Do Girls of Color Survive Dystopia?

Victoria Law
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Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women

“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?

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44 Comments Have Been Posted

Very interesting subject! I'm

Very interesting subject! I'm a big fan of dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature, both adult and YA.

It's post-apocalyptic, not dystopian, but nonetheless, I recommend the The Fallen World trilogy by Megan Crewe. It's a Canadian young adult series about the onset and aftermath of a pandemic that kills untold people and causes society to fall apart. The main character is a biracial teenage girl, Kaelyn. I think the books (two have been released thus far) are pretty well written, the pace is good, and the storyline is interesting.

Also, I belong to a group on Goodreads called YA Apocalyptic and Dystopian Fiction ( and I know the folks there will be an enormous source of knowledge about further books involving non-White female leads.

thanks for recommending Megan Crewe

I'm reading <i>The Way We Fall</i> right now. It's intense...and fantastic.

Thanks too for the heads up on the Goodreads group. I've just signed up for it. (Just what I need...another on-line way to communicate about books!!!).

I hope that you found Karen

I hope that you found Karen Sandler's Tankborn series. Only the first book is currently out. The book takes a dystopian teen fiction in some very interesting directions and touches on race and caste discrimination.

Coming Soon!

More than a coincidence that I would happen to come across this article! I'm in the process of launching my project, "Beyond Earth Series" in June of 2013 that has seven warriors as the main characters, all of which are of different colors/genders/cultures/backgrounds! I absolutely agree, the YA circuit is very homogenized and I'm hoping that readers will discover my book and embrace the rainbow of protagonists!!!!! Great article!

Parable of the Sower

It's not explicitly a YA book, but Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower features a Black teenage girl (with a Black love interest) and is, arguably, the best dystopian novel ever. It's also frighteningly prescient in its description of the effects of global warming in the American southwest, the growing power of corporations, and the government's increasing inability/disinclination to aid its most vulnerable people.

Look forward to reading more on this topic!

Yes! Seconded!

I was totally going to recommend Butler's Parable of the Sower. It's one of the best YA books that I've read in a very long time.


I finished "Parable of the Talents" a few months ago and both of those books are amazing. I don't know if a 12-year-old would like them as much, though.

I loved the Parable books

I loved the Parable books when I read them as a teenager; I think I was 13 or 14. I don't see why a 12 year old wouldn't like them.

Parable of the Sower, Talents

Having taught 6th - 8th grade gifted students, and having taken many of them to a writers' conference to hear Octavia Butler (in late 1990s), I can vouch for the interest in and excitement over these works by young readers. If you know your child or your students well enough to gauge their maturity, intellect and if you are aware, as noted below, of potential triggers, I see no reason bright and eager readers should not be directed to these classic works.

Butler’s Parable books are

Butler’s Parable books are among the few works of fiction I’ve ever read more than once. Her work deserves, much, much, more attention. For me, she stands among the handful of “greats” in sci-fi and speculative fiction.

Given the incidents of physical violence and sexual violence in the Parable books, I caution folks to evaluate carefully before offering them to younger teens. Trigger warnings are appropriate. That said, all such content is very fitting to the story and does not turn the main characters into “helpless damsels”.

Have you read this?

Have you and your daughter read <em><a href="" target="_blank">The Way We Fall</a></em> by Megan Crewe and it's sequel <em>The Lives We Lost</em>? They feature a biracial protagonist, who has a black mother and white father, and there is a secondary character who is Asian. I highly recommend them, and personally, am looking forward to the final novel in the series, <em>The Worlds We Make</em>. Hope you enjoy them.

How do you know the colour of

How do you know the colour of the main character? Not critique, just wondering.

PROPHECY by Ellen Oh isn't a

PROPHECY by Ellen Oh isn't a dystopian YA novel, but it's a really great introduction to this fantasy series with a female POC lead set in an Asian world.

The City of Devi by Manil

The City of Devi by Manil Suri is a post-apocalyptic novel that takes place in India. Not YA, but still a good read.

Color in YA fiction

I was so glad when my friend showed me this article. As a woman who is mixed race, it's HARD to find characters who look like me or share similar cultural/ethnic backgrounds, which is unfortunate and frankly unrealistic, with the ethnic trends in the United States (last year, people of color out-birthed whites).

When there was fan casting for Finnick O'dair in Catching Fire, Jesse Williams, who is bi-racial, was featured as a candidate. Many fans were saying "Finnick isn't black! Finnick isn't bi-racial, his last name is O'dair!" But I responded by stating that it wouldn't be unrealistic, especially in the near future, for someone of mixed race to have an Irish last name like O'dair. That is where the future is headed most likely, hopefully, and it would be nice to read more YA books that've come to that realization.

Can't wait to read more of your blogs!

The Hunger Games

Totally agree on Finnick! "The Hunger Games" movies have definitely beenwhitewashed, imho. When I read the books, long before the movies were even cast, I definitely pictured members from The Seam as coming from a mixed background, given their mix of features, and as such I pictured Katniss as coming from a mixed background (white mother, mixed father). All for a number of reasons: 1. As you pointed out, it's the future, it's not unrealistic that racial backgrounds would have mixed even further 2. Collins seems like a smart lady and so I doubt it's a coincidence—even if she did sort of backtrack in defense of the movie's casting to say, "[Katniss and Gale] were not particularly intended to be biracial. It is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing."—that she gave the members of the Seam, which exists in the area of Appalachia, features matching an actual Appalachian tri-racial group ("Melungeons" of mixed European, African, and Native American descent) 3. given that Collins made it a thing to point out the differences between more ethnically ambiguous members of The Seam and the <i>definitely</i> pale-skinned blonde-haired blue-eyed members of the Merchant class, to me it was obvious that the Merchant class was supposed to be coded as white-and-privileged-because-of-it (not to mention the citizens of the Capital who dye their skin and hair weird colors like purple and what it means to be so privileged you CAN choose to change your skin color) and the members of the Seam were coded as "other"; which fits in with overall themes of privileged and systematic oppression.

Good ol' breaks it down further.


While I think a guy basically named Finn O'Dare certainly has connotations of Irishness, there's really no indication of his color in the book that I recall, and besides, these are probably the same jackwagons who complained about Rue being black, despite the fact that she was in the book. And, as was mentioned, Katniss is several shades whiter than the book had her.

As glad as I am about Jeffrey Wright playing Beetee in the film series, I was rather hoping for Tony Shalhoub, as his famously ethnically-vague features actually match the way so many characters are described in the book. But honestly, at this point, it's probably better to have an unambiguous person of color on screen.

A name is not always an indication of race

LOL! My husband has an incredibly traditional Irish name, but doesn't look anything like his red-headed, fair-skinned Irish dad. He looks like his Syrian mom. People can be so silly.

I'm looking forward to this

I'm looking forward to this series! Like Zetta, I also keep lists of diverse books. My lists are broken down by genre and age group. Here's my YA science fiction list, which is mostly dystopia and postapocalyptic, given the market: I also keep lists of fantasy, mystery, and realism starring people of color for middle grade and young adult age groups.

I find that for diverse books, sometimes the biggest challenge is discoverability. Bookstores, especially the chains, are focusing more and more on the bestsellers, which leaves a lot of the midlist squeezed out of shelf space. A lot of books published starring people of color are published by smaller publishers like mine or are part of a large list in a big publisher and get lost in the shuffle. It can be a challenge to find them among all the titles being given all the buzz. That's one of the reasons I keep my book lists.

Someone has already mentioned Karen Sandler's TANKBORN, which I edited, but I'd also add that the sequel, AWAKENING, is out this April, and we also have DIVERSE ENERGIES, which is an anthology of short stories starring people of color in dystopian settings. I saw on Twitter that you're reading FRAGMENTS by Dan Wells, too. I loved PARTIALS and have the sequel sitting here next to me right now. Very excited about it.

Oh the irony

It's ironic that I would read this of all things when, a few days ago, I ended up grabbing a YA dystopian novel (Orleans by Sherri L. Smith) I might have otherwise waited for paperback on specifically because there was a black girl on the cover. Other than that... charming... insult to Japanese culture that was Stormdancer (which admittedly would have been a wonderful novel if the author had actually done his homework on Japanese language and culture) I realized that afternoon that I'd never really seen a PoC on the cover of a book. I hadn't even realized it was something literature was lacking until then. (Yay for being socially colorblind. -_-) Curiosity and no small amount of happiness made me grab it because any variation in the normal formula is something that I truly love to find.

Admittedly, I haven't read it yet, but the story itself did seem interesting and it's got four and a half stars on goodreads, so I'm really looking forward to it. I'll be keeping an eye out for others as well. Every negative review I've found so far seems to involve a complaint about there not being romance (which is one hell of a bonus for me, personally, as I'm sick of the creepy vibe I get from most romantic subplots lately) so that gives me a lot of hope as well.

I wonder if Saba from Blood

I wonder if Saba from Blood Red Road, The Dust Lands trilogy, will be mentioned in the blog series. If I can recall, I read so much dystopia some of the characters tend to merge together, she is a woman of color and she of course kicks ass.

So looking forward to this!!

Yes! As a hopeless fan of everything sci-fi since girlhood, from Philip K. Dick to dystopian concept albums like NIN's <i>Year Zero</i> or <i>the Hunger Games</i>, I'm so interested to hear where girls of color fit in from a reader. Shoshanna of <i>Inglorious Basterds</i> would the only Jewish female protagonist I could find portrayed on Netflix if I logged on right now and scrolled down, which is a total bummer for me personally.

It seems that representations of girls of color in dystopian narratives have to cross into the B-movie territory, or writers mist exploit their "exoticism" and obvious "martial arts lethality" (gag), casting them as villains who are all killed off after a sexualized tussle (not that Tarantino isn't parody and nod to the exploitation genre films). But I can't even come up with any serious representations in YA because I had no hope they existsed. On the flipside, the film throwbacks (like <i>Beyond the Black Rainbow</i> or any zombie plot) point out how most WASP girls are etherized, distressed, helpless and/or comely, while girls of color in dystopia have survival skills based solely on the context of misappropriated cultural stereotypes.

When the world does and, ALL girl to the front. Can't wait for the next installment.

I'm a teenager and your

I'm a teenager and your daughter might like Legend by Marie Lu, which has an Asian American protagonist and love interest. It's a dystopian retelling of Les Miserables, and it's quite good. I read religiously and even I can't think of a YA book with a black girl hero. When I grow up, I'll write one.

Why wait?

Why wait? You can start writing now. :)

I just finished reading

I just finished reading <a href="">Shadows Cast By Stars by Catherine Knuttson</a>, which is dystopian YA SF about a Metis character in a future where aboriginal people are the only ones with the antibodies to the plague that's sweeping through the world. It veers off more into folklore and mythology than strict SF, but I'd still definitely call it a dystopia.

more suggestions Okorafor & Redick

<p><a href="">Nnedi Okorafor</a> is pretty great and not just POC characters but full immersion in a non-European/settler world it's pretty great stuff.

</p><p>Also Robert VS Redick's <a href="">Chathrand Voyage </a> series has an interesting collection of characters mixing gender, race/ethnicity and species in creative ways. </p><p>

Both worth checking out</p>

It's a magic/fantasy world,

It's a magic/fantasy world, rather than dystopia, but the Circle of Magic Series by Tamora Pierce (and it's subsequent sequel series and books) feature people of color as both the protagonists and supportive characters.

thanks for all the reading recommendations!!!

Hey all,

I'm super-excited to see that readers are looking forward to the series. And thank you for the book recommendations. I'd never read, or even heard of, most of these titles or authors before. I've just placed several of them on hold at my local public library and look forward to delving into them when I return stateside.

I'm currently in Hong Kong visiting family (and eating lots of good food). Sadly, I haven't come across any English language dystopia that's different from what's available in bookstores in the U.S. (I have yet to go to the enormous central library in Causeway Bay though) If anyone has recommendations on where I might find English language YA dystopia (set in Hong Kong or other parts of Asia) or authors whose works might be more readily available in Asia than in the States, please let me know!

And look for blog post #2 later this week!

More leads on YA with diverse characters

In case you haven't heard of us, Diversity in YA is a project started by me and my friend and fellow YA author Cindy Pon. We highlight only YA books with diverse characters: characters of color, LGBT and disabled characters. You can find us on tumblr now at It can certainly be harder to find YA with main characters of color than with white characters, but they do exist! There is hope!

You might especially like this list we recently posted on YA books with multiracial main characters:

Happy reading!

Thank you for this series!

<p>It's great to see that this conversation happening about Girls of Color in Dystopia. It's definitely an issue that needs to be dialogued more before we see change. I was going to recommend LEGEND by Marie Lu to you, as the protagonist is bi-racial--Mongolian and Russian--but I see another post already has. There's also THE SUMMER PRINCE by Alaya Dawn Johnson. That's one is a brand new release that is set in a future Brazil and features all characters of color! Over at we examine diversity issues in children's and YA lit so we will definitely promote your articles and are so excited to see you writing about this topic!</p>

thanks for recommending The Summer Prince!

My reserve finally came in at the local library and wow, it's gorgeous! Thanks for recommending it. Trying to figure out how to do justice to all that it contains in one short(ish) blogpost!

And thanks for promoting the blog series on Ink & Pen. (I hadn't realized that E.L. Konigsberg had recently passed away! I lovedlovedloved her books as a kid.)

I'm so excited for this

I'm so excited for this series! I just started, and our mission is to promote YA books by/about PoC. (We have an upcoming release calendar that we're trying to fill, too.) I've always been an avid reader (and watcher) of SFF, and the lack of diversity in it has bothered me more and more as I got older. I'm thrilled to see that other people are trying to raise the discoverability of books starring PoC.


This is something that keeps coming up over and over again. I have decided to make it (and books that address it) a regular part of my blog. In the search for diversity in books, I discovered Tu Books, a family owned publishing company that seeks to focus on diversity in science fiction for young adult. They are the company responsible for Diverse Energies. I specifically look for their books to review, and will be focusing on the current titles in the upcoming month. They are a good resource. If I find the link to the article that discusses white washing, I will post the link here. I look forward to following this topic!

I love Tu Books!

I came across them by chance when I was looking for vampire of color books when my daughter was really interested in vampire books. I was horrified by the overwhelming whiteness of the books she was finding at the library and, aside from Octavia Butler's <i>Fledgling</i>, which is not a YA book, couldn't think of any vampire of color novels. Somehow I came across Joseph Bruchac's <i>Wolf Mark</i> and discovered Tu Books. I was (and still am) super happy that there is a publisher focusing on diversity in YA sci-fi.

Did you find Team Human by

Did you find Team Human by Justine Larbalestier? I don't think any of the vampires are PoC, but the protagonist is Chinese-American.

I just now found this series

I just now found this series and I'm excited to see this discussed. The lack of diversity in YA, and especially dystopian YA, is addressed in some circles (we discussed it extensively in library school), but it really doesn't get enough mainstream attention. Occasionally you'll see one of the bigger authors like Collins or Rowling criticized, but theirs are far from the only books with this issue. Putting together reading recommendations lists for the youth visiting libraries can be so frustrating. I would recommend checking out YALSA. They've put together some pretty great lists.

On a related not, as a (white, straight, cis-gendered) writer, I often worry about how to present diverse characters without sounding disingenuous or condescending or like I'm trying to usurp the experiences of others. I've read so many books where the people of color or the gay characters were treated as tokens or written in such a way that you could almost hear the author screaming "Look guys! Look how diverse my book is! Fuck everyone who says it isn't!" These were just as bad as not including them at all. I think a lot of that does stem from the fact that YA is so overwhelmingly white that it's harder to find good, well-written examples of non-white characters. Writers are influenced and learn from other writers; if authors experienced more diverse works, they'd be able to more easily write diverse works.

The Bridge by Jane Higgins features POC in a Dystopic society

This is a really good article! I was lucky enough to have been raised by a mother who actively pursued literature, art, and toys that were reflective of my culture, so I can attest to the benefit of reading about people of color in books that you choose. As an avid reader myself, I find that I am continually searching for inclusion and representation of what North American society is really comprised of, in my reading materials.

It's been difficult, and as much I'm used to not finding it, I am still always missing "something"...

I recommend the Bridge for a YA dystopic novel with POC. It's a excellent book, written by a very interesting author.

I would also recommend Dan Wells partials series:

wow, im glad someone is

wow, im glad someone is shedding light!

Girls of Color are surviving!

Loved this post, because as a womyn of color, and a budding librarian, with a giant love for sci-fi, dystopia and the post apocalyse featuring girls of color, I know this search all too well. Here are some of my favorites!

In the Heart of the Valley of Love- Cynthia Kadohata
Halfworld- Hiromi Goto
The Parable of the Sower- Octavia E. Butler
The Parable of the Talents- Octavia E. Butler
Wildseed- Octavia E. Butler
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (series)- N.K. Jemisin
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind-Hayao Miyazaki (graphic novel series)

Also, I've been enjoyed E. Lily Yu's speculative fiction stories (below is The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees)

This website seems to have some awesome short story links of Asian American (in specific) specultative fiction authors-- where there are speculative fiction, there will be dystopia!

Hope this helps! Happy reading!

Ann Matsushima Chiu

Great idea!

I'm so excited about the direction science fiction & fantasy seems to be headed in. While a lot of work still needs to be done, I feel that there's increasingly more openness to stories about people of color. I'm excited, then, to read this series!

Characters Of Colour :)

I myself am biracial (white & pacific islander & proud to be). Last year I was on a mission to find a good book/series with a protagonist of colour. The series I came across was the Partials Sequence by Dan Wells. This is a three book series set in a post apocalyptic America.The lead character's name is Kira Walker & she is of Indian decent, but to my surprise the whole cast of characters is VERY multicultural. From the Latino boyfriend, South American best friend who has an Irish Mother to her own Indian adoptive Mother & white adoptive sisters & one sister is married to an Asian man. I thoroughly enjoyed this series & the multiculturalism in it just made it THAT much more interesting to read. A MUST READ :)

I really hope that people go & give this series a try, It is a great story that is very well written. Kira is a very strong, smart & independent young woman of colour (she is a medic). This series needs much more fandom than it has.


Thanks everyone, I hope you all have a great day.

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