Is there enough diversity within (Aus) YA fiction?

Ask Alice is an online column written by our former Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay under the pen name A B Endacott.

Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!

I’ll be honest, when I went into write this month’s column, I had a very clear answer to this question in my mind: Of course! While the term ‘enough’ is itself a subjective one, and I’d certainly say that we can always have more stories from a variety of lived experiences, featuring a variety of lived experiences beyond that of a white, heteronormative, middle to upper class, and largely patriarchal experience, I certainly would not have said there is a dearth of diversity within the Australian YA scene (YA more broadly, perhaps, but that’s a slightly different question).

I suspect this is something of a professional hazard; I work in a space where there is constant discussion around not only promoting books, but promoting diverse books, of being aware of the variety of titles that come out, not just of what’s popular (although knowing that, too). At the heart of LoveOzYA’s mission is not just to champion Australian YA fiction to an Australian readership, but to champion Australian YA literature which reflects the diversity of the lived Australian experience.

Several years ago, I was out in Melbourne’s Western suburbs doing a talk for several librarians for schools in that area. I recall them asking me to recommend YA or MG titles which featured characters with from migrant backgrounds from African nations; their student cohort was incredibly diverse – over 200 languages were spoken at home across it. The librarians told me that their students often wanted to see a literary reflection of their experience living in Melbourne’s West, coming from an African background. I also recall being unable to name a single book. I still can’t.

Having been exposed to discussions during my tenure at LoveOzYA which have seen the production of booklists highlighting diverse reads, such as the First Nations poster, disability poster, migrant voices poster, somewhere along the line I developed the impression that diverse books (in content and authorship) comprised a statistically significant number of young adult books published in at least Australia.

I should note that there is no centralised register of books published every year, so to get hard numbers would require an incredible amount of human labour – something I’d need another PhD to be able to do.

However, a little bit of investigation revealed that while Australian YA does have a laudable amount of diversity across its books, there is definitely scope for improvement in what we publish – and in encouraging our young people to read those texts in question.

We know that across the board, YA are the only books in literature for younger people where female protagonists are more common than male ones. This preponderance of male protagonists extends to adult fiction; while crime fiction does have its share of female leads, male leads and male-oriented worldviews still dominate adult crime fiction, even when the leads are female.

In terms of other kinds of representation in YA (eg LGBTQIA+, disabled, non-white, migrant, varied Socioeconomic background), there is less concrete data, but US-based investigations have shown declines in diversity of YA publishing in the mid-2010s: The percentage of books published by authors of colour had dropped to 6% in 2016, after reaching a high of 14% in 2008. While these numbers can be contested and are admittedly a few years old, the sense that there is more scope for diverse books has persisted.

I spoke reached out to some of my favourite people – the researchers at Deakin University’s Teen Reading Project. They kindly gave me a sneak peek at a forthcoming report on their interview survey data and noted that while teenagers read broadly (more than 3,000 individual titles were nominated across over 7,000 responses!), they don’t necessarily read diversely. Indeed, the top ten books which were most commonly read had a disappointing lack of diversity across their authors and characters (and were entirely written by US or UK authors) – see the table below.

It’s worth acknowledging this is changing. We know that publishing is ultimately a business, and that it therefore responds to market demand. We know that Gen Z is more inclined to want diverse representation in the stories they consume, so it makes sense that publishing houses will ultimately produce such narratives.  Moreover, publishing has a notoriously slow production time; titles which might have been acquired over two years ago may only be being published now, so there is a lag between a realisation about the demands of the market and actually meeting those demands. Lovely Bronwyn from the Teen Reading project in fact noted as such when she said, “many of the teacher librarians we interviewed identified an increase in the diversity of books published for teens in recent years, with gender and sexual identity and mental health commonly identified as examples of diverse teen reads. However, not all schools will include this type of reading material in their libraries due to concerns about appropriateness and/or the influence of collections policies based on school values.”

We know reading diverse books is important to develop a more nuanced, empathetic understanding of the world around us – and that this is especially true when it comes to younger readers.  We also know that it’s particularly important that the representation of diversity is authentic (consider the controversy surrounding The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time as an example for why). Australian author Alice Pung sums up with her characteristic eloquence why accurate representation of lived experience is so important: “The standard, well-intentioned didactic depictions of minorities Sher Rill and I encountered in our childhoods were slit-eyed sidekicks or doe-eyed shoeless victims of war and colonisation. Now that we have voices as writers and illustrators, we just want Australian children to see other Australian children as real human beings, not tropes or lessons.”

A 2022 Ask Alice which reflected on our keynote address at the  Australasian Children’s Literature Association for Research conference which outlined what we can do to support diverse voices and stories noted that when it comes to existing books, (in a twist that surprises nobody!) booksellers and librarians play a key role in championing diverse books, and all readers can suspend their biases or preconceptions which keep them away from stories which may be unknown to them. However, this presupposes a plethora of books that feature diverse representation by diverse voices. One of the other things we advocated in the keynote was the importance of ensuring diversity everywhere in publishing; in the editors, publishers, marketers, and cover designers. That not only means the stories being published are more likely to be more diverse, but are being published and promoted in ways that are true to the lived experience behind the story.

Substantiating the importance of diversity behind all levels of a book production’s, I found this observation deeply interesting: “while many POC, LGBTQIA+ and disabled authors have flourished in YA, this has, at times, been a double-edged sword. Several marginalised authors writing adult literature have spoken out about their books being automatically classified as YA, when in fact the target audience is significantly older,” among which was counted R F Kaung’s Poppy War series.

The ongoing homogeneity of the people within publishing is worth highlighting. A 2019 survey revealed 85% of the people who acquire and edit books in America are White. In Australia, a 2022 survey of the Australian publishing industry conducted by University of Melbourne academics revealed Australia is not that different: fewer than 1% of Australian publishing professionals are First Nations and only 8.5% have an Asian cultural identity.

An article published by three members of the Teen Reading Team, Leonie Rutherford, Katya Johanson, and Bronwyn Reddan in 2022, noted that on an international scale, “the publishing industry has made efforts to develop recruitment strategies and paid internship opportunities that target Black, Asian, minority ethnic and First Nations employees.” However, they go on to note that, “whether the proportion of diverse authors published has increased remains unclear.”

I realise this column may come off a bit doom and gloom, and that’s far from the intention. However, I suspect many people who read it will be in a similar position to me. Many of you are individuals whose focus is on finding and championing diverse titles. That can lead to the impression that such titles are more statistically multitudinous than is the reality. Being cognisant of this can ensure we as a literary industry do not rest on laurels we believe to be more substantial than is actually the case.

That’s how we ensure there’s actually enough diversity in Aus YA – and beyond.



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