Themes in Young Adult Literature: Diversity

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2650

Titles Discussed

A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich by Alice Childress

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

Thematic Overview

In 1965, educator, editor, and founder of the International Reading Association Nancy Larrick brought the issue of diversity in literature for...

(The entire section contains 2650 words.)

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Titles Discussed

A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich by Alice Childress

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

Thematic Overview

In 1965, educator, editor, and founder of the International Reading Association Nancy Larrick brought the issue of diversity in literature for young people to the attention of the public. In an essay for the Saturday Review, Larrick described the “all-white world of children's books,” noting that, of the over 5,000 books published from 1962 through 1964, only 6.7% featured Black characters. The remainder—93.3%—told the stories of White characters exclusively. Over 50 years after Larrick published her observations, “we've made some progress,” Kathleen T. Horning writes, “but children's literature still represents a mostly white world in a real one that's becoming increasingly diverse.”

The growing racial and ethnic diversity to which Horning refers is not currently reflected in the majority of books published for children and young adults. According to the ACT for Youth Center for Excellence, racial and ethnic diversity is increasing among young people in the United States. Currently, approximately one third of the population in the U.S. identifies as non-white. By 2018, “children and youth of color (under age 18) will be the majority youth population” (ACT for Youth). Since 1985, the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison has been documenting children's and young adult literary diversity and, as Jason Low of Lee and Low Books, citing these statistics, concludes, “the number of diverse books published each year over the past twenty years has been stuck in neutral, never exceeding, on average, 10 percent.” While the American population has become, as Horning writes, “increasingly diverse,” the literature reflecting the youth of this population has failed to keep up.

The discussion of diversity in young adult literature is not limited to critiques of racial and ethnic representation; gender, sexuality, and ability status represent three additional aspects of diversity critics argue are not often explored in literature for young people. Young adult author Malindo Lo, writing for the “Diversity in YA” blog she created with fellow author Cindy Pon, examined the New York Times' lists of young adult best sellers and young adult series on the best-selling children's series lists compiled during 2013 to determine the diversity of racial, ethnic, and gender identities; sexualities; and abilities represented by the books on the list. Lo's conclusions echo and add to those reached by the CCBC: only15% of these best-selling novels featured primary characters of color; 12% included central characters who identified as LGBTQ; and 3% included protagonists with disabilities. In short, Lo found, popular young adult novels are overwhelmingly populated by White characters and reflect the experiences of straight and typically abled people almost exclusively.

Margaret A. Edwards Award winning YA author Walter Dean Myers, in an opinion piece written in 2014 and published in the New York Times, described the lack of diversity in young people's literature as a significant problem. “Books transmit values,” wrote Myers. “They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?” Sharon Flake, a children's and YA author, made a similar statement to the New York Times in 2012, pointing out that “In a world where youth of color are often told how much they are lacking, young adult novels about them and their communities tell the rest of the story.”

Literary diversity isn't just about incorporating a diverse cast of characters into a book or story. Authors, readers, and critics argue that how a character is represented—how she speaks, lives, and exists in the world of the book—is of central importance. Stereotypical, racist, or incorrect portrayals of people who identify as LGBTQ, of people who identify as members of one or more racial or ethnic minorities, or of people with disabilities, are politically incorrect, at best, and harmful and even dangerous, at worst. Books featuring characters who challenge or exceed stereotype provide readers with new and expanded models of humanity that confront, correct or overturn assumptions. Additionally, books featuring diversity can also become models and informants of new narratives that enlarge young adult literature's literary potential.

Works

Alice Childress's A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, David Levithan's Boy Meets Boy, and Francisco X. Stork's Marcelo in the Real World represent three notable novels that have broken boundaries related to the depiction of diversity in young adult literature. By complicating the depiction of racial inequality (Hero), imagining a world without prejudice (Boy Meets Boy), and giving voice to a person with a disability (Marcelo), all three novels challenged the literary status quo and opened the door for more diverse representation in young adult literature.

A prominent playwright and figure of the Harlem Left, Alice Childress was challenged by a friend to write a book for young adults that dealt with some of the social issues she had been addressing in her work for adults. A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich emerged as the result of this challenge and, as Alleen Pace Nilsen has written, “helped shape the [then] new genre [of young adult literature] as well as bring it respect.”

Published in 1973 and told from multiple perspectives in the form of chapter-long “monologues,” Childress's novel centers around thirteen-year-old Benji, a young, Black heroin addict living with his mother in the Harlem ghetto. Childress gives voice to a diverse cast of characters including Benji, his mother, his best friend, two teachers and a principal at his school, and even the “pusher” who supplies the neighborhood with narcotics. Each of these characters has a unique voice characterized, in many cases, by their use of colloquialisms and what Sandra Y. Govan calls “urban Black folk speech.” (73)

Childress's use of multiple voices to tell Benji's story reveals both commonalities and diversity of Black experience. As the novel works to challenge Benji's assertion that a hero “ain't nothin' but a sandwich,” it depicts its characters with a complexity that reveals the influences of personal and national history, politics, and economics on each individual. With A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, as with her other novels for young adults, Childress “reject[s] the premise that the [Black] writer's duty was to compose inspirational tracts about Black high achievers.” (Govan 71) Instead, Childress focuses on the challenges and triumphs of people considered both ordinary and marginalized, creating whole characters that are not defined solely by their social or racialized status.

A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich was honored with an award from the Jane Addams Peace Association, received a National Book Award nomination, and was named an Outstanding Book of the Year by the New York Times and a Best Young Adult Book by the American Library Association. The novel was also the subject of numerous challenges and was one of eleven books removed from school library shelves by the Island Trees Union Free School District, a move that was challenged by student petitioners through the judicial system to the Supreme Court.

Childress's complex and varied depictions of the lives of urban Black people as well as her address of a social problem—drug use and abuse—from a nuanced perspective make A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich a revolutionary book. Childress's novel represents one of the first—along with works by Walter Dean Myers, Mildred Taylor, and Sharon Bell Mathis—works of young adult realism that would not only, as critics have written, “shape the genre,” but also serve as part of a foundation of African American children's and young adult literature for others to build upon.

Author and editor David Levithan's first novel, Boy Meets Boy, represents a breakthrough in LGBTQ literature for young people. Told from the first-person perspective of Paul, a high school sophomore, the novel describes Paul's rocky road to romantic relationship with Noah, a classmate.

Levithan's novel is notable for its utopian setting and vision. Paul lives in a town where the gay and the straight “scene[s] … got all mixed up a while back” (Levithan 1), where same-sex couples are free to love one another openly and publicly, where transgender people are celebrated (the school's homecoming queen, Infinite Darlene, is also its star quarterback), and where gender and sexual identity are understood and celebrated in their diversity. Michael Cart and Christine Jenkins have called Boy Meets Boy the “first authentically feel-good gay novel” (158) and, though moments of realism—in the form of Paul's friend Tony, who lives in a less enlightened town and must remain “closeted” at home—encroach on the novel's setting, the novel remains, at heart, an optimistic love story.

Early young adult novels featuring LGBTQ characters were characterized by heartbreak and tragedy (e.g., John Donovan's 1969 novel, I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, which featured the death of the protagonist's dog following his first gay experience), while later novels (e.g., M.E. Kerr's 1995 novel, Deliver Us From Evie) depicted LGBTQ life in terms of struggle. Boy Meets Boy broke from these traditions. As David Levithan writes on his website, he “basically set out to write the book that [he] dreamed of getting as an editor—a book about gay teens that doesn't conform to the old norms about gay teens in literature (i.e. it has to be about a gay uncle, or a teen who gets beaten up for being gay, or about outcasts who come out and find they're still outcasts, albeit outcasts with their outcastedness in common.).”

While movements like the “It Gets Better” Project work to “communicate to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth around the world that it gets better,” Boy Meets Boy envisioned a world where it was already better. As it did so, it challenged assumptions that books about LGBTQ youth had to prioritize strife and opened up a literary space where LGBTQ characters could celebrate their sexual identities.

The depiction of people with disabilities in children's and young adult literature has been both historically limited and historically questionable. As Emily Wopperer has noted, “in the past, literature often did not portray characters with disabilities in a positive or respective manner.” (28) More recently, however, the depiction of characters with disabilities has shifted “from stereotypical representation to realistic and meaningful stories of human beings.” (Wopperer 29) Francisco X. Stork's 2009 novel, Marcelo in the Real World, represents one notable example of such “meaningful stories.”

Stork's novel is told from the first person perspective of Marcelo, a seventeen-year-old with an unnamed cognitive impairment that critics of the book have compared to Asperger's Syndrome. Marcelo attends a school for young people with special needs and his father, worried that Marcelo has been too shielded from the “real world,” arranges for his son to work at his law firm for the summer.

Stork's novel represents one of the first attempts to depict a person with cognitive impairment in mainstream young adult literature. Mark Haddon's 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, is considered an early mainstream work told from the perspective of a person with autism; however, this book is a “crossover” work of adult fiction. While other young adult works have depicted characters with autism through the lens of a sibling or other family member (e.g., Nancy Werlin's 1994 Are You Alone on Purpose and Gennifer Choldenko's 2003 Al Capone Does My Shirts), Stork's novel is notable for its first person perspective.

Marcelo in the Real World was honored with the Schneider Family Book Award, which is given annually to titles that “embody an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences,” and this accolade reflects the novel's success at accurately and respectfully depicting a disability experience. Writing for the blog “Disability in Kidlit,” S. E. Smith praised Stork for capturing “an authentic depiction of one facet of the autistic experience.”

Stork's novel seems to have paved the way for increased representation of people with disabilities of all kinds in mainstream young adult literature. Additionally, the critical success of Stork's novel has drawn teachers' and librarians' attention to literature featuring people with disabilities.

Conclusion

Young adult literature provides readers with what Rudine Sims Bishop has called “mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors” through which they can see their lives—and the lives of others—reflected. The diversity and nature of this reflection are important, Bishop writes; when readers “cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are part.”

For over 50 years, readers, teachers, librarians, authors, and publishers have been lamenting the lack of diversity in the world of literature for young people and arguing, essentially, that the literary reflections Bishop describes remain sadly limited. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, however, voices of people advocating for greater representation in youth literature have become louder and more persuasive, drawing increased public attention to diversity in children's and young adult literature. “We Need Diverse Books” (WNDB), a grassroots campaign established in 2014, represents one notable effort to draw attention to diversity in youth literature. WNDB spearheaded a social media campaign that drew great attention to the organization's cause and has since worked to develop internships, mentorships, and programming aimed at encouraging the publication of diverse material.

Campaigns like WNDB represent ongoing efforts to depict diversity in youth literature and, as they draw readers' attention to existing and forthcoming diverse literature, highlight the diversity of the human experience.

Further Reading

  • Keplinger, Kody, Corinne Duyvis, and Kayla Whaley. Disability in Kidlit. Web. 22 February 2016. <http://disabilityinkidlit.com/>
  • Lo, Malinda and Cindy Pon. Diversity in YA. Web. 26 February 2016. <http://www.diversityinya.com/>
  • We Need Diverse Books Official Campaign Site. 1 August 2014. Web. 22 February 2016. <http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/>

Bibliography

  • ACT for Youth Center for Excellence. “U.S. Teen Demographics.” ACT for Youth Center for Excellence. ACT for Youth Center for Excellence, n.d. Web. 25 February 2016.
  • Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom 6.3 (Summer 1990). Web. 27 February 2016.
  • Cart, Michael and Christine A. Jenkins. The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969 – 2004. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006. Print.
  • Curwood, Jen Scott. “Redefining Normal: A Critical Analysis of (Dis)Ability in Young Adult Literature.” Children's Literature in Education 44.1 (March 2013): 15 – 28.
  • Ehrlich, Hannah. “The Diversity Gap in Children's Publishing, 2015.” The Open Book. Lee and Low Books, 5 March 2015. Web. 23 February 2016.
  • Flake, Sharon. “More Nonwhite Characters are Needed.” New York Times. New York Times, 28 March 2012. Web. 22 February 2016.
  • Govan, Sandra Y. “Alice Childress's Rainbow Jordan: The Black Aesthetic Returns Dressed in Adolescent Fiction.” Children's Literature Association Quarterly 13.2 (Summer 1988): 70 – 74.
  • Horning, Kathleen T. “Children's Books: Still an All-White World?” School Library Journal. Media Source, Inc, 1 May 2014. Web. 25 February 2016.
  • It Gets Better Project. “What Is the It Gets Better Project?” It Gets Better Project. n.d. Web. 26 February 2016.
  • Koppelman, Susan. “Alice Childress: An Appreciation.” Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women 10.1 (Fall 1994): 6. Literature Resource Center. Web. 25 February 2016.
  • Larrick, Nancy. “The All-White World of Children's Books.” Saturday Review. 11 September 1965. UNZ.org. Web. 24 February 2016.
  • Levithan, David. “About Me.” David Levithan. n.d. Web. 26 February 2016.
  • Lo, Malinda. “Diversity in 2013 New York Times Young Adult Bestsellers.” Diversity in YA. Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon, 21 April 2014. Web. 23 February 2016.
  • Low, Jason T. “Where is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results.” The Open Book. Lee and Low Books, 26 January 2016. Web. 22 February 2016.
  • Myers, Walter Dean. “Where are the People of Color in Children's Books?” New York Times. New York Times, 15 March 2014. Web. 23 February 2016.
  • Nilsen, Alleen Pace. “Alice Childress: Overview.” Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers. Ed. Laura Standley Berger. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 February 2016.
  • smith, s.e. “Review: Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork.” Disability in Kidlit. 1 July 2013. Web. 23 February 2016.
  • Wopperer, Emily. “Inclusive Literature in the Library and the Classroom: The Importance of Young Adult and Children's Books that Portray Characters with Disabilities.” Knowledge Quest 39.3 (Jan./Feb. 2011): 26 – 35.
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