Thursday, July 31, 2014

Someone Like Me: What Children's Stories Can Teach Minority Kids

Image via spesiria
Why do so many princesses looks the same? In a moving personal essay entitled "Challenging “Normal”: Why Non-Token Diversity in Kids’ Storytelling Is Important", Navdeep Singh Dhillon uses a recent heart-breaking incident with her young daughter to posit that in media for children, most characters that are not white only seem to be defined by their “otherness. An excerpt:

On New Year’s Day, we are heading out to brunch, and Kavya’s sitting on the stairs, her head in her hands. Crying. I ask her what happened. In most cases, we verbally abuse the pain-inflicting object, followed immediately by a good stomping, and that sorts things out. But this time is different. 

In-between muted, heaving sobs, she says something that I hadn’t expected for at least a few more years: “I want yellow hair. Like Rapunzel.” She points to the large, manga-eyed, blonde princess with tiny toothpick-wrists, smiling on her t-shirt. 

It’s one of those parenting moments where time stands still.  I fight the urge to say, “Rapunzel’s hair is stupid. She can go to hell.” 

My wife, Sona, sits on the stairs with Kavya and tries to comfort her. Sona’s parents don’t really understand the heaviness of what Kavya is saying, and view it as just a random tantrum. 

…Instead of berating Rapunzel for her physical appearance, I ask Kavya if she knows who my favourite princess is. 

She looks up at me. “Who?” 

“Princess Kavya.” I say, touching her nose. 

She starts crying even louder. After a bit, she says, “Why do you like Princess Kavya?”

In fact, Sona wrote an essay herself on why she co-founded CAKE Literary, a literary development company that focuses on high concept fiction with a strong commitment to diversity.:

“Growing up as a little brown girl—one of the few, back then—in small-town, suburban central New Jersey, books were my escape. I caused a ruckus alongside little Anne in Avonlea; I mourned Beth along with her sisters in the harsh winter of Maine; I honed my grand ambitions like Kristy and her babysitters’ club; I even swooned alongside Elena over the brothers Salvatore when The Vampire Diaries was originally released. (Yes, I am that old.) 

But if you’ll note: in all those books and the hundreds of others I devoured, I never really saw myself, or anyone remotely like me. The majority of characters in books for kids and teens in the ’80s and ’90s were white. And, according to Christopher Myers in his recent New York Times piece, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” the majority still are today, by quite a landslide. 

Why is this worth discussing? Because it hurts. A lot. It’s a hit to a kid’s self-esteem to be told—silently, but oh so clearly—that their story is not worth telling, that their voice is not important.”

Image courtesy of

In the meantime, many artists on tumblr have contributed to This Could Have Been Frozen, featuring different takes on Disney's Frozen recasting the lead characters as people of color. While Frozen takes its cues from the fairy tale "The Snow Queen," they points out that not all Europeans are white, and the movie explicitly references Saami culture in the way many characters dress.

Some people may be wondering what the big deal is? Stories are stories, and books are books, right?


Stories help kids understand the world. When there are entire sections of society that are barely represented-- or worse, neglected-- then it becomes harder for kids to idetiny with, understand, or empathize with them. It's even worse when a minority kid  doesn't see anyone like them in the stories they read or the media they experience, because they miss out on that sense of belong, of being a valued part of society, and of getting to identify with the heroes in books or on-screen.

Author Deepa D. outlined this feeling in "I Didn't Dream of Dragons" in a personal essay that is still relevant almost five years later:

When I was around thirteen years old, I tried to write a fantasy novel. It was going to be an epic adventure with a cross-dressing princess on the run, a snarky hero, and dragons. I got stuck when I had to figure out what they would do after they left the city. Logically, there would be a tavern. But there were no taverns in India. 

Write what you know is a rule that didn’t really need to be told to me; after having spent my entire life reading books in English about people named Peter and Sally, I wanted to write about the place I lived in, even if I didn’t have a whole bookcase of Indian fantasy world-building to steal from. And I couldn’t get past the lack of taverns. Even now, I have spent a number of years trying to figure out how cross-dressing disguise would work in a pre-Islamic India where the women went bare-breasted. When I considered including a dragon at the end of a story, I had to map out their route to the Himalayas, because dragons can be a part of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition—they do not figure in Hindu mythology.

Image courtesy of We Need Diverse Books.

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