When I was growing up, I used to think every character in a book was white. If a character wasn’t described explicitly my mind drew a picture of them and they were almost always white. I still do this. It is an automatic thing that happens when I read.
My mother once told me that when I was in elementary school I used to always ask her why everyone in the books I was reading was white. Did only white people populate fiction (especially fantasy stories)?
So I wondered if I was alone and polled a fantastic bunch of black authors and kidlit bloggers to see how they felt.
As a young reader/teen reader, did you imagine the people in books as white? When did you first encounter a black teen or child in a book? What was that experience like? Did you have a different connection with the text? Do you remember the first text you encountered with brown folks in it?
Ebony Joy Wilkins, author of Sell Out, answered:
“I also remember assuming every character I read about was white. I’m not even sure I can explain that at this point in my life, other than to assume I just wasn’t exposed to enough literature with African American central characters. I can’t pinpoint the exact text when I first encountered brown folks, but I’m pretty sure the book was read in celebration of an MLK jr. day ceremony or for Black History Month. Although I cannot remember the specific text, I do remember the feelings I had of empowerment and validation after seeing brown folks like me on the page. I wish those feelings for all readers of color.”
“The first book I read like that was Bizou by Norma Klein, which I read in elementary school. The main character was biracial and French, which I thought was so cool. Looking back, that’s probably why Hanna from Bleeding Violet is so exotic–Bizou made a powerful impression on me. Because, like you, I also thought that all characters in books were white, unless otherwise stated. Sad, but true.”
“Hmm. I understand what you are saying. I think you saw everyone as white because if a character is white, the author tends to just describe them as a person. Race is only mentioned when it’s non-caucasian, ie. “A tall man and a short black woman entered the store.” I suppose the very first book I read with a black character is one of two picture books—Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day or Don Freeman’s Corduroy. In YA books, it gets a bit tougher, especially at my age because YA was relatively new in the 70’s and 80’s, and much of the stuff I read was written in the 60s. Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, that sort of thing. Sometimes there were Latino migrant workers as part of a mystery story, but not necessarily in the lead. Novels with black protagonists tended to be about being black — Richard Wright’s Native Son was assigned reading in my high school. Pretty intense reading and definitely not an escapist piece of entertainment! Of course, at the time I was more into fantasy and SF, so there were all sorts of races and species involved. Maybe that’s why the shortage of African American characters didn’t bother me. I was just as happy imagining I was Misty of Chincoteague as I was daydreaming about being Peter Pan’s Wendy, Nancy Drew or Uhura. My parents raised me to believe I could be anything I wanted to be, so I didn’t feel limited by what I read. Race was incidental.
These days, when books have trailers and get turned into movies left and right, I think it’s important to take a more worldly view of race. Also, it’s discussed a lot more. If a kid feels alienated because the books they read don’t reflect their own lives, then we should consider writing some that does. Since I was such a big SF/Fantasy/Fairytale nerd growing up and nothing I read reflected the real world, I was more bothered by characters without parents. It seemed to me I could never have an adventure until I discovered I was adopted. Kids with their own families never turn out to be heroes in novels. I understand the fairy tale paradigm now—the child being forced into self-sufficiency as a means of growing up. But at the time, particularly when I was in elementary school, I would day dream about being an orphan. Only then (or so I thought) could my life really get interesting!”
“I don’t remember how old I was but I was very young (probably in Kindergarten) when I came across Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day. I really connected to that story but as a child if you had asked me why, I probably would’ve said because it was about snow and I liked the pictures. I would’ve been oblivious to the fact that a main black character in a children’s book was rare. I grew up in Houston, Texas which is notorious for its snow-less winters and as a young child I felt cheated by this. So The Snowy Day gave me a taste of the frozen wonderland I dreamed of and the melancholy tone of the story appealed to me as a melancholy child. I also remember enjoying Keats’ Whistle for Willie and Goggles but not nearly as much as The Snowy Day.
After that, I don’t remember reading another book with black characters until The Color Purple by Alice Walker and I loved that book. I was a college student so that was my earliest “teen” experience and The Snowy Day was my “young reader” experience. That’s shocking to me now but when I was younger, I wasn’t as observant, so I don’t remember questioning the absence of black characters in the books I read. However, I’d be hard pressed to remember many of the books I read as a child even though I was a voracious reader. I had an active imagination and enjoyed daydreaming of my own made up stories which were always populated by black people so maybe that’s why I never noticed their absence in books. So what’s significant in my experience is that even though I read a ton of books without black characters, the stories I remember most clearly are the few that did have black characters. I’ve tried to make sure my daughter has a variety of books but finding variety within black titles has still been very challenging.”
“That first question demoralized me. As a young reader, I don’t ever recall encountering a black teen (emphasis on teen) in a book. Ever. It’s disheartening, and this is coming from someone who also lived in Africa in the 80s, so you’d expect that books with teenagers from my culture would have been available there. That said, I encountered black children, i.e. three characters while growing up in Cameroon, in Central Africa. One was Kouakou, the main character of local comic book, widely popular even outside our borders. In my memories Kouakou was around 7 years old. Its adventures were seasonal and published in French. The two other characters were part of my grammar and vocabulary book throughout elementary school, and published by the French publisher Hachette. We followed and grew up with Mamadou and Bineta while learning about adjectives and irregular verbs. The fact they looked like us, lived our lives and had a variety of things happen to them, made most of us (students) read the book entirely before the end of the school year.
All the characters in the books I read in my preteens and teenage years were Caucasians, and many were adults (think Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, etc…). Chester Hines’ books are an exception (thanks to the teacher who added him in our reading list), but the characters were adults. I only got exposed to a more diverse cast when I read some comic books such as Marvel or DC, with characters like Storm and theBlack Panther, but again: They’re adults. Some French comic books provided a variety as well with Asian or Native Indian characters, but from what I remember the stories were never set in the present. There were either taking place in another century or they were science-fiction and fantasy.
Folktales also appeared as the best source for finding culturally diverse characters: There you got people from over the world (Africa, Asia, South America)… conversing with speaking birds, snakes and lions. Outside of that realm, there were no brown teenage spy, wannabe doctor or else, no light readings of the sort. The first texts I encountered with Black Folks seemed all to be about slavery, except for the aforementioned Cameroonian folktales. Reading about the history of slavery, reading Roots and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and more classics in the same vein is important, but that is not all you can feed a brown child. Our identity is not limited to that part of our history, and when teenagers think of their future, that is not the first thing that comes to mind in terms of career path (obviously). A kid cannot only see a Black person portrayed in chains in books.
The first time I read a book with teenage brown characters was as an adult, after moving here, in the United States and working as a Children’s bookseller years ago. Marvel and DC comics were available there, but I found out about authors like Maya Angelou, Joyce Carol Thomas or Jacqueline Woodson only after moving here. I The emotion that overwhelmed me was the same as when I was kid wondering where all the black dolls were. I will never forget the day I held my black baby. Every time I come across a book featuring a great story and a diverse cast, I’m excited and just can’t wait to share it with others, to put it in a reader’s hand and say, “Here it is. Enjoy.” hope that publishers consider the foreign market a bit more.”
Nick Burd, author The Vast Fields of Ordinary, says:
“Oh, God. I really can’t remember the first time I encountered a black teen in a book. I know I read books with black characters as a kid, but I have no idea what they were right now. As a teenager I was always more interested in why there were no gay characters in books. I finally found Edmund White and Bret Easton Ellis toward the end of my high school career and that was a very transformative moment for me as a writer and a reader. And really just as a human being as well.”
“My first encounter was a book entitled Manchild In the Promise Land by Claude Brown. Since I wasn’t an avid reader, I don’t even remember who gave me the book, but I know I didn’t get it out of a library. I do remember it was paperbacked with several dog-eared pages, a missing cover and the book was very thick! I was intimidated at first, but once I got started, this book changed my world from black and white to color in a matter of moments! Even though I wasn’t raised on the streets of New York, but on a farm in Indiana, I could relate to Sonny, the main character in this book, and I didn’t know why. Now that I look back, I think that book had been passed around so much that it lost its cover and the dog-eared pages represented bookmarks from different people. What a tribute to Mr. Brown!”
Karen Strong, blogger/writer, software geek living in Atlanta and working on a YA paranormal suspense novel, says:
“My mother was an avid reader so I followed in her footsteps. We spent many days at the library until it closed and I would go home with stacks and stacks of books and get lost in the pages. Most of the characters didn’t look like me and although I kept reading tons of books, a thought was always at the back of my mind, “Do brown girls like me live in pages?”
It wasn’t until I traded in my pink library card for my “big girl” beige one that I found The Friends by Rosa Guy that I felt a true connection. This book was so different from all the others I had read: This story was about a brown teen girl. I read the book several times and even bought copies for my cousins. I was just so excited to read about a girl who looked like me on the printed page. I soon found other books but unfortunately not many more as a teen.
Teens today have a lot more choices then I did growing up. But there is room for so much more. More “slice of life”, more mystery, more romance, more science fiction and fantasy. The landscape for readers of color is vast and there is room for more books that break the mold of the tried and true storylines.
I will always remember my first experience reading a YA novel featuring a POC character because it also sparked something inside of me: If Rosa Guy could write about brown teen girls, maybe I could too.”
“I think the books like Soul Brothers and Sister Lou, Black Folktales, etc. were among the first I read on my own. I loved Langston Hughes. I *adored* Maya Angelou and Malcolm X; Bette Greene, Mildred Taylor…Virginia Hamilton, Rosa Guy, Walter Dean Myers…In high school, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin left me laughing, open-mouthed or tight-lipped. (Or all three.) I connected with Chinua Achebe and the other African Writers Series authors’ works in a wonderful way. I was fortunate to have parents who actively sought out multicultural literature, from many cultures and countries. Books in our home were about people living all over the world. I would often stumble across offensive imagery and racist depictions, but learned early on not to ignore them, but to see them as they were and think critically about the culture that produces those things. There also wasn’t a whole lot of variety in the U.S. stories — often, in contemporary or historical fiction, their whole story was struggle without much beauty. I know that even then I craved variety, to see Black and Brown characters in different worlds, in other worlds.”
“What a coincidence this question is because I recently started thinking about this very topic! I don’t remember the EXACT first black teen I ever encountered but I do remember marveling over the fact. I discovered both the It Chicks series by Tia Williams and the Drama High series by L. Divine in 8th grade. I had gone through most of my life only reading historical fiction about white people. When I finally found Christopher Paul Curtis, it was a miracle. That was middle school and he wrote historical fiction. Amazing historical fiction to be sure, but historical fiction nevertheless. Besides middle grade historical fiction, I read a lot of middle grade contemporary and back when I was growing up you can forget finding a middle grade book that was not” issues heavy” about kids of color just hanging out, solving mysteries, falling-in-like/developing a crush, dealing with friend drama, etc. Nope obviously kids of color didn’t have fun. I honestly cannot recall a single book with main characters of color between the ages of 9-12 that I read that was not historical fiction. How sad is that?
So you can imagine my reaction when I finally found books featuring teens of color. First, I distinctly remember just starting in amazement (I was at the library) then I eagerly grabbed it, in case anyone else tried to take it. Then I had to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. You see in the past I had thought books were about characters of color but it turned out the books really just featured cover models who were quite tan. Some of the stories were really good anyway, some not so good. Regardless, it was rather crushing to find out that the main character was actually not at least half something of color.
Most girls read The Clique and Gossip Girl series. Yes the Clique series had a Latina character, Alicia and Gossip Girl briefly mentions some girl who was biracial (Isabel I think?), but neither of those girls received much attention in the books (Full Disclaimer: I quit with the Clique books right before Alicia apparently got a storyline but I faithfully read the Gossip Girl books until we all graduated and went our separate ways). But the It Chicks series, the Drama High series and (I later discovered) the Hotlanta series and the Del Rio Bay Clique series were my own versions of Gossip Girl, The Clique, Private, It Girl, etc. FINALLY I had found guilty pleasure reads about bratty upperclass black kids. Even better not all the teens were brats, but the books were pure fun. No one was running away from an evil slave master, no parents were abusing their kids, instead Jayd (Drama High) had to deal with haters, Sydney & Lauren (Hotlanta) had some serious family secret drama going on and Tangie (It Chicks) was KILLING it at her NYC performing arts school. All black main characters, non “issue” books. I was terrified and excited by high school so reading about these teenage girls’ adventures was an eye opening experience to say the least. You could say I was overly prepared (I definitely expected some mean girls to be prowling the halls of high school and desperately worked on some witty comebacks like my favorite main characters. Wouldn’t you know it; there aren’t a lot of mean girls at my school? And my comebacks really weren’t that good? Heh).
If I’m completely honest with myself, I was a lot more lenient towards books with main characters of color. When I go back and re-read certain books (doesn’t apply to any of the above books because I have fond memories of them regardless of quality) that I really liked, I can’t believe I read them. Especially if I end up reviewing them, I can be way more critical than I ever would have been had I not started blogging and discovered more books about people of color. I put up with some poor writing, ridiculous main characters and slow moving plots, all out of desperation. What if this was it? When would I finally read all the books about black teenagers in my library and run out? Then what would I do? I would have nightmares about this fact (erm ok not nightmares but it was BAD. For awhile I would constantly check out the same books one week, 8 new ones the next week and then only check out my old favorites the next week, it was a never ending cycle).
Don’t even get me started on the fact that I didn’t find any books with Latina/Asian/Native American main characters until after I started blogging in high school. But we’ll save that for Hispanic/Asian/Pacific Islander/Native American heritage months. The golden era of diverse middle grade literature is upon us. I figure it started in 2008. My middle grade years were roughly 2005-2008 and I am SO ENVIOUS of the more diverse reads coming out now and back in 2010. If I had found Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s Eighth Grade Superzero I would’ve died from happiness.”
Photo Credit: Kevin Fell at HOZA