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Where Are the Brown Girls?

Photograph by Getty Images

I went to the 2014 National Book Festival with two of my daughters. Elle, a high schooler, is the voracious reader of the family. Often times, before any of the rest of us can finish reading – or even begin to read – a book that we’ve checked out of the library or bought at the bookstore, she has “borrowed” and finished the book, then handed it back with a quick review. No book is safe in her arm’s reach (and she has long arms.) Nat came along, too; still in elementary school, she reads when and if she feels like it.

We came away from the day with two children/teen books. One was Zero Degree Zombie Zone, a fun, adventure story about an African-American boy and his friends, written by Patrik Henry Bass and illustrated by Jerry Craft. Since African-American boy adventure books are hard to find, I even willingly paid the hardback price for a copy for my son. The other book was Sisters by Raina Telgemeier; a graphic novel about the trials and quibbles of sisterly love. The line drawing characters are presumably not African-American, but no matter; Nat connects to the sisters, plus really likes this author’s previous novel, Smile.

What did Elle get? Nothing. My reader child, the one who was anticipating the Book Festival, came away empty handed. Although, she did read the zombie book on the Metro ride home before handing it over to her brother. But for her – my African-American, teen girl, who does not like vampires, witches, demons, and spooky stuff, but does like some sci-fi, adventure, and a little teen angst drama – nothing. And she came away with the conclusion, as she often does when we attend big book events, that there are no books about teenage black girls. She can and does read plenty of books about white teens who travel through time, run from crazy parents, fight against scientific experiments, chase and are being chased by other kids, fall apart from their best friends, and fall in love. But kids who look like her? Not so much.

So where are the books for and about black teens? Ones where they are not the minor character or the jovial sidekick friend. When does the black boy get to be the hero of the story for his own strength, not the illiterate downtrodden athlete that will be saved by the loving white family? When does the black girl get to be the heroine who shoots the bow and arrow and gets the boy, instead of the runaway slave? How long before the black girl meets the great guy and goes on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation before he dies and we all cry uncontrollably over their teen love?

How long before the Black girl meets the great guy and goes on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation before he dies and we all cry uncontrollably over their teen love?

Do a quick search of the top teen books, even Young Adult, as the line seems to blur sometimes. Go to Barnes and Noble or Amazon, and take a look. Aside from most of the books being about a dystopian society (a popular theme, apparently in teen books) you may notice that all the people on the cover of the books are White. Even the vampire and ghost children. I recently read a list of the “20 most anticipated” books for young adults. A quick tally showed that of the 20 books:

  • Entertainment There were no black main characters (based on description, cover photo, and/or assumption based on the author’s race)
  • There were two Asian characters (the author/co-author of both books were also Asian)
  • Thirteen were about someone who has died, is dying, or will die. More than thirteen people, however, will die in these books as a few were about the dying of multiple and many people. Happy reading.

By the way - I do have some concern that so many of the current books for teens and young adults are about kids trying to kill other kids or scary, demonic beings trying to kill kids, but that’s a whole ‘nother book discussion for another day. For now, let’s get back to the lack of black characters.

Why does it matter? As an illustration, let me pose this activity. Think of a classic or contemporary teen book. Let’s say, Charlotte’s Web. Would it have been a different story if Fern was African-American? (Feel free to also imagine Fern as any other race, not often found in American teen fiction, such as Asian and Latino.) Wilbur would still have been destined as bacon, Charlotte would still spin words in her web, and they all would still make the journey to the fair. But perhaps it would’ve attracted the attention of a black child, perhaps it would’ve spurred a love of reading in a little black girl to see herself as Fern and remember her grandparents’ farm in North Carolina. Like The Wiz as the African-American version of The Wizard of Oz, there perhaps would’ve been a different spin on the story. A different child would see people who look like her.

And that’s what diversity in children’s and young people’s books is about. Stories that allow our young people to imagine themselves as the heroes, as the crusaders, as the girl who meets the boy, as the boy who stands up to bullies, as the kid who survives middle school, as the regular ole kid who somehow makes it past all the hurdles of the teen-years and makes it to adulthood.

So I encourage the writers who want to write these stories – write. That’s how I finally came to write my first novel (an adult novel, not for teens) because, paraphrasing Toni Morrison, we have to write the stories we want to read. And let’s support those authors who write (good) books about diverse characters.

Final question. Does it matter that there are African-American characters, as well as Asian and Latino? Answer this first – would it matter if there were no white characters?

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