This week I read that 2010 may be the tipping point year in which more U.S. children are born to families of color than to white. That means that in the very near future, the majority of American children’s book readers will fall into the category we now call “minority.” Are the majority of the characters in children’s books going to be non-white four years from now, when those children reach the target age for picture books?
I doubt it. But it seems to me that those of us who write for children are going to have to start thinking much more carefully about the world we portray in our fiction. Today, most children’s book writers are white, and many of us feel uncomfortable writing about other races and cultures. (“I thought you were supposed to write about what you know,” one of my students observed when I raised this topic recently.) Yet I think we have to get over that discomfort if we’re going to write books that speak to the reality of American life, which is increasingly multicultural.
My thinking on this subject is highly influenced by the film-maker Loni Ding, whose obituary I happened to read this week just as her views on race and gender portrayals in the media were uppermost in my mind. Ding was one of my professors at UC Berkeley and she argued that film-makers – and by extension writers – are constantly making statements about race and gender by the way they cast both minor and major characters, whether or not such statements are intentional. In a TV show, when all the characters in a law office are white, it conveys a message about who practices law. In a children’s book, when the person baking cupcakes is female and the person reading the newspaper on the couch is male, it conveys a message about who does the work in the household. That doesn’t mean every TV law office should be multi-racial, or that every picture book father should do the baking. But it does mean that writers should be thinking about the world we’re portraying in our books and making conscious decisions rather than unconscious ones. Too often our “casting” choices reflect the world we grew up in rather than the world our readers know.
The example I just cited – mom baking cupcakes, dad reading the paper – comes from a story one of my students recently submitted to the class I teach on children’s picture book writing. These were incidental details in an otherwise marvelous story but they stood out to me because they felt like the one thing in the story that didn’t ring true. In the ensuing discussion, I pointed out that such arrangements see anachronistic in a world in which both parents typically work, and I argued that these incidental details are an opportunity for writers to both reflect the world as it is, and to encourage the world to progress in its thinking about the “proper” household duties for men and women.
Some of my students disagreed. “What if you like baking cupcakes?” one asked. Several felt that reversing the arrangement – Dad baking, Mom reading the paper – would seem heavy-handed or unrealistic. A better solution might have been to have both parents working in the kitchen together, or both relaxing with the Sunday paper. Or having them do something else entirely that achieved the aims of the story (which were to show the family engaged in its weekend activities) while not seeming to embrace outdated ideas about gender roles.
To me, the important thing about this discussion was that it reminded me of the importance of thinking through your casting calls. Social considerations always have to be balanced with personal and creative ones, and there’s no single one-size-fits-all method for assigning race or gender to characters, or for assigning attributes to characters of a particular gender or race. But what I learned from Loni Ding was that decisions that may feel meaningless to us are not necessarily meaningless to our readers, particularly picture book readers who are learning about the world from the books we write.