Criticism Of Representation in YA Is Essential

I have written many times over the years about people criticising our work being an inevitable part of being a writer. I also think it’s essential. We need criticism.1

Lately I’m seeing people arguing that there’s too much criticism of Young Adult literature and it’s now stopping people from writing because they’re too scared their work will be shredded. I’m bummed people feel that way because I wish there were more criticism.

While we have a broader and better conversation about intersectional representation then we’ve ever had it’s still not enough. Far too many popular books get a pass for pretty appalling representations. And far too many people who speak up to criticise those books and writers get yelled at for not being nice.2

According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center this year whites wrote most of the YA books with African-Americans, American Indian, Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans and Latino main characters. So while representation is improving it’s mostly whites doing the representing.

We need more books about POC written by POC. Those books must outnumber the books by whites about POC. It matters that there’s space for everyone to tell their own story.

Until we reach that glorious future it’s essential books about other ethnicities and races written by whites are criticised by the members of those communities. Stereotypical and harmful books need to be pointed out.

Will every POC agree that a book is problematic? Of course not. None of these communities are monolithic.3 Liar has been criticised for being racist by African-American readers. It’s also been defended against those charges by African-American readers.

It is also not saying that those books that are criticised for stereotypical portrayals of POC should be burnt. No one’s calling for book burning or banning. That seems to get lost in these debates.

The problem is not criticism. The problem is there are too many books about white people and there are too many books about POC written by white people. The problem is our book culture keeps reinforcing the message that white people are more important.

If you are being stopped from writing a book about people of a different race or ethnicity by the fear of being criticised maybe you shouldn’t write that book? Write a book about white people. You will then be criticised for writing yet another book about whites. Which do you think is the bigger problem? There is no option you get to pick where you don’t get criticised.

I’ve heard many POC critics point out that most white writers only feel they can write about race from the point of view of POC. This feeds into the idea that “race” is not something that white people have. We are neutral. We are somehow outside race. Newsflash: no one is outside race.

That criticism really made me think. What is whiteness? What does it mean? How is it constituted? Why is it so harmful? Out of that I wrote Razorhurst and now My Sister Rosa. Two books with white main characters that are about race.4

I now agree that me writing from the point of view of POC characters is part of the problem. I won’t stop doing it—I have a large multi-viewpoint book I’ve been working on for many year that has many POC povs—but right now I want to keep writing about race from white points of view.

Writing for many of us is an act of courage. It was years before I showed my work to anyone. I couldn’t risk myself by letting anyone see what mattered most to me: my writing. I survived.

Having my work described as racist hurt. But that pain is nothing compared to the harm experienced by the readers who found my work racist.

Everyone who writes, no matter what their skin colour, gets criticised. We white writers need to remember that POC writers tend to get more criticism for writing about their own people than we do.

What we should do in response to criticism is not demand that the criticism go away. We should listen. We should learn. We should keep on writing.

We should keep demanding that there be more books about POC by POC. A great way to do that is to buy the ones that are already out there.

  1. Here’s where I discuss critiques of the racism and transphobia of Liar. []
  2. Don’t get me started on niceness. []
  3. As an Australian I find Priscilla Queen of the Desert deeply racist and sexist. It does not represent me. I hate that people think it represents Australia. Or to be more accurate I hate that it does represent some of Australia’s sexism and racism and how okay many Australians are with it. []
  4. Razorhurst has two main characters. One of whom is not necessarily white but thinks she is. []


  1. Almitra Clay on #

    Thank you, this blog post is excellent.

    I have been following this whole discussion on Twitter and various blogs. There is one conclusion that nobody seems to be saying directly but that you inched up on. You said, “The problem is there are too many books about white people and there are too many books about POC written by white people.” The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that there are too many white writers. But understandably nobody wants to come out and say it directly.

    Of course, being a white writer myself, I’m not fond of that conclusion. Oh well, I’ll write anyway.

    • Justine on #

      Thanks! It’s one I’ve written many times before in many different versions for roughly ten years now.

      I’m not sure helpful it is to say there are too many white writers and not just because I’m a white writer. Writers and our books are the end product. They’re the result of a whole set of decisions that writers have no control over. Decisions made by publishers, by sales and marketing, by editors, by acquisitions meetings, by buyers for bookshops.

      The whole publishing industry is overwhelmingly white. They buy books that they think will sell and their notions of what will sell are based on what has already sold as well as their own personal tastes. White people know how to read white books. Frankly, everyone knows how to read white books because that’s the vast majority of what’s been published since publishing started in the USA. (Which, is the market most of are talking about in this debate.)

      We need more people from non-middle class, non-white backgrounds in publishing. Because then we’ll have a greater range of expertise and ability to read and understand stories that come from outside the kinds of stories that have always been published in the USA.

      Right now we have POC writers whose stories are rejected because publishing doesn’t have the lived experience to be able to understand them. Yet there is an audience for those stories. The POC who are being published are the ones whose stories make sense to the largely white gatekeepers.

      We have to change an entire publishing culture. It’s a huge huge task.

    • Khaalidah on #

      I don’t take the comments in this post as a suggestion that there are too many white writers. What would that even mean? And how could anyone seriously say that?
      Rather, I take the comments to mean that we need more of the other”. Representation matters. It matters a helluva lot to me. I have a 14 year old who loves to read. She is African American, Muslim, and raised by a mother who doesn’t believe in fitting molds but breaking them. I don’t need to tell her that she’s virtually invisible in literature. I don’t need to tell her that all of the pretty, whispy, fair-skinned, girls in prom dresses gracing the covers of countless YA books totally do not represent her, and in fact, in many ways negates her very existence. I don’t have to tell her that it isn’t enough that the brown/black girls are empty faceless representations meant to quiet us. She tells me this. She recognizes this. She wants more.
      While a white person can make the attempt, and sometimes even do a good job writing a person of color, it is my belief that this would be done best by another person of color, someone who actually understands the subtleties of what that life is like.
      So, the question isn’t “too many white writers” it’s not enough of the other. And it is not enough well rounded character representation.
      For my fourteen year old, while she cringes at the whispy pretty white girls on the covers, she isn’t yet savvy enough to understand all of the implications. But my twenty-two year old is, and while still not terribly sophisticated about matters of race, I’ve noticed that as she gets older, she is starting to express more than ever the lack of believable, rounded characters of color.
      As for me, I make an effort to look for writers of color, not to the exclusion of white writers, but in an effort to also be able to recognize myself and my experience, and to also be able to imagine myself. I know what it’s like to feel erased.

      • Justine on #

        Yes. Yes to all of this. Thanks so much for adding to the conversation.

      • Dhonielle Clayton on #

        YES! I am a writer because I was invisible in the pages of the books I loved so much as a kid. I write for kids that look like your daughter.

        • Justine on #

          We are all grateful.

  2. T.J. on #

    YES! I have been following this..and it makes me want to write ALL the things.Fantasy, YA, Sci-fi. I am a young black man, at just twenty years old, who wants to contribute to the conversation and my voice out there. I am trying to have something finished, as I multi-task, and write in different genres alot. Though having a conversation about this continues to give me endurance for writing. So please continue.
    Just no know one can endure the truth.
    If you say there are too many white writers it breaks egos.
    And no one wants to hear it..
    But please continue.
    And thank you. Just know, some of us are listening 🙂

    • Justine on #

      Wonderful! Keep writing! You are needed.

  3. Joyce Chng on #

    Coming from the perspective of a writer who lives in Southeast Asia, I would say that there are already too many white writers. Over here, the shelves are all white writers or at least, identified as white. Only of late, we are seeing books by POC or non-white folk. (Note: For local/Singaporean writers, we are relegated to Asian Writing).

    To be clear, I do not have a beef that there are too many white writers. It is an observation. And our situation here in SEA is clearly different from that from the States or Australia, because over here, we cannot even get into the gates established by white publishing. I am thankful, because my publisher (for my picturebook) sought me out.

    So, publishers: you have to walk the talk and actively seek out POC/non-white/marginalized writers out side your sphere.

    So, POC writers: you have to keep writing and do not self-reject.

    • Justine on #

      Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Especially your last two paragraphs.

      As you point out colonisation is a whole other layer in this conversation. The centres of English-language publishing are the USA and the UK. But really they’re NYC and London. Those two publishing centres aren’t doing a good job of representing their own countries. A ridiculous % of the books published in both places are set in NYC or London yet most people in both places don’t live in NYC or London. So the idea that these two publishing centres can represent the rest of the English-speaking world is utterly ridiculous.

  4. Valentin D. Ivanov on #

    One more aspect to this is that the “whites” are not a uniform monolithic unit.
    We ourselves are rather diverse, one just can not put in the same box a rich Westerner and somebody from some poor godforsaken country in Central or Eastern Europe.

    • Justine on #

      Sure. But we certainly get a wider variety of whiteness in the books published than we do of any other category. Meanwhile not nearly enough books by non-white people are published.

  5. onyx on #

    Thanks for this post. I’d like to add something from the perspective of a minority writer who creates books in several genres (and also produces diverse ebook covers via purchased stock photos).

    Many minority writers are self-publishing (myself included). It takes time to build up a reader base, but in the end, its worth it. A Puerto-Rican Valkyrie? Sure, that’s where my creative mind wanted to go. A Haitian American witchling who works in a supermarket and falls for a Korean Warlock? Again, as long as I can write it, then I can publish it.

    When I wanted to write about the first interracial male/female duo in Pop music during the 1960s, it matter not that there was no such duo. Its just that I grew up during that time period and I wanted a gay, blue-eyed soul leading man paired with a budding diva.

    A forty something black woman who falls for her paraplegic downstairs neighbor? Yes, and this book is one of my best sellers (no, I’m not swimming in money. But my books are being read and reviewed). Sure, I don’t get the wide distribution that a major publisher would offer, but that doesn’t mean that at some point I won’t seek out an agent or a publisher. Right now I’m not only honing my writing skills, but becoming a voice for those who wish to read about POC by someone who is a person of color.

    So to the poster named TJ and anyone else out there who longs to write but thinks it may be an uphill battle, there are more ways for your work to find the reading public than ever before! Go for it. I did, and I couldn’t be happier.

    • Justine on #

      Those all sound amazing. Good on you!

      (I tend not to mention indie/self-publishing because I know little about it and my focus is on transforming mainstream publishing.)

      • onyx on #


        The way you spoke up during the cover fiasco with Liar was truly heartwarming. YOU GET IT. I’ve followed your blog on and off for years, as you have been a voice of reason on this, along with a number of other mainstream authors/bloggers who pen posts reminding everyone that diverse representation in YA is important.

        I understand and respect what you’re doing regarding mainstream publishing, as you’ve been an activist in this regard and have the archival evidence to prove it. I can only speak for myself, but please know that your words and actions are very much appreciated.

        • Justine on #

          Thank you. That means the world to me.

    • Lani Wendt Young on #

      Adding my voice for the gift that indie publishing has been for me as a Samoan/NZ Maori writer writing YA set in contemporary Samoa and drawing on Pasifika legends and mythology. After 30+ rejections from industry gatekeepers in NZ, Australia and the USA, I published my YA series myself and then my contemporary romance/womens Lit series. I have nine books out there and my YA Telesa Series is now studied in many high schools and universities that study Pacific Literature. It’s been a long hard slog and many times, very discouraging. I get asked to speak at Writer’s Festivals usually as their ‘token brown’ woman, and then to add to it, I’m always the ONLY self-published author in the room. A double whammy of responsibility and ‘otherness’. And stigma. Most of the schools that have my books, have them because students went and requested them for their libraries and English classes. As the first Samoan to write YA (and YA that’s set in the Pacific), many Pacific Islander communities in different countries have organized book launches and signings, because they recognize the importance of having stories written by us, for us and about us. Im grateful for their support.

      However, I continue to be frustrated by the trad publishing industry. Yes, I see the buzzword these days is for #DiverseBooks and I welcome that. But I also see it translating to more white authors getting signed for writing books with diverse characters in them. And cis het authors getting signed and praised for writing trans characters and themes etc. This isn’t the kind of diversity we should be celebrating. Sure, it’s a step in the right direction. But agents and publishers need to stop patting themselves on the back for being fabulously brave n diverse – because they’re actually being lazy and half-hearted about their commitment to this thing called ‘diversity’.

      If the industry is sincere about wanting to embrace and represent more stories from many different voices, then it needs more lit agents and publishers who are POC. It needs to get out there and actively search out writers who are POC. It needs to let go of their narrow white people boxes of what will sell. Because my publishing experiences have shown me, that our (Pacific Islander) people DO buy books and DO read – when there’s stories they can relate to.

      But diverse stories are not just important for us POC so we can ‘see ourselves’ and so we are not erased. White kids need to be reading about POC too. White folks need to be enriched, challenged and intrigued by our stories and our voices too.

      In the meantime, I encourage every Pacific Islander writer who asks my advice – to self publish. I have little to no faith in the publishing gatekeepers. How can they best edit or rep my work when they have no clue what it means to be “me,” to live where we live, the cultural heritage that our stories are nurtured by? And thus far they’ve shown no effort or interest in trying to learn about us and our stories?

      Indie Publishing is the only way to ensure we can be true to our voice, wield complete control of the publishing and distribution process, and have the power to write what we want and how we want. Until the trad pub industry makes some big changes – Im sticking with indie.

      • Justine on #

        On the one hand that’s awesome and go, you! I’m so glad indie publishing is more viable now than ever before. Precisely because of writers like you.

        On the other hand that is so depressing. Especially that Oz and NZ publishers are rejecting you when there is such a need for your work in both those countries with their large Pacific Islander populations. I despair.

  6. Zoraida on #

    I love this post the more I read it. I felt like I had to write from a white character to get a foot in the door. I hope the publishers are listening.

    • Justine on #

      Thank you. Me too.

      The most depressing part of all of this is how it impacts what gets written and so how it impacts our imaginations and what we think is possible. It’s why we all have to keep pushing back.

  7. Ellen oh on #

    A million thank yous for writing this! I thank you because you’ve always gotten it – always understood. You’ve always known and had our backs. I thank you because you play your part in putting out diverse characters and you support diverse authors. But I also thank you because it is a simple sad fact that a thousand POC writers baring their hearts and souls does not have the same impact and weight as one white ally with a public forum. Which is a sad commentary that we all recognize as fact.

    • Justine on #

      Thanks. As you say so many other PoC are saying all this, have been saying all of this for years, no decades, no, actually at this point we’re getting into centuries. We just have to keep saying it over and over and over. And, yeah, the folks with privilege like me seem to get listened to more, which depresses the hell out of me.

  8. Anne Nesbet on #

    Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking post! I really appreciate it.

  9. Lamusiqe13 on #

    Do you regret writing your older books from the perspectives of people of color? Because you’ve said several times recently that your books are part of the problem.

    • Justine on #

      No, I don’t. Those books are imperfect (deeply so) but they’re the best I could write back then and I’m proud of them for that reason. I am also aware that some people were hurt by those books and feel that I perpetuated stereotypes. I will continue writing books set in the world I live in where there are many people who aren’t like me but for awhile I want to write about racism primarily from white perspectives.

      It’s a huge problem that books about PoC are more likely to be published if they’re by a white person. Especially as too often those representations are harmful. I want white writers to stop thinking that by writing from poc perspectives they’re “fixing” the problem. No matter how good our books are we’re not.

      Yes, I am part of the problem. My books, particularly Liar, got a lot of praise because I, a white writer, wrote them that I don’t think a black writer would have gotten. In the same way that male writers writing from female perspectives get more praise. That’s deeply problematic. We need to push back hard against it. It’s part of why it’s so much easier for white men to get published than for anyone else.

      I don’t want white people to stop writing about the diverse world they live in nor do I want men to stop writing women. Us stopping doesn’t solve anything. What we can do is draw as much attention as possible to the PoC writers who don’t get the same amounts of attention. We can support Diversity in YA who are doing things like raising money to pay for publishing internships for PoC. We can pay attention to who we blurb and support and who we get asked to blurb etc.

      I’ll be writing more on this. As you can see I have a lot of thoughts. But I want to be very clear I’m not telling anyone what to write and I’m certainly not telling anyone not to write. I just want all of us white writers to be more mindful of the impact of what we write and our part in the much bigger system of white supremacy. You don’t have to support it to benefit from it.

      One last thought: feeling guilty about this as a white writer is not helpful either. We need to use our energies in positive ways not in beating up on ourselves.

      • Debbie Reese on #

        Here’s a good example of this:

        In 2014 I took a look at the CCBC list of books by/about American Indians. My sample was fiction published in the U.S. (14 bks total).*

        I sorted them into those published by “the Big Six” publishers.

        In the Big Six pile, there were 6 books. Five are by non-Native writers. I easily found their books in the local library, read, and reviewed them at my site. None of the five are on my Recommend lists. The sixth one is by Eric Gansworth, a Native writer, and I do recommend that one, very highly. Gansworth’s book is from Scholastic.

        In the small publishers pile, there were 8 books. One by a non-Native writer (Rob Owen). I couldn’t get that one so couldn’t say if it would be one I’d recommend. The other seven are by Native writers. It took work to get all those but I was able to do so. I read, and do, recommend them.

        I’ve recently learned that Scholastic is not considered a big publisher. The term currently used is Big Five. If I did the analysis today, I’d move Gansworth’s book to the other stack.**

        This analysis tells us so much. Some may disagree with my recommend/not-recommend conclusion for a book and subsequently have it listed in a different category than I would, but my guess is that overall, we’d arrive at the same general conclusion: not enough Native writers getting published by major publishers.


        *My analysis is here:

        **Some people look at the outcome of my analysis and think it is skewed because I am biased against white people. I do have biases, but against white people? No. In many regards, I’m a lot like white people. I know far too little about those marked as “other” and am aware that a lot of what I have in my head are misrepresentations of those who, like Native peoples, have been misrepresented–with good or bad intentions–by the dominant power structures.

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