Thursday Morning Thought: Is the Book Industry Championing Diversity in YA in the UK?

It’s all well and good to shout it from the rooftops that “we need more diversity” in Young Adult Lit. but it’s another thing entirely to DO SOMETHING about it. I’ve compiled a list of most of the most YA and Children’s book prizes (only one of these is aimed primarily at YA though the Waterstone’s Children Book Prize does include a “best book for teens” category):

  1. The YA Book Prize
  2. The Booktrust Best Book Award
  3. The CILIP Carnegie Medal
  4. The CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal
  5. The Red House Children’s Book Award
  6. The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize
  7. UKLA Book Awards
  8. Costa Children’s Book Award
  9. Blue Peter Book Awards
  10. National Children’s Book of the Year Award
  11. Waterstone’s Children Book Prize

While this list is non-exhaustive, I don’t think YA is fairly represented. The YA Book Prize is a fantastic achievement but it highlights a small selection of YA titles when, what I think we need, is a selection that promotes diversity. I’m not asking for an exclusive award for LGBT YA or the representation of African-American/Asian/Native American/Mixed Race (etc.) characters in literature. I want diversity in YA books to be championed; books that reach the twelve-year-old boy who’s being bullied for the color of his skin; books that will help the sixteen-year-old girl to understand that liking other girls is not a bad thing; books that will show children with dyslexia that the hero that saves the world might not be able to read and/or write but he can save the world just as well as any sparkle-in-the-sun, 6-pack vampire or the pretty blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Caucasian wonder. No, it’s not good enough to include diversity in the background and say “job done”. We desperately need new voices, untapped themes, developing and current social problems and illnesses that affect different teens. I’m not talking about niche publishing per se. It can still carry universal appeal. Teens that aren’t directly affected can help understand more about a classmate, a friend, a neighbor, a family member that has the illness. It’s simply about promoting diversity.

And for publishers, think of the endless opportunities; the new channels to market; the publicity that such a prize could generate. A story that touches on LGBT issues or race could be sold directly to schools, introduce talks at the Southbank Centre by the authors to tackle bullying in conjunction with schools. Publicity can be garnered from LGBT media, newspapers, social media accounts, newspapers, blogs, TV channels (etc.). Think global and as my Publishing MA lecturer once said: “think laterally”.

I’ve never announced this publicly, and I don’t know why I’m doing it now, but I have FAP – a form of genetic polyposis (FAP) that causes daily discomfort, pain amongst other, less attractive symptoms that I won’t remark on here. I had to have my large intestine completely removed when I was 13 to buy more time and a further two major surgeries when I was 17 and 18. I don’t want or expect a pity party. I’m all the stronger for it. I came out as “gay” when I was 19 and my illness has been a sore point, my illness obviously having a huge impact on my life. I would have liked to have discovered David Levithan’s work (and the work of similar authors) earlier when I was denying who I was on a daily basis. LGBT YA shouldn’t be placed in – what was once then – a very dusty, LGBT section (homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993 in the Republic of Ireland and as a deeply Catholic country, not as progressive about sexuality). It would have helped me to understand myself better. There is no YA story that I’ve discovered about anyone that has gone through what I went through and I don’t blame them. With books like The Fault in Our Stars and Before I Die though, there are new perspectives and themes starting to emerge and who knows, maybe one day, maybe myself or another polyposis sufferer might write that book.

New forms.

New voices.

New stories.

We need all of these to broaden our sphere of diversity. As Malorie Blackman, Children’s Laureate 2013-15 said: “[i]If everyone is white or Caucasian, it is just not accurate and it’s a very odd thing to do when we live in a multi-cultural society.” And she didn’t just mean with regard to race. I heard her speak at the London Book Fair 2014 lat year and she’s certainly championing diversity and not simply race as some trolls have slated her for on Twitter.

The potential opportunities are only starting to be tapped in certain areas of certain areas but the book industry has a long way to go. Can we create about the adventures of an Indian child for example? Can we print it in dual languages and cater for two markets; a market that English-language publishers in the UK seem not to have investigated, perhaps because the Big 5 are known for avoiding what has come to be identified as avoidable risk.

These are just my thoughts. If you feel differently, if you feel that I am wrong, I welcome any and all to a healthy debate either here, or on Twitter.

Final note: I’m happy to see LGBT books starting to take centre-stage this year:

More Happy None of the Above Simon Vs Tiny Cooper UnspeakableHalf Wild

#WeNeedDiverseBooksUK

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Thursday Morning Thought: Is the Book Industry Championing Diversity in YA in the UK?

  1. A very thoughtful post, indeed. Props! And yeah, WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS coz our world IS diverse.

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