Reading literature is a source of escapism for individuals to turn to in order to explore worlds that they otherwise could not while interacting with a wide array of characters from various cultures and creeds (both realistic and fantastical). Readers tend to create a sense of emotional attachment to the characters within their favorite stories and form a sort of relationship with them like that of a friend. It’s easy for some readers to identify with characters in some of the most popular stories that top the New York Times Bestseller Lists, but not always. When the titular characters or protagonists whose eyes we see through are usually carbon copies of each other, then it can be far more difficult to identify with that character. Someone may be able to identify with a part of Harry Potter’s life, identity, and struggles but not entirely. A reader (particularly a young reader as that is who the Harry Potter series is classified as addressing) may not be able to completely identify with Harry because Harry is a straight white boy. Clary is a straight white girl. Percy Jackson is a straight white boy. Young readers need to be able to have the opportunity to identify with characters who are like them, who may have similar views, who may partake in similar activities. If so many main characters are white and straight, readers who are not like those characters won’t be able to see themselves in the position of importance.
When moving forward about this discussion, it is important to understand what one means when they say diverse. Destiny Burnett states that she believes that a diverse novel should feature “a person of color, a person of a non-Christian faith, an LGBTQ theme or characters, a person with a mental illness or physical disability, or a setting in a lower class area…” and these are a few of the parameters I will be utilizing here as well (Burnett). However, there will be a bar on the demographic of just being in poverty. This seems like a cop-out for authors to say that a heterosexual white character is diverse without really trying (unless class really is an issue within the story as it is with many dystopian novels) and will be a point discussed in some of the annotations.
There is a reason why diversity in literature, particularly young adult literature, is so important. Again, Burnett gives a fair answer, one that really resonates with many: “every person who wants to read a book with a character they can identify with should have access to ones where their culture and identity is present.” But Burnett is not the only one who believes that diversity in literature is an issue. In their article “Young Adult Literature Lacks Diverse Authors,” Amani Salahudeen also discusses that having more characters who identify with a minority group allows for a greater establishment of these groups within the mainstream, which can allow their voices to be heard by those who may otherwise be deaf to them.
Now that is not to say that there is absolutely no diversity among the characters within the popular novels. It’s just that these characters are often ones that find themselves on the sidelines. Authors like Rick Riordan of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and Cassandra Clare of The Mortal Instruments series have been praised for their inclusion of minority characters (Clare to the point of one reviewer asking if she had too many characters who fell within the LGBTQ+ community) (PoppyRedbones). Clare has been especially praised by various book reviewers for working to include many other diverse groups who are otherwise often overlooked, such as those on the autism spectrum. While Riordan’s first series, and others since then, have had heterosexual white male protagonists, his second series had a young black male as one of the deuteragonists. Riordan also works with minority authors as part of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint of Disney-Hyperion Publishing.
“Over the years, I’ve gotten many questions from my fans about whether I might write about various world mythologies, but in most cases I knew I wasn’t the best person to write those books. Much better, I thought, to use my experience and my platform at Disney to put the spotlight on other great writers who are actually from those cultures and know the mythologies* better than I do. Let them tell their own stories, and I would do whatever I could to help those books find a wide audience!”Rick Riordan
But one thing that Riordan and Clare have going for them is that they have created whole micro universes that “appear” within the real world as all of the stories within the “Riordanverse” (the stories that Riordan himself have written) and the world of the Shadowhunter Chronicles where they can work to incorporate minority voices. Other authors usually have one book or potentially a set number within a series. Because of that, it seems that for much of the first part of the twenty-first century main characters were still the safe heteronormative white males or females that were proven to sell copies of books. But it would seem that this aspect of literature is changing as we continue to move forward closer to the present day.
There are a few counterpoints to this though. One may argue that many modern graphic novels tend to be more inclusive despite when they were published. Of course, this diversity within graphic content is in regards to the twenty-first century as opposed to the early years of comics and graphic content when most superheroes and villains were white. Also, one may argue that while not necessarily stating that a character is a person of color, some authors don’t always say that a character is white. This opens the room for reader interpretation into how they wish to perceive characters. One would imagine that diversity will continue as times progress. But even as casts for novels and popular series diversify, some can’t help but think that many times minorities can still be put on the sidelines or are secondary to the real main protagonists who still embody those safe spaces of the majority.
For the purpose of this list of texts, I intend to analyze a collection of texts catered toward young adults and look at dynamics within the casts of characters. Each novel or graphic novel within this list utilizes numerous characters outside of just a core character who acts as a narrator or the primary point of view. These casts include family members, friends, and rivals. I do not only wish to look at the representation within the stories. As stated, many of these novels can have diverse characters. I want to see if any of these will have major characters (even main protagonists) that can even be potentially identified as a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I also plan to look at some of the characters’ differing cultural dynamics that may go against the norm and how it is important to have instances of representation in this way as well.
I worked predominantly with works of fiction. Many of these texts are quite fantastical while still taking place in the real world. Others are dystopian works that take place in the far-off future. Some are works of high fantasy and take place in worlds that can only be imagined. Each novel was also chosen because of its particular genre. Fantasy and dystopian novels are widely popular among middle and high school students. Graphic novels are also becoming increasingly popular and act as places for authors and illustrators to explore and challenge issues in ways that traditional novels can not.
Bardugo, Leigh. Six of Crows. Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC., 2015.
Being offered the opportunity of a lifetime, Kaz “Dirtyhands” Brekker, the young lieutenant of the criminal organization known as the Dregs, rounds up a crew to help him pull off the most suicidal heist anyone could imagine. After learning of a drug that can amplify the magical abilities of individuals known as Grisha and discovering that unleashing it could have devastating global consequences, the Council of Merchants of the small island nation of Kerch tasked Kaz with breaking into the Ice Court (a seemingly impenetrable fortress in the northern nation of Fjerda). Kaz enlists the aid of three fellow Dregs: Inej (a former acrobat who gathers intel), Jesper (a sharpshooter), Nina (a Grisha who can manipulate organs of those nearby). The four of them break out a young man by the name of Matthias who hails from Fjerda from prison and also takes a young demolition “expert” named Wylan with them. The six criminals set out to sea in order to reach Fjerda. Tensions arise, however, as each of their pasts are explored and brought to light, particularly Nina and Matthias whose peoples hate each other. When the six arrive and infiltrate the Ice Court, Matthias seemingly betrays the group and gets Nina imprisoned in a lab where the drug can be used to experiment on her. However, after gaining the trust of his old mentor, Matthias knocks out the man. He frees Nina, and they acquire the payload: Kuwei the young son of the man who invented the drug. But after returning to Kerch, Inej is kidnaped, and the rest of the crew are left working to get her back.
Six of Crows is an interesting read and different from most of the others in that each chapter (minus the first and last) follows one of the six members of the crew (bar Wylan). Each member of Kaz’s team is a compelling individual. What’s more, they are diverse. The only one who isn’t is Matthias who is blonde and blue-eyed. Yet, this seems to work well as he hails from Fjerda, which seems to be heavily influenced by Norse culture. Jesper and Inej are both people of color. Jesper is black and hails from a continent that seems loosely based on Australia. Inej is described multiple times as having either bronze or caramel skin, and her culture seems to be based on that of India (Aderhold). While Kuwei does not play a large part in this installment of the duology, he is another source of representation in that he is coded as being Asian. Besides the typical demographics, Six of Crows shows readers a look at other minority types as well. Nina (while described as white) is a plus size girl who is not shy about the power of her sexuality. Nina and Jesper are both shown to be bisexual, and Wylan as homosexual as he and Jesper are attracted to each other. Kaz suffers from PTSD after losing his brother to an epidemic that swept through the islands, and Wylan is also illiterate because of his Dyslexia (though it is not called that in the book). Besides the characters, the cultures that are referenced are also incredibly diverse. Cultures clash in regards to Matthias and Nina in that he is a druskelle (a witch hunter meant to exterminate Grisha) and she is a Grisha whom he was sent to hunt. The Grisha reflect numerous real-world cultures in that they are feared, hated, and made into victims of hate crimes.
While these six characters would, in most circumstances, not be seen as typical “good guys” or “heroes” (Wylan is the only one that is not a criminal of some kind), readers who may identify with characters such as Inej, Jesper, or Nina get to see characters like them succeed, fall in love, make mistakes, and try again. Readers also get to see how these characters became who they are. Inej was sold into slavery as a prostitute. Kaz witnesses his brother become cheated out of their money and die of disease. Matthias is hardened in prison where he fights animals for extra food. The other three are just as scarred, but they all feel organic. Where some novels seem to check a box and “forced in” token representation, the Dregs’ cultures and identities play major roles in what they say and do. Despite each of them having traumatic pasts, readers can identify more so with these characters than with many of the others on this list. Some have even claimed that Six of Crows set a recent standard to inclusion and representation in young adult fantasy novels (Aderhold).
“The bar is set high, as it should be, because the more diverse a series is, the more its audience will see themselves represented within its pages.”Beth Aderhold
Cass, Kiera. The Selection. Harper Collins Publisher, 2012.
In the country of Illea, which comprises the entirety of North and Central America after the United States after making a deal of surrender with China sometime after World War 4, America Singer finds herself being chosen from thousands to partake in the Selection. America and the thirty-four other girls become the talk of the country as they play princess in order to vie for the love of Prince Maxon, the eighteen-year-old son of King Clarkson and Queen Amberly. But the night before America is to head to the palace, Aspen, the boy she loves, breaks up with her. Aspen is a caste below America. While they had been dating for two years, Aspen broke up with her because he felt he could not give her the life she deserved. While at the palace, America, heartbroken, shows that she is not necessarily one to follow all of the rules and shows how conflicted she is about being one of the Selected. While she comes to view the Prince as a close friend, she is still in love with Aspen. America even tells Maxon this, and he decides to have her stay within the competition simply in order for them to be friends. Despite this longing for Aspen, things begin to change in the way she sees Maxon. As Maxon and America spend more time as each other’s confidants, America begins to feel as though she could love Maxon, and things are complicated further when Aspen, now drafted into the military, is stationed as a palace guard. While America works her way to being named an Elite (one of the last six Selected), she also tries to work through her feelings for both Aspen and Maxon.
The Selection seems to fit into what is becoming a traditional trend of dystopian novels. From The Giver to Divergent and everything in between, dystopian novels seem to focus on issues of class. Within The Selection, Cass utilizes a caste system that ranges from Ones (royalty and “aristocratic” families) to Eights (the homeless); all those in between make up various occupations such as farmers, hired help, artists, and mechanics. Depending on the caste one finds themselves in, the more money and influence they have. America begins the novel as a Five and a musician who works for more wealthy patrons, but she is elevated to a Three upon being selected. Aspen begins as a Six (hired help), but becomes more influential and well taken care of after the draft. As of the first novel, America and Aspen are the only main characters who would be seen as “minority characters,” and that is only because of their temporary social standing. Even when the characters are poor to the point of giving up parts of their meal so another family member doesn’t go hungry or have to choose between food or electricity, they are elevated to higher social status.
Cass is similar to other authors on this list in that she rarely (if ever) states a character’s skin color or race. Cass may be just one among many authors who do not state a character’s race because they may feel that they cannot adopt the voices of minority individuals (even their own characters) because they have never had that voice. But it would not be difficult for Cass to state that some of the girls had darker skin than or looked different from America (who can almost assuredly be identified as white because of her red hair). Some may be able to read that some of the other girls are racial minorities, but even if they are most of the Selected are so inconsequential to the story that it could be insulting. But some influential characters, like Marlee or even Prince Maxon or Queen Amberly, could be shown to be a person of color and it have no effect on the plot at all and still place a minority within an important role for the story (and potentially a position of power). If discussing the skin color of a character frightens some authors into not discussing whether a character is diverse, the author may only be left thinking that the way to diversify their casts is through the discussion of actions. But this may come off as stereotypical and can cause (in my opinion) more harm than good. While it is troubling to see that authors are not actively diversifying their characters (for whatever reason), they are not all actively saying that “characters A, B, and C are white,” which can help. Race is sadly often tied to skin color and place of origin (either the person’s or their family’s), and ethnicity to both color and culture. Some white authors may worry about how their works are received if they focus on a character’s skin color, even if trying to include numerous minority voices.
Clare, Cassandra. Chain of Gold. Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2020.
In Edwardian London, James and Lucie Herondale (two powerful individuals with both angelic and demonic blood in their veins) are told that visitors will be coming to London for an extended period of time. One group is the Carstairs, old family friends of the Herondal family. The other two visitors are Tatiana Blackthorn and her adoptive daughter Grace (with whom James is in love). Shortly after Cordelia Carstairs and Grace Blackthorn’s arrivals to London and after years of none happening, demon attacks begin to take place leading to the deaths and injuries of several Shadowhunters (demon hunters). While James and his three best friends Matthew Fairchild, and cousins Thomas and Christopher (Lightwood) work to uncover which type of demon can withstand sunlight and create an antidote for its poison, Lucie tries to uncover the secrets of the ghost boy that only she can see: Jesse Blackthorn (the dead son of Tatiana). Cordelia joins the hunt with James while trying to make sense of her love for him and his love for Grace. After a near-deadly encounter with a Mandikhor (manticore) demon, Thomas and Lucie secure that last pieces needed to finish the antidote to save the inflicted (of which Christopher is now counted), and James, Matthew, and Cordelia uncover that the individual behind the Mandikhor attacks is actually James grandfather Belial (a Prince of Hell). After seemingly defeating Belial, it is revealed in secret that Tatiana has been working with Belial in order to help him “groom” his grandchildren into becoming his vessels and allow her to have vengeance for what she believes was a wrong committed against her and her family by the Shadowhunters years earlier.
Cassandra Clare is an author that has shown to be incredibly inclusive in regards to her novels. Chain of Gold, the most recent novel to take place within the Shadowhunter Chronicles is no exception. While two of the three main points of view that the reader sees from are those of James and Lucie (both of which are white and presumed straight), Cordelia (an integral character in the novel) is a person of color. Cordelia, Alastair (her brother), and Sona (her mother) hail from Persia and are all said to have dark skin tones. Other minor characters of color also appear in the story such as Ariadne (another Shadowhunter) and Hypatia Vex (a warlock). It is refreshing to see that one of the three main character points of view is of a person of color and an occurrence that still seems to not happen that often (bar some Rick Riordan series and other series by Clare).
Members of the LGBTQ+ community are also highly represented (as seen in all of Clare’s series and trilogies that take place in the Shadowhunter universe). Matthew discusses his love for flirting with both men and women. Anna Lightwood, who is the older sister of Christopher, is described as transgender and even called sir at one point, but Clare herself has stated that a better term for Anna is “genderqueer” (“Thank”). Feminine pronouns are used for Anna throughout the novel though as gender fluid and non-binary pronouns like those today were not commonly seen during the time in which the story is set. Besides Matthew and Anna (and numerous others), one LGBTQ+ aspect that stands out in this story is a gay love triangle/rectangle. Alistair is shown to have feelings for both Thomas and Charles Fairchild (Matthew’s older brother and a sort of Shadowhunter politician. Charles, however, proposes to Grace so that she can leave her mother’s house and he can be seen as “respectable” in the eyes of Shadowhunter politics (homosexuality is seen as taboo for Shadowhunters throughout many of the series as many of the younger individuals throughout generation fight for rights). Representation such as this can be seen as a huge step for the LGBTQ+ community. So often readers are shown a love triangle between a young lady and her two male lovers (Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Selection, etc.) but here three men have to work out their feelings for each other given each others’ present and past actions in a society that looks down on their love.
With Chain of Gold, like Six of Crows, being a recent book on this list, it can help show that representation and inclusion are changing. Each of the characters in Clare’s novel, again much like Bardugo’s, feels organic. Tokenism doesn’t seem to be at work here and a big deal (other than conservative views for the time) is not made about characters’ sexualities. The romances and relationships take place, and the idea that Anna or Thomas’s identities are strictly tied to their sexuality is not forced upon the reader as in some forms of poorly executed representation.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Inc., 2008.
In a “far off” dystopian future America is no more. Instead, Panem, a country divided into 12 districts and the singular Capitol (the ruling region), is what remains. Katniss Everdeen, a skilled archer/hunter, has only ever known District 12 or “The Seam.” Shortly after returning from an illegal morning hunt with her friend Gale, Katniss and all of the other children between the ages of twelve and eighteen partake in the Reaping, a ceremony to decide which two (a boy and a girl) will serve as contestants in the annual competition called The Hunger Games. After her sister Prim is chosen, Katniss volunteers herself as the female contestant and is paired with the local baker’s son Peeta Mellark. Upon leaving District 12 for the Capitol, Katniss and Peeta are instructed by Haymitch (a former winner of the games) and Effie (the escort of District 12) on how to appeal to citizens of the Capitol in the hopes of earning rewards that will help them in the games. After training and gaining support from citizens because of their “love” for each other, Katniss and Peeta are put into the arena and the battle to the death begins. While fighting to survive, Peeta, in a means to outlast the competition and find Katniss, works with a group of tributes who have been training their whole lives, while Katniss works with a young girl named Rue to hide and pick off other competitors. After Rue’s death and their reunion, Katniss and Peeta work together to fight off the remaining tributes and are stopped from committing a double suicide by being named the winners.
When looking at diversity within The Hunger Games, it is important to not take the Capitol into consideration in regard to race. Major body modifications (even skin pigmenting) are very popular in the Capitol. Now interestingly enough, Katniss (who is usually associated as being a white protagonist thanks to Jennifer Lawrence) is said to have olive skin, which is the look of the “Seam” (7). The same can be said for Gale, but not for Prim who has the “merchant” look (i.e. they stand out) (7). Now with olive skin, and given that the district barriers are never fully given in detail, some may argue that Katniss and Gale could be descended from Native Americans or perhaps of mixed descent. But “olive skin” could also mean a tanner white skin tone. Whether or not Katniss could be seen as a woman of color is actually debated in many literary circles. However, Rue and Thresh are not debated. Both of these characters are described as having dark skin; Rue is said to have “bright, dark, eyes and satiny brown skin…” (94). Almost all agree that these two characters are of African American descent.
Like Cass and Bardugo, Collins doesn’t have a world that many readers are familiar with to draw on. She finds herself in a similar situation to Cass (though does a little better by hinting at some skin tone) in that she may only be able to say that a character is “dark-skinned” or “olive-skinned.” Some would say that if Katniss was a person of color, Collins should have stated that. But it could also perhaps be wrong in some eyes for authors to simply say this character is black, or white, or Asian, or Hispanic and leave it at that, especially when (as the case for some books on this list) Africa, America, and Asia are not part of the story’s reality. Because of this, Collins cannot say that Katniss is Native American, because people of that ethnicity would not be labeled that anymore. And to Collins’s (and Cass’s) credit, perhaps leaving some characters racially ambiguous allows for reader ownership that has been discussed in the past. Perhaps both a Native American or Latinx individual can both identify with Katniss better because Collins refuses to state that Katniss was just a tan white girl.
Gotham Academy. By Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, illustrated by Karl Kerschl, book 1, DC Comics, 2017.
Within the walls of Gotham Academy, students Olive Silverlock and Mia “Maps” Mizoguchi await an assignment from Headmaster Hammer. It is decided that since Mia missed orientation, Olive is to be a guide for the first-year student. But there are also other things on Olive’s mind than just showing her boyfriend’s little sister around, like her mother’s (Calamity) arrest and sentencing to Arkham Asylum at the hands of Batman. But an incident in the North Hall (a section of the campus that the students are prohibited from entering) draws the two girls into deeper mysteries about the school. They are drawn in even further when Olive is paired with Pomeline Fritch for a history project that leads them to the “ghost” of Millie Cobblepot. But while the ghost may not be as real as some like Pomeline would have wanted, Killer Croc, a former inmate in Arkham and acquaintance of Calamity, is very real. His appearance and the other strange occurrences at the school lead to Olive and her friends further investigating leads to the students forming the Detective’s Club and learning that the Academy is deeply connected to Arkham Asylum.
Gotham Academy has the advantage of being a fully colored graphic novel. Being a graphic text means that this text has an easier time of being inclusive than other traditional texts. Readers can literally see that Olive, Mia, Pomeline, Kyle, and Colton are people of color. All white characters like Lucy (Olive’s roommate), Tristan (a friend of Olive who is infected with the Langstrom Virus that can make him turn bat-like) and Ms. MacPherson (Olive’s history teacher) add to the plot but are not front and center like the members of the Detective’s Club. While Olive’s mother may be white, her darker skin suggests that she may be mixed. Mia and Kyle are both Japanese American, and Kyle is a huge step forward as he appears as the school’s star athlete as a pro singles tennis player. Allowing Kyle to fill a role that is almost always filled by a white boy is a major step for allowing these groups to be seen outside of their stereotypical roles. It is also suggested that Mia is not heterosexual, as she arrives to the school dance with another girl as her date and wears a suit. But this goes back to the argument that graphic novels not only have an easier time including minority characters, they also just do it. This may harken back to the point made about Collins and how it can be difficult for some authors to show and tell that a person is not of the white majority. Cloonan and Fletcher don’t have to tell their readers about their character’s race or sexuality; the reader can clearly see it through Kerschl’s art. Gotham Academy also has the luxury of being published where diversity (while still being pushed) is being seen as normal and natural.
Level Up. By Yang, Gene Luen, illustrated by Thien Pham, Square Fish, 2011.
Rather than coming to terms with why he was dismissed from the college that he was attending, Dennis Ouyang returns to something that has been a constant in his life since his father’s passing: video games. Ouyang spends most of the night playing games at his local arcade and then at his friend Takeem’s house when he starts to see feathers falling from the sky. Others cannot see the feathers, and as he begins to lash out in anger because of his confusion four angels appear to him. They tell him that it is his destiny to return to the college that he was attending and enroll in medical school to become a gastroenterologist. As the angels begin to help him with household chores and hold him accountable with the time he spends playing video games, Dennis begins to make friends with other med students and form a study group. When there is a falling out with some of the members of the group, Dennis resorts to quitting college and returns to playing video games. After confronting the angels, learning that they are actually the ghosts of his father’s broken promises, and rediscovering the love that his father had for him, Dennis’s convictions return and he re-enrolls into medical school.
Level Up is a fun shorter graphic novel that reiterates the idea that graphic texts can sometimes (maybe oftentimes) be more inclusive than their traditional counterparts. Not only that, but the text actually brings up a few points to discuss when looking at diverse voices and narratives. Of the main characters, only Katherine, one of the med students in Dennis’s study group (and his love interest), is white. The other two members of the study group, Hector and Ipsha, are Hispanic and Indian, respectively. Dennis himself is the son of a man who immigrated to America from Asia. What really sticks out for this graphic novel is that, despite its goofy humor, there is actually a consideration of Hindu religion and Asian cultural practices when the falling out with the study group occurs. Katherine becomes angered with Dennis when she finds out that he is only in med school because that’s what his father wanted. She argues that Dennis needs to be his own man and that the wishes of his family shouldn’t dictate his life. Ipsha, on the other hand, says that family defines a person. These two clashing points of view bring up the dichotomy between being one’s own person and being a member of the family (and living up to those expectations). Including the contrasting views of two cultures can help shed light on diverse ways of thinking (in this case in regard to family). Having these other perspectives on something as universal as familial expectations can allow readers to begin thinking about why someone of a different cultural background may make certain decisions that otherwise doesn’t make sense to them.
Nightschool: The Weirn Books. By Svetlana Chmakova, book 1, Yen Press, 2009.
As night falls, Sarah Treveney (who is sleeping and thus running late for her new job) finds herself awakened by her younger sister Alex. Sarah, the newly hired night keeper of the Night School, arrives and begins performing her duties of keeping the magical and monstrous world a secret from those who use the school during the day. Alex, a young Weirn (a special type of witch) and her magical astral companion begin her homeschooling for the night. At the same time, a man named Daemon sends his hunter students out into the night to keep the city safe from night things while he goes to retrieve another of his students, a seer named Marina. Marina has not been taken care of by her werewolf patrons and forced to see the future (which can have damaging mental and emotional effects). But she has seen a disturbing vision of seven children (herself included) bringing about destruction and bloodshed. While a majority of the hunter children question a vampire student and his mortal girlfriend (neither of whom have broken any rules), they have a run-in with some rippers (feral and monstrous vampires). Alex, who is working on a project in the same cemetery as the vampire and hunters, runs into three of the other hunters. Confusion ensues and the three are left in a comatose state. Sarah, while performing her duties as the night keeper, is asked to investigate a strange occurrence in a wing of the school that is not in use this particular night. After investigating, she vanishes without any student save Ronee remembering who she is.
Unlike Gotham Academy, Nightschool is not fully colored but shaded enough that one can see people of color. Ronee, Teresa, and Daemon (and other characters who will play more prominent roles in later books) are all African American. Madame Chen, the principal of the school is of Asian descent. Madame Chen and Daemon are important figures (and welcome people of color) as both of them are in positions of power. Madame Chen is a powerful practitioner of magic to the point of being named the headmaster of the Nightschool. Daemon is a leader among Hunters who teaches part of the next generation of Hunters. What’s more, all of his students are incredibly talented specialists, and both he and they command the respect of those around them. While there are influential people of color, there is, however, no representation of LGBTQ+ characters which is actually the group that seems to get the least representation in earlier works (though that makes sense with the societal views of those peoples at the time). But despite the prominent racial and lack of sexual diversity, it is interesting though to see a relationship that is not mainstream appear in the story. Much like Level Up’s discussion of family and culture, the reader can see a relationship outside of the normal/traditional family group. Alex is homeschooled and raised by her sister when Sarah is not at work. While the orphan trope is common in young adult literature, a relationship like Sarah and Alex’s is often not. In almost every other book on this list, the main character still has either one or both parents. This helps break the conception that the only healthy home life is one where both a mother and a father are present. Sarah and Alex seem fine financially and seem to have a good relationship with each other (the “I hate you” thing is explained in a later book). Seeing this form of representation is also welcome amongst texts for young adults. It can allow for some who have never really thought about a healthy familial dynamic other than that of the traditional nuclear family exists and can function in ways that are just as (and sometimes more so) than what they are used to.
Riordan, Rick. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Scholastic Inc., 2006.
Percy Jackson is a slightly troubled boy and believes that he is just like every other kid that has ADHD and Dyslexia. One day on a field trip with two of his teachers, Mr. Brunner and Mrs. Dodds, Percy discovers that Mrs. Dodds is actually a monster in disguise and ends up “killing” her. Grover, Percy’s friend from school, and Percy’s mother, Sally, try to take Percy away to a safer place. However, disaster strikes when the minotaur from legend appears and seemingly kills Sally. Grover leads Percy to Camp Half-Blood, a place where he’ll be safe after he kills the minotaur. While at camp, Percy discovers that the Greek gods are real and that he is the son of one of them. Through the course of training to be a demigod, Percy meets a variety of other demigods, learns more about the myths of ancient Greece, and comes to find out that both Grover and Mr. Brunner are not completely human either (satyr and centaur respectively). One night, while partaking in a game of capture the flag, Percy is claimed by Poseidon, the god of the seas. He is then sent on a quest to the Underworld to retrieve his uncle Zeus’s lightning bolt, which had been stolen presumably by Hades, to stop a war. Along with Annabeth Chase (a daughter of Athena) and Grover, the three retrieve the bolt and uncover a secret plot to revive Kronos and the titans.
Now, again, Riordan is seen by many today to be a champion of diversity within his stories. Recent series have characters who are African American, Cherokee, Homosexual, Transgender, come from mixed families, among others act as the main characters (the focal point of view). But one really doesn’t see that in his first series. Percy is white, the cover shows the readers that. Annabeth and Luke are both blonde (which is typically a white person’s hair color), so both the secondary main characters and the secret antagonist are white. Like Collins and Cass, Riordan doesn’t overtly say that his characters are white, but many believe that to be the default. However, because of that, like some of Collins’s characters, some of the characters in The Lightning Thief could perhaps be interpreted as people of color. No sexual orientation other than heterosexual is seen in this book, nor this entire series (but it does appear in the sequel series). Riordan, in this case, was writing what he knew. Riordan taught Greek mythology and told stories about a boy who had ADHD and Dyslexia but was also the son of a god to his own son (who had both ADHD and Dyslexia). While seeing characters with these disabilities could have been a way to represent a different kind of minority voice, it is troubling to see that these disabilities are played off as being a different sort of hardwiring for the brain of one meant for the battlefield and supposed to be adept in the Greecian language. Some younger readers with ADHD may be able to see this, at first, as a way of showing that they too can be the hero of a story; but for most older readers, they may see this as another way to invalidate part of what makes them who they are. Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a favorite series among fans of young adult literature and has a fun and compelling story, but, despite that, there are some issues here that Riordan goes to fix in later series that are found within this world that he’s created.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Scholastic Inc., 1999.
Thirteen-year-old Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts for his third year of magical studies. But before that happens, an escaped convict and supporter of Voldemort named Sirius Black escapes from prison and is supposedly on the hunt for Harry. Not only that, but the dementors (the ghostly guards of the magical prison of Azkaban) search the grounds of the school as they search for Black. Throughout the school year, Harry is instructed in Defense Against the Dark Arts by former Hogwarts and Gryffindor student Remus Lupin to keep himself safe from Black and the dementors. But this can be difficult with the pressure of helping the Quidditch team win the Quidditch Cup and the fear and anxiety that comes with seeing a large black dog (that Professor Trelawney calls the Grim) that is seen as an omen of death. After receiving the Marauder’s Map from Fred and George Weasley so that he can sneak out of the castle to visit a nearby village, Harry, Hermione, and Ron uncover the truth about Black being framed for betraying the Potters to Voldemort and for the murder of Peter Pettigrew (who had faked his murder and was the actual traitor). Upon learning the truth, Harry and Hermione utilize a powerful magical artifact that can turn back time and save Sirius from being executed. The escaped convict flies in the hopes of proving his innocence and helping Harry in his ongoing battle with Voldemort’s forces at a later date.
Within this fantastical adventure story, the readers are reintroduced to many of the characters and given descriptions about them. As for the new characters, one thing that was noticeable was that Rowling very rarely discussed race in their physical descriptions. For example, Harry describes Trelawney as looking “very thin; her large glasses magnified her eyes to several times their natural size, and she was draped in gauzy, spangled shawl. Innumerable chains and beads hung around her spindly neck, and her arms and hands were encrusted with bangles and rings…” which says nothing about her race (102). The same can be mostly said about Lupin whose physicality is sometimes described as pale but that is usually because he is exhausted or feeling sick as a result of his lycanthropy. Now, many will agree that being described as pale means he is white. But, there are people of color who are lighter than others. I think that this goes back to a point that has been made that, if otherwise stated, readers can choose to perceive some of these characters in their own ways. Another new character in the story that the reader is told about is Cho Chang, a fourth-year in Ravenclaw and the house’s Seeker. One can reasonably assume that Cho is at least of Asian descent, but the reader is never explicitly told this.
Rowling may find herself in a sticky position of writing for her time, but also writing what she knows. Now some may see this as a cop-out. While there is a greater push for diversity now, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was written in 1999 which was a time when diversity wasn’t seen as big as a priority. Now, as with Percy Jackson, Rowling doesn’t really get any diversity points for making Harry poor (which in reality he isn’t as shown in the first book). But Rowling is another author that (while maybe unintentionally) doesn’t really describe characters’ races. This may be because of the reasons discussed with Collins
Stiefvater, Maggie. The Raven Boys. Scholastic Inc., 2012.
Blue Sargent, the daughter of a psychic, finds herself in a church cemetery one night with her aunt. Blue is not like the rest of her family or the other women who live in her house. While they can see spirits and tell the future, she seems to only amplify the abilities of those around her. So she is shocked when she sees the spirit of a boy who is to die within the next twelve months. Her aunt tells her that she was only able to see the spirit because she will ultimately play a role in his death. Desperate to see what this means, Blue becomes entangled in a mystery surrounding Henrietta, Virginia that leads her to four boys from an all-boys school called Aglionby Academy: Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah (the Raven Boys). Gansey, who just so happens to be the boy whose spirit was in the cemetery, is on a search of his own. His research on ley lines and a strange event where he died but somehow didn’t has resulted in an adventurous search for the Welsh king Glendower, whom Gansey believes to be in a sort of magical sleep. With Blue’s help, the Raven Boys uncover a magical forest and discover that one of their own (Noah) is actually a ghost. Having been killed as a ritual sacrifice in an attempt to awaken the ley line in Henrietta seven years prior, Noah helps the others discover the truth about his murder and the forest. After receiving aid from Maura (Blue’s mother), Blue and the boys go to stop what could lead to another murder much like Noah’s. Still requiring a sacrifice to awaken, Adam, who has nothing left after leaving his abusive father, willingly gives up his free will to the forest so that the magic of the ley line can flow again.
The Raven Boys, like The Selection, has little to no diversity in the characters where some easily could have been. While most of the characters’ skin colors are not directly stated, it is implied that almost every character in this novel is not a person of color. All of the boys are implied as being white, save Adam who is officially outed as white and even called “white trash.” Again, it seems that poverty is the selling point or the checkmark for diversity that this story hits on as of right now. I have heard that a gay romance blossoms later in the series, but nothing like that is seen in this first book. I can appreciate that not everything is perfect in this story though. Adam is a victim of domestic abuse. And while no one, even a fictional character should have to go through that, young readers need to know that there situations like this in the real world. One of the most satisfying scenes in the novel is when Adam realizes that he has the opportunity to stand up for himself by pressing charges against his father. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that, unlike Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, not even a secondary character is of a minority group. Calla and/or Persephone, who are Maura’s best friends that live with her and Blue, could have been written as women of color. They are not such background characters that are there for a brief second and not heard from again. Both are constant voices when the novel is told from Blue’s point of view and are actually rather helpful concerning Blue and the boys’ quest.
Aderhold, Beth. “‘Six of Crows’ Sets New Standard in YA Fantasy for Diversity and Inclusivity.” Hypable, 4 June 2018, https://www.hypable.com/six-of-crows-diverse/#:~:text=There%20are%20multiple%20types%20of,inclusive%20towards%20people%20with%20disabilities..
Burnett, Destiny. “Diversity Matters: Privilege & Representation in YA Lit.” The Hub, Young Adult Library Services Association, 20 October 2014, http://www.yalsa.ala.org/thehub/2014/10/20/needs-title-diversity-in-ya-teen-blogger/.
Clare, Cassandra. “Thank you for your way too kind…” Trans* and Queergender Shadowhunters, 2014, https://cassandraclare.tumblr.com/post/77755584106/trans-and-genderqueer-shadowhunters.
PoppyRedbones. “How Many LGBT+ Characters is too Much?” Goodreads, 18 April 2018, https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/18953111-how-many-lgbt-characters-is-too-much-this-discussion-is-closed-thank.
Riordan, Rick. “Rick Riordan Presents.” RickRiordan.com, https://rickriordan.com/rick-riordan-presents/.
Salahudeen, Amani. “Young Adult Literature Lacks Diverse Authors.” The Signal, The College of New Jersey, 1 May 2019, http://www.tcnjsignal.net/2019/05/01/young-adult-literature-lacks-diverse-authors-varying-perspectives-increase-relatability-for-readers/.