Seeing Ourselves: The Mannequin of Charles Towne

Eden Royce at age six. Photo courtesy of Eden Royce.

Every Saturday when I was a kid, my mother would take me to the mall. Mostly, it was her looking through racks without making a purchase and me fidgeting, desperate to be anywhere else. I found the stores boring, the endless racks of clothing and shoes. There was nothing to do, nowhere to sit and read, which was all I wanted to do on Saturday. But I had no choice — it was our weekly ritual.

One Saturday — I was probably around six at the time — we went to Charles Towne Square in North Charleston, near where I grew up in South Carolina. As usual, I was by Mom’s side, shuffling along as she moved from display to display. This time, however, I saw something that caught my typically wavering attention.

New mannequins.

They were frozen in time, glossed with a shiny, reflective paint that pinkened the white human-like structures underneath. I wandered off to look at them all, finally coming to a stop in front of one particular display. A girl, about my height and age, standing between two adult-sized mannequins on a narrow dais. She had her hair parted down the middle in two ponytails like I did. And she was Black.

My heart skipped. I was almost expecting her to smile at me and hold out her hand and ask me to join her. (I would have.) I just stood there, staring at her, for far too long, probably. I could hear people walking by me, chuckling. I didn’t care, because in every store I’d ever been to, in all those displays of clothing and shoes, I had never seen any mannequins that looked like me. Could that have been one of the reasons I was so uninterested in going to the mall? Had I been convinced the clothes in the shops weren’t for little girls like me? I can’t say. But from that day on, I looked at the mall differently. I looked at the clothes in that store differently. And every ­Saturday for a long time, I looked for her.

Exactly what clothes she wore I don’t recall. I mostly remember gazing at her too-shiny ceramic face. I noticed every detail: the slight smile, the round cheeks, the dots of white at the center of her pupils. I didn’t know it at the time, but she had triggered a hunger in me.

That feeling, I found, was a need to see more of myself. To see girls like me being the center of attention — in the world and in stories. I wouldn’t have had the words to say it this way then, but people who looked like me were only ever the person in the background, or the person who suffers in order for the main character to learn something. But now, I’d felt what it might be like if that weren’t the case.

That first day in the mall, my mother must have realized this (after a few moments of heart-thudding fear when she noticed I wasn’t beside her, I suspect). I was lucky — my mom was an elementary-school educator. She knew the school’s curriculum and had brought home selections from the recommended reading lists at both of our schools for me. I had tons of books at home, from early readers like my beloved Dr. Seuss and Frog and Toad books to those Disney books that were the written equivalents of the movies. They were wonderful, but there was something more I needed. And so, she took my hand, led me away from the display, and after a quick lunch, she drove us to the county library.

Mom walked me to the children’s room. It was breathtaking. Decorated in bright colors with lots of rugs and cozy spaces to snuggle down with your book of choice. Also, there were images of other Black kids all around the room. Not mannequins this time, but paintings and drawings on the walls of the library and characters printed on some of the book covers. I felt part of something I couldn’t give a name to then.

But I could, and did, get books:

And I devoured them. I could see these characters and read their stories. I could go on adventures with them and learn what they learned, share their experiences. It opened realms of possibilities, showing me that I was worth being a protagonist, and that the big, important, exciting adventures I read about could happen for me too.

When I grew up, I wanted to give other kids the same feeling I had all those years ago looking up at a mannequin. As a kid, I read so many books, but I’d never read one set in the South Carolina marshes. So I wrote Root Magic, a book full of the setting and culture I grew up with, because all kids deserve to recognize themselves as heroes and be secure in knowing that stories can indeed be about them.

From the May/June 2023 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Diverse Books: Past, Present, and Future. Find more in the "Seeing Ourselves" series here.

Eden Royce

Eden Royce received a 2022 Walter Honor in the younger readers category for Root Magic. Conjure Island (both Walden Pond/HarperCollins) is forthcoming.

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