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Are all lists created equal?: Diversity in award-‐‑winning and bestselling young adult fiction

CITATION: Rawson, C. H. (2013). Are all lists created equal? Diversity in
award-winning and bestselling yound adult fiction. Journal of Research on
Libraries and Young Adults, 1(3). Retrieved from
Are All Lists Created Equal? Diversity in Award-Winning and
Bestselling Young Adult Fiction
Posted on June 14, 2011
by Casey H. Rawson
With increasingly diverse service populations, especially among younger patrons, libraries are in
need of more titles featuring individuals from varied backgrounds. Librarians often rely upon
preassembled title lists, such as YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) list or the
Publishers Weekly bestsellers list, to make collection development decisions. This study
examined three such lists for the prevalence of diverse protagonists, with the goal of
determining which list most closely aligns with actual demographic data for U.S. teens. Award-
winning, Teens’ Top Ten, and bestselling titles were included in the study. Overall, the award-
winning title list included the highest percentage of protagonists belonging to most marginalized
demographic groups, while the bestselling title list included the lowest percentages in these
categories. However, all three lists underrepresented protagonists from certain demographic
categories. Based on these results, it is recommended that librarians supplement list-based
collection development with purposive collection of titles featuring minority protagonists and/or
written by minority authors.1
Librarians who serve young adults are already seeing increasingly diverse service populations,
and this diversity extends beyond race and ethnicity to include adolescents representing a wide
range of religions, family backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and sexual orientations. Making
collection development decisions that will meet the needs of such varied populations is a
challenge compounded by the current economic climate, which has seen library budgets and
staff positions slashed across the nation.
Numerous studies have emphasized the importance of giving young adults access to titles in
which they can see a reflection of themselvesa character or author who shares their race,
religion, living conditions, or sexual orientation. Yet in libraries with limited budgets and
limited staff, determining which titles will accurately represent the diverse service population of
that library might be considered too time-consuming. While popular review sources such as
MultiCultural Review and VOYA provide author and character information for many young
adult titles, perusing each issue of these sources is a lengthy process. Thus, many libraries rely
heavily on preassembled title lists, such as YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) list or
the Publishers Weekly Children’s Bestsellers list, to determine their acquisitions. In some cases,
such lists are actually written into libraries’ collection development policies. But does either of
these lists accurately reflect the diversity of the nation’s young adult population?
Selecting for a Diverse Population: Why Spend the Time?
Several studies report that, despite fears to the contrary, the majority of U.S. adolescents still
read outside of school.2 However, national reading statistics, especially for minority students,
paint a grim picture of literacy: while 41% of white students scored at or above proficiency on
eighth-grade reading tests (a low number itself), only 14% of black students and 17% of Hispanic
students reached proficiency.3 Similar results are obtained when family income is examined:
only 16% of those eligible for the National School Lunch Program scored at or above proficiency,
compared to 42% of students who are ineligible for the lunch assistance program.4
Given the poor literacy rates and growing numbers of minority students, strategies for
improving variables relating to reading and literacy among these groups abound in educational
and library science literature. One strategy which has received significant attention involves
connecting young adults with literature in which they can find themselves accurately reflected.5
And while much has been written about literature for various races and ethnicities, it is
important to note that diversity has many dimensions, including gender, nationality, religion,
family status, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and disability.6 As stated in one study
examining multiple dimensions of diversity, “Constricting the discussion of multiculturalism to
groups identifiable by racial identity alone excludes other marginalized groups from the debate
and perpetuates their marginalization.”7 A brief summary of the findings of studies that have
looked at each of these variables is provided below.
Gender: While a number of studies have examined issues related to gender in children’s
literature, less has been done concerning young adult literature. Among children’s literature
studies, the focus has been on analyzing not only the numbers of male vs. female characters, but
also the portrayals of those characters in comparison to stereotypical gender-specific behaviors
or characteristics.8 While in general these studies have found that female characters are both
underrepresented and stereotyped within the studied samples, at least one study found that
portrayals of males and females in nontraditional gender roles are on the rise.9
Race and Nationality: According to demographers, 2010 marked a turning point for the United
States: last year, for the first time in American history, more minority babies were born in the
U.S. than white babies.10 By the middle of this century, minorities are expected to comprise a
majority of the U.S. population; among the under-eighteen population, that landmark is
expected to be reached in the next decade. Many studies have looked at the role of race in
children’s and young adult literature and/or the prevalence of minority characters in titles for
this age group. The seminal study was conducted by Nancy Larrick in 1965; this study looked at
5,000 children’s books published in the early 1960s and found that only 6.7% included at least
one African American character.11 Since Larrick’s work, additional research has been done into
children’s and young adult literature for or about African Americans,12 Hispanics,13 Asians,14 and
Native Americans,15 among other minority groups. These and other studies have consistently
found that minority-race characters are underrepresented in fiction for children and young
adults, and that existing portrayals of minority characters are often riddled with stereotypes or
otherwise negative images. Studies addressing nationality of authors or characters are less
common. One study that dealt with the issue of nationality in fiction novels found that titles by
American authors included a higher number of minority-race characters than titles by foreign
authors; however, minority characters in books by U.S. authors were more likely to be one-
dimensional and stereotypical in their portrayal than minority characters in books by foreign
Religion: “Sex, politics, and religion are the three traditionally taboo subjects in polite American
society,”• wrote Patty Campbell, and in young-adult literature the greatest of these taboos is
religion.17 While little if any quantitative research has been done in this area, several
researchers have completed limited content analysis studies on young adult titles which do have
religious themes and characters.18 These authors conclude that given the prevalence of religion
among adolescents and the U.S. population as a whole, there is a significant scarcity of titles
dealing with religious themes being written for this age group.
Family Status: Despite the fact that adolescence is marked by increasing independence and
separation from one’s parents or guardians, family structure is still an important element of
diversity; the impact that a teen’s family setting has on the teen’s outside life cannot be ignored.
Most studies in this area have focused on portrayal of families in television media; however,
some authors have written about the role of family structure in the young adult novel, focusing
on how teen fiction can be used to teach about the diversity of family types and other family
Sexual Orientation: Several content analysis studies have been published relating to the
portrayal of LGBT characters in fiction for young adults.20 These studies have found that
portrayal of LGBT characters varies from novels which present homosexuality as a problem to
be overcome to novels which are sympathetic to the character or view homosexuality as simply
one relatively unremarkable facet to the character’s personality and lifestyle. In general, most
research on this topic agrees that while some instances of problematic portrayals of LGBT
characters persist, the trend is toward a more complex, sympathetic representation of these
Socioeconomic Status: The 2009 American Community Survey found that 20% of children
under the age of eighteen are living below the poverty line.21 One study found that texts offered
to children in poverty often present poverty as a temporary problem, a construct which is far
removed from the systemic poverty actually experienced by these children.22 On the other end of
the class spectrum, YA books about the fabulously wealthy (i.e. the Gossip Girl, A-List, and
Privileged series) are enjoying robust sales despite what many see as negative or even damaging
portrayals of teenage sex, drugs, and the “mean-girl”• lifestyle. In a 2006 article, Naomi Wolf
harshly criticized these books for their depictions of class issues: In the world of the A-List or
Clique girl, inverting Austen (and Alcott), the rich are right and good simply by virtue of their
wealth…Success and failure are entirely signaled by material possessions.”23
Disability: Numerous studies have attempted to quantify and/or evaluate fiction for children
and teens that includes characters with physical or mental disabilities.24 These studies stress the
importance of such literature, especially in educational settings where disabled students are
integrated into mainstream classrooms. As one researcher states, “Reading good literature can
do much more than teach literary skills. Promotion of positive attitudes toward inclusion and
students with disabilities must take place.”25
Thus, literature that includes diverse characters gives adolescents “an opportunity to see their
own faces reflected in the pages of good books.”26 Yet it is not only their own reflections which
are of value for young adults; encountering characters unlike themselves can be of equal value.
As Hazel Rochman states in her book Against Borders: Promoting Books for a Multicultural
World, “Books can make a difference in dispelling prejudice and building community; not with
role models and literal recipes, not with noble messages about the human family, but with
enthralling stories that make us imagine the lives of others.”27 Providing a diverse collection of
young adult literature is not merely about increasing test scores or leisure reading; some
researchers maintain that such literature is vital for overall success in life. One such researcher
argues that adolescents who never see themselves reflected in literature may develop a
decreased sense of self-worth and may come to believe that they have little value within either
the school or social community.28
So if diverse texts are championed by research, why aren’t they more visible in libraries that
serve young adults? Studies have identified several barriers to the use and collection of such
titles. One barrier is a lack of education and training among educators and librarians regarding
diverse texts.29 Another, perhaps more critical, obstacle is the scarcity of titles written by authors
from diverse backgrounds.30
Despite these barriers, building a diverse library collection for young adult patrons is possible.
Given time constraints experienced by all professionals, including librarians, identifying
categories of items which fulfill a demonstrated need is an important goal of professional
research. The study described below compares three categories of young adult literature in
terms of character diversity; the goal is to assist librarians by providing guidelines which will
help them identify booklists that more accurately reflect the diversity of their young adult
Research Methods
Included Titles
Three categories of young adult fiction were analyzed to determine their relative levels of
diversity in terms of protagonists. The three categories of literature included in the study are:
1. Award-Winning Young Adult Fiction: This category included fiction novels which won
either the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, the Printz
Honor, or the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) Top Ten Best Books for
Young Adults (BBYA) award between 2000 and 2009. Fiction titles appearing on both the
Printz and BBYA Top Ten lists were only counted once.
2. Teen-Selected Top Ten Fiction Titles: Each year, fifteen teen book groups at libraries across
the country nominate a list of current young adult titles to be included in YALSA’s “Teens’
Top Ten”• contest. In August and September, teens are allowed to vote for their three
favorite titles through the YALSA website. The ten titles that receive the most votes are
announced each year during Teen Read Week. Fiction titles appearing on this list between
2003 (the first year this list was published) and 2009 were included in the study. This group
represents a middle ground between the award-winning books (which are determined by
adults and are generally considered to emphasize literary quality over popularity) and the
bestselling books discussed below.
3. Bestselling Young Adult Fiction: The ten top-selling young adult fiction titles for each year
between 2000 and 2009 as determined by Publishers Weekly made up the third group of
titles in this study. The Publishers Weekly bestsellers list includes both children’s and YA
titles; children’s titles were discarded from the list and only items published for ages twelve
and up (as determined by book review sources) were included in the study. Only “frontlist”
books published in each calendar year were included to eliminate duplications.
Books appearing in more than one of the above categories were counted once in each applicable
category. The data collected were compared across subgroups and with the actual demographics
of the United States teen population, as determined by U.S. census data and other demographic
resources such as the National Center for Education Statistics.
Coding Categories
As discussed above, diversity has more than one dimension. This study examined dimensions of
gender, race, nationality, religion, family status, socioeconomic status (SES), sexuality, and
disability (presence or absence) for protagonists of each title. Most books had only one
protagonist, but some titles had multiple main characters; in those cases, all protagonists were
analyzed. For each dimension of diversity, the following categories were used:
Gender: Male and Female were the only categories included in this study; no transgendered
or third-gendered protagonists were found.
Race/ethnicity: U.S. Census categories for race were used in this study: White, Black/African
American, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian. An additional category of “Other”• was
included for protagonists who did not belong to any of these groups.
Nationality: Birth country was recorded for protagonists.
Religion: The category for this dimension included three major religions: Christianity,
Judaism, or Islam. Two additional categories were included: “Not Mentioned,”• for titles
which do not specify a religious background for their protagonists, and “Other”• for titles in
which the protagonist practices a religion other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.
Family structure: Categories for family structure were adapted from Nisse (2008).31
Protagonists were coded as having Dual Parents if they lived in a home with two biological
parents or one biological parent and a stepparent. Protagonists were coded as having a
Single Parent if they lived with only their biological mother or father. Two categories were
used for protagonists being raised by non-parents: Guardianship by a Relative or
Guardianship by a Non-Relative. If the protagonist lived on their own, they were placed into
the Orphan/No Guardian category.
Socioeconomic status: Protagonists were coded as belonging to either the Low, Middle, or
High socioeconomic class. “Low”• was defined for this study as lacking some basic needs
such as food or shelter, Middle• was defined as having sufficient resources to meet all
basic needs, and High• was defined as having an abundance of resources.
Sexuality: Protagonists in this study fell into four sexual identity categories: Straight, Gay,
Bisexual, and Questioning. In cases where the protagonist had no demonstrated romantic
interest within the novel, the character was coded as being straight.
Disability: Characters were coded as either having a disability or not based on the criteria
defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: “An individual is
considered to have a ‘disability’ if s/he has a physical or mental impairment that
substantially limits one or more major life activities.”32
Two additional pieces of informationgenre and settingwere recorded for each title. Genre
determinations were made with the assistance of the NoveList database and tag clouds from
LibraryThing. Even with the assistance of these resources, many titles did not clearly fit into a
single genre, and in such cases the ultimate decision was made by the researcher. Four setting
categoriesRural, Suburban, Urban, and Otherwere used to describe the predominant location
of each title. The “Other”• category was used when a variety of settings appeared in the same
book with no single setting achieving clear prominence, as in several of the action and adventure
or fantasy books.
Literature databases were used as the primary data source for this study, with the actual titles
being used when necessary to confirm ambiguous data or to determine missing data. The
primary review sources consulted were NoveList and the Children’s Comprehensive Literature
Database (CCLD), both of which contain basic bibliographic information and reviews for a range
of titles. Reviews incorporated into each database record come from Voice of Youth Advocates
(VOYA), Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and a variety of other sources. Tag
clouds on LibraryThing ( were also consulted for some titles and
were of particular help when determining genre. Characters were coded as belonging to one of
the above categories where explicitly stated in the review sources or where clearly inferable from
the original text. For some titles, even when the title itself was consulted, some characteristics of
the protagonist remained ambiguous. In those cases, no further effort was made to acquire the
missing data.
A total of 248 unique titles were included in this analysis114 award-winning novels, 74 Teens’
Top Ten novels, and 92 bestselling novels. Some books appeared on more than one of these lists.
Over 90% of titles were successfully coded for all variables; of the remaining, no book had more
than three uncoded variables. The key findings from this study are reported below.
Underrepresented Protagonist Categories
Several categories of protagonists were underrepresented in the data set across all three study
groups when compared to actual U.S. demographic information. Urban-dwelling protagonists,
who comprised roughly one-fourth of the overall sample, are one such underrepresented group.
In reality, over half (58.2%) of United States residents live in urban areas (cities which have a
population greater than two hundred thousand), with the remainder of U.S. residents evenly
divided among suburban and rural settings.33 The award-winning category had the highest
percentage of urban settings, at 31.8%; only 20.7% of bestsellers took place in urban settings.
For a full breakdown of novel settings, see Figure 1.
a full breakdown of novel settings
Minority-race (non-white) protagonists are also underrepresented across all three categories of
titles. Overall, 81.1% of protagonists in the sample were white; this compares to a national
percentage of 56.7% white among children and teens ages nineteen and under.34
The award-winning titles category exhibited the most racial diversity; in this category, 65.6% of
protagonists were white, 10.4% were black, and 4.8% were Hispanic. The bestsellers category
exhibited the least racial diversity among protagonists; in this category 92.6% of protagonists
were white. Hispanic protagonists were particularly underrepresented among these books:
Hispanic protagonists comprised 3.7% of this sample, but nationally, 21.3% of children and
teens are Hispanic.35
Table 1 includes complete data for protagonist race.
Table 1 includes complete data for protagonist race.
LGBT protagonists were underrepresented within the bestsellers category, where all one
hundred and thirty-six coded protagonists were identified as straight or as having no romantic
preference within the novel. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual protagonists were found among the
award-winning and Teens’ Top Ten titles, where their prevalence was similar to actual U.S.
demographics among teens.37 See Figure 2 for a complete breakdown of results in this category.
Protagonist Sexual Orientation
Protagonists raised outside of a dual-parent home (68.2%) were overrepresented in this sample;
nationally, 68.0% of children and teens live in dual-parent households.38 Similarly, roughly 20%
of protagonists in this study were orphans or had no guardian; this is much higher than the
actual national percentage of 0.4%.39 These percentages did not vary greatly among the three
title categories. Results for protagonist family structure are shown in Figure 3.
Results for protagonist family structure
For award-winning and bestselling titles, higher percentages of protagonists were identified as
belonging to the low socioeconomic class (33.6% and 28.0%, respectively) than the actual
percentage of children and teens in poverty in the United States (20.0%).40 Full results for
protagonist socioeconomic status are shown in Figure 4.
Full results for protagonist socioeconomic status
Cross-Category Comparisons between White and Minority Protagonists
Looking across all three categories of books, there were 241 white protagonists and 56 minority-
race protagonists. When compared to white protagonists, protagonists of color were:
more likely to be featured in realistic fiction (42.0% of minority protagonists vs. 25.7% of
white protagonists) and historical fiction (26.0% vs. 8.9%) titles;
less likely to be featured in fantasy (10.0% of minority protagonists vs. 31.9% of white
protagonists), humor (0.0% vs. 8.9%), and action and adventure (2.0% vs. 5.8%) titles;
more likely to be male (58.2% of minority protagonists vs. 46.1% of white protagonists);
more likely to be identified as religious (25.0% of minority protagonists vs. 8.0% of white
less likely to be part of a dual-parent home (25.9% of minority protagonists vs. 33.2% of
white protagonists) and less likely to be raised by a related guardian (5.6% vs. 16.4%);
more likely to be an orphan or to have no guardian (27.8% vs. 18.0%) and slightly more
likely to be part of a single-parent family (31.5% vs. 28.6%);
more likely to be in the low socioeconomic class (44.2% vs. 24.3%) and less likely to be in the
high socioeconomic class (7.7% vs. 21.7%);
more likely to be identified as gay, questioning, or bisexual (5.4% vs. 2.5%);
more likely to have been written by a male author (59.2% of books featuring a minority
protagonist were written by males vs. 48.9% of books featuring a white protagonist);
much more likely to have been written by an author of color (38.3% vs. 1.0%); and,
more likely to have been written by an author from the United States (83.3% vs. 68.4%).
Where should librarians turn to find ready-made booklists that reflect the diversity of their
service populations? The results of this study show that if YA librarians rely only or mostly on
bestseller lists for collection development, many young adults from diverse backgrounds will be
underserved. The bestsellers list was fairly balanced in terms of protagonist gender, contained a
large percentage of foreign-born characters, and included a diverse range of titles as far as
protagonist family structure and socioeconomic status. However, non-white, LGBT, and
religious protagonists are underrepresented on this list, as are protagonists identified as having
a disability and those living in urban areas.
The Teens’ Top Ten list fared a bit better than the bestsellers list in some categories and a bit
worse in others. The Teens’ Top Ten list featured slightly more urban, LGBT, disabled, and non-
white protagonists. However, this list also has deficits in comparison to the bestsellers list and to
national demographics: male protagonists are underrepresented, as are protagonists in the low
socioeconomic class, and religious protagonists are still rare.
Overall, the award-winning books most closely matched the actual demographics of the U.S.
teen population, although even this list had some shortfalls. This list was fairly balanced in
terms of its protagonist gender breakdown and included a higher percentage of urban
protagonists than the other two groups. The award-winning titles had the highest percentage of
non-white protagonists and included at least one protagonist from each racial group identified
by the U.S. Census (the only list which did so). This list also included the highest percentage of
religious protagonists and the highest percentage of protagonists from the low socioeconomic
class (who are actually overrepresented on this list compared to national data). Award-winning
titles featured LGBT protagonists at a rate that is consistent with national estimates. These titles
also featured disabled characters more commonly than titles in the other groups.
So does this mean that librarians can fully rely on award-winning title lists? No. Aside from
considerations of readability and popularity of these texts versus bestselling titles, the award-
winning list still falls short in some aspects of diversity. Along with the other lists, the award-
winning list:
lacks adequate representation of Hispanic protagonists,
underrepresents protagonists in urban settings,
underrepresents religious protagonists, and
is heavily skewed toward a small number of genres.
Hispanic protagonists are severely underrepresented on all lists in comparison with the actual
demographic data for U.S. adolescents and children. This may be because there has not yet been
a major movement among scholars, parents, teachers, and librarians to push for titles for and
about Hispanics and Latinos as there was for titles for and about African Americans in the U.S.
in the 1970s.41 As the Hispanic and Latino population in the U.S. continues to grow, a movement
for titles in this arena may be on the horizon.
All lists underrepresent urban-dwelling protagonists. However, this may be at least partially
explained by the large numbers of historical fiction and fantasy titles included in this study.
While books were coded as having urban settings if they took place in cities of the past or in
fantasy cities, large numbers of these books took place in rural settings or had other/mixed
The need for more titles featuring religious protagonists is confirmed in this study. Across all
categories, religious protagonists comprise a small minority; protagonists from non-Christian
religions are particularly rare. Most protagonists in the “other”• religion category practiced a
fictional religion rather than an existing one (for example, two of the protagonists in G. P.
Taylors Shadowmancer practice a religion which resembles Christianity, but is not). Religion is
a major part of life for many, if not most, children and teens in the U.S.; one recent study found
that 65.3% of children and teens ages six to seventeen participate in religious activities once a
month or more.42 The lack of young adult titles which address this aspect of teen life is puzzling;
the idea that authors view religion as somehow “taboo”• seems to be an inadequate explanation
since authors and publishers seem perfectly willing to feature other, even more sensitive, issues
such as teen sex, pregnancy, drug use, and physical abuse. More research into this question is
Each of the three lists included in this study is heavily skewed towards one to two genres. Thus,
relying on any one of these lists would result in a collection which is lacking in several key areas.
The award-winning titles are biased toward realistic fiction and historical fiction; fantasy,
science fiction, action and adventure, and sports novels (all popular genres) are comparatively
neglected. Among Teens’ Top Ten books, fantasy and realistic titles are included at a high rate at
the expense of other genres; among bestsellers, fantasy and humor novels together comprise the
majority of titles.
Agosto, Hughes-Hassell, and Gilmore-Clough wrote about the scarcity of minority protagonists
in genre fiction, particularly fantasy titles.43 This study supported their conclusions; 31.9% of
white protagonists were featured in fantasy titles, versus 10.0% of minority protagonists. Of the
five minority protagonists who were featured in fantasy titles, one was black (a protagonist in G.
P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer), and the remainder were classified in the “other”• category because
they were described as being of a fictional race. Science fiction was a bit better; of the four
minority protagonists, one was Asian, one was Hispanic, and two were other (alien). The
tendency of authors to feature minority protagonists in realistic or historical fiction is an
interesting trend and worthy of future research. This tendency may be an outgrowth of a
repeated call among researchers for “culturally conscious”44 or “enabling”45 texts which
challenge racial stereotypes, provide literary role models for minority teens, and connect with
teens’ cultural heritages. Authors who feature minority protagonists may be choosing to create
such texts by directly confronting historical or contemporary racial issues (a task to which
historical fiction and realistic fiction are well-suited) rather than dealing with such issues
indirectly in a different genre.
Another interesting finding was that in this sample set, non-white protagonists were more than
twice as likely to be identified as gay, bisexual, or questioning as white protagonists. The reasons
for this are unclear; perhaps it is the case that authors who feature protagonists who are
marginalized in terms of race are more willing to also feature protagonists who are marginalized
in terms of sexuality. Further research would be interesting to see if these findings would be
duplicated across a broader sample of young adult literature.
Another question that this research does not address, but which would be a potentially fruitful
course of study, is why so little protagonist diversity (at least in several of the dimensions
studied here) exists in bestselling young adult novels. To some extent, the market controls what
sells and what doesn’t, and it could be the case that books with minority protagonists are truly
not as appealing to wide audiences. However, even if this is the case, we must begin to ask why
that might be so. Are white, straight, middle-class teens uninterested in reading about
characters who are different from them, and if so, could this be because the large majority of the
books that they have read and enjoyed do not feature minority characters? Are minority teens
not purchasing books, and if so is this because a) they simply don’t want to read, b) they can’t
afford the books, c) there are not enough characters like them in the books to which they have
easy access, or d) some other reason? How does the marketing of young adult titles differ
between books featuring minorities and other books, and how much might those differences
account for the dearth of minority protagonists on bestsellers lists?
The job of a youth services librarian in an era of decreasing budgets, decreasing staff, and
increasing demand for services is not easy. Collection development is only one of many duties
for a librarian, and reliance upon preassembled title lists such as those studied here is
understandable when simply keeping a library open can at times consume all of a librarian’s
work hours. However, study upon study has demonstrated the importance of building a quality
collection for young adult library usersa collection in which all users can find themselves
accurately portrayed while also experiencing rich portrayals of characters which are unlike
themselves. This study has demonstrated that while award-winning lists include more diversity
on the whole than Teens’ Top Ten lists or bestsellers lists, no single list, or even a combination of
these lists, is sufficient across all aspects of diversity studied here.
What does this mean for librarians? It doesn’t mean that relying upon lists is necessarily bad–
there are many valid reasons why both award-winning and bestselling titles deserve a place on
library shelves. However, it does mean that these lists alone are insufficient, and purchasing
plans which are based solely on such lists should be reevaluated to include more titles
individually selected by librarians to increase diversity within the collection. Despite their lack of
representation on commonly-used preassembled lists, such books do existthe Library Booklists
website links to hundreds of them ( and
the journal MultiCultural Review, published four times annually, features new titles which
include characters or subjects of differing “ethnicity, race, spirituality, religion, disability, and
language”• (
Whether or not libraries are ready for them, millions of children from diverse backgrounds will
soon be finding their way into young adult collections for the first time. Whether they come back
may well depend on whether the books they find there include characters whose racial, religious,
socioeconomic, family, romantic, and health backgrounds reflect the diversity they see in
themselves and in their communities. And whether they find those books depends on whether
librarians are willing to embrace a broad view of diversity–looking beyond simply protagonists’
race or ethnicityand take the time to locate and purchase titles featuring protagonists from
marginalized groups who are portrayed accurately and compassionately. If, as a profession,
librarians can commit to doing this, then the overall diversity of our collections will increase
along with the rising diversity of the populations we are serving. And perhaps, if every library in
the country begins ordering titles that feature diverse characters and/or are written by authors
from diverse backgrounds, we might even rewrite the bestsellers list and in so doing help to
change the face of publishing in the United States. That is a lofty goal, and one that only people
not listscan achieve.
1. This paper is a redacted and edited version of a Masters paper. The full version may be
accessed at
2. Stacy L. Creel, “Early Adolescents’ Reading Habits,” Young Adult Library Services 5, no.
4: 46-49; Tiffany Marra and April Witteveen, “Trends in Teen Reading 2001—2003,”
Young Adult Library Services 4, no. 1 (2005): 17-21; Krista Swenor, “A Teen Take on
Reading: Results from the 2005 Teen Read Survey,”Young Adult Library Services 4, no.
4 (2006): 42-44.
3. National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2009
(Washington, D.C.: Institute of Education Sciences, 2009).
4. Ibid.
5. Yvonne R. Bell and Tangela R. Clark, “Culturally Relevant Reading Material as Related to
Comprehension and Recall in African American Children,”Journal of Black Psychology
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Results of a Content Analysis Using a Social Psychological Conceptual Framework”• (paper
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Winning Children’s Literature”• (paper presented at the Association for Education in
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35. Ibid.
36. National Study of Youth and Religion, Religious Affiliation and its Significance (2001).
_Religious_Affiliation.pdf (accessed October 10, 2010).
37. Debby Herbenick et al., “Sexual Behavior in the United States: Results from a National
Probability Sample of Men and Women ages 14—94,”Journal of Sexual Medicine 7, suppl.
5 (2010): 255-265; Jennifer Robison, “What Percentage of the Population is Gay?”
(October 8, 2002).
Gay.aspx (accessed October 12, 2010).
38. U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Census Bureau, Annual Estimates of the Population by Race,
Hispanic Origin, Sex and Age for the United States: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2008, 2009.
39. Ibid.
40. Ibid.
41. Harris, “Have You Heard About an African Cinderella Story? The Hunt for Multiethnic
Literature,”• 1991.
42. Jane L. Dye and Tallese Johnson, A Child’s Day 2006: Selected Indicators of Child Well-
Being (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, 2009), 5.
43. Agosto et al., “The All-White World of Middle-School Genre Fiction: Surveying the Field for
Multicultural Protagonists,”2003
44. Hill, “Multicultural Children’s Books: An American Fairy Tale,”• 1998.
45. Alfred W. Tatum, Reading for Their Life (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009).
About the Author
Casey Rawson has an MSLS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is
currently a doctoral student. Her research interests include multicultural literature for young
adults and adolescents’ responses to information overload.
... Characters from non-Anglo backgrounds (using labels from Gillespie et al., 1994) included: Blacks at 26 percent, Native Americans at 19 percent, White non-Anglos at 18 percent, and Hispanic and Asian/Pacific peoples both at 10 percent. Research by Rawson (2011) of young adult awards and lists like the Michael L. Printz Award suggests a similar lack of diversity. For example, in her sample of 297 books, she found 241 books (81.1 percent) included White characters but only 11 books (3.8 percent) included Hispanic characters (Rawson, 2011). ...
... Research by Rawson (2011) of young adult awards and lists like the Michael L. Printz Award suggests a similar lack of diversity. For example, in her sample of 297 books, she found 241 books (81.1 percent) included White characters but only 11 books (3.8 percent) included Hispanic characters (Rawson, 2011). ...
Full-text available
Including award-winning literature in children’s library collections is often openly stated in a library’s collection development policy. Hateley (2012) notes these “meaningful markers” as a way “to grant our wish of someone somewhere, somehow having read all the books, and worked out which one is best” (p. 190). In an age where librarians are pushed to their limits with time, budget, and curriculum, such designators are useful in helping to develop and maintain a quality collection. At the same time, Hateley (2012) enlists readers to acknowledge the unavoidable human subjectivity involved in the judging process of literary book awards: What must not be forgotten, however, is that this superhuman work is undertaken by humans—passionate and knowledgeable humans, to be sure, but humans nonetheless. To automatically rely on award winners for collection development may mask the necessary fallibility and idiosyncrasies of individual judges or judging panels. (p. 197) In a study of “Children’s-Choice” State Book Awards in the US, Storey (1992) further notes censorship issues associated with the selection of books on the award lists and, thus, the availability of books to the children readers meant to select the winners. Storey’s (1992) research reports on a survey of school librarians about censorship related to these book awards. The librarians in the study noted that censorship was “expected and accepted” (Storey, 1992, p. 1). They also supported the use of award lists for selection and collection development which is the focus of the current study reported in this paper. Specifically, the purpose was to investigate youth librarians’ perceptions of using award lists for collection development and to also survey their collections for the presence of five children’s book awards.
... One of the common plot devices in YA literature has been absent parents, a situation that allows youthful protagonists to engage with independent problem solving. Rawson (2011) found in a survey of Printz Award winners, Printz honor books, and YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) Top Ten Books for Young Adults from 2000 to 2009 that 20% of the protagonists in these books were orphans or had no guardian. This is a vast overrepresentation, as the actual national percentage of young adults in the same situation is 0.4%. ...
... The prize is awarded annually for the best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit. Rawson's (2011) survey of YA literature has shown that lists of award-winning books have often more closely mirrored the actual demographics of the United States in terms of diversity and representation than, for example, a list of best-selling young adult books or a list of teen-selected, Internetcrowd-sourced best books. (A major exception is the underrepresentation of Hispanic and Latinx populations across all lists.) ...
... Though class is often grouped with race and gender in critical perspectives of education and children's literature (McLeod, 2008), class has received little attention. A broad review of the literature revealed only a few studies examining social class portrayals in books for young people (e.g., Glenn, 2008;Kelley & Darragh, 2011;Kelley, Rosenberger, & Botelho, 2005;Rawson, 2011;Sano, 2009;Swindler Boutte, Hopkins, & Waklatsi, 2008). None of these studies examined international or translated literature for children. ...
... Recently, scholars have begun to expand analyses of cultural representations in children's literature to include constructs such as sexual orientation, disability, and religion (e.g., Rawson, 2011). Rawson examined 248 award-winning and popular, bestselling fiction titles for young adults and compared characteristics of the protagonists with actual demographics in the United States, including gender, race, religion, lesbian/gay/bisexual/ transgender (LGBT), and socioeconomic status. ...
Background Scholars of children's literature have been investigating portrayals of females and racial groups for several decades, yet few have examined depictions of social class. Research on social class depictions in children's literature is needed in order to identify books that affirm children's class identities and offer portrayals of socioeconomic diversity. Focus of the Study This study investigates portrayals of social class in 35 titles receiving the Batchelder Award or Honor between 2001 and 2013. The Batchelder Award recognizes outstanding translated books with international origins. International books for children were selected in this study because American titles are thought to be middle class in orientation; the researchers hypothesized that the international books might provide a more complex analysis of social class. Research Design The inductive approach to qualitative content analysis was utilized. At least two researchers read and coded each book in the sample. The researchers examined passages referencing social class as well as other cultural constructs such as race/ethnicity, gender, religion, and nationality. Findings The researchers identified several markers that served as indicators of social class status: living conditions, food, safety and protection, healthcare, leisure, education, occupation, residence, speech and mannerisms, clothing/dress, death rituals, and material possessions. Social class was often associated with other identities such as a character's religion or ethnicity. Characters from typically marginalized class groups, such as the poor and the working class, were portrayed sensitively and with dignity. Conclusions The markers of class identified in this study may serve as a framework for other researchers interested in examining class in children's literature or media. The findings may help teachers and teacher educators identify and select books that realistically and respectfully portray members of different social classes.
... White protagonists made up 81.1 percent of the 2011 findings when at the time, only 56.7 percent of children aged 19 and under in the United States were white. Rawson (2011) found that "while award-winning lists include more diversity on the whole than Teens' Top Ten lists or bestsellers lists, no single list, or even a combination of these lists, is sufficient across all aspects of diversity studied here." Teens should be able to find a book in their local library that portrays characters that are relatable to them. ...
... While the Anglo-American population is becoming increasingly multi-ethnic, especially the younger generation, the limited library budgets and staffing can prevent library titles from representing the population that they serve. With library budgets being cut, in the UK and USA, there are fewer staff and resources: this means library staff have to rely on best-selling lists, etc., to determine what books they will stock (Rawson 2013;Flood 2017b;Trombetta 2018). Further, Asimeng-Boahene and Klein (2004) suggest that educators and librarians lack the necessary training and education related to 'diverse' texts. ...
YA is a nebulous term, and scholars are still in the process of defining what it is and who it is for. Campbell (Campbell’s Scoop: Reflections on Young Adult Literature, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, 2010) writes, ‘the central theme of most YA fiction is becoming an adult, finding the answer to the internal and external question, “Who am I and what am I going to do about it?”’ (p. 70). Trites (Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 2000) argues that the experience of navigating institutional power hierarchies—whether that is in families, schools, the government, religion, identity politics, etc.—is at the heart of YA. Trites draws upon different concepts of power, conceptualising them within adolescent literature Foucault (The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourseon Language. Pantheon, New York, 1972). This Foucauldian negotiation with institutional hierarchies is also one that YA authors of colour often undergo in the publishing industry. Issues of ‘race’ and racism intrude on the writing and publishing experiences of YA authors colour; even writing, against the grain, can be an act of resistance for them. As Bourdieu (The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, Polity Press, Oxford, 1993) argues, ‘on the one side are the dominant figures, who want continuity, identity, reproduction; on the other, the newcomers, who seek discontinuity, rupture, differences, revolution’ (p. 106). Ramdarshan Bold brings together discussions about young adult literature from a variety of different disciplines—literary studies, education and pedagogy, publishing and book studies, library and information science, sociology, etc.—to create a comprehensive and compelling picture of how the field of literature has developed over the decades, and how it related to publishing, reading, and writing practices. Ramdarshan Bold explores contemporary trends in YA, detailing how inclusive (or diverse) literature aimed at young people developed and expanded in the UK.
... While the Anglo-American population is becoming increasingly multi-ethnic, especially the younger generation, the limited library budgets and staffing can prevent library titles from representing the population that they serve. With library budgets being cut, in the UK and USA, there are fewer staff and resources: this means library staff have to rely on best-selling lists, etc., to determine what books they will stock (Rawson 2013;Flood 2017b;Trombetta 2018). Further, Asimeng-Boahene and Klein (2004) suggest that educators and librarians lack the necessary training and education related to 'diverse' texts. ...
Anglo-American book publishing reflects the structural inequalities and uneven distribution of power within society: this social—‘racial’ and ethnic—stratification can impact various groups of people. The absence of diverse characters in children’s and young adult literature can influence how readers form their identity, and/or shape their perceptions of others, in relation to the world around them. Ramdarshan Bold explores how the lack of representative characters and authors of colour in children’s and YA books impacts the reader and author identities. Drawing upon original data, from interviews with a sample of British YA authors of colour, Ramdarshan Bold will explore how YA authors of colour are creating counter-narratives that challenge dominant perspectives and stereotypes. There is currently a lack of books that reflect the changing nature of Britain and challenge the notion of a fixed/singular British identity. Through interviews, this programme will investigate the childhood/adolescent reading practices of UKYA authors with a particular focus on the lack of diverse books, and whether this influenced their own writing and authorial identity. UKYA authors of colour challenge the perception of what it means to be British, and what British literature is. Canonical authors (commonly white/middle class/male) monopolise the definition of Britishness in the literature. Groskop described this type of Britishness as a ‘conservative cultural phenomena, which painfully reinforce outdated national stereotypes’. Many UKYA authors of colour are constructing their own notions of Britishness, to counter the unconscious manifestation of racism inherent in traditional constructions and to broaden the understanding of what it is to be British in the twenty-first century.
... The prize-winning titles had a greater level of 'diversity' than the other categories: not just ethnic/racial (65.6% of protagonists were white) but also sexual orientation (93.7% of protagonists were heterosexual: the best-selling titles had no LGBTQIA + protagonists), and socio-economic (33.6% of protagonists were from a 'low socio-economic class', the actual percentage of this demographic, in the USA, is 20%). Protagonists of colour were more likely than white protagonists to be: featured in realistic fiction; male; from a low economic class; be identified as religious; be written by a male author; and be written by an author of colour (Rawson 2011). Additionally, Dutro (2009) found that socio-economic status was often misrepresented in YA fiction. ...
This book examines ‘diversity’, or the lack thereof, in young adult fiction (YA) publishing. It focuses on cultural hegemony in the United Kingdom and explores how literary culture aimed at young adults reproduces and perpetuates ‘racial’ and ethnic cultural hierarchies. Diversity is described by the We Need Diverse Books project as ‘all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities’. This study focuses on people of colour. While previous studies have looked at the representation of ethnic minorities in books for children and young adults, this book examines the experiences of ‘own voice’ cultural producers that create a counter-narrative. Specifically, this book will investigate the output and experiences of British young adult fiction authors of colour (BAME authors) published in the UK during the period 2006-2016, drawing upon semi-structured interviews with a sample of authors.
... The prize-winning titles had a greater level of 'diversity' than the other categories: not just ethnic/racial (65.6% of protagonists were white) but also sexual orientation (93.7% of protagonists were heterosexual: the best-selling titles had no LGBTQIA + protagonists), and socio-economic (33.6% of protagonists were from a 'low socio-economic class', the actual percentage of this demographic, in the USA, is 20%). Protagonists of colour were more likely than white protagonists to be: featured in realistic fiction; male; from a low economic class; be identified as religious; be written by a male author; and be written by an author of colour (Rawson 2011). Additionally, Dutro (2009) found that socio-economic status was often misrepresented in YA fiction. ...
The conclusion will bring together the key themes and ideas of the book, assessing the barriers and enablers for British YA authors of colour entering and progressing in the publishing industry and evaluating what this trend means for publishing, the cultural industries, and authorship more broadly. Authorship is a profession that is characterised by the polarity in authors’ earnings: very few authors earn a substantial amount, while the majority live below poverty level. This does not deter many aspiring authors from writing, or seeking publishing deals, because writing can be a way for authors to articulate their vision of the world (as Baldwin expresses in the above quote). Although the authors, interviewed for this book, had faced barriers in their publishing careers, many continued to write for the same reason that Baldwin did: to, in their small way, change the world. In publishing, it is a world that is in dire need of change. This book paints, alongside the complementary database analysis, a bleak picture of ethnic diversity in YA publishing in the UK during 2006–2016.
... The prize-winning titles had a greater level of 'diversity' than the other categories: not just ethnic/racial (65.6% of protagonists were white) but also sexual orientation (93.7% of protagonists were heterosexual: the best-selling titles had no LGBTQIA + protagonists), and socio-economic (33.6% of protagonists were from a 'low socio-economic class', the actual percentage of this demographic, in the USA, is 20%). Protagonists of colour were more likely than white protagonists to be: featured in realistic fiction; male; from a low economic class; be identified as religious; be written by a male author; and be written by an author of colour (Rawson 2011). Additionally, Dutro (2009) found that socio-economic status was often misrepresented in YA fiction. ...
The Anglo-American publishing industries have contracted in the last few decades and are now dominated by a small number of large, global media conglomerates, which subscribe to neoliberal economic models. There are, therefore, fewer gatekeepers to an industry that currently focuses on best-sellers: this means that non-mainstream/non-commercial, and/or experimental, topics, what Bourdieu called the field of restrictive production, can be overlooked and their authors often have to find alternative routes for their writing (Bourdieu 1993). The issue of commerce versus culture is one that is weaved through the history of cultural production, what Hall refers to as ‘the dialectic of cultural struggle’ (Hall in: Storey (ed) Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1998, p. 447). Hesmondhalgh and Saha (Popular Communication 11:179–195, 2013) argue that the relationship between culture and commerce is especially ‘complex and contradictory’ for producers of colour (p. 185). For example, in recent years, the media, the creative industry, and policy makers have shown an increased interest in the inequality, and the lack of ‘diversity’, in cultural production, recognising that the cultural industries are dominated by professionals from white, middle-class backgrounds. ‘Diversity’ [or lack thereof] has become a buzzword in the Anglo-American book publishing industries. It is used to describe an industry that is dominated by white, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgendered heteronormativity (in its workforce, authors, and characters). In the British book publishing industry, it is often used to describe books written by, or featuring, people of colour, and/or publishing professionals of colour. Various campaigns and initiatives to promote ‘diverse’ writing and industry professionals have followed. In this chapter, Ramdarshan Bold details the ‘diversity’ status quo in the British publishing industry. As publishers become increasingly focused on profit, they are likely to cater to existing and dominant market demands. Man-Booker winning author Marlon James has publicly spoken out about this issue, arguing that publishers aim to produce fiction that caters to the mass market and thus ‘panders to that archetype of the white woman’ (Cain 2015). Consequently, the work of authors of colour might be manipulated with the reader, or imagined audience, in mind.
How do cultural identities such as religion, social class, and gender enable or restrict the freedom of characters in award-winning translated books for children? The movement of characters within a set of recent books recognized with the Batchelder award provides a global perspective on freedom and human rights and calls attention to contemporary and historical struggles of people around the world. This study suggests high quality titles that may help librarians and teachers develop children’s understanding of other cultures and the physical and metaphorical borders that constrain freedom of movement.
Hispanics are the fastest growing minority in the U.S., so why are they so poorly represented in YA literature? Here are reasons and possible solutions.
As students with special needs are integrated into regular classrooms, literature about disabilities can become a powerful tool.
Despite receiving prestigious literary awards, two historical novels for young people-Sebestyen's "Words By Heart" and Fox's "The Slave Dancer"-have evoked the bitter criticism of such politically oriented groups as the Council on Interracial Books for Children. It is claimed that these books present a distorted and inaccurate view of black culture and history. The controversies that have surrounded these books are examined and the books themselves are discussed in relation to a third novel-Taylor's "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry", a book lauded for both its literary qualities and its perspective on black history. It is argued that the traditional evaluation and criticism of the aesthetic values of children's literature must be joined by criticism which focuses on the sociohistorical and cultural dimensions of that literature. I suggest that any liberties or inaccuracies in historical fact taken by authors must be justified by the contribution to the aesthetic qualities of the work. These liberties or inaccuracies must also be assessed in terms of their potentially harmful impact on children. The importance of attending to the sociohistorical and cultural dimensions of literature is also made by referring to recent research on the sociology of school knowledge.
This research synthesis examines 21 content-analysis studies conducted between 1966 and 2003 that focused on Hispanic portrayal in children's books. Specifically, it looks at how the literature has evolved in terms of amount of representation, characters' roles, and stereotyping. Findings vary by book type, Hispanic subgroup, and comparative reference points, but overall they suggest there are currently more books with Hispanic characters and themes. However, relative to Hispanic presence in the United States today versus 40 years ago, proportionate portrayal in children's literature has lost ground. Noted improvements include less stereotyping, particularly for Mexican American and male characters. More progress is needed in the portrayal of Hispanics with disabilities and other exceptionalities and of those at varied socioeconomic levels, in upper-class neighborhoods, and in leadership roles in homes and professions. New instructional uses are noted for the books, which increasingly contain special features (e.g., glossaries, author notes) and additional linguistic components (e.g., interlingual text, dual-language text). Websites and other resources are recommended for locating criteria useful in judging book quality, specific names of award-winning book titles, and a framework for Latino literature study. The author concludes that while improvement in Hispanic portrayal is evident, more progress is needed.