An effort to add color to my son's book shelves

I spent yesterday in a different online world from my usual kidlitosphere. My review of Thirteenth Child got picked up in a gathering of online comments concerning "mammothfail," the name that's been given to Patricia Wrede's decision to keep Native Americans out of her alternate America. Reading all the various reactions-- thoughtful, enlightening, contentious, and extreme--led me to thinking about race in children's fantasy and science fiction, and, more specifically, that particular sub-genre's overwhelming whiteness.

This led me to my eight-year old's bedroom. I stared at his bookshelves. The picture book collection, which is beautifully multicultural, has been passed on to his brother, leaving him with hundreds (literally) of books that used to be mine (like my Nesbits, and Edward Eagers), and a few shelves of his own books-- Dragon Slayers Academy, A-Z mysteries, some graphic novels, like Jellaby and Bone, and lots of non-fiction.

There were two books with African-American characters, from Lerner's Graphic Myths and Legends Series--Marwe: Into the Land of the Dead: an East African Legendand Sunjata: Warrior King of Mali: a West African Legend. There was one book set in China, The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, by Lloyd Alexander, which he hasn't read yet (Prince Jen never struck me as particularly Chinese, anyhow). There was also a book about ancient Nubia, that he picked up at a library book sale, but it's in French, which is not much use.

When I asked him if he could think of a book in which a character's skin color happened to be different than his own (the inside of a plain bagel, untoasted), he suggested an aberrantly white character in the V book of the A-Z mysteries, who is taken for a vampire.

Gah. On so many levels, gah.

My son suggested that I write a series of books about an African boy who battles dragons, but this is not practical. Nor is it feasible for me to start publishing multicultural fantasy books for the third-grade reader. However, I have a credit card, and the possibly naive belief that if people buy books with non-white characters in lucrative droves, publishers will publish more, and better.

Ready to do my bit, I went first to my local independent bookstore, and started looking for fantasy books for third graders that have central characters who aren't white. Here is what I found.

Time Surfers #1: Space Bingo (The Time Surfers), by Tony Abbott (author of The Secrets of Droon), 1996. Not quite what I was looking for, as the white boy in the center overshadows the other girl and boy. Although the girl is identified as Japanese by her last name, Naguchi, the boy isn't described, so making him dark skinned seems to have been the publisher's decision.

I also bought Ghost Island, a Choose Your Own Adventure for the young, based on the cover, which shows two kids, one black, confronting a ghost together. False advertising. I am returning this. The black kid is not a character, just a trick to make shoppers like me buy the book. It is neo-colonialist garbage.

That was it for the reading level I wanted.

Later I visited Borders. where I bought Tiger (The Five Ancestors, Book 1), by Jeff Stone, the first in a series about five young Chinese (?) masters of different fighting styles.

End result: just one degree from complete bookshopping-fail.

I also asked the Child Lit group if they had any suggestions. Here are the responses:

Raising Dragons, by Jerdine Nolen and illustrated by Elise Primavera (a longer picture book)
The Wizard of Washington Square, by Jane Yolen
The Dragon and the Unicorn, by Lynne Cherry (another longer picture book)

I will look for these.

And I know that there are various early chapter fairy books with faeries of color. I cannot, in conscience, buy these for my boys (because they wouldn't read them).

And this is all I could come up with. If anyone can think of anything else, please let me know. Things get a little better for fourth-grade readers, I think--I'll be revisiting this again next year!

I wrote this post to support Fen of Color United (Fen being the irregular plural of fans). I learned yesterday that today is a day of protest--a day to listen to the voices of people of color in science fiction and fantasy, to speak out against making people invisible.*

Please, can't we add a bit more color in our fantasy early reader and chapter books? Fantasy is such an important gateway into bigger books for so many children, and it is much too monochromatic.

When my six-year old brings book bags home from school, there's a box of skin color crayons for the kids to use in their pictures. The colors range from a deep dark brown to a pinkish peach (and a white, which is odd. Possibly to color melanin-challenged people who are mistaken for vampires).

The major publishers of fantasy for kids, on the other hand, don't seem to be coloring with a full set of crayons.

Here are some good kidlitosphere places that promote reading inclusively: The Brown Bookshelf, Paper Tigers, Mitali's Fire Escape, American Indians in Children's Literature, and Black Threads in Kid's Lit.

And you could also go to the Happy Nappy Bookseller, to read this beautiful and powerful rant.

*From the live journal community organizing today's event:

"On Monday May 18, 2009, we are asking anyone who identifies as a POC/non-white to post this banner, their speculative short stories, artwork, poetry or simply write a post on their favorite fandom on their blogs as an act of protest to show we will not be silent or invisible. The day of protest is entitled Fen Of Color United or more aptly, FOC_U.

White allies can also show solidarity for this event by posting this banner and expressing the need for diversity and speaking out against the bigotry in the genre, through posts and/or their creative work as well."


  1. Thanks for this most awesome post.

  2. Thank you for posting this - and for the links to those other blogs, which all look very good sources of reading material.

  3. This is an amazing effort on behalf of your son! My own bookshelf was also heavily white-washed growing up, but one book in particular that I remember was The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer, which is a sci-fi novel set in futuristic Zimbabwe. I loved it so much, I bought it myself when I was older (and have subsequently given it away to another young reader!). Worth vetting against racefail (I haven't read it in a few years), but it's a fantastic interesting book with 3 awesome children of colour protagonists set explicitly and exclusively in a real [futuristic version of an] African country.

  4. Do Ursula K. Leguin's Earthsea books count?

  5. Actually just yesterday my new, wonderfully well-read, fantasy loving friend on Goodreads posted a glowing review of a book called Water of Possibility by Hiromi Goto, a fantasy based on elements of Japanese folklore (I've ordered a copy). It's published by a small Canadian Press that has a a particular interest in publishing multicultural children's fiction. Their other books are probably worth checking out too.

  6. Lenore Look's beginning chapter books (Ruby Lu, Alvin Ho) are great books who have Asian American main characters. Their heritage is part of the book; and I cannot recommend them enough. The main characters are in 2nd grade, so yes, would work for the 1st to 3rd grade crowd. (And I just reviewed them at my blog, if you want more info).

  7. My daughter is 7 and I've had some of the same struggles. (How hard would it have been to put a non-white kid in the A-Z Mysteries?!?)

    The Bailey School Kids books, which may be too 'young' for your son, are funny, supernatural, and have a black girl in the main cast. It's not a lot, but it's something.Louise Erdrich has a series of books about life in American pioneer times from the perspective of an Indian girl. They're supposed to be very good-- I've read some of her adult books and very much enjoyed them.

    Hiromi Goto sounds awesome but he's only on Amazon.ca, not the US version.

  8. Wow. Char, I'm so late it's embarrassing, but this is a great post, and you're right -- for MG/early reader fantasy, *EVERY* princess seems to be a startling blonde with gentian eyes. Or a redhead, which is equally obnoxious, since there are so few true redheads. It goes on in that insane vein through YA'hood. I don't know what to tell ya, except I think your son had the right idea about picking up a pen.... *cough* but I know that affliction is not for all of us. Tell him a writer you know is TRYING, and that by the time he's ready to read YA I should have something for him. *Crossed fingers.*

  9. Thanks for the recommendations, Jadey and Emily--these are too old for my son now, but in a few years...

    And I agree completely about Lenore Look's books, Liz--I hope she decides to turn her pen toward fantasy!

    We've never tried the Bailey School Kids, Bridget. For some reason, he took a scunner to them. But since he is still shy of trying what I think of as "real" books, perhaps I will offer them to him...

    Tanita--YA is very nice, and I will pounce on your book, but how long could it take for you to write a nice set of 31 fantasy easy chapter books featuring children around the world, well-grounded in the actual stories and mythos of those places? It would be but the work of minutes, and such a contribution.

  10. Hi again, Emily-- I just looked up the Hiromi Goto book, and it sounds very good. I think I might buy it too! And thanks for the link to its publisher. Small multicultural presses rock.

  11. Have you tried Lawrence Yep? He writes fantasy novels in roughly the right age range with Chinese or Chinese-American protagonists- the Dragon of the Lost Sea series is particularly good.

  12. Hi! This might be useful -- Oyate.org has a catalog of recommended YA books by Native American authors featuring Native characters, here: http://www.oyate.org/catalog/index.html. They also have a list of books to avoid (i.e. those that portray Native American cultures in poor or stereotypical ways), with explanations of what's wrong with each book: http://www.oyate.org/books-to-avoid/index.html

  13. Oh! And they're too old for your son yet, but Diane Duane's Young Wizard books are just ridiculously good.

  14. Spearmint--thanks for the recommendation. The Laurence Yep's I've read have been to old.

    Layla, I agree that Oyate is a marvellous resources, but I didn't see any fantasy for kids in the recommended books...

    Bridgett, he's definitely getting The Young Magicians when he's older!

  15. Thanks so much for the link. Couldn't think of any fantasy books for characters of color for
    2nd and 3rd graders. But Alexander McCall Smith has some adventure stories, ones called Akimbo and the Lions.

  16. Excellent post! It's great that a book that has some issues has led to people thinking about minorities in literature!

  17. Hello. Sandy Fussell's Samurai Kids trilogy is set in a sort of fantasy Japan, and are good fantasy/adventure stories.

    I like My Girragundji by Meme Mcdonald and Boori Pryor which is about an Aboriginal child and his family, maybe a little too old for your son.

    Diana Kidd's Two Hands Together is about girls, but one is Aboriginal and the other isn't.

    I don't know if any of them are easily available in America, I'm sorry.

  18. You're welcome, Doret! I saw the Alexander McCall Smith books while I was shopping, and thought they looked good. I am going to ask my librarian if she wants the Friends of the Library to buy them.

    Thanks Kailana!

    Penthe---Sandy Fussell's books are available here--I'll look for them! Sadly, the other two not so much. But thanks for the recommendation!

  19. What a good idea. I'm going to go check out my daughter's bookshelf right now.

  20. Late to the discussion, but just wanted to say that you are so right - fantasy and SF for children (and adults, for that matter) is so overwhelmingly white. Here are a few exceptions that I don't think were mentioned:
    The Conch Bearer by Divakaruni (and its new sequel)
    Moribito by Uehashi
    The True Meaning of Smekday by Adams

  21. Oh, and Archer's Quest by Park.

  22. Any books by Laurence Yep and Linda Sue Park, two Newberry authors, usually are about Chinese or Korean main characters. Also, the American Girl Series is an extremely popular series for younger girls with all different colored characters and time periods.


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