Friday, May 1, 2009

Roll Call: Challenging Stereotypes

Have you seen Mitali Perkins' (author of The Secret Keeper, Monsoon Summer, and other books for young people) article in School Library Journal, called Straight Talk on Race: Challenging the Stereotypes in Kids' Books? The idea is to help teachers and librarians to guide kids in noticing how race is depicted in the books they read, but I think the issues are relevant for all of us, and all types of literature. As a fledgling writer, I have to admit it made my head spin a little bit. So, I've decided to borrow her idea for this week's roll call.

Mitali suggests picking up a novel you like and exploring one or more of these five questions. She's done this with a few books in her article, including John Green's Paper Towns and Ursula Le Guin's Powers, so you can get a feel for it before you start. Click on the question to see Perkins' examples.

1. Are the nonwhite characters too good to be true? (or do they have depth that goes beyond their race, faults and all?)
2. How and why does the author define race? (Does it need to be defined? Is their race crucial to the plot?)
3. Is the cover art true to the story? (Perkins cites as an example the cover of Cynthia Kadohata’s novel Weedflower, in which the Japanese American main character is wearing a kimono, even though she's never described as wearing one in the text).
4. Who solves the problems in the story? (Would "Dances With Wolves" have been as popular with theater-goers without the white hero?)
5. How is beauty defined?

I'm not looking for anyone to define "good" vs. "bad" depictions of race, here. Asking the questions simply offers an opportunity to think about a book on a different level. Some of my favorite books are ultra-light on the diversity scale--that doesn't make them bad books or the authors insensitive clods. But if I read the book without noticing that all the characters are white middle class heterosexuals who eat bacon and eggs for breakfast and play basketball in their spare time, I'm missing something huge.

By the way, this roll call is open to anyone, of any shade, whether or not you've participated before or ever expect to again. Post your answer in comments or feel free to use Mr. Linky to link to a post on your blog.

*This is not to say that either bacon or eggs is, or desires to be, a white middle class heterosexual breakfast food. In fact, bacon and eggs can both be eaten by any demographic, at any time of day. With the possible exception of pigs, chickens, and vegans, who are sorely underrepresented in today's literature but manage to hold their own pretty well anyway.


  1. Great topic, Ali! Yes, I did read the article. I was one of first readers to respond. Mitali's article should be widely circulated and discussed.

    Looking forward to this.

  2. Thanks for linking to that article. I just read it and enjoyed it very much. The main thing I remember about Paper Towns was that Radar's family collected black santas. And the road trip of course.

  3. Thanks Ali for this article. Thought provoking. It will be great to see more African-American strong female characters who are protagonists instead of secondary characters.

  4. I'm glad to hear people are enjoying the article!

  5. I decided to take the challenge. I've been mulling over what Mitali's article meant to me, as a writer of color. And it's soaked in that too often when this topic arises the white writers feel as if they're in a no-win situation. As a matter-of-fact, Sara Zarr made just that comment after the article went live.

    But writers of color are/can be just as guilty of stereotyping. So I took a look at my own books and two others to see how I stacked up against Mitali's questions.

  6. Wow, that was hard! I added mine to my review of Shawna Yang Ryan's Water Ghosts.

  7. Karen,

    I read plenty of works with strong black female leads now. I invite you to visit us at Color Online. You don't have to be more to be published though we certainly need more, but I'm guessing I can give you a pretty long list to keep you busy.

    Finally finish my post, folks. Warning,it's long and I may ruffle some feathers. Please let's talk rather than feel picked on or angry.


  8. So glad this is being discussed - thanks for expanding the conversation!