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Reviewing race

Strickland

illustration by Shadra Strickland from A Place Where Hurricanes Happen by Reneé Watson, Random House, 2010

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.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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  1. Thanks Roger. All of this makes perfect sense, but I still think we have a way to go in making sure ethnicity is identified appropriately. Would it be more beneficial (in picture book reviews) to describe the main characters in visual terms (i.e. olive skin, tightly curled hair, etc.) instead of making assumptions about ethnicity? With more and more books representing diverse characters, especially mixed-race characters or mixed race families, it is going to be harder to support these concrete assumptions when it comes to the race of characters in books.

  2. Thanks, Mr. Sutton, for an interesting post. I may be simplifying things a bit but when I read Shadra’s comment about describing the main characters in “visual terms”, I’m thinking that still might not solve the problem. I know a number of African American people with red or blonde hair, extremely light skin and light colored eyes but if all I did was mention those characteristics, wouldn’t people naturally assume those individuals were “white”?

    Not an easy issue to address I’m sure.

    Sincerely,

    Donna L Martin

  3. Of course, in a classic like The Snowy Day, there is nothing remotely “black” about the experience, (hoodie-excepted, as has been ironically pointed out in these pages) and yet any reviewer who did not mention Peter’s race would be negligent. And would the book’s reception have been different if Peter were white? Would it have been different (or even published) if Ezra Jack Keats was African-American? Were the editors more comfortable because he was Jewish and white? Most readers not involved in the industry just assume Keats is black. In the Jewish picture book world there are similar discussions. Easy to depict an African-American boy, or an Asian girl, or a kid in a wheelchair and not refer to it in the text, in the hopes of making the story “universal.” But how do you depict a Jewish kid without slapping a yarmulke on his/her head and sticking Chanukah in every story.. Life is complicated even when you take on these issues directly. My book Across the Alley is described as the story of a Jewish kid and a black kid who aren’t allowed to play together but their bedroom windows face each other and they become best friends at night. Yet today there are a dozen black Jews in my synagogue alone (and Julius Lester served as the canter for both my kid’s bar/bat mitzvahs’). it all makes for interesting and important discussions.

  4. The snowy day was released in 1962, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement when seeing a protagonist of color was almost unheard of in picture books. If that book were published today, would Peter’s ethnicity matter? My issue right now isn’t so much that we use race as an identifier. I just feel that race isn’t “black-and-white” and when reviewers choose to use it as an identifier in hopes of helping the book find their audience, they should at least be accurate in their descriptions, and if they are unsure by looking at the characters, maybe find other ways of describing those characters.

    In the case of a book like Across The Alley (I can’t be thorough because I haven’t read it yet), it sounds as if race was the reason that the two boys couldn’t play together, and in that case, the reviewers was warranted in pointing out race.

    Donna, sure, physically describing the character may not be enough of an indicator, but in a case like the one you mentioned, the cover would accompany the review. We could make our own conclusion about ethnicity.

  5. Thanks to all of you for this really helpful discussion. No matter how aware I think I am, when I hear these frustrations voiced, I realize how unaware I am. I totally understand how galling it would be for an illustrator to work at portraying a multi-racial character and then have a reviewer (like me) get it wrong or oversimplify a complex situation. I don’t have an answer to offer, but I appreciate all these perspectives that help me think, write, and speak more carefully.

  6. I just checked my own blog, and three days ago, I wrote that there was a character who “just happened to be black” by which I meant that that character’s ethnicity was not a plot point. I do see that it was a deliberate choice on the part of the writer, and so not a just happening by happenstance, and appreciate that point–I guess in future I’ll try hard to remember just to say something like “one of the supporting characters is black, adding some diversity to the world of the story.”

  7. So true, Shadra…thanks for your insight! It will be interesting to see how this issue plays out in the future…

  8. I’d be interested to read what the dust jacket copy of the books say, if anything, about the protagonist’s race/ethnicity.

  9. Writers don’t always have a say in picture book illustrations, but when I saw a blond girl on sketches for the cover of When You Wander, a Search and Rescue Dog Story, I asked for her to be changed to a toddler who could be any mixture of races, and either sex. Fortunately, the change was made, allowing any child to feel reassured that SAR dogs will search for him/her if he/she is lost.

  10. Thank you for this well worded clarification and subsequent comments conversation. As a parent of a transracial family and an administrator of a literature based charter school, I am always looking for any diversity to be identified in a review–race, sexuality, etc. I want my home library and especially the school library to reflect the wealth of diversity in our society. And I don’t have time to read every book before purchasing. Unwed the reviews in order to make the best decisions possible. I do agree with Shandra that every effort should be made to properly identify race. A biracial family should be identified too or a comment that there is a wealth of ethnic diversity in the drawings instead of homing in on one depiction.

  11. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I take Shadra’s point about characters who are discernibly people of color but not necessarily a particular ethnicity. We will say “of color” or ‘brown-skinned” if the character seems clearly to us not-white but not ethnically identified specifically. I would hesitate to call a character mixed-race unless the text or pictured family unit gave me a reason to think that.

    There is no boilerplate for any of this, and for that I say thank God.

  12. It’s just nice to know that people are open to discussion on the issue and may consider new ways of approaching the task at hand. Thanks everyone. Thanks Roger!

  13. For purposes of notifying librarians looking to add more diversity to their collections, couldn’t the HB adopt a symbol that indicates it contains characters of color – a little “WNDB” near the page count perhaps? That could then include those coping with all kinds of differences without focusing on those differences in the review itself unless they were an element of the story.

  14. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Where No Dogs Bark?
    With No Dead Bodies?
    What, No Dancing Bears?
    What Now, Debbie Boone?

    (I don’t get what WNDB stands for!) But that being said, I hesitate to code reviews in such a way. It’s one of those gimmicks that makes people think they’re getting more information than they actually are. But I’m one who would get rid of “stars” if I could.

  15. We Need Diverse Books*
    I agree, that sort of labeling would be a bit too forward as well.

  16. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    OHHHHHH. (smacks self)

  17. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    My problem with that designation is the implicit editorializing. Plus, I have issues with the overly broad use of ‘diverse,” particularly as an adjective used to describe a single book: “it’s diverse.” That’s not very useful information.

  18. I think the most basic problem here is that white (straight, able-bodied, Protestant etc.) default that is in our collective consciousness. White is thought of as a basic neutral character trait with any sort of language differences or religious difference or skin color differences are added on top to make the character “diverse”. When really, “white” really doesn’t tell you anything about who that person is or what their parents believe or their family’s ethnicity.

    Until we can change that idea of what a “neutral” character is and change that idea that “multicultural” characters are intended solely for “multicultural” readers, the language surrounding children’s literature is going to continue to be awkward. Can we reach a point where saying someone is “Indian-American” (for example) doesn’t intrinsically mean that the book is only about culture and differences and traditions? Culture informs who a character is and where they come from, but it is also only one intrinsic part of a character’s life.

    (I think I’ve veered off course from your original practical question about reviews here…)

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