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Atlanta writers battle the lack of diversity in books for young adults

Shanna Miles describes herself as a book pusher.

For at least one group young readers in the metro area she has become more of a leader on a journey to self-discovery than merely a bridge to good books.

A few years ago, Miles was a frustrated journalism major working in corporate America. She thought maybe she would teach English, but after learning the manner in which English is now being taught, she decided to stay closer to her passion.

She earned a master's degree in library media and six years ago began working at South Atlanta High School as the school librarian. One of her first projects was to form a writing club for a group of students ranging in age from 14 to 19. "The kids were black and Latino and they were writing stories with blonde haired and blue-eyed characters," said Miles. "They love to read and devour books, but they were writing themselves out of their stories."

Miles was inspired, not only to get her students to write about their cultural experiences, but to publish her own stories that promoted diversity across the spectrum.

Her self-published book, Willow Born, is Southern gothic paranormal fiction for young adults which features 16-year-old Collette, an empath and a witch who has to choose between a normal life and being part of a coven. Miles specifically hopes to offer an option to young readers of color interested in fantasy who want to see characters that look like them in roles other than villains. 

In the last three years, there has been huge push for diversity in young adult fiction. Organizations such as We Need Diverse Books have been at the forefront by offering grants, mentorships and other resources to emerging writers.

In 2016, there were 3,200 books for young adults published in the U.S. according to data from the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison which has been tracking statistics on children's books for more than 20 years.

Of the young adult books published in 2016, 681 featured diverse characters from African-American, Latino, Pacific Islander/Asian or American Indian/ First Nations cultures. Only 386 of those books were written by authors from those cultures. The gap between the number of stories written by African-Americans (90) and those written about African Americans (265) is particularly large.

"That really is amazing in a not so good way," said Kathleen Horning, director of the CCBC. "We started seeing the number of books about African-Americans go up quite a bit and that continued this year to more than double," she said.

It sounds like a good thing. If more diverse books are needed and they are being written, who cares who is writing them? But the gap is reflective of a few factors.

First, there is the fact that there are African-American writers who decide not to write culture based stories. There are also white authors may choose to write book characters of color as a way to break into the industry. In some cases, characters in children's picture books that may have been depicted as white five years ago, are now being depicted as characters of color, Horning said. But these strategies, while adding to the numbers counted as diverse books, don't necessarily bring important cultural representation to a story.

"Our stats are counting quantity and not quality. A colleague calls them place marker books," Horning said. "Until we start seeing more African-American authors getting into the industry, I think this will continue. There needs to be opportunity for African-American authors and illustrators to tell their own stories and I'm not sure they have been getting the opportunities you would expect to see after 40 years."

Miles is one of a growing number of Atlanta-based authors taking on the task of bringing more diversity to young adult fiction.

In October, Crown Books for Young Readers will release " Dear Martin," the debut novel of Atlanta native and Spelman College grad, Nic Stone . The story features an ivy league bound black prep school student from Atlanta who gets shot by an off-duty police officer during an altercation over loud music.

Moody Publishing brought young readers the Payton Skky series, the first African-American Christian teen series, written by Atlanta-based writer Stephanie Perry Moore who continues to write series titles for young adults with a Christian message.

For Miles, having a range of options is crucial. "We read across the racial and ethnic spectrum and sexual orientation. We don't just pick up something on the top 10 list just because it is selling," said Miles.

Although, if she were to pluck the current number one bestselling young adult novel from the New York Times list, it would be the exact kind of novel she is seeking .

"The Hate U Give," (Balzer and Bray, $18) by Angie Thomas, has spent five weeks the top of the NYT bestseller list. Released in late February, the book is part of a two-book, six-figure deal for the 29-year-old who began writing the story as a senior project for her creative writing degree. Thomas, of Jackson, Miss. is being hailed as the next big thing in young adult fiction and has been compared to J.K. Rowlings (Harry Potter) and Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games).

The book, which takes its name from a phrase made popular by the late rapper, Tupac Shakur, addresses issues of racism and police brutality through the eyes of a teenage girl turned activist after the shooting of her childhood best friend. Movie rights have already been optioned by Fox 2000 and will star Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg as the lead character.

While it is a personal success for one author, it is also a moment for many writers of color who have struggled with an industry in which the gatekeepers do not look like them and often do not see the value in telling these kinds of stories.  According to recent data, 80 percent of children's book editors are white women, said Horning.

"It is the same kinds of people who have the same aesthetic and may want to do something different, but they don't have a connection with the community so they end up dismissing it," said Miles, who is quick to note that this doesn't just put limitations on books about people of color. It also means that white characters from rural communities or LGBT  characters are not being featured in books for young adults. .

Miles tried the traditional path of publishing for her debut novel and got a lot of feedback from agents, but no one bit. She ended up shelving Willow Born, thinking it was too much of a long shot, and began working on other projects. It didn't take long for her to return to the book with the decision to create her own publishing company.

The persistent stigma has been that self-published books are not well-edited, well-written or of high quality. And while that may be true in some cases, some writers of young adult books are making the choice to become hybrid authors, publishing some of their work through traditional publishing houses while also choosing to publish some of their work themselves.

There are other barriers beyond the perception of quality that come with self-publishing. The author retains control, but he or she is responsible for everything from writing to promoting to fulfilling orders. Not having a page title means self-published books can't be cataloged in a library. And if a book is self-published as an e-book, as many are, it may work well for teens but no so great for young children for whom story hour or lap reading almost begs for a more tactile experience.

While the industry has come a long way since 1985 when CCBC first tracked 18 books by African-American writers, 12 of which had any cultural content, there is still progress to be made, Horning said. The number of young adult books written by African-Americans never seems to go over 100 in any given year. "One solution is for the publishing industry to diversify their publishing and promotions staff," she said.

But that won't solve the problems created by the loss of funding for school and public libraries.

Public and school libraries who have seen their budgets decimated, accounted for the vast majority of the children's book market, said Horning. While schools nationwide may still have libraries, the are likely to have fewer resources. There is often one librarian for the entire school who is also responsible for technology. Money that might have previously been allocated to buying books must now be spread across the spectrum to include a range of equipment. All of which makes Miles' efforts as both a librarian and a writer that much more important.

In her experience, young adults want to read everything, said Miles. Some are into contemporary fiction, others like fantasy, romance or adventure stories. Miles goes out of her way to expose her students to books that are more diverse. They read books written by marginalized authors about marginalized kids. She invites self-published writers to come in and speak to students. And she insists, that when they write, they include, rather than exclude, people who look, talk and act just like them.

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.