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Writing, Illustrating & Publishing => Book Talk => Topic started by: TracyH on June 22, 2012, 09:27 PM

Title: Race in kid's books
Post by: TracyH on June 22, 2012, 09:27 PM
My editor wrote a wonderfully honest and thought provoking post about race in kids books and how a bad trade review might have unintended consequences: http://www.cbcdiversity.com/2012/06/what-to-do-with-bad-review.html#more

Two of the main characters in my story are black. I never gave it any thought - they just are. And race doesn't come up as an issue in the story at all. I hate the idea that I may have to think about how these characters are portrayed rather than just let them be organic.

So I was wondering a couple of things - does the issue of race come up for you consciously when you're writing? Do you try to populate your stories with different races, or do they just come out that way? Have you never given it any thought?

(should she have sent the letter?) :ha

Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: ruecole on June 22, 2012, 11:02 PM
I try to include characters of different ethnicities in my stories. Unless the circumstances of the story dictate that every character be of the same ethnic descent, it's just not realistic for everyone to be the same. Admittedly, my MC's tend to be Caucasian (especially of English or German descent), but I guess that's because it's easier to "write what you know." Maybe one day I'll be brave enough to try writing from the POV of person of another ethnicity (I'm always afraid of getting the details wrong and being accused of stereotyping!). But I certainly try to populate my stories with people of all ethnicities.

Rue
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Shelliep on June 23, 2012, 05:59 AM
I write books with black characters because I'm black. I consciously go back and add characters of other colors because I want to be inclusive, and I wouldn't read a book where my race didn't exist at all. Even if it's "A black man on the corner was stringing a guitar." I mean, give me something. I don't ask for much, just don't write me out of the world. I should point out that service people of color doesn't cut it for me. Rue is right, diversity is a reality. I don't know what to think of writers who only have one race of people in their stories.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: jojohn on June 23, 2012, 06:27 AM
The editor addressed it beautifully in the blog. I'm sure she feels personally insulted because of how carefully she edited the book to ensure accuracy and because of her unique position in publishing.

There are so many times my husband and I talk about the nuances of race and racism. He is in a white-male dominated field. There are so many factors that influence people's attitudes and decision-making that are subconscious. Sometimes people try so hard and in the process do the very thing they are trying to avoid. I doubt that the reviewer thought beyond his/her immediate reaction to the character in question. That is so often the case. The editor's honest response is the kind of measured conversations that we need to have as a society.

I specifically include characters of all backgrounds and also write from a male POV because that reflects my life and experience. My husband is black and from Jamaica. My four boys are biracial and categorized by other people in many ways. They talk a lot about their varying perspectives on race. I work in an urban school district and most of my students are black males. Historically I've worked with many more boys than girls. I live in a neighorhood that is probably about 60% black 30% white and 10% other groups. I want my students and children to have characters they can relate to. The stories I'm telling are enhanced by a diverse cast of characters.

I will continue to include people of all backgrounds because that is my life but I don't write specifically about that. I have family and friends who can ensure that I'm not creating sterotypes. But I always wonder about being white and female writing about diverse characters without that being the primary theme of the books. Will that be one more stumbling block on the path to being published? Maybe. And even if I do get published, there will be people who think I shouldn't be the one writing these stories or who don't like something about how I portray different characters. But the reality is that within demographic groups there is both similiarity and differences as well as wide variations in personalities, perspectives, strengths and weakness. Authors should feel free to responsibly explore the nuances of well-rounded characters of all backgrounds.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Kell on June 23, 2012, 06:33 AM
Hmm, interesting. In my books, I write people of different ethnicities, but sometimes it's obvious and sometimes not. One of my main characters in my upcoming book is Puerto Rican and one is white, and that's clear, but the race of the other characters isn't specified, although some are partly described. That doesn't mean they are all white.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Shelliep on June 23, 2012, 08:10 AM
"And even if I do get published, there will be people who think I shouldn't be the one writing these stories or who don't like something about how I portray different characters."

I understand that sentiment, Jojohn.  Writing characters with a culture you're not a member of (but wouldn’t you say you earned an honorary membership in it) is a bit dicey. But who has a right to say who can write what? This is America after all. As a black person, it doesn't upset me that a white writer is telling a black story. What upsets me is that there aren't more black writers telling stories. I don't begrudge you the publication of your story. I'm sure it'll be the result of many hours of writing and editing and will deserve to be told. As a fellow mother of a black son, I can understand the pull of writing from that POV. With such a shortage of black children writer, I'm personally grateful that some very fine white authors have included children of color in their work. Thank goodness for Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants when my son was growing up. But perhaps feeling self-conscious about cultural differences is just a natural doubt we writers have. I know that as a privileged American woman, I hesitate to write a story idea about honor killings because I'm not from that culture and I can't help feeling it's not my place to write it. It would take a lot of research and would be a huge emotional drain before I could reach the level of comfort it would take for me to write it as a non-Muslim because I wouldn’t want to offend. Still, I think this boils down to being a human issue, not a Muslim issue, so maybe I will write it someday.

Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Vijaya on June 23, 2012, 08:26 AM
People are often criticized if they write outside their culture. Even within, sometimes, because there is a great deal of diversity within the white community, or black, or Asian. I read and write about other cultures because I find them fascinating. The important thing is research. I hate it when the minor Mexican character is portrayed as a gardener who cannot speak proper English. A character like that is interesting when there is a story about him tying to make a better life for himself. I would like for ethnic characters there not just for the color, but also a plot! Holly Cupala wrote a book with the love interest who is Indian (or Pakistani -- now I don't remember) but it was authentic. I think it helps that her husband is Indian, and she is familiar with the culture. So the key thing is research. The more you know, the more you can include the subtle nuances of that culture. I look to someone like Geraldine Brooks (white, Australian) who is doing it right -- she has written extensively about Islamic cultures and Jewish people. She was the mid-east correspondent for many years. Her books are chockful of interesting and provocative thoughts. Donna Jo Napoli is another one -- she's written the Chinese Cinderella story. The reason it's so good is because she took the time to study.

Write what you want, but study what you don't know. And I liked your editor's post too.
Vijaya
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: angela on June 23, 2012, 08:55 AM
I liked your editor's post. I've had many readers tell me that "Big" in The End of the Line is one of their favorite characters. I agree with your editor --it also breaks my heart when a review might keep readers from a great book!!!!

Her post was amazing; I could feel her passion for her work, her authors, their books and all of the characters.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Artemesia on June 23, 2012, 11:01 AM
So I was wondering a couple of things - does the issue of race come up for you consciously when you're writing? Do you try to populate your stories with different races, or do they just come out that way? Have you never given it any thought?

Mine just come out that way. But I think if I ever had a story where I realized there was no diversity, I'd think about it more consciously. But I do struggle with wanting to write the characters authentically, whether they are male or of another ethnicity. In the MG I'm working on, my MC has two friends that are as important to the story as he is, so it's sort of an ensemble cast, I guess, and the girl is African American. I love her, she's my favorite character in the book, but being white myself, and Canadian, (our history is somewhat different, tho definitely not innocent) I really agonize over whether I'm getting her character right. I've written her as an individual, her character defined by her own experiences, but my biggest fear is someone saying "you got it wrong" and that I've unintentionally offended.

Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Veronica on June 23, 2012, 11:34 AM
I have characters of all races and backgrounds in my stories, but I never really think about it when I write. One of my biggest personal "flaws" is that I usually forget about skin color when I think about people. It's just not something I really notice, and so it's not something I think to mention when I write. (My close friends and family members always tease me when I'm trying to describe somebody and leave out details like that. "Um, you could have mentioned that he was a 6' tall black man." Well... I said he was tall and had dark hair. Wasn't that enough?)

The question I struggle with: I really don't see why the color of someone's skin makes any difference as to what kind of person they are. So what purpose does it serve for me to assign skin colors to my characters? If I don't specify that the boy on page 9 and the main character are black, but the girl on pages 13 and 62  is white and the best friend is Indian, will everyone just assume that all of my characters are identical? Do I need to find a way to squeeze the "Oh, and by the way, his skin is brown, but hers is white" into the narrative? To me, that just sounds like a way of creating divisions and classifications where they don't belong...
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: ruecole on June 23, 2012, 11:54 AM
Well, I would think you shouldn't actually need to refer to skin colour. If you've nailed the culture, I think it'll be pretty obvious what your character's ethnicity is. I think this would apply even within the "white" ethnicities. How do you show someone is say English, German, Greek, Jewish, Swedish? They way they talk, their mannerisms, the foods they eat, the music they listen to, the holidays they observe, their religious beliefs, etc. etc.

Of course, that's where things can get dicey. What may seem authentic to one person can seem stereotypical to another. So that's where it's SO important to get your details right! (And why I'm so chicken to try writing an MC from a different ethnicity! :embarrassed2 )

Hope that helps!

Rue

(Edited for clarification.)
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: jojohn on June 23, 2012, 12:42 PM
The question I struggle with: I really don't see why the color of someone's skin makes any difference as to what kind of person they are. So what purpose does it serve for me to assign skin colors to my characters?

I'm probably not the best person to respond, but I believe that though skin color doesn't matter at all in terms of what kind of person our characters are in general, when we are writing we are creating complete people. In reality, it matters in terms of experience. For those of us who are white or who live in a homogeneous situation, our skin color often doesn't affect our daily lives or how we describe ourselves. That is, unless we have the opportunity to be around a lot of people who may label us by our skin color. For example, I'm "the white woman across the street" to my older black neighbors who don't know me very well but I'm becoming Ms. Johnson to one neighbor as the comfort level increases. In other neighborhoods and with other people's experience, I might be "the mom with the four boys," etc. As an adult, it took me awhile to get used to being described by my race as it had never happened growing up. I was in the majority. Only those who were "different" would have been described by race or ethnicity.

If I ride down a country road in rural Jamaica with my husband's family (MY family!!), people stare at me--who is she? why is she here? who does she belong to? Though we all speak English, they sometimes talk past me to my husband. We have that in restaurants here in the US all of the time--except the person seating refers to me and talks past him. These are life experiences that are effected by race. People gravitate to their comfort zone.

In general, being white in America is often the default expectation. It statistically shouldn't be, but it is. If you don't delineate, many will assume the default--though not everyone. The plus is that the reader is free to make his or her own assumption. But if you don't give any reason to assume anything other than white, many will assume white. Heck, sometimes even when you spell it out, they will still assume white (as in the Hunger Games!!)

So if I write about people of color, or immigrants, or males, or whatever I am not, I have to make the character a complete person with a story that might include a few times they experienced racism, had a hard time adjusting to new foods or language, asked a girl out on a date or other things I have not experienced. Likewise, my white characters can't be carbon copies of my life experience. That would be very boring. I need to have them act a way that I would not. In my head, all of my characters have experiences that make them who they are. This isn't all part of the written story, but it is part of creating character. By the end of the book, I want people to believe that all of my characters are people they have actually met--not actors in a play. So I cannot ignore their race but I have lot of options as to how I put it on paper. IMHO.



Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Shelliep on June 23, 2012, 01:49 PM
Ditto what Jojohn said. If you are a white writer and you don't indicate that your character is of another race, I'm just going to assume your character is white. But I don't think writers do that typically. It's our job to round-out a character and ethnicity matters in rounding them out. I love your outlook on race, Veronica, and I hope we're moving in that direction, world citizenship and one race. Bu until than, I'm afraid we still need to acknowledge skin color in books that embrace diversity to move toward that.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Vijaya on June 23, 2012, 02:23 PM
"One of my biggest personal "flaws" is that I usually forget about skin color when I think about people. It's just not something I really notice, and so it's not something I think to mention when I write."

I ran into this in my current wip. MC is Indian, and in my first draft I don't think I mentioned her race until Chap. 2 or so, so my readers didn't know. The book begins and I could've been describing any American family and most people read that as white. She interacts with mostly whites given the demographics of the small rural town in WA state. However, there is a minor character who is black and although I mention it, my readers forget! So I've had to draw attention to his ethnic background so that later they don't say, whoa! I didn't know he was black. And he has to be black for the purposes of the subplot.

So, yeah, what Shelliep and Jojohn say is absolutely true. You want to be able to picture the characters as they are, and although the color of your skin does not matter, sometimes it does and you have to make that obvious.

Vijaya
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Veronica on June 23, 2012, 02:47 PM
Okay, so then here's my dilemma: I have never yet found any kind of personality characteristic that can define a race of people. So obviously, I can't indicate the color of a character's skin with a description of his or her actions, beliefs or personality. How do you subtly define race to indicate a diverse population in your story? Or do I have to make sure I have at least one character in every story who will react to everyone differently based on skin color? (And wouldn't this approach make people think that I'm racist or something?) Am I really the only person in the world who assumes that societies in books are racially diverse? I've never, ever lived in a town or city that wasn't racially diverse, so I always assume that the towns in the books I read are too...

So what do you do? How do you make sure to define skin color without throwing in an awkward "his dark skin glistened" or sprinkling lots of inaccurate and racist stereotypes?

I guess I need to figure this out soon, because the main character in the next book I want to write is a 13-year-old black girl, based in part on a girl I know. I hadn't planned to have her say "oh, and by the way I'm black," because I didn't think it mattered...
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Artemesia on June 23, 2012, 03:26 PM
But I think to your readers, it might matter. Kids want to see themselves represented in the books they read, so it's up to us as writers to make sure they see themselves represented. And I think it also helps for any kid to see diversity in a book, I truly believe racism/intolerance is learned, and maybe we can help unlearn it. And I think Shellie is right, people will assume a character is white if you don't say differently. Did you all hear about the awfulness on twitter when the Hunger Games movie came out?

And I agree 100% with Jojohn that a person's experiences have a big impact on how they see the world and react to it.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Shelliep on June 23, 2012, 03:40 PM
I just started reading Monument 14. It's in the second chapter that the main character describes how blood gushing from a girl's head looks like on her brown skin. See, that flows naturally and it immediately let's me know the girl isn't white because the author didn't write 'tan skin'. I have a story where, in a particular stressful situation, I write something like, "He was lucky his dark skin didn't flush." It's not that hard indicating skin color, I don't think.

Artemesia, I was really surprised by those reactions. I thought Ms. Collins black characters were describes so eloquently. I got it right away.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Artemesia on June 23, 2012, 04:00 PM
Shellie, I got it right away, too. Those reactions were appalling, tho.

Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: ruecole on June 23, 2012, 04:22 PM
Quote
I have never yet found any kind of personality characteristic that can define a race of people.

I don't think you could! The same personality traits are seen in people of all different ethnic background. It's what makes us all human.

Quote
So what do you do? How do you make sure to define skin color without throwing in an awkward "his dark skin glistened" or sprinkling lots of inaccurate and racist stereotypes?

I think you show their ethnic diversity in what your characters say, what they eat, what they wear, what they believe, etc. Even if your character is a fourth or fifth generation American, they're still going to have that cultural history and heritage somewhere in their life.

Oh, and I also thought that hoopla about the Hunger Games movie was pretty disgusting.

Hope that helps!

Rue
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: jojohn on June 23, 2012, 04:31 PM
Okay, so then here's my dilemma: I have never yet found any kind of personality characteristic that can define a race of people. So obviously, I can't indicate the color of a character's skin with a description of his or her actions, beliefs or personality.

Do you feel hesitant to mention a white character's blonde hair, the fact that she blushes when a boy talks to her or other features? You're right that it's not personality that determines their race, but there can be food, dialogue patterns, reactions of other people, names, analogies and other means to give the reader a clue. It's not necessarily a stereotype if it rings true to the character. Even if you have one minority character in an all white environment and that character was born and raised alongside of the other characters, I'd think there would be some time that the character or someone else comments on that. Or maybe it is just part of the character's inner dialogue. Maybe she worries about who to date or if the real world is as colorblind as her experience has been.

Or if you are creating a world where race isn't an issue, then you can include that as part of your world building. Do something to let the reader in on the fact that the people are all different but it doesn't matter in this world.

In one book, I compare white tissue paper that a character's using to wrap up an object to the skin of the old woman who gave the object to her. It was relevant that the old woman was white and the passing of the object created an image of the old white hand handing something to the young dark hand without slamming the reader over the head. Other times, the character's own perception of him/herself can help. Most people (especially young ones) obsess over their looks. Depending on your point of view, you can sneak things in while helping the reader understand the character's self-perception.

Or do I have to  I've never, ever lived in a town or city that wasn't racially diverse, so I always assume that the towns in the books I read are too...

That's great that you've had that experience. If you ever doubt that race still matters to a lot of people, just scroll down the comment section in any story about a person of color on the Yahoo news feed and regardless of whether it is about race or the race of the person is even relevant, check out the comments. Also, realize there are parts of the country that are extremely segregated. Not necessarily because of beliefs, but jobs, opportunities, the size of the town, the part of the country--many other factors can influence whether an area is diverse or not. We are obligated to explain our setting, situation and assumptions to our readers without them realizing that's what we are doing.

On a side note: I thought my parents were completely not racist until I brought home a black boyfriend. They came to love him (getting to know people tends to do that) and he was completely wonderful about it. I was shocked, hurt, horrified. My boyfriend (now husband) was not. He expected it. I did not. Sometimes, it is more about whether we are paying attention than it is about whether it exists. My parents didn't expect that reaction in themselves either. Keep feeling the way you do because the more people who feel that way, the better things will get-- and it's a lot better. But when you write, take off all blinders and be harshly honest with yourself and your characters and see if it helps. Make some mistakes and fix them. You'll figure it out.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: TracyH on June 23, 2012, 10:52 PM
To chime in about how to point out the race of characters without being awkward - I think it has to be organic. There is a moment in my story when one character pats the other character's leg in comfort. I saw the dark hand on the skinny white leg, and so that seemed like the right time to mention it. There are a gazillion other ways.

I think you're right Jojohn, in that it depends on your life experience, and this reviewer was drawing from her own. I just think sometimes people are too sensitive and perceive injustice when there isn't any, or they overthink things to death, or worse, they want people to see where they stand on things. And when it's between you, me and the lamppost, oh well. Everyone's entitled to their opinion. But when it's a trade reviewer, I think it's important they temper things. Her perception of this character wasn't based on the character work done by the writer, it came through her own distorted lens.

I suppose we all have a distorted lens to one degree or another - but hopefully we see that and refrain from making comments that might effect someone else's livelihood.

Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: maxi on June 24, 2012, 02:08 AM
This is really interesting. I write and illustrate for picture books where showing diversity is extremely important. Or so I thought. The most important thing here (for some publishers) is being able to sell the rights so a character who is white with blonde hair or black with afro hair isn't really wanted. I have been asked specifically to depict certain cultures but more often than not I'm asked for generic characteristics.

I just felt the need to add that - I don't know if it adds anything to the conversation but there you go :)



 
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: christripp on June 24, 2012, 03:13 AM
I believe my earliest Illustration jobs (government funded pamphlets etc) set the stage for me to, years later, unconiously draw inclusively. The governement would be so worried about PC and inclusive Illustration that every culture, every race, most handicaps, both sexes (non sterotypical) would have to be portrayed. Occassionally they would be SO concerned about this that the direction bordered on the ridiculous, and worse, insulting. For instance, I was once told, for a b/w cartoonish style illustration of a father and child, to make him look MORE African American(Canadian). I was very happy with his cropped, black hair and an ever so slightly broader nose. They suggested I add an AFRO and cross hatch his skin. (cross hatch, for those that may not know, is a black line shading effect that can often just look "dirty" in reproduction) Are you kidding me, an Afro in the 90's????? I refused, they gave in.
Still, this concious awareness while working did result in my now Unconcious adding main or supporting characters of colour to all my Illustration. For that, I must be grateful (even if, at times, the over thinking of the directors could drive one to drink:)
I'm wondering, can anyone name a PB that features a child of colour as the main character? This can't be a PB about a cultural aspect of the child's race, just a general topic PB. I honestly can't think of a single one but even if there are a few, the fact I can't name them off hand is a sad state of affairs.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Kell on June 24, 2012, 05:25 AM
I write PBs as well as MG, and some of my characters have names that indicate ethnicity, but I don't describe them because I know how they look is up to the illustrator. And the illustrator might as easily make them bears or rabbits as human children. In PBs, that's one way the issue of ethnicity or inclusivity is sidestepped. Like in Rosemary Wells' YOKO and related books -- YOKO is Japanese and some of the other kids have clear ethnicities, but they are drawn as cats, dogs, and other animals.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Shelliep on June 24, 2012, 05:27 AM
Eve Bunting's Flower Garden comes to mind. Also, Leola and the Honeybears by Melodye Benson Rosales.

Edited to say I was responding to Christripp, not Kell. Also, Lee and Low books, dedicate themselves to diversity, so there would be a good place to get more current titles. Years ago I found a lovely picture book with an Asian main character, but I no longer have it and can't remember the name.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Rachel on June 24, 2012, 08:36 AM
I'm wondering, can anyone name a PB that features a child of colour as the main character? This can't be a PB about a cultural aspect of the child's race, just a general topic PB. I honestly can't think of a single one but even if there are a few, the fact I can't name them off hand is a sad state of affairs.
One of my recent favorites is Oh No! Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World by Marc Barnett and illustrated by Dan Santat.

I think you're right Jojohn, in that it depends on your life experience, and this reviewer was drawing from her own. I just think sometimes people are too sensitive and perceive injustice when there isn't any, or they overthink things to death, or worse, they want people to see where they stand on things. And when it's between you, me and the lamppost, oh well. Everyone's entitled to their opinion. But when it's a trade reviewer, I think it's important they temper things. Her perception of this character wasn't based on the character work done by the writer, it came through her own distorted lens.

I suppose we all have a distorted lens to one degree or another - but hopefully we see that and refrain from making comments that might effect someone else's livelihood.
The thing is, books aren't created in a vacuum. From my view (having not read the review or the book and having no idea of the content of either beyond what was in the blog post), I don't think the reviewer meant a book where a black character helps the well-off white main character achieve their goal at risk to his/her own safety and goals is bad and shouldn't be done. But in the overall context of kid's books today, PoC kids are often side characters who focus on helping the white protagonist. (The "magical negro" trope is one example of the way this plays out in books and tv: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Negro)

My guess is that the reviewer felt the position of the character in the story was stereotypical rather than the character. I don't feel it is reckless or irresponsible to comment on this. My position on the overall topic of race in kids' books is as a white writer with a debut MG novel starring a Vietnamese-American girl. If I mess up, I expect to be called out on it in reviews. I also expect that not everyone will like or agree with the way my characters are handled. Will it hurt to be called out? Yes, probably, but I think it's more important to fight for this. We've been told the book would be more marketable if the character wasn't Vietnamese-American, and we've had to defend that decision in ways we wouldn't with a white character. No one asks why you made a character white, but many people ask once a character is anything else.

It's just so important for kids to see themselves in books, and in all roles. Every kid needs to see kids like them as the hero of many, many stories. I'm not saying the reviewed book did a bad job, or handled things poorly, or played on stereotypes. I have no idea about any of that. I'm just saying that it's not being too sensitive to comment on how a book fits into the body of kidlit as a whole.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Shelliep on June 24, 2012, 09:21 AM
That Magical Negro is something you're going to run into when you have a person of a certain culture in a story whose only purpose is to help the mc of a different culture. I doubt if anyone notices it so much when the Magical Negro is white and the mc is non-white. It's just so overused in mainstream writing that it does become a stereotype. Writers can counter this by given that supporting character their own reasons for wanting to help the mc. Give them a stake in the story.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: TracyH on June 24, 2012, 09:56 AM
I'm wondering, can anyone name a PB that features a child of colour as the main character?

The only ones I can think of are by Jacqueline Woodson. I just picked up a new one from her at ALA yesterday called Each Kindness.

The thing is, books aren't created in a vacuum. From my view (having not read the review or the book and having no idea of the content of either beyond what was in the blog post), I don't think the reviewer meant a book where a black character helps the well-off white main character achieve their goal at risk to his/her own safety and goals is bad and shouldn't be done. But in the overall context of kid's books today, PoC kids are often side characters who focus on helping the white protagonist. (The "magical negro" trope is one example of the way this plays out in books and tv: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Negro)

My guess is that the reviewer felt the position of the character in the story was stereotypical rather than the character. I don't feel it is reckless or irresponsible to comment on this.

So the writer should have written this character white just to avoid the stereotype? Also, the circumstances of the story would have made this character's being white rediculous (and unbelievable - and I'm sure if the author had gone this route, would have been accused of having a too all-white cast). Also, there was another trade review that felt this character was the best in the book. I think WE have to let go of stereotypes - ones that are a stretch anyway. And I think this reviewer didn't know Stacey was black - so if anyone wasn't going to let a stereotype go out the door, it would be her - and made accusations toward the writer and editor that shouldn't have been made. I hope the reviewer finds her way to Stacey's article and feels bad - of course, that won't help the book. But she might learn something about herself.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Rachel on June 24, 2012, 10:07 AM
So the writer should have written this character white just to avoid the stereotype?
That is not at all what I said. I thought it was pretty clear from my post that I am all for writers including diverse casts and am willing to fight for this in my own work.

I don't agree with dismissing concerns or commentary about the portayal of PoC in books as being too sensitive or having a distorted view of things. You don't have to agree with everything a reviewer says. The character might indeed be done very well and be an amazing character. That doesn't mean the reviewer shouldn't point out the situation of the character if they feel it is problematic. I just think it's more complex than the reviewer just being wrong.

ETA: To clarify what I'm saying, maybe. (Possible slight SPOILERS for BRAVE ahead):

So BRAVE is a pretty cool movie! It does some awesome things, and has a kick-butt female lead. At the same time, it uses stereotypical situations that many people are tired of seeing in princess movies, ie. the rebellious princess who doesn't want to get married so she runs away. That doesn't mean the movie is bad, it means that someone can love the movie and still criticize that aspect or the handling of that aspect. And someone else might not care, but there is still a wider context outside of the film itself.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: HDWestlund on June 24, 2012, 11:47 AM
This is a topic I have been thinking a lot about for several reasons. The first being that I have written a fantasy world in which the skin colors and features cover a broad spectrum. It's difficult to describe in a way that allows readers to store away the necessary details about a character without hitting the reader over the head, repeatedly, with the way the character looks. This is difficult, in part, because I do not have a language group I am borrowing from or any other "real world" markers of race in the book. (For example, I can't say that a character is "Asian" because Asia does not exist in my world, and "almond-shaped eyes" does not seem to trigger a recognizable response.) I have debated whether I need to change my setting so that it is easier for readers to recognize that they are "seeing" non-white characters, or if I should keep things relatively simple and subtle. Though I know I have also been too subtle in the past, as a friend of mine requested that I include characters who looked like her, and I was confused as to how she had missed the characters who did.

And now the other issue I have been thinking about: Finding books with non-white protagonists that are not historical fiction. I just started working in a children's bookstore where a woman came in seeking books with a "strong, black female main character where the story is fun and adventurous". Most of the books with strong, African American MCs were historical fiction and dealt with very tough issues. (I won't say that these books shouldn't exist. I strongly believe that they should, but that is another topic.) I will admit that if a book doesn't directly deal with an issue related to the character's race, I may not recall what race the character is, because I remember the personality more than the way the character looks. So there may be more books that fit the request than I think there are. But I suspect that there are very few "fun" books with non-white MCs. I'd love to see children's books become diverse enough that people don't even have to ask for books with a particular race in them, they'll know that a selection of good books will reflect the diversity they see around them. But it's going to take a while for that to happen.

(And if you can think of any "fun" books with non-white MCs, please feel free to list them for me. I have a feeling this request is going to be semi-common in this store.)
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: TracyH on June 24, 2012, 12:06 PM
I don't agree with dismissing concerns or commentary about the portayal of PoC in books as being too sensitive or having a distorted view of things. You don't have to agree with everything a reviewer says. The character might indeed be done very well and be an amazing character. That doesn't mean the reviewer shouldn't point out the situation of the character if they feel it is problematic. I just think it's more complex than the reviewer just being wrong.

I'm not saying the reviewer is wrong, nor am I dismissing ALL concerns about the portrayal of PoC in books as being too sensitive. Only this one. Opinions can't be wrong. I'm just not sure that a trade review is the place to skewer someone for what is, essentially, a perception. Maybe the reviewer should have asked a few more people - hey, what do you think? Am I being too sensitive here? Am I being fair? Everyone has sensibilities that slant them in a certain direction - so maybe this reviewer was not the best for for this type of book. Unbiased is more fair. And I realize you are at a disadvantage because you don't know the book or the review.

Heck, maybe I'M being too sensitive because I just don't see stereotypes all that well. I see people as people in stories. But the point I was trying to make - and the point Stacey was trying to make - isn't so much about the unfair review (the unfairness is, after all, our perception). It's the consequences of this type of review. How it might make authors (like me) nervous in the portrayal of our black characters. That because my beloved black character is a caretaker of sorts - that it could be perceived as stereotypical. And because I can't write this character out of the story, what are my options? I don't want to have to think like that. I just want my characters to be who they are.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Shelliep on June 24, 2012, 01:07 PM
HD, Troy Cle's Marvelous World is a sci-fi adventure series young boys might like. I don't know about its appeal to girls, and sadly, I can't think of a 'fun' adventure story with a PoC girl lead.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Rachel on June 24, 2012, 01:16 PM
It's the consequences of this type of review. How it might make authors (like me) nervous in the portrayal of our black characters. That because my beloved black character is a caretaker of sorts - that it could be perceived as stereotypical. And because I can't write this character out of the story, what are my options? I don't want to have to think like that. I just want my characters to be who they are.
I think a bit of nervousness can be good. It helps us step back and make sure we're doing the best job we can with every part of our stories. And it can be scary to step into a place where you feel your work will receive additional scrutiny. But I think we need to be aware of the stereotypes/tropes about race and the wider issues.

You can write your story the way you want, the way you feel it needs to be told. But I think all writers need to be aware of these issues even if they ultimately decide that decision X is what's right and best for their story. I think you (general you) just have to move forward and believe in your work and its quality and do the best you can -- but be open to listening if someone does come forward to say something was problematic.

It's possible that some writers will be discouraged from writing books that depict the diverse world we live in because of reviews that criticize the portrayal. And I totally get that you just want to write your characters and not think like that. But until black writers' books aren't shelved with AA fiction while white writers' books about PoC are mainstream, until we have just as many options for PoC characters in all kinds of roles as we do for white characters, there will be that extra scrutiny. There is a tendency for a book about, say, a black lesbian teen to be looked at as portraying the experience of all black lesbian teens, of representing a group of people as a whole, in a way that doesn't really happen with white characters.

I get the concern that this extra criticism might scare off or discourage writers. But I think it's part of a larger issue -- the fact that if a a writer is submitting books about PoC, the reality is that these books are still facing issues of whitewashing covers, of non-white casts of characters not being seen as marketable the way a white boy MG hero is -- all of that means that we have to be willing to stand behind the work and keep moving forward. And we have to call out great books when we see them, but it also means people will point out things they feel are questionable. And when those issues are brought up, we need to listen.

Even if you do end up disagreeing with what may be a biased view, it can help to engage with that view and where it's coming from, which might open up new thoughts that will influence your writing.  :)
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: HDWestlund on June 24, 2012, 01:21 PM
Thank you, Shellie. I'll look for that when I'm in the store tomorrow. :)
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Rachel on June 24, 2012, 01:34 PM
(And if you can think of any "fun" books with non-white MCs, please feel free to list them for me. I have a feeling this request is going to be semi-common in this store.)
I was going to list some here but it might be easier to just direct you to Stacy Whitman's Pinterest where she keeps lists of diverse MG and YA, broken down by genre for easy browsing: http://pinterest.com/stacylwhitman/

Hope that helps!

Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: TracyH on June 24, 2012, 02:24 PM
Thanks, Rachel, for all your thoughtful discussion. I love that we can come here and share our views openly, even if we disagree  :)

Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Jaina on June 24, 2012, 02:29 PM
Edited to add--This is meant for HDWestlund:

You might take a look at Phillip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe. It was a favorite of mine as a kid, and it is basically fun adventures of a girl protagonist in a rural setting. There's a sequel, too, I think.  I don't think it was written as "historical," though I guess its then-contemporary setting would be pretty out-of-date now.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Jaina on June 24, 2012, 02:46 PM
On a side note, it's worth noting that Bette Greene is not African-American. I believe the character of Beth was partially inspired by her close relationship with the family's housekeeper. Before you start cringing, think of how being raised by this wonderfully strong and proud woman inspired Ms. Greene to create Beth, a spunky and lovable kick-butt girl who just happens to be African-American. Is she totally true to her culture? I haven't the slightest, really, but she felt like a friend. I just looked on Amazon and saw this review from a contemporary child of unknown gender/race.  Who could ask for more?

Beth Lambert is a lot like me, and I wish that she was here so that she could be my best friend. I mean she's so much fun to be with, and sometimes I don't like Philip Hall at all. This book was the most fun book I have ever read. I wrote Bette Greene a letter on her website bettegreene.com and she wrote me back. I showed the letter to my classs.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Rachel on June 24, 2012, 03:06 PM
Thanks, Rachel, for all your thoughtful discussion. I love that we can come here and share our views openly, even if we disagree  :)
Thanks, Tracy, I hope I didn't wall-of-text things too much! :typing
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: christripp on June 24, 2012, 03:27 PM
I was told by my publsher that they were instructed by the sales and book sellers that  a book about aboriginal Canadians depicted the child too dark. So they instructed the illustrator to lighten the child up.
So far no one has come up with a "black" fancy Nancy type book title and I really don't think we will. If we remember the Bloomsbury scandal, using an almost white girl on the cover of a  book about a "nappy haired" protagonest, it says volumes about how publishers wish to promote YA, let alone PB's.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: HDWestlund on June 24, 2012, 06:10 PM
Thank you, Rachel and Jaina. I should have known that Stacey would have a list. Now I can't wait to get to work tomorrow and put some books on the shelves.

And, thank you everyone else for all this good discussion. I've enjoyed this thread immensely, and it finally lured me out of lurking status.

 :thankyou

Holly
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: jojohn on June 24, 2012, 07:32 PM
For a duo of books that are younger MG with an African American female MC--Sunny Holiday and Sweet and Sunny by Coleen Paratore. They were also available during last years' Scholastic Fair at our school. More like Clementine than Fancy Nancy but a fairly easy read and there's more than one!

Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Vijaya on June 25, 2012, 09:32 AM
For people looking for books with Asian MCs, Pooja Makhijani keeps an annotated list on her blog: http://www.poojamakhijani.com/sakidlit.html 

Vijaya
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Veronica on June 25, 2012, 01:40 PM
I don't know how to do the cool quote thing that everyone else can do... but in response to the question about whether I have trouble mentioning the blonde hair of my white characters: no, of course not. I also don't have a problem with mentioning the black or brown hair of my non-white characters. I often mention eye color and hair color, habits and mannerisms (blushing, shuffling feet, etc.) My question: You asked if I hesitate to mention when my white characters blush. Is that supposed to imply that only people with white skin blush? Because I've had lots of friends over the years with darker skin who do, in fact, blush when they're embarrassed. And I've known people with darker skin who pale slightly when nervous... but I've also known people with very fair skin who do that, so making my white characters blush while my darker-skinned characters flush wouldn't work. Or is that an accepted stereotype that I didn't know about?

Sorry, I'm really not trying to hijack this thread or anything with my own questions... I'm just trying to figure out how to address the issue in my stories without resorting to pointing out differences where I don't think they exist.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: jojohn on June 25, 2012, 02:15 PM
Should we start a thread of resources like the above noted links, blogs and books that people have read and loved or have great covers that feature people of color? It might help people to compare and contrast the different methods writers use to describe people of different ethnicities and racial backgrounds.

@ Veronica--please don't be offended. I didn't mean to imply anything. I was making a point that we often use techniques to describe people that give us an idea of what they look like by discussing such things as blushing, hair color etc. But I think often as a white writer, I may be hesitant to include details I wouldn't think twice about if I were referring to a white character. Yes, some people of color blush but I can assure you that my husband does not, so if I were describing someone of his complexion, I'd have to think of some other way to indicate his embarassment since that technique wouldn't work if he were a character in a book. Likewise, I couldn't count on that as a means for someone to understand his dark complexion. I struggle with the words all the time because I know what I mean when my husband goes pale, but it might confuse a reader if I used that term. Of course, not all of the my characters look like him, I'm just using him as an example.  :)

And to do the quote thing, you highlight what you want to include from the post you are quoting, then hit "insert quote." I often end up with more of the quote than I wanted, so I delete what I'm not referring to, just making sure to leave the little tag at the end that matches the one at the beginning of the inserted quote. Other people might know how to avoid the excess but that's what has worked for me for now.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Shelliep on June 25, 2012, 03:35 PM
Here are some ideas for indicating your character is African-American without referring to skin color. Have them attend an African Methodist Zion church. 99.9% of their members are black. Have them be a member of the step team at school, because where I'm from, the team is nearly always composed of black kids. Have them refer to their parents heading out the door to an NAACP meeting, you can even have them think how old school NAACP is. How about having someone say they look like a celebrity who's black. There must be dozens of ways to indicate culture in books if you think about it.

BTW, my mother did blush. I've even seem people with coal-color skin do it when they have red undertones. My undertone is yellow, and I never blush. Until recently, I never even bruised.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: TracyH on June 25, 2012, 06:19 PM
jojohn - I think that's a great idea! Feel free to start the post if you'd like. I think loads of people would appreciate it :)
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Vijaya on June 25, 2012, 08:33 PM
I see you started it ... it will be a great help. Thank you.
Vijaya
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: jojohn on June 26, 2012, 04:47 AM
Please add to it as you come across things. The more resources and examples, the better. This has been a great conversation.
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Shelliep on June 26, 2012, 05:36 AM
Here's the link Jojohn is referring to: http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php?topic=63414.0
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: TracyH on June 26, 2012, 09:08 AM
That is a wonderfully comprehensive post, jojohn. Thanks for putting it together.  :thankyou2:
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Veronica on June 27, 2012, 11:51 AM
Thanks, everyone :)
Title: Re: Race in kid's books
Post by: Hannah on August 04, 2012, 10:04 AM
:nothing