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Writing for the Children of 2014

This week I read that 2010 may be the tipping point year in which more U.S. children are born to families of color than to white. That means that in the very near future, the majority of American children’s book readers will fall into the category we now call “minority.” Are the majority of the characters in children’s books going to be non-white four years from now, when those children reach the target age for picture books?

I doubt it. But it seems to me that those of us who write for children are going to have to start thinking much more carefully about the world we portray in our fiction. Today, most children’s book writers are white, and many of us feel uncomfortable writing about other races and cultures. (“I thought you were supposed to write about what you know,” one of my students observed when I raised this topic recently.) Yet I think we have to get over that discomfort if we’re going to write books that speak to the reality of American life, which is increasingly multicultural.

My thinking on this subject is highly influenced by the film-maker Loni Ding, whose obituary I happened to read this week just as her views on race and gender portrayals in the media were uppermost in my mind. Ding was one of my professors at UC Berkeley and she argued that film-makers – and by extension writers – are constantly making statements about race and gender by the way they cast both minor and major characters, whether or not such statements are intentional. In a TV show, when all the characters in a law office are white, it conveys a message about who practices law. In a children’s book, when the person baking cupcakes is female and the person reading the newspaper on the couch is male, it conveys a message about who does the work in the household. That doesn’t mean every TV law office should be multi-racial, or that every picture book father should do the baking. But it does mean that writers should be thinking about the world we’re portraying in our books and making conscious decisions rather than unconscious ones. Too often our “casting” choices reflect the world we grew up in rather than the world our readers know.

The example I just cited – mom baking cupcakes, dad reading the paper – comes from a story one of my students recently submitted to the class I teach on children’s picture book writing. These were incidental details in an otherwise marvelous story but they stood out to me because they felt like the one thing in the story that didn’t ring true. In the ensuing discussion, I pointed out that such arrangements see anachronistic in a world in which both parents typically work, and I argued that these incidental details are an opportunity for writers to both reflect the world as it is, and to encourage the world to progress in its thinking about the “proper” household duties for men and women.

Some of my students disagreed. “What if you like baking cupcakes?” one asked. Several felt that reversing the arrangement – Dad baking, Mom reading the paper – would seem heavy-handed or unrealistic. A better solution might have been to have both parents working in the kitchen together, or both relaxing with the Sunday paper. Or having them do something else entirely that achieved the aims of the story (which were to show the family engaged in its weekend activities) while not seeming to embrace outdated ideas about gender roles.

To me, the important thing about this discussion was that it reminded me of the importance of thinking through your casting calls. Social considerations always have to be balanced with personal and creative ones, and there’s no single one-size-fits-all method for assigning race or gender to characters, or for assigning attributes to characters of a particular gender or race. But what I learned from Loni Ding was that decisions that may feel meaningless to us are not necessarily meaningless to our readers, particularly picture book readers who are learning about the world from the books we write.

Will Boys Read Books About Girls?

A few minutes ago I received a rant by email from my friend Sharon Levin. She was infuriated because she'd just come back from a children's literature conference at which people kept talking about how boys wouldn't be interested in books with girl protagonists or even with a girl on the cover. One presenter even held up a copy of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate -- a Newbery winner -- and said, "Would a boy like this book? No.”

To quote from Sharon's email:

What do I find most disturbing about this? Well, that it’s mainly women who keep this ‘boys can’t possibly like books about girls’ train of thought on the track. It’s the female teachers and librarians at conferences I hear asking about ‘male appeal’ of books. It’s the moms I’m selling to at the bookstore who will not buy books about girls for their sons

What I find interesting is that when I do booktalks in classrooms or am handselling at the bookstore, boys do not run away from Kiki Strike or Heir Apparent or Red Scarf Girl.

Do we truly think so little of ourselves that we believe that adventures featuring our gender cannot possibly be of interest to the opposite gender? What is it about women that we instill the value in boys (and girls by extension) that reading about girls is for girls and reading about boys is for everyone? Where does this self loathing come from? It breaks my heart.

As the mom of a boy, I both agree and don't. I have learned, reluctantly, that there are, in fact, books that I loved as a kid that my son doesn't, and that most boys will like less than most girls. For all I know, Calpurnia Tate might be one of them. Certainly my son isn't particularly keen on realistic fiction, particularly books that are all about a character's feelings. He likes action, humor, magic, adventure, anything with animals, and -- most importantly -- interesting characters. Would Calpurnia's character win him over, despite the fact that the book is realistic fiction in which the adventures are internal rather than external? I don't know. But I do know that there are many books with female protagonists among his favorites. Right now we're jointly immersed in Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy which features female protagonists all the way through. His favorite book of all time is The Princess and the Goblin, which -- well the title says it all, doesn't it?

I've had this debate many times in different contexts. When I got the sketch dummy for my picture book Firefighters in the Dark, I saw that the illustrator, Nicoletta Ceccoli, had made the protagonist a girl (I'd written it imagining a boy, but since it's in the first person, it could be either.) My editor at Houghton Mifflin and I talked at length about what the impact of this choice might be on sales -- would firefighter-loving boys be turned off by a girl narrator as we'd always been told? We decided to risk it. As it turned out, the very first customer review I got on Amazon was headlined "Finally, A Firefighter Book for Girls." But of course the book was never intended to be "for girls" or "for boys" -- it was meant to be for kids who love firefighters.

Are there boys who love firefighters who spurned that book because it's got a girl in it? Probably. Even so, I think it's important to encourage kids to cross the race or gender divide when choosing books -- even if it means encountering resistance. Most kids are ego-centric enough to assume that people like them are the most interesting people on earth, and kids who aren't omnivorous readers are always going to tend to the familiar. But the push is worth making, particularly because as kids find books they like with opposite-gender protagonists (or protagonists of other races), they learn that those books are "for" them too.

In the end, the true determinant of what books kids like is what interests them, not the gender (or race) of the narrator. My son likes Lirael and its precursor, Sabriel, because both books are filled with swords and magic and zombie-like dead people and wonderful characters, including a very irritable cat. Along the way he gets exposed to a little bit of the female psyche as the heroine of the second book, Lirael, obsessively considers her place in the world. I have to think that exposure to girl heroines and girl thoughts in books might make it easier for him to understand girls in real life. And I know that the habit of mind that says "I'm not interested in people who aren't like me" is one that we should confront at every turn, as readers, as writers, as teachers, and as parents.