My daughters need to know that everyone has a story to tell, and that stories written by or featuring people of another race, ethnicity, or gender aren’t just stories for that demographic. They need to know that people of all races, ethnicities, and genders are able to attain success in the world (including in the literary world!). It’s not enough for me to tell them these messages; they need to see it for themselves in real life and in the books they read.
But how should authors convey this diversity in their books?
It’s difficult to write about race or ethnicity in a clearly recognizable way without over-emphasizing the stereotypical differences between racial groups that are the easiest to describe, such as skin color, which is a controversial and—to put it mildly—imperfect indicator of racial, ethnic, or cultural background.*
I’ve been thinking even more about this topic since reading Madeleine’s review of Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy on The Book Owls, in which she noted how the novel features people of color in a subtle way, making their racial background “quietly part of their characters without being a defining characteristic or an afterthought.”
After a review like that, I had to read The Real Boy for myself. It’s a middle grade fantasy novel that focuses on a young boy named Oscar, a “hand” for a powerful magician. He’s different, though not because of his racial or ethnic background. He’s an orphan, he can read when he isn’t supposed to know how, and most noticeably, he struggles with human interaction. He would likely have an Autism-like diagnosis in our world (much like Marcelo from Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World), another type of diversity that I am happy to see represented in literature.
I ended The Real Boy thinking it was an interesting story, and a better choice for its intended young audience than Ursu’s “title-dropping” Breadcrumbs. The novel’s treatment of what most of us would perceive as race is very subtle: one reference to “olive-touched skin,” a few references to hair, and a few racially ambiguous illustrations (that, at least in my e-book version, were grayscale). I appreciate that Ursu doesn’t draw too much attention to physical characteristics that readers would commonly associate with race; doing so could have made those characteristics, like skin color, seem more important than it should to impressionable readers who might be too young to understand our society’s racially charged history and the ways in which that history impacts the present.
I suspect, though, that some young readers might miss that Ursu’s characters are most likely people of color. I also suspect that whether or not a reader notices diversity in literature probably depends on that child’s background and community, which in the United States, is often de facto segregated by race, even though the Supreme Court denounced de jure segregation in housing and in education well over half a century ago.
Our neighborhood is different, though. My daughters attend a public school with no racial majority, and this integrated community informs the way they interpret literature. For them, when the text of a book is subtle about race, they assume that the characters come from a community that is just as diverse as their community is.
They haven’t read The Real Boy yet, but this topic came up as we were reading L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, which was published more than 100 years ago in Canada. One of my daughters remarked that, in her imagination, Gilbert Blythe looked like a boy in her class named Shawn, who is African American. As she explained, “it’s because Gilbert’s cute and so is Shawn.” My daughter has no concept of the racially homogeneous community in which Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe lived (for now, I’ve skipped the references to “little French boys”), nor has she seen the movie versions of this novel.
All she knows is how L.M. Montgomery described Gilbert in the text:
He [is] a tall boy, with curly brown hair, roguish hazel eyes, and a mouth twisted into a teasing smile.
That sounds like Shawn, at least in my daughter’s opinion. I’d love to see an updated, racially integrated movie version of the novel someday. If Kenneth Branagh could do it with Much Ado About Nothing, there’s no reason it can’t be done for a retelling of Anne of Green Gables.
Just as my daughter sees Anne Shirley’s world as looking like our community, some of Ursu’s readers probably interpret Oscar’s world as looking the same as theirs.
In the past, I’ve said that one of the many benefits of diversity in books is the potential to expose children from racially/culturally homogeneous communities to diverse fictional friends, hopefully encouraging them to “embrace the similarities we share as human beings and celebrate the differences — instead of fearing them.”
Obviously, though, integration in fiction is no substitute for the real thing.
**The image above is of one of my daughters from September 2010; The image below shows what she and her twin look like now (June 2014):