Young Adult Books Too Often Present a World Without People of Color
The first and only time I ever read George Orwell's 1984 was during my senior year in high school. I haven't thought much about it since. Then my daughter brought home Lauren Oliver's Delirium from her middle school library and enthusiastically recommended that I read it. Delirium kicked off a very popular YA series—Fox just bought the rights to turn the trilogy into a TV pilot.
Delirium is like a 1984 for tweens. But, reading it as a mother of color with a biracial daughter (and rereading it to examine how Oliver addresses issues of race and gender), I noticed that, like so many other YA books, the author creates a future society populated almost entirely by white people. Did Oliver intend to do that? Probably not, but that's one of the benefits of whiteness in the U.S.--one doesn't have to consciously think about race in their creations.
In the books, seventeen-year-old Lena fully believes what she has been told all her life. She lives in a society where romantic love is considered a disease called Deliria nervosa. The cure for deliria is an operation on the brain. Lena looks forward to the day when she'll undergo surgery that will cure her of the deliria disease. "I don't like to think that I'm still walking around with the disease running through my blood. Sometimes I swear I can feel it writhing in my veins like something spoiled, like sour milk," she narrates early in the story.
Lena's an orphan because her mother had a tricky case of deliria. Even after undergoing the operation to cure deliria three times, her mom remained full of love. Rather than submit to yet another operation, she committed suicide when Lena was six and the girl was packed off to live with their aunt Carol.
In this post-love world, an all-powerful government controls the lives of its citizens. Every seventeen-year-old appears before a group of evalators that decide their future: their college, their career, and who they'll marry, how many children they'll have are all pre-determined. They are expected to undergo the love cure once they reach eighteen.
Lena's life looks like it will be on track. Then comes Alex.
And here come the parallels with 1984. Meeting Alex changes Lena's views on love and the life that has been laid out for her. She begins to want more. And then she finds out that Alex is part of a resistance movement known as the Invalids. Living outside the electrified fences of towns and cities, the Invalids don't see love as a disease. Every few years, they sneak into the city to stage a protest.
If you've had to read 1984 in high school, you can guess at the rest of the plot. I won't spoil it. Now let's talk about race.
Granted, Delirium is set in an alternate Portland, Maine. The real Portland is fairly white; according to the 2011 U.S. Census, 85 percent of the town's population is white. So perhaps we can excuse Lauren Oliver for not having a single person of color in her book. Every character that Oliver describes is white: Lena is white. Alex is white. Lena's best friend Hana is not only white, but fairly affluent. The boy whom Lena is assigned to marry is white (and a pale white at that). Even the prison guards are white.
But then we get to Oliver's sequel, Pandemonium, which is set partially in New York City. Do we begin to see the racial and ethnic diversity once Lena hits the big city? Nope. Somehow, curing deliria seems to also have eliminated racial and ethnic diversity. When Lena attends a meeting of Deliria-Free America, the auditorium is filled with 2000 people whom she describes as "rows of half-moon faces, pale, bloated, fearful, and grateful—the faces of the cured." She does not mention passing anyone with darker skin or ethnic features on the streets. It's as if people of color have somehow disappeared.
Or maybe they all went underground and joined the Invalids. Among the band of Invalids that Lena meets, a few are racially and ethnically ambiguous. Raven is described only by her dark hair. A woman named Miyako is never physically described. Tack, who initially dislikes Lena, is only described peripherally during a celebration—Lena notes that his brown hands are around Raven's waist as he helps her down. But even that can be clutching at straws.
Oliver's finale to the trilogy, Requiem, came out in early March. Judging by the number of holds at the New York Public Library, it seems to be eagerly anticipated. (I'm number 36 of 57 holds at the moment. Luckily, the library has 83 copies.) Given the trilogy's popularity, I'm more than a little sad and disappointed that readers of color, especially enthusiastic readers like my daughter, fail to see themselves reflected in a storyline that obviously appeals to them in so many other ways.
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