Inspired by the SLJ article by Mitali Perkins, my own review of A la Carte by Tanita Davis, and my experiences at my library that relate to race, I started to tell you about some experiences I've had at my library in a footnote in the last post. It turned out to be a bit long... and warranted it's own post. So, here we go:
The other day I had a gaming program at the library. We had some time to kill before the program started, and I had three boys just hanging out with me, setting stuff up and chatting. All three are multi-cultural, two half black, half white (I've met both parents), the third at least half white (I've met mom), but clearly has something else going on there (1/2 or 1/4 black, I suspect - but do not know). Great boys, I heart them dearly, and I haven't at all talked about race with them. To fill up time, and because they are regulars, I had them make their own Mii's on our shiny new branch Wii. It was FASCINATING to watch them choose the skin color on their avatars. The lightest skinned (and youngest) of them chose the darkest coloring - far darker than he actually is. One paged through all the options and stuck with Caucasian coloring - far lighter than he is. The third (and oldest) seemed pretty unhappy with the Nintendo-offered shades (as well he should have been - they suck) and kept going back and forth between the options.
I'm not raising this to talk about my interpretation of the psychology of their choices (so not qualified for that), or even suggest that there is some interpretation beyond my neophyte observations, but nevertheless, it was truly interesting. I know it's just a video game, but in light of the discussion I had with Mitali & the Seattle-based readergirlz when Mitali was in Seattle and writing the article appearing in this month's SLJ, as well as the study she referenced within it, I can't help but think of the entire event in a different light. Not that it wouldn't have been fascinating without that conversation.
When all the kids showed up for that epic Mario Kart tournament? I was the only white person. Fifteen kids, and not one of them solely Caucasian. Most of those kids? Not readers. "Reading is boring." "I don't read." "Reading is for school." Why is that? I would say, and this is a gross estimation, most, though not all, of the teens who come to my programs don't read. It's like there are two different clans - the kids who come to the library for programs, and the kids who come to the library to get books recommendations from me. Guess where more of the white kids are? And rarely shall the twain meet.
In a completely separate instance of race and teen literature, I was working with Lorie Ann Grover to find compelling teen novels featuring Native American girls. I will never be able to convey in words what an incredibly frustrating experience that was. Readergirlz is committed to featuring non-white heroines. Being in the world I am, and doing what I do, I'm quite aware of how critical the Native American community is of books depicting them. Who wouldn't want their culture to be portrayed accurately? At the same time, it was incredibly disheartening to think I've found a good, compelling book, then research it more, only to find an essay eviscerating it for inaccurate portrayals. How much of that is no different than the standard inaccuracies of historical fiction? Why aren't there more teen books that have the Native American seal of approval? I sincerely hope that those who are most critical of these books are writing their own. Otherwise, I'm not sure how it will get better.
It may have nothing whatsoever to do with reading habits or the relative availability of books featuring kids that look like them, it may simply be how comfortable they are looking to me for advice. I don't know. But either way, the fact that I find a solid, well-written book like Tanita's more remarkable because it features middle class black people, coupled with scarce YA novels accurately portraying Native Americans... Well, whatever the connection there, I'd like to see more books like Tanita's, for all races. I actually hate to think that whether they read or not has anything to do with race. Kyle wants to believe that it's more class than race (and that very well could be true - there aren't that many books featuring poor happy people either in YA lit).
I'm not writing this in an attempt to solve anything, or come up with some pat answer, I'm more interested in sharing and hearing your experiences along this vein. I'm truly interested in what you have to say, so please comment or email me!
(and I'm cool if you also want to suggest more books like Tanita's or, actually, especially, if you have some accurate Native American YA lit)