Portraying people of color in children’s/YA fantasy–are we anywhere near “there” yet?

3/21/2012, ETA: Because this post has been linked a lot over the course of the last several months, I just wanted to point out that this was posted when I was in the process of starting the small press that became Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, where we publish middle grade and young adult science fiction, fantasy, and mystery starring main characters of color. We’ve published five books so far, and I think you’ll love them. If you believe, as I do, that more stories like these are important—awesome fantastic adventures in which people of color are the stars—please check them out and share them with your friends.


When I was in the fourth grade, I always wondered why I wasn’t born Japanese. You see, back then (mid-80s), the news was always saying that the Japanese had the best education system in the world, and that Americans were falling behind. Given that my life goal at the time was to be the smartest kid in the world, I really, really wished that I had been born Japanese.

Nothing I could do about that, but I could do my geography project on Japan. (I was in the accelerated group, and we did countries of the world instead of state history in the fourth grade. I also did Australia and India.) But the only resources I could find in our relatively small school library were a decade-old encyclopedia and several books from the 50s. I ended up making a small English-Japanese dictionary with about five words (which I still have around here somewhere) for my project to go along with the report.

I can’t recall having read one single book from the time I was able to read until the time I graduated high school about any character who was from an Asian country or about an American whose family background was Asian, however. There just wasn’t anything like that available to me in small-town farm country in Illinois. I’m sure this is as much to do with librarian/teacher selection as it had to do with publishing availability, but that’s just the way things were.

Looking at the CCBC’s report from last year of books published in 2008, however, I’m not sure we’ve come very far from that. We’ve come a long way, yet how far is there to go?

Ever since Race Fail 09 (which I didn’t follow much of, but even reading a part of which was very thought-provoking), I’ve become even more aware of this issue as it relates to fantasy than I have before (even though before that, as an editor, I always tried to acquire books that were as diverse as possible, whether that meant magic-wielding kender or girls from all over the world battling vampiric fairies). I’ve pondered on it for several months, and it’s been great to see so many authors pondering on it in their blogs, too. Just in the last few days, I’ve found a couple great posts on it by authors R.J. Anderson and Mitali Perkins (Mitali has a lot of great insights into this, as you can see from her blog).

The biggest thing I’ve been pondering is that it seems to me that in children’s and YA fantasy, we’re probably at a smaller percentage of multicultural themes and characters than realistic books (note that I’m conflating race and culture here on purpose—I’m using race and culture in an and/or way). Note how in the CCBC report, they say that “A significant number—well over half—of the books about each broad racial/ethnic grouping are formulaic books offering profiles of various countries around the world.” Of the rest—and I’m just mostly guessing, because they didn’t break it down into realism and fantasy in the multicultural books—but of the rest, I would assume that a large portion of the multicultural books were either nonfiction or realistic fiction, rather than fantasy. I’m not even sure how they broke down “fantasy” and “multicultural”—fantasy with multicultural characters may or may not have been included in the “multicultural” count, for all I know.

My point is that in genre fiction, even more than in realistic fiction, I find (anecdotally—I haven’t actually counted) a significant lack of multicultural characters compared to the portion of the population that is actually multicultural. Given that such a large percentage of authors are white, are we perpetuating a culture of predominantly white fantasy readers because so many books are written from that point of view? Consider Mitali Perkins’ quote from Ursula Le Guin:

“Even when [my characters] aren’t white in the text, they are white on the cover. I know, you don’t have to tell me about sales! I have fought many cover departments on this issue, and mostly lost. But please consider that ‘what sells’ or ‘doesn’t sell’ can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If black kids, Hispanics, Indians both Eastern and Western, don’t buy fantasy—which they mostly don’t—could it be because they never see themselves on the cover?” [my emphasis]

As Ursula Le Guin pointed out many years ago and reinforced when Earthsea was submarined by SciFi, in fantasy worlds not based in our world, our characters can be any shade we like them to be–and the default doesn’t have to be white. (This is not for lack of trying on some authors’ parts—anecdotally, some authors have told me they’ve been asked to change the race of their characters because a white author writing from a black character’s point of view, for example, might be seen as offensive. So there is some ground to cover there.)

So where do we go? How do we become more inclusive in genre fiction for children and young adults? One answer, of course, is to champion the great genre books that are coming out right now with multicultural themes and/or characters—to all readers who might have an interest in them, not just in readers we assume might want to read them because they might have a cultural affinity with them (also something Mitali has covered more in depth; seriously, go read her blog). But it’s much more nuanced than that. What about those white writers who want to include interesting characters from interesting cultures not their own? There’s some great discussion of that in an old thread over at The Enchanted Inkpot that I’d recommend browsing (they’ve also discussed variations of that question since then, and some really interesting things completely unrelated to that, so check it out). Mitali also has a handy checklist of things to consider when writing race.

I think that the more we become aware of this issue as gatekeepers (publishing people, writers, librarians, teachers, parents—in general, the adults in a child’s life that recommend/create books), the more we’ll be in a position to remedy the problem. I’m pretty sure that there isn’t an intrinsic lack of interest in fantasy on the whole, among young people of color (obviously, individual tastes vary!)—but we might be able to interest and engage those readers more fully if fantasy grew to encompass the many and varied cultures and backgrounds this world has to offer. I’d love to see a revival of fairy tale retellings, for example, from Gullah or Creole cultures, or the incorporation of those tales into a modern urban fantasy. I’m excited to read Cindy Pon‘s Silver Phoenix and to see how she incorporates ancient Chinese culture. I just had a great time editing a book for an author of a fantasy based in ancient Korean roots. Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days, a retelling of a Grimm tale but set in a fantasy country inspired by Mongolia, is my favorite of her books (with Goose Girl running a close second). And where is the Latino fantasy? South America had a great magical realism movement, but what about fantasy that connects with a modern young Latino audience and others who are interested in reading about that culture? (Here is where I falter—I can’t think of a single example from that culture. Someone please point me in the right direction.)

ETA: Oo! Oo! I thought of one in a Latino tradition (but well-adapted to a completely original fantasy world): Flora Segunda! Which is one of my favorites of the last few years!

There’s so many rich cultural traditions to draw from, not just the medieval Western European trope we see so often, and I’m excited to see how many authors are engaging in that challenge, no matter their own culture.

As an editor, it’s made me even more aware of this issue in the stories I’m reading for both acquiring and editing purposes. As a writer (which I do occasionally, though often when I have enough work as an editor I find I go months between writing spurts) it’s made me look at my work in progress and find solutions for something that’s been nagging at me for a while: my protagonist has a friend who she wants to be more than just a friend. He’s kind of been this nebulous guy for whom I didn’t have a mental picture, but over the course of the last few months, I’ve really felt more and more that this guy needs to be Asian-American. Well, at least, the people in town think he’s Asian-American (heh, we come to find out he’s actually not even from this world, but you didn’t hear that from me; if I ever actually finish this book, erase that from your mind). Even before I read Mitali’s SLJ article, I wondered the same thing as she did: “When was the last time, on an American TV show or movie, you saw an Asian-American man as the object of attraction?” I hope that I can make this character live as the attractive, hot, intelligent, awesome good friend and love interest that he is in the life of my main character.

I’ve rambled on long enough—I just wanted to get my thoughts on this subject down somewhere and organize them. Well, at least get them down somewhere, I suppose—I’m not so sure on the organization part. But feel free to share your thoughts on this subject in the comments.

7 thoughts on “Portraying people of color in children’s/YA fantasy–are we anywhere near “there” yet?

  1. Stacy,
    What an excellent post! I’ve always loved Ursula LeGuin and a large part due to the fact that she clearly had minorities all over her world, even though movie adaptations completely ignored this part. And thanks for linking to the Enchanted Inkpot! I do think that this is a topic that needs more discussion and awareness!

  2. Wonderful post. Brings up a lot of interesting issues. I think that “multicultural fantasy” falls even father behind than “regular” multicultural books because the term “multicultural” is considered its own genre now. It’s not so ubiquitous to have characters of color that it isn’t considered special. That’s why we (Shen’s Books) are still in business! But the unspoken, or subconscious, belief perhaps is that there’s already a “multicultural” genre, so there’s no need to add any multiculturalism to other genres.

    On an somewhat unrelated note, I think that fantasy and scifi are inherently multicultural! Whether or not the characters are white or not, the worlds that they inhabit are always different from ours, and the reader (and sometimes the characters) feels like the immigrant, or the outsider, learning about new cultures.

  3. Renee, I agree, especially when you’re talking about epic fantasy worlds in which you have different “races”–elves, dwarves, kender, whathaveyou are the stereotypical ways in which fantasy tackles those subjects. But sometimes fantasy can be as much about racial essentialism (kender can’t do magic! elves are close to nature! ogres are evil! etc.) as we are about raising awareness of individual differences. Editing Dragonlance: The New Adventures was a lot of fun because each main character (there were 5 or 6) was a misfit from the racial norm. The outcry among Dragonlance fans about the kender that could do magic, especially, was interesting: the idea that an entire race of people were incapable of concentrating long enough to be able to memorize magic, or even more essentializing, that genetically they were indisposed to being able to even be a conduit for magic, was an interesting “rule” that I loved to thwart.

  4. You are so, my heart, Stacy. Thanks for voicing what those of us trying to say for years.

    Well done!

Comments are closed.