Thursday, September 29, 2011

Heroes who look like my kids!

Ever since I got pregnant with The Boy, I've been looking more purposefully for books that feature black and mixed-race children. My friends, I have found a book I love (and it has a sequel!).
I recently finished The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan, author of the "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series. All I knew was it was about "kids and Egyptian gods" instead of "kids and Greek gods." Fine. I know the basic gods; I was a kid during the big King Tut exhibit in the 1970s.
"... he has dark brown skin like mine..." Hey, bonus! The boy in the story is black. A central character is black. Excellent. Oh, two characters: he has a sister. Then on page seven:
"You would never guess she's my sister... our mom, who was white..."

I kid you not when I say I did a double-take.

Like I said, I was a kid during the Seventies. Ever hear Steve Martin's "King Tut?" Listen to the lyrics at 1:04.
Yes, that was my favorite line. But I point it out because the cultural assumption is that characters are White Until Proven Otherwise. You know, the assumption I made, in 2011, about The Red Pyramid's characters until the author said otherwise.
It's not impossible to find children of color featured in books, especially for toddlers.
But try finding one featuring a child of African heritage as the main character(s)... where racial tension is not the whole story. One that features a boy, not a girl; I can only assume "race + boy" is a more threatening combo to publishers than "race + girl." I adored the best-selling The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow. But in her gracious email back to me, she didn't know of any fiction about biracial boys. So finding books that reflect my kids' existence back to them will continue to be an uphill climb.
High-five to Riordan for bringing up these issues:
  • People of color in the same family don't always have the same skin tones or hair
  • Boys of African heritage are less likely to receive the benefit of the doubt from strangers
  • Black parents often insist their children be appropriately groomed before going out in public, because of said suspicion around black kids.

A couple of quibbles with the book:
  • It went all Disney and killed off the mom right away (yes, I know: Drama!)
  • The brother is visibly ethnic and the sister looks white. Convenient -- no hair-related self-esteem issues! (Yes, I know it's an adventure story.)

There are other issues I wonder about (side-stepping the ethnic angle in the cover art and plot summary). But others have written about publishers' decisions which the author may not have had control over. And if the sequels sell well, maybe other publishers will realize Adventuring While Black or Biracial is not a barrier to a book's success.

Throne of Fire should be on our doorstep any day now. Riordan's site says the third (!) is due out in 2012.


MrCachet said...

I have a book suggestion while I'm here - "Hotel On The Corner of Bitter And Sweet" by Jamie Ford.

Now I'll shut up and BROWSE!

Lisa MB said...

Welcome, and browse to your heart's content!

I've heard about "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet"... must check it out myself. Thanks for the rec!

Lori said...

My kids really like those books too. I am multiracial and my children are even more so! Have you seen the movie "good hair" it's excellent, nit for kids though. I am always looking for books with kids whom are multiracial. Thanks for the deep thoughts! I like what you are doing in your art as well.


Lisa MB said...

Hi Lori,

Just came back from your own blog. I loooved the post about the sculptures you did a little maintenance on. That's one kind of display I'm aiming to do at some point. Can't wait to browse further, and thank you for your kind thoughts about my own art.

Yes, I've seen "Good Hair." I had mixed feelings about it -- funny much of the time, brought back lots of memories and a few insights as well. I guess one can only bring up so many points about how curly & frizzy hair is perceived without overloading the newbies. Keep commenting -- I could use more multiracial friends out there! :o)