Christopher Myers’ essay in the Horn Book is so splendid it is difficult to pick out one short quotation. I urge you to read the whole piece…
There is some idea that the percentage of books featuring children of color ought to reflect the percentage of children of color in the country. One hears echoes of this idea in all of the “mirroring, reflecting” rhetoric that pervades discussions of literature for young people. From the countless literacy programs that tout the “one good book” notion of creating lifelong readers to the endless anecdotes of authors, illustrators, and readers who identify this or that book in which “they saw themselves for the first time.” While these narratives are often true and heart-warming in their way, this shock of recognition, I think, misses the major point of literature. Literature is a place for imagination and intellect, for stretching the boundaries of our own narrow lives, for contextualizing the facts of our nonfictions within constellations of understanding that we would not be able to experience from the ground, for bringing our dreams and fictions into detail, clarity, and focus. Books allow us a bird’s-eye view of our own lives, and especially how our lives relate to those lives around us.
Part of me would like to make an individual book for each and every child I come across, draw careful sweet portraits of all the Trayvons, Sams, Chitras, Sheilas, and Sadias. But I am less interested in that simple mirroring than in making stories that define the kinds of communities in which those children will grow up. The dual impulse and constant stress of our industry is this tension between the way our work shapes culture, our innovation and imagination, and the way it reflects culture, our inclusion in the amorphous and ever-blameworthy scapegoat that is “the market.” As important as that shock of recognition may be to a child of color, I believe that creating an understanding of what a diverse society ought to look like for all children is more important. I want the kids who read my books to have a framework with which to understand the people they might meet, or even the people that they are becoming. I want the children who see my books to see an encounter with the other as an opportunity, not a threat.
The rhetoric of the trial hinged on precisely this question: whether or not this young black boy, with his bag of candy and his iced tea and his sweatshirt, was a threat. Here is also where I see my responsibility. Although it is unfair, and although it comes with an intricate history, I have the opportunity with every book I make to write this boy as even less a threat than he already isn’t. I get to do in a very public way, that which I do personally every day.
Years ago I stopped wearing hoodies. I found that particular article of clothing would often run me afoul of authorities and had women in elevators clutching their purses ever tighter. But I have found that even when I am not wearing this supposedly threatening piece of clothing, I still wear it metaphorically. My speech, my bearing — so much of it is calculated to direct others’ expectations of me, the associations that come from my race, my metaphorical hoodie. Every meeting with a publisher or media person in which I surprise them with my knowledge of ballet, Vietnamese history, classical mythology, international development, or semiotic theory (topics that I suppose I am not expected to know); every “surprise” of my own identity serves to take that metaphorical hoodie off.