Where are all the black boys?

Last week, author and librarian Betsy Bird posted this on Twitter: “At the risk of sounding desperate, can anyone name me just ONE middle grade novel published in 2013 starring an African-American boy?”
She later followed up with a post listing all the books published in 2013 featuring African-American boys as main characters. If I’m counting correctly, the number is somewhere around eight. Maybe ten, when you count some of the small publishers.
You have no idea how depressed this makes me feel.
There are a lot of theories why these books aren’t being published. Maybe authors aren’t writing them. Maybe editors and agents aren’t acquiring them. Maybe readers don’t want them.
While this makes me worry about the state of the industry, I find myself first worrying about my daughter. My nieces. And especially my nephew.
I grew up in a time when there were very few books for young people featuring people of color. There’s no way to describe how it feels NOT to see yourself in books. There’s no way to describe how it feels NOT to see other authors that look like you writing books. As someone that had wanted to be an author since I was in second grade, it was…crushing.
Hell, it’s still crushing. Have you ever scanned the shelves at your local bookstore? If the real world were like the YA section, I wouldn’t exist.
Knocking on wood—I have a new book coming out next year. It’s my first middle grade, and while it features an ensemble cast, the main character is a thirteen-year-old African-American boy. As of today, it’s titled THE GREAT GREENE HEIST (published by Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, edited by Executive Editor Cheryl Klein). It’s about…well, a heist.
(Sorry, but I don’t do well with describing my own books. And while I’m at it, sorry for all the disclaimers, but in publishing, nothing is ever set in stone until the book’s on the shelves.)
Selfishly, I worry that no one will buy the book. Either people will think it’s not relevant to them because it features a black boy. Or they won’t buy it because they’ll think it’s about slavery or racism. Or people won’t buy it because it’s NOT true Black History Month material. (Or it could just suck, but that’s a worry shared by the majority of authors.)
I try not to obsess about things like this, but given the industry’s track record, can you blame me?
I also worry that with such a small sampling of books that feature African-American boys, my book will have to do double or triple or quadruple duty. Being a fun caper novel won’t be enough. It’ll have to be more. More literary. More commercial. More accessible. More poignant.
I know this is crazy talk. This is the type of talk that puts authors in a forever do-loop with a manuscript. I know this—but still, I worry.
I feel fortunate that this book is being published by Cheryl and the folks at AAL /Scholastic. I trust that they’ll make the right decisions about the cover—whether it features a brown face or not. I trust that they’ll do what is best to get the book in the hands of all readers, not just ones with brown faces. (And please, please read this blog post about judging coversby Andrea Davis Pinkney, vice president and editor at large of Scholastic’s Trade Books. Even as an author of color, I struggle with this issue.)
I’m working on a new project now, and it’s tough going. But in a day or so, I’ll try to forget about publishing statistics and book covers and authorial responsibility and all the other crap that can weight an author down. And then I’ll get back to work.

36 Responses to “Where are all the black boys?”

  1. kellybarnhill

    It is truly astonishing that our industry remains as limited as it is. Good god – it's 2013! It's particularly frustrating for those of us who are often in the position of shoving books into the hands of lots of different colors of kids. Because kids read to learn about others, but they also read to learn about themselves. And every child should be able to identify with at least some of the main characters in the books they read.

    I'll be watching for your book when it hits the shelves. Good luck!

  2. Pam

    Thanks, Varian. You make some great points here. Do you mind if I post this to my blog?

  3. Wild About Words


    What an honest, much-needed wake-up call.

    Yes, we need more books where the main characters represent a variety of people, and not just in the stereotyped ways.

    Sounds like your new novel is about a fun heist with a main character who happens to be black.

    My novel, How to Survive Middle School, is about a student struggling against bullying and he just happens to be Jewish.

    At school and Skype visits, I get lots of questions about his being Jewish because it's unfamiliar to many students.

    It's great for young people to be exposed to all different people and cultures and ethnic backgrounds. It's important for children to meet others who are not like them in some ways, yet just like them in deeper, emotional ways.

    So, YES, we need more books like Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis and How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and Absolutely, Positively Not by David LaRochelle and especially The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson.

    Thank you, Varian,

  4. beckylevine

    This is a beautiful post. I don't know what to say, except that I will read your book. I'm also pretty sure that I would pick it up for various reasons, not just because you've shared this or because I agree with everything you've said here. I would pick it up because I love MG boy books, because I like heist books, because I'll pick up pretty much anything published by Cheryl Klein & Arthur Levine, because, because, because…

    The part I'm less happy about, with myself, is that I'm not sure–if this post hadn't been making the rounds on Facebook–whether I would have given this problem enough thought, on my own. So I guess, thank you also, for reminding me how important it is that we represent everybody in the books we write and the books we read, how important it is that we let the publishers know that we want more books for all kids.

  5. Ron Smith

    I'm depressed too, Varian.

    I'm revising a middle grade novel with an African American boy in a class taught by Nova Ren Suma.

    We definitely need more books on the shelves that feature African American and other under-represented characters.

    Thanks for bringing this up. I for one will definitely be picking up your new book and telling as many people as I can about it.

  6. Chris Barton

    Well put, V.

    How do we fix it? By cultivating more diversity among the ranks of us authors? By having publishers actively solicit manuscripts with more diverse lead characters? By encouraging our fellow authors — regardless of our gender or ethnicity — to give greater consideration to featuring African-American boys in our books? Some combination of the above, or through other ways?

  7. katie mather


    Do you think this has to do with the fact that most of children's and young adult fiction is written by white writers? As a white writer, I know that I am intimidated to write characters of color for fear that I will "do it wrong" and offend someone. As a white writer who thinks about writing characters of color, I worry that they would just come off as white characters who I've slapped a coat of paint on. Or worse, characters who are stereotypical.

    As a country with so much racial complexity, but so few opportunities or outlets in which to have complex dialogues, it's hard to decide to enter the fray.

    Also, my apologies for starting 60% of my sentences with "As a…"

  8. Robin

    Great post, Varian. I've been purposefully seeking out books with protagonists whose race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, or disability is not well-represented in literature, and it's a shame how little is out there (when compared to the entire body of kidlit).

    Anyway, know that I'll be buying and reading and recommending your book when it comes out!

  9. Jennifer

    Varian, I worked as librarian in one of the south suburbs of Chicago where we were CLAMORING for any book that featured middle and upper middle class, suburban, African-American protagonists. It was so hard for the kids in this community to find themselves reflected in the books available for them. Every time I was at an ALA conference, my coworkers and I would talk to as many publishing folks as we could, trying to explain this need.

    It's there, but I think somehow Betsy Bird bringing it up and starting a larger, more public conversation can help to make a difference. There need to be more books like yours, and Christopher Paul Curtis's and Crystal Allen's.

  10. Kellie D.G.

    Hi, Varian! I saw Betsy's call for titles with African American boy MCs on Twitter. Got us thinking at #mglitchat about the need to have a group dialogue about this issue. We are going to have this as a topic for the June 13th chat, 9 pm EST. Hope you can join us. Everyone is welcome to join in on the conversation. It is an important one.

  11. Anonymous

    I was so excited about the Genius Files books by Dan Gutman because I thought the main characters were supposed to be African-American or at least mostly African-American. I read the arc envisioning the twins and their parents as African American. Then the first book was published and on the cover… white kids. I've never been so disappointed. – Anne

  12. Camille

    I am working with a very small private school in Houston right now in an attempt improve their library collection. Very small school library with only volunteer staff, grades 1-6. Donating all my review copies to them. These students deserve stories with characters like them. We need more middle school books like this featuring girls and boys. Can't wait to place your book there.

  13. Jean Wogaman

    Please make sure your publisher promotes your book to the DC Public Schools and Libraries. A lot of kids here must be feeling the way you do.

  14. Varian Johnson

    These are all great comments. I don't know all the answers, but I'm glad we're talking about it. I know some authors worry about "not getting it right" when it comes to characters that look like them. I understand this, but I also think it's worth the risk. I've only read one book where I didn't think the African-American character was believable, and that was written by an African-American author. I think, with all the socioeconomic and political and geographical diversity in the world, it's hard (and incorrect) to say that there's a definitive minority voice.

    And thinking back on it, it wasn't that I didn't believe that the character was an authentic African-American male. I didn't think it was an authentic human. The character didn't work, no matter the ethnicity.

  15. Cynthia Levinson

    Varian, thank you for this personal and wrenching post. I don't know what to do about it. But you've opened a critical discussion.

  16. AnnaLund2011

    Add your future book to GoodReads (www.goodreads.com) so that we (all us readers who would WELCOME IT WITH OPEN ARMS) can start a buzz around it!

  17. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley


    I'm a middle-aged white female who wrote Jefferson's Sons about Thomas Jefferson's children with Sally Hemmings. I loved telling the story but I was a little anxious about my ability to portray my characters accurately–especially because they're real people from history. However, having done it, I'd be much less concerned about writing from a diverse point of view in the future. I think for a long time in the 1980s and 1990s, white writers were actively discouraged from writing from diverse points of view–the idea being you had to be a member of a population (black, Jewish, Native American, etc.) to portray it authentically. However, I hope we're moving beyond that now. When I talk at schools about Jefferson's Sons, I get a lot more questions from black or racially mixed students than I do when I talk about my books featuring white characters. I can see these children long for representation. Thanks for your post, and your encouragement.

  18. Greg Leitich Smith

    The situation isn't all that much better for boys of other ethnicities. I was just talking with Cyn about the absence of Asian boys in children's lit. There are some — mine, for example, as well as, say, the Alvin Ho books for younger readers — but not a lot. There are none that feature South Asian boys at all that I can think of. And off the top of my head, nothing with Hispanic boys really comes to mind, either.

  19. Starr K

    I am trying to keep up with all the the diversity of literature available in general and for upper elementary and mg specifically. It's hard. Good Luck! I will be looking out for The Great Greene Heist

  20. boldloveproject

    Thank you, Varian, for sharing your personal experience growing up without books with boys that look like you in them. Maybe I sound like a dolt, but I'd never imagined what that could feel like and reading your post has opened up a new perspective for me. Race can be a sensitive issue and I appreciate your bravery in speaking up and helping me see a perspective I had never considered. I know there's a long way for us to go–at the same time, I'm thankful you're helping to minimize the enormous hole in our book world–I pray that other authors will, too.

  21. Victoria Byron

    I was just talking about this the other day on another blog, though that was more about how covers white-wash non-white protagonists.

  22. Laura

    Would soooo love more books with African American boy protagonists. Will be buying your book as soon as I can.

  23. david elzey

    mr. v, here's a question that is not rhetorical: are the 90-plus percent characters white or white-by-default?

    in screenwriting i was taught to write colorblind because it was someone else's job to decide what the character would look like (unless it was integral to the story). i get that we want to identify with characters when we read but to what end?

    and do not get me wrong, i'm with you, the statistics are appalling and the publishing industry needs to call out authors and insist they defend the need for the whitewash. instead of passively accepting what they are given wouldn't it be fine if they said something like "i REALLY love this story, and i'd love to print it, but i've already filled my slate with all the white males i can stand this year."

    does that solve that solve the problem if all that happens is that the appearance of the characters changes to meet a quota?

    no, i know you're talking more about the actual experience and not just the appearance of race in fiction. still, what if publishers honestly tried sought to have their imprints reflect the racial and ethnic make-up of the country?

    it would at least look better than congress.

  24. Diamond

    Good morning. I was on goodreads when I saw someone's post about this blog. The topic intrigued me, and after I read, I felt sad. It is disheartening not to see more positive images of our likeness on the cover of books. I'm an author too and it was a wake up call just watching people's responses to my covers. The original version of my debut novel, Imagined Love, had a pair of White hands on the cover. At the time I didn't think much about it. I was so excited to have my book out there and I was naive enough to think if I wrote a good book any and every one would relate to it. That wasn't the case. So when I had the opportunity to redo Imagined Love, I changed the cover. Now it has beautiful Black folks on it and is a better representation of the characters in the book. So imagine my surprise when a woman saw all four books and chose the one with the White hands and thumbed her nose at the other one even though it was for the same book. Other times I'll be having a conversation with someone about the books and they seem so excited to read them . . . until they see Black people on the cover and then they can't get away fast enough. I've been told by publishing professionals that even though they loved the story, they couldn't market my book with the covers I'd chosen. Apparently no one wants to read a book with Black people on the cover. That's such a horrible, disheartening feeling. What do we do to overcome this?

    Diamond Drake

  25. mary kinser

    I completely agree – as the (white) mother of a black boy, I worry every day about my son seeing himself represented in literature. I don't want him to feel like he isn't there. And I do everything I can to seek out books about kids of all colors, and promote them via my blog, which serves as a running list of multicultural books I've shared with my kiddo (Sprout's Bookshelf, http://www.sproutsbookshelf.com, if you're interested).

    I for one will definitely be seeking out your book eagerly! I wish you every success because this is a crucial problem we must all begin to solve. And that only starts with conversations like this one.

  26. Natalie Dias Lorenzi

    Varian, thank you for this post. As a librarian at a diverse school, we're always looking for books about all kinds of kids. Last year, Christopher Paul Curtis visited our school. One student from the Middle East asked Curtis why all of his characters are African American. He replied that one of the main reasons he started writing was because as a kid, he never saw himself in books, and he wanted to change that. We need many, many more authors like you and Christopher Paul Curtis, and more publishers willing to get these books in front of kids.

  27. E. P. Beaumont

    As a writer who started (like all of us) as a reader, I'm appalled the more I learn about the publishing industry and other faces of the media.

    Those white kids on the cover – might have been the publisher's notion of 'what would sell.' Writers have little or no control over what's in the cover art. Those who argue with it in traditional publishing get a name for being 'difficult.'

    As an aside, that (along with intellectual property issues) is the number one reason this Humble Author has opted to go indie.

    As for Hollywood, they might talk 'colorblind' but it works out to in practice is 70-80% of main characters written as, and cast as, white men. Not coincidentally, that's the same demographic proportion for white male directors. Guess whose vision and whose story is treated as 'universal.' (Thanks for these statistics to the good folks at Racebending, over on Tumblr)

    Then there's the extensive propaganda that insists that boys of any color won't read books written by women, or characters who aren't boys. Unfortunately, most of those main-character-boys are white boys.

    My own ethnic background is Euromutt with a fairish dash of passed-for-white of various ethnicities. So when I write characters from backgrounds different from mine, I do my darn research, run it by my multi-cultural, multi-national board of beta-readers, and make a point of promoting the work of writers of color. And my stories invariably begin as gifts for particular friends, usually of the same ethnicity as the main character.

    Your post gives me a lot of food for thought, and another thing to watch. Because I do know quite a few black boys whose stories I don't see told, and they are much more interesting people than the ones I see being written.

  28. Annemarie O'Brien

    Varian, I have a funny feeling that your Jackson will change things. For one , he's a great character and quite universal to me as I read your latest version of the story. Kids like a good story and I suspect they will love your story. It's got so much of what you worry it might not be. So think positively and good things will come. I just know it! Your book will fill a gap that is missing as well as be a strong player overall. Just focus on writing the best story you can write and the rest will come. Have faith! Hugs, Annemarie

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  30. Anonymous

    This is a great post. I am one year late to the conversation, which means that your book may be available. I am privileged to offer book titles to media specialists grades 6-12 in a small district outside of Atlanta. Now that one of the schools is implementing a Reading for Meaning block, it is critical that I suggest titles that reflect our student population. I read through every comment and got some great new titles, as well as confirmation about a few that I had considered. Thanks everyone! Thanks Varian!