I walked into the Cambridge edition of Diversity in YA feeling that there was a lot to celebrate about the state of YA fiction, and I left feeling the same way. The tour is more about, as moderator Roger Sutton put it, foregrounding what's present than about lamenting what isn't there. One issue that came up, though, is one that's been a source of controversy for a while: the question of whether most young white readers will pick up a book with a non-white character on the cover.
I think one reason many haven't is that they've learned such books are likely to be about race, which means they're likely to be serious realistic or historical fiction stories. Whoever you are, sometimes you're in the mood for that, and sometimes you're not. Luckily, and largely thanks to the work of authors like those on the panel, what's available is changing, and readers are learning that a book with an Asian girl on the cover just might be a queer take on the hero's quest or something.
But even if teens are starting to get that message, what about the adults--parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers, assorted gift buyers--helping books get into their hands? In my experience, many (if not most) adult customers assume young readers won't want a book if the main character is of a different gender. I wonder how many think the same way, consciously or unconsciously, about race and other categories. And yes, I do think the adult factor plays a part even in YA. Teens often do select their own books, but just as often, there's an adult either buying the book as a gift or steering the teen toward a choice (at least in my particular bookstore; maybe that's less true in libraries). More than that, adults are very involved in book choice in the years leading up to YA, and I'm sure that helps shape teens' reading habits.
Still, last night's gaggle of awesome provided evidence that diversity is a) out there in YA and b) cool. Huzzah!