After the world lost Toni Morrison in August, the Twitterverse circulated several of her quotes, including this one: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
The day I heard of her passing, I posted it myself on Instagram. It’s the Toni-ism that has most deeply influenced my own writing career, as well as many other authors of color.
Why are we still invisible?
As a child, I read voraciously but always from the sidelines. I rarely found books with Arab girls in their pages, nothing authentic to balance the silent, victimized, exoticized depiction of Arab women in the media. The protagonists in my favorite books, like The Babysitter’s Club or Sweet Valley High, didn’t reflect me at all.
Recently, when my daughter wished for books featuring Arab girls, I wondered, Why are we still invisible? In response, I began writing a chapter book series called Farah Rocks, launching in January.
I created the Palestinian American protagonist, named Farah (meaning joy), for my girl.
But, if I’m being totally honest? I also created her for myself.
In 2019, books that feature non-white children remain scarce. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), “publishing for children and teens has a long way to go before reflecting the rich diversity of perspectives and experiences within and across race and culture.”
They are correcting an oversight that once affected them as children.
As a child, Tiffany Jackson, whose YA novels include Allegedly and Monday’s Not Coming, didn’t see many books that mirrored her life: “There were books for black women, but those concerns were not mine. There were no black girl books that reflected me, at that time in my life.”
But change is coming: Jackson and many women of color have authored children’s or YA books that seem to have been written for their younger selves. In this way, they are correcting an oversight in the publishing industry that once affected them as children.
Nikki Shannon Smith’s series, The Amazing Life of Azaleah Lane, stars an eight-year-old African American amateur sleuth. While she hopes all children can relate to her work, Smith adds, “I absolutely write so that black children can see themselves in books.” The first book Smith recalls reading as a child that depicted families like her own was Black Is Brown Is Tan by Arnold Adoff. “When I had my own children,” she recalls, “it was one of the first books I bought for them.”
They’re ensuring a new generation doesn’t experience the lack of representation they themselves felt as children.
Vong Bidania, an Asian American and author of the forthcoming Astrid and Apollo series, recalls a similar milestone. Her favorite childhood book was Of Nightingales That Weep by Katherine Paterson because “this was the only book I saw in the library that had a character who looked like me.” She cherished the book and checked it out frequently.
While some of these authors didn’t intend to write for their younger selves, they came to understand that they were ensuring a new generation didn’t experience the lack of representation they themselves felt as children.
Alicia Williams’ powerful novel, Genesis Begins Again, features a 13-year-old girl who keeps a list of things she hates about herself, including her dark skin. A painful topic, colorism includes more than hair texture and skin and eye color. “It’s the general feeling of being ‘not pretty enough’. As I wrote the novel, it became more personal,” she recalls.
So personal, in fact, that she abandoned the project until an encounter with a young African American girl, struggling with colorism, encouraged her to revisit it. “I needed young people to see this story. To know that they are lovable.”
As a child, Hilda E. Burgos rarely saw Latina characters in books, but she envisioned that her favorites, such as Little Women, were really about her sisters and herself. “When I look back now, I feel both glad that I was able to use my imagination like that, and sad that I had to.” When writing her debut novel, Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle, Burgos worried about its reception: “I didn’t know how many people would be interested in reading about a nerdy Dominican American girl from Washington Heights,” she explains, “but it never occurred to me to write about anyone else.”
“It never occurred to me to write about anyone else.”
In a stunning example of the consequences of erasing native people in literature, the daughter of author Andrea L. Rogers was told by her kindergarten classmates, “You can’t be Indian. All the Indians are dead.” While Rogers, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, writes stories about modern Cherokee life, her debut novel is actually a historical one: Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Story. “It wasn’t fun or easy,” she admits. “It was difficult and traumatic. These are my people. I would not be here if my ancestors hadn’t survived this stage of genocide. I felt it was imperative to tell it as accurately as I could.”
Indeed, writing with children of color in mind has additional challenges.
Many writers discuss feeling stressed about the potential of misrepresenting their communities. Providing a cultural context, without being didactic, is also important, notes Erika Wurth, an Apache/Chickasaw and Cherokee writer whose YA novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, is being reissued next year. “I noticed my niece and my step kids often shy away from Indian material,” she says, “because they feel like it’s a lesson. And you really kill the joy when you write that way, and I want young people to see a reflection of themselves – one that is joyful.”
And yet, when it’s done well, the payoff to readers is palpable. According to Burgos, “It’s fabulous to go to book events and meet children who see themselves in my book.”
And Bidania reminds us, “People don’t realize how deeply no representation in books and stories can affect a child’s feelings of self-worth.”
Jackson’s newest, Let Me Hear a Rhyme, will be published in May. “I’m always going to write toward black girls,” she says. “There are not enough black girlhood stories. The teenage years are an eternity, and I have enough stories to fill eternity.”
Sign up for The Tempest newsletter. Once a week, we’ll send you exclusive stories and scoops exploring who we are, what we do, and why it all matters.