The Evolving Role of Race in Children’s Lit, From ‘Harry Potter’ to ‘The Hate U Give’

Most people can recall a book that changed their life. For Ebony Elizabeth Thomas—as for many people who came of age in the 1990s and early 2000s—it was the Harry Potter series.

Thomas, now a professor in the Literacy, Culture and International Education division of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, was a 5th grade teacher in Detroit when she first opened a Harry Potter book. Like so many millions of readers before and after her, she was drawn into the novels almost instantly. But for her, the turning point came when she read a sentence in one of the early books that started with four simple words: “A tall black girl.” This new character, Angelina Johnson, would go on to become captain of the Gryffindor quidditch team—a big deal in the wizarding world.

“I was thrilled—and I was in my early 20s when I first read those words,” Thomas says. “But it just goes to show that by age 22, I had not read a popular fantasy with a character that looked like me. There wasn’t the sea of materials that there were for my friends who were white.”

Hungry for more examples of well-developed, stereotype-defying black protagonists, Thomas went to graduate school and became a researcher and critic of children’s literature, focusing on how people of color are portrayed in books intended for younger audiences.

This week on the EdSurge On Air podcast, Thomas describes her desire at a young age to read books about detectives and superheroes of color, but finding instead only stories about those who were enslaved, marching for civil rights or living in ghettos. She speaks candidly about how the depiction of diverse characters in children’s literature has evolved since the early 20th century, how far it’s come since she was growing up and how far it still has to go.

Listen to the podcast episode here. You can follow the podcast series on the Apple Podcast appSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: So, as someone who now studies the role of race and class and culture, when you think back at your own experience as a child reader, did you ever think about how those characters related to you, and whether they were characters that you could see yourself in?

Ebony Thomas: Definitely. So I have begun theorizing my experience as a child reader in my forthcoming book, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. So I don’t begin the book with Harry Potter because I was in my late teens and very early 20s when J.K. Rowling first began publishing those books. I grew up during the 1980s, so I read quite different literature. I feel as if there was always a rebellion in my soul. So unlike the generation before me and every generation before mine, I had some African American children’s literature to read. However, most of the African American children’s literature that my generation had was like eating our vegetables.

Thinking about the black child characters in those stories. They were meant to teach us something, to teach us about our glorious past and the fact that we had come so very far as a people. These narratives were all about racial uplift. So they would be about slavery and freedom. The characters would be enslaved. They would be about overcoming racism during Jim Crow and the civil rights era. Or, more rarely, they were, “This is what it’s like to live in the ghetto.”

So those were the only three kinds of black characters that you tended to find in stories as protagonists. But when I was younger, it just felt like I was doubling up on history lessons. I wanted to read about fairytales and science fiction and fantasy. I wanted fun reads. It’s not necessarily fun to have to be confronted with racism, whether or not it’s in the past or the present, as a child. And unfortunately, a lot of those early books, that was all we had.

Now you do need those stories. All kids need all kinds of stories. You do need stories that are historical in nature and reflect our contemporary reality. But we also need stories that are meant to foster the imagination, that are to stretch our sense of what is possible. And I argue in my forthcoming book, The Dark Fantastic, that only some kids get all kinds of stories. The rest of us don’t get that. We exist for a purpose in children’s literature, we don’t just exist.

So would you say, then, that almost a measure of our progress in terms of representing diversity in literature is how much they involve fantasy and imaginative stories?

I think so, but I also argue that we need to figure out what is actually happening to the black character in the fairytale or in a fantasy or science fiction novel because sometimes we’re present, but bad things happen to us.

So I traced the story of four black girl protagonists in The Dark Fantastic. So these are stories where we are present as one of a cast or an ensemble of characters, which is very common in speculative fiction. But for some strange reason, even when that black girl character is meant to be sympathetic, strange things happen to her. And I traced that journey that the black girl character takes from page to the screen. So I look at Rue from The Hunger Games, Angelina Johnson from the Harry Potter series, Gwen from the BBC’s adaptation of Merlin, and Bonnie Bennett from the CW series, The Vampire Diaries.

You were talking about growing up in the ‘80s and the kind of literature that was available then. How do you compare that to what it looks like today? Is this something that has improved over time? Are we at least tracking in the right direction?

We have pivoted towards the right direction. I mean, sometimes I’ll say, ‘Oh, we’ve made such progress.’ I tend to be on the optimistic side and perhaps the more liberal, moderate side.

I’m critical, but some of my colleagues believe that children’s literature really hasn’t done enough—and that as a matter of fact, what they’ve done is more insidious. They have only done so much so that we’ll be quiet. So it’s like painting lipstick on a pig. I actually do think that we’re starting to pivot just because of demography. I mean the demographics of where children and teens are going in the United States means that very, very soon the vast majority of kids in the country are not going to reflect what kids look like in literature and media. And so that disconnect means that many of those kids are going to begin to disengage. And as we’ve seen with the generations after mine, the Millennials and especially Generation Z, they are demanding more.

I didn’t even know that you could demand more, because I grew up entirely before the Internet. I was born in the late seventies. And so I didn’t get an email address until I was a sophomore in undergrad. And there was no way for me to say, well, you know, it kinda stinks that in most books I’m a slave or I am marching for civil rights. Both of those are part of my heritage, but I don’t think that that should determine whether or not I could see myself as a magician or detective or a superhero.

But as a kid, there was nothing around me to even point toward what I had been longing for.

Why do you think that is? And do you have ideas for how we can begin to move the needle or maybe just move the needle faster on that?

Well, I think part of the problem is that the history of publishing in the West, so not just children’s literature, but the very history of publishing and media and advertising and representation in the West has been extremely and incredibly racist from its inception. Publishing was a primary means by which negative information, stereotypes and other controlling ideas were spread to each successive generation.

If you look at children’s literature published before the civil rights movement, most of the time when a black child character appears, he or she or they are a caricature. So they are not an actual representation of a black child. And the more popular the narrative, often the more skewed that character tends to be. So one of the most popular stories from the early 20th century that is still being published today is Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo.

And so what happened in children’s literature that’s quite unfortunate is that you began with racist images and stereotypes from the period of Atlantic slavery, the period immediately after where there was backlash against emancipation and manumission and then that brings us to the very early 20th century. You have generations upon generations of people who grew up seeing everything from Little Black Sambo to the golliwog figure to the mammy figure in children’s literature and in the very earliest cartoons.

So if you look at early Bugs Bunny and if you look at early Mickey Mouse, there are some incredibly racist stereotypes there. So you have that generation that grew up around the turn of the 20th century. But then you move forward, and then you have a generation of children’s writers who grew up reading those books. Those are the only representations of people of color that they had. So then you have Dr. Seuss, who early on was really problematic in his depictions of race, but then evolved and grew over the course of his lifetime. You have Roald Dahl, where the Oompa-Loompas were originally meant to be African pygmies because they grew up on very colonialist, racist children’s literature. And then our generation, so late boomers, Generation X, early Millennials, re-read Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl growing up.

So do you see how the first step in changing things is not saying, “OK, let’s paper it over and put diverse books out on the shelves and in kids’ hands.” I think we have to understand how representations of children have been passed from one generation to the next, examine them, and then interrupt that cycle, so that going forward we’re very cautious.

It’s not to be afraid. So sometimes people think we diversity advocates, we want you to be afraid about what you write about people of color or indigenous folks or lesbian and gay or trans kids, you know, ‘Ooh, be very careful.’ But that is not really it.

What we want people to do is to be thoughtful about the fact that you only know what you have learned and then experience throughout your lifetime. And so, therefore, if you’re writing about experiences outside of your own, it would behoove you to be mindful and thoughtful about how you’re representing people. And to assume that you, like I, have been unconsciously absorbing some very problematic stereotypes from our earliest memories, from the earliest times in our lives. And that’s not because we’re bad people, but that’s because we live in the world that we live in.

Each year you publish a list of recommended titles for young readers, and these span from picture books to young adult fiction to comics and graphic novels. Could you share some books from the last few years that really stand out?

One phenomenon that I have watched over the past few years is Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, from the time she was querying agents four or five years ago as a would-be author to her finding an agent, finding a publisher, and then remaining on The New York Times bestseller list.

So one of the things that doesn’t get said in Angie’s phenomenal story is that where she began was as the We Need Diverse Books coalition‘s first grant recipient. It was a wonderful story, but I must admit to you that 10 years ago it couldn’t get published.

So now with the advocacy around diverse books over the past five years, yes, we see that not only can a story like that about Black Lives Matter, about activism, in the South, we have this phenomenal runaway success story in The Hate U Give. And now her second book is out, On The Come Up, and I’ve read it. I love it. I think that she’s a spectacular addition to children’s and young adult literature.

If you look at the past five years, there has been a pivot in the right direction because we are getting some phenomenal indigenous and authors of color. Another debut author whose work I love is Ibi Zoboi. She has three books out now. So in 2017, her debut novel American Street was a finalist for the National Book Award. And since then she’s come out with two more books: Pride, which was a hip hop retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and Black Enough, which is an anthology that collects stories from some very exciting authors of African descent.

Beyond black children’s and young adult literature, which is my area of focus and specialty, other amazing authors whose work I’ve enjoyed include Sayantani DasGupta, who wrote The Serpent’s Secret series and is a sociology professor at a university in New York. But this is an amazing South Asian fantasy story for middle grades. So that was the kind of story that I would have loved reading as a seventh grader. And then, of course, we have Elizabeth Acevedo‘s The Poet X, which is just incredible. She just won the National Book Award and the Printz Award for her novel.

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