Representation in YA categorically needs to be better. Yes, it’s improving, yes albeit slowly, the field is becoming more diverse.
It is no-where near perfect, however.
There are so many readers of YA that find themselves under-represented, and I am in no position to talk or evaluate their points of view, so I shall just be focusing on my personal experience, as a ‘plus-size’ reader struggling to truly find herself in the places she chooses to escape.
I am a straight, white, female. Therefore I dominate nearly 90% of young adult fiction (not an actual number gathered from real life data, but it’s probably near enough, let’s be honest), although I’ve never truly clicked with most of the characters I’ve read.
Now, of course, you don’t have to see yourself to enjoy a book, to love a book, to give it those 5*’s. But it just always tips it that little bit more in your favour. There is no better connection to a book than one that speaks to you fully because its main character essentially is you.
So, I’ve struggled with my weight for most of my life; ever since I was old enough to realize and acknowledge that I was bigger than my friends and peers. I’ve always been bigger, noticeably so.
I couldn’t shop in the ‘cool’ girls shops – I always had to go to the adult section to find clothes that would actually fit me. Almost all shopping trips would end in an argument with my Mum because I was frustrated and I’d always cry.
Now at the grand old age of nearly 26, I’m thankfully not where I used to be, but I’m still not where I’d like to be. I’m a great deal more confident than I used to be; I actually have some!! Most days I’m comfortable in my body, at a UK size 14, my size is comfortably carried in H&M and I can find pretty clothes that fit well (except from H&M and their meager sizes), so I no longer cry whilst shopping, victories!
Backstory over with, back to books and the whole point of this post. The majority of female MC’s in YA are exclusively THIN. They’re beautiful (even if they don’t know it), they’re usually small/petite (something I haven’t been since my early growth spurt at 11), and of course, they’re the chosen/special one.
Their figures are always described with positive adjectives – always painted as somewhat desirable even if they don’t realize it, to begin with.
I don’t remember finding a book with the main character described as anything but these things until I was at least 20 – give or take a couple of months.
At the time I loathed my body the most, I would read to escape, and I would further get stereotypes of beauty ingrained in me. More and more, younger me grew to hate her body because it was not, in any media outlet, counted as beautiful. It was exhausting.
I have no doubt that books with good, positive fat rep existed at that time, however, they weren’t the norm, nor were they easily accessible. Sadly, I did not find them. I hope others did find them.
So, when did I at long last discover myself in a book?
I found myself in Eleanor, from Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. 7
I found myself in Libby from Holding Up The Universe by Jennifer Niven
I found myself in Virginia from The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler
Though none of those compare to the moment I read The Upside of Unrequited and found the light of my life; Molly Peskin-Suso. My heart belongs to her. She is without a doubt one of my favourite book characters of all time, and I am so grateful to Becky Albertalli for bringing her to life.
I lost count of the number of times her thoughts echoed my own. Of just How many of her insecurities were the same ones that had plagued me. She is hands down the most relatable character I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
If only I’d met her sooner.
Because all of these characters would’ve meant the world to 13-16 year old me, and I hope these characters give some hope and confidence to the girls and boys of this age range today. I really, really hope YA continues to grow its diversity because it needs to grow.
What are your experiences of representation in YA?