Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 27th, 2009

It seems to me you’d have to have enormous resiliency, not to mention a generous sense of humor and/or deep ethnic pride, to grow up black in this country. One of the many things I hope will come out of having Barack Obama as President is publishers’ embarrassed realization that, heck, there’s not a whole lot out there in the children’s book world featuring kids like Malia and Sasha. That is, books with black characters who lead 21st-century lives in a vibrant world of ethnic diversity. Books that aren’t about slavery, civil rights, and the struggles of interracial relationships. Those stories are vital and must be told—both the brutal and the inspirational—but just as 2009 American Jewish kids don’t see themselves primarily in the context of the Holocaust, neither do black children live in the past. They, like all children, deserve to be active, lively participants in the children’s literature of the present.

It’s not that race is unimportant. Race (and its equally powerful counterpart, class) are always with us in this country, and I do not think we should pretend they are not. That, too, would be a disservice to children. But in this overwhelmingly white field of publishing and bookselling, we need to get beyond an over-awareness of race and get to the real business of living in this colorful world. Somehow, the politeness of political correctness has ended up quashing a lot of what began as an authentic, hopeful, brilliant, warts-and-all exploration of cross-cultural joy and beauty that came out of the Sixties.

As a child of the mid-1960’s and 1970’s, I had the great good fortune of growing up at a time often referred to as a golden age in children’s book publishing. The likes of Ezra Jack Keats and Virginia Hamilton and Walter Dean Myers were unleashing their genius on the world, and in the heady culture of mainstream embracement of hippie ideals, racial representation in books was in some ways more inclusive, broad, low-key yet celebratory, and therefore "realer" than it feels (at least to me) today. I was a Free to Be…You and Me child, a Ms. Magazine ‘Stories for Free Children’ reader, and I wonder how we’ve gotten so far from those promising, inclusive days.

As a bookseller, it’s mortifying to have so few multiracial options to offer parents and kids—both white and black. It’s wildly frustrating to come up against, time and again, the erroneous assumption that white kids will not want to read about non-white kids. That is one of the most ridiculous pervasive myths in all of bookselling. Is Corduroy (interior illustration at right) not one of the most beloved classics of all time? Do children hesitate to pick up Looking for a Moose (left) by Phyllis Root because there are brown faces on the cover? In The Stories Julian Tells, can white children not relate to Julian and his little brother Huey "accidentally" eating up all the dessert before dinner? Do white parents eschew The Snowy Day because Peter is black? Is E.L. Konigsburg’s Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth less appealing to kids because one of its two main characters is black? (I was extremely disappointed to see that the new cover for that marvelous Newbery Honor book, while well designed, now omits the black character.) Are children reading Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace unable to put themselves in her imaginative shoes even if they aren’t black, or a girl? (Do I need to answer these rhetorical questions?)

When I worked in publishing back in the early ’90s, I had a friend who brought me along to sort publisher book donations at a well-known author’s NYC apartment. On our way, my friend told me that the author, who had quietly and modestly started an admirable literacy foundation, had also broken the color barrier in series book covers. She had had to fight to get a black main character on the cover of a book, against marketing resistance fearing the book wouldn’t sell to the series’ great white readership. She won the battle, and that book sold more copies than any of its prior series-mates. This is anecdotal, but I have no reason to doubt its veracity.

In some ways, we’ve come so far as a country. But the powerful influence of the nation’s publishing media hasn’t caught up. Nowhere was this more obvious than the recent disturbing events concerning the choice to put a white girl on the cover of a book about a black girl (Justine Larbalestier’s YA novel, Liar. This issue has been widely covered in the trade and blogosphere; for background, check out the author’s blog.) The white girl on the cover wasn’t meant to represent a secondary character in the book; she was meant to represent the black narrator. Now, the narrator is a liar, so there has been some debate about whether or not she is who she says she is. However, if that argument holds, then the best cover choice would be to obscure or omit physical features altogether (the decision of Larbalestier’s original Australian publisher; shown at left). Like it or not, the photograph of a person on a book cover codifies the publisher’s idea of that character’s appearance.

This choice to use a white girl shocked, but shouldn’t have surprised, me; book marketing can be an extremely cynical operation. Larbalestier’s U.S. publisher is certainly not the only house that has found itself on similarly iffy ground, and, to their great credit, they have chosen a replacement cover image that, if still not free from controversy, is a critical good-faith effort that I think will prove to gain more in public restoration of goodwill than they will have lost financially with the expense of the late change. (Note: corporate giant Microsoft just landed itself in some serious hot water with a racial switch on its website.)

One of my all-time favorite books as a middle-grade kid was Louise Fitzhugh’s Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change. It features a wickedly smart, sarcastic, funny main character, Emma, who eats too many cream horns (I had no idea what those were, but was fascinated by them and wanted one) and wants to be a lawyer. Her little brother loves to dance. Their parents—a brusque, traditional, lawyer father and a lovely, passive mother—are not thrilled with their children’s choices, and a family dramedy is born. In the book, race is only an issue inasmuch as it is an issue in Emma’s life, if that makes sense. That is, it’s one of many consuming issues in her life, but not (in her case) the primary one. Still, one of my favorite moments in the story is when Emma messes with her white Upper East Side classmates, who stupidly assume she’s from "the ghetto" because she’s black, though her family is easily as wealthy as any of theirs. She is annoyed and amused by their assumptions; it’s a delicious moment of awareness for readers from both sides of the
ignorance spectrum. Louise Fitzhugh was white, but she opened a window into an urban, black, upper-class world for me, a white kid growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona. I never forgot the subtler lessons underneath all that humor and rebellion Emma shared with me. (By the way, on the new cover for the book, which desperately needed the re-design, it’s interesting that Emma doesn’t look overweight. She hasn’t been whitewashed, but she’s been "thin-washed." And that’s a blog post for another day.)

The good that has arisen from the unfortunate Liar incident is that it has initiated a more open discussion of racial representation in books and on book covers. The topic is uncomfortable in a field so overwhelmingly not "of color." Attend a book show, and you will see a sea of largely white faces; finding editors, publishers, and booksellers of color is more challenging than finding male pre-K-through-3 teachers at a school convention. This is not intentional, but it is a fact, and needs to be addressed. At the 2008 BEA, Josie and I met a dynamic duo of young African-American women getting ready to open a bookstore. They spoke about the need for grants and scholarships to attract people of color to publishing programs at universities and colleges. Sounds like an excellent idea.

In the meantime, I’d like to compile a list of 2009 books that feature characters of color in books about contemporary American children, whether or not race is part of the story. In general, there seem to be more books meeting these criteria for teen readers than their younger counterparts. Where is our black Ramona Quimby? It’s not fair to make Christopher Paul Curtis do all the work in middle grade. (Just kidding. Sort of.) I’ve noticed a couple of recent new series for young readers, like Sharon M. Draper’s Sassy books (Scholastic) and Whoopi Goldberg’s Sugar Plum Ballerinas (Jump at the Sun). That’s a great start, but there’s room for so much more. Publishers and authors are invited to email me these titles at shelftalker2 at gmail dot com, and I will publish the list here in ShelfTalker. (Unless you are a bookseller, please don’t put these titles in the comments section, since people tend to discount those recommendations as self-promotion and you may end up undermining the very good title you hope to share with a larger audience.) 

As an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I remember being annoyed by the theme of a university exhibit featuring "Great Female Artists of the 20th Century." Walking with my calm, brilliant thesis advisor, I ranted a little bit. "This makes it sound like great artists are male by default. They don’t have exhibits of ‘great male artists.’ Why not an exhibition of great artists, many of whom happen to be female?" She smiled, and said, "Ideally, it would be. It will be. But this is one of the steps we have to go through to get there." The question of racial inclusiveness in children’s literature is a little like that. Like all things racial in this country, it’s been a process. But now I think we’ve gone through enough intermediary steps and are ready to get there.

*** UPDATE: Check out our LibraryThing collection of more than 540 books featuring main characters of color whose stories are not primarily driven by racial issues: **** Also, for another article on this topic, with book ideas, check out Shelftalker’s "A World Full of Color", a follow-up to this Ramona Quimby post.