Young Adult Books Too Often Present a World Without People of Color

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

delirium cover, featuring a pretty white girl

The first and only time I ever read George Orwell’s 1984 was during my senior year in high school. I haven’t thought much about it since. Then my daughter brought home Lauren Oliver’s Delirium from her middle school library and enthusiastically recommended that I read it. Delirium kicked off a very popular YA series—Fox just bought the rights to turn the trilogy into a TV pilot

Delirium is like a 1984 for tweens. But, reading it as a mother of color with a biracial daughter (and rereading it to examine how Oliver addresses issues of race and gender), I noticed that, like so many other YA books, the author creates a future society populated almost entirely by white people. Did Oliver intend to do that? Probably not, but that’s one of the benefits of whiteness in the U.S.–one doesn’t have to consciously think about race in their creations. 

In the books, seventeen-year-old Lena fully believes what she has been told all her life. She lives in a society where romantic love is considered a disease called Deliria nervosa. The cure for deliria is an operation on the brain. Lena looks forward to the day when she’ll undergo surgery that will cure her of the deliria disease. “I don’t like to think that I’m still walking around with the disease running through my blood. Sometimes I swear I can feel it writhing in my veins like something spoiled, like sour milk,” she narrates early in the story. 

Lena’s an orphan because her mother had a tricky case of deliria. Even after undergoing the operation to cure deliria three times, her mom remained full of love. Rather than submit to yet another operation, she committed suicide when Lena was six and the girl was packed off to live with their aunt Carol.

In this post-love world, an all-powerful government controls the lives of its citizens. Every seventeen-year-old appears before a group of evalators that decide their future: their college, their career, and who they’ll marry, how many children they’ll have are all pre-determined. They are expected to undergo the love cure once they reach eighteen.

Lena’s life looks like it will be on track. Then comes Alex.

And here come the parallels with 1984. Meeting Alex changes Lena’s views on love and the life that has been laid out for her. She begins to want more. And then she finds out that Alex is part of a resistance movement known as the Invalids. Living outside the electrified fences of towns and cities, the Invalids don’t see love as a disease. Every few years, they sneak into the city to stage a protest.

If you’ve had to read 1984 in high school, you can guess at the rest of the plot. I won’t spoil it. Now let’s talk about race.

Granted, Delirium is set in an alternate Portland, Maine. The real Portland is fairly white; according to the 2011 U.S. Census, 85 percent of the town’s population is white. So perhaps we can excuse Lauren Oliver for not having a single person of color in her book. Every character that Oliver describes is white: Lena is white. Alex is white. Lena’s best friend Hana is not only white, but fairly affluent. The boy whom Lena is assigned to marry is white (and a pale white at that). Even the prison guards are white.

But then we get to Oliver’s sequel, Pandemonium, which is set partially in New York City. Do we begin to see the racial and ethnic diversity once Lena hits the big city? Nope. Somehow, curing deliria seems to also have eliminated racial and ethnic diversity. When Lena attends a meeting of Deliria-Free America, the auditorium is filled with 2000 people whom she describes as “rows of half-moon faces, pale, bloated, fearful, and grateful—the faces of the cured.” She does not mention passing anyone with darker skin or ethnic features on the streets. It’s as if people of color have somehow disappeared.

Or maybe they all went underground and joined the Invalids. Among the band of Invalids that Lena meets, a few are racially and ethnically ambiguous. Raven is described only by her dark hair. A woman named Miyako is never physically described. Tack, who initially dislikes Lena, is only described peripherally during a celebration—Lena notes that his brown hands are around Raven’s waist as he helps her down. But even that can be clutching at straws.

Oliver’s finale to the trilogy, Requiem, came out in early March. Judging by the number of holds at the New York Public Library, it seems to be eagerly anticipated. (I’m number 36 of 57 holds at the moment. Luckily, the library has 83 copies.) Given the trilogy’s popularity, I’m more than a little sad and disappointed that readers of color, especially enthusiastic readers like my daughter, fail to see themselves reflected in a storyline that obviously appeals to them in so many other ways.

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10 Comments Have Been Posted

I said this on Twitter but I

I said this on Twitter but I was asked to relay this here.

While this is not a YA science fiction novel, one of the worst example of a white washing of a science fiction novel happened about twenty to twenty five years ago. The main character of <i>Dawn</i> by Octavia Butler was a black woman. Yet the cover renders her as white. And, yes, if you read the novel, you can recognize the scene.

Reading sci-fi as a black

Reading sci-fi as a black kid, I naturally gravitated to Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney because they were the only Black sci-fi writers I knew about who consistently wrote Black and Brown main characters. That was nearly twenty years ago. Hopefully there are more Black sci-fi writers now. But if publishers are white-washing covers of books with whole worlds of mostly Brown characters...I don't even know how to respond to that.

Will you be discussing Save

Will you be discussing Save the Pearls? There's a LOT to talk about with that one.

I'm glad to see someone

I'm glad to see someone bringing this up. I've seen it prevail throughout dystopian YA recently, like with Matched, Divergent & The Selection (although the latter 2 have been really excellent in diversifying the casts for the TV & film adaptations).

I just recently discovered

I just recently discovered Octavia Butler's writing, and I love it. Although I am white myself, I work in a VERY diverse school, and seeing my kids' races represented in her stories gives me hope. Makes my worlds of fiction look like the living world I love so much.

Ursula Le Guin

If you haven't discovered her yet, Ursula Le Guin consistently writes about non-whites (although as usual often the covers are whitewashed - urgh). She's still putting out books, but has been writing since the 70s, and she is in my opinion one of the best sci-fi and fantasy writers out there.


I've only read the first of this series. Being white myself, I didn't really notice the lack of diversity - I didn't give the book a very analytical read. But I'm a writer too. I'd like to make sure my books are diverse in a way that reflects my community (Vancouver Canada) or the community in which they are set.

Can you give me an example of how Miyako might have been described? We've been told that food metaphors are out (so no almond eyes and olive skin). In a dystopian culture, ethnic descriptors such as "Chinese" or "African-American" might not make sense anymore. I remember a boy once telling me he was "Babylonian" (he was from Iraq) which felt a bit ex-contemporaneous.

This is a genuine concern for me because I feel that people are talking about this issue at crossed purposes. ON one we are told "white writers shouldn't write non white characters" (WTF?) or given very restrictive guidelines on HOW to portray non white characters (no food metaphors for example) but also told our books need to be more diverse.

I absolutely agree that young readers of color need to be able to see themselves in books. My last book had a Caribbean-Canadian protagonist. My next has a Palestinian love interest. I'm committed to this. It's a shame when writers as popular as Lauren Oliver drop the ball.

I def don't agree that white writers shouldn't write non-white

characters. (WTF indeed)

I don't write fiction, but I do read a LOT of it. There are white writers who have written protagonists of color without resorting to stereotypes or cliches. Neil Gaiman's <i>Anansi Boys</i> is one example. (Two side notes--in an old blog post, Gaiman recalls a book event or convention or some such thing in which he met Caribbean-Canadian sci-fi writer Nalo Hopkinson who thanked him for not attempting to write <i>Anansi Boys</i> in patois. Nalo Hopkinson, in a recent interview (I *think* it was <a href="">this one</a>), said that some movie or TV company wanted to make a movie of Gaiman's <i>Anansi Boys</i> but wanted to make all of the characters white because they didn't think audiences would be interested otherwise. Gaiman pulled out of the deal.)

Pearl S. Buck, who lived in China, is another example.

Dan Wells's <i>Partials</i> is full of characters of color.

Katherine Paterson wrote <i>Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom</i> which is entirely set in China and is about the Boxer Rebellion even though she is, as far as I know, not Chinese.

I know that you asked *how* I would describe a character, not books by white authors with protagonists of color, but since I don't write fiction, I don't feel like I can give you a good answer. (However, if you ever want to know about shackling incarcerated pregnant women while in labor and delivery or atrocious prison conditions, I can give you a much more detailed answer).

And, of course, read how writers of color describe themselves and/or their characters to get a sense as to what works and what doesn't.

Thanks for not shying away from writing characters of color and for seeking to do so in ways that don't alienate or perpetuate stereotypes.

Jesus, I DO want to know

Jesus, I DO want to know about "shackling incarcerated pregnant women while in labor and delivery or atrocious prison conditions"

Lately I've been very interested in juvenile justice (research for an as yet ill defined book) so I'm interested in it all. Did you write about this?

where to begin with atrocious prison conditions?

Oh jeez...well, let's see, currently 32 states (in the United States) have no legislation forbidding the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women while they are in labor and delivery. I've also been told that Ontario also has no legislation forbidding the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women and that the prison system in Ontario DOES shackle and chain women even during labor and delivery.

For more about shackling and reproductive justice (or the lack thereof) in adult women's prisons, see <a href="">the Birthing Behind Bars site</a>.

My usual writing focus is on <a href="">gender, incarceration and resistance </a>, but usually focusing on adults (and usually adult women). I can send along links if you'd like, but again, my usual focus is adults who are either incarcerated or criminalized.

I'm not as tuned into what's happening in juvenile facilities, but I do know that advocates in Maryland are pushing for legislation that would prevent the shackling of pregnant women AND GIRLS while they are in labor and delivery:

Maryland had a hearing about proposed anti-shackling legislation a couple of months ago. Apparently, an official from the Department of Juvenile Justice (which is responsible for juvenile prisons) was at the hearing and tried to justify shackling girls who had just given birth by saying that, because they're post-partum, they might be depressed enough to run away!

Also, you may want to check out the on-line archives of Youth Communication, which has several stories related to juvenile justice in the U.S.--both teens reporting on juvenile justice and firsthand accounts:

And, for advocates' reports about juvenile justice in NYC and New York State, the Correctional Association has a Juvenile Justice project:

For Illinois, you can check out Project NIA's Youth Justice Data Project:

Also, check out Women & Prison: A Site for Resistance:

(There are many many more, but my brain is not working as it should. Hopefully this will give you a good start)

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