When I was growing up, I very rarely saw images of black children in the books that I read. My mother—who was also my kindergarten teacher—introduced me to the books of Ezra Jack Keats, and those were the only stories I can recall that functioned as a mirror for me; I didn’t live in a big city, but I saw my brown-skinned self in the imaginary world so beautifully rendered by Keats. Yet when I began to write as a teenager, almost all my protagonists were white. It took years for me to decolonize my imagination—to believe that magical things could happen to people who looked like me. When I began writing for children, I tried to create stories that featured children of color and yet could still resonate with a wide range of readers. I believe boys can find meaning in books about girls, and I think all children benefit from stories that expose them to the variety of cultures and voices that make up the human race; diversity in children’s literature isn’t a “favor” performed just to appease marginalized people—it’s an imperative meant to benefit everyone. Unfortunately, some members of the publishing industry don’t seem to agree (hence my “Open Letter”).
In response to the recent whitewashing controversy (whereby publishers put white children on the cover of books about children of color), Colleen Mondor gathered some authors together and asked us to reflect on the significance of race and representation in children’ literature. Her feature article for Bookslut opened with this quote of mine:
Because I so rarely saw black characters in books when I was a child, I learned to relate to protagonists who didn’t look like me—but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t identify with their struggles, triumphs, etc. It did mean, however, that I started to erase aspects of myself when I read—I couldn’t consciously be black and read a lot of those books because then I’d realize there was no place for me in that imaginary realm. I didn’t pretend to be white, I just didn’t acknowledge my own erasure from the scenes that delighted me so much. By nineteen I was reading postcolonial literature, and then I became a very self-conscious reader in the most empowering sense. I became less tolerant of stories that privileged wealthy, blond-haired, blue-eyed heroines and actively sought out stories about people who shared my race, class, and cultural heritage.
As an adult, I now understand that various facets of a reader’s identity come into play when selecting a book. My gender, race, class, sexual orientation, age, and all kinds of personal interests and idiosyncrasies determine whether or not I’m going to pick up a book. I’m a black woman, so seeing a black woman on the cover of a book may pique my interest, but it doesn’t guarantee I’m going to read that book—the plot summary has a lot to do with it, positive reviews, and/or a trusted friend’s recommendation. There is a moment of instant recognition, however, in which my mind says, “Hey—that book’s for me!” Cover images do matter, particularly since I so rarely see books that feature beautiful, dignified, brown-skinned women (and the same applies to film and television—see the latest Vanity Fair cover). But I’m just as likely to relate to an Asian, Latino, Native American, or white protagonist if something in their particular story resonates with me—does s/he have an “outsider’s perspective”? Does the underdog win? Is magic involved? An appealing cover will make me pick up a book, but the back cover “blurb” and quality of the writing are most likely to determine whether or not I read it. I firmly believe that our children can be taught to be just as open minded when they’re selecting a book to read. But we, as adults, have to model that behavior for them and we need publishers to provide an array of multicultural books in order for that to happen (in 2008 less than 5% of all books published for children were by or about people of color).*
I’m deeply offended by the whitewashing of book covers, particularly when those books are intended for young readers. I’ve worked with children and teens for a long time, and I know that every day kids of color have to actively work against a slew of media messages that misrepresent them and distort their realities. I’ve also seen the delight in a child’s eyes when s/he sees my book and thinks—“That’s for me!” So when a publisher deliberately and repeatedly puts a white person on a book about a child of color, I consider that a personal and political assault on the most vulnerable members of my community. I also think it’s an insult to white readers—the publisher is basically assuming that whites are so racist they’ll be utterly repulsed by a book cover that shows a person of color. We have a black First Family living in the White House; the Obamas represent ALL Americans—they are “the face of America.” And I know that a lot of people still haven’t accepted that fact, but catering to their bigotry and intolerance is not the way forward—and that’s just what publishers are doing when they whitewash books.
*source: Cooperative Children’s Book Center
Zetta Elliott is a Brooklyn-based writer and educator. She is the author of the award-winning picture book, Bird (Lee & Low); her self-published young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was re-released by AmazonEncore in February 2010.
Thanks so much for your essay here, Zetta. As a preschool teacher in a university lab school setting, year after year I had classes of students from all over the world, native speakers of a wide variety of languages, and I too often found it challenging, or practically impossible, on my library visits to find books that represented the definite diversity of my students. I appreciate you sharing your perspective here, and this is a topic that needs to continue to be talked about by those of us who want children’s literature (and all other genres as well) to represent and portray the many, many different people, cultures, lifestyles, and experiences of the world.
Zetta Elliott says
Thanks for your comment, Dawn, and for your commitment to keeping classroom materials diverse. Thanks also to Jennifer for the opportunity to share my thoughts on this important topic. The marginalization of PoC in children’s literature is an uncomfortable topic for many, but future generations are relying on us to stand up for what’s right.
Annette W says
Great thoughts. I notice when our books have a child of color…it’s too rare, unfortunately. And I was introduced to Keats when we got the Little Drummer Boy…and I did notice his dark skin, but thought it very appropriate, being around Jesus and all. 🙂
I will say that I also notice when books/cartoons/tv make a “rainbow” of characters.
I am thankful my children know people…and our friends… don’t just come in a peachy cream color…I didn’t know that for years. My school, public, didn’t have anyone different from me until high school.
Zetta Elliott says
@Annette W: Thanks, Annette. Now that I live in Brooklyn, I often wonder who I might have become had I grown up in a diverse environment. In a way, I think Keats’ depiction of the city led me here…
This is such a well-written article. I am so happy to read it. I think it’s not just about having ethnic characters or white characters in every novel, althoug we need more stories showing a variety of friends of different skin tones, but it’s about having a diverse set of stories in our libraries for children. We need stories about different countries, different regions, different people, different traditions, and so on. There should be no surprise when we get to heaven that there will be all colors represented.
Thanks for writing this piece. It’s wonderful.
Zetta Elliott says
@Tina: I agree, Tina–I couldn’t afford to buy books as a child, so the library was crucial for me…and there were maybe two books on the shelf that had children of color on the cover. Libraries are vital in promoting all kinds of diversity…