Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Race, Children's Books and Jacob Wonderbar


There has been some justified talk about the state of race in children's books lately. Most recently, First Book issued the infographic above about a recent survey that illustrated how few characters are non-white in children's books. Lee and Low asked why the number of multicultural books haven't increased in the past eighteen years.

If the numbers are accurate, it's a wakeup call for authors everywhere.

And that's not because of quotas or any particular agenda. It's because children's books are not reflecting the lives of children in America today.

The census bureau recently announced that for the first time, non-whites and mixed race children accounted for a majority of births in America. We Americans are living in an increasingly diverse country, and while story is ultimately more important than strict fidelity to the world we live in, it's nevertheless disquieting for fiction to diverge from reality that starkly.

In my own experience, my main character is mixed race. Jacob Wonderbar has an African American mother and a white father who, for the record, may also be from outer space.

Though interestingly, I've very very rarely seen reference to Jacob's race in reviews and have never seen it included on a list of books with minority or mixed race characters. A few reviewers have noted it, but not many. Partly, no doubt, this is because of how I handled Jacob's race in the novels, which is briefly mentioned in an oblique way and doesn't occupy much of the narrative at all.

This was a conscious choice. Jacob spends the vast majority of his time with his friends, who don't dwell on it at all, and with space humans, who are far more concerned with the fact that he is an "Earther."

These books aren't "about" Jacob's mixed-raceness. It's just a part of him, and one that his friends have accepted so wholly as a basic, nonthreatening reality that they don't find it necessary to talk about it.

I'm hoping we're moving toward that world. And while I'd never tell another author how to write their novel, I hope we all as children's book authors strive to create our novels in a way that today's children will find relevant, meaningful and reflective of the world they live in.

Are you troubled by these statistics?






70 comments:

Rachelle Ayala said...

Nathan, I also write characters of mixed race, various cultures and mix it all up. But my story is not about race per se, but a regular story, whether romance or mystery.

I think a lot of authors take the easy way out and make their characters the majority culture so they will not be accused of stereotyping.

However that in itself shows that multi cultural characters are not mainstream. I approach this exactly as you. My characters are mixed race, or multi cultural, but they interact with other characters in regular ways. Maybe they have favorite foods or some cultural traits, but I tend to downplay this because I'm trying to show that we are all the same and have the same issues with love, trust, betrayal, family.

My romances are also mixed, but I do not put them in the interracial category. Again, I want multi cultural characters to be part of the environment.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and hence my stories reflect the mosaic of people and cultures around me. Since the default reader believes a character is Caucasian, I have had to call it out earlier than I like before they've pictured the character. But I try to blend it in with the rest of the story. Does that make sense?

Thanks for your insightful article. I won't say I'm disturbed, but I do wish being colorblind does not mean nonexistent. :)

Rachelle Ayala

Matthew MacNish said...

They were discussing this on NPR for Morning Edition today. They even had Andrew Karre from Carolrhoda on.

Robyn Lucas said...

Yes. Yes. Yes. and Yes!
I'd love to see more characters, who just happen to be black, mixed, Asian, latino, etc. I've read so many books, especially YA and MG where I thought the character could be another race.

Anonymous said...

This cannot be said enough. It seems no matter how often we talk about it, not enough changes, so thank you. Let's keep talking about it!

And thank you for writing a mixed-race character but not making the story solely about his race.

That said, could I ask that we say "people of color" rather than "non-white"? It's like saying "non-man" for "woman"; i.e., setting white as the default setting for humanity

Magdalena Munro said...

Given that I wouldn't know how to create a genuine character of a different culture or race with a depth due to my own white/Euro limitations, I think the bigger need is to have more diverse authors creating children's books. How diverse is the current slate of popular children's authors in today's market? I'm going to do some reasearch today and look forward to reading other's comments. Thank you for this meaningful post Nathan!

D.G. Hudson said...

Do these stats also indicate that perhaps mostly 'white authors' are the ones getting their books published?

Does this bias reflect what the publishers choose? (in trad books)

The onus may not only be on authors, but also on publishers - trad or self-pubbed.

Time for a change. . .

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I'm not sure about "people of color" because white is a color too. I feel like that term opens up more of a division than it solves. I would use "non-white" in the same way that I would use non-black or non-Latino. It's meant as a term of specificity not of a default.

Magdalena-

I'm not personally mixed race, though many of my friends are. So much of writing is stretching ourselves and imagining how characters would react in situations that we ourselves have not experienced. I think this goes for having characters with diverse backgrounds as well.

d.g. hudson-

I agree that we need to take a hard look at publishers' role in this too. There is a pretty striking lack of diversity within the publishing industry itself.

Maya Prasad said...

Great post! I would love to see more diversity in modern literature, and it was part of the impetus for my novel (a cyberpunk that takes place in India).

When you think about those statistics, it's so obvious that a huge percentage of Americans are being overlooked. And there's just no good reason for it.

Magdalena Munro said...

http://www.education.wisc.edu/ccbc/books/pcstats.asp

Scroll down to see the precise statistics in 2012. Fascinating and a giant wake up call for me. Thanks for encouraging me to write about topics that are unfamiliar to me. I've tried in the past but feel like a charlatan. My comfort zone is to write about food, science, love, hysteria, and madness. Things I have experienced and known in my life. How would I even embark on a journey to write about a child-adult for that matter- of a different race? I would worry about offending others of that culture as being utterly presumptuous.

Robyn Lucas said...

Nathan and Magdalena,

I was born in Hawaii, grew up in St. Croix and Miami, then SC when I was 14. My family looks like the UN whenever we all get together.

Personally, I don't think you have to be a certain race to write about that character. It's getting out of the stereotyping that has been perpetuated for years. Like, the black kid is poor and from the ghetto. Or the Latino kid is poor and maybe has a single parent, etc. Or the asian kid is smart in school. Or the white kid has 2 parents and lives in the suburbs.

I can tell you, I grew up in suburbia. I've never known lack and neither have my kids. I wouldn't know what to do if I ever went into a "ghetto." But I joke with one of my neighbors, a middle aged white guy, who grew up in Compton that he's more "black" than I am.

The American experience is such a rich melting pot that we should fully incorporate into our writing.

judy b. said...

Was it a conscious decision to elide Jacob's race on the cover? To me, he reads white, next to all his white-looking friends. A picture's worth, and all that.

Christine Monson said...

I agree with Robyn Lucas about stereotyping and Nathan about white being a color too.

As long as the story is good, who cares what color the character's skin is or the author.

I just hope one day, we'll live in a world where we stop individualizing people by the color of their skin. I actually cringe when filling out a survey or census and they ask what color or ethnic I am. Honestly, what does it matter?

Nathan Bransford said...

judy b-

His skin is darker than his friends actually. I've seen different reactions to the illustration, some people pick up on it right away and some people don't.

Anonymous said...

I read Jacob Wonderbar when the book first came out. I really enjoyed it, but I have to tell you that I had no idea he was mixed race. Perhaps that's why you're not seeing it mentioned in reviews. The readers missed the reference just like I did.

Where is it mentioned in the book that his mom is African American? Even the cover makes it look like he's "white."

Whatever his racial background, my nephew loved the book, read it multiple times, and has requested the sequels for his birthday. :)

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

There's a part in the first book where he reflects on the fact that his skin is lighter than his mom's dark skin and darker than his dad's. It's admittedly an oblique reference but that was kind of intentional. Some people pick up on it, some don't.

jaima Fixsen said...

Nathan, you said:

"So much of writing is stretching ourselves and imagining how characters would react in situations that we ourselves have not experienced. I think this goes for having characters with diverse backgrounds as well."

I absolutely agree. We should be putting ourselves and our readers in a diverse array of perspectives. There is no reason why non-white races should be as under represented in books and film as they are. But we have a long way to go. Issues of race are sensitive and problematic: no one flinches when a male author writes from a female's point of view, or from the perspective of a child or person much older than himself.
Yet some people do flinch when a writer 'trespasses' into racial experiences that aren't their own. I do myself. When I write characters who aren't white, I sometimes feel as if I am stealing a tradition or experience that I have no right to touch. And I don't feel this way about writing from male points of view.
These taboos aren't helpful. We can best combat racism by being frank, honest, and inclusive, and by not being afraid to share experiences and concerns.
So I'll try to remember this when I write, and when my kids make mortifying gaffes that are really just honest mistakes--like the time my young son confused a Canadian-Chinese friend of ours with another friend who is Navaho.


Anonymous said...

I agree with the post in general, but I don't totally get the numbers about the majority of births in America.

According to this, in 2011 the black population in the US was 14.1%, so the numbers don't seem to add up...even if you consider mized race and other minorities. http://blackdemographics.com/

And, from experience, my books with mixed race and ethnic characters don't sell as well. I wish I COULD write more, but I need to make money, too. And if those books don't sell as well, I can't afford to be that carefree with my personal feelings. In other words, I think there is a market, but it's not as strong.

JeffO said...

Regarding the statistics, where do characters fall who are not specified by race at all? I've been curious for some time what people 'see' in their heads if they're not told "This character is [insert race here]." I've always assumed you 'default', so to speak, to your own race, but I've been told by a number of people that it's not the case.

Anonymous said...

Today's "Pearls Before Swine" seems appropriate for this discussion, somehow.

http://www.gocomics.com/pearlsbeforeswine/2013/06/25

ADominiqueSmith said...

My personal opinion is that I want to see black, asian, hispanic, and all the other flavors in between. I don't want or need them to be dealing with issues related to their race. I don't want or need them to feed into stereotypes. I simply want those characters to be there.

Growing up not having a black character to relate to made me feel very isolated.

Kirsty said...

This was one of the things I liked about the Harry Potter books. There were characters who were black and asian but, as you say Nathan, the stories were in no way 'about' their race, that is just who they were.

Bryan Russell said...

It would be interesting to see the population numbers side by side with these.

The Tea Trove said...

I understand, from reading your responses to some other comments, that you made a conscious choice not to make his race an issue. I think that's great. I also think that if you wanted the character acknowledged as mixed-race by anyone else, then perhaps he should look more mixed-race. Does that makes sense?

I can pass -- not for white, but for several other ethnic and racial combinations. I had no clue, by looking at your character, that he's mixed-race, but in real life, I can usually identify the person right away.

I'd enjoy an opportunity to talk with you more about this, on Back Porch Writer.

Tonja said...

That is really surprising. It makes me wonder what the stats are on the race mix for writers of children's lit. I wonder if most of the authors are white.

Anonymous said...

I agree with a sentiment of another commenter that it doesn't necessarily make sense for an author with little/no experience with a culture to write a primary character from that culture. Research is well and good but it takes a lot to internalize not just the cold hard facts, but the experiences, attitudes and worldviews of a certain culture.

Having a character who "just happens to be" Asian is certainly fine. Having what is essentially a "white" character given a skin graft is *not* okay. Frankly, it's a mockery of diversity.

Diversity is about more than skin color, it's about cultural experiences, a different worldview, and (a lack of) privilege. Even if the book is not about race, their experiences and culture will shape that character in everything they do.

I would far rather authors take "the easy way out" as someone said, and produce a great book with a white protagonist, than to give lip service to a trend or a mandate and produce a watered down, possibly offensive representation of something they don't fully understand.

For example, I have no personal experience with physical disability. So even though that's an underrepresented group, and even though I have a story idea, I'm holding off, because I am aware that I can do more harm than good. Research will help, but reading a book about it gives me just a glimpse into it--hardly enough for me to "become" that character and fairly represent that experience.

Ida Freer said...

My middle grade novels are set in the Darien region of Panama and the main character is an indigenous girl. Visiting this remote community was the inspiration of this series.

My mystery series (under a pen name) is Indo-Canadian. I like writing about different cultures but it does take some research.

Rick Daley said...

I'm guessing the stats are a reflection of what's published, not what's written.

It would be interesting to see this data broken out between Indie vs. traditional publishing.

Stoich91 said...

Very good topic starting to circulate the children's writing sphere. I have 4 takes on the topic:

1. To write more diversity into books, we need more writers of color who are willing to share the charm and authenticity of a first-hand voice, rather than the cheap imitation of a white writer who is to busy A: denying their own cultural heritage OR B: trying to be politically correct so hard that they stop telling good stories from the heart

2. Dickens' works mostly contained working-class and/or poverty-stricken characters. He wrote about real-life around him in his England time period, not what life COULD be like, and I think that makes his stories all the better. Writing with the honesty of race in books will make us stronger as a literary community, not weaker!

3. Although I have many friends who prove contrary, 'minority' races are still among the lowest educated and reading, and consequently writing, may be diminished in those communities.

4. PEOPLE ARE SO DARN CONCERNED about being Politically Correct all the time, they just need to write the book as the world around us is and celebrate the crazy, wacky, completely unbalanced kaleidoscope that is our life the WAY IT IS, not the way we wished it would be. This probably would prevent A TON of people from skipping the race issue, entirely. I love our differences; they are hilarious and inspiring and most of all entertaining and worth learning from - not something that we should be ashamed of cultivating in literature.

Lexa Cain said...

I"m glad that one of the anonymous commenters was brave enough to mention her culturally diverse books don't sell as well as her "white" books.

I think an important statistic is being left out. The sales figures. For instance, if 14% of the country is African-American, but African-American book purchasers only account for 5% of sales, there's perhaps a reason books tend to be "white."

I'm not sure the publishing industry is deliberately excluding minorities, but I think they simply focus on the money and market to who spends the most on books.

(Don't think I'm against diversity. My debut novel has a Muslim hero. You don't see much of that out there -- you didn't even include it in the list of minorities.)

Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure the publishing industry is deliberately excluding minorities, but I think they simply focus on the money and market to who spends the most on books."

Thank you for commenting, because that was my point. I would love the freedom to explore more characters from ethnic backgrounds and cultures. And I will continue to do that on occasion (thanks to self-publishing). But for the most part I'm forced to give them what they want, so to speak.

Angela Brown said...

It is interesting that this is brought up. I don't think I've written a story yet where the main character - or rather the lead roles - are wholly of a particular race (i.e. black heroine/asian hero).

I have Neverlove, which hasn't sold well, but I take that upon myself. As a self-pubbed author, I really need to do more to get it noticed. It would sadden me - though not completely surprise me, if it turned out my novel had the added burden of not fitting the normal book cover expectation for a paranormal, thus getting passed on that, but things are subjective like that.

My novella, Frailties of the Bond, is free so it seems to have a decent download rate and I only just released my novella Atone.

Each of these stories contain mixed race, Asian and other minorities as well as whites in different roles.

As for the diversity numbers, that, I'm not surprised, but I'm not sure what to say. I write diversity because it is what I see, not consciously.

The Tea Trove said...

@Lexi - We ran a book donation program through our store years ago. I picked up 17+ boxes of books from one of our libraries. The majority of the books dealt with non-whites, a.k.a, African-Americans and Native Americans. I asked why. The librarian told me that no one wants to buy books about black kids.

Edith Bramwell said...

For years, I believed you could only write from the viewpoint of your own precise racial identity. If I'd ever actually voiced this belief, I'd have seen how ridiculous it was. Instead, it lurked along unexplored frontiers deep in my subconscious, and stopped me from writing at all (because I challenge anyone to write a novel where everyone is Jamaicain/German/Irish).

Eventually, I got over it.
http://howtowriteabadnovel.blogspot.ca/2011/03/writing-about-race.html

adan said...

"This was a conscious choice. Jacob spends the vast majority of his time with his friends, who don't dwell on it at all, and with space humans, who are far more concerned with the fact that he is an 'Earther.'" -

nathan, your post has been incredibly encouraging to me, thank you, thank you :-)

Anonymous said...

"Are you troubled by these statistics?"

Not particularly. First, I'm not at all convinced that those numbers say much without adding a whole lot more context.

As has been noted, are people actively buying books with 'diverse' characters? If no, well, there you go. If yes, then I find it extremely unlikely that authors and publishers wouldn't be rushing to fill the category. I suspect that 'diversity' is a narrower niche than proponents wish to believe.

Children's books are outside my primary interests, but as a rule, I prefer 'diversity neutral' characters in my reading unless there is a reason to make it part of the story. Religious people might like being preached to in their readings, but most people don't. If these things are jammed into books because 'it is the right thing', people will know, and they won't likely be pleased. Not many of us care for books with agenda.

"The librarian told me that no one wants to buy books about black kids." I'd like to hear more anecdotal experiences.

I also would like to see sales data matched to customer backgrounds. I haven't got a clue what black people or Hispanics spend on books, or what kind of reading rates they have, but it's pretty important information.

I found the linked article lacking in well-roundedness.

". . . educators and parents have railed against for decades."
Authors and publishers are just leaving this money on the table all this time? I don't believe it. There is more to this.

". . . to create a sustainable solution by dramatically expanding the market for diversity in children’s literature."
Then buy those books. Stop talking about it. Apparently they are. I believe it a worthy experiment and hope they are transparent with what they learn - so we can all be better informed as to what the situation really is.

(Pay me, and I'll write any character you want. Quite happily.)

SB

Pamala Knight said...

Thanks for your post, Nathan.

My son loves Jacob and so do I. One of the reasons is that Jacob is a reflection of my son and I want him to read about characters that stretch his imagination, teach him about new people and things and also, characters to whom he can relate.

The heroine of my unpublished duology is mixed race and one of the other three books I'm working on have characters where race is significant to the storyline.

I read and purchase a lot of books, both for myself and my children and we read across the lines where the cast of characters is diverse. Granted, my older son reads mostly SF/F where race might not be an issue unless it's relevant to the plot.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, I'm the anon who asked earlier to use "people of color," because I am one. And yeah, it's divisive, but right now, that's how white privilege works. We have been trained to think of white as the default, for good or bad.

People don't say "non-black" or "non-Latino." They say "white"--if they say anything at all.

To the people who say there's no audience for stories about mixed-race characters and characters of color, maybe it's because we've all been trained that stories about white people are the ones that are universal, and nothing else is, that we shouldn't even have to consider viewing the world through their eyes. Think about that for a bit. Don't agree? Look around at our media and tell me who's the star of most of it.

Eliana Ramage said...

Crazy story:

In one of my creative writing courses in college, someone submitted a story about a college kid getting a taxi ride from the airport to campus. She had an interesting conversation with the driver. That's it.

Except on the very last page, the driver mentioned her son who didn't make it through college and his name was Treshaun.

That's what the class talked about that day in critique. Whether or not it was fair to give a one-liner character an African-American name, because of COURSE if you hint at not-white then the whole story changes and now you have to make it about race as the main theme.

I still think about that when people talk about how there aren't enough characters of color in books. Some of my classmates really thought that white characters are what keep things normal, and if you change that then you change the whole point of your book. I hope people stop thinking of black characters as a distraction from the story arc.

Jeremy said...

Where are all the Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses? What about people from Kansas City and San Jose? If you pick a random sample of children's books, just about any criteria will show low numbers. (Though you probably will see talking animals and aliens significantly overrepresented relative to the general population.)
Being of the same race, religion, ethnicity or whatever does not matter as much as being able to relate to the story. Children tend not to be nearly as concerned with race and "differences" as are adults. They may be a little more attracted to a story about people "like them". But they would rather have a good book about "somebody else" than a mediocre book that panders to their "group".

wendy said...

I've never written about non Caucasian races because for most of my life I've lived in rural Australia where no people of colour can be found. Well, these days there's a slight increase given the number of Sudanese who have migrated to Aus. Still, the only Sudanese I've encountered was someone who once asked directions on the street. So I dont feel comfortable writing people from races I couldn't describe with confidence. There is a slight racial identity, I think, the same way there's a slight national identity...and, maybe gender identity...? Of course, the most interesting characters are those who don't fall into any stereotype or who aren't restricted by any racial or gender identification....if that's the right word. I'm comfortable writing about fantasy races which I've never met, either, but neither has anyone else, so I can go for it. *g*

Cynthia said...

Reading your recent Twitter update, what I'm troubled by and a bit confused about is your recent announcement that you are being unsubscribed by some readers after you put up this post. If I may ask, and only if you feel comfortable to respond, have people told you why they had to leave?

If anything, I'd think that people would appreciate that you're sharing your thoughts on a topic that encourages people to think about the kinds of literature they are exposed to, and what they have and don't have access to.

I've been aware of the lack of representation among ethnic minorities in kidlit for quite some time. So those statistics are not a huge shocker for me.

I have lots more to say about this topic, but to keep this short, that's it for now.

Nathan Bransford said...

Cynthia-

No, people usually unsubscribe quietly. I always receive a couple unsubscribes with every post, this one was pretty stark because it's the most I remember receiving all at once.

RaeChell said...

The most important thing you mentioned is this: Stories that feature racial minorities don't have to be about race. I don't wake up everyday and go 'Hey, I'm black' nor do I relate to every experience I have as a black person. I relate to my experiences as just a person. That's how I write my characters, as people with the same emotions, challenges etc as everyone else.

I think the bigger issue (and excuse me if I generalize) is when readers find out that a character is a racial minority they assume the book isn't for them. And maybe for a long time that was true with so many books about the sad racial history of this country. I get it. But it isn't true anymore. More and more writers are writing characters of underrepresented races without writing about race. The more readers come across characters written that way, the more likely they are to be open to books featuring non-white (no issue with that use, btw) characters. The more these books will sell. The more willing the industry will be to make diverse (And I don't mean books with just black, mexican or Chinese people. I mean DIVERSE books. Like how life in America really is.) books available.

But maybe that's just my pipe dream.

A M Pierre said...

People unsubscribed because you posted that more diversity in books would be nice?

Wow...just wow.

I said this on another message board recently, but if I made my books with all white characters, it would be like telling all my wonderful, amazing, diverse friends that they're not good enough to be in my books. I'm not going to do that.

Funny thing - recently, I was hanging out with my friends and one (who is black) stopped mid-conversation and said, "You know, I just realized you're white."

We all got a kick out of that, because we knew what she meant - once you get to know someone, you stop seeing the melanin and only see the human being :-)

Barbara DiLorenzo said...

I am a budding illustrator/writer, and have thought a lot about race in my characters. Before I began my illustration career, I studied portrait painting at the Art Students League in NYC. Painting from life, I tried to capture the essence of the person in addition to their race. However, when painting illustrated characters that are often simplified (compared to oil portraits) – I wonder if I am helping or hurting with the lack of nuance. If my character is African-American, is it positive to have curly hair and thicker lips? I agree that the characters should transcend their physical make-up, and just be good characters. But as a white person, I feel funny about depicting other races. I so desperately want to, and with respect and dignity. I just don't know how to do this without possibly looking stereotypical in my physical depictions. To solve this, my first few book dummies revolved around green lizard and chameleon characters. If I couldn't get other races right, I was not going to draw another white kid. But I am eager to know how other illustrators deal with this.

-GRC said...

Thanks for this post. Just the fact that people have unsubscribed speaks volumes. I don't know why it's such a threat to acknowledge that there is a need for diversity in books. I am thankful it's getting better, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

I also did not realize Jacob was mixed (I have the same racial background), but I also appreciate you quietly adding that to his backstory without making his race THE story.

A M Pierre said...

-Barbara DiLorenzo

I sometimes go to anime or comic conventions and draw cute cartoon versions of people.

Over the years, I've drawn hundreds of people of every possible race and racial combination. My method is pretty simple: make sure the drawing looks like the person. By this, I mean accuracy, not parody.

There are differences among races, true, but there are just as many differences between individuals of any given race. I look at the person in front of me and draw that human in a cute way that is true to who they are and what they look like.

For modern references as to how to convey race in simple illustrations without devolving into offensive designs, you might try looking at modern 2D animated series - not ones with extreme/absurd character designs, but the more "realistic" ones - to see how they've handled it. For example: Young Justice (Aqualad, Huntress, Cheshire), Spectacular Spider-Man (Randy, Liz), Avengers (Nick Fury, Black Panther)

Neil Larkins said...

[I've been in the hospital so didn't get to see this until today. Sorry I don't have one of those devices where I could have seen and responde to this from anywhere, but that's the fact of it.]
Why is it always about race and the lack of racial/cultural diversity? There are other "differences" among us that are due to circumstances beyond our control, one of them being handicapped from birth. This was my first wife, Teresa. For her there was her world and the world of the "normals." There were the deformed, the crippled, the handicapped or disadvantaged or whatever each era of society has wanted to call them, and then there were those who, regardless of their color or race looked pretty much like everyone else. I learned a lot about living in that world from my 33 years with her and feel I can write about it. Teresa always wanted to but one of her handicaps was profound dyslexia and so was unable to put on paper what she really felt. But she did talk about it and extensively. Even though I know few people really want to know about her world, I still write about it and her. Yes, there is an agenda and if only a few can come to understand by my words what it's like to be not-normal then I know Teresa will be happy.

Edith Bramwell said...

Maybe one of the barriers here is around relevance and irrelevance. We want the details we share about our characters, including the physical ones, to be relevant to who they are, and help us understand quickly. For example,red hair (pippi longstocking, anne of green gables, ron weasley) tends to go with quirkiness and independence. Small stature (Narnia's lucy and stuart little) often goes with persistence and loyalty. So what does Black or Latino or South Asian or whatever "go" with? A whole lot of us know that it doesn't "go" with anything in particular - people, even fictional ones, should be judged "by the content of their character." But every attribute in fiction is a choice, a choice you may be called on to justify or explain. Add to this that there are some folks with hateful ideas about race/color/ethnicity, which they do not generally share, for fear of censure. Finally, color,etc., and the words that decsribe it, are lighntening rods for people who cannot or will not take any interest in your actual story, because their heads are so fully occupied with their own struggles on this issues, and with laying down rules on right and wrong, as I think some of the comments above amply demonstrate. Put all this togather, and you can see how writers might be shy to work with characters outside the perceived norm, or even "white-wash" characters which they originally concieved otherwise, if the author can't justify his or her original vision rationally.

The bottom line on this one is courage. courage isn't easy and its often unpopular. Building an inclusive world starts with all of us. The evidence (Harrp Potter, Hunger Games) suggests that it can pay off extrememly well, though, so there's hope.

Speaking of white-washes,did Jacob need to look so very white on the cover?

Ann Jacobus said...

Nathan, this complex and emotional topic has been being discussed at length and examined closely this spring on a couple of kid lit list serves by librarians, publishers, and writers. There was some disappointment in the NPR coverage on Monday as breaking no new ground.
See a post by Jason Low of Lee & Low books.
http://blog.leeandlow.com/2013/06/17/why-hasnt-the-number-of-multicultural-books-increased-in-eighteen-years/
as well as Phillip Serrato's take of San Diego State, (Chicano/a literature) http://arteyloqueras.blogspot.com/2013/02/working-with-what-weve-got_16.html

K. C. Blake said...

The main character in my recent YA novel Bait is Latin on her mother's side, and a couple of people have commented on it. One blogger in-particular loved it because she is also a Latina. But like your book my novel isn't about her race. She is proud to be who she is, but she doesn't make a big deal out of it and neither do other characters. It would be nice if there were more characters in books that reflected who we are as a nation.

Bryan Russell said...

I find it interesting that a lot of people seem to think that to write a non-white character they have to somehow represent the entire experience of that race. As if, to write a black character, you have to somehow capture the black experience in some universal way.

But you don't. You only have to capture that single character's experience of being black, and there are as many such experiences as there are black people. In the same way, you have to capture that character's experience of everything: their gender, their class, their lifestyle, their profession, their education, their faith, and their hopes and dreams and beliefs. Race is simply one facet of the character. It is how you handle all of this that will allow the character to become real. You don't have to capture the universal "black" experience (if such a thing were to exist); you merely have to convince the reader that this character's experience (of their race, culture, place in the world, etc.) is real and that it has some sense of truth within the world you create and lay out within your fiction.

Mira said...

Brave and important post. Thank you for speaking about this, Nathan.

Children learn about themselves in large part by watching how the world relates to them. And when the hero of the book is always White, and you are not, that is a very subtle but powerful way to teach children of color that they are less important, second class citizens, not worthy of being the main character, always a sidekick or absent altogether.

Books permeate the society and have a powerful impact. This really needs to change. Children of color need to know that books are about them and for them. Thanks again for writing this, Nathan. A really valuable and important conversation.

And on the larger issue of diversity, I agree with you and D.G. Hudson - the entire Industry would benefit from increased diversity.

Nathan Bransford said...

I'll say again about the cover (which, for the record, I didn't create but am happy with): Jacob does not look white to everyone at first glance. I've had people say that to me unprompted without knowing the story.

-GRC said...

I did study the cover more closely after reading this post, and thought to myself, "Duh." The cover reflects his background, I just missed it.

campbele said...

These numbers are indeed disturbing, particularly when you look at how few were written by authors of color. Of color is African American, Latino/a, Asian American and Indian American, though Indians are a distinct Nation and prefer not to be called people of color. If you use the term 'people of color', that distinguishes from 'people of non-color'. White and black are not colors. It's about self empowerment. As an African American, I would not define myself as 'non-white' because that gives the perception of living in a white centered world. For the same reason, a white person would probably be uncomfortable using the term 'person of non-color'. It shifts the power.

For more reasons than I'll elaborate, we need more books written by authors of color that feature characters of color. We need more books that feature characters of color. I would like to ask the authors who write about characters of color (sometimes as mixed raced characters) what it is that you mean they have 'regular experiences'. My regular is not your regular and 'regular' is still a fuction of race in this country. I think you have to take cultural experiences into account and this can be done without making race the object of the story. Ignoring these differences does not help to validate people of color or those who are LGBT, have physical or learning disabilities or different racial beliefs.
Places like this blog where people can freely and honestly exchange information is a very good start.

Jennifer Malise said...

What really bothers me is when I'm reading a book and I learn that the characters are dark-skinned or have dark complexions, but are depicted as white in the cover art. I think it's ridiculous! Show the characters as they are in the book. No one should be looking at a book and determining whether or not they want to read it based on the main character's skin color, not in this day and age. People should want a great character and a great story, regardless of race.

Rachelle Ayala said...

To Anonymous: What exactly is a "white" character? When you say Jacob reads white, is it because he's acting like a normal person? He's not doing stereotypical "black" or "mixed-race" things?

What exactly is a nonwhite character supposed to do for you to believe he is not white? Exhibit stereotypes? Or you would say a normal character is an essentially "white" character given a skin graft?

My characters are nonwhite, and someone has told me, well, they're acting white. If that means they have a college education, have good jobs, are intelligent and can write software, then I take issue to this. Do I have to put a dashiki on them or have them speak in broken English?

I believe the entire point is to include nonwhite characters doing normal things that all characters do: make mistakes, fall in love, do stupid things, save the day, be villains, be heroes, without making it a statement on their race.

I agree with ADominiqueSmith - let these people be in the story and not just dealing with race issues. And please, don't tell me my Latina character acts white because she has a job, or she can write code, or that my Asian character acts white because he speaks perfect English. This is insulting. I have seen books where the author decides to have the obligatory Asian character, but in a stereotypical profession, such as mom and pop store owner, and speaking broken English. Or they have the typical maid who is Latina and she doesn't speak English. That's perpetuating stereotypes.

Tea Trove - I have a biracial male athlete in one of my books. My first crit partners didn't even realize he was biracial, so yes, in a way I had to write in a subplot where he deals with this, between his mother and sister who didn't want him to date a white woman, and his own resentment about not fitting in.

In my current WIP, I had to call it out in the first chapter where the male character says "Filipinas are gorgeous" and she asks "Are all Aussie men so tough?" This is not natural, but something that has to be done when the default is assumed to be white.


RaeChell - Yay! Exactly. I agree with you 100%! Someone criticized my book saying, what is this? the United Nations? Umm, no, it is life in the San Francisco Bay Area.

K.C. Blake, Bryan, Mira, campbele - Like!

Finally, Jacob does not look white. He only looks white to some people because of their expectation of what a biracial person should look like. Jacob looks like Jacob and since Nathan describes his mother and father, then it is very believable. I know many bi/tri/etc-racial people of every combination and guess what? You usually can't tell. Many Asian/Caucasian people look Hispanic.

Thanks Nathan for opening up this topic. Sorry to hear people are unsubscribing. I applaud you for dealing with this and having this discussion.

Zachary Colston said...

I am not about to read 58 long comments, so I hope I am the first to suggest that the statistics MAY be skewed. Did they take into account the number of children's books where the characters are animals? I am guessing that is a large percent without a race tagged onto it. Just a thought.

Ben Saufley said...

A bit confused by these numbers just because I'm not sure I understand the emphasis on America at all. Is this a survey of children's books taking place in America? Or does it signify that less than .6% of children's books even take place outside of America or feature non-American characters? Or are we counting Africans with African-Americans? Hispanics with Hispanic-Americans? And so on?

I followed the links. They are grouped together. The original source groups "African / African Americans" together and so on. I think that's an important distinction that gets left out by the chart.

It's kind of funny that a chart about the lack of representation of minorities would omit foreigners from its own representation.

Not a judgment of the message - it's clear something's wrong when the representation of a majority of the planet is such a minority in media like this. But maybe something like this points out how deeply ingrained the problem is, that even those who are trying to fix it are falling prey to their own ethnic blinders.

Graciela Tiscareno-Sato said...

To answer your question, yes I'm troubled, so I'm doing something about it. I'm a Latina and started a book publishing/marketing company 3 years ago to create content to address this obvious problem, for children, young adults AND business audiences, all of whom lack access to positive images of Latinos in the literature they consume. It may surprise you how I'm choosing to do it: there will be no books about girls making tamales, or granny's chocolate in the old country...no. I choose to show Latinas and Latinos as the valuable contributors to this nation that we are: as entrepreneurs, innovators, business owners, and for children, as military officers and aviators.

My new bilingual children's book, the first of its kind to show young children why mommies wear military uniforms, just listed with Ingram, Baker and Taylor and Amazon in 4 countries. It's titled "Good Night Captain Mama / Buenas Noches Capitán Mamá" [ISBN: 978-0-9834760-3-0] and it is based on my military aviation service in the U.S. Air Force. Captain Mama is Latina, her little boy's name is Marco. Latino children everywhere have mothers and fathers in uniform and yet have we seen books to depict this part of our society? No. And we will not see more until WE, the Latina entrepreneur and publisher, creates them. :-)

Our 1st book "Latinnovating: Green American Jobs and the Latinos Creating Them" [ISBN: 978-0983476009]won 3 awards at the 2012 International Latino Book Awards in NYC. Have you heard of these awards? No. Hmmm...why is that? Earlier this month, 190 authors and publishers were recognized at the 2013 ILBA awards in dozens of categories. Trust me, the books exist. They're just coming from sources that don't have lobbyists pushing legislators to specify and allocate procurement funds for school district materials and country library purchases. So the perception exists that there are no books while those of us creating books understand what the real problem is to having our children connect with these books.

Thank you for keeping the heat on; keep this topic in the American consciousness because that's the only way that buyers will really understand that it's NOT about a lack of books; it's about the NY Times not reviewing our books, the big publishers not publishing our books (and therefore not buying expensive ads to promote them in the ALA magazine that librarians look at when they buy,) etc. So we small, scrappy creative multicultural publishers and authors will find our way through the back or side door or window, whatever it takes. We’re on it!

Graciela Tiscareño-Sato
Chief Creative Officer
Gracefully Global Group LLC
Hayward, California
www.gracefullyglobal.com

Graciela Tiscareno-Sato said...

And for those who doubt there's a market for these types of books and characters, trust me, there are MULTIPLE markets and they are global in scope. But learning the specifics of who, where, how they buy takes a whole lot more effort to discover and then to create products to address their needs in English, in Spanish and with bilingual literature. This additional effort, to understand mysterious ethnic markets and racial groups, is simply too much work for those who are fat, dumb and happy w/the status quo, in denial about our nation's changing demographics reported just about daily somewhere and likely choosing to ignore the fact that in 37 years this nation will be a full 1/3 Latino. So this is another reason why this research and additional work is not done. It's a lot easier to say "Latinas don't read." "Latino don't buy books." There's no market," "Those types of books don't sell well," Just sayin....

Graciela Tiscareño-Sato
Chief Creative Officer
Gracefully Global Group LLC
www.gracefullyglobal.com

writersobsession.me said...

I agree with a lot of what you said Nathan about writing a character of a different culture. While I wrote a children's book about a boy of Latin descent most publishers do not even care. They especially do not care if the author is Latin American also. D.G. Hudson made a good point. When do we grow past the stigma of race and just accept our multi-cultural differences?

wendy said...

Hope you don't mind me wandering into OT territory, Nathan, but I'm well down in the hierarchy of responses, so only you will read, prob. Finally set up Amazon account so I could order with one click and have got me a copy of Jacob Wonderbar. My previous attempts just resulted in rejection of credit card details which I wasn't able to edit after clicking on the edit button. I see now I should have just deleted and started again. Have started in on first chapter and really enjoying it - usual for me as I don't read much now. Great characterization of Miss Pinkerton, I must say. :)

wendy said...

P.S.: Meant to type '...unusual for me...'

wendy said...

I understand what you're saying, Bryan, but I personally don't have the confidence to write about any type of person I've not had personal contact with. A few stories have been spoilt for me by protagonists who don't ring true, usually when male authors have female heroines and visa versa. One of my stories in the past was criticized for the 'unrealistic' portrayal of a teenage boy. So there's no way I'm going to attempt to convey folk from races I've never encountered. I'm often surprised by the reactions and conversations by people of colour I've watched from reality TV shows from the States. Many of the ladies of colour from a certain demographic are shown as more on the volatile side I've noticed. Whether that is true or not, I simply don't know. I couldn't capture the nuances of a character when I didn't understand their attitudes or their vernacular or what they've experienced. And that goes for modern day teenagers, too, of any race.

Sarah Hipple said...

Yes! I hope that's the direction our writing is going too.

My last manuscript definitely had plenty of people of mixed race, but now I'm writing a book set in the 1950s, so . . . I'm back to a white main character with a few black characters.

But, given the era, I think I'm going to try to touch on some of the important issues of the time (race included). The last manuscript didn't look at race. It was just there.

Bryan Russell said...

@Wendy

I hear what you're saying, both about confidence and about criticism, and I know a lot of other readers feel the same way. But, to me, the key is that you're true to the character, regardless of whether the traits describe something that is considered part of the type or not. The key is that these traits have a specific foundation in a unique character and are mot simply being adopted to fit a racial or ethnic type.

You mention ladies of colour who are portrayed a certain way. Now, you can portray someone that way, but it shouldn't be because that is simply the cultural default. If you create a three-dimensional character whose traits are based on her own unique experiences, unique family, and unique place in culture, people won't say "Oh she acts like that because she's black" or "she acts like that because she's Hispanic"; rather, they'll recognize her for who she is as a unique person, because how she acts will descend logically from her own unique history.

The same goes for controverting types. Some people may say "Oh, that person is not acting black" or something of the sort, but that usually only means that the writer has not convinced the reader of the uniqueness of the character... or has not made the character unique. Has not made them a person unto themselves. If a character's actions and attitudes are clearly delineated from their own unique history, the reader will believe. How did this character come to be who they are? This is something that can be asked of any character, regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity. And one of the roles of fiction is to answer this question. This is the creation of character. Answer it well enough - create a character real enough - and the reader will believe anything.

Why would a reader travel along with the rabbits of Watership Down, hanging on their actions and identifying with them? Because the author convinced the reader of the reality of that character, of the veracity of their actions, thoughts, and beliefs.

That is what we have to try to do with every character. It is an act of the writerly imagination. We will not always do it perfectly. In fact, we never will. But it is in our imperfect struggles that art is made and words are shaped and people come together. Being open to possibility, I think, is one of the central facets of telling stories. The struggle to identify with others (including fictional others) is the key. Empathy is at the heart of any such imaginative leap.

Anonymous said...

I too want more diversity. People don't have to have a PHD in cultural anthropology to write about people of another race or ethnic group. We are all the same - human. And every black, asian, latino person in US does not spend every minute of their lives thinking about their color or their cultural heritage. They live ordinary lives, are often middle class, and can be included in all kinds of books. I couldn't believe when it was time to buy books for children who are grandchild age for me that the best book around was A Snowy Day (and often Keats' books were the only ones.)
While I'm at it - why do people of color have to specifically identified not only by skin color but by some cultural tick whereas most characters in books are assumed to be white and it is assumed everyone else knows all about white people and can understand them and what's more are really interested in them because they are almost the only people in books.

maloneycj said...

I feel that as writers we can--and should--make the effort to find ways to remind the reader of a character's race in ways that naturally come up among friends and acquaintances who don't CARE about skin color, or accent, or cultural differences, but NOTICE them from time to time (which is completely natural). Just the other day I mentioned to an African American friend of mine how beautiful his skin looked against the pale green shirt he was wearing--and how I could never wear that color. He agreed, that I was too pasty to pull it off. It wasn't a conversation about race, but about skin color--in a non-loaded manner. It takes some extra time to find believable ways to work this into a book, but personally, I feel it's an obligation I have.

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