Where are the BAME lead characters in YA fiction?

I LOVE Young Adult fiction. I’m obsessed with the ‘Hunger Games’ and I’m currently devouring Cassandra Clare’s ‘Lady Midnight’. It’s the pace and the imagination that makes these books so great. Authors push boundaries when they’re writing for this market and that’s why a lot of ‘Old Adults’, myself included, will drift over to the Teenage Fiction section of the Library. I didn’t realise that there was something missing until I sat down to write a blog…

In my novel Afterlife the first part of the book is from the perspective of Eve, who is mixed race (like me). So I thought I’d compile a list of the top five BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) lead characters in British YA fiction. I came up with a few characters, but there was a problem, they were all written by the same (admittedly awesome) author, Malorie Blackman. Whilst I would happily write a blog solely about my favourite Malorie Blackman characters, I thought I could only really give her one slot here- maybe two at a push…

So I cast my net again and came up with… Hermione Granger, who is now being played by a black actor in London’s West End. JK Rowling had said she never specified Hermione’s race, causing super-fans to trawl the books for proof. Can Hermione have a slot in my BAME countdown when she is synonymous with the lovely (very Caucasian) Emma Watson? No- the books aren’t called Hermione Granger and the blahdeblah are they? No matter how many times she saved Harry’s arse...

And that’s it.

That’s all I’ve got from British fiction.

So I widened my search to all YA fiction that I myself have read or watched…

And came up with nothing.

Zilch.

Sweet fanny adams.

So I looked online I tried to find some BAME characters that I could read up on and then use in my blog. Then I stopped, because it really shouldn’t be this difficult.

There must be BAME characters out there, but they’re not at the forefront of the genre. And they’re not in the Hollywood movies. I can easily rattle off my top five YA movie franchises- Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, Twilight, Harry Potter and the main characters are all white- very pale and sparkly in some cases.

So in this pioneering section of the literary world why is everyone white?

Authors often write characters that look like them. It makes sense, you can add in personal touches that helps to bring them to life. My character Eve has the same problems with her unruly afro as I do. So are there no BAME authors? I doubt it. Or are they under represented by agents and publishers? When you’re an indie publisher it’s much harder to get your characters out there.

In my trip around the internet I came across a very insightful article by Beth Kemp who says that her BAME students struggle to find characters who look like them in fiction and then produce fiction which has a white protagonist, regardless of their own ethnicity. Scary stuff, if work with white protagonists inspires work with white protagonists, the literary world could end up spiralling away from the real world instead of acting as a mirror.

But do not despair! Campaigns for greater diversity in books already exist with one of the strongest voices being the aforementioned Malorie Blackman. BitchMedia.org (great name) and A Mighty Girl are great resources for diverse books (Thanks for the recommendations Rifa!). There is also the We Need Diverse Books Campaign. I’ll be getting involved in whatever I can and not just to help promote my own work. I’ve genuinely shocked myself, on TV and in movies we can all see an effort being made to include characters of all backgrounds, but I never twigged that this was missing from the books I loved.

If anyone wants to send over recommendations of books with BAME lead characters I’d love to read them- and books with LGBT lead characters as well – and books with disabled lead characters -  and, actually, books with straight white leads too. Let’s read the rainbow! 

 

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Afterlife is released on 17th April and is available to pre-order on Amazon

You can listen to the Afterlife Podiobook for free for a limited time