Holdin’ Out for a (Nonwhite) (Funny) (Fictional) Hero

I start teaching summer camp in a week, and because my bosses are supportive and (usually) say yes when I ask for things, I now have a few precious dollars at my disposal to spend on books.

Specifically, books for my students to use as a springboard for a design project. I love this assignment: I ask my students, ages 8-15, to read a classic children’s book and then design the sets, props, costumes, lights, and sounds that they would create, if they had huge resources and could dream big. I love seeing how their brains have translated beloved stories into concrete ideas: Snow White, Charlotte’s Web, Cinderella. I howled with delight the year that my older teens gave me their take on Robin Hood, influenced by too many action films and a vague understanding of the financial crisis; some of the costume designs for James and the Giant Peach were imaginative and playful in a way some working professionals might envy.

But let’s face it: you can’t phone in the same stuff every year. You need new material, and so I started researching children’s books. My initial qualifications:

– It must be FUN. This is summer camp. I’m not making them slog through anything that feels like school.

-It must be FUNNY. This is mostly just personal preference: I’m passionate about comedy and I love very few things more than a kid getting the belly-laugh-snort-giggles.

– It must be DESIGNABLE. Something with characters that kids could design costumes for, something with locations that kids would enjoy creating sets for, etc.

– It must be UNIVERSAL. Something that my eight-year-olds can read and understand, but that won’t seem too babyish for my fifteen-year-olds.

Okay. So far, so good! The titles began to stack up: The Paper Bag Princess! Added to cart. A princess outwits a dragon, learns that appearances are not as important as character, and decides that she’s rather not be saved by a stuck-up, vain prince after all. Meet the Dullards! Flavors of Roald Dahl, but for the picture-book crowd, where a boring set of parents bent on beige walls and sliced-bread values can’t seem to repress their children’s urges to draw with crayons or imagine the circus. A whole slew of amazing, funny, wild and wonderful books featuring animal or other non-human protagonists: the Pigeon books, Skippyjon Jones, Max in Hollywood, baby! The Day the Crayons Quit!

And then I took a break from this research project to look at the news, and that was when I realized my mistake.

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Fifteen year old Dajerria Becton was thrown to the ground by an armed police officer this weekend in the small Texas suburb of McKinney, her arms pinned behind her, her face slammed to the ground. A man named Eric Casebolt knelt with his knees on top of her as she screamed, as he sweat through his gear, moments after ducking and rolling and screaming with all the severity of the final scene of any action movie, moments after drawing a loaded gun on some teenaged boys. Click another news site, and you’ll get another opinion: endless debate about whether the teenagers were allowed to be in the gated community in the first place, whether or not there was weed and loud music involved in the disturbance complaint, whether or not the incident was racially motivated.

The last sentence is the one that hurts my heart to type, because you watch that video and — my god, of course it’s racially motivated. The white kids are milling around, filming on their phones, virtually ignored. The black kids are handcuffed, thrown down, screamed at to get their asses on the ground. The country takes notice. We tweet, we facebook, we write, we think, we feel. Many people feel weary, exhausted. This is an old story. We’ve heard this one before.

Eric Casebolt has resigned. It’s not enough. I don’t know what is, but it’s not enough. You don’t draw your gun at a group of teenagers at a pool party where you’re responding to a noise complaint. You don’t. You don’t. You don’t. You don’t draw your gun. At children. At a pool party. 

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I read voraciously as a kid, and my favorites were stories about girls with a streak of rebellion and a taste for adventure: Harriet the Spy, Eloise, Mary Lennox, Sara Crewe, Matilda, Pippi Longstocking, Ella Enchanted, Catharine Called Birdy, Charlotte Doyle, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew. Any of the girls in the E.L. Konigsburg or Zilpha Keatly Snyder books, who slept in museums or crafted seances; the girls created by Judy Blume, so vulnerable and so much like me. Entire series of women protagonists who got things done: The Boxcar Children and the Babysitters’ Club and the American Girls.

Girls who read, learned, climbed trees, fought back, solved mysteries, fell down, got back up, struggled, persevered. Girls who survived crazy hardships or learned valuable lessons.

Girls who looked just like me. Brave girls. Smart girls. Funny girls.

White girls.

I read some books about black girls too, of course. I read a book about Harriet Tubman, and a book about Sojourner Truth, and a book about Phyllis Wheatley. Clara and the Freedom Quilt. Addy, the American Girl. I’m sure there must have been some Asian girls and Hispanic girls in there too, although I can’t recall any at the moment.

In 2012, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reviewed 3,600 children’s books. Only three percent were about African-Americans. Asian and Pacific Americans were featured in two percent, followed by Latinos with less than two percent, and American Indians at less than one percent. I pulled those stats from a Washington Post article called “Characters in Children’s Books are Almost Always White, and it’s a Big Problem.” 

I put it out there on Facebook that I was seeking a children’s book featuring nonwhite protagonists, that was fun and funny, that was adaptable for the stage, that could be understood by eight-year-olds. And my smart, well-read friends turned in a trove of possibilities. So many excellent books! So many wonderful authors! But none of them seemed quite right.

The funniest stories featured white kids, or non-human protagonists. The stories featuring nonwhite kids all felt rooted in some kind of “other” — stories about the civil rights movement, stories that were adapted from slave folk tales, stories about accepting natural hair as beautiful. Stories whose major plot points hinged on their blackness or their “other-ness.”

Those stories are important, and those stories are necessary, and I am so glad those stories exist, and they should be created, and read, and put in the hands of children everywhere.

But that’s not quite enough.

Why don’t I know a single laugh-out-loud funny children’s book where the main character is nonwhite and that fact has literally nothing to do with saving the day/climbing the tree/inventing the space robot/learning a valuable lesson? After all, that’s stuff that white characters get to do in children’s books all the time. If you’re a white person, odds are that you’ve never consciously thought, “Huh. Cinderella is white, and so am I.” Because it has nothing to do with the story. We’ve never thought about her whiteness ’cause it doesn’t matter. Nancy Drew was an intelligent, spunky teen with an eye for detail, and being white had nothing to do with her ability to solve mysteries and hang out in spooky caves. Matilda’s telekinetic powers had everything to do with her love of reading combined with her terrible home life; I’m far too busy thinking about getting revenge on the Trunchbull to consciously consider her skin tone.

Maybe it’s like my post about Miss Piggy from last week. Maybe having a nonwhite protagonist is the same as having a male protagonist: it complicates the joke. It’s the extra thing that we collectively can’t quite process yet. Maybe that’s what’s happening here.

But I can’t help but think that if we raise our kids on a steady diet of “these are stories about kids like you” and “these are stories about kids who are almost like you,” it’s got to be a contributing factor to the other-ness. A small drop in the bucket of a collective idea about what is normal and what is not.

Don’t get me wrong, it does seem like there are books out there that hit the mark. There’s “The Snowy Day,” by Ezra Jack Keats, where the main protagonist happens to be a black boy, and that fact has virtually nothing to do with a story about walking around discovering the wonder of snow. There’s ‘The Hello Goodbye Window’ and “Stand Tall, Molly Lou Mellon,” both of which I will order on the recommendations of friends, because it seems like they might fit the bill. There’s a few others on that thread that I have to research a little more fully (and thank you, my Facebook friends, almost all of whom are my real-life friends: you are smart, thoughtful people and I treasure you).

My point is that it shouldn’t take an enormous facebook thread to find them. My point is that I should have read these books already. My point is that maybe if you, like me, has a job or a life where you have access to children, then we all need to work a little harder to find those voices that represent other ideas. My students are primarily white, and it is my responsibility to find stories where the black students feel represented — because come to think of it, in the two years I’ve had this job, I can’t say that I’ve done that before, and that makes me feel so deeply ashamed.

It’s not only that, though. I want my white students to build their empathy skills. I want my white students to find a point of connection between them and someone who might not look like them. I want my white students to read stories about non-white kids and not think “black” or “Asian” but rather “clever,” “smart,” “funny,” “silly.”

I suspect that it looked weird to that police officer, to see a bunch of black teenagers hanging out by the pool in swimsuits. Perhaps this person was raised on a steady diet of seeing black teenagers labeled “thug” or “poor” or “disruptive” or “trouble.” Perhaps those messages crept in at an early age.

I want to read stories with my kids where characters who aren’t white get to fight crime, solve mysteries, travel, explore, dream, dance, and grow. I want those characters to shine because they are awesome, not because they are other. I want them to get the giggles so hard they pee a little, and I want them to learn, on some critical subconscious level, that laughter is universal. That laughter is for everybody.

Maybe someday, when we see a bunch of black teenagers hanging out, we won’t think “black.” We’ll think “teenager.” We’ll think, “I remember when I was that age.” We’ll think, “kids.”

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This photo was pulled from @markusprimelives’ Instagram. He’s an incredible artist, and I encourage you to check out his work. I shared this image not only because it is powerful, not only because it is protest … but also because there’s something significant to me in imagining Dajerria Becton as a crimefighting superhero. I hope that someday it won’t look so jarring to our eyes, to see a young black woman striking a pose that we’d more commonly associate with Batman.

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