As you may know, this past year I embarked upon a thorough diversity audit of our high school library (read about my diversity audit here). The data the audit yielded has been completely invaluable to me, particularly in my collection development efforts, but also in helping me easily and quickly find titles to include in my book lists, book buffets, readers advisory, etc.
One of the best results I’ve seen is that, because I’ve been very transparent about the audit and the reasons for it, students have started to be more outgoing about asking me for help finding books featuring specific types of representation. Hearing and seeing me talk so matter-of-factly about how much effort I put into developing a library with as much representation as possible has empowered students to realize that they deserve and want to read books that reflect themselves or aspects of their identities they are interested in exploring.
And this beautiful, incredible, important change has also spotlighted for me a major issue in YA publishing. Because when BIPOC boys, especially straight and cis BIPOC boys, ask me for YA Fantasy or SciFi or Mystery books featuring a BIPOC boy as the main character, well, I don’t have many options to give them. Because apparently the publishing industry does not think its important to publish YA fantasy, sci-fi, or mystery books that feature BIPOC boys as the main characters.
Please note I am specifically discussing YA books, meaning books featuring a main character who is age 14-18 or which is marketed specifically for YA. MG is another topic of discussion entirely and this issue does not seem to be AS pronounced in MG, though it too certainly still could use much improvement.
When I realized I had so few options to offer my students, I looked at my diversity audit data to confirm. Since I had the foresight to include genre info in my diversity audit I am able to run my data both as a whole collection AND break it down by genre. So I was able to see clearly that out of 500+ Fantasy books, we had only two books featuring BIPOC boys as the main POV character. We had perhaps 2-3 more who had dual perspective or ensemble cast characters who were BIPOC boys.
Out of 500+ Sci-Fi books, we had only 2 books featuring BIPOC boy as the main character.
Out of 136 Mystery books, we have 0 books featuring a BIPOC boy as the main character.
Side note: This blog post is focused specifically on BIPOC boy representation in YA fantasy, sci-fi, and mystery but I do want to add this side note: This lack of representation is not seen to the same extent in YA realistic fiction. YA realistic fiction featuring BIPOC boys as main POV characters still isn’t really prevalent, but it occurs a little more frequently than it does in fantasy, sci-fi, or mystery. Unfortunately, even in realistic fiction, it is still common for books with BIPOC boy main characters to be found mostly in adversity fiction or sport fiction. Its much less common to find this representation in happy, light-hearted, joyful, or humor realistic fiction books. Even in realistic fiction we still need publishers to provide way more representation where BIPOC boys are the main characters but are not dealing solely with racism, discrimination, or oppression topics. BIPOC boys might also like to see themselves grappling with normal and joyful things such as trying to get into the college of their dreams, dealing with their first summer job, sibling rivalry, living up to or bucking your parents expectations, and first loves.
Ok back to the fantasy, sci-fi, mystery genre discussion.
When I first noticed the lack of fantasy/sci-fi/mystery books with BIPOC boys as the main POV characters in our library, the first thing I thought was “well maybe its me, maybe this is a sign of my own biases when purchasing books.”
This is part of why I think a diversity audit, a thorough audit, is so critical. We can think we are buying diversely, we can be absolutely certain that we are doing a good job of buying books with wide variety of representations, but until you have the data in front of you, you just cant be sure. Without the data (put the science back in library science!) its difficult to be absolutely sure we are overcoming our own unconscious biases when we are selecting books for purchase.
So I initially figured the problem was me, and I immediately got online and started sifting through the tools I use for collection development to find some fantasy/sci-fi/mystery books with BIPOC boy main characters. I figured I’d create a list of titles to purchase and this would be an easy problem to fix within our collection.
And that’s when I realized that books like this just aren’t really being published.
I realized that in this instance the problem was not my unconscious biases causing me to fail to purchase these books but rather the problem is that Publishing Industry is choosing by and large not to publish these books at all.
Over the last few months I have spent hours upon hours scouring the web to try to find as many YA appropriate books as possible that feature BIPOC boys of color as the main characters. I’ve looked through literally hundreds of lists, website, catalogs, blog posts, social media posts/threads/videos and I’ve still managed to find only a tiny number of books that fit this need. I have started to find some adult books that fit this need but sometimes they aren’t suitable for our high school library, usually due to the size of the books. A lot of the adult fantasy and sci-fi books are like 500+ pages long and while I don’t mind adding books with adult themes to our library sometimes, I rarely will purchase it if its more than 400 pages. Most of my students won’t check out books that large, they gravitate towards books in the 300-350 page range.
My List of BIPOC Boy Main Characters in YA Fantasy, Sci-Fi, & Mystery
This article by Suy Davies Okungbowa is great, focus on Black boy rep in YA fantasy/sci-fi and the following article by Steven Underwood is also excellent.
This whole issue of the lack of BIPOC boy main characters in YA fiction is so frustrating, and I’m just another white woman. I literally cannot imagine how it feels to be a BIPOC boy. And then we all wonder why teenage boys don’t seem to want to read that much. Well jeeze, could it be because after MG the publishing industry basically abandons them and erases them for the next 5 years? For example, at our HS we have a lot of East Asian and Southeast Asian boys who are almost entirely unable to see themselves represented in YA fiction, especially fantasy, sci-fi, or mystery, because I’ve been largely unable to find such books featuring Asian boy main POV characters.
And this whole conversation isn’t even bringing in the #ownvoices specification. If you think its hard to find books featuring BIPOC boys as the main characters, wait until you try to find these books actually written #ownvoices by a BIPOC male author. Even more rare.
We desperately need to see publishers providing more BIPOC boy main characters. I’m hoping other librarians, booksellers, and readers will take up this call to action with me and start tweeting and emailing & generally bothering publishers about this lack. . If we are loud enough, perhaps we can help nudge publishers into waking up and realizing that BIPOC teen boys don’t only want to see themselves represented in stories about trauma, oppression, racism, bigotry, or sports. That BIPOC teen boys want to see themselves fighting dragons, saving kingdoms, overthrowing dystopian empires, discovering magic, and solving crimes, too.
**Please note: I know I did not talk specifically about the lack of representation of BIPOC girl main characters or of queer main characters in this blog post, not because I don’t think that is extremely important, because I do. I personally have struggled most with finding books featuring male BIPOC main characters and that is why that is the focus of this particular blog post.