What Happened to the Black Kids?
Have you ever noticed that there are almost no fantasy adventure books for children and young adults with Black characters in them? What happened to all the Black kids? Where are the Black heroes and heroines? Think about it. There are many excellent novels for young people with Black characters; however, they are almost all realistic stories that take place at the time the book was written or during a former, historic time period.
Scarred by centuries of invisibility and false information in nonfiction and negative portrayals in fiction, it is no wonder that writers from the Black community take full advantage of the novel format to teach the truth about the cultural context, experiences, and contributions of Black Americans. That’s all good, but we are living in the Harry Potter era.
Youth in the Harry Potter Era have a serious “Jones” for the fantasy adventure novel. The voice of possibility in this genre speaks to the need for something new and different to stimulate the mind and set the endorphins dancing. Like the better complex fantasy realms opening up in gaming and computer-generated worlds, the fantasy adventure book challenges the imagination and offers the adrenalin-rush experience of navigating an uncharted land. Black youngsters yearn to see themselves portrayed in these books for the same reasons they yearn to see themselves portrayed in other books. They want to recognize themselves in characters they, and others, grow to love. They want to see characters who look like them and hear characters who talk like them. More than that, it is imperative that they see Black culture and Black values advanced in the culture-at-large in a positive light. Black children need to observe children from other cultural backgrounds reading and appreciating books that take place within Black culture. It is a matter of pride. It is a matter of education. It is a matter of self-esteem. It is a matter of motivating youngsters to read. It is a matter of positive social change and a matter of justice.
I loved fantasy adventure stories as a child and I still love them as an adult. I have read these books aloud to my stepsons and my three children while they were growing up, spending many a thrilling hour adventuring together late in the evening, before relinquishing the day. Because my two stepsons, my daughter, and my two sons are Black, I have especially sought quality children’s and young adult books with Black characters. But I have not found many Black characters in fantasy adventure books.
Usually I see the tried-and-true typical Anglo-Saxon settings, characters, and imagery. Elves, giants, and dwarves. Runes, rings, and castles. Knights, ladies, and dragons. Children at English boarding schools. This stuff is not necessarily bad, in fact it describes some of my favorite children’s fantasy stories. But it’s not Black and it’s not, well, different. I recently put a query out to the listserve of the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). The subscribers on this listserve are mostly school librarians and public library children’s room librarians from everywhere in the country. They are some of the most knowledgeable and resourceful folks you would ever meet and they really know children’s literature. I asked them for titles of fantasy adventures with Black characters. Emails trickled in to me for days. But the same few titles appeared again and again, most notably Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm (which, by-the-way, is an excellent read). All told, they came up with about a dozen titles, and some were not exactly in the zone (like Ursula LeGuin’s The Wizard of Earthsea, in which Ged is described as dark but is not specifically Black).
You can see why I wrote my own children’s fantasy adventure with all Black characters in it. This gave me the opportunity to place the story squarely in the context of Black culture. For instance, the book utilizes the classic African motif of little creatures finding a clever way to overcome the mighty, as in the tradition of Anansi the Spider and Brer Rabbit. It builds on the bedrock of “what goes around comes around” by emphasizing the values of compassion and respect for others. The wise woman is called the “griot,” the natural environment provides necessary answers when approached with care, and young people simply do not disrespect their elders. Music solves more than one problem and, in fact, music (and drumming) could perhaps qualify as a full-fledged character in this book. Hair gets braided, buzzed, and twisted. The color black is not associated with evil (sigh of relief on that score). Royalty is brown-skinned. The book’s climax is far more than a mere nod at Dr. King as it demonstrates the fundamental principles of nonviolent protest. The children’s charismatic clever parrot is named Bayard Rustin. Readers are treated to a few choice “Motown moments.” And the young protagonists uncover the truth about their absent father, changing forever the way they have thought of him. By-the-way, no one in the book eats fried chicken or watermelon.
Until I published The Call to Shakabaz, I confess that I did not fully realize the enormous void (truly a “black hole”) I was stepping into by writing a children’s fantasy book with Black characters. Now that I do, I am calling out in all directions with the message that we need more of these books. Our Black children need them and all our children need them. When my friend Phyllis read the book aloud to her fifth-graders, she told me she could see the brown-skinned children sit up straighter in their chairs, their eyes shining and their ears perked with a new attentiveness when the protagonists were described in the first chapter as having brown skin, brown eyes, full lips, and African-style hair. Now that’s what I’m talking about. I hope that as the golden age of fantasy adventure continues to unfurl, we will have the opportunity to journey in other realms with more and more Black folks leading the way.