Diversity in YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults: Updated for 2014

By Malinda Lo

Last fall, I wrote about the diversity in the Best Fiction for Young Adults lists, which are issued annually by the Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association. These lists are often used for collection development and can be very helpful in boosting awareness of a book. Because the 2014 BFYA list was released last month, I thought I’d update my analysis with this year’s data.

Defining My Terms

To briefly recap from last time, my analysis focuses on the following things:

  • The percentage of authors of color on the lists.
  • The percentage of main characters of color on the lists.
  • The percentage of LGBTQ main characters on the lists.
  • The percentage of disabled main characters on the lists.

While recognizing that all categorizations of race and ethnicity are imperfect, I broke down race/ethnicity as follows:

  • White – Characters with European origins (This definition is different from the US Census definition, which also includes those from the Middle East and Northern Africa, because I wanted to count Middle Eastern characters)
  • Asian – Characters with Asian origins including members of the Asian diaspora and South Asians
  • Black – Characters with African origins including African Americans
  • Latino – Hispanic and Latino Americans; characters from Latin America (Exception: Indigenous people are identified as Indigenous even if they’re from Latin America)
  • Mixed Race – Characters of mixed race backgrounds
  • Indigenous – Including American Indians and Indigenous peoples from around the world
  • Middle Eastern – Characters from the Middle East, e.g., Iran
  • SF/F of color – Characters from a secondary or futuristic science fiction or fantasy world who have a race that does not precisely match our contemporary US understandings, but which is situated as being nonwhite in that secondary or futuristic world

Authors of Color

The representation of authors of color on the BFYA lists continues to be regrettably poor, although in 2014 there was a small uptick in the percentage of authors of color to 10% (from 7.8% in 2013).

chart-2011to2014-authors

The authors of color on the 2014 BFYA list are:

Swati Avasthi (Chasing Shadows)
Matt de la Peña (The Living)
Margarita Engle (The Lightning Dreamer)
Sara Farizan (If You Could Be Mine)
Patrick Flores-Scott (Jumped In)
Eric Gansworth (If I Ever Get Out of Here)
Melissa Keil (Life in Outer Space)
Marie Lu (Prodigy)
Meg Medina (Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass)
Chris L. Terry (Zero Fade)

Characters of Color

Approximately 15% of the books on the 2014 BFYA list had main characters of color. This is a decline in both numbers and proportion from 2013, in which 22.3% of books had main characters of color. Here’s this year’s breakdown:

chart-2014bfyacoc

As is illustrated in the following chart and table, the percentage of books with main characters of color has remained flat for the past four years, and the 2014 BFYA list has the lowest percentage of the last four years.

chart-2011to2014-coc

table-2011to2014-coc

LGBTQ Characters

The 2014 BFYA list included more books about LGBTQ main characters than 2011, 2012 or 2013: a total of 12, or 12.4% of the total.

chart-2011to2014-lgbtq

While this is certainly an improvement, an imbalance emerges when you look at the 10 LGBTQ titles on the BFYA list. Ten of those twelve books are about gay boys or an issue with a gay boy; only one is about a transgender teen (Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark), and only one is about a girl (Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine).

Characters With Disabilities

There are four books on the 2014 BFYA list that are about characters with disabilities:

  • The White Bicycle by Beverley Brenna (Asperger’s Syndrome)
  • Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner (Dyslexia)
  • OCD, The Dude, and Me by Lauren Roedy Vaughn (OCD)
  • Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (various physical disabilities)

These four books amount to 4% of the total list, and is an improvement from 2013.

chart-2011to2014-dis

Conclusions

It’s important to keep in mind that BFYA only lists books that are considered the “best” of each year. There are countless other books published every year that don’t make it anywhere near the BFYA, and there may be more diversity out there than is reflected in this lists. I do find it disappointing that BFYA seems to be stuck in a holding pattern when it comes to representations of people of color.

When it comes to LGBTQ characters, BFYA has increasingly recognized stories about LGBTQ main characters, although I find it problematic that girls are consistently underrepresented in the selected titles. Also, the continued lack of authors of color is disappointing, though it may simply reflect the low number of authors of color working in YA literature overall.

Overall, I think the BFYA is an interesting slice of what librarians (who are very important gatekeepers for many teen readers) believe to be the best of YA fiction each year. I don’t know if YA overall is also stuck in a holding pattern when it comes to race and representation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. Right now many of us in the YA book publishing community are having hard discussionis about these diversity issues, and many people in many positions of power are trying to figure out how to better represent the real world in the books that are given to young people. The only thing I know for sure is that it’s not a quick fix, but a continual struggle at every stage of a book’s publication process.

For readers who want to read books with characters of color, LGBTQ characters, or characters with disabilities, I think the best thing you can do is ask for these books at your library, buy these books if you can, and talk about them to your friends. Spread the word! It’s going to take more than a village to change this status quo; it’s going to take everyone.

Note: Thanks to Edith Campbell for sharing with me her list of BFYA books with characters of color and LGBTQ characters. I’ve also cross-referenced the 2014 BFYA with my own data on 2013’s LGBTQ YA. While I made every effort to make this analysis error-free, I may have still made some mistakes. Please let me know (email: diversityinya@gmail.com) if you come across any errors, and thank you!