Diversity in YA Science Fiction and Fantasy

My parents took great pains to instil in me a love of reading from an early age. By the 3rd grade I was picking out books for myself, and I went straight for the fantasy section. I read a lot of the classics: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, The Black Cauldron, and more.

I soon found my way into the adult section, devouring Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Mercedes Lackey, and Robert Jordan. Still, I continued to read young adult fantasy; something about characters my age going through pimples and dating and dragon-slaying spoke to me. There was a sense of connection, but even then I was aware of something that’s still true to this day: none of the protagonists were like me.

My favourite young adult author to this day is Tamora Pierce. I have faithfully read every book she has published since I stumbled across the Song of the Lioness quartet at age 10. I love each new one, and I have both physical and ebook versions of all of her books.

Despite my great love for her, I noticed on a re-read of all of her books (not kidding—I’m a huge fan) that her early works contained very few characters of colour—and those that were there were simplistic, and often stereotypical. There’s a whole book that deals with a very idealistic and well-intentioned critique of an analogue for Arabic tribal cultures, and it comes off as imperialistic and judgemental.

Her portrayal of characters of colour has improved leaps and bounds since that first series, but her main protagonists are still primarily straight White girls. They have red hair, wavy or straight. They have pale skin and freckles. They have light coloured eyes. I have none of these things. (Well, maybe the freckles, if you look very closely.) Her protagonists don’t look at all like me.

Of all of the books she’s put out—28 novels in two worlds, plus a collection of short stories—I have counted perhaps 4 LGBTQ2 characters. Only one has been a main protagonist.

There are young adult books that feature protagonists of colour, and LGBTQ2 protagonists, but most of them haven’t been in the science fiction and fantasy genre(s); not until pretty recently has there been a surge in fantasy that features people of colour as the main characters, and there still isn’t much in the way of gender and sexual minorities in young adult sci-fi and fantasy. The problem with this is that a message, however unintentional, gets sent to young adults and children—there is no place for them in the imaginary worlds of fantasy lands, and there is especially no place for them in the future worlds of science fiction.

This seems silly to me—in a world where there are goblins and dragons and spidrens, how can you tell me there are no black or brown people, no gay people, no trans people? When we exclude these people from our imaginary worlds, what we are really saying is that the perfect worlds we imagine—the future worlds, the fantastic past worlds—can only exist through the absence of brownness and queerness.

However, including LGBTQ2 characters and characters of colour says something quite different. Inclusion of these characters is part of how we realise those better worlds. We are currently living in a world that excludes, but inclusion teaches us that every human being has worth, and that we can—and should—work together to achieve what we imagine.

We’ve come a ways, but we still have a ways to go yet. I write YA fantasy fiction with diverse characters because these young people are more vulnerable, and they need someone to tell them, Yes, you belong here, too.