Tag Archives: multiracial

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.

Book Reviews: November 2015 Picture Book Roundup: Part 1: The Anytime Books

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Mmm, Mmm, Good

cvr9781442443372_9781442443372_hrCloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett. Antheneum-Simon & Schuster, 1982. First published 1978. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Would you believe this is the first time I’ve read this book, though I’ve loved the movie for six years? I was surprised how many elements of the story found their way into the film, though the film is vividly bright and focuses more on how and who than what. I had a difficult time dividing the picture book from the story in the film, so I won’t comment much on Grandpa’s tall tale about Chewandswallow. This book takes the form of a frame story. After a breakfast of pancakes, during which one pancake is flung too far and lands on a child’s head, Grandpa is reminded of a tall tale that he tells at bedtime. The illustrations differentiate reality and the story: Reality is black and white. The story is colored. Perhaps the best part of the story is the ending where the narrator remarks that in the real world the sun looks like a pat of butter atop the hill, marking the blur of reality and fiction and the ability of fiction to improve reality, particularly with the touch of bright yellow bleeding into the black and white illustration on that page. The tall tale shows great inspiration from oral tall tales, especially at the beginning where Grandpa is describing where to find Chewandswallow and describing how Chewandswallow is like other towns. This is a good, out-of-the-box wintertime story (the kids go sledding) and a good grandparents story.

****

l_9781585369133_fcThe Little Kids’ Table by Mary Ann McCabe Riehle and illustrated by Mary Reaves Uhles. Sleeping Bear-Cherry Lake, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 5-8, Grade 1.

This book is marketed and displayed with the Thanksgiving books, but it’s really not specific to Thanksgiving. In fact, I don’t recall any mention of the holiday, and I know that I was relegated to the little kids’ table on holidays besides Thanksgiving—Christmas certainly, but sometimes July 4th, birthdays, really any holiday where families gather and share a meal. The adults’ table is dressed in all its finery: flowers on the table, matching place settings, and glasses made of glass or maybe even crystal. The kids’ table is a little rowdier—and more fun! They practice balancing spoons (and plates and flower vases) on their noses. The dog gets fed the broccoli casserole that the adults insist will help little kids grow strong even though it’s icky. The adults tell the kids to calm down, to be quiet, but the kids think that secretly the adults wish that they too could sit at the little kids’ table. Being sat at the little kids’ table can feel exclusionary, but this text helps to redeem the idea a little bit. For those families that deem a little kids’ table necessary and those kids who feel hurt by being sat away from the family, this book could be helpful. The text rhymes, but the rhymes are not too jarring. The illustrations are bright, and the family is multiracial without it being an issue.

****

9781484722626_3ed6dElephant and Piggie: I Really Like Slop! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

A new Elephant and Piggie book! What I really like about this book is that not only did Gerald try Piggie’s spicy, pungent cultural delicacy willingly after some hesitation but that it’s okay that he didn’t like it. That he tries the slop is touted as a mark of their friendship, as an act of love via shared culture, but Piggie is not upset that Gerald doesn’t like her slop, and their friendship continues, even stronger.

****

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Bear Says Thanks by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman. Margaret K. McElderry-Simon & Schuster, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is another book marketed for Thanksgiving, but why should it be? Friends can share a meal at any time, and one should always thank those who share with them—and again I don’t think that the holiday was mentioned by name. The rhyming text here was actually less smooth than Riehle’s, mostly because of the forced repetition of the clunky “Bear says, ‘Thanks!’” The order of the words there is less natural, though I understand the desire to end the phrase and thereby put the emphasis on “Thanks!” particularly in a Thanksgiving spinoff. Bear wants to have his friends over for a meal, but his cupboards are bare (see what Wilson did there?). Perhaps they’re psychic because they start arriving all at once with food without being invited to do so within the text. Bear thanks each of them in turn, but he is distressed because he has nothing to offer them in return. They assure him that his company and his stories are enough, and they all share a woodland feast in bear’s lair (because “lair” rhymes with “bear”). Chapman’s illustrations are beautifully soft and gentle, helping to sort of smooth over some of the roughness I found in the text of this book.

***

Cats! y648If You Give a Cat a Cupcake by Laura Joffe Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. HarperCollins, 2008. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Following the circular, if/then style as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, this cat is given a cupcake, but spills the sprinkles, and gets hot cleaning up, so is brought to the beach, after which ultimately the sand in his swimming trunks remind him of sprinkles and of cupcakes. It’s a silly story, made sillier by the idea of a cat at the beach. When I was reading this, I really wanted a cat book, and I didn’t feel like that was what I got, but this remains a fun, silly story and well written.

****

24000733Pepper & Poe by Frann Preston-Gannon. Orchard-Scholastic, 2015. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

A customer actually pointed this book out to me first. She had read a review and wanted to see the book for herself. The illustrations are pretty cute: black background with a white kitten with big orange eyes and a gray cat with big green eyes and a chestnut dog. Pepper, the gray cat, likes Sundays. He likes Mondays too and Tuesdays. These are lazy days, days when he can just enjoy the quiet house. But then a kitten arrives, and his days get worse and worse as the kitten causes chaos and Pepper is asked to share. Then Pepper and Poe create such a mess that they are about to get in trouble, but both simultaneously blame the dog. Scholastic describes this as a sibling story—but I’m not sure that blame your eldest sibling for trouble your fighting has caused is a good tactic to suggest to ease sibling tension. I don’t know that most kids will read this as a sibling story, though. The cats in the story are very catlike.

**

We Can Do It!

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Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams, 2007.

Iggy begins building very early. His parents are impressed and fairly supportive (except when he uses dirty diapers). The rhymes are a bit forced, but the story still has a good rhythm. When his teacher, Miss Lila Greer, refuses to even talk about architecture in her classroom, Iggy’s interest in school is killed, a fate I think too many will relate to. On a class picnic, the class is stuck on an island when a bridge collapses behind them, and Miss Greer drops into a faint from fear—dare I say hysteria? While crossing over a bridge that her class has built out of whatever was on hand while she was in her faint, Miss Greer sees that “There are worse things to do when you’re in grade 2 than to spend your time building a dream,” and she sees the class’ pride in their creation, and so she has a change of heart on the subject of architecture, even allowing Iggy Peck to give weekly lectures to her second grade class on the subject. Miss Greer goes from being a terrible teacher, crushing her children’s dreams and ambitions and interests, to an excellent one, nurturing and encouraging them to explore their interests and to share their expertise and interest with others, even deferring to them. I feel like there are two audiences here: One lesson is for teachers like Miss Greer (or really any adult) and that is to let kids be interested in what interests them. The other is for children—and that is to not let adults and authority figures crush your interests. I’ve spotted Rosie Revere, protagonist of the sequel book, in the illustrations, which are spare but endearing. Bonus points to Roberts for children of many races in the classroom.

****

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Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams, 2013.

Iggy Peck I think had the better story, but at another time, I’d love to read this one alongside a story about Rosie the Riveter, Rosie Revere’s great-great-aunt Rose, though the text does not make this explicitly clear (if anyone knows of a good picture book about Rosie the Riveter or women in WWII in general, please do share). Rosie’s inventions send one of her uncles (and his snakes) into peals of laughter, and while he says that he likes the invention, the laughter hurts Rosie’s confidence and she hides away her talent, building things in the attic of her house and hiding them under her bed, but never letting anyone see the inventions or see her inventing. But her great-great-aunt is an inspiring woman, and she longs to fly. Rosie thinks that maybe she could help her aunt, but her flying machine crashes, and her aunt laughs. Some of the rhymes felt a little forced, but the rhymes are still lilting and give the story a good rhythm. My favorite line may well be “But questions are tricky, and some hold on tight, and this one kept Rosie awake through the night,” because that, as a writer and not an engineer, I can relate to well. Great-great-aunt Rose tells Rosie the importance of never giving up and having confidence in yourself and your ideas. Failures to Rose are just first tries. I do like that we have here a young female protagonist with a passion for science and engineering. Busy illustrations filled with Rosie’s inventions and the creativity of her parts (and including Iggy Peck in classroom scenes) are drawn in pastels on a white background.

***

425818How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers. HarperCollins, 2006.

A boy in love with the stars wants one of his very own, to be his friend, to play hide-and-seek, and with which to take long walks on the beach. He decides to catch a star—not the best way to acquire a friend, it must be said—but his efforts are in vain, because of course you can’t catch a star. He can’t jump high enough, he can’t climb high enough, his rocket ship is made of paper and doesn’t fly well, and seagulls aren’t known for being helpful. Eventually the boy does get a star of his own, one that he’s found washed up on the beach, and they walk along the beach, just like he’d imagined. The colors in this book I think are its best part. They’re beautiful, bright colors. Particularly I enjoyed the sky and light at different times of the day and the particular attention to shadows. There are some beautiful lines of text in this book too: the star “just rippled through his fingers” and “He waited… and he waited… and ate lunch” and “Now the boy was sad. But in his heart, the wish just wouldn’t give up.” Oliver Jeffers is one of my favorites because he is able to be sweet and funny, and because his illustrations use whimsical and pay particular attention to shadow, even when they are spare, which they are not always.

****

Adventuresome Birds

1484730887Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

A grumpy bear who likes to eat eggs in fancy recipes that he finds at the Internet returns with all the other ingredients for his meal to find that his goose eggs have hatched into goslings, who now believe that Bruce is their mother. Honestly, the plot felt a bit overdone (Fly Away Home, anyone?) and the jokes were too adult to be caught, I think, by most of my very young audience (jokes about return policies and identity theft and shopping locally for free-range organic eggs). Mother Bruce raises the children well, but cannot get them to fly away South when it is time for them to migrate, so they all get on a bus and migrate together to Miami. Bear skips his winter hibernation—since it’s still summery in Miami—and spends time on the beach with his goslings—now geese. I as an adult enjoyed it, seeing the cute story of a bear who raises four goslings into geese and understanding the jokes about current human culture, but I don’t know that it played as well with the kids at my story time.

**

24880135Waddle! Waddle! by James Proimos. Scholastic, 2015. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

The style of this book, the humorous dialogue, and the final punch all strongly reminded me of Mo WillemsElephant and Piggie books, though Proimos’ illustration style and his story were both different enough from any Willems book that I could cry no foul but could only cheer. I hope this expands into a series too. Waddle! Waddle! introduces us quickly to the problem: to find the penguin protagonist’s lost friend. The penguin meets two other penguins—one who sings and one who plays the horn (neither particularly well, but both loudly)—but neither is the friend that he met yesterday. He goes to a third character—but realizes too late that this is a polar bear, not a penguin at all, and definitely not the friend that he met yesterday. The polar bear is sorry for the penguin’s plight, but announces that he will eat the penguin now. The singing and the horn-playing penguins come to their new friend’s aid and stun the polar bear with their talents, causing him to drop the penguin protagonist. The penguin slides away and discovers his friend from yesterday! But let’s not tell him that his friend is only his reflection in the ice. The dancing penguin, the singing penguin, and the horn-playing penguin go off together wing-in-wing into the sunset. I did have one parent go wide-eyed at the polar bear’s casual announcement that he would now eat the protagonist, but the tone softens the blow, I think, enough to not frighten children—and anyway, our fairytales often include such threats.  “Waddle!  Waddle!  Belly slide!” is a lot of fun to repeat and read aloud.

***** 9780802738288

Penguin’s Big Adventure by Salina Yoon. Bloomsbury, 2015.

Yoon’s first, Penguin and Pinecone, delighted me, and I keep giving the series chances to live up to that high bar. Penguin decides to do something great, something no one else has done: He decides to become the first penguin to visit the North Pole. He sets off. His friends are doing wonderful things too. He visits old friends along the way (Pinecone and a crab from the beach). He reaches the North Pole, plants his flag, and celebrates, but he is not alone. A polar bear is there. Penguin has never seen a polar bear, and the polar bear has never seen a penguin, and both are afraid, but they smile awkwardly and both realize that neither is frightening and become friends. Penguin’s friends find him at the North Pole, having used their crafts to make a hot air balloon. Penguin says goodbye to the polar bear, and he leaves with his friends.

The inclusion of the friends’ craft-making seemed a little rough and unnecessary to me, but I suspect Yoon wanted to show that great things and new things need not be so extreme as crossing the globe and to be able to explain the hot air balloon at the end. Had the construction of the pieces of the hot air balloon have seemed with direction and intention rather than happening to come together at the end to make a balloon, I would have been more pleased. Or I could have suspended my disbelief long enough to do without an explanation for the balloon.

This is a timely book about seeing friends in people who look differently or unlike anyone that one has ever seen. I could have done with more time exploring Penguin and Polar Bear’s new friendship—though making new friends has already been explored in several other books of the series.
From the title, I expected more of an adventure, and more about the journey. Perhaps I’m expecting too much, but it all seemed like a lot to put into a short book.

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.