Thursday, November 08, 2012

Race and Point of View in Children's Books

I've been reading a lot of middle grade chapter books in the past couple months, and I am noticing a broad range of perspectives in the main character's point of view. I think that's a great trend that I always wished for when I was younger. Of course when I was a girl I loved reading the books about girls like me, and I was devoted to Wilder's Little House... books, but I also really longed to hear the stories from people who didn't look like me.

 I wanted more of Sing Down the Moon and Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell. I searched for more of Mildred Taylor's Gold Cadillac and Virginia Hamilton's M. C. Higgins, the Great. A world-opening story from another point of view.

There are a number of books published this year for young readers that are set in periods of racial turmoil and change. Some are written from the white character's point of view and focus on the young person's adjustment in understanding as social rules are challenged and institutions change.

One of the really well written and well received books like this is The Lions of Little Rock by Kristen Levine. Marlee is a 12 year old white girl living in Little Rock, AK a year after the forced integration of the schools by the famous "Little Rock Nine" African American students. She makes friends with a light skinned girl who is "passing" in her Jr. Hi. She gets caught up in the turmoil surrounding the closing of the schools by white parents who believe "race mixing" is akin to communism and the destruction of their society. It is a really good book and I will recommend it to many, for sure. But I am left wondering about how the story would be told if it came from Liz, the light skinned Black girl, or her darker skinned brother, her mom, her boyfriend, the maid that works in Marlee' home...? That's the story I want to hear now, after so many others coming from the white woman's perspective. I am thinking of The Help by Karen Stockett, or Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood.

Not that they are not good books; I read them and enjoyed them and will pass them on. But it's so easy for a white reader to miss the parts left out; the really extraordinary story of what it feels like to experience the Black woman's life. How it plays out when you are a Black teen living through race riots or civil rights demonstrations or desegregation.

Or what it means to be the Black young man caught in a flood or left behind or misjudged. That's a dramatic edge that will draw readers in and widen our view of the world. It's fascinating to read The Whole Story of Half a Girl, where the main character is finding her mixed identity in an America Jewish and Pakistani family, or find out what it's like to be Chinese-American and go visit the grandparents in Taiwan for the summer. How about the story of an African American girl whose family is struggling to survive in a Hobo camp during the depression?

We read in a myopic white world for a long time; it's time to wake up and smell the coffee. I'm really excited about this new crop of books for young people. They are showing a world I never heard about when I was making my way through reading groups and literature courses.

What do you think? What books have you read this year that portrays a point of view that is not white? Who wrote it? What did it do you your perspective and understanding?

No comments: