By Stella D’Acquisto
In the past decade, diverse representation has exploded within mainstream TV shows, movies, video games and books featuring more inclusive casts of characters than ever before. In Young Adult (YA) fiction –– a newer umbrella genre aimed at teenage and young adult readers –– diverse characters and authors have become especially prevalent. As we continue to seek representation of marginalized groups, YA may provide a roadmap for how to achieve it.
While Young Adult fiction has been slowly developing since the 1930s and began to grow in the 70s with Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, the start of our modern conception of YA can be traced to the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter’s massive success among young readers opened up a market for more books like it. With the following popularity of the Twilight series, modern YA fiction was born. Between 2002 and 2012, the rate of YA book sales doubled, and a distinction between literature for children and books specifically aimed at teenagers arose.
Given its relatively white and cis-heteronormative beginnings, YA would seem an unlikely place for diversity to flourish, and for a long time, it didn’t. From the early 2000s to the mid-2010s, YA was mainly associated with teenage girls who lacked the sophistication to read “real literature.” While many traditional YA tropes reflect the same archetypes found in Adult Fiction, their often simplistic nature made YA come across as the genre for toxic and cringey romances with subpar plotlines and limited diversity.
The “Girlboss” was the response to this — an attempt to distance YA from its romance-focused roots and empower young female readers. Girlboss is a wildly popular term now, thanks to the “Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss” meme, but it can also be used to describe a common YA character type, along with the similar “Not Like Other Girls” or “Doesn’t Know She’s Beautiful” tropes. At its worst, the Girlboss is a white cishet female character who eschews all the “weaker” forms of femininity. In her patriarchal universe, she looks down on other women for their inability to become a warrior like her — she also usually ends up being saved by her male love interest. The Girlboss became the prominent archetype for main characters in YA fantasy and dystopia in the early 2010s.
Something shifted in the mid 2010s, though, and fiction slowly became more diverse, particularly within the Young Adult realm. With the rise of what some are calling “New Adult” — books at the cross-section of Adult and Young Adult — YA is becoming more respectable, and people of all age groups have begun reading YA books. Much of the online book community on Goodreads, “BookTube,” Book Twitter, “Bookstagram” and more recently “BookTok,” centers on YA books. With a growing online community focused on social issues and the political implications of fiction, the pressure was on established YA authors to get with the times.
This increased demand for more diverse ranges of side characters — from still mainly normative stories — created a genre that could accept more radical forms of representation, and groups like the We Need Diverse Books campaign emphasized the need for diversity in books for youth. A wave of diverse debut authors showed up and authors who had already been writing diverse books began to gain popularity. While diverse representation has been gradually increasing across all genres and mediums, something about YA has been particularly conducive to diversity. It’s possible that younger audiences are simply more interested in reading about people different from them as well as seeking out stories that make them feel represented.
Maybe the genre’s roots in “cringe” and “girly” culture has allowed it to be transgressive and to take risks that novels for other age groups are not willing to take. Adult fiction, particularly literary fiction, is surrounded by an elitist culture within the publishing industry and YA doesn’t have those same restrictions because the legacy of YA has never been hallowed ground. YA novels are not expected to become classics — at least, not yet — so there is no institution to protect.
In television and movies, discussions of diversity in casting and characters always seem limited to what the production company will allow, what they think viewers want to see and what will make the most money. While that is certainly a factor in the publishing industry, YA readers have slowly proven that there is a market for diverse books and that, at least within the rapidly-expanding subculture of Young Adult readers, people are willing to pay for them. In fact, some of the more diverse stories in television and movies in the past few years have come from young adult adaptations like Love Simon, The Hate U Give or Shadow and Bone.
There are three aspects of representation that are important to fostering diversity in media. The first is the most obvious: having characters in the story who hold marginalized identities. Hiring marginalized authors is just as important, not only because they deserve it as much as anyone else, but also because they’re likely to write more compelling representation. Coined by author Corinne Duyvis, the rise of #OwnVoices within the online bookspace recognizes this need for books written by, about, and for marginalized readers, highlighting authors whose characters share their own identities.
For authors to have the opportunity to write OwnVoices stories, however, there must also be equal representation at the top. The publishing industry has always been shut out to marginalized authors. As recently as 2019, the makeup of the industry was 76% white, 74% cisgender woman, 81% straight, and 89% non-disabled. This means that even if more diverse books are being published, to some extent by a more diverse range of authors, the field in which decisions are made, compensation is determined, authors are represented and books are marketed remains exclusive.
If you are a reader, one of the most important things you can do to support marginalized authors is to buy their books, particularly from independent bookstores. Of course, not everyone can afford to buy books or choose to spend their money on books, but if you do buy books put your money in the hands of LGBTQ+ authors, authors with disabilities and authors of color, all of whom are less likely to get that support and need to fight twice as hard to prove to publishers that their books are worth publishing. Diverse books are on the rise because people buy them, pre-order them, review them and request them from the library –– and the publishing industry is finally starting to listen.
Stella D’Acquisto (she/they) is a Staff Writer for Bell Magazine. She is a sophomore at UW-Madison majoring in International Studies and Legal Studies. They are also an avid reader and creative writer who grew up on YA fantasy.