I thought I would share some of my experiences as an illustrator relating to ethnicity in children's books. I grew up in a white suburban neighborhood just north of our nations capital in Maryland. I always identified myself as white even though my grandmother on my mother's side has native indian blood in her ancestry and my mom is suspected of having an african american father. It wasn't until I was in college that my mom felt comfortable sharing that as a child she wasn't able to attend the white schools because she couldn't "pass" - a term meaning you were classified as having a mixed-race heritage.
Even though I have color in my heritage I always identified myself as white. I did identify with the books I was presented with so I really can not relate to what Walter experienced at an early age. I do believe however that the reason we don't see more color in children's books is quite simply that more white children have been privileged to go to college in the past decades. I would think most children's book illustrators are white and illustrate from their own experiences. It's more natural for me to illustrate white children because that's how I grew up and what I'm most familiar with. I would also probably be a last choice for a book about a specifically black family. I don't think it's a coincidence that Kadir Nelson and Don Tate are given these assignments regularly. I know they bring a sensibility to the art that I'm sure neither I nor other white illustrators could match.
At the beginning of my illustration career I was unfamiliar with the various cultural differences when asked to illustrate children and adults of color. This is not to say that I didn't want to include them in my illustrations - just that it felt like I was entering unfamiliar territory. The problem for me wasn't being asked to include asian, hispanic, and african ethnicities in my illustrations - it was what roles to give each character. I continually ran into problems in many of my assignments where one character was perhaps nefarious, laboring, or doing something less heroic. In trying to cast the illustration I knew it would be a problem to give a character of color one of these lesser roles - it would have to be a white person as to avoid offending the art director, editor, and ultimately the readers. But this in itself created a problem - why did my race always have to be the one on the bottom? That didn't feel right either. Keep in mind I write this at the risk of being labeled a racist.
I once worked on an assignment for a prominent magazine that shall remain nameless. The assignment was to show "teamwork". I was asked to illustrate 4 people lifting boxes and stacking them with a manager directing traffic. Each person had to be a different ethnicity: black, white, hispanic, and asian. My goal was to come up with a pleasing arrangement that communicated "teamwork" while giving each person a good role. I placed a white person handing a box to an asian person handing the boxes to a hispanic person at the top stacking them and a black person pointing and showing where the boxes were to go.
I had a conference call scheduled with the art director, creative director, editor, and a few other people. When they saw my sketch they began to argue some saying that the black person looked lazy since he wasn't helping lift. I offered that I had purposely put him in a position of management. They resumed their argument that he still looked lazy - some defending my decision and others thinking we needed to make a change. They then suggested that I switch the black person with the asian person so that the black person wouldn't look lazy.
Now you can hate me for this next part but if you know me you know I'm a kidder and that I like to stir things up a bit. So knowing exactly what I was doing I decided to have a little fun with their new solution. I said, "Ok, but won't this new set up look like the asian is smarter than everyone and that the black person is just a laborer? I wish I could have recorded the rest of the turmoil - entertaining to say the least. They finally went with my original sketch.
The truth in my opinion is that when you try to make things fair in this way you end up far from fair. It's not any fairer to put the white guy on the bottom as it is to put the black guy on the bottom. The truth is that in some stories you have children in situations that put some in a better light than others. If you try to cherry pick the races to avoid offending certain groups you'll just offend another group.
For many stories that are NOT specific to ethnicity you can simply substitute animal characters. Animals are void of race and gender depending on how you draw them. It makes life so much easier and you can create characters and meaningful stories that children can relate to without the burden of race and gender. I do understand however that some stories might be specific to historical, racial, gender and other specific details that can't be replaced with animal characters.
This is the reason that my story apps have animal characters - I don't have to play the race game. I'm sure there will be certain groups of animals that will have a bone to pick with me someday but I'll take my chances.
A pull out from Walter's article states: "Too often today's books are blind to the reality of thousands of children." I disagree with this assessment. I see it as a reflection of the number of illustrators who like authors, feel compelled (and are taught) to illustrate from experience. I suppose we could also venture into the breakdown of the numbers of white/black/asian/hispanic buyers of children's books as well - which I would suspect mainly come from white America.
The publishing world is fueled by the dollar. The analysts at the large publishing houses know their markets inside and out and are constantly second guessing every decision based on money. So I would suspect that another reason we don't see more ethnic childrens books is because they don't think they can sell as many of them as they can books with white child characters.
I appreciate the problem Walter experienced but I don't agree that publishing is blind to ethnicity - Lee & Low books have targeted this market focusing on diversity. I'm sure that if they grow disproportionately the other publishers will follow suit.
I'd love to know what you think...