Diversify Your YA: Six Books With Minority Main Characters

Here’s a roundup of five (okay, six) books featuring main characters (primarily protagonists) of color, primarily written by authors of color.
Publish date:
July 10, 2013
shoppables, books, reading, s.e.'s bookshelf, young adult

The lack of diversity in society in general, but especially fiction, including children’s literature, is a huge problem. Illustrator Tina Kügler recently highlighted the problem beautifully with a sharp, hard-hitting illustration of the diversity in children’s books. Put bluntly, looking over 3,600 children’s books in 2012, 93% were written about white characters.

Uh, 93% of the kids in the US are not white, homechickens. Which means that children have to look long and hard to find themselves in fiction if they aren’t members of the dominant social class, and when they do find themselves, there’s a good chance the cover will be whitewashed with a white character, or the characters of color will be stereotyped and gross, or the book will be a big fat issue book instead of just a fun adventure with characters who happen to be something other than white.

In young adult literature in particular, there’s been a growing movement to push back on the lack of diversity, not just racially speaking but also in terms of sexuality, gender, disability, and other minority issues. Diversity in YA, a project by authors Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon, has great continuing roundups of diverse books for young readers, and the Disability in Kidlit project is spending the entire month of July talking about disability in children’s literature.

These are great conversations to be having, but maybe you just want some books to read, or recommend, or buy for friends. Here’s a roundup of five (okay, six) books featuring main characters (primarily protagonists) of color, primarily written by authors of color.

Akata Witch,” by Nnedi Okorafor

If you love magical realism, you’re going to find a lot to love in this book about a character wrenched from her familiar home in the United States and taken back to Nigeria, the family home. Along the way, she discovers a great deal about her family heritage and herself, magically speaking as well as otherwise, and she becomes an unlikely and unexpected savior when confronted with darkest evil.

I love the writing in “Akata Witch,” but I also love the very authentic and complex depictions of what it’s like to be Nigerian, but not from Nigeria. Sunny identifies as American, not Nigerian, and her identity is made even more complex by the fact that she has albinism, making her a figure of fear and distrust to some members of her community. Can she reconcile the parts of herself and her experiences as she matures and comes into her own?

Eleanor and Park,” by Rainbow Rowell

The one entry by a white author on this list, “Eleanor and Park” has pretty much taken the YA world by storm, and with good reason: it’s flipping fantastic. Eleanor and Park are your standard-issue star-crossed lovers, but Rowell infuses the book with so much tension that it’s extremely difficult to put down, because you spend the entirety waiting for the other shoe to drop, simultaneously terrified of what might be coming and wanting to just get it over with before the book takes over your life.

One of the most common questions Rowell gets about the book is “Why is Park Korean?” as though this needs to be justified, and she wrote a really lovely essay about it, but here’s an excerpt explaining some of the decisions behind her characterization:

Why is Park Korean? Because I think there should be more Asian-American characters in YA, especially boys. (And also more chubby girls.) Because it’s up to people like me, who write, to write them.

The Chaos,” by Nalo Hopkinson

Full disclosure: Nalo is a totally awesome and fantastic lady who writes both adult and young adult, and whenever you see a book of hers, you should definitely snap it up. In addition to writing books lush with characters of color, she also explores gender, queerness, and identity in really fascinating and complex ways, often while integrating folklore from her Caribbean heritage. You basically cannot go wrong with a book by Hopkinson, and you can take that to the bank.

“The Chaos” takes us to a version of Toronto where, to put it bluntly, all hell has broken loose. Strange forces are at work, fairytales are coming to life, the very ground is melting, and no one knows which way is up anymore as Baba Yaga sails through the sky and dinosaurs attack small dogs. And sometimes larger ones. It’s up to Scotch to figure out what’s going on and how to deal with it before the city eats itself.

As a mixed-race girl, she doesn’t quite fit in any social circle, and she’s also a girl struggling with sexuality and embodiment. Over the course of “The Chaos,” she meets all kinds of people, gets up close and personal with Baba Yaga, almost loses her brother in the phone system, and still has to defeat The Chaos before it takes over.

What’s Left of Me,” by Kat Zhang

Eva and Addie are white, but other key characters in this book aren’t, and they play an important role in the overall plot. This is, first of all, a book with a fascinating premise, a story set in a world where everyone is born with two souls, one of which is supposed to be naturally dominant, extinguishing the other over time. But that doesn’t happen to Eva and Addie, and they discover that this soul business is much more complicated than they realized; neither one of them needs to win for them to grow up together.

This is also a world where immigration restrictions have limited the number of people allowed to enter the US, making it remarkable and important that Eva and Addie have nonwhite friends. Zhang picks up well on threads of xenophobia and racism in modern society as well as the speculative world she creates, one in which everyone “other” is viewed as potentially dangerous. Eva at times makes the tragic choice to attempt to avoid being seen around the wrong people in an attempt to avoid drawing attention to herself, which raises some great questions about how far people should go to stay safe.

The Immortal Rules” and “The Eternity Cure,” by Julie Kagawa

More vampires? you ask, with a heavy sigh. Yes, more vampires, sorry.

Only here’s the thing: These are different vampires. For one thing, our lead is a lady vampire, she’s Japanese, she doesn’t fool around, and she’s delightfully monstrous. Kagawa’s series is fantastic precisely because it’s a return to the origins of the vampire legends. There are no sparkles here, no one survives in sunlight, romance is dangerous, and vampires need blood, preferably fresh, human, and directly from the jugular, to survive.

Allie is fierce, loyal, and complicated as she comes to terms with her new vampire identity and tries to determine what direction her life is headed in, all while clinging to some semblance of her humanity and past. Along the way, we get to meet all kinds of creatures and people, and every single minute of it is terrifying, horrible, and wonderful. Believe me, it’s still possible to do something new with vampires, and Julie Kagawa has amply demonstrated it.