The Lack of Coloured People in Teen Fiction

So I just recently finished reading a teen book on beauty and how young girls are pressured to look a certain way. It was a great topic for a book and the author made some interesting points about the way girls from such a young age are forced into this particular mindset. But after finishing it, I realised that there wasn’t a single coloured girl in the 8 character narrative. Not one.

And this may not seem like such a big deal, but it is is, especially when colour and beauty have such close ties. Think about: what colour are we constantly told is the most beautiful? What colour do we see in the media the most?

I know the lack of coloured people in teen fiction is a topic that many book bloggers and Youtubers have already addressed, but I wanted to add my opinion to the fray. Because I think this needs to change. Now.

Yes, there are more books coming out in the teen genre with coloured characters and it’s great. But it’s sad that whenever they do come, it’s such a big deal and needs to be applauded. This should have been happening all along. I know there are exceptions to this rule, but again, the inclusion of coloured people in books shouldn’t be an exception; it should be a regular thing.

Because these are the books that so many young girls and boys read, and so what kind of message is the publishing world sending to youth if they can’t even see themselves in the pages of the books they read? A lot of work is being done about this in the education sector, especially of Ontario, and through my practical training as a teacher, I have seen some great changes happening in classrooms as curriculum is being changed to ensure that everyone gets included. And that’s wonderful.

But I’m not talking about the books that teens and pre-teens read because they’re forced to in school. I’m talking about the books that are bestsellers, the books that get made into movies, the books that become part of a canon. The books that teens love.

As someone who has been reading teen fiction for years (and still does), the lack of coloured people in what I read has affected me deeply, especially as a writer.

Up until very recently, my brain automatically created and wrote about white characters. I’m not white. But it had been ingrained into me so deeply that no one would want to read about a coloured character (unless the story was about that character’s interaction with their culture, which is usually what stories with coloured characters are usually about). I didn’t see any coloured characters in my favourite books. And if I did, they were on the periphery and didn’t even matter. If I wanted to write books that would be published, books that would make it big, books that people would love, the characters would have to be white.

I began writing my first novel at the age of 10. Every character that I wrote from the age of 10 to 22 was white. I just couldn’t imagine anything else.

A lot of things happened at 22 that made me change the way I thought and they made me realise my own prejudices. It was then that I began realising what I had been doing for years and began questioning myself. It was then that I changed the way I thought about my characters.

This is how deeply I was affected while reading books without coloured characters while growing up. And now that I’m an adult, I worry about the girls and boys that are growing up in the same circumstances, because to be honest, I don’t notice much difference.

So I call for a change in teen fiction. We need more diverse characters that represent the faces of the boys and girls that actually read them. Because none of us are cookie-cutter, flat, two-dimensional characters, so why do we have to read about them?

While my stories may or may not get published anytime soon, I hope to see the inclusion of coloured characters in teen fiction regardless. Because it’s vital that teens growing up today see themselves in the books they read.

Thanks for reading,

Ikhlas

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4 comments

  1. Andree says:

    Have you read any of the circle of magic series by Tamora Pierce? Fun YA stuff, with strong female characters, and certainly not only white characters. Her Alana series is better known, but not nearly as interesting.

    They’re quick reads (I can get through one in a couple of hours). A lot of her books are also set in religiously diverse areas, and do a great job of talk ohm about acceptance, without being preachy about it.

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