Thursday, May 7, 2009

Diversity Roll Call: Week #5

Ali at Worducopia posted this assignment:
Have you seen Mitali Perkins' (author of The Secret Keeper, Monsoon Summer, and other books for young people) article in School Library Journal, called Straight Talk on Race: Challenging the Stereotypes in Kids' Books? The idea is to help teachers and librarians to guide kids in noticing how race is depicted in the books they read, but I think the issues are relevant for all of us, and all types of literature. As a fledgling writer, I have to admit it made my head spin a little bit. So, I've decided to borrow her idea for this week's roll call.Mitali suggests picking up a novel you like and exploring one or more of these five questions. She's done this with a few books in her article, including John Green's Paper Towns and Ursula Le Guin's Powers, so you can get a feel for it before you start. Click on the question to see Perkins' examples.

1. Are the nonwhite characters too good to be true? (or do they have depth that goes beyond their race, faults and all?)

I recently read Down To The Bone. In the novel, Laura's best friend, Soli is black. She's also Cuban. In this novel culture is the dominant marker. And I'd say, yes, she has depth that goes beyond race. One of the strengths of the novel is that Dole creates believable, fully developed characters. While Soli and her mom take Laura in, they are not the magic negroes who swoop in and rescue the white person. Soli and Laura have been best friends since grade school and their personalities play well off one another. Soli has a life beyond Laura.

Earlier this year I read Unwind and I remember being annoyed by the black sidekick. My first impression of Cyrus (CyFi) was he was a caricature but what Shusterman actually does through the character is flip a stereotype on its head. To paraphrase Cyrus, he tells Connor he's using the stereotype to his advantage, that he is proud of who he is and he not anyone else can define what it means to be black. Moreover, Cyrus has his own sub-plot going on and clearly does not exist solely to prop up Connor. When Cyrus resolves his own issues he's no longer part of the story.

2. How and why does the author define race? (Does it need to be defined? Is their race crucial to the plot?)

Back to Dole's book. You don't know Soli is black until race is relevant. I can't remember the first time Dole makes some reference that lets you know she is black and that's a good thing. What you eventually learn is that Soli was treated badly when she started grade school because she was black. As a teen though, Soli is tough, respected and holds her own. She's a great best friend and like Laura she comes with her own flaws. In this story, Stoli's experience is used to show you can overcome other people's ignorance.

3. Is the cover art true to the story? (Perkins cites as an example the cover of Cynthia Kadohata’s novel Weedflower, in which the Japanese American main character is wearing a kimono, even though she's never described as wearing one in the text).

The cover art for Down To The Bone has what I call that ambigous or multi ethnic looking model that is popular in the media these days. My guy and I joke the current trend is to have models who look ethnic but leave the audience guessing the ethnicity. Then again if you're Latin or know many Latinas you might identify the cover model as Latina.

One of the things I've observed on my blog is that whenever there is a black teen on the cover, very few readers comment on the book even when the storyline is similar to storylines of other teen books. Some will say they have never heard of the book but rarely will a teen say the book sounds interesting and they might check it out. These comments stick out even more when these same readers comment on the other books featured but with white characters. I get mixed responses from adult readers. I find it very revealing that same storyline is not enough for readers to consider reading the YA books I present with black faces on the cover.

Continued here.

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