Book Reviews: Why Is There So Little Racial Diversity Among Protagonists?

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I’m no expert, and I’m not sure I’m even remotely eloquent when discussing race and racial disparity, but I couldn’t help noticing how few books that I’d read in 2015 had any characters of anything other than “white” skin—or maybe I noticed more how many were unnecessarily white—and how many of those that had some mention or appearance of a person of color still had a white person in a position of power or (and) importance, how many illustrators and writers had defaulted to white for their protagonists. Even being fairly generous, allowing even books that mentioned vaguely and offhandedly the existence of people of color within their worlds or having people of color appear as background characters in the illustrations, I come up with a mere 26 out of 111. Admittedly, 38 of those 111 dodged the question of race by excluding humans altogether, favoring instead only anthropomorphized animals or objects so that the count is really more like 26 out of 85 (just over 30%) with 3 more books of those 85 dodging the question another way: Todd Parr in It’s Okay to Make Mistakes by illustrating his characters in colors so outlandish (purple?) that I’m hesitant to assign them any race, Virginia Burton in Katy and the Big Snow by making figures so small that it’s impossible to tell whether her characters are bundled against the cold or darker skinned, Jack McDevitt in Eternity Road simply escaping on a technicality (I don’t remember the mention of anyone of color, and I didn’t make note of any in my review… but I feel certain there must be someone—this is post-apocalyptic America!).

Literature provides an opportunity to walk the world as someone else and with someone else without ever having to leave the couch.  Literature seeps into minds and hearts.  It can teach us when face-to-face conversation is difficult or impossible.  In a time of too-present, too-rampant racism, the disproportionate examples of white protagonists narrows the world’s (fictional worlds’) vision and silences the very voices that literature can and should promote, that could alter our minds and hearts.

This all said, I did not in 2015 seek out diverse literature.  I read what I wanted, what intrigued me, what I had at the house without giving any thought to the races of the protagonists–other than to be excited when I did stumble across a a person of color as a protagonist (especially in picture books).

But that’s just it:  I shouldn’t have to seek out diverse characters.  Our fictional worlds as diverse as our own, and it seems to me that publishing still has a ways to go to make that so.

I hope you find this survey and these statistics as eye-opening as I did.

So WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE OF COLOR?

Well….

Samurai Santa by Rubin Pingk. Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Christmas comes to the ninja dojo. All the characters then are Japanese, but all this really does is reinforce stereotypes. Do children realize that ninjas and dojos are historical aspects of Japan? Is there anything historically accurate about this dojo? Little here could build cultural awareness.

Here they are, in the background where a white person—or a non-human character—is the protagonist.

Iggy Peck, Architect and Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams, 2007 and 2013.

There are children of several races in the class, but Iggy and Rosie are both Caucasian.

The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Book 2: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. Aladdin-Simon & Schuster, 1973.

Every main character—every speaking or named character is white, but there’s mention of an “old man” from Kingston, Jamaica, “his skin very black and his hair very white,” who gets one line of dialogue recorded in a letter that the protagonist receives from his brother (129) and when the Old Ones are magically joined together across/outside of time, Will sees “an endless variety of faces—gay, somber, old, young, paper-white, jet-black, and every shade and gradation of pink and brown between” (232). So, yes, Cooper acknowledges a variety of races and skin pigmentations and does not exclude them from power, but they are not her characters or actors or focus.

Little Elliot, Big Family by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2015.

The protagonists are a small, white, rainbow-spotted elephant and a mouse, but the city scenes show a racially diverse population, all depicted as loving family units.

Library Mouse: Home Sweet Home by Daniel Kirk. Abrams, 2013.

There is some racial diversity among the children seen entering the library, but the story focuses on two mice.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2014.

Again, there are a few POC within the crowds of the city but the protagonist is a non-human… thing, and his soul mate is a light-skinned brunette.

Little Blue Truck Leads the Way by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. First published in 2009.

There are POC in the city scenes of this book, but an anthropomorphic truck is actually the protagonist. The mayor of the city is lighter skinned too.

Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B. Schiffer and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown. Chronicle, 2015.

This is the story of a Caucasian family, but Stella’s class is ethnically diverse and the family of at least one classmate is multiracial.

How to Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky-Scholastic, 2012.

Dinosaurs are the protagonists (main characters anyway) in this story, but there is some variation of skin tones among the humans in whose homes the dinosaurs seem to reside. Honestly, this one may be a stretch, but I think Teague made a conscious effort at least.

Now they are characters! But still only side characters, not protagonists.

A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5: A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin. Bantam-Random-Penguin Random, 2013. First published in 2011.

Martin’s world is fairly wide, and there are different races and skin tones within the world. Some of those characters like Missandei become important to—or maybe friends with white protagonists. Most darker skinned people are side characters in the extreme, mentioned mostly as slaves. … Really, Martin? In that respect at least the television show has been better. Surprise! Most of the characters you thought were dark-skinned—Grey Worm, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Salladhor Saan—are probably not. The Dothraki are “copper skinned” though, and several Dothraki have been characters.  Khal Drogo may have been a protagonist–but not in this book.

The Kingkiller Chronicles, Book 2: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. DAW-Penguin, 2013.  First published 2011.

Kvothe’s friends and teachers come from several regions of the world and have various racial identities and accompanying pigmentations. Kvothe himself is lighter-skinned, I think, because of the true red hair, but Rothfuss steers far clear of the trap that Martin falls into. There really aren’t slaves at this point in history, and the characters of darker skin that are here—Wilem and Master Kilvin in particular—have strengths and flaws and personalities and are not generally second class because of their skin color.  In fact, they are pretty awesome if I can for a moment be less objective, and Kvothe learns from and leans on both.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling. Scholastic, 2000.

There are a few ethnicities represented within the classes at Hogwarts, not as many as one could hope for, but the dark-skinned Dean Thomas is a friend of Harry’s; Lee Jordan, a friend of the twins’, is another character of African descent; the Patel twins go to the Yule ball with Harry and Ron; and Harry is crushing on Cho Chang, a girl of Asian descent. None of these are particularly main characters, though Cho gets a little more time here than in earlier books, this being the first book where Harry gets to tell her of his interest.

Here they are, slipping quietly into larger roles without any comment.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr and illustrated by Eric Carle. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 1996. First published 1967.

Carle’s classroom includes students of several races, but there’s no real protagonist here, though the Brown Bear is the title character. The teacher is Caucasian.

If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t! by Elise Parsley. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2015.

Magnolia might be of Asian descent, I think, based on the illustrations, and there are a few POC in her class.

Intersellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Meg Hunt. Chronicle, 2015.

The handsome prince is dark-skinned.

The Little Kids’ Table by Mary Ann McCabe Riehle and illustrated by Mary Reaves Uhles. Sleeping Bear-Cherry Lake, 2015.

The family here is multiracial, and no one is upset or comments on it.

The Crown on Your Head by Nancy Tillman. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2014. First published 2011.

There are several races depicted in these wonderful illustrations, though in this book, the faces are obscured a little by glowing crowns.

Princesses and Puppies by Jennifer Weinberg and illustrated by Francesco Legramandi and Gabriella Matta. Disney-Random, 2013.

All right, Disney, you win this round. Tiana and Jasmine are both included in this book, though Jasmine’s brief appearance especially (to be fair every character here gets only a very brief appearance) seems more to propagate stereotypes than defy them.

Now we’re letting race inform our characters, but not focusing on race, cultural history, or current social issues.

Young Wizards, Book 9: A Wizard of Mars by Diane Duane. Harcourt-Houghton Mifflin, 2010.

I almost forgot about this one, and I’m terribly ashamed! Kit Rodriguez is Hispanic. His family occasionally slips into Spanish and keeps a few specialties—a soda that Nita particularly enjoys—in the refrigerator. He is a truly powerful, empathetic wizard—and a protagonist besides, with most of the weight on him in this book. His sister Carmela is especially good with languages, and though not a wizard herself has learnt the wizards’ Speech.

The Kane Chronicles, Books 2 and 3: The Throne of Fire and The Serpent’s Shadow by Rick Riordan. Disney-Hyperion, 2011 and 2012.

Sadie and Carter are biracial (though both sides of the family have roots in Egypt), and Carter in particular is mentioned as having darker skin. Walt, Sadie’s love interest and the Kanes’ partner in the fight against Apophis, is dark-skinned too. Carter’s love interest, Zia, is Egyptian.

The Heroes of Olympus, Book 5: The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan. Disney-Hyperion, 2014.

Our seven heroes are of several ethnicities: Native American (Cherokee), Chinese Canadian, African American, Latino, and Caucasian—and yeah, there are three Caucasians in the group, but there are some excellent representations of different and rarely depicted ethnicities here, and Riordan lets their various heritages inform their characters and their backstories, their strengths and their troubles without I feel defining the characters by their ethnicities. Side characters are of different ethnic backgrounds too, including the Puerto Rican Reyna and her sister Hylla.

Here teaching understanding of racial experience or cultural diversity is the drive behind the story.

Pirate Queens: Notorious Women of the Sea by John Green. Dover, 2014.

There are female pirates here from all over the world.

Walking Home to Rosie Lee by A. LaFaye and illustrated by Keith D. Shepherd. Cinco Puntos, 2011.

This is a story about the African American experience in Reconstruction America.

Sold by Patricia McCormick. Hyperion-Disney, 2008.  First published 2006.

This is a collection of poems documenting the experiences of a fictional Nepali girl taken to India as a sex slave. Many of the characters are Nepali or Indian, though the man who helps Lakshmi escape her slavery is American—though I don’t believe that his race is explicitly stated.

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About Kathryn

My love of books has been carefully cultivated by the adults who raised me and also by the friends who love to share. My life has led me down long library shelves, to online forums, fanfiction sites, the front of a lecture hall, and into the desks of college classrooms. With an English degree and a couple master’s classes in Children’s Literature, I am now a bookseller for Barnes & Noble. I have been an editor for Wizarding Life Networks (the people who brought you Wizarding Life, Panem October, and MyHogwarts now HogwartsIsHere).

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