YA panel talk: A reflection piece by Jasper Hagenbeek

Call for Voices: a Panel Debate on Representation, Diversity, and Equality in YA Literature

By Jasper Hagenbeek

During the Boekids UP literature festival, Abdelkader Benali, Katherine Rundell, and Renée Watson held a panel discussion on representation, diversity and equality in young-adult literature. All three authors come from a background that, in their own words, is not the predominant ‘white’ culture seen in the fields of literature and publishing. As a panel, led by Stephanie Afrifa, they discussed the importance of these three themes in young-adult literature by looking back at how they experienced literature when they were young, how they currently experience this as authors, and how they would like to see the literary and publishing fields continue to grow and expand.

As a child, Renée felt that books rarely or never contained elements to which she could relate on a personal level. Renée referred to the Ramona Quimby series, a series of books which were set in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She could recognise the street names, buildings, schools, parks, and so on, but the series didn’t contain a single character with a different background than the dominant ‘white’ culture. It’s not the first time that this book series is used to demonstrate the lack of diversity in literature, such as in this article on Publisher’s Weekly (http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/shelftalker/?p=409). Because she felt left out of these stories, Renée has now made it her personal mission to “[…] make sure characters with natural hair and dark skin get to live in literary Oregon too”.

For Abdelkader, books were his guide to understanding people. Fairy tales guided him especially, “[…] as they always revolve around outsiders that have to undergo a process or overcome an obstacle”. He could relate to these characters, and learnt lessons from them about people that grownups couldn’t teach him. In puberty, he learnt about something called ‘representation’. As the son of a Muslim Moroccan immigrant, he found there were very few fairy tales written by German storytellers about people with his background. That’s when and why Abdelkader decided he had to represent himself. He began with public readings but when he noticed people were really listening to him, he decided to try his hand at literary works and proved to be very successful.

During her childhood, Katherine lived in several very different countries and learnt to apply different (cultural) perspectives. To illustrate her mission in writing during the panel talk, she used the Bechdel test (https://bechdeltest.com/). This test is used in film and checks for three things: whether (1) the film has at least two (named) women in it, (2) the films has the two women speak to each other, (3) about something besides a man. Between 50 and 60% of the films fail this test, but many of the literary works still fail this test too. Katherine has made sure that in each of her books, she’s got “girls talking to girls about other girls”.

When Stephanie asked how the field of literature has changed, and whether it was more difficult to get (their) stories published 10 years ago, all three authors agreed. There is a shift coming about, but in a pace that is unacceptably slow. To demonstrate the current situation, Katherine referred to a survey that was performed in England. This survey showed that 32% of primary school kids in England are children of minority ethnic origins, but 4% of children’s characters in literature are of minority ethnic origins and only 1% of the protagonists in children’s literature are children of minority ethnic origins (article: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jul/17/only-1-of-uk-childrens-books-feature-main-characters-of-colour). What is required to bring this change about, is a change in the established and conservative order of publishers. They are the gatekeepers of literature and have a crucial role in the shaping of the literary landscape. And by doing so, they indirectly help shape what is called the literary canon: the texts/books considered to be the most important and influential. The authors concluded that it is the responsibility of the publishers to ensure that other voices are offered a place on stage, so that other (cultural) backgrounds than the current predominant culture get to be represented in (children’s) literature. One publisher in the audience responded that this was exactly her mission, which is why she’s founded Blossom Books (https://www.blossombooks.nl/). Another publisher, from Luitingh-Sijthoff (https://www.lsamsterdam.nl/), explained it is the quality of the story that determines whether a book is published. “Not only diversity or inclusivity, although important, but the story. Many years ago, I published a story about a homosexual man in the Victorian age. So it’s all there, only now the attention is shifting [to the voice of the minorities]”.

During the interaction with the audience, one teacher explained how a student in his primary-school class remarked that he hadn’t realised his Dutch teacher was actually Turkish. The teacher had just read one of Abdelkader’s books to his students, and had to explain that he was still Dutch. He then came to understand that it was because of his background research, and the way that he read the book to his students, that the student had assumed he was Turkish. Abdelkader then stressed that authors always support teachers who use their books, as they too are gatekeepers and can show their students how large and diverse the world out there actually is. 

Sadly, the panel discussion then came to an end, but it was obvious to everyone present that this topic still held more interesting material for discussion. The audience’s eyes were opened to the literary world beyond what is currently mainstream and were eager to learn more from these authors and from each other. The evening was successful, humbling, and insightful, and left us as an audience with the mission to demand the full story, in every language and culture possible.