Race Reflections, Take II
Fast forward to 2012 and my friend and mentor is listening to Rot & Ruin on audio as she drives back and forth to her library job, largely because she got sick of me saying you gotta read this book you just gotta. So she’s listening to it (and liking it) and one day she calls me and we’re talking about it. We’re both Supernatural fans and I say to her, “Don’t you think Jensen Ackles would be perfectly cast in the role of Tom.” To which she sagely replies, why yes, perfect casting (I told you she was wise). But then a few days later we’re talking and she is all, “Jensen can’t play the part of Tom.” Gasp! How dare she?
It turns out that the character of Tom Imura is described as being Japanese. I honestly didn’t recall that fact and in truth, it is in many ways an irrelevant fact. You see, sometimes race matters in a story. Take, for example, If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson. This is the story of a young Jewish girl who falls in love with an African American boy and the struggles that come from being in a mixed race relationship in a world with deeply entrenched prejudices against each of the cultures. In this story, race matters.
In Rot & Ruin, race doesn’t matter. No, what matters is whether you are dead or undead. But, here is the genius of it, it is important for teens to read books about people outside their race where, in fact, race doesn’t matter. And it is important for Japanese American teens to read stories where race doesn’t matter. And it is important for African American teens to read stories where race doesn’t matter. As Stephanie mentioned earlier this week, not all African American stories need to be about inner city life, drugs and teenage pregnancy because this does not reflect the life of all African American kids.
But, more importantly, if we want to continue to break down racial barriers in our culture than we must read and see positive portraits of people of different cultures and beliefs where those very cultures and beliefs don’t matter one single bit – where they are in fact the norm and it’s just no big deal.
I feel the same way about GLBTQ lit. It seems like every book I have read in the past was about a teenager trying to determine if he/she was or wasn’t gay and the great, huge issue that was and how friends and family reacted to them. But lately I have noticed that in some of the teen fiction I have been reading there are gay and lesbian characters, normally supporting characters, who are already out as gay or lesbian and are pretty comfortable with it as are their families and friends. This is important because teens need to know that you can get to a place where your friends and family love and accept you for who you are. It doesn’t always have to be about “the struggle”; when every book out there depicts the struggle it gives the message that this is how it always is and is always going to be, but that is not true for all families and that needs to be reflected in the literature.
Now, if you spend anytime reading around the Internet you know that many people were very upset when they went and saw the Hunger Games movie and realized that Rue was in fact African American. I personally thought this was very clear in the books and, more importantly, it was not an issue. The Hunger Games is not a book about race, no it is a book that examines the violence that comes about from class warfare. In many ways it is a look at the current struggle between the 1% and the 99%, although that terminology wasn’t the vernacular at the time, and this struggle is of course both an age old and universal struggle. The brilliance of Collins is that she took the struggle and mixed it with some reality TV and exaggerated it just enough that we could talk about it without feeling the withering glare of judgment upon ourselves. So in the Hunger Games it didn’t matter that Katniss was white and Rue was black; no, it mattered that Katniss and Rue had the severe misfortune of being born to parents in their various districts and they had a common enemy in the capitol. So the fact that movie viewers would react the way that they did was heartbreaking as they missed the important message of both the books and the movie – and this shows how much race is in fact an issue for many people still today.
When authors write and we read stories with a diverse cast of characters where that diversity is not an issue, we begin to realize that it doesn’t have to be. I grew up in Southern California and to be honest, as a child issues of race never occurred to me. I loved the people I loved and one of my first shared elementary school crushes was on the singer Prince with my best friend Kumi. We sat around for hours watching Purple Rain and listening to the album and mooning over Prince. We also sat around for hours listening to Duran Duran and listening to their music. There were no barriers for us; we were at “that age” and that’s just what we did – lusted after pop stars.
So here is what I would like to see more of in teen fiction . . .
I recently read Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery and in it our main character has a Muslim friend which is basically a non-issue. There are some discussions about faith differences when it comes to dating people outside the Muslim faith, but in terms of their friendship it is just a complete non-issue.
There have been numerous articles written about book covers and race in ya lit so google them, they are interesting and heartbreaking.
I work in a branch library where probably 80% of our service population is African American, but we are definitely not inner city. These teens are coming in after school, more often than not, with parents who are engaging with them as they look at and select books to read. It is actually the first time I have worked at a library with such engaged parents and the difference is not race but economics I believe.
For those teens who are in fact struggling with issues of sexual identity, because I think for a lot of people the teenage years are in fact when this happens, to be able to read stories where they see that it does in fact get better and it doesn’t always have to be about the struggle. We need stories where we are passed the struggle and a teen has found a way to be comfortable in their own skin.
As for me and Rot & Ruin – well I think as I was reading and saw the character traits of Tom a picture began to form of him in my mind and in that picture, Jensen Ackles was the actor who seemed best able to fully embody those character traits. It didn’t matter to me as a reader that the character was not white because it didn’t matter to the story. It probably helps a lot that I am a huge Jensen Ackles fan, he does the whole range from comedy to broody pathos well. But as a librarian, I love that he wrote a story with a non-white main character where it didn’t matter that he wasn’t white. These are exactly the kinds of stories we need more of.
As a Christian and a member of the human race, I believe that love should be our guiding principle and reading is a phenomenal tool to help make that happen. So let’s write and read stories that help make that happen and get them into the hands of our teens.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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