Crumbs When You Hunger: Feed the Kids
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I’m six years old and playing make believe with my friends in a Grades 1 and 2 split class. Kids this age love pretend play.
Pretend we’re pirates, pretend we’re princesses. This is a Vancouver elementary school in the 90s. Not one of us is white. Like a lot of kids, we fuel our imaginations with the stories that surround us, that we consume through television and books. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of Sailor Moon. As our group’s most voracious reader, I bring in the weirder ideas. I’ve just finished Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and I can’t shut up about tesseracts, which is how our puzzled teacher gets to wrangle a group of kids who are obsessed with bending the laws of physics. Like in most of the books I’m reading, the protagonist, Meg Murry, is white.
The books we read as children are formative. As a grown-up, I’m passionate about children’s literature (AKA kidlit) and YA fiction because these are the stories that directed my curiosity and engaged my creativity when both those aspects of myself were still forming. I lived in the worlds I read. I grew up with them and through them. That level of intensity and immersion is hard to match in an adult context. While there are tons of great single books out there, book series – especially ones that are being published throughout a kid’s childhood – tend to make a deep and lasting mark for the universes that are sustained over time and for the protagonists who grow up alongside their readers. The book series I read as a child have served as my touchstones through adolescence and adulthood, and, like a good nerd, I started early in my favored genres of science fiction and fantasy.
Just about everyone has read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series or watched the film adaptations. The book releases punctuated my teen years and early adulthood. The fictional universe is a genuine cultural phenomenon and is overwhelmingly straight, white, cis, and abled. Marginalized fans have claimed key characters for their own – the power of black Hermione cannot be denied, and word of God from Rowling herself tells us Dumbledore was gay (1). There is a similarly compelling case for desi or black or both Harry Potter. Fans draw on coded language in the source text to support their dream of a non-white cast, and enjoy meta-textual support from Rowling’s tweets (2). This is great, in the sense that crumbs are better than nothing when you hunger. But when you’re starving and staring at a feast not meant for you, it’s also cruel.
Explicit representation, especially in a book series that spans multiple arcs and follows characters through childhood and adolescence into adulthood, is vital. Textual affirmation that a main character has skin that isn’t white is so important. Seeing different identities in every genre at every age is incredibly necessary. Growing up with these characters and learning that maybe they aren’t straight or cis is key. Kids who are forming themselves are desperately looking everywhere to find reflections of who they might be becoming and of who they already are.
Rick Riordan writes the popular Percy Jackson series, of which I am mostly unfamiliar. I have, however, read Riordan’s Stonewall Award acceptance speech (3), where he talks about the importance of inclusivity and representation. He says, “it is … important that LGBTQ kids see themselves reflected and valued in the larger world of mass media, including my books. I know this because my non-heteronormative readers tell me so. They actively lobby to see characters like themselves in my books. They like the universe I’ve created. They want to be part of it. They deserve that opportunity. It’s important that I, as a mainstream author, say, ‘I see you. You matter. Your life experience may not be like mine, but it is no less valid and no less real. I will do whatever I can to understand and accurately include you in my stories, in my world. I will not erase you,'” and acknowledges that, “[g]ood intentions are wonderful things, but at the end of a manuscript, the text has to stand on its own. What I meant ceases to matter. Kids just see what I wrote.”
Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series did this for me. Pierce isn’t as meta-textually savvy as Rowling and has in fact not handled herself well in social media, but she has published protagonists that are markedly not-white. Her Circle of Magic series centers around a group of four young magic-workers. Of this group, Daja is a black girl and Briar is a non-white racially ambiguous boy. There are also adults populating this universe who are textually confirmed to be not-white. Daja’s mentor is black and as Daja matures she also goes on to mentor two black girls. As the series continues, Daja finds herself falling in love with another woman and expressing that love in a healthy, sexual, romantic way. As the series expands, more characters of colour are written. Briar mentors an Asian girl, Evvy, who is a main character in three books and survives significant trauma. One of Daja’s friends is a disabled non-white woman who uses a prosthetic leg. Briar’s own mentor, Rosethorn, becomes disabled in one book and continues to exist as a disabled woman in successive books. Rosethorn is also textually confirmed to be a bisexual woman in a committed and loving relationship with another woman.
There is no room for interpretation or discarding any of these aspects of any of these characters. Daja is a black lesbian. Rosethorn is a disabled bisexual woman. Evvy is an Asian girl with profound PTSD. It says so in the pages of the books. There is no need to hunt down the author on Twitter or through email in a bid for support. These are the characters, and this is who they are. Additionally, they have all occupied the roles of main character. The stories have been told, in part, from their point of view. Rather than being disposable side characters or temporary presences, they are core and integral. Their perspectives shape the narrative.
I can return now to earlier books in the series and read Daja’s girlhood with the knowledge of who she becomes. Rosethorn and her partner, Lark, are repeatedly held up as ideals of citizenship and scholarship from the very beginning of the series. They represent safety and knowledge to the children in their care. In short, they are presented as positive role models as well as canonically two women who love each other sexually and romantically.
It’s likely at this point you’ve noticed that the formative authors of my youth are all white, cis, straight people. Others I read and enjoyed were Philip Pullman, Eoin Colfer, and Nancy Farmer – also all white, straight, and cis. (Nancy Farmer is also the only one of the three who writes non-white and non-Eurocentric kidlit.) When I was a kid, these are the people who were getting published and widely distributed; now, there are other kids who are growing up on Malinda Lo and C.B. Lee and Nnedi Okorafor, who aren’t floundering for non-white, non-straight, non-cis, disabled representation. Isn’t that amazing? I wasn’t a child when I read Okorafor’s Akata Witch, but I felt plunged back into that total immersion of my childhood. I read that novel in a fever dream of delight. Knowing it’s the first in a series makes me indescribably happy and excited for the kids who get to discover it now, and who get to hang the architecture of their curiosity and creativity on its scaffolding – who get to grow up knowing it, interacting with it, and being formed by it.
Riordan says in his speech, “to support young LGBTQ readers, the most important thing publishing can do is to publish and promote more stories by LGBTQ authors, authentic experiences by authentic voices. We have to keep pushing for this.” The natural expansion of this logic is to also publish and promote POC writers, disabled writers, and, above all, intersectional writers – and in this way, we will have supported young POC, disabled, intersectional readers.
In 2015, Noma Dumezweni took the stage in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. There now exists a canonical depiction of Hermione as a black woman. In 2018, Storm Reid takes the lead in the film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. There now exists a canonical depiction of Meg Murry as a black girl. We write ourselves back in to the spaces that have been denied to us. Instead of pretending we’re white (and straight and cis and abled), we insist that they’re not. Sometimes it takes an astonishing amount of arguing and negotiation. Sometimes it’s exhausting and sometimes it’s celebratory, and sometimes it’s both. Sometimes the backlash is predictably ugly.
Again and again I turn to Pierce’s Circle of Magic. It is a source of both comfort and nostalgia. Even now, a series re-read is my yearly ritual. I never have to fight to see myself there. Again and again I seek out kidlit and YA where the protagonists are inclusive and diverse. I want to read those books for myself, and I want to show them to all the kids out there who are so excited about these different worlds. Because yes, we write ourselves back in. But isn’t it great when we don’t have to?
Post-script: Disability in Kidlit is a website full of resources and recommendations. Here (http://disabilityinkidlit.com/honor-roll/) is a vetted list of fiction.
Gay YA maintains a masterlist of fiction organized by identity and orientation over here (http://www.gayya.org/masterlist/).
Rich in Color reviews and promotes YA featuring POC authors and protagonists, and has a chronologically organized list of reviews here (http://richincolor.com/review-archive/).
Tor’s Best Of list for YA SFF 2017 (https://www.tor.com/2017/12/11/the-top-young-adult-sff-of-2017/) is full of representation and inclusivity.No Comments