Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Diversity in YA Literature

A few days ago, prompted by this article on Bloomberg News, Liz B. over at Tea Cozy started a discussion about the diversity of protagonists in books awarded the Newbery Medal. Liz does a really good job of picking the choice quotes and highlighting her issues with the article, so definitely check out her post. The long and short of the article is basically that a BYU graduate student in Communications did his thesis about the lack of diversity in books that won the Newbery Medal.

While I think it's hard to deny this truth, the Newbery was created to honor "the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" each year - regardless of race, religion, or any other socioeconomic characteristics of the characters. Furthermore, and unfortunately for the study author, the review of the Newbery winners doesn't seem very thorough, and his study has several errors which overlook certain winners. One commenter on Liz's blog has set about to do his own mini-study and has invited others to join in helping to compile information about the Newbery winners via this Google Doc. (See the comments section of Liz's post if you're interested in contributing.)

Anyway, this got me thinking about the diversity of protagonists in books that have won the Printz Medal. So I decided to create a spreadsheet of my own. Of course, I like to make things more complicated than they have to be, so I decided to go beyond looking at the diversity of the main characters and plan to chart out and analyze the diversity of the winners on a host characteristics including: publisher, format, genre, author's race, age, gender and nationality, themes, and then of course characteristics of the protagonist. Phew, that's a lot of information. Thank goodness they've only been giving out the Printz since 2000.

I just started working on the spreadsheet today, and at present I haven't read most of the honor or medal winners, so there are a lot of holes. Thankfully, as noted in a previous post, my next "to read" pile (once I'm finished reading all of this year's likely Printz contenders) will be all previous honor/medal books that I haven't yet read, so I'll be able to get the spreadsheet into tip top shape before long. If you're interested in contributing, let me know! I will be certain to post my analysis once the spreadsheet is complete*.

From those that I have read I'm getting a sense that we'll see much greater diversity here. I think this is in part because of the newness of the award, but I also think it has something to do with the types of authors drawn to write for YA audiences and the propensity for conflict and deeply personal issues to be tackled in YA. I mean, the 2007 winner, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang is written by a Chinese-American, has a Chinese-American protagonist, is written in graphic novel format, incorporates Chinese folktale in the story AND deals with racism. Dang. All that in one book.

So yeah, stay tuned for the results.
*Perhaps I need to enroll in some sort of PhD program and get credit for this. Thoughts?


  1. The program you should be in is GSLIS at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It's a wonderful program that will support you both financially and intellectually in research like this. Unfortunately it's also two hours from anything resembling civilization.

    I, too, am working on exploring ways to conduct scholarly research in YA literature locally. (You know the situation at SCILS in this regard.) Let's pool any ideas that we come up with.

  2. I'm looking forward to seeing your results.