Over on Facebook, illustrator Shadra Strickland asks a good question:
“Why is it necessary for a reviewer to identify the ethnicity of a character in their review when the plot has zero to do with race…especially in picture books? A friend just told me that in her latest pb, her family was identified as Caucasian. It is a multi-racial family. The story is universal enough in plot, that the family could be any color. In PW’s review of Please Louise, Louise was also multi-racial but labeled as “an Asian girl”. I think it is dangerous for reviewers to assume race in pbs without being certain. Why mention ethnicity at all when the ethnicity of the characters do not inform the storytelling in picture books?”
GREAT question, and one reviewers are asking themselves all the damn time. The sub-query about misidentifying the ethnicity of a character is easy to answer (don’t do it and DON’T GUESS), but we are always trying to figure out where and how to mention ethnicity, especially in reviewing books in which skin color plays a part only in the illustrations and goes unmentioned in the text.
ON THE ONE HAND: if a story is about some universal experience unrelated to race, why even bring it up? ALL readers should be able to empathize with a story about, say, moving to a new neighborhood and making new friends. True enough, but . . .
ON THE OTHER: . . . by not identifying the ethnicity of a non-white protagonist, the review runs the risk of failing to catch the interest of the book buyer who is looking specifically for stories about non-white kids whose race plays no part in the story, and who might skip over the book assuming it was about white kids. Ms. magazine, for a few issues, identified all subjects by race including whites, who were labelled “European-Americans.” But that didn’t last at Ms. or elsewhere, and, however deplorable it may be, American readers of all colors tend to assume a character is white unless told otherwise.
SO: since we know the Horn Book has readers who are actively seeking books about non-white characters, we mention their presence in a book whenever we can. We’re helped a bit with picture books, as the Magazine runs an illustration with every picture book review. Otherwise, it can be very awkward sometimes to get a character’s ethnicity into a review of a book in which ethnicity is not a plot point. “European-American Roger was walking his dog before work one day when he was abducted by aliens.” “Our main character, a white boy named Roger, was walking his dog one day . . . .” It’s not easy or always graceful but I think it’s worth doing.
TWO corollary issues: one thing you risk when mentioning ethnicity in reviewing an otherwise “universal” book is that white readers will say “oh, not a book for me.” Unfortunately, the Magazine does not come packaged with a Slap Machine™. Second, in a discussion of books in which “the characters just happen to be African American” an African American colleague said to me “nobody in this country ‘just happens’ to be black.” We need to continue talking about both those things.