#OwnVoices - Emerging Representation in Young Adult Literature
When was the last time you saw a character that resembled you in a young adult book? Take a minute to think about it for a second. I’m not just talking about a character with a similar personality or interests. I’m talking about a character with similar physical traits. Chances are, if you’re white, it will be pretty easy to remember. That’s absolutely nothing against white people, but let’s acknowledge a common fact: white people, as opposed to people of color (POC), are primarily represented in common media, whether that be books, movies, or TV shows. In fact, 86.1% of lead roles in American movies in 2016 were played by white actors, according to a report conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles.
Recently, the issue of the lack of diversity in young adult literature has become a hot topic in the book community. Readers, whether they be POC or not, are calling for an increase in diverse characters. Not just diverse ethnicities, but diverse sexualities, diverse abilities, diverse faiths, etc. Most authors have responded accordingly, and for the most part, it’s been very special to see that some of the most popular books this year have featured a non-white main character (Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, Marie Lu’s Warcross, Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi, and Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, are some of the first that come to mind). Some authors, on the other hand, utilize something called “token diversity”. Token diversity is when they like to include a couple of diverse characters here and there just to fulfill a requirement; these characters are often one-dimensional. They see diverse characters as something to check off a list, and spend hardly any time developing them. A famous author who has come under fire for this is Sarah J. Maas, behind the critically acclaimed Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns of Roses series. Maas has been criticized for her lack of POC characters, as well as for killing off the only two POC characters in the series.
However, authors have also been criticized for including POC characters in their novels and representing them inaccurately. An author that came under fire for this recently is Maggie Stiefvater, whose fall 2017 novel All the Crooked Saints was criticized for appropriating Latinx culture, when she herself is white. The novel, centered around magical realism in a Latinx-American setting, was seen by many as a step in the wrong direction for representation. Readers and authors alike criticized the book for its lack of research and sensitivity, especially regarding the Latinx-American setting. However, it is important to keep in mind that just because Stiefvater is white, it does not mean she is not allowed to write about POC characters.
POC characters often have completely different struggles and life experiences, and there is a certain level of respect and responsibility that must be maintained when writing about characters different from yourself, in order to make sure the author portrays an accurate and authentic representation. If this representation is inauthentic, it only continues to marginalize and misrepresent POC in YA literature.
This marginalization saw the creation of a new hashtag in the YA genre: #OwnVoices, founded by Corinne Duyvis, a YA author herself. ReadBrightly.com describes it as a “useful shorthand for books with diverse characters that are written by people who share those identities.” #OwnVoices has become a popular in the book community, with more and more POC authors adding to the conversation and sharing their own stories. The hashtag has grown into a literature movement of sorts and has been backed by campaigns, such as We Need Diverse Books, a non profit organization that advocates for diversity in YA literature. #OwnVoices has seen a tremendous growth in diversity and representation in YA, and has been lauded by readers, writers, and publishers alike. But perhaps most importantly, the hashtag serves as a tool to help POC readers feel like they are represented in a genre that is finally beginning to look like them.