Kids of Color in Middle Grade Science Fiction and Fantasy--a look back at the 98 books nominated for the Cybils

There's an interesting discussion taking place at Black-Eyed Susan's about the shortlists that were just announced for the Cybils Awards-specifically, the absence of books about African Americans that aren't about slaves or civil rights (there are two exceptions--The Frog Scientist, in mg/ya non-fiction, and The Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook, in middle grade graphic novels). As Susan says in one of her comments, "the larger issue isn't about what panelists chose but what they were offered in the first place."

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at what I, as a Cybils Panelist, was offered this fall. 98 books were nominated in the middle grade science fiction and fantasy category of the Cybils Awards--all of these books were ones that somebody loved best. I read 96 of them.

Here are the kids of color I found, the ones who got enough page-time to be memorable. But please please keep in mind that I read them all in the past three months rather briskly, so my memories of them might be faulty and I am open to corrections!

Two of my comments have spoilers; I have indicated this by writing them under a SPOILERS warning.

First, a look at the covers. Yep, 8 out of 98 have kids of color on them. Two of these books (This Side of Magic, by Debbie Dadey and Marcia Thornton Jones, and The Taker and the Keeper, by Pat Perrin) never identify their characters in text as having any particular ethnicity, and I don't see why this can't happen more often.

Turning now to books where the text identifies kids of color as central characters:

One of the four kids who are the main characters in Century #1: Ring of Fire, Pierdomenico Baccalario, is from China.

The British boy who is one of two central characters in The Immortal Fire, by Anne Ursu, is black.

Night of the Living Lawn Ornaments, by Emily Ecton, has an African American boy as the number 2 main character.

The Prince of Fenway Park, by Julianna Baggott, has as its hero a mixed-race boy.

Quest for the Simurgh, by Marva Dasef, has a Middle Eastern cast of characters.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin, is about a Chinese girl.

Kids of color as supporting characters:

In The Dragon's Pearl, a story of Marco Polo, by Devin Jordan, a supporting character turns out to be the daughter of the great Kahn.

In Hannah's Winter, by Kierin Meehan, all the supporting characters, dead and alive, are Japanese.

Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow, by James Rollins, includes characters who are Mayan.

Roar, by Emma Clayton, includes supporting characters of various ethnicities.

In Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run, by Sam Riddleburger, an enslaved boy is an important supporting character.

In Water, Water, Everywhere (Sluggers Vol. 4), by Loren Long and Phil Bildner, none of the kids are of color, but the African American character shown on the cover is central to the plot.

In When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, one secondary character is black or mixed race (thanks Wendy!).


The Nine Pound Hammer has a very diverse set of kid-of-color supporting characters (the main character is a white boy), including the son of John Henry himself, who, unfortunately, dies saving the white kid.

The Last Olympian is memorable, POC-wise, in that the one black demi-god identified as such gets killed in the first chapter.

So. Only 18 out of 98 books (as far as I can remember) were at least a little non-white. I don't think this is because scores of middle grade fantasy and science-fiction books featuring kids of color weren't nominated--I can think of only one other from the relevant October 2008-2009 period (City of Fire, by Laurence Yep).

Our Cybils shortlist of seven books (which you can find here) fortuitously includes two books in which kids of color are the central characters--The Prince of Fenway Park and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, both of which are great books. I dunno if the diversity they bring to our list added, in our unconscious minds, to their appeal. Whether it did or not, I'm glad they are there.


  1. Charlotte,

    Thanks so much for the post, for adding to the discussion.

  2. Charlotte - you know I rolled my eyes when I saw The Last Olympian.

    I am still pissed about the sacrifical death of the Black character so the White Hero can live

    This break down proves that what we already know that scifi/fantasy books with poc are simply not being published.

    Thank you Charlotte

  3. Charlotte, the character Julia in When You Reach Me is black or mixed-race, and a couple of very minor characters are also identified as people of color. Most of the characters aren't identified one way or another. Twelve of the kids in Miranda's class use brown crayons to color their self-portraits. It's a New York book that actually looks something like New York.

  4. thanks Wendy! That brings us to 18...

  5. Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

  6. Thank you for this very helpful post which adds to the discussion currently being held throughout the blogosphere on this topic of diversity in the characters and topics of the Cybils' finalists but ultimately about what is and what is not being published.

  7. I was thinking about this and I was wondering about Lost Conspiracy. I don't remember 100% if there were kids of color in that book, the writing sorta threw me off from thinking about it.

    Interesting article though!

  8. Thanks for the mention of my book, "Quest for the Simurgh." I developed a fantasy world based on middle-eastern mythologies (Persian, Babylonian, Mesopotamian) in a series of stories I wrote previously (Seven Adventures of Cadida). I thought it was a good idea to get kid lit back into the idea that middle-eastern is NOT evil, but has a rich tradition of folklore and mythology which should not be ignored.

  9. I'm curious, Charlotte, if you can remember, how does this compare to last year?

    I'd also be curious to know how the numbers compare to the non-SF/F middle grade Cybils nominees. (Or any of the other categories for that matter.) Is this an issue specifically for SF/F?

    One other thing to add is that SF/F books often deal indirectly and metaphorically with issues of race or more generally of "otherness." There were many texts among the nominees that wrestled with these issues (Silksinger and Toby Alone come most immediately to mind).

  10. Hi, Charlotte. I'm late to this but I want to comment anyway. I don't IN THE LEAST disagree with the issue you're exploring here, believe me. But I'd like to point out that in my The Farwalker's Quest, I imagined most of the characters to be a nice, medium, mixed-race brown (this is a world that has spent many generations blind and there weren't enough people left to support exclusive communities of any kind, so I figured that would result in a world where skin colors trended toward the middle). But it never was a plot issue, so it is never mentioned. Character hair color IS sometimes mentioned, and two, of all the characters in the book, are blond. The cover art gives no clues. But of course, probably since I am white but maybe just because, everyone just assumes that the characters are all white. I think there's sometimes a crack between characters being specified as white and simply assumed as white. Would be interested in the perspective of any folks of color, though, b/c I'm sure I'm unconsciously biased.

  11. Oh, and will add that my nice brownness goes right out the window with my sequel... because authors have no control over our covers.

  12. Hi Joni,

    I was wondering about Farwalker's Quest, becuase, as you say, the cover gives no clues, and I had no copy handy to check...

    Yeah, I think white characters are assumed when the author is white, unless details are added that say otherwise, or unless a choice in favor of diversity is made in the cover art!

  13. Don't have much to add, except thanks for spelling it all out. I don't think we had much more diversity on the MG panel, either, though now you've made me curious...

  14. So, did the other books spell out that the characters are white or did they just not specify that there are minorities?

    I'm struggling with this because I have seen a lot of blogs and tweets about this lately.

    Is this really a problem? I am a minority and this was never a problem growing up or now. I don't really care what race the characters are when I read. But then I have never been one to be sensitive about race.

  15. The other books just didn't have any spelled out minorities, although I think for many one could imagine the characters as having many skin colors...(see Joni's comment), and goodness knows I read so fast that in general characters barely manage to take on corporeal form at all in my mind.

    For me, it matters because I am a mother of blond blue eyed boys and I want to do my best for them--which means making sure that the landscapes of their minds are peopled by characters as diverse as can be...

    I guess I just never ever ever want them to be surprised, or even notice, if the kid who's running around with swords, or the highly educated geek boy who solves it all in his lab, isn't white. (Historical awarness came come a bit later).

    And I guess it's also a matter of not wanting them to privilage Northern European culture; not wanting them to think that those stories, that they hear so often, are somehow the best stories in the world,and then by extension thinking the whole Northern European culture is the best, and the rest of the world matters less.

    So that's why I care, at the most personal level, and why I am cross that it is stupidly hard to find fantasy books in which there are black boys who do brave, smart things and don't get killed to save the white guy.

    And then there are the bigger issues of entrenched unfairness and underpreresentation...as someone who believe that books have power to effect social change, and wants that change to happen, how can I not care?

  16. Thanks for mentioning Immortal Fire. That character is in honor of my cousin, who is biracial--I was a little worried about issues of representation, but honoring my cousin by turning him white seemed a rather poor idea. I didn't know, at the time, how few characters of color there were in fantasy. I didn't know until now how few of these were boys. I'm ashamed to say that I might never have done that if it weren't for my cousin, but now I know better. As a fellow mom to a blond haired, blue-eyed boy, I'm glad you are talking about this.

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