Originally posted in slightly different form at Diversity in YA
On March 17, Publishers Weekly posted its accounting of the bestselling children’s books of 2012, including young adult titles. PW does this every year, and I’ve always wondered what proportion of these bestselling titles include main characters of color and/or LGBT characters. I’ve always assumed that very few of the bestsellers would prominently feature diversity, but as a former economics major I also know that I really shouldn’t make those kinds of assumptions.
So over the past couple of weeks I sat down with the list, some spreadsheets, and crunched the numbers. The results both confirmed some of my assumptions and surprised me. (Note: This post collects all four parts originally posted at Diversity in YA in one master post.)
Part 1: Overview
Before I get to the top 4 diverse YA bestsellers, let me set the scene for the analysis. You can skip to the first chart (under “Diverse YA Bestsellers”) if you’re not interested in this.
The PW list is comprised of publisher-provided data on sales. The complete children’s list counts bestsellers in five different categories:
- hardcover frontlist (new hardcover books, presumably published in 2012) with sales ≥ 100,000
- hardcover backlist (old hardcover books, presumably published before 2012) with sales ≥ 100,000
- paperback frontlist (new paperback books, published in 2012) with sales ≥ 100,000
- paperback backlist (old paperback books, published before 2012) with sales ≥ 100,000
- ebooks (published anytime) with sales ≥ 25,000
There are some things to note:
- Ebook sales only need to top 25,000 to appear on the ebook bestseller list. This is obviously much lower than the number for printed books (100,000).
- A lot of books that made the ebook bestseller list did not make the printed lists. Presumably, those books could have sold up to 99,999 printed copies without landing on those lists.
- The vast majority of bestselling children’s books were not young adult. Instead, they were board books, picture books, middle grade, or nonfiction titles like Justin Bieber’s celebrity memoir.
What does “diverse” mean?
By “diverse,” I mean: Books in which the main character or one of the primary point-of-view characters is a character of color, LGBT, or disabled. Note:
- This is a very narrow definition. It does not include books that feature diverse supporting casts, but I’ll address that in more detail in Part 3. For now, I’m talking about main characters.
- This also does not mean that these books feature well-written minority characters. They could be chock full of stereotypes, but they are clearly minorities.
Diverse YA Bestsellers
Here are the proportions of diverse YA novels across all formats that PW tracks:
The "Other Children's Lit" category includes board books, picture books, and middle grade. As you can see, the majority of children's books bestsellers are non-YA, except in ebooks, which makes sense. Younger children are currently not likely to read ebooks.
Looking more closely at the proportion of new YA books that were diverse, here’s the percentage of 2012’s YA hardcover frontlist bestsellers (new books) that were diverse:
Honestly, 22% is (a lot!) better than I expected. But there were only 23 titles on the bestselling hardcover frontlist, which means it only took 5 diverse titles to make that 22%:
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Dutton) — The widely acclaimed novel about two teens falling in love while dealing with cancer and disability.
- Stunning (Pretty Little Liars #11) by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen) — The eleventh book in the long-running series that is now a TV series on ABC Family. The series has four point-of-view characters, including Emily Fields, who is bisexual and has been since book one.
- Fated (Soul Seekers #1) by Alyson Noel (St. Martin’s Griffin) — The first in a trilogy about Daire Santos, a half-Hispanic 16-year-old girl who discovers she’s descended from shamans. Additionally, the book draws heavily from Native American mythology, though it has also been criticized for its stereotypical depictions.
- Pretty Little Secrets by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen) — A companion novel to the Pretty Little Liars series.
- Burned (Pretty Little Liars #12) — The twelfth book in the Pretty Little Liars series.
That's right: three of the five diverse bestselling hardcovers are from the Pretty Little Liars series. There are even more of them coming up.
Part 2: Main Characters Only
In this section, I’m ranking all diverse YA bestsellers across all formats: hardcover frontlist and backlist, paperback frontlist and backlist, and ebooks. However, I should note that ranking all the titles in one list comes with some problems because the titles aren’t completely comparable for several reasons:
- Not all of the books are new; that means some have been on sale for a lot longer than others.
- I don’t have sales figures across all formats for every book (remember, only print sales ≥ 100,000 made it on PW’s print lists).
- Some of the books are in series; others are standalones.
That said, I was still interested in finding out which 2012 bestsellers, in all formats, featured diverse main characters. So, using the figures I do have from the PW article, here are all the bestselling YA novels of 2012 that feature main characters of color, LGBT or disabled main characters:
There are 17 individual titles on this list. Sales in each format are noted by different colors, and for the bottom 10 titles, only ebook sales were provided to PW. That doesn’t mean these books didn’t sell any printed copies; only that they didn’t sell more than 100,000 copies in each print format.
In more detail:
1. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Dutton) — The widely acclaimed novel about two teens falling in love while dealing with cancer and disability.
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown) — First published in 2007, the main character is an American Indian boy named Arnold Spirit Jr. The author is also American Indian. (Note: no ebook sales figures were provided.)
3. Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen) — First published in 2006, the series is told from the perspectives of four girls, including Emily Fields, who is bisexual.
4. Stunning (Pretty Little Liars #11) by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen)
5. Fated (Soul Seekers #1) by Alyson Noel (St. Martin’s Griffin) — The first in a trilogy featuring half-Hispanic main character Daire Santos. The author is also half-Hispanic.
6. Pretty Little Secrets by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen)
7. Burned (Pretty Little Liars #12) by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen)
8. Clockwork Prince (The Infernal Devices) by Cassandra Clare (S&S/McElderry) — The second book in The Infernal Devices trilogy, which is about a white girl named Tessa Gray. Part of Tessa’s story involves a love triangle with two boys, including half-Chinese Jem Carstairs. Written in the third person, the books feature some scenes from Jem’s perspective, but more importantly, Clockwork Prince is the only YA bestseller that unarguably shows a character of color on the cover. Although you could argue that this book doesn’t belong on this list because Jem is not the main character, I erred on the side of generosity in this case because of the book cover.
9. Ruthless (Pretty Little Liars #10) by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen)
10. Flawless (Pretty Little Liars #2) by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen)
11. Clockwork Angel (The Infernal Devices) by Cassandra Clare (S&S/McElderry)
12. Perfect (Pretty Little Liars #3) by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen)
13. Legend by Marie Lu (Putnam) — The first in a trilogy about a dystopian future Los Angeles, from the perspectives of two characters including Daniel “Day” Wing, who is half-Mongolian. The author is Asian American.
14. Unbelievable (Pretty Little Liars #4) by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen)
15. Twisted (Pretty Little Liars #9) by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen)
16. Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles (Walker) — A contemporary romance about Mexican gang member Alejandro Fuentes and white cheerleader Brittany Ellis, told from their alternating points of view.
17. Wicked (Pretty Little Liars #5) by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen)
Once again, Pretty Little Liars leads the pack here in individual titles.
Part 3: The Minority Best Friend
As you can tell, the majority of PW’s YA bestseller list is dominated by series, so in this section I’m focusing solely on diversity in YA series.
While only two of those bestselling series — Pretty Little Liars and The Infernal Devices — include diverse main characters, I wanted to find out how many of the other series included secondary/supporting characters of color or secondary/supporting LGBT or disabled characters.
The good news is that among the top 10 bestselling YA series (incorporating PW’s sales figures across all formats), 8 out of 10 include diversity in their supporting cast — and they’re the top 8 bestselling series overall.
1. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic; 27,700,000 sold) — Supporting characters include Rue and Thresh, who are black; Peeta Mellark and other characters deal with disabilities. There has also been a continuing discussion online among readers as to whether Katniss is biracial, although Suzanne Collins has said “They [Katniss and Gale] were not particularly intended to be biracial.”
2. The Divergent series by Veronica Roth (HarperCollins/Tegen; 2,054,302 sold) — Supporting characters include main character Tris’s friend Christina, who will be played by Zoe Kravitz in the upcoming movie.
3. The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown/Tingley; 1,129,754 sold) — One of the two boys the main character Bella Swan is in love with is Jacob Black, a Quileute Indian, although there has been widespread debate over the representation of the Quileutes in the series.
4. The House of Night series by P.C. and Kristin Cast (St. Martin’s Griffin; 878,014 sold) — Supporting characters include Shaunee Cole, a biracial Jamaican American.
5. The Maze Runner series by James Dashner (Delcorte/Random House; approx. 846,034 sold) — Supporting characters include a boy named Minho, who is of Asian descent.
6. The Pretty Little Liars series by Sara Shepard (HarperTeen; 781,972 sold) — One of the four main characters is Emily Fields, who is bisexual.
7. The Mortal Instruments trilogy by Cassandra Clare (Simon & Schuster/McElderry; 756,712 sold) — Supporting characters include Alec Lightwood, who is gay, and Magnus Bane, a bisexual half-Asian warlock, with whom Alec has a romantic relationship. Notably, Magnus Bane has become so popular he will have an entire series of ebook short stories about him published in 2013, The Bane Chronicles; he also appears in The Infernal Devices trilogy.
8. Fallen by Lauren Kate (Delacorte/Random House; approx. 737,684 sold) — Supporting characters include Arriane Alter, who is a lesbian (she comes out in Fallen in Love), and a gender-nonconforming character named Randy.
9. The Matched trilogy by Ally Condie (Dutton; approx. 684,711 sold) — As far as I can tell, there is no diversity in this trilogy.
10. The Lorien Legacies by Pittacus Lore (HarperCollins; 613,653 sold) — As far as I can tell, there is no diversity in this series.
Part 4: Covers
Among all of the titles surveyed, only two had covers that clearly conveyed the diversity of its content:
- Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare — This is the only YA bestselling novel to unarguably feature a character of color on the cover.
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie — The diverse content is clearly telegraphed on this book cover by the title and the illustration.
Two books feature debatably diverse covers:
- Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles — The boy on the cover looks like he’s of color to me (in the book he’s Latino), but I can easily see someone arguing that he passes as a white guy with a tan.
- Fated by Alyson Noel — The dream catcher/feather earring is a well-known and often clichéd indicator of American Indian mythology. The girl could be Latina; or at least, she’s not unambiguously white.
In Part 2, I noted that 17 individual titles on the PW list, across all formats, included diverse main characters. That list included 109 individual YA titles overall. What proportion of the YA titles on the PW bestseller list, across all formats, were diverse?
There are two ways to count this, both of them imperfect.
1. If you count every title on the list individually, meaning every single Pretty Little Liars book is counted separately, then it turns out that 17 out of 109 titles is 15.6%.
The problem with this percentage is that it does count every single title individually. So for example, there are 10 Pretty Little Liars books on the PW lists, but there is only one Emily Fields; it’s not like there are 10 different minority characters.
2. If you condense the series so that those 10 Pretty Little Liars books only count as 1 series, and do the same with all the other series on the PW list, that adds up to 53 total YA properties (I know, I had to come up with a word). Those 53 include both standalone books such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and series such as The Infernal Devices. After condensing the list, you arrive at 7 diverse properties out of 53, or 13.2%:
Now, I have been working on these spreadsheets for weeks, and I lost all my data at one point. Luckily my Mac allowed me to revert to previous editions, and I think I corrected my mistakes. However, I was the only person working on this. I didn’t realize what a giant project this would turn out to be. So I could have made mistakes — I probably did! Nevertheless, I don’t think I’m too far off with that 13.2%.
And after spending way too much of my time scrutinizing these numbers, I’ve come to the following conclusions:
- These days, it’s totally normal to have diversity in the supporting cast of a bestselling YA series. While I personally am tired of having minorities relegated to best friend status, I do think this is a good step toward increasing diversity among main characters.
- Cultural appropriation remains a real problem, particularly for representations of American Indians. There are three books or book series on the PW lists that feature American Indian characters and cultures: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, and Alyson Noel’s Fated. These books vary widely on the scale of cultural appropriation vs. cultural authenticity, and yet they all do contribute to increasing visibility for American Indians in YA literature. Whether or not that visibility is positive is a different issue (one that I’m not going to delve into here because it is too huge).
- I was pleasantly surprised to see that Pretty Little Liars has made a very comfortable home for itself on those lists, because I’m often asked whether having LGBT main characters is a problem. I know that the B is not the same as the L, G or (especially) T, but still: I’m thrilled to see a bestselling series with a queer girl lead selling so well.
TL;DR: There’s more diversity in the PW lists than I initially thought there would be, but some of that diversity is problematic. Does this sound like a mixed bag to you? It sounds like that to me, too. What did you think about this series of posts? Feel free to share your responses with Diversity in YA, or if you have questions about my methodology etc., please ask (or leave a comment). I’ll post some of your thoughts over the next couple weeks as they come in.