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Decolonizing Nostalgia: When Historical Fiction Betrays Readers of Color

AllofaKindIf I look back at my childhood in the nineties, I can tie my preferences for types of play very closely to the types of books I liked to read. Beyond swimming and riding my bicycle, I was an indoor kid who, though I had plenty of friends, was happiest playing with paper dolls, Kitchen Littles, Easy-Bake Ovens, and other pretend domestic items. The books I preferred were not plot-heavy but rather episodic, with the tasks, games, and details of daily life taking precedence over an overarching major conflict or goal. So it should come as no surprise that my favorite series were Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books, Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House.

This type of episodic historical fiction dealt with the quotidian and stayed somewhat removed from the world outside. Wars, elections, or social movements were less important to the story than were the day-to-day events and settings. Extended passages on how to churn butter or which objects in the living room needed to be dusted were what kept me turning pages.

In some ways, I recognized myself in the characters in the books I was reading. Betsy Ray was my friend because she loved to write and make up elaborate games. All-of-a-Kind Family was special because I knew my mother had loved it and also because my family was Jewish, if far removed from the first-generation-American, early-twentieth-century life of Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie. And Laura Ingalls, like me, was a good little girl who nevertheless repeatedly found herself getting into trouble and acting against her better judgment.

wilder_little-town-on-the-prairieI may have done the work to tease out the parts of the girls I read about that matched my own identity, but I became increasingly aware that the books themselves did not recognize me, a biracial (black and white) adoptee in a bicultural (Mexican American and Ashkenazi Jewish) family. Aside from the occasional Yiddish in the All-of-a-Kind Family books, nobody else spoke hybrid languages at home (in my case, those languages included English and, depending on the parent or the conversation, Yiddish, Spanish, or Portuguese). Nobody else had their Catholic father insist on lighting the Jewish Shabbat candles or heard their Jewish mother tell them that going to a Mass held in Spanish would improve their language skills. Nobody else seemed to spend all day code-switching and come home to hear their father complain about having to do the same thing. And, most importantly, the characters didn’t look like me or many of the people I went to school with in the very brown, very Native southern Arizona. This was distancing on the most superficial levels (hair that wouldn’t keep a curl? I wished mine would lose the curl!) and the most harmful ones, such as when Pa Ingalls participated in a minstrel show in Little Town on the Prairie and Laura — my Laura, my friend — found it to be one of the most entertaining evenings of her life. Someone I trusted and brought into my imagination thought that people who looked like me were a joke. When you’re a reader, what can be a bigger betrayal than a book you love turning on you?

* * *

Part of the appeal of historical fiction can be the historical tourism: You mean the butter I buy in sticks at the store had to be churned by a real, live person? But it’s also about cultural memory, showing readers how far we’ve come but how much we remain the same. As defined by Jan Assmann and John Czaplicka in their 1995 article “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity,” cultural, or collective, memory is the way in which groups of people “conceive their unity and peculiarity through a common image of their past.” This could be done on the macro level, such as formation of a national identity, or within smaller groups, from families to religious groups to political parties. African Americans, for example, share the cultural memory of slavery, which means that their present experiences are affected by the experiences of their ancestors. The more traditions, memories, and artifacts that can be retained and passed down, the more diverse and broad a collective memory — and thus future identity — can be. Children’s collective memory can be shaped by many means: family traditions and heirlooms, pop culture — and historical fiction.

And so I took what I could from these books I enjoyed, but each book left me with even more of a desire to find everyday historical fiction that would help build up my collective memory instead of telling me I had none. When I searched for historical fiction about black people, either on my own or with the help of a librarian, I was offered countless books about slavery. When I rejected those, civil rights was my other option. These were generally plot-driven books, not episodic, and most of them could have the same logline: Plucky Protagonist in an Unjust World Is Inspired Against All Odds to Stand Up to Racism! No dishonor intended toward the uncountable people who did suffer slavery or who were active in the civil rights movement, but I couldn’t take any more of it. Instead, I wanted to know what a black Laura Ingalls would have been doing in the 1870s. What it was like, as the Chicano saying about the Gadsden Purchase goes, to have the border cross you, not to cross the border, and to go from being a regular citizen to a second-class one?

american-girl-meet-cecileThe closest I could come to what I was looking for, books detailing the day-to-day lives of nonwhites without relying on major racialized experiences (such as slavery), were entries in the Dear America and American Girl series. Not exactly great literature — and not without their sometimes tenuous cultural authenticity, and some of the most authentic are no longer in print — but at least they were something. In 2011, American Girl introduced the character of Cécile Rey, a free black living in 1850s New Orleans. Cécile is a well-to-do girl who never experienced slavery, who has an Irish maid, who takes voice lessons and attends balls. When I read the books, it was the first time in my life I had ever encountered the phrase gens de couleur libres, meaning “free people of color.” In my twenties. Even after attending a college prep high school, a highly regarded public university, and a graduate school at which I studied children’s literature. In 2014 Cécile was “retired,” making her and her co-protagonist, Marie-Grace (who is white), among the characters with the shortest shelf lives of all the American Girls. I imagine it is due in part to her representing a little-known aspect of U.S. history that goes against the prevailing narrative about African American people’s place in it. Why aren’t there more works of middle-grade historical fiction about girls like Cécile for girls like me?

* * *

The Birchbark HouseIf only a knowledgeable librarian had handed me Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House (published in 1999) and its sequels, a Little House–like series centered on a young Ojibwa girl, Omakayas, who lives in what becomes Wisconsin. Omakayas takes care of her baby brother, picks berries, spends time with her grandmother, and helps keep house — the sorts of entirely banal things that Laura Ingalls was doing, too, except that the books tell us of different methods of doing those things and from a nonwhite perspective. After The Game of Silence and The Porcupine Year, the series follows Omakayas’s children as protagonists, continuing to rewrite the story of the white settling of Native land as it went on. Books such as these implicitly refute Ma Ingalls’s repeated assertions that Native people were savage, uncivilized, and primitive, and instead show them to be more or less the same as the Ingalls family when it comes to caring for one another and navigating day-to-day frontier life. What’s more, the Birchbark series emphasizes the role of family and community in overcoming hardship, while the Little House books emphasize isolation and boot-strappiness (even though the historical record of the real Ingallses suggests they needed, and had, a lot more community support than was depicted in the books).

If Ma Ingalls represents the predominant view of the white settler at the time who saw Native Americans as less than human, Omakayas and her descendents stand as some of the few authentic frontier-set #OwnVoices stories in children’s literature. #OwnVoices stories are those written by a member of the marginalized group depicted in the story rather than an outsider. While this is not a stamp of approval or an endorsement, it does lend an assumption of credibility and authenticity less likely to come from one outside of the marginalized group. Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Ojibwa, did research both within her own family and the larger community in creating Omakayas. Erdrich’s series is a representation of a people who were stripped of their humanity by settlers (like Ma) and who continue to struggle to make their voices heard in the publishing industry.

The landscape of middle-grade historical fiction paints a fairly continuous line through history when it comes to whites — granted, with some holes as far as queer, non-Christian, disabled, or other marginalized groups are concerned. But overall, a diversity of experiences is depicted; wealthy and poor, Northern and Southern, city and wild frontier. Historical fiction as it deals with white characters allows for a white cultural memory and collective identity that is rich with detail and multiple entry points. Children of color and Native children, on the other hand, are being constantly reminded, through books that center the white experience, that the lives of their people have been defined by their contrast to white people and their conflicts with them. Or that they appear for specific moments in time, such as the Civil War or the Trail of Tears, and then disappear from the planet.

For nonwhites, the absence of everyday stories and the lack of connection between larger moments of history means that our collective memory is made up of not just fewer experiences overall but specifically traumatic ones — which can lead to a negative self-perception on the part of the kids not seeing themselves adequately represented and a lack of empathy on the part of the kids who do. The pattern continues in K–12 history textbooks and canon-based English classes.

Omitting nonwhites from episodic historical fiction and the everyday history that informs our lives today says that the only contribution by people of color to society is conflict. Deleting them from the continuous line of history is a lie that perpetuates this insidious myth. And middle-grade historical fiction has a long way to go to acknowledge this betrayal to readers and attempt to overcome it.

From the November/December 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Sarah Hannah Gómez About Sarah Hannah Gómez

Sarah Hannah Gómez holds an MA in children’s literature and an MS in library and information science from Simmons College and is working toward a PhD in children’s and adolescent literature at the University of Arizona. She blogs at shgmclicious.com.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for writing this and sharing your experience–your thoughts have really stuck with me! I’m curious what you think about Rita Williams-Garcia’s recent Gaither trilogy, whether they would fit what you’re looking for in historical fiction. In particular, the last one focuses a lot on food, family, and daily life, and it seems like the overall focus is on their experience rather than the political events going on around them.

  2. Hi, Anastasia, I have not read those books yet, though they are on my to-read list. They don’t fit what I’m looking for in the sense that I was looking for books set in the 19th century and before, though I can certainly appreciate that they’re not just another book about Selma.

  3. Anonymous says:

    We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? That said, it’s so interesting that there has been such an explosion of some ethnic, racial, and religious small presses in the past fifty years, while other groups seem less interested in publishing books for children that look like those same groups. For instance, there are many small Latter-Day Saint, religious Christian and Jewish presses creating many children’s books. There is even something called PJ Library that sends free Jewish children’s books to Jewish families. However, despite huge numbers of people, there seem not to be as many prominent African-American, Latinx, Asian-American, Hindu, or other such presses. It is unrealistic to expect that huge New York publishers are going to be producing many mirror books for children. That’s not what they do. The small presses, like Lerner and Low, are going to be where it is at, at it should be. We need so many more of them. They know their audiences and constituencies, and they know the best way to market, no?

  4. In response to the anonymous post:

    While I agree that it’s nice to have specialty publishers providing material for “niche” markets that struggle for mainstream representation, I can’t agree that these small publishing houses are where most books about non-white experiences belong. Books featuring non-white characters living their lives shouldn’t be sent off to separate publishers; this is too much like the harmful “separate but equal” thinking of the past. Assuming that the white experience is the experience that the big publishers should represent results in making everyone else invisible–which is part of the author’s point in this article.

    All children should have books offered to them that depict the rich variety of experiences lived by people from all backgrounds, not just those of people who look like them.

  5. Judy,, I’m not tracking your separate-but-equal argument. Publishing houses are not the government, nor are they quasi-government institutions. Further, some of the “niche” publishers you denigrate as “nice” are turning out many, many books for their niches. Paulist Press is one. Thomas Nelson is another. Deseret Books is another, as is the Jewish press Kar-Ben. Those niche audiences know that their niche presses are the logical place to go for books about people who look like them, and not to a big press that might do five or six a year. Their constituencies respond with book buying. Asking a Big 5 publisher to turn out a lot of non-dominant-culture kidlit is like asking a big chain restaurant to start putting Vietnamese food on the menu….in a community where there might be no Vietnamese restaurants.

    The proper and logical place for a wave of diverse books to emerge is from within the diverse communities themselves. It has never been easier to write, print, and publicize a book. (And then we have to ask ourselves what difference those books make anyway for the largest majority of children. How is that there have not been a lot of Asian presses in English in the USA, but Asian kids are in general — please underscore in general, there are always exceptions — achieving far better than anyone else in school, college admissions, etc?)

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