Diversity in Adolescent Literature

A few weeks ago, one of my students, Rachel, wrote a provocative post called “Diversity Please Speak Up.”

She recounts an experience in a different class where the students were asked to construct a reading list of books everyone needs to read by the time they graduate from high school. The list ended up consisting of mostly dead white guys, which doesn’t surprise me. If you’ve experienced a traditional education in high school and college English classes, you’ve mostly read dead white guys. Naturally those are the texts that are going to come to mind when you’re trying to sort and identify essential reading. After all, it’s hard to construct a recommended reading list of great books you’ve never read or even heard of.

As readers and teachers, I think that we have to be very intentional in our personal reading if we’re going to have truly diverse reading lives and be in a position to develop diverse curricula, meet the needs of our students, and promote social justice.

We can’t count on others to do it for us.

All too often, the award winners and “best of” lists that we might rely on to identify quality literature for our classrooms mostly highlight quality literature written by white authors. Librarian and blogger Betsy Bird’s conclusion at the end of her recap of the 2013 ALA Youth Media Awards was simple: “Whitey Whitey Whiteville.”  You can see the actual figures at author Mitali Perkins’s blog: her students compiled stats on the prizes not restricted by an author or illustrator’s race or ethnicity (that is, leaving out prizes like the Coretta Scott King Award or Pura Belpre Award).

Or consider NPR’s list of the 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels, published last year. There are a lot of really good books on this list. However, only 2 titles on the list are written by authors of color. Two books out of 100. I still can’t wrap my mind around that. There were many thoughtful critiques of the whiteness of this list, but this is one of my favorites: a post by a classroom teacher about the damage done to her students when good reading is so exclusively associated with whiteness.

Rachel’s post got me thinking: what else can I do to promote more diverse reading in my courses? What else can I do to prepare students to create lists off the top of their heads of great books that just so happen to be written by people of color?

It’s pretty simple: share more diverse reading material with them.

Adolescent Literature is a good place to do this, and I love to revise the syllabus for this course. I try to teach mostly very contemporary books so that students can get a sense of what’s happening in YA right now. I try to teach 1 or 2 books I haven’t read before. As I create the required reading list for the course, I usually have a few categories of books I’m trying to include:

  • A classic YA novel
  • Several prizewinners (I might select from the Printz, Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpre, Schneider Family Award, National Book Award)
  • Graphic novel
  • Verse novel
  • The sure-fire-hit reluctant boy reader book
  • LGBQT novel
  • Professional development book
  • Dystopian fiction
  • Poetry
  • Nonfiction
  • Middle-grade

As I think about how I might want to revise the syllabus next spring, I know that I’d like to incorporate even more diversity. Here are some books I’m considering (some of these books are already on the syllabus):

  • Walter Dean Myers, Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff-
  • Marie Lu, Legend
  • Sharon Draper, Out of My Mind
  • Tranhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again
  • Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Under the Mesquite
  • Sherman Alexie, Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian
  • Malinda Lo, Ash
  • Alex Sanchez, Rainbow Boys or God Box
  • Rita Williams-Garcia, Every Time a Rainbow Dies
  • G. Neri, Yummy
  • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis I and II
  • Gene Luen Yeng, American Born Chinese
  • Angela Johnson, The First Part Last
  • Victor Martinez, Parrot in the Oven
  • Tanuja Desai Hidier, Born Confused
  • Neesha Meminger, Shine Coconut Moon
  • Benjamin Alire Saenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secret of the Universe
  • Alaya Dawn Johnson, The Summer Prince
  • Zetta Elliott, Ship of Souls
  • Sherri Smith, Orleans
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