Last week I posted on facebook a bit of my frustration in the way that reviewers miscast ethnicity in picture books. A good friend of mine had a reviewer identify her family as “Caucasian”, when it was a mixed race family. I posted and then edited a statement (a few times) about that conversation which read:
“Why is it necessary for a reviewer to identify the ethnicity of a character in their review when the plot has zero to with race…especially in picture books? A friend just told me that in her latest pb, her family was identified as Caucasian. It is a multi-racial family. The story is universal enough in plot, that the family could be any color. In PW’s review of Please Lousie, Louise was also multi-racial but labeled as “an Asian girl”. I think it is dangerous for reviewers to assume race in pbs without being certain. Why mention ethnicity at all when the ethnicity of the characters do not inform the storytelling in picture books?”
Roger Sutton picked it up and posted the question to his blog where he made a few great points on the issue. He wrapped up by saying,
“one thing you risk when mentioning ethnicity in reviewing an otherwise “universal” book is that white readers will say “oh, not a book for me.” Unfortunately, theMagazine does not come packaged with a Slap Machine™. Second, in a discussion of books in which “the characters just happen to be African American” an African American colleague said to me “nobody in this country ‘just happens’ to be black.” We need to continue talking about both those things.”
It can be tricky asking people to think of ways to identify characters without defaulting to race. Head over to The Horn Book to see what others had to say. Is it necessary to identify ethnicity in that word count as opposed to talking about the strengths and/or weaknesses of the book… Especially in picture books where we can see the characters for ourselves?
I hope the thought and conversation on this issue continues. I am grateful to Roger for sharing my thoughts and am reminded that people do actually pay attention to my random musings! (I’m shy).