After reading an article about mixed race or biracial characters in children’s and teen fiction, it made me reconsider or rethink my own project. I am writing a middle grade historical steampunk novel with a biracial main protagonist. Questions swirled in my head: Why did I choose a biracial identity for the main character? What did I gain by doing that? Or what could my future gains be?
The author of the article was reviewing two picture books that profile biracial children, Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids and Spork. Kip Fulbeck’s Mixed book reminds me of a coffee table book full of pictures of happy biracial children. The second book, Kyo Maclear’s Spork, shows the offspring of a fork and a spoon and symbolizes an interracial union. These picture books made me think about multiracial or biracial teens and tweens in teen and middle grade fiction. Would my protagonist be lonesome? Or a perfect intersection of cultures to boost sales? Not too brown to impede sales?
There has been little press devoted to the fact that the main characters in Rick Riordian’s The Red Pyramid (The Kane Chronicles) are, in fact, biracial. Sadie and Carter are the children of a dead white woman and a black Egyptologist father. Sadie looks white and has been living with her mother’s parents in London, only getting the opportunity to see her father and brother a couple times a year. Carter looks more like his father and lives with him, traveling all over the world. Their racial identity doesn’t inform the text or become a thematic element, but there is a scene where Carter’s father has a serious conversation with him about being African-American. Here is a snippet:
“Carter, you’re getting older. You’re an African American man. People will judge you more harshly, and so you must always look impeccable.”
“That’s not fair!” I insisted.
“Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same,” Dad said. “Fairness means everyone gets what they need. And the only way to get what you need is to make it happen yourself. “ (67)
Last month, at an event at New York City’s Books of Wonder featuring the National Book Award Nominees Walter Dean Myers, Rita Williams-Gracia, Katherine Erskine, and Paolo Bacigalupi, I polled the illustrious panel of authors with the following question: Do books with brown faces on them sell?
Rita Williams-Garcia and Walter Dean Myers both answered that it has been hard, but you must persevere and write the book in your heart. The owner of Books of Wonder, Peter Glassman, said that he has often found that white parents don’t buy books with brown faces on them for their kids — and that it is an unfortunate fact. Rita reminded the audience of the publishing hoopla caused by the cover of Justine Labarastier’s book Liar, and how the first cover featured a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl when the main protagonist was in fact a black female.
Paolo Bacigalupi commented that the main protagonist in his futuristic novel Shipbreaker is mixed race and based on his own child’s ethnicity. He said that his publishers didn’t put his face on the cover and that could say something, but that it is a fact often overlooked when the novel is reviewed. When reviewers neglect to mention the ethnic and/or racial identity of main characters in successful books, does it add to the feeling that biracial characters are invisible in the teen market? Are they doing the book a disservice, even if it isn’t central to the plot?
My historical steampunk novel would be complicated by the race relations of the late 1800s if I made my character full-blood African-American, so I chose to give myself some freedom by making her only half. Additionally, I think that it enhances the tension in the novel to have her be able to pass for white, but also be confronted with the racism her mother faces. The novel is not about race and it’s not a sub-plot or part of the thematic content of the novel. But it is mentioned to add another layer of isolation and tension to the main character’s journey and how she came about. I do worry about whether this decision will effect the book’s marketability and whether my main character’s biraciality will be swept under the rug in reviews and marketing. And sadly, I can’t help but wonder, is that for the best? Peter Glassman’s words haunt my subconscious.
Even though this book hasn’t been sold yet, I find myself already thinking about its racial implications. What is gained by making a character biracial? What is lost? Will my heroine still be considered a multicultural heroine? Will she speak to the child I was? Will all middle-grade girls find a connection with her?
Does anyone know of other middle grade and teen texts with biracial main characters where the novel is not about race? I’d love hear about them.