I have been paying closer attention to character descriptions as I read the 2012 American children’s books for consideration of the 2013 Newbery award, since it is one of the major criteria that one may base one’s assessment when examining these books. What I have noticed is that blue-eyed characters are still quite prevalent in these books — even when there is little need for detailed physical descriptions of a particular character (be he/she a major or a minor one,) the almost throw-away lines of “piercing blue eyes,” “icy blue eyes,” “pale blue eyes,” show up frequently. In one lovely book by a famous author about family and inter-generational relationship, the characters were not physically described except for one sentence where the reader sees “his eyes sharp blue.”
I must confess that up till that point, I wasn’t assigning a race, ethnic heritage, or skin color to the entire family. I was engrossed in their loving and very warm relationships and the quirky habits of some of the family members — and it did not matter to me what they actually look like from the outside. Books can do that — allowing readers to see inside the characters, bypassing the surfaces and sometimes the assumptions that come with those surfaces. But, with those three words, “eyes sharp blue,” a whole lot of readers just realized that no matter how imaginative or willing they are, they cannot read themselves easily into that story any more.
I’m reading book 49 and liking it quite a bit — liking the easy style and the potential of a soul searching, heart warming tale of a young person…. but even on the second page of chapter 1, the most popular kid in the school was introduced by the following attributes (in order): by height (tall), hair color (blond), eye-color (blue), and then the personality (easy-going) that makes him so well loved.
I’ve also been listening to an audio book of Grimm’s fairy tales — and of course, anyone with golden hair and blue eyes is automatically kind, good natured, and deserving of the best fortune at the end of the tale.
It just makes me wonder… do children’s authors still on this traditional, auto-pilot mode when it comes to describing physical attributes of characters and how these attributed are associated with their status ascribed by their peers? (Any middle school kid is going to swoon over someone with blue eyes, isn’t she?) Do they know that there are many physically attractive young people who are not blond and are not blue-eyed? And do they know that it is all right, sometimes, to not get into detailed and often pointless physical descriptions of their characters — there are plenty of other ways to bring the characters vividly to life, especially by their actions and words? And do they know that according to a 2008 study, only 1 in 6 young Americans has blue eyes (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/18/world/americas/18iht-web.1018eyes.3199975.html) and that their readership is comprised of many different ethnic backgrounds.
If authors are compelled to include detailed physical attributes of characters — perhaps they can start considering that their young readers might want to be reminded and affirmed of the many possible ways, forms, shapes, colors, and unique quirks, that a person can be considered beautiful or attractive. Stop the lazy, throw-away, generic lines and give the young readers what they deserve to read: carefully observed and truly seen and fully presented characters.