Mixing It Up: Diversity in YA Collections

As a kid, I read voraciously. I read everything I could get my hands on. In fact, I read through the entire children’s and teen collection in my small-town public library. Twice.

But when I moved to another (all white, middle class, farm) community, I enrolled in a teen lit class. We can get into how lucky I was to have such an offering in high school, but I really wanted to focus on one thing: Walter Dean Myers.

Myers has been recognized for his novels about African American youth and their experiences, particularly in urban settings. If you haven’t read something by him, you should. My class read Slam!, amidst fantasy novels and novels about drugs and abuse and all sorts of other extremes that shocked my world. But even now, Slam! is what I remember. Slam (the main character) existed in a world full of experiences and struggles that had never even occurred to me.

Fast forward a few years, and I was working at a public library in that same (all white, middle class) small town, feeling rather proud of myself as I helped curate the teen collection in my branch to cover more racial bases. Of course, the same problem arose then as now – the dearth of minority teen literature. We were making lists and sticking “African American” interest on those titles. And they never went out.

Why not? I became convinced that it was precisely because of those stickers. Because my peers had been taught very well that they were not African American, that they would not experience life that way, and wasn’t life confusing enough without trying to understand everyone else too? I began to *sneakily* remove some of the stickers, focusing on making sure some of those titles showed up in every display, and miracle of miracles, they started to go out.

This all came back up because I recently came across a post on tumblr about LGBTQ literature in YA collections. From tumblr user MoreRobots:

So my question is, would people rather have LGBTQ books be tagged? Or in their own section? I know this would create a problem too as some patrons may not want to be seen browsing the LGBTQ shelf or reading a book that’s specifically tagged. Also, what if people pass these books up? Is there a better solution? I just feel that these books (and other diverse books) should be made more accessible /visible to patrons but what is the best way to go about it?

It’s a valid question, and a few plausible responses have been made, but they seem to focus on how to visibly mark or separate them. Check out the thread for specifics.

I’m wondering about the choice to separate them. Personally, I think that will prevent them from entering “normal” circulation, continuing the perception that LGBTQ stories are for a specialized segment of the population, and continuing to normalize straight experiences. For those who want quick access to books like these, I think the pamphlet or master list should be available for ease of access.

The same can be said for any literature that falls outside the norm. While there’s nothing wrong with books about straight white kids, there is something wrong if that is all that is available, or all that teens are encouraged to read. Part of reading, especially as a teen, is to make sure that we aren’t just reifying the normalcy of our own lives. Life is diverse, and diversity is valid, and essential.

From Sarah Ockler’s blog post “Race in YA Lit: Wake up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!

Why is diversity in fiction important? Because diversity in life is important. And when we exclude—intentionally or otherwise—characters of color from our work, we do send a billboard message to readers. We tell them that people of color aren’t there, aren’t important, aren’t worthy of our stories. That they don’t deserve to be part of the conversation of our books. That reading isn’t for them. That they don’t matter. That they don’t even register on our radar.

When we erase the experiences of race, class, sexuality, and other self-identifiers from our YA collections, we tell our teens that those things don’t matter. By separating their literature, we relegate those experiences to those who are already living them.

Once more from Ockler:

I adore teenagers. That’s why I write for them. They’re special and magical and full of life; they’re truly the best of us. As young adult authors, our words have power. The power to entertain. The power to inform. The power to inspire. And most importantly, the power to change the lives of teen readers—to really make a difference. If, as Truby believes, stories express the idea that human beings can become better versions of ourselves, then I want to show YA readers that those better versions look like them, too.


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