Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Multi-ethnic characters in children's and YA novels

courtesy microsoft office

Jacqueline Woodson’s beautiful If You Come Softly, the novel we have been reading together here at 3 Sisters Village this October, is a modern day interpretation of Shakespeare’s most famous play, a romance between an African American Romeo and a white Jewish Juliet. Simultaneously, it is an exploration of race and racism in modern day U.S. society.  (see previous posts here and here for further discussion of issues of race and representation in the novel)

At first glance, this set up -- of Black and White ‘star crossed lovers’ -- suggests a country whose racial profile is necessarily one of fixed, distinct categories. People who are Black or White, this or that.  Yet, as a country whose very President is multi- and not mono-ethnic, modern day America is increasingly a place of multiple ethnic heritages rather than singular ones.

In Woodson’s novel, it is the character of Carlton, Jeremiah’s Mercutio, who represents multi-ethnic identity. Carlton’s mother is white and father is Black, and he is the one to whom Jeremiah turns when he realizes he is falling in love with Ellie. Carlton is, in a sense, the moral touchstone to Jeremiah and Ellie’s romance, who realizes that interracial relationships “happen” and “ain’t the worst thing in the world.” (89) And although he’s a minor character, without him, the novel would suffer from a sense of racial anachronism. Carlton’s presence reminds the reader that multi-ethnic families and multi-ethnic characters are a reality in our vibrant society. And while couples like Jeremiah and Ellie may still face racist challenges from family, friends, and even strangers, they are no longer a complete anomaly in our ever-shrinking world.

And now that I’ve been looking around, I’m realizing that multi-ethnic characters are popping up everywhere in children’s and YA literature. So I thought that I would suggest a few other titles with multi-ethnic characters and call out to you, the readers, to share with us some of your favorites.

In Veera Hiranandani’s The Whole Story of Half a Girl, the primary character is Sonia Nadhamuni, a half Indian and half Jewish American girl. As the title suggests, this novel deals with multi-ethnic identity in a fairly explicit way.

Yet, in other YA novels, such as The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin, characters simply ‘happen to be’ multi-ethnic,

To read the rest of this essay, please visit 3 Sisters Village!

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