|Who is reading books by Sarah Dessen? It might surprise you.|
Lately there have been many reports about the 'cover' representation of teens in YA literature and for those of us in libraries, there is no surprise that there are few covers that depict African-American teens. To see more of the excellent research that YA writer Kate Hart has compiled, visit her post about this issue here. But putting the obvious issues aside, something else bothered me even more.
When I work with my incarcerated teens, who in my community are largely African-American, they do not view books by what teens are depicted on the covers but rather by the story. By a good plot. And what I have discovered through almost two years of collaboration and discussion is that they don't want to read the books that I bring them about African-American teens. They don't want to read Walter Dean Myers' Monster or The First Part Last by Angela Johnson. Instead, they immediately put those books down and they gravitated towards Hate List by Jennifer Brown, Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles, and The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen. Some of my boys wanted more of Elkeles' books immediately and my teen girls were craving any and everything Ellen Hopkins.
So eventually, I got brave and asked the faux pas of questions: Why don't you want to read books about other black kids? And the answer I got time and time again? Because I'm sick of reading about crackhead thugs and pregnant chicks. We are more than just a bunch of thugs. I sat back, dumbfounded. I never thought about the fact that every single title I had brought them which featured an African-American main character also could be considered an "issue" novel: pregnancy, rape, jail time, drugs, gangs, graffiti artists...I could go on. And then, I began to notice the racial stereotype that was being portrayed through the literature that I kept bringing in.
The discussions continued and as we got to know each other a little more, I realized that my teens were looking for characters that identified them but not necessarily by race, gender, or even life situations...they were looking for key traits in characters or even sometimes, just a certain feeling evoked by a genre. For example, some of my boys were madly in love with a set of Sarah Dessen books that I brought. SARAH DESSEN. For incarcerated African-American male youth. Seriously. And even though I never wish to judge my teens to wonder what they are reading...it blew my mind.
What I began to realize is that as a teen services librarian,who tries to keep my agent, editor, and author friends wary of trends/issues in YA fiction, I'd rather advocate for writers of any color to write books which depict all kinds of people. There are stereotypes for almost every race and for some reason, all of the YA books which I've read recently seem to play into them. I want my African-American teen writers to write books about teens that just go to to school and live with Mom and Dad and are normal teens. I want to preserve part of the culture so that when our ancestors look back hundreds of years from now, they don't look at YA literature and try to pigeonhole the racial makeup of a group of people by a set group of actions.
Do others have this problem or feel this way? I feel as if it is a catch-22 because I want to make sure that I have books about African-American teens so that I serve my patron base but should we really be concerned about the race of a character in a book? It seems to me as if our teens don't really care about the color but more so about the actions. I'm leaving this all open for discussion below and I hope you'll share with us your challenges, concerns, and general thoughts about racial stereotyping in YA lit.