Writing about race for kids

Back in January, bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle and I had a conversation about white privelege and issues of race in children’s publishing and children’s literature, two topics that had been much on our minds.

Elizabeth kept pondering and talking to people in the industry and has now published a post called "The Elephant in the Room," complete with illustrations by a bunch of artists.

I hope you all read the article and check out the links.

After you do, come back here so we can continue the discussion. What do you think of what she said?

In a similar vein, a children’s literature scholar recently reviewed CHAINS. In the review (which was positive) she said she found some anachronisms, which made my heart stop. I wrote and asked her what they were. She graciously responded; she had not found true anachronisms, but was unsure about the historical validity of some of the choices I made. I wrote back and explained my sources.

The original review and short discussion thread are a great example of how authors, reviewers, and readers can connect to discuss story in a constructive way. I was honored to see that Debbie Reese was following the discussion. (Be sure to check out her blog if you haven’t yet.) If you have any thoughts on that, I’d love them, too!

7 Replies to “Writing about race for kids”

  1. A few days ago I almost sent you a note about that article, but you were on the road, and I figured you’d hear about it soon enough – little did I know you helped start the conversation.

    By the way, I was in a bookstore today, browsing YA, and from the other side of the aisle I heard, “There’s one not here. Fever…” “1793.” “Yeah.” “Yeah, I’ve read them all.”

  2. Thanks

    Thank you for including the link to article “Elephant in the room.” Very interesting. As a high school librarian, I have often wanted books about kids of color that are stories about something other than racial issues. It has to move beyond that, even though that discussion is still important. It has also reminded me to TRY HARDER!

    Carrie Goodall

  3. I think Elizabeth Bluemle is on the money is so many ways. I especially agree that diversity has to include all the variable forms of humanity (to her list, I would add geographic region). I do think that we need to see more variety in illustrations and covers, and I would love to see books that move beyond well-worn topics. One of the reasons we read is to get inside someone else’s skin and let us explore how it feels to be, say, a bi-racial, bi-sexual girl growing up in the small town her great-great-great grandfather founded in rural North Dakota. Who knows what her biggest issue might be–it could be loneliness because there’s no one like her around, and she has to leave town to find her soul mate; or it could be saving the town from total depopulation, and attracting a family with a son (or daughter) who turns out to be her soul mate; or attracting a racist, homophobic family with a son (or daughter) who starts out as her friend, until she learns who our protagonist is, at which point the friendship breaks down (or turns into something more serious because the son/daughter was struggling with issues of her own).

    But I’ve gone on more than long enough.

    What I’m saying is, yes, we do need more diverse voices and depictions of people in the books we read and write, but we also need to not restrict them to “books about diversity” or multi-cultural books. They need to be in books in general.

    You and Elizabeth have also made me realize that I need to go back and rethink some of my own writing–one novel in particular. Thanks!

  4. tanita says 🙂

    Interesting how so many people have arrived on this same topic this month. The Vermont College of Fine Arts published their YA/Children’s lit journal this month, Hunger Mountain, and in their Flipside feature brought out two different sides of the question of featuring more young adults of color in YA fiction. (Full disclosure – they asked me to write one of the pieces for them. Mitali Perkins wrote the other.) I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the open conversation Elizabeth is creating in the publishing industry. It really is about time. Past time, really.

  5. That was a great article, and it’s something I’ve become much more aware of recently. I was really pleasantly surprised by Rock Riordan’s “The Red Pyramid” because one of the two main characters is black, and they are part of an inter-racial family and presenting it as not being a big deal. There is also a point about the prejudice that Carter faces as a young African-American man, but it’s not preachy or moralistic. I’ve been keeping an eye out for kids/YA books where the default race for everyone is not white (so a black character is not always referred to as “my black friend” or having “ebony skin”, while white characters are just “my friend”), and “The Red Pyramid” and Justine Larbalestier’s “Liar” are two that fit the bill.

  6. race

    As a Lakota Winyan,(woman)author, and Mother, I find this very interesting, on so many levels.
    Number one, while I agree with these points, you are all forgetting something pretty big. You are mostly all coming from parts of the US where race may be the minority. Where I live, race is always in everyone’s face, and so we face a whole different set of issues. Here in SD and NE, the majority of our population are American Indians, living, shopping, working among wasicus’ (white people). Maybe our libraries are different due to region, because finding children’s books on race, or by non white authors, or about non white issues, are easy to find here. And our library has done a fairly good job providing books by African Americans and American Indians.
    What needs to happen in the publishing world is exactly what she talked of, publishing more authors of race would be a vital part of fixing this issue.
    But this brings something else up for me. I understand that you are a youth author, but the overall LACK of any american Indian literature is still extremely lacking in the eastern states school curriculums, and even in colleges, should also be of great concern.
    Oh, this is an issue that needs a round table, conference discussion.
    I may write my next LAAH article on this, or post about it on my blog.
    Good topic, I’m glad you brought it up, but it needs to continue to be explored, discussed and improved upon.

  7. Ms. Anderson,

    Thank you for pointing to my blog, and, thank you for giving this issue attention. I’m really glad to see the recent articles and discussions about it. At the same time, I’m somewhat disheartened.

    I study the ways that American Indians are portrayed in children’s and young adult literature. In doing that, I’ve studied what American Indian people said about these representations over time, going back to William Apes’s autobiography, published in 1829.

    My point is that this is not a new insight. It’s been around a long time. While we can point to some change, there’s a whole lot of backsliding, or, denial of the importance of accurate representation. Or rather, not a denial, but a decision amongst the gatekeepers of the industry that the writer’s creative license or free speech is more important than accuracy.

    It isn’t a binary. Both are possible.

    But writers (and their fans) have to be able to hear criticism and act on it, not out of a defensive space, but from a space that recognizes that you (most of you are White) have a tremendous power in making it all better.

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