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."