Updated: Feb 26, 2021
I love young adult fantasy fiction stories! Guess that’s why I write ‘em. However, I find, as a parent of young readers who have brown skin and doesn’t necessarily conform to straight gender expectations, that many dimly recalled childhood favorites are not good matches for my children. The problem is obvious in a list from Forbes Magazine of The Greatest Young Adult Fantasy Novels of All Time, which includes gems like A Wrinkle In Time, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Hobbit, and The Dark Is Rising, all old favorites. But when I scanned the list for diverse reads likely to inspire my eleven and sixteen-year-olds, I came up with zip.
On to newer titles. It’s a brave new world. Surely contemporary best sellers offer more diversity? I decided to find out, so I pulled up Amazon’s list of top fifty best-selling Teen & Young Adult Science Fiction & Fantasy books, which I somewhat laboriously analyzed over Valentine’s Day Weekend.
The first thing that struck me was how a series from the 1990s still dominates sales. Yup, I’m referring to Harry Potter, who held down a dozen slots on the top fifty list, including the top nine. (No wonder it’s hard for us newcomers to get our books established…) Fortunately, there were plenty of other titles too.
How do they stack up in terms of diversity? Horribly. I calculated an average diversity score of 0.4 out of 5. That suggests no real progress from those best sellers of yore.
Only one book, Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, earned a 5. The Seventh Sun by Lani Forbes and So This Is Love: A Twisted Tale by Elizabeth Lim earned scores of 3. Star Wars The High Republic: Into the Dark by Claudia Gray got a 2. A whopping 41 titles scored 0.
Here are my diversity-oriented reviews of the top fifty:
Harry Potter titles and editions of various kinds top the daily lists but are not very diverse unless giants count. According to Serena Ypelaar in her blog, Critiquing Harry Potter: Ethnicity & Representation, “none of the non-white characters were given major roles.” She counts seven non-white students but notes that none are major. Also of concern is the fact that the lead characters across the series are straight, and the author, J.K. Rowling, is notorious for her transphobic comments. Munroe Bergdorf sums up the problem thus: “While @jk_rowling is condescendingly tweeting from her mansion, black trans women are fighting for our lives. Trans kids are at home scared and navigating unsupportive environments and the government is debating our civil rights.” Sorry to have to give this best-selling series a fat zero on my diversity scale, but it’s deserved I’m afraid. Score: 0
Midnight Sun by Stephanie Meyer. Extremely pale, mostly vampires. Edward takes the lead in this story. In case you somehow missed the movies, he’s very pale and sparkly, and she’s a white girl who falls for him in a big way. Diversity Score: 0
Wolf Girl by Leia Stone. Okay, there are trolls, witches, wolf girls, and something called “dark fey” but I don’t think they mean Black fairies, sorry. Then there’s the really stunningly tacky hetero lust that kicks in almost right away when the lead character, a very blonde wolf girl named Demi, meets a wolf boy on page 2: “I inhaled as I spun around, and the first thing I smelled hit me right in the gut, sending warmth down my chest, trickling through my stomach and settling right between my legs. Wolf. Male. Dominant. Unmated.” (All I can really say is…OMG.) Score: 0
Rising Fate (Wolf Moon Academy Book 3) by Jen L. Grey. There’s not a lot of diversity at Wolf Moon Academy, where Mia meets Liam Hale, who, don’t you know, turns out to be her ‘true mate’ as well as the “sexiest and strongest one” but, alas, he soon “makes it clear that we will never be together.” Oops. If you like White hetero paranormal romances, I gather this one’s a doozie, but it doesn’t ring any bells for diversity. Score: 0
Shadow Mate (Wolf Moon Academy Book 1) by Jen L. Grey. The covers of this series show the protagonists as light-skinned and with either light brown, blonde, or red hair. Reviews on Amazon bring out themes that trouble me, for instance, “It was frustrating how she never resisted Liam and just ignored everything Liam did to hurt her, like sleeping with other women to try to forget her or putting skunk pee on her clothes, all ‘because they're mates.’” Not my genre, and I hope readers don’t treat the lead characters as role models. Definitely not a winner on the diversity scale. Score: 0
The Seventh Sun by Lani Forbes. Set imaginatively in an ancient Aztec empire. “The story fills a gap in Indigenous narratives.'' —School Library Journal. Seems like that very rare thing, a strong seller that actually does rate a good score on the diversity scale. Score: 3
So This Is Love: A Twisted Tale by Elizabeth Lim. Her title, Spin the Dawn, is a Qing Dynasty adventure with some fun footings in ancient Chinese folk tales, but So This Is Love is a Cinderella story with King George and a decidedly white Euro feel. With a hopeful nod toward Spin the Dawn, I’m going to stretch a point and give the author a rating of 3 on the diversity scale.
Deal with the Elf King (Married to Magic) by Elise Kova. The cover features a light-skinned, red-haired young woman in a fancy dress being held firmly from behind by a tall, light-skinned elf. Score: 0
Underworld: Scorching Sun by Apollos Thorne. The characters on the covers of Thorne’s books tend to have pale skin and, if female, red hair. Goodreads offers this pithy summary of the challenges facing Elorion, the protagonist: “The sooner he completes his mission, the sooner he and the girls can return home.” Yeah, that’s how I roll too. My eyes, that is…Score: 0
Star Wars The High Republic: Into the Dark by Claudia Gray. We have plenty of diversity in terms of people from distant galaxies and other species, and some of them have brown or green skin. I think the tendency is to make the leads White and to add odd minor characters for a galactic take on local color, which earns this book a modest score for diversity. It’s a start. Score: 2
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkein. Very Anglo, except for the elves, giants, and hobbits. And wait, aren’t hobbits like very small English people with extra hairy feet? So, good on fantastical creatures, but not when it comes to human diversity. Score: 0
Blood Legacy by Jen L. Grey. Mia and Liam pair up in a fairly conventional white straight way, except for the whole shifting-into-wolves bit. Score: 0
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor. As Kirkus Reviews put it, “Who can't love a story about a Nigerian-American 12-year-old with albinism who discovers latent magical abilities and saves the world?” This African-inspired story provides needed diversity for the best-seller list. Score: 5
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. I don’t really get why this is pitched as a book for kids because, as one parent said in a (very positive) review on commonsensemedia.org, “My 12-year-old has read this and loves it. Does have violence, swearing, and sex - but it's the 21st century.” And so 12-year-olds should be reading about violence and sex? I stray from my purpose, sorry. This is not a diverse read. Score: 0
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins. A prequel to the Hunger Games stories, it’s also set in Panem. The lead characters are White and hetero as far as I can determine. Score: 0
Shifter Wars: Supernatural Battle by Kelly St. Clare. The werewolves are White guys when not transformed. The author’s earlier books were about vampires and featured a blonde femme fatale in the cover art, so here’s to mixing it up with wolves instead. And the lead gal now has pale skin and red hair instead of blonde—a classic fantasy combo that I’d love to track down to its origins one day because hey how did it become so widespread? No diversity here unless wolves count. Score: 0
Shadow and Bone and the rest of the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. The race of the lead character, Alina, is not specified in the stories, but recently Netflix cast a half-Asian actor in her role, so perhaps belatedly this series is getting a little diversity? The original covers don’t show Alina but the French cover gave her pale, non-Asian features and long blonde hair, so I don’t think the books deserve to be rated as very diverse, even if the Netflix series does. Score: 1
Storm and Fury (The Harbinger Series Book 1) by Jennifer L. Armentrout. Very hetero and White. A Spanish cover shows a brown-eyed, chestnut-haired young woman with light skin. The heroine of the story, Trinity, is drawn to Zayne, who is usually described by reviewers as ‘darkly alluring’ or as having a dark and troubled past’ but I’m pretty sure they aren’t describing his skin color. I’ve got to rate this book as another Score: 0.
The Giver by Lois Lowry. This dystopian story about a society in which everyone is supposed to be the same ironically reinforces norms of sameness in our society by implying (through Jonas’ and the Giver’s light eyes and Fiona’s red hair) that everyone is White. Score:0
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (audiobook). Percy Jackson is definitely a white kid, albeit a descendant of a Greek god. There is a little diversity in the student body, but not a lot. Score: 1
The Selection by Kiera Cass. The author and publisher worked together to choose a model for the cover shots so we know they visualized America, the lead character of this dystopian romance, as a light-skinned girl with dark red hair. The plot, I gather, features a secret boyfriend, so we also know she’s straight. Not a lot of diversity here. Score: 0
Rhapsodic by Laura Thalassa. According to Goodreads: “When Callie finds the fae king of the night in her room, a grin on his lips and a twinkle in his eye, she knows things are about to change. At first, it’s just a chaste kiss…” Is Calipso Lillis Greek? It would make sense, although the surname is more commonly Irish. From what I can gather online, it doesn’t stand out in terms of diversity. The cover seems to show a dragon wing (or the Devil’s?). Other covers for this author feature a White girl in a revealing dress falling into a White-guy-in-armor’s arms. Score: 0
A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas. The covers in this series feature a light-skinned woman with long, straight, red-brown hair in silver armor with a sword. She’s Feyre, a daring protagonist who falls in love with (I hope this isn’t a spoiler) a powerful king named Tamlin. The book gets positive reviews but flunks the diversity test. Score: 0
Chain of Iron 2, The Last Hours, by Cassandra Clare. A White girl with brown hair full of flying insects is featured on the cover. Generally, this author’s stories have an Edwardian English vibe to their settings. While a popular read, this is not a diverse book. Score: 0
Steelheart: The Reckoners, Book 1, Brandon Sanderson. Honestly, I’m not going to read this, and the book cover doesn’t tell us much about the protagonists, but the seven characters shown on the board game based on this book are all White, so it’s a fair bet to rate this low on diversity. He’s also gone on record over the years with some startlingly homophobic opinions. Score: 0
Luna Rising by Sara Snow. What is it with wolves and red-heads? Oh, here’s a fun quote from the publisher’s summary: “The werewolf Xavier saved me, but now, I am condemned to death. To make things worse, both Xavier and Axel claim I am their mate.” Luna seems to be a light-skinned red-head entangled with count-em two guys, er, wolves. Very hetero in a lupine sort of way. Low on diversity. Score: 0
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. The star of this show is Kaz Brekker, a 17-year-old thief. I can’t seem to find a physical description of him in excerpts of the book but fan art portrays him as a White boy with dark hair. Sometimes he’s shown rescuing a limp young woman from the water. Fan art also shows a couple of the secondary characters as brown-skinned, so let’s give this book some credit on the diversity scale. Score: 1
Running Beside the Alpha by Lola Glass. The cover says it all: Pale-skinned and lightly dressed young woman with very red hair, backed up to a massive guy, presumably ‘her Alpha’, also with very light skin. Action-packed, apparently. Scantily clad, definitely. Diverse? No. Score: 0
Dragon Marked by Jaymin Eve. I’m going to rely on the cover for this one too. Pale skinned, dark-haired, very green-eyed young woman glaring at us, plus a dragon and a wolf just to round the whole species diversity thing out. But not strong on human diversity. Score: 0
Running with the Pack by Lola Glass. See Running Beside the Alpha. Same red-haired girl and massive White alpha on this one too. Score: 0
The Hunger Games: Special Edition by Suzanne Collins. The diversity of the cast attracted controversy when these books were first made into movies, with numerous fans complaining about the use of black actors in some supporting roles. According to an article in The New Yorker, “Suzanne Collins had been fairly explicit about the appearance, if not the ethnicity, of Rue and Thresh” (she described them as dark-skinned). However, as the article’s title so aptly puts it, “White Until Proven Black.” It’s true the author described two of the characters among the dozens in the game as dark-skinned, but the protagonist and most of the characters are white and straight. This book gets a 2 on the diversity scale.
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black. The main characters are White, but there is a small bit of diversity in the cast according to a Goodreads review by Vicki Again: “I did think that the diversity could have been a little more, you know? I kept an eye out, and I believe there are exactly two brown people mentioned.” Sorry to say, that doesn’t rise very high on the scale. Score: 1
What the heck is going on? Several things. First, mainstream publishers still have very limited ideas about what they think will sell.
Second, we authors often stick to the tropes and tried-and-trues, whether it be red-haired girls running with wolf-boys or pale-skinned vampires seducing pale-skinned girls.
There are so many possible characters one could let loose on the pages of a fantasy adventure! I’m poking away at a story where two of the characters are black and one is nonbinary They/Them. Why? Just because they popped readily to mind based on my own kids and the wonderful and diverse teens I teach creative writing to. My Silent Lee series has a kick-ass biracial female lead along with an almost blind boy whose family migrated to Boston from India. In Blood, my next YA book, Falcon is rather butch and crushes on a female character. I’m sure I’m not the only author who finds it natural and fun to write about diverse characters. I’m suspicious, however, that such manuscripts aren’t being picked up by top agents and publishers because of latent structural racism in the industry and the perennial fear that it ‘won’t sell in Texas’.
Then I must find a little fault with our readers and those who influence them, including librarians, teachers, bookstore buyers, and book-sta-grammers who put titles in front of teens on a regular basis. Even if they’re harder to find, please put in the effort to offer diverse books!
Another big problem is censorship. It’s still true that many schools and districts censor books they think might offend, including ones with LGBTQ+ and Black lead characters.
I did a quick scan of new releases in the Young Adult Fantasy category on Goodreads (they don’t rank them by popularity but they do list new titles). I was hoping to find higher diversity scores among the newest. Not so. It’s still a needle in a haystack hunt.
However, I was drawn to Winterkeep by Kristen Cashore. In an interview on BookPage, the author explains that “Like most people in Winterkeep, Lovisa has brown skin and dark hair and eyes.” Goodreads reviews give me some concern about the way women are portrayed: “Characters described by how many partners they've slept with,” “Parental abuse and 'sins of the father' is such a recurring theme throughout the series,” “trigger warnings.” So there’s that. And I don’t think there’s anything obviously African American about the culture of the imagined world in which the brown-skinned protagonist lives, but at least she violates a key norm of the oh-so-white YA fantasy genre. I give it a 3 on my one-to-five diversity scale for that.
Of particular interest is Wings of Ebony by J. Elle, featuring a black kid from Houston, along with gods and magic. The protagonist, a demigod, is on a quest is to save her sister. She comes across as real and strong and a role model for diverse readers. I liked this comment by Kel on Goodreads: “The protagonist in Wings of Ebony is the antitheses of what America would love black girls to be. In a country where black girls are constantly being told to tone it down, Rue is like, bump that, we turning up.” Here’s the oh so rare YA fantasy book that earns a full 5 on the diversity scale. I’m going to purchase a copy to share with my kids right now.
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure available at Amazon.