By Shaker Laurie
As a teacher of reading and English in schools with large populations of students of color, young adult fiction about characters of color is high on my radar. Many of my students don't see themselves as readers when they walk into my classroom. Reader identity and engagement are a huge component of the work we do as we address student reading problems, and when students are handed books full of characters that are unlike them racially, culturally, and socio-economically, the chasm between their picture of themselves and their idea of books and who books are for only widens.
The problem is not that amazing books about teens of color don't exist. They do. My kids latch obsessively onto books about teens like them and read them voraciously because adolescents in all their self-involved glory enjoy reading texts that remind them of, well, themselves. Sherman Alexie and Sandra Cisneros certainly deserve their received accolades: The House on Mango Street is a beautifully poetic account of a Latina's coming of age, and Absolutely True Diary poignantly tells the story of a boy who struggles with life on a reservation and his desire for a strong education. Judith Ortiz Cofer, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, and Matt de la Peña's work also comes to mind, so when NPR comes along and declares 100 books the "Best-Ever" and leaves nearly every single young adult title written about people of color off the list without caveat or mention, damage is done.
Clearly, audience-selected "Best Ever" lists are dangerous and problematic, but the absence of any indication of NPR's awareness of the glaring neglect on their list is also troubling. A list of "Best-Ever" books that declares only two books about teens of color worthy keeps all of these amazing stories in the margins, and arguably marginalizes them even further. When the world of reading remains so predominantly white, children and teens of color receive the clear message that they don't belong. It sends a message directly from readers as well as NPR that writing about people of color is not valuable or valued, that their stories aren't as important as the trials and tribulations of Edward and Bella; the Twilight series ranks #27.