My first post for Books on the Make was about NPR’s list of the best young adult books and in it, I discussed why some books more traditionally thought of as adult had made it onto a YA list. At that time, the list was 235 titles long. Since then, voting has shrunk that sum down to 100, and the controversy surrounding this list, while still mild, has grown in seriousness. Specifically, that the list NPR listeners (and experts) decided on is extraordinarily white.

I remember that there weren’t a ton of non-white authors or main characters on the longer list. (Looking at it now, the only ones I see are Cisneros and Alexie; I am curious about why no Walter Dean Myers). Frankly, though, as a white girl from a white Chicago suburb who’s the product of a heterogeneous white education, I haven’t read a wide array of YA stuff that isn’t from a white author with white characters. That should definitely be rectified, but my point is, looking at the list didn’t surprise or set off any alarm bells for me (which is something that perhaps should also be rectified).

Salon.com (my go-to place for smart takes on literary issues), has a list of several possible theories as to why this is the case. Chief among them is the indisputable fact that NPR has an overwhelmingly white audience (me included). Let me add two theories to the list of why more multicultural selections

  1. Like me, the audience wasn’t as familiar with non-white choices. In their      classrooms and reading lives, the majority of books they encountered were      white. This is not the readers’ fault, necessarily*, this is the fault of the school systems and libraries surrounding them.
  2. A practical consideration: most of the YA books we regard as classics—take,      for instance, this post on kids’ books through the ages and how much money their adventures would cost (this is such a fun article I had to work it in somehow)—were written decades ago. One of my favorites, Anne of Green Gables, was written in 1908, long before the Civil Rights Movement. Again, another unfortunate, sucky thing dictated by decades of racism, but by sheer volume there may not be many  “classic” kid’s books written by non-white authors. Non-white authors weren’t published as widely as they were now. Even if there are African American, Hispanic, Asian-American and Native American YA books dating from before the 80s (and there probably are), because of lack of exposure throughout the years, a large enough audience won’t be familiar with them. Books by minority authors that are making their way into the realm of the classics are currently considered “modern classics”, and compete with all that come before them who can’t be neglected either, and so lose out. So overall, there’s a lack of sample size.

*However, if these options were offered …a reader certainly has the right to choose whatever book they think they will enjoy. I’m sure most of us have not visited the woodworking section of the library because we thought we wouldn’t enjoy reading a book on woodworking. It’s just that the implication behind not reading a book by Sandra Cisneros or Walter Dean Myers because you don’t think you’ll enjoy or connect with it is far worse. It’s not always a conscious thing. Many people do choose to read and watch television shows and movies about people like them; it’s human. The problem is when you assume that the characters in non-white books aren’t like you because of their race. Much like racism in real life, the characters and people you dismiss in books are share many of your feelings and emotions, which you will realize when you take the time to read about them.

The fact that this list is lily-white is unfortunate. But I really don’t think it’s racism that motivated it to be such. NPR listeners might be mostly white, but damn, are they educated and liberal. What this list reflects is the status quo, and only we can change that.

If your education didn’t expose you to a broad cultural variety of authors, or if you avoid non-white books because you don’t think you’ll relate to them, pick up a few. If lack of exposure is the problem, every new reader of a book helps it gain a broader audience, and you might find a new favorite. If you didn’t think you’d like it…well, too bad. I advocate reading outside your comfort zone in all circumstances. Some people like to read about cultures and circumstances they’ve never encountered and some, well, some really should. And while you may think you won’t like a book, you can’t say that until you’ve read it.

My own choice for a book to add to the list would be Zami by Audre Lorde. It may be more “adult”, but who cares, NPR didn’t when they stuck Catcher and Gatsby on there. It’s Lorde’s autobiography of herself until her mid 20s, a portrait of an artist fighting to be an artist and a young woman in a time and place that wouldn’t accept her dreams, her race, or her sexuality. See? Lots of things to connect to. Now go read it. ~Liz

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