With the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, many gatekeepers and practitioners of children’s literature have been publishing thoughtful articles and having deep conversations on the urgent need to publish and promote books featuring diverse characters. To highlight how important this movement is and how decades of mostly “white” books have “trained” our young readers what to expect from books, I’d like to swing the spotlight directly on some young readers themselves:
Time: A sunny Monday morning in winter. 3rd period. Individual choice time.
Place: A comfortable School Library Reading Room, Upper East Side of Manhattan. This is an independent school where 60% of students are white and the rest are made up of darker skinned students (if we also consider East Asian as “darker” skinned.)
F – The Librarian, Female, Asian American, 50-something
A – Student, 7th Grade. Male. Half Black, Half Jewish
R – Student, 7th Grade. Male. Twin of A.
W – Student, 7th Grade. Male. African American.
J – Student, 7th Grade. Male. Caribbean Black.
N – Student, 7th Grade. Female. Jewish/White.
A, R, W, J, N are all devourers of books, especially action packed Science Fiction or Fantasy novels.
The students sprawled on the comfy chairs and benches with their laptops, half participating in a discussion on books featuring African American characters and history as they had just finished a unit on African American Authors and Stories (Day of Tears, Carver, We Are the Ship, The Other Wes Moore, Brown Girl Dreaming, among others.)
Suddenly, A exclaimed, “Oh my god. The main guy in the book I just finished is black! He’s super cool! But I NEVER imagined him as being like me. In my head, he’s white.”
R, J, and W immediately jumped into the conversation and were all in agreement how they also never imagined a superhero with their own faces. N, usually talkative, remained silent. The kids and the librarian then started talking about how there are also so few black action heroes in movies except for perhaps Will Smith and Samuel L. Jackson.
The period ended. Everyone picked up their new reads and left the Reading Room.
The previous was based on a recent informal conversation I had with those five kids. I didn’t detect any sense of outrage or dismay. The boys simply accepted the lack of dark skinned heroes as the norm. I, on the other hand, could not stop wondering about that one statement, “I NEVER imagined him as being like me. In my head, he’s white.”
Is this a shared sentiment across the country by non-white young readers who seldom see themselves on book covers or between the covers? When they do encounter people of color in books, most of these characters seem to always need some form of “saving” — from poverty, from political or racial injustice, or from other dire situations (human trafficking, child soldier, etc.)
Isn’t it high time for us all to change that default and reshape the landscape of American children’s books?
Let’s have non-white heroes and let their faces show on the covers.
|2014, Candlewick Press
Vol. 1 in Tseries
Margaret K. McElderry
Vol. 1 in series
|2011, Tu Books
Vol. 1 in trilogy
One response to “But I NEVER imagined him as being like me. In my head, he’s white.”
You know, I think that part of the problem is when the books are adapted into movies as well. Just as an example, Katniss had ‘olive skin’ and ‘dark eyes’ in the book, but in the movie she was white. I always read her as Native American in the books, but diversity is such a needless problem in YA literature and movies.