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My Book is Diverse, But It’s Not YA

The past few years have witnessed a major call for diversity in the publishing industry. From #ownvoices to #divpit to We Need Diverse Books, the message to publishing, an industry long dominated by white males, usually of the cishet variety, has been that publishing needs to make room for people of color, for women, for trans folk, for queer folk, for disabled people, for writers from all marginalized groups. And certain sectors of the industry have responded. Currently, there is more representation in literature than ever before, but it is concentrated around a certain sector — young adult and children’s literature.
Young adult, as a publishing category, has evolved rapidly, and diversity is now prized and sought after by agents and publishers alike. On Twitter agent manuscript wishlists often include diverse books or ownvoices offerings, and while I haven’t compiled the data, I would be willing to bet that the past five years in YA publishing have been more diverse than the previous twenty. Children in schools all over the country will have brought home fliers from Scholastic Book Clubs with the words “We Need Diverse Books” — the September book club theme – written in colorful letters across the top, and kids and parents will have found great deals on books by diverse authors (I myself snagged copies of Amina’s Voice, by Hena Khan, which I plan to read with my my 6th grade class, for $2.00 apiece). Outlets such as the New York Times and the Atlantic have covered the push for more diversity in children’s books, and the increasing diversity in Middle Grade and Young Adult publishing extensively. The movement is clearly mainstream.
And yet, we hear very little about the need for diversity and representation in adult books, even though adult readers need diversity just as much as children do. What’s possibly more troubling, however, is that when authors do write diverse adult books, those books are often shelved as Young Adult anyhow.  Even when the publishers nominally have categorized these books as adult, the marketing is clearly geared towards YA, and the books end up on YA lists. This is a trend that most women authors, particularly women sci-fi and fantasy authors, will recognize well. Books written by women featuring female leads have long been pushed into the YA category, regardless of the actual age of the characters. The received wisdom goes something like this: male readers will not read a female lead, and adult fantasy readers are a majority male. So, for a women-centric fantasy to do well, it needs to be marketed towards women, and that leaves two categories open — YA, and romance (in contemporary literature, there’s another option, so-called “chick-lit,” the main requirement of which being that the book features mostly women). And now, with the rise of diverse books, the same thing is happening. The corollary seems to be that white men want to read white worlds, or that straight men do not want to read queer stories. The reasoning aside (which doesn’t particularly interest me — the reasons amount to not much more than excuses), the trend seems to be that books written by  marginalized authors, particularly women of color, seem even more likely to be shelved or marketed as YA.
You might be thinking, well, if it sells the books, then so what? Who cares what marketing category the book gets put in? There are a few problems with the “call it YA” phenomenon. First, by relegating diverse books to YA, adult publishing absolves itself of the need to change. The implicit message seems to be that adult fantasy needs to cater to the “typical” white Tolkien nerd, the kind of guy who knows his way around a twenty-sided dice and also, quite possibly, Reddit’s incel community (my apologies to Tolkien nerds and dice fans who do not find themselves in that portion of the Venn diagram). Fantasy publishing says we can throw bones of representation into our YA imprints, whose readership are mostly women anyhow, and keep our core adult readership, who don’t want their grimdark spoiled by feminism or queer relationships or diversity. Only women and children really care about this diversity stuff anyhow, right? Certainly serious fantasy fans don’t.
If I sound a bit cynical, that’s because I am. My current manuscript is a diverse piece, featuring a non-white cast. Although my cast of characters are not teenagers, I’ve often wondered whether or not I should market my manuscript as YA, and target YA agents and publishers when I start querying. Am I doing myself a disservice by writing my piece as adult when it will likely be shelved and reviewed as YA anyhow? The thing is though, my piece is not YA — the only thing that makes it resemble YA is the diverse cast and female main character. Do I really want to send the message, with my own book, that diversity is just for kids? That diversity doesn’t belong in serious literature for serious readers? Certainly not.
The thing is, mainstream adult fans of fantasy — dare I say it, straight cis men — need to read these books too, and not just because everyone needs exposure to diverse books, but because they’d probably actually like them. Take R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, for instance, one of the books that often gets classed as YA by bloggers and bookstores (I didn’t realize it wasn’t YA until I bought it). The book is gritty, dark, and action packed. It’s also based on the Japanese invasion of China in World War two. There’s nothing YA about it, and in fact, has all of the ingredients that a typical fantasy reader should enjoy. The Priory of the Orange Tree also showed up on a lot of YA reading lists. In fact, in a Facebook discussion group about YA literature that I’m a part of, I defended this book several times against confused teenagers who found this book “hard” and “slow.” It was not the book’s fault — the book is an 800 page epic fantasy multi-POV tome, written in a fairly literary style, of course those who were expecting a young adult book would find it slow. What led to the case of mistaken identity? A female author and a lesbian romance. But the book also has intricate world-building, dragonlore, chivalric knights, and epic battles — things that should be right up the alley of an adult fantasy fan.
So, ultimately, I won’t pitch my book as YA, although I’ll have no real control over whether others decide to do this for me or not. I would encourage the powers that be in the publishing industry, however, to take a look at the message they send when they promote certain books as YA (this can include the types of interviews the author does, what bloggers get sent ARCs, and eventhe type of cover the book has), and ask themselves, if this book was written by a straight white man, with a straight white protagonist, would I be marketing it to teenagers? Don’t get me wrong, YA is a great category — some of my favorite reads are YA. But it does both YA and adult readers a disservice when we decide that books written for adults should be marketed to teenagers. Because the real message is not that adults won’t read these books, it is that straight white cis men won’t read these books, and the accompanying implication, that these men are not, and do not need to be interested in diversity, is simply untrue.

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