Multicultural Literature

Asian Girl ReadingWhen I’m reading a book, intended for children or not, I tend to notice the gender images and whether the characters conform to the accepted stereotypes for their sex or not. I rarely notice race unless it’s the focus of the story. Grace of the Blue Rose Girls has reminded me that I should pay more attention. She’s looking for books where the main character is Asian, but the fact that he or she is Asian is not the focus of the book (preferably, it isn’t even important). She’s gotten several great suggestions, but the general consensus seems to be that such books are hard to find. That’s a shame. They shouldn’t be. There should be lots of books about all manner of things starring all manner of kids – from school stories to fantasies, new experience books to friendship stories. Why should only white kids star in books where no one even mentions what country their great-grandmother came from?

The post reminded me of an article in a recent Horn Book about Mary Sue stories written by kids. It was written by Lelac Almagor and is archived on their website. She talks about having her students (all female) write themselves into their favorite stories. It’s a regular project she does every year in her fifth-grade English classes and she has had time to notice trends. For example, they most often pick fantasy stories. What fun is it to write yourself into a school much like the one you really go to every day? Wouldn’t you rather join Harry Potter or Eragon for a while? What made me think of the article while reading Grace’s request on the Blue Rose site, however, was this observation:

And more often than not, in this project, my black, Hispanic, and Asian students’ characters develop long blonde ringlets and sparkling violet eyes. They manage to leave those clichés behind when they write historical fiction and school stories, the genres in which we find more than a handful of nonwhite writers and nonwhite protagonists. But if they want to rescue their parents or travel through time or tame dragons or lead armies or quest for love or save the world, their only choice is to write themselves into stories that are exclusively, blindingly, obliviously white. My theory is that these novels are so white that racial difference becomes impossible within them; the girls are not persuaded that they, in their own skins, could ever be Coraline’s best friend or Hermione’s long-lost cousin.

Why aren’t there more fantasies out there with black and Asian and Hispanic and generally non-white heroes? There should be, right? But can you name any? I hope so, because I can’t off the top of my head. What I did think of while I was trying was another Horn Book article! This time the article is by Deirdre F. Baker and called “Musings on Diverse Worlds” (it’s in the Jan/Feb 2007 issue and is not online, as far as I can tell). In the article Baker discusses just how white and not diverse fantasy for children tends to be, but what I remembered as I was trying to think of fantasy with non-white heroes was that she mentioned some! She discussed books that had minority heroes but cover art portraying them as white. Her primary examples of this are the Attolia series by Megan Whalen Turner, which is supposed to have dark-skinned characters inspired by the people of the Himalayas and the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin, in which Ged (the main character) is described as “dark-skinned” as well. Both show awfully white people on the covers of the books. No wonder minority kids give themselves violet eyes and golden hair when they join the stories! Even when they are the heroes, the cover artists paint them as white! It’s likely because the artist was given only a snippet or description to go on when preparing the illustration, but that doesn’t excuse it. Basic facts like skin color should be corrected before it goes to print.

And it only goes to show that we need books with minority characters as heroes to become common so that it isn’t just assumed the hero is white in the first place. Everyone should have fantasies to fly away to and should feel like they belong there as they are. I’m not saying Asian kids can’t appreciate and relate just fine to the fantasies we have, they can. It’s not just about them. They just deserve to have options. And it’s about white kids reading books with non-white heroes too. They need to see that it’s normal for non-white characters to be heroes too. It needs to become normal because it would be better for everyone. The public perception needs to change, and that won’t happen until what’s out there does.

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