Representation in Young Adult Literature

We’ve all seen Hunger Games and Divergent and The Maze Runner. Large young adult literature franchises that all shaped who our generation is and how we view the world. As an avid young adult literature fan, I wanted to know how this genre uses representation and what academics are saying about it, and how it might be lagging behind the discourse about it online. 

The convention of Young Adult Literature is primarily used as a way for young people, particularly women, to explore marginalized parts of their identity. This representation is not always good or bad but instead inspires conversations on the purpose of representation in literature and how it impacts teens’ view of themselves, their role in the world, and how they relate to others within their own life.

I  first want to note their inherent bias when writing about this topic. I have been reading literature aimed towards adolescents, defined as middle grade and young adult novels, for close to a decade. I have also participated in fan culture and community discussions involving representation that occurred online in young adult literature. Young adult literature has fundamentally shaped me and made me who I am. I literally came out to my family because of a young adult literature movie adaptation. I like what it means as a genre and how it explores representation, but I know it’s far from perfect.

I really believe that representation within young adult literature helps readers explore their own identity in a way that would have been impossible without the advent of the genre. 

I’m not going to say all representation is good, I would argue that some are even harmful, I am going to say I think it’s useful. “Bad Representation” is hard to define but even bad representation can contribute to better understanding of marginalized groups. 

Since I’m going to be writing about marginalized groups I first want to clear up some terms I’ll be using throughout. It’s going to read a bit like legal jargon but the TLDR is that I want to use terms that are inclusive and represent what I am saying while also noting the social context in which I’m writing.  

I will use the term LGBTQ+ to refer to the general community of those who do not fit their assigned gender at birth and those who experience same-sex attraction as one community and specifically the terms LGBQ+ for those who experience same-gender attraction or do not experience heterosexual attraction. 

Trans will be used as an umbrella term for anyone who does not identify with the gender that was assigned at birth. While intersex people do not always identify with the sex or gender assigned at birth some choose not to identify with the larger trans community and it is a choice made by the individuals themselves and not the larger community. While I wish I could discuss intersex narratives in literature, there’s not a lot out there and there are no papers on it so, it’s not going to be discussed here but I wanted to mention it.

The term Black will be capitalized when talking about the racial group and will generally be prioritized over the term African-American unless specified by the researcher.  

One last note before the meat of this article is that Young Adult Literature is mainly a marketing term, not a genre. Young Adult Literature is basically any book that features a protagonist between the ages of 12 and 20 where the central themes are coming of age and conflicts resulting in a more complex understanding of the world. That definition has more genres contained within it.  Some of the most prevalent genres are; science fiction and fantasy; romance; “Sick Fic” or fiction that focuses on main characters that are dealing with medical ailments; dystopian

While specific genres touch representation in different ways, I am focusing on literature that is set in contemporary settings with no consideration for the narrative elements such as if it was romance or “sick fic”. This choice was made as representation in science fiction and fantasy is fundamentally different and has a less direct impact on how readers feel about that representation and how they see it in their own life. 

It’s also much harder to write about. There might be allegories for racism in fantasy settings but is it a representation of Black experiences? Probably not, so we’re gonna leave it alone until there’s more academic writing on the topic. 

What does it mean to be authentic?

One of the central themes when talking about representation is authenticity and accessibility. Readers want to read works that represent their experiences as teenagers as the majority of readers are currently teenagers when the authors typically are not. I want to read books about people who look and feel like someone I could know in my life. I want gay narratives to be accessible and available. They aren’t though. 

Only 10% of the Young Adult Literature published in a given year features multicultural characters (Jiménez). Teens who want to read about their own experiences and identities are limited by the fact that they are not being published and therefore are not accessible. You can’t read about people like you if they aren’t getting published. 

To be fair, this paper was published in 2015 and the publishing industry has had a cultural shift about representation so, I believe this might have changed but again. No data is out there. 

Another thing readers know is what teens are actually like. Teens use social media and texting as a primary way of communication and when authors misrepresent how it is used or technological slang, teens are able to tell and know that the rest of the book feels hollow as the characters no longer act as relatable characters (Rish). Readers may despise books about online fan communities as they feel they are being mocked or disrespected. You need to actually see what teens are like to appeal to them. 

Teens also want complicated and nuanced stories, not tied up in a little bow at the end. Growing up is hard and complicated and I want stories that represent that struggle (Mason, D.; Jiménez; Mootz; Rish)

Race in Young Adult

Let’s talk about Race. Young Adult Literature has always been a genre dominated by white authors but as more conversations have occurred, Authors that are getting published are more diverse which inherently means more diverse stories. 

One of the most prolific works in the genre, not to mention the premier book about race in the genre, is The Hate U Give, (THUG), (2017) by Angie Thomas which debuted at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list the week of its release (Mootz). Thomas is a Black woman writing about a Black girl who watched her best friend get shot in an act of police brutality and the primary discussion within the text is about the course of action after this event and how it affects her own community. It is the book that made it on most anti-racism reading lists in 2020. It’s central to the conversation. 

THUG is a Black book. It is about a Black experience in a white world. The main characters are grappling with their own Blackness and what it means for the rest of their life. The point of THUG is that presumed the white reader of Young Adult Literature must face their own whiteness and how they feel othered when reading, similarly to how Black readers feel when reading most books within the genre.

Not everyone agrees with that though. Some think that the white lens reinforces already existing social structures. The presumed whiteness means that readers actually begin to internalize and articulate their own racial privilege. 

If the purpose of THUG is to educate on racial inequality, it should explore the difficult nature of being Black in America and that to some degree, texts must cater to the idea of whiteness to function in that role. 

If the purpose of THUG is to provide a Black narrative about Black Struggles, catering to whiteness means that they are unable to have narratives that represent them.  

Race in young adult literature is nuanced and difficult to accurately portray due to the disparate groups of readers, but it is obviously important for both groups to understand and empathize with the experiences of Black adolescents in America. It’s hard work and never going to be 100% right but it’s important to keep learning and growing. 

LGBT Representation

LGBTQ+ representation is arguably what Young Adult is most known for. There’s trans rep, gay rep, lesbian rep, nonbinary rep, ace rep and so on and so forth. But, realistically there isn’t that much. 

In 2010, of all books published as young adult, .28% had gay LGBT+ characters. That’s less than a percent. That was the norm and in 2015, when gay marriage was legalized across the country, it was still less than 2%. 

I’m not saying that 2% wasn’t impactful rather, it’s just not a lot for what it was expected to do. 

LGB+ stories also really heavily rely on white gay men. 50% of all stories involving any gay character were focused on white teen gay men. 25% involved a gay teen female character. It’s not great honestly. 

What is interesting though is that the rest of the genre is very concerned with strong female characters and usually has female narrators. It directly contradicts the larger overall trend in YA literature to focus on strong female protagonists and emphasizes that lesbians, sapphics, trans characters are less prevalent than white gay men (Jiménez).

Close to my heart is the representation of bisexual characters. They haven’t been mentioned because it was found that there were no bisexual characters or protagonists to evaluate in the years the study was conducted (Jiménez).  The long and short of it is that

Representation isn’t a straightforward conversation. It’s difficult and messy and hard. It is so valuable to teenagers and they deserve to be viewed as a unique group deserving of respect from authors. Ultimately, representation is about offering many diverse perspectives on diverse topics and making sure the genre has diversity within its offering. The responsibility does not fall on one author but instead the whole industry and for readers to support diverse authors and books that further the conversation around representation.

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