Monday, February 12, 2007

Books Not About Race

Dawn, in her recent article on Anti-Racist Parent, has asked the question: What are the good chapter books that have main characters that are people of color, but the story is not about their race or ethnicity? She gives this as her “rule for inclusion - The child’s race isn’t a plot-device even if it has some bearing on his/her experience. In other words, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson didn’t make it in because Shirley Temple Wong is trying to assimilate into the United States, which makes it an issue book albeit a good one.” I have been mulling this over for a few days. It’s pretty hard to think of books with non-white characters where ethnicity is not a main part of the plot. Issues of identity, assimilation, dealing with racism or living in an environment stereotypical of a particular race (the ‘hood, Chinatown, and internment camp, wrong side of the tracks in a small southern town, etc.) are so common in books with non-white characters. Dawn’s question is a really good one. What books would you recommend? I have started this list just from scanning our library shelves:

Grades 1 -3
The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron
Later, Gator by Laurence Yep
Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World by Mildren Pitts Walter
Suitcase by Mildren Pitts Walter
Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look

Grades 3 - 5
Drita My Homegirl by Jenny Lombard
Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Sing a Song of Tuna Fish by Esme Raji Codell
M.C. Higgins the Great by Virginia Hamilton
The Road to Paris by Nikki Grimes

Grades 5 - 7
Small Steps by Louis Sacher (sequel to Holes)
Hush by Jaqueline Woodson
Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis
The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
LeGuin wrote her Earthsea series with a variety of races in mind. It isn’t stressed in the books, but skin color is occasionally mentioned. When the movies were made she wasn’t consulted about who should play the parts. In this Slate article LeGuin discusses how the TV mini series changed her characters from a variety of shades of skin tone and ethnicity to white guys: “Most of the characters in my fantasy and far-future science fiction books are not white. They're mixed; they're rainbow. In my first big science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, the only person from Earth is a black man, and everybody else in the book is Inuit (or Tibetan) brown. In the two fantasy novels the miniseries is "based on," everybody is brown or copper-red or black, except the Kargish people in the East and their descendants in the Archipelago, who are white, with fair or dark hair. The central character Tenar, a Karg, is a white brunette. Ged, an Archipelagan, is red-brown. His friend, Vetch, is black. In the miniseries, Tenar is played by Smallville's Kristin Kreuk, the only person in the miniseries who looks at all Asian. Ged and Vetch are white.”

The trouble with writing a story with non-white characters where their ethnicity isn’t stressed is that most white people don’t register the possibility that normal life includes all ethnicities. If the book cover doesn’t have a picture of a brown face on it and the plot doesn’t revolve around racism and ethnic identity, it doesn’t enter our minds that the character might not be white like us. I was looking through Codell’s book Sahara Special, for instance. Is the main character white? I can’t tell. Someone suggested that Gregor the Overlander had non-white characters. I hadn’t noticed that at all when I read it. Did you?

Take a look over at the original article and the comments at Anti-Racist Parent and then leave a comment with your book suggestions please.


Dawn said...

Thank you thank you! this list is great!!!

Anonymous said...

*waves* I think that was me, with Gregor the Overlander; at least, I mentioned the series over at ARP.

I didn't notice until most of the way through the first book that he was not white. It's really subtle, which is neat.

Unshelved (a library comic strip) did the same with one of their Sunday book clubs and a bunch of readers contacted them about it. The strip is here: and the blog entry about fixing the strip is here: .

I would also add Chasing Vermeer and The Wright 3 to your booklist, by Blue Balliet. I absolutely love those books because they fool kids into learning all kinds of things. All three of the main characters are mixed. It gets a mention, and that's it.

Elaine Magliaro said...

I read Carol Fenner's YOLONDA'S GENIUS and Jacqueline Woodson's LOCOMOTION a few years ago. If my memory serves me right, the race of the main characters was not the major focus of those books.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Thanks for these great comments. Kyla, I really never noticed! Thanks for the links. And Elaine I like those books too.

I was thinking someone might challenge a couple of the books on my list.... I just pulled them off the shelves and I am not sure they all really fit the criteria. Anyone have a title they would question?

Or any more to add to the list?

Don Tate II said...

Thanks for sharing this article. I went over and read it, and was so glad that someone is writing about this.I hope publishers will start to realize this problem as well. I wish the writer would have taken it a bit farther, but I'm glad they tackled it at all.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Don, go ahead and take it farther! We would love to hear your perspective. Everyone is welcome to comment at AntiRacist Parent.