At the same time, I think there's one group of characters that has not yet been adequately introduced in YA lit: that is, minority main characters whose race or ethnicity is a PART of their identity, but does not direct the whole course of the novel. We've come a long way since a hundred or even thirty years ago, but I think there's still a huge preference for white main characters and not enough minority main characters in YA lit.
As an Asian American, I'm almost ashamed to say that whenever I read a book, 99% of the time I picture the character as being white. Even characters who are introduced as being of a different race, I perceive in my head as white. Simon in Kelley Armstrong's Darkest Powers series is half-Asian, but I didn't fully realize that until the second book, and even so I still have trouble picturing him as half-Asian. According to Mitali's blog-reader survey, characters in The Hunger Games are described with varying shades of skin, hair, and eye color, and yet I perceived them all to be of pretty much the same type anyway.
I wonder whether or not this is a problem, and when in the course of my life I got "programmed" to assume that all characters are white unless otherwise directly stated for us--and even if their physical attributes are described to make them clearly another race, why I still can't picture them unless their story specifically deals with their struggle to overcome the stereotypes associated with their race. Jon Yang and I both want to see more YA books in the future that feature minority characters whose race or ethnicity does not drive the conflict in the story, and yet is present enough to make us aware of the fact that characters should not automatically be presumed to be white. Characters like me.
I don't like the term "color-blind" because a person's race and all of the physical differences that add up to it ARE an undeniable part of a person's being. I have no problem describing myself as an Asian American of Taiwanese descent; I am proud of my race, and even when someone makes an intentional or unintentional comment about my race, I'm hurt, but I still stay true to myself. Being of a different race or ethnicity (or any other characteristic) than others is bound to bring differences: there are certain stereotypes associated with my race whose veracity I will not deny. (Yes, most Asians feel that education is very important. Yes, many of us believe strongly in filial piety.) But I'd like to see more minority characters tackling challenges in fiction that have usually been assumed to be "linked" to white characters. That is, how many fantasy/adventure/quest novels have minority main characters? How many minority main characters can deal with high school drama and not come home to focus on perpetually disappointed parents who drag them off to Chinese church groups where they contemplate how their race or ethnicity fits into their lives?
In other words: can we picture minority characters in bestselling YA fiction? Can Katsa in Graceling be Asian? Can Jessica Darling in Megan McCafferty's books be Latino? Can Janie from Wake and Fade be black?
Will that work? Or will there be something missing, something incomplete about these characters' stories if we do not also talk about how they perceive and are perceived by society?
I'm not sure if I covered everything I wanted to say, or if I even said what I've said here well, but now I'm turning it over to you. My friends, what are your thoughts about the presence of race and ethnicity in YA lit? How do you think its current state is, and how do you think it will change in the future? When you read books, how do you perceive the characters? Are you aware of characters' race while reading? If you write, how do you consider diversity when creating your characters? Is lack of diversity still an issue in YA?