. A director I know says this: “I hate it when the curtain opens and we see a couch. I’ve seen this play before. It’s a play about a couch.”
    When I see a cover with a white girl with straight hair, I think, “I’ve read this book before. It’s a book about the same girl.”

    1. I do think the right book can turn anyone into a reader — and it is important to include fiction in curriculum, even outside the English/Lit classroom.

      I prefer books without pictures of people on covers, too, especially when they don’t accurately reflect the description in the book.

      Thanks for stopping by, Laura.

  2. Great post! You bring up so many important parts to this on-going discussion. I really agree with what Cindy said above about how each teacher must see themselves as a reading teacher–of both fiction and non-fiction. It’s sad that we don’t see more quality fiction being read in more ‘content’ oriented classes. I would guess that at least a third of my curriculum when I taught middle school social studies revolved around fiction. For me, it was the easiest way to engage my students in the topics we were discussing. Thanks for mentioning our blog too!

  3. Thanks for the mention! As a teacher my concern has always been this: the English classroom is usually the only place students read fiction. Every other class–history, science, math, health/PE, art–revolves around nonfiction. Taking fiction out of the English classroom, or reducing it, is not the answer. The problem is that middle and high school teachers often see themselves as subject teachers. Every teacher has to see themselves as a reading teacher who delivers certain content (science, etc). All teachers (not just English teachers) also have to be conscious about their choices, making an effort to choose books or articles that include diverse names and experiences.

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