By Ajani Bazile-Dutes
Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, the author of the extremely popular novels, “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” hosted the National Book Awards last year on November 19th 2014. At the awards ceremony, he announced that Jacqueline Woodson had won in the category for young adult literature for her book, Brown Girl Dreaming, a biographical collection of poems about being a black youth growing up in the sixties and seventies in South Carolina and New York. In Handler’s remarks, he made the following statement: “I told Jackie she was going to win, and I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned about her this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind.”
Being a young black writer myself, hearing this “joke” was not just insulting, but almost discouraging. It’s such an elementary and childish stereotype that reminds me that even in great achievements you can still be made into a pun because of your skin color. There was quite a bit of negative twitter backlash about Handler’s casual racism. Jacqueline Woodson responded in an essay wherein she writes, “By making light of that deep and troubled history, he [Handler] showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.” Stereotyping a writer of color at the moment when she is celebrating the success of her novel with a prestigious literary award is emblematic of a larger problem of racism in the literary world. It’s this mentality that perpetuates seeing authors of color (and people of color in general) as stereotypes. With mindsets like these in the literary and publishing word, it is no wonder that there are far fewer authors of color and characters of color in the YA genre. In general, there are limited representations of people of color across entertainment platforms. Looking at TV, characters of color seem to almost always be extremely exaggerated in stereotypes and/or remain the minority best friend of the main character without any serious character development. This lack of respect to actually give depth to characters of color symbolizes a lack of care for people of color.
Literature is a large part of teenage entertainment and it’s incredibly important for young people to see themselves represented in literature. However, the majority of the novels that we see getting published, and the ones that make it to the popular forefront, are often the ones with white main characters. A Publishing Perspectives article by Dennis Abrams made note of this gap in YA fiction. “CNN cites the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which says that fewer children’s books (including YA) were written by Latinos or African-Americans in 2013 than in previous years. And while there were more books written about Latinos and American Indians, there were fewer about African Americans and Asian-Americans.” Representation in novels is vital for all teenagers because teens yearn to be able to relate and see people like themselves fit into this world. In the same Publishing Perspectives article author Walter Dean Meyers stated, “As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.”
The young adult audience is so easily influenced that when teens of color constantly read about white characters, they begin to think that their stories don’t matter and/or feel out of place. These are the types of issues that can affect someone’s self-esteem and confidence in the long run and why it is so vital to have a wider range of races in our literary characters to reflect the diversity in our society. Some authors of color to check out who have fantastic novels that do reflect this diversity are Junot Diaz, Colson Whitehead, Sona Charaipotra, Dhonielle Clayton, Nalo Hopkinson, and Nnedi Okorafor. Hopefully, moving forward, we will see more books being published about characters from a variety of backgrounds and from a variety of perspectives.