Diversity in 2013 New York Times Young Adult Bestsellers

By Malinda Lo

Over the past year or so, I’ve examined diversity in the Publishers Weekly bestsellers (here’s 2012 and here’s 2013) as well as the Best Fiction for Young Adults (here’s 2013, here’s 2014). One list I haven’t looked at until now is the New York Times bestseller lists for young adult books.

My conclusions? There’s nothing really surprising about the diversity on the New York Times bestseller lists for young adult books. They tell the same story that Publishers Weekly does, but with a slightly different sample: There isn’t much diversity.

The Data and the Terms

The data set I analyzed consists of the New York Times Young Adult Best Sellers lists for all of 2013, as well as the young adult series on the New York Times Children’s Series Best Sellers lists for 2013. I’ve analyzed the books on the Young Adult list separately from the books on the Children’s Series list, but when looking at authors, I’ve combined both lists (more on that later).

The NYT lists are published every week in two different forms: online and in print. While the print version of the YA list only includes 10 books, the online list includes 15; I counted all 15 titles. The Children’s Series list only includes 10 series each week, whether in print or online. I accessed the lists online through the New York Times website.

What does “diverse” mean?

By “diverse,” I mean: Books in which the main character or one of the primary point-of-view characters is a character of color, LGBT, and/or disabled. Note:

  • This is a very narrow definition. It does not include individual titles that feature diverse supporting casts, because I’m interested in narratives that center on diverse characters. Sometimes secondary characters can be quite important to a book, but for now I’m talking about main characters. Characters of color, LGBT and disabled characters deserve to be the heroes of their own stories, and that’s what I’m examining.
  • In my analysis of the Children’s Series list, due to the nature of series, I’m broadening the definition slightly to include major supporting characters who have their own story lines over multiple volumes. See the section on the Children’s Series list for more information on this.
  • Inclusion in this data set does not necessarily mean that these books feature well-written diverse main characters. They could be stereotypical, but if they are diverse, then they’re included in the analysis.
  • I have not read all the titles on the bestseller list and my analysis of the list does not necessarily mean I recommend any of the individual titles.
Understanding What “Best Seller” Means

The NYT bestseller lists are interesting in that they don’t provide details on sales, so unlike the Publishers Weekly year-end list, it’s not clear how many copies any given book is selling. Simply appearing on the NYT bestseller list for one week does make it possible for a book to be identified as a “New York Times bestseller,” but it doesn’t mean it has reached as broad of an audience as a book that has been on the same list for months or even years.

Examining the complete data set for the NYT YA Best Sellers list, I discovered that titles are on the list for an average of 11 weeks, at an average rank of #10. However, average is not necessarily an appropriate measure because it’s skewed by a few outlying titles that appear on the list week after week (e.g., The Fault in Our Stars by John Green). The median number of weeks that a title is on the YA Best Sellers list is much lower: three. That means half the titles are on the list for more than three weeks, and half for fewer than three weeks. The median rank is #10, the same as the average.

This leads me to conclude that most YA bestsellers don’t stay on the list for more than a few weeks, and they tend to hit the list at the bottom end. It is, unsurprisingly, very hard to make a book stick on the list at a high rank for weeks at a time.

The 2013 New York Times Young Adult Best Sellers List

Click to enlarge

There were 68 titles total on the NYT YA Best Sellers lists in 2013. Three of those titles were not novels or standalone fiction (Gabrielle Douglas’s memoir, an anthology of short stories edited by Neil Gaiman, and a beauty book by Lauren Conrad) and therefore I excluded them from my analysis, leaving 65 fiction titles in all. Among the 65 YA fiction titles on the best seller list, 10 featured main characters of color; that’s 15%.

The 10 books are:

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown)
  • Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare (Simon & Schuster)
  • Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare (Simon & Schuster)
  • The Runaway Queen by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson (Simon & Schuster)
  • What Really Happened in Peru by Cassandra Clare and Sarah Rees Brennan (Simon & Schuster)
  • Every Day by David Levithan (Alfred A. Knopf) — Note: The main character of this novel changes genders, sexual orientation, and race throughout the book.
  • Legend by Marie Lu (Penguin)
  • Prodigy by Marie Lu (Penguin)
  • Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce (Scholastic)
  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Press)

These 10 titles appeared on the list for an average of 10 weeks each, but only a median of 3.5 weeks. On average, they ranked at #10; their median rank was #11. This doesn’t differ markedly from the length of time that YA books with white main characters were on the list: an average of 12 weeks, a median of 3 weeks; an average rank of #13, a median rank of #10.

Sexual Orientation

Among the 65 fiction titles on the YA list, eight titles include LGBT main characters, at 12% of total. These eight titles are:

  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (Simon & Schuster) — Note: This book’s protagonist is straight, but his gay best friend plays a particularly major role. One could debate whether this book should be included, but because this book was also made into a movie and it’s often mentioned in discussions of LGBT YA, I’ve decided to include it.
  • The Runaway Queen by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson (Simon & Schuster)
  • What Really Happened in Peru by Cassandra Clare and Sarah Rees Brennan (Simon & Schuster)
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (Penguin)
  • Tilt by Ellen Hopkins (Simon & Schuster)
  • Every Day by David Levithan (Alfred A. Knopf)
  • Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce (Scholastic)
  • The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic)

The LGBT titles spent less time on the YA list than did straight titles. LGBT titles were on the list for a median of 1.5 weeks, whereas straight titles were on the list for a median of 3 weeks. However, LGBT titles ranked on average the same as straight titles, both at #9; the median ranking of an LGBT title was #9 versus #11 for a straight title.


Only two titles on the NYT YA Best Sellers list featured main characters with disabilities: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (cancer and related disabilities) and Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (depression). Because one of those titles was the top bestselling title of 2013, The Fault in Our Stars, I don’t think it’s comparable to the rest of the list in terms of average ranking and time on the list, so I haven’t made those calculations.

The 2013 New York Times Children’s Series Best Sellers List

The NYT Children’s Series Best Sellers list includes books for all age groups from children’s through YA, but for my purposes I only counted young adult series. That means I did not count middle grade series such as Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles or the Harry Potter series. After excluding those, I counted 35 total YA series.

However, the issue of determining whether a series includes main characters who are of color, LGBT and/or disabled is more complicated than in the YA Best Sellers list because a series tends to feature a wider assortment of characters over several volumes, some of whom have their own story lines and become much bigger characters than they would be in a standalone book.

One major bestselling series includes a main character of ambiguous ethnicity: Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. While Suzanne Collins has said “They [Katniss and Gale] were not particularly intended to be biracial,” readers continue to debate online whether Katniss is a person of color. Additionally, one of the trilogy’s major characters, Peeta, becomes disabled at the end of The Hunger Games and continues to be disabled in the rest of the series, and many of the characters (including Katniss) suffer from post-traumatic stress in ways that are apparent in the trilogy.

However, The Hunger Games has now become a major global phenomenon due to its adaptation to the big screen, and in the movie versions, Katniss is played by a white actor, Jennifer Lawrence, and Peeta’s disabilities have been erased. While a book is not the same as the movie, in today’s world these creative works have significant crossover and many readers are likely to come to see the books’ characters as they are on-screen.

A second series with complicating factors is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. While the main character is undeniably white, one of her two love interests, Jacob, is Native American. Although the character’s Native American identity has been widely criticized as being problematic, the fact is the books have been made into globally successful movies in which Jacob is presented as a Native American character. This is difficult to overlook.

Thirdly, Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series is about a straight, white main character, but among the large supporting cast is a same-sex couple. If it were only one book, this same-sex couple would not be sufficient to push it into the category of “diverse,” but The Mortal Instruments (which has also been made into a movie) is now a six-book series in which the same-sex couple has become rather prominent. Additionally, a spinoff series of stories starring one of those two characters, Magnus Bane, a bisexual Asian warlock, has also reached the bestseller lists. Does that mean that The Mortal Instruments should be counted when it comes to LGBT series? Many readers would argue that those characters are significant, but at the same time, they are not the main characters in the most strict sense of the word.

To recognize the imperfections of these categorizations, I’ve counted diversity in the series list by including The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga, and The Mortal Instruments while highlighting them as debatable inclusions. The pie charts below show the proportions of diversity both including these series and excluding them. I invite readers to make their own final judgements.

Click to enlarge

Drilling down into more detail, there are seven series (including The Hunger Games and The Twilight Saga) out of a total of 35 that include non-white main characters. That adds up to 14% without The Hunger Games and Twilight, or 20% with The Hunger Games and Twilight.

  • Darkness Rising by Kelley Armstrong (Harper)
  • House of Night by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast (St. Martin’s Press)
  • The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare (Simon & Schuster)
  • The Bane Chronicles by Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson, and Sarah Rees Brennan (Simon & Schuster)
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic) — See notes above re: ethnic ambiguity.
  • Legend by Marie Lu (Penguin)
  • The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown) — See notes above re: Jacob.

The Darkness Rising and House of Night series both include a main character who has Native American background (in addition to The Twilight Saga’s Jacob). “American Indian” or “Native American” are not ethnic or racial backgrounds in the same way that “white” is. From what I understand, an individual who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation is Cherokee, even if she is biracial; she would never be “half Cherokee.” This is because Cherokee and other American Indian tribes are political affiliations. I’m noting this because the main characters in the Darkness Rising and House of Night series are described as “part” Native American, which points to potentially problematic representations.

Additionally, as Debbie Reese explains on American Indians in Children’s Literature, American Indians are not “people of color.” However, to omit these titles from the list would erase them and whatever problematic issues they contain, which I think should be highlighted.

The fact is that the people of color or non-white characters who are featured in major bestselling books are often problematic representations in some way. They may be based on stereotype or myth rather than reality. They may also be ambiguously presented in ways that lead some readers to interpret them as white rather than of color, or vice-versa. Including these books in my analysis is an effort to point out what’s out there right now, and to raise awareness of how far we have to go.

Because of the ambiguity of The Hunger Games and its exceptional staying power on the list, I have not calculated the difference between the average and median length of time on the Children’s Series list for books with non-white main characters versus white main characters. Overall, however, series are on the Children’s Series list for a median of two weeks, at a median rank of #7. The average duration of a series on the Children’s Series list is longer, at 7.6 weeks, because it is skewed by The Hunger Games (52 weeks) and The Mortal Instruments (51 weeks).

Sexual Orientatation

Two series include LGBT main characters (6% of total), and one includes major LGBT supporting characters (9% of total including The Mortal Instruments):

  • The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare (Simon & Schuster) — Note: major LGBT supporting characters as described above.
  • The Bane Chronicles by Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson, and Sarah Rees Brennan (Simon & Schuster)
  • Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard (HarperCollins)

There are no transgender or lesbian main characters in these bestselling series.


There are four series that include significant engagement with disabilities, adding up to 9% without The Hunger Games or 12% with The Hunger Games:

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins — See above for more detail on this
  • Michael Vey series by Richard Paul Evans — Tourette’s Syndrome
  • Gone series by Michael Grant (Katherine Tegen) — Autism as a major plot element
  • The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) — One volume of this series, Gathering Blue, includes a main character with physical disabilities

Authors of 2013 New York Times Best Sellers

Many authors on the Young Adult Best Sellers list also appear on the Children’s Series list, so I have combined all the authors on both lists to determine the number of authors of color. Out of 76 total young adult authors on the YA list and the Children’s Series list, one author’s race is unknown (Morgan Rice), and seven are authors of color, or 9%. They are:

From left to right:

  • Sherman Alexie — The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown)
  • Michelle Burford — a celebrity ghostwriter who wrote Gabrielle Douglas’s memoir, Grace, Gold & Glory (Zondervan)
  • Kiera Cass — The Elite (HarperCollins)
  • Gabrielle Douglas — celebrity author of a memoir with Michelle Burford, Grace, Gold & Glory (Zondervan)
  • Marie Lu — Legend series (Penguin)
  • Tahereh Mafi — Shatter Me (HarperCollins)
  • Neal Shusterman — Unwind Dystology (HarperCollins)

Because I had the data available to me, I also looked briefly at author gender. Out of the 76 total authors, 55 are women and 21 are men. In light of Kelly Jensen’s analysis of the New York Times Young Adult Best Sellers list, which did not look at the Children’s Series list, I wanted to examine whether women were more often represented on the Series list than the YA list.

To do this I sorted all the titles on the YA and Children’s Series lists by number of weeks on the list, then by average rank. Of the top 10 titles on the YA Best Sellers lists for 2013, there are only six authors, and only one of those authors is a woman (Veronica Roth). In comparison, on the Children’s Series Best Sellers lists for 2013, among the top 10 YA series, eight out of 10 are written by women. It seems pretty clear to me that many women writers of young adult fiction debut on the YA list, but end up moving to Series.


Now that I’ve written several posts analyzing diversity on bestseller lists, the news to me is pretty old: There’s not a lot of diversity. There’s a limit to the number of pie charts I can make, especially when counting on its own doesn’t actually prove correlation or causation. The next step in better understanding diversity in bestsellers — at least statistically — is to run a regression analysis to determine whether race is a statistically significant factor in sales. However, I’ve reached the limits of my statistical abilities. If anybody out there wants to take on what is admittedly a huge project, I’d be happy to cheer you on.

For me, the general takeaway from all my analysis is the fact that a lack of diversity is thoroughly embedded throughout bestseller lists and awards lists. I’m often asked why I think this is the case, and my answer is: institutional racism and heteronormativity. (And I haven’t even touched on disability, as I’m not well educated on disability issues and therefore can’t speak knowledgeably about them.) These are complicated terms, and I’m also often asked to simplify them. However, these are not simple issues, and there are no brief sound bytes that can explain the way that racism and heteronormativity are embedded in everyday life for everyone living in the world today.

One thing I’d like to emphasize is that it’s useless to point fingers and blame people for the world we live in today. We are all complicit in the systems and cultures we live in, which means it is everyone’s responsibility to change them. Writers of all kinds — white, non-white, straight, LGBT, disabled or not — must take responsibility for becoming aware of the worlds they are creating. This is not about forcing white writers to write about people of color, or forcing people of color to only write about themselves. This is about becoming conscious of the fictional worlds you create and taking responsibility for them, whatever they may be.

Those in the book publishing industry must also take responsibility for their parts in bringing books to the public. If agents and editors aren’t finding authors or characters of color in their submissions, it’s their job to go and seek them out. If a publisher’s sales team is reluctant to promote a book because it has a minority main character, it’s the publisher’s job to educate that sales team on the makeup of the real world today, and to support them in broadening their worldview. Booksellers, librarians, reviewers, and everyone involved in book publicity are also responsible for their own actions in the chain of book publication.

Readers must also step up and put their money where their mouth is — not only through actual purchases at bookstores, but by requesting the titles at their libraries and talking about them with their friends. That’s why we put together this list of five ways you can support diversity in YA fiction right now.

The bottom line is: None of this is simple. It is hard, and that’s reality. Let’s keep working.

NoteWhile I’ve made every effort to double-check my facts and figures, if you discover errors, I invite you to email me at diversityinya@gmail.com.