Books featuring children of color where race is not the point of the story

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Dawn Friedman

Imagine if all the books about girls were about sexism. Imagine if female characters were generally there to give the reader a history lesson about suffragettes or a cultural critique about rape. What would that do to a little girl? To only see herself against the backdrop of oppression? What would that do to a little boy? To only see women in the context of the oppressed? Fortunately there are lots of interesting female role models to keep both boys and girls reading – girls like Ramona, Nancy Drew and Anastasia Krupnik – but imagine if there weren’t.

Now think about kids’ chapter books where the main character isn’t white. Think hard. Is there a black Ramona or an Asian Nancy Drew or a Latina Anastasia?

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find books about children of color that don’t make the kids’ color the point of the story. There just aren’t enough books about everyday kids doing everyday things where the kids happen to be African American or Chinese-American or Native American or Hispanic, etc. etc. There are many fine, laudable books (and many absolutely awful ones) about slavery and Civil Rights and the Japanese internment camps and migrant farm workers from Mexico but the ordinary kid? The one who is riding her bike or fighting with his little sister? That’s a lot tougher.

A big part of liberal racism (the do-gooder, well-intentioned, earnest but mistaken kind) is the belief that race/cultural are special events. But black people are black even when they’re not celebrating Kwanzaa or marching for equal rights just like girls are girls even when they are no boys around as contrast.

The anti-racist family’s bookshelves need to have both kinds of books – books about race in the context of racism and books about everyday kids of all colors and creeds. Our kids need this so that they understand that being white isn’t a prerequisite to having a story worth sharing.

Happily, finding everyday kids of color in picture books is getting easier all the time. Anti-Racist Parent columnist, Cloudscome, blogs regularly over at A Wrung Sponge about the best multicultural books she finds as a children’s librarian. She’s got a wealth of good info for anyone wanting to add to their picture book shelves. But it’s a little harder with chapter books.

I pulled a handful out of our own collection and am hoping you all can add to my list. I’d love to find more so let me know what’s on the top of your ordinary, anti-racist reading list. (My rules for inclusion? The child’s race isn’t a plot-device even if it has some bearing on his/her experience. In other words, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson didn’t make it in because Shirley Temple Wong is trying to assimilate into the United States, which makes it an issue book albeit a good one.)

Philip Hall Likes Me I Reckon Maybe – My memories of this book are what convinced me that I needed to take a long, hard look at my own shelves before I had kids (when I was starting my collection in earnest). I avoided reading this one for a long time because I couldn’t relate to the girl on the cover. She was black and I didn’t want to read a depressing treatise on race. When I finally did read it at about ten, I shut the book and wondered why the author made her black? I mean, she was just like a white girl and wasn’t race supposed to be a plot-point? I didn’t want my kids to have that same delusion.

The Black Canary – This is an historical fantasy book (as an aside, its nice and somewhat unusual to find genre books where the characters aren’t white) about a young boy who goes back in time to London in the 1600s. He is forced to join the Children of the Chapel Royal and perform for the Queen. James is biracial and his color has an impact on but does not define his time travel experience.

The Egypt Game — Nearly twenty years old but this book about a group of girls who take their pretending too far will still resonate with kids today. In a nice twist contrary to far too many kids’ books, the child with the least stable home-life in this multicultural friendship happens to be white. The illustrations in my copy show their age but it’s available on audio, too.

Moon Runner — Mina is a girl who likes girlish things. But then she discovers that she loves to run. When she wins her first race without effort, her competitive friend Ruth is unhappy. Mina is the new kid in school – should she throw the race for the sake of friendship? Or should she run for the glory of it? Oh and Mina happens to be Chinese-American.

Some Friend — This is one of my favorite finds of the past couple of years. It’s a pretty classic story of friendship, where Pearl – on the verge of adolescence – grapples with the challenge of popularity. Should she compromise her values (and family rules) to stay friends with fascinating Lenore? Will it be worth it? Pearl and her friends are African American and I like the way this is a taken-for-granted part of the story.

Dawn Friedman is a writer and mother to two children. Her articles have appeared in Salon.com, Yoga Journal, Brain Child and the Greater Good and she is the op-ed editor at Literary Mama. She is also the founder of OpenAdoptionSupport.com and since the adoption of her daughter in 2004 has become passionate about the need for adoption reform. She blogs at this woman’s work.

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