“I’m looking for a book for my 12-year-old daughter. She likes dystopic fiction,” I said not too long ago to the clerk in a children’s bookstore. As her eyes began to scan the wall of Teen Fiction, I added, “With people of color as the protagonists.”
“I feel you,” sympathized the clerk, who was also a woman of color.
As an avid reader in the 1980s and early 1990s, I didn’t notice that the characters in the novels I devoured never looked like me. It also never occurred to me that most of the characters were White. Occasionally there was a Black character. Occasionally there was a series based on the lives of a Black family (I remember being assigned to read Mildred Taylor’s classic Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in fifth or sixth grade and then, on my own, reading the rest of the trilogy). But, with the exception of Claudia Kishi in the Babysitters Club series, I don’t recall finding any Asian girl protagonists on the shelves of the classroom or the local library.
More than twenty years later, as the mom of a biracial 12-year-old bookworm, I often look at the shelves of any YA or Teen section and wonder, “Where are all the protagonists of color?” As an Asian mama raising a Hapa (half Asian-Pacific American) daughter, I especially wonder where the girls of color are. To be sure, there seem to be more books with young women of color now compared to a couple of decades ago. But these don’t seem to extend into the dystopian and speculative fiction novels that my daughter brings home. Most still have White girls in the starring roles. Many still have no characters of color; the handful that do seem to cast them as minor (and forgettable) characters.
My daughter often recommends that I read the books that she’s just finished (and really likes). As I read them, I’ve noticed that, much more often than not, the protagonist is White. If there are characters of color, they’re relegated to the background. There are some exceptions, such as Nalo Hopkinson’s The Chaos, but by and large, those books are lost in the sea of White faces (and hands and body parts) in the YA section. Another exception, the YA anthology Diverse Energies, published in November 2012, was declared “out of stock” by its publisher one month after its release.
That day in the children’s bookstore, the clerk found three books with young men of color as protagonists. However, she warned, the female protagonists/love interests for those books were White. “Hmmm,” we wondered. “Where are the girls of color in dystopia?”
This two-month blog series, Girls of Color in Dystopia, is an exploration of race and gender in YA dystopian lit. I’ll be writing not only about books that I’ve found while perusing the YA shelves in bookstores, but also some of the books that my daughter has brought home from her school library. Since pitching this series to Bitch, we’ve been talking about race and gender in the books we’ve been reading. My daughter has also recommended a few books featuring prominent characters of color who have been whitewashed on the book covers. After all, no matter how terrible and oppressive these futuristic worlds have become, shouldn’t readers of color, both young and old(er), still be able to see themselves as part of that future rather than totally wiped off the planet?