A while ago, when I was on “Science Fiction Laboratory”, one of the show hosts asked me whether a culturally specific (I suppose for my particular case he meant black) coming-of-age story could speak to a larger audience. My answer was that I thought that though the circumstances may look superficially different, the issues that most kids that age are navigating—the questions that shape who they will grow into—are the same at the core. There is something universal in those questions. So I truly do believe that specifics like gender, race, whatever, should not be a barrier a young person picking up a book and enjoying a good story.
When I was a kid, some of my favorite books were about kids that looked nothing like me and whose experiences looked nothing like mine. I loved Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series, though I was not a young English boy, the seventh son of the seventh son. I loved A Wrinkle in Time and other novels about Meg and her brother Charles Wallace. Even though Meg was a 14 year old white girl, I could relate to her experience of being part of a large family where love and smarts were the most important things—not the kinds of designer clothes she wore (in fact, Meg didn’t wear designer clothes because her family could not afford them). I liked The Baby-Sitters Club, identifying most, not with Jessi, the black character, as some might expect (Jessi was a ballerina and I never, ever imagined myself as a ballerina. I didn’t even have a tutu when I was a kid), but with Kristy, the softball playing president of the club. I could see myself in Kristy because she was a leader, a tomboy, and someone for whom family was intensely important. Plus, Kristy and I were the same age when I first started reading the series (this might have been before Mallory and Jessi even became a part of the club).
In a way, I think the show host’s question was really a very adult question. I don’t think that kids approach their reading like that. I think that kids read what they like and don’t make the determination about what they want to read based on the skin color, gender, etc… of the main character. At least I know that’s the way that I operated. I don’t think that I was color-blind; the opposite in fact. I was very much aware of the physical differences between myself and the some of characters I read about. I did not, however, view those differences as a barrier or a reason not to enjoy the books about these characters. I feel that this sort of thinking is imposed on kids from the outside.
Don’t get me wrong, I think that it is really important to have diversity, in terms of experience and appearance, represented in novels written for young people. It is important for young people to be able to see characters that look—specifically look—like them in the books that they read; I think that it is equally important that young people see authors that look like them writing the books that they enjoy reading. There is something in that experience that is validating for young readers. However, I think that it is a dangerous, and most of the time wrong, presumption that kids will only relate to and enjoy reading about someone who looks like them and whose experience mirrors exactly their own.
Fiction is about escape. Whether fantasy or realistic, it is the opportunity to encounter and experience something other than what we know. The best fiction, in my mind anyway, helps us to see that no matter how foreign the experience may seem, there is some space of commonality—a fundamental level on which we can relate. I love to embrace all of the ways that fiction makes that possible.
Don’t worry, I have not forgotten about the Christmas Music Countdown. More to come…