Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

Half-Brown or Half-Yellow, Will it Sell?

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On December - 13 - 2010

 Half Brown or Half Yellow, Will it Sell?  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.

 Half Brown or Half Yellow, Will it Sell?  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.

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9 Responses to “Half-Brown or Half-Yellow, Will it Sell?”

  1. Jess Verdi says:

    Great post, Dhonielle! I have no answers for you, but I think you've posed a really interesting question– one that I've never even thought about. One of the main characters in my first novel (chick lit fantasy, not YA) is bi-racial, and I have to admit, I didn't even think about the cultural or "sales" implications when I wrote it. I just saw her face and that's who she was to me. I hate that the race of characters affects things like who's going to publish a book or who is going to buy it. That's just crazy to me.

  2. Ari says:

    Well the most recent YA book that comes to my mind is Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves. Hanna (mc) is Finnish and black. Race isn't really important, she comments on being biracial a few times but mostly the story is bizarre and lots of fun to read (if you like weird stuff).

    I believe Sundee Frazier's Brendan Buckley series is about a bi-racial kid doing everyday things. Same with the Amy Hodgepodge series. I'm drawing a blank but I know I've read others…

    I did like how The Red Pyramid wasn't really about being bi-racial but it was still mentioned.

    Personally I think your main character would still be considered multicultural if she's bi-racial and as long as you capture the essentials of the voice of middle grade girls, it will resonate. After all, we teens of color are able to relate to white teens in books and on TV all the time ;)

    Great post!

  3. Hi Ari,

    Thanks for commenting and the two book suggestions. I'm going to check them out immediately. I enjoy very weird things. And thanks for reminding me about how as a child I had no problem identifying with white teens, since that's all there were in books and on TV. ;)

    I've bookmarked your site. It's fabulous!

    Dhonielle

  4. Ari says:

    Thanks for replying to my comment and for bookmarking my site, I'm honored :) If you enjoy very weird things, you will totally like Bleeding Violet. haha yup someone once pointed that out in an article, that we poc had learned to identify with white people as kids and so white people can identify with us.

  5. Maggie says:

    Definitely BLEEDING VIOLET! My love for that book exists somewhere beyond words for a number of reasons. And the cover wasn't whitewashed! How exciting is that? SHIP BREAKER and RED PYRAMID are both on my list as well. I can't think of any other books with biracial characters where that isn't a central plot point offhand. Your post has really made me think about how unfortunate that is.

    For what it's worth, I would definitely read steampunk with a biracial protagonist, and I'm white. I imagine it would be an easier sell in the steampunk world, seeing as it already has an established fan base. Who knows, but kudos to you! Great post!

  6. Eva says:

    Y.S. Lee's The Agency series comes to mind as far as YA featuring a biracial heroine (Mary Quinn) in which race isn't the focus. It's set in Victorian times, and readers only find out halfway-ish through the first book (A Spy in the House) that Quinn's half Chinese, since she passes as 'white' (or at least 'black Irish'). Her Chinese heritage does become part of the story (it's a mystery novel, and she talks with some Chinese sailors as part of the case), but it's not the main part. And both of the covers have pictures of Quinn (well, a model, obviously) that don't look white-washed.

    Anyway, I loved the first book and can't wait to read teh second!

  7. Najela says:

    Steampunk is an amazing genre to explore racial relations to a certain extent. I would definitely read your story, I love steampunk and I love multicultural fiction so combining the two would be the most amazing thing. Steampunk is so awesome. I hope to read your story!

    Another endorsement for Bleeding Violet here. It's wonderfully bizarre, but it's a good book about multicultural character without the story being hinged on the race of the character.

  8. Jodie says:

    Sarwat Chadda's YA series (although the distinctions are a little bit muddier with those kind of terms in the UK) starting with Devil's Kiss features a heroine who is mixed race (her mother's family is from Pakistan I think and her dad is white British)

    Anila's Journey by Mary Finn also has a mixed race heroine (I'd suggest this fits more closely to the US category of MG) and has an Indian mother and a white Irish father.

    '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?' This is really interesting as I'm never sure what to do in my reviews. In a few cases it can be a plot spoiler, like in The Agency books readers don't find out about Mary's connection to the Lascar community until midway in the book, but in general it'd be nice to know whether mentioning a character's race when it's not a main part of the plot is useful.

  9. Dhonielle Clayton says:

    Thanks for all the comments everyone. I just ordered BLEEDING VIOLET and the first book in THE AGENCY series. I will do a follow-up post once I finish them.

    @Najela I never thought of steampunk as a vehicle to explore race relations and multicultural identity. Great idea! Thanks.

    @Maggie I hope my steampunk novel will be fun!

    @Jodie Thanks for those suggestions. I will definitely look into them. I'm still on the fence about whether it is helpful to mention character's racial identities in books that aren't about them sifting through that identity. I guess it'll be interesting if it is mention when my book eventually comes out ;) !

    Thanks for all your input, everyone. I'll be sure to check out your various blogs and comments.

    D

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