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There is a problem in children’s fantasy books, and the problem is an overabundance of white children. If we look at popular trends in children’s fantasy, they often follow a very British tradition; white, middle-class schoolchildren are often the main characters – for instance, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Series of Unfortunate Events, the list does go on and on without me having to list all the instances. This perhaps comes from the fact that modern children’s literature is often rooted in British traditions, but even American equivalents, like The Wizard of Oz, suffer from these same repetitive characters, despite a wide plethora of children’s books that cater to minority children.
So when someone pointed out to me last week that I mention that Rick Riordan has his female characters occasionally need rescuing, but that I didn’t mention how often they also assist with rescue and how inclusive he is with his characters, having a wide spread of characters who are persons of color (not-white), I decided to address this; currently, Rick Riordan is leading the way in middle-school level fiction the way that Lemony Snicket did in the 00s with his Heroes of Olympus series, and his inclusion of non-white characters is something that should be lauded.
It’s interesting that he manages inclusion so seamlessly, despite the fact that in Heroes of Olympus, the mythological pantheon is Greek and Roman, and therefore in the minds of many Westerners, white in origin. However, anyone who has studied Greece will know that the racial profile of ancient Greece was more complex than simply “white” and Rome even moreso complicated by the constant influx of trade, immigration, and conquest that took place in what is simplistically called the Classical period. This may seem like an odd place to start this conversation, but bear with me.
My point is that Rome was far more mixed than is generally considered in the minds of most Americans, just like I feel that America is far more mixed than most Americans seem to understand. But the inclusion of characters who are American Indian, Latino, Asian and African-American is not simply a way to demonstrate that America is a mixed bag. It also highlights the inherent problem that children and young adult novels suffer from in bulk today, which is a fundamental lack of representation that occurs simply through the act of having a character in the book, and impacts the novel only in the sense that these characters have an ethnicity and cultural context that highlights both their personality and their character development.
What do I mean by that?
Well, consider most books which predominantly feature an American Indian character: a book like Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Both of these books are, undoubtedly, written from the point of view of American Indian characters, highlight American Indian issues, and are important for the creation of American Indian narratives in children and young adult fiction. They are both rooted in truth and are both rooted in real-world occurrences, and are absolutely important to both children’s literature and to American Indian fiction. But what they don’t do is tell a story whose primary purpose is not to highlight American Indian issues. The same could be said of novels like The House on Mango Street (Latino) or The Watsons go to Birmingham, 1963 (African-American). All these novels are important, but they are treated, in a way, as sacrosanct representations of minority fiction, to be read by children for the sake of reading minority fiction.
That differs, in essence, from what Riordan has accomplished by the heavy inclusion of minority characters in his narrative. He has not created something that tells of a “real” experience, because the setting is fantasy, and the mythology is simply a touchstone. But he has created three-dimensional characters whose minority experience is not simply included for the sake of pandering or books sales. This inclusion of minority characters in a fantasy setting – particularly a fantasy setting that is based so heavily on “white” mythology (although the argument of if Roman and Greek classical-period was, in fact, white, is another one entirely) means that any child who reads it can find someone in it who they can relate to on a racial level, which when one enjoys fantasy, is undeniably rare, particularly in children’s books.
What this also means is that Riordan has fashioned a universe where race matters in who we are but not in what we accomplish. His minority characters are equally important in saving the world, and equally smart, brave, funny, and their viewpoint is treated with equal respect by the writer. They are the children of gods, yes, but it is their human parents who have given them the cultural context to save the world, as their godly ones were at best absentee, at worst, negligent to the point of abuse.
It’s also important to note that Riordan does not limit minority characters to race but also to sexual preference, and has stated that, “the idea that we should treat sexual orientation itself as an adults-only topic, however, is absurd. Non-heterosexual children exist. To pretend they do not, to fail to recognize that they have needs for support and validation like any child, would be bad teaching, bad writing, and bad citizenship.” (Link)
So please consider this entry my apology to Mr. Riordan for any previous comments that may have seemed disparaging. He is, frankly, one of the most progressive children’s writers writing today, and I would see every children’s book but most particularly fantasy ones, take his approach to the inclusion of minority characters that everyone can relate to.
This past weekend was the Tucson Festival of Books, which is the 4th largest book festival in the country. This year there was a particularly great group of young adult and children’s writers, including Lois Lowry, R.L. Stine, Cornelia Funke and Nancy Farmer. Nancy Farmer is the writer of The Eye, The Ear, and The Arm and A Girl Named Disaster, both of which are set in Africa (where she lived in her youth) as well as House of the Scorpion and the recently published sequel The Lord of Opium. Both are set in the fictional dystopian country of Opium, which lies between Aztlan, the future Mexico and the United States, precisely in what is currently considered the drug corridor in the Southwest.
While in line to get my copy of The Lord of Opium signed, I overheard her speaking to the person in front of me who happened to be a librarian for the juvenile prison system. She told this librarian that for The House of the Scorpion her best audience were young Latino criminals, and I had to think about that for a second.
There’s mounting evidence in education theory that children and young adults benefit from representation that is accurate and human and not stereotyped. Exposure to accurate representation seems to be more important than positive representation, which arguably gives way to the sainted token minority. Matt, the main character of both books is a complex individual. He’s “born” (this is arguable, as he’s a clone, which is already a loaded idea because it infers the inevitable copying of not only DNA but also the copying of lifestyle of the original, who was a ruthless and cruel druglord) into a crime empire – literally as El Patron, the original Matt, rules the country of Opium to the point that his DNA is the key that can both lock and unlock the country. Matt yearns to be normal, but what is normal when surrounded by fields of poppy that is supplying the world’s demand for opium? Matt is a criminal by birth.
And in that Farmer creates the most genius protagonist to relate to young Latino men. In the United States, young Latino men are often not given many choices. This is more due to lack of opportunity, lack of knowledge, and like Matt, pressure from external forces to conform to a life of crime. Currently in the United States Latinos of all races make up about 17% of the population, but make up 34% of all incarcerated individuals, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
If we think that young adults respond best to representations of the self, then it only goes to figure that these young men are reacting to Matt because he is, in a way, a representation of themselves. While Jacqueline Rose posits that we cannot understand audience, we can gauge demand and response. The House of the Scorpion has been and continues to be one of the most popular books in the juvenile prison systems in states like California, which have high rates of young Latino men who are engaged in crime as much by choice as by birth.
But considering the positive aspects of Matt – his choices to be more than a drug lord, his decisions to move away from being a criminal, we consider, too, the positive impact of literature. By structuring a protagonist who is not just a criminal, but a young Latino male who has been given no other option, Farmer constructs a reality that can be separated from the dystopia and presented in contemporary atmospheres without flattening him to the role of the martyr.
Latinos need more representation, more clever and fulfilled representation that rounds out people instead of simply stereotypes. Farmer accomplishes that by not shying away from the difficult topics that face the southwest, including drug trade, immigration, and even human trafficking, and by making the reader perceive it through a character as sharply defined as her protagonist, Matt.