by Megan Schliesman
What do Karen Lynn Williams’s A Beach Tail and Lauren Child’s The New Small Person have in common? They are both picture books offering visibility for characters of color without specific cultural substance in the narrative. Illustrator Floyd Cooper brings rich and welcome cultural content to Williams’s fine text in A Beach Tail with his illustrations showing an African American child and father. Child’s book is blithely illustrated in the same spirited style she typically uses, but her choice to make the main character and his family dark-brown-skinned in this fresh take on dealing with a new sibling is one I appreciated. Her visual style is vastly different from Cooper’s—there is far less realism and gravity to it. But it’s so consistent with, and perfectly matched to, her narrative storytelling.
In Victoria Jamieson’s graphic novel Roller Girl, main character Astrid Vasquez, who aspires to become a junior roller derby jammer (the one who scores points!), mentions that she is half Puerto Rican. Astrid looks as if she could be part Puerto Rican, but this dimension of her identity is not developed beyond that reference. Unlike books in which mention of a character’s race or ethnicity feels like a pale effort to incorporate diversity, it worked for me here, perhaps because there is diversity incorporated without further comment in other ways, too, most notably in the fact that Astrid’s Roller Derby hero, Rainbow Brite, is African American. Also, Astrid’s heritage is simply a background fact to the story, and while I would have welcomed additional cultural content, its absence didn’t feel like a failure, perhaps because Astrid’s (Puerto Rican) dad does not seem to be part of her life. Everything about Astrid feels authentic to me, including this aspect of her identity to which she is not strongly connected at this point in her life. However, as I continue to think about Roller Girl with great appreciation, I also continue to wonder about it in the context of both what it offers and what it might lack in terms of visibility and representation.
Roller Girl felt to me akin to Varian Johnson’s The Great Greene Heist in the way diversity is simply a fact of the world that its characters inhabit. On the one hand, Johnson’s middle school setting and characters are intentionally diverse — and by that I mean he was clearly making a choice as an author. On the other, his world felt to me like the one children and teens inhabit today (well, except for the Oceans 11-inspired plotting, which is a few steps removed from wholly realistic fiction, but oh, so much fun!).
I think there is both a need for reflecting this kind of broader diversity–the culturally diverse spaces children inhabit, the world in which they live–authentically, and also tension and challenge in trying to do it in a way that does not feel either off-handed or offensive.
A title that I’m far less certain about is Peter McCarty’s new picture book First Snow. McCarty’s illustrations feature beautifully drawn pen-and-ink animal characters in a story about a puppy experiencing snow for the first time. His name is Pedro. He is visiting his cousin Sancho and his family. I’m struggling with these animal characters having Spanish names. (There is no other cultural content.) At the same time, one could ask, given the fact there are many books with animal characters, why not give them names that might resonate with Spanish-speaking children?
Visibility exists across a continuum, from books like The New Small Person and A Beach Tail and Roller Girl to ones that are deeply imbedded in cultural identity and experience (Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales is one obvious and delightful example). But I think animal characters without any cultural content are simply no substitute, and potentially problematic. (By contrast, Chato’s Kitchen by Gary Soto and Susan Guevara is a book featuring animal characters brimming with cultural content.)
A book that I think gets it right in terms of being diverse and inclusive in a way that is exciting because it’s so genuine is the new young adult poetry anthology Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poets for the Next Generation edited by Brett Fletcher Lauer and Lynn Melnick. Non-fiction is a different beast from fiction, obviously, and these days any anthology worthy of any note at all has made an obvious effort to be inclusive. But this offering, in part due no doubt to the anthologists’ decision to include 100 poets, excels at reflecting incredibly diverse dimensions of identity and experiences, but the end result isn’t either disparate or forced. Instead, it’s unifying, because it feels so much like the world in which we live.