Posted by: annmariegamble | August 4, 2009

Reading about People Who Look Like Me

You may be aware of the controversy around the cover of Justine Larbalestier’s book Liar: the American edition of the book has a picture of a white girl on the cover, even though the narrator of the book is black. The first publisher rationalization for the decision was that the character tells lies, and maybe this is one of them. But her race was never up for grabs in the author’s mind, and indeed readers of copies that don’t have this cover don’t question the character’s race.

Reading together

reading together

The second rationalization Larbalestier got was that books about black people just don’t sell: they’re ghettoized in bookstores and people buy books about people who look like them. This, of course, is a chicken or egg argument, and at Follow the Reader Charlotte Abbott talks more about the chicken’s—excuse me, publishers’ role in the equation. She also lists some great resources if you’re looking to broaden your own reading horizons.

It’s an old argument with many permutations. This time, though, I left the realm of marketing and race theory in my reaction. Both Larbalestier and Abbott mention how excluded children feel when they look at a bookshelf and see anybody but them. And this is what pains my heart about the situation: how a potentially enriching opportunity—access to books—instead turns into another smackdown.

When I was in middle school in a small-town, mostly white, mostly middle-class district, there was starting to be sensitivity to the issue, and English classes assigned urban realist novels that in my memory were all written by S. E. Hinton and revolved around the main character being pressured to join a gang.

I hated these books. Their premise would have been expanding my world, but my antennae were quivering about a different aspect. To my cusp-of-adolescent self, the moral burbling underneath the tough life on the streets of these stories was pronounced by an adult wagging a finger. Threaded through the hip talk, the message was “stay in school” or “don’t join gangs.”

The argument I made to adults—junior high is not too young to pander—was that we should be reading classics. To kids I complained about how grim they were. The books I liked to read were not without tragedy or moral, however. There was a good helping of dead parents or potential to be trapped in your brother’s mitochondria. But the morals seemed more general, rules that could apply throughout life rather than statements that adults cooked up to control children. “What’s inside counts more than your appearance,” the children in Diamond in the Window discover, and I repeat it to myself when I see the gray hairs no longer hidden by hair dye.

I remember also looking for books that were going to take me away from middle school in the Midwest, and perhaps that was another thing that annoyed me about the English curriculum: it wasn’t taking me far enough. Reading about kids who didn’t fit in at school, whose adults were alive but clueless, hit a little too close to home, and The Outsiders didn’t have a wizard teaching them how to defend themselves. Maybe I would have been cranky whatever the assignment.

But I do know that I got a lot from the reading I did. The Thoreau-quoting uncles, the Munchkins, and maybe even the gang members were a huge part of how I arrived at self-confidence about being myself, and I want all children to have this confidence. To empower a kid could be as cheap as a paperback.

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Responses

  1. Interesting facts: S. E. Hinton was a teenager when she wrote The Outsiders. The publisher decided to use her initials so nobody would know it was written by a female.

    I only just read it this past year & didn’t find it preachy at all. I was impressed with the love and compassion the members of “the gang” possess for each other & the growing up aspect of learning to see that the world isn’t necessarily an “us and them” place, but is filled with a lot more nuance.

    I wonder if the difference in our reactions is due in part to the impetus behind the reading. Book handed to out by an authority figure, possibly one with his/her own wagging finger vs. book suggested by enthusiastic teenaged daughter who loves it and wants to share something she loves.

    Hmmm…I think I feel my own blog post coming on. Thanks for being thought provoking.

    • Author initials: another [some group] won’t read books written by [some other group]. I don’t know that I factor this in when I’m making choices, but I’m not exactly a bellwether.

      I totally agree that part of my reaction to Hinton was due to the fact that the reading was assigned: my attitude toward the messenger warped my interpretation of the message. It’s good I didn’t read too many classics until I grew out of it. But in the meantime I feel another blog post brewing, “Wrecking Faulkner.”


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