Issues in YA Literature

Hello, and happy Friday.

Even though I didn’t work on my WiP yesterday due to ill-health, I did spend my time doing useful things, including reading other blogs and keeping up to date with current thought in the YA world.  Turns out there are lots of burning topics to think about, but the one I want to write about today just stuck in my head, and thoughts started to congeal around it.  That topic is social issues – race, sexuality, disability, poverty – and how they are dealt with in Young Adult books.

My thought processes on this started yesterday when I read a blog article about race in Young Adult literature, and how the characters, particularly the main characters, tend to be white, or (even worse) are just assumed to be white.  I’m afraid I don’t know yet how to link things properly on my blog, but if you want to copy and paste the following into your browser, you’ll get to the article:

The blogger was asking the question ‘why does this happen?’ and, unfortunately, came to the conclusion that ‘whiteness sells’; in other words, that putting pictures of pretty white girls on the cover of the book will help to sell it.  I thought the article was excellent, and timely – and very, very sad.

The blogger mentions the Twitter backlash a few years ago when a character in The Hunger Games was portrayed by a black actress when the book came to be turned into a movie.  It seemed that some people couldn’t get their head around one of the most important players in the story (Rue) not having the same white skin as the protagonists.  In fact, the character is described as black when we first meet her in the book, but it is such an unimportant part of her that it soon just becomes incidental; it becomes just another part of her, like her singing voice and her ability to climb, and her gentle compassion.  She’s probably my favourite character, not only in The Hunger Games but in the trilogy overall; it made zero difference to me what colour her skin was. I remember the furore around race when the movie came out, and I remember how disgusted I was by it.

By using the words ‘unimportant’ and ‘incidental’, by the way, I don’t mean to downplay the importance or significance of these characteristics, and I’m certainly not trying to belittle or disparage ideas of racial equality.  I don’t mean to imply that the fact of the character’s blackness is not significant – in fact, ideas of race, sexuality, gender and disability are very important to me as a person, and as a writer.  What I mean is, the fact that the character of Rue has black skin makes no difference to her character in this story.  Her compassion, her kindness, her talents, her loving heart, her bravery, and her beautiful spirit all have nothing to do with the colour of her skin; this is why the author doesn’t mention it again after our first meeting with the character.  She’s not brave because she’s black; she’s just a brave person who also happens to be black.  The protagonist, Katniss, is also a brave person – not because she’s white, she just also happens to be white.  It’s noteworthy that Suzanne Collins doesn’t really dwell on physical characteristics or descriptions in her books – we’re not constantly reminded of Katniss’ race, or the physical appearance of any character, to the best of my recollection.  People in these books are just people, and I think that’s important.

I then started to think about Ursula Le Guin, and the way she has always dealt with race and bodily difference in her novels.  For Le Guin, characters are nearly always described as being brown, or dark – it seems like everyone, more or less, is the same colour, but that colour is not necessarily white.  Again, like Collins, skin colour is not important to characterisation in Le Guin – it’s an incidental, barely-mentioned thing. The reader is given enough detail to fix the character in their mind and then we just get on with the story, with nobody paying any heed to what colour a person is. Even gender and sexuality, in Le Guin’s work, is seen as being fluid – distinctions are made unimportant. I’m thinking of The Left Hand of Darkness here, where it’s impossible to even describe a character as being ‘male’ or ‘female’ – everyone in this book is both, and neither, male or female. They can choose a gender at certain times in their lives (known as ‘kemmer’), and temporarily become one or the other, but for the most part gender is unimportant to who the characters are. I’ve always admired Le Guin’s treatment of people in this novel – even the idea of pronouns, and how to refer to people, was problematic but she overcame it through some very skilful use of language.  Sometimes characters who are usually referred to with male pronouns are described as women, and vice-versa; sometimes, pronouns are just ignored.

I also began to think about disability in Young Adult literature, and found myself stuck for examples of characters who are disabled. More often than not, in these books, protagonists are more specially gifted – stronger, faster, quicker to learn – than their contemporaries, and it’s rare to come across characters, let alone protagonists, who are just unexceptional, or who have a disability. There’s also a risk in literature that the author will decide to ‘cure’ a disabled character, or bestow some extra-special talent on them to ‘make up for’ their disability; though this might be done with a good heart, it’s important to remember that it can be seen as insulting by readers with disabilities.  Why is it so hard, I wonder, to imagine a character who not only lives their life perfectly well, but also excels at whatever it is they choose to do, and all this while disabled?

It would be wonderful, I think, if characters in novels could be just seen as ‘people’, regardless of their colour, gender, sexuality or disabilities.  These things are important, of course, and they will affect how a person sees themselves and how their world works, but they shouldn’t make a difference to whether or not they’re a good person, and certainly not to whether or not they’re a good character, about whom we enjoy reading. It would be wonderful if readers didn’t automatically assume that every character is white, straight and privileged, and if book covers (as the other blogger suggested) didn’t reflect a homogeneous, all-white picture. I certainly hope we never witness another ‘Rue is black?’ debacle, because – surely – at this stage, it should make no difference.

What are your thoughts on these issues? I’m particularly interested to know if anyone has any recommendations for books I could read with disabled characters, or books which deal with race or gender in interesting ways.  Let me know what you think!

5 thoughts on “Issues in YA Literature

  1. Rand Howard

    Good morning! another great post! You are definitely on the right track and I really hope the movement to self publish encourages writers to move away from the need to write what sells and write what makes sense.

    I don’t think I have mentioned this because it really doesn’t matter but I live in a black neighborhood. An that is just it, they are neighbors first and being black is way down the list somewhere. Having said that, as I mentioned to @wordsforteen yesterday, it is really hard to find YA books that present a good role model for the black teenage friends of my grand-daughter. It is so hard for them when all they see is media full of skinny white chicks. it does my heart so much good to see my grand-daughter, who is a skinny white chick with FLAMING red hair, being able to connect with everyone and not play the silly games others play. She is being a role model all on her own. BTW, I am trying to get her to write but so far, the journals I give her are empty. However, she is a great artist, so as they say, a picture is worth a 1000 words.

    Off the top of my head, I don’t have any recommendation for characters with disabilities but I do have lists somewhere, if I can find them; they probably are more the mental disability type than physical disability. My favorite race-centric author is Octavia Butler, all of her protagonists are strong black females that deal with a wide range of personal and societal problems, they are for the most part definitely not YA. However, I see that her book ‘Kindred’, which won some YA awards, is beginning to be used more in high schools. It was shunned for many years because of the violence that the heroine faces but high school is a violent place now so it is accepted to show and teach how to deal with it now. I just finished reading her last novel ‘Fledgling’ and loved it. Her death was really sad as she had a lot more writing to do. I remember the day, she lived in Seattle and it was one of those freak Feb. days when it freezes in the morning. She went to get her morning paper and slipped and fell on the ice, hit her head and died instantly. A great light went out.

    Okay, before this comment turns into a novel, I had better stop. I am so anxious to get started on NaNo but I have much prep to do. I have learned that us writers are called, Wrimo’s, cute huh. Oh, one last thing, I do have some snippets of things up on my blog here at wordpress and I will be moving more over from other blogs later today, trying to get everything in one place. The one titled ‘prologue’ is the beginning of my NaNo novel so it is sort of a cheat but I count it as a character outline. 🙂 Have a great day!

  2. ellisnelson

    I think the industry tends to produce what sells. The YA demographic is thought to be teen girls and white girls at that. Books for guys are even fairly rare. Prevailing belief is that boys don’t read. I wonder if you looked at graphic novels if some of these social issues are dealt with more.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts – I just think it’s a shame that teen white girls are seen as the only market for YA books. I’m just not willing to accept that’s the truth! That’s possibly just me being naive, though. My knowledge of graphic novels is sketchy, but from the few I’ve read I guess you’re probably right.

      1. ellisnelson

        I also think there should be more of an effort made for diversity. Unfortunately, the gateholders in this case are… white women editors and a few (very rare) white men.

  3. SJ O'Hart Post author

    Thanks for your comment, Rand – Your grand-daughter sounds great – I hope she nurtures that artistic side of herself. I love red hair, so I’m jealous that she gets to be lucky enough to have it! 🙂

    Thanks, again, for the Octavia Butler recommendations. Really think the universe is telling me ‘just read her!’ I’m very sorry to hear she passed away, though.

    Looking forward to reading more of your snippets! Best of luck with NaNo. Fingers crossed for you.


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