NYT Bestsellers So White?

Representation has an incredible effect on the general populations. Media can take a story about a group of people facing different hardships and make a huge audience care about them. Books like “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson or movies like “Trevor” are proof of the power that media really has. Unfortunately, many prominent groups of people have little to no representation, especially in the more popular movies and tv shows. Some people would argue that that’s because audiences’ don’t want to see more diverse casts in what they’re watching, however studies have shown that there’s a correlation between more diversity and higher profits.

Despite the evidence that shows that diversity is good for sales, there’s still a stunning lack of diversity in TV and movies. This debate has gotten national attention for the second year in a row because of the Oscar nominations. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite went viral on twitter in 2015 when the nominations came out and there was a stunning lack the racial diversity. It went viral again in 2016 when for the second year in a row the Oscar nominations lacked diversity again. In 2016, all of the nominations for Best Actor/Actress in a Leading Role and Best Actor/Actress in a Supporting Role were white. The Mirror posted an article last year about the Oscar nominations which included this graphic showing the breakdown of racial diversity:


There are quite a few reasons people think that there’s such little diversity in nominations:

  1. A lot of the judges are white, so it makes sense that there wouldn’t be a ton of diversity in the nominees. I do think that the racial breakup of the judges is a cause of a lack of diversity, however I do not think it should be an excuse. 
  2. Most movies aren’t very diverse, so the nominees are going to reflect that. While this is also mostly true, there were still many amazing movies staring people of color that were neglected. Just in 2016; Creed, Beasts of No Nation, Straight Outta Compton, and Concussion all featured excellent performances by people of color and none got a nomination. 
  3. People don’t want to see movies with diverse casts. This one is more perpetuated by the production companies than by the general public and it’s already been addressed further up in this blog post.

A lot of the reasons that people give are very valid, however they ignore the problem with a lack of diversity. Children understand the world around them from their experiences, and media enforces them and provides a broader context for these experiences. When the only people you portray as being successful, happy, or even worthwhile only represent a small part of the population, children accept that as part of how they understand the world.

What I want to know is: if movies have this level of problem with diversity, how do books fair? I’m going to look at the race and the gender of both the author of the book and the main character(s) for the top 10 New York Times Best Sellers in the Young Adult category.

  1. If I Stay by Gale Forman: Gale Forman is a white woman who’s doing quite well on the charts with the #1 and #2 spots. If I Stay‘s main character Mia is also a white woman.
  2. Where She Went by Gale Forman: Where She Went is the sequel to If I Stay, but is told from Mia’s romantic interest’s point of view. Adam is white man.
  3. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: John Green is a very popular YA author and has the next three spots in the NYT Bestseller list. John Green is a white male and the main character, Hazel Grace Lancaster, is a white female.
  4. Looking For Alaska by John Green: The main character, Pudge, is a white male. I’ve read this book before and there is a more diverse supporting cast. However, John Green’s books have garnered some amount of criticism, specifically this one and Paper Towns, about how he writes women.
  5. Paper Towns by John Green: Quentin and Margo are the two main characters and they are both white.
  6. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell: Rainbow Rowell is a white woman who wrote a love story between a white boy and girl. I’m beginning to see a pattern…
  7. Girl, Online by Zoe Sugg: Zoe Sugg is a white woman who wrote a love story between a white boy and girl.
  8. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand: Laura Hillenbrand is a white woman, who, in a stunning turn of events, wrote a book about a white boy that isn’t also a love story! It focuses on Louie Zamperini’s life and specifically about what happened to him during World War Two.
  9. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs: This book written by a white man is an adventure that follows the main character Jacob Portman, who is also a white man.
  10. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: Cadence Easton, a white woman, is the main character of We Were Liars, which is written by a white woman.

I want to preface this with there is nothing wrong with reading books with white people or white authors. The problem is when there is so little representation of diversity that we begin to accept that’s how it’s always going to be. I’ve read quite a few of those books on that list and they’re good books. But there’s a problem when every main character in popular movies and popular literature is white.

There isn’t really any good way to fix this problem easily. There’s a negative feed back loop when it comes to lack of representation. Minorities aren’t represented in media, so they stop consuming it which leads to the people who create media to think that they aren’t a viable consumer base. That leads to those people making more media with a lack of representation which feeds the problem.

My solution? Here’s some book recommendations for young adults that has more diverse themes:

  1. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie: This book is a coming of age story about Junior, a Native American who struggles growing up on a reservation. It shows from a Native American’s point of view the struggles of living on a ranch and how damaging stereotyping is.
  2. “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” by Ned Vizzini: This book follows Craig Gilner, who it’s a pretty stereotypical white guy I’ll admit, but it has one of the most realistic depictions of mental illness I’ve ever read.
  3. “Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins: The book isn’t as explicit about this, however there is textual evidence that Katniss and some of the other people from the poorer part of District 12 are likely Native American or at least have darker skin. The people from District 11 are African American. It should be noted that the movie has much less representation.
  4. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by JK Rowling: This makes the list for a few reasons. A psychology study found that people who read Rowling’s series are actually more tolerant to minority populations. In addition, a recent theater production about the Harry Potter universe featured a black woman cast as Hermione. JK Rowling and fans defended it using canon, which only states that Hermione has incredibly curly hair.

It was hard for me to think of even these four book recommendations. If the books being read in schools or for pleasure by children have such little representation of the population as a whole, how can we expect every student to enjoy reading?

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8 Responses to NYT Bestsellers So White?

  1. juniperonjupiter says:

    Thanks so much for this passionate and thoughtful post, Margaret! I absolutely agree with you that the Academy Awards organization and the film industry needs to take a hard look at themselves, but they are unlikely to do so with a great deal of prodding from the outside, like the Mirror article you linked to and the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. Not only are minority actors rarely nominated, they are rarely cast in the first place. Hollywood uses white actors in minority role characters, such as Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy and Hugo Weaving in “yellowface” makeup as Asian characters in 2012’s Cloud Atlas; or the casting of three white actors as the protagonists of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (2010). Even 2015’s “The Martian” erased the ethnicities of two Indian and East Asian characters in major roles by casting a white and a black actor. (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mackenzie Davis are fine actors, but that is beside the point; fine actors of all ethnicities exist.)

    This and other forms of “whitewashing” or “racebending” still happen all the time. From a Huffington Post article about this issue: “Racebending.com, an advocacy group for equality in media, notes that the problem with ‘The Last Airbender’ began with ‘casting calls indicating a preference for white actors for leads; people of color for villains, secondary characters and background extras.'”

    So far as books go: as a youth librarian, I see improvement in diversity these days, though more for YA books than for children’s books. Hopefully this will be helped along by campaigns such as #weneeddiversebooks, which began after a 2014 book convention in which organizers touted an “unprecedented lineup” of authors, which turned out to be…exclusively white and male. (Not that they weren’t fine authors! But, you know…missing the point.) Working in this field, I have suggestions for diverse YA and children’s books, which I’d be happy to pass along to anyone interested.

    Again, thanks for this post. I love the main point of it, which is how do you teach literacy to children when the overwhelming majority of the stories do not reflect them or their circumstances? Are the white experience and white characters universal? Is the message sent to minority children that books are not for them?

    P.S. A gentle correction: the two main characters of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park are a young white woman and a young half-Korean, half-white-American man.


  2. leighahall says:

    This is a fabulous post, and I enjoyed reading it. You can make a connection back to schools in terms of what students are expected to read. Regarding books as curriculum – when books are assigned how diverse are they? In what ways are they diverse? Thinking on the discussions about accelerated reader that we’ve had, how does AR support (or not support) students’ access to diverse books? There’s the issue of what books are available for students and then, if the policy is being strictly enforced, the issue of what books they have access to. For example, if a student wanted to read Part-Time Indian, but the book was not on their level would they be denied access to it?


  3. claire.s says:

    This post was so well done and thought provoking — thanks Margaret. You are definitely right that the authors and characters at the forefront of young adult literature show an overwhelming lack of diversity. I looked at goodread’s list of popular elementary school books here: https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/elementary-school and the trend clearly continues into children’s literature. At the top of the list are books like Charlotte’s Web, Harry Potter, and Bridge to Terabithia, which are all great, well-known books, but again feature predominantly white main characters.
    Something the list made me think about was the high regard with which we place titles like Charlotte’s Web. I think that an attachment to these well-known titles is one of the factors limiting the move towards the representation of more diverse characters in the books read in school. Parents and teachers are comfortable with having their children/students reading books that they remember fondly from childhood, which creates a roadblock that must be navigated in the integration of new books exhibiting diversity (not just racially, but with regard to gender roles, sexuality, ability, and more).
    Additionally, it was great to learn from juniperonjupiter’s comment about a few of the campaigns for more diverse books going on right now. On the We Need Diverse books twitter, they shared the story of an elementary school girl in Philadelphia named Marley Dias, who started the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign and aims to collect 1000 books lead by black girls before February 1. Bored with her curriculum, Dias launched the campaign after telling her mother she was sick of reading about white boys and dogs. How can we support students like Dias and make sure that books are available that reflect all students’ experiences? And how can we make a transition such that these diverse stories are the ones that parents and teachers of the future remember as the “classic” children’s literature that they read in school?


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