Black & White & Read All Over or, What’s the Deal With Racism in Fantasy Books?

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A couple of things happened:
1) Henry Louis Gates was arrested
2) A reader wrote in to me and asked if I could recommend a book for her friend’s daughter, a 13-year-old Harry Potter fan, who is black. She also liked the Earthsea cycle. She hoped I could come up with a fantasy book that had a black character.
3) Jezebel posted about a YA book, published by Bloomsbury, in which the main character was black but they wouldn’t let the image of the girl on the cover be black, because “black covers don’t sell.”

So here I am thinking, what’s a reader to do? I’ve been thinking about the book for the Potter fan, and the only thing that has so far come to mind has been Octavia Butler, whose books are not for children (though would a 13-y-o be into them for exactly that reason? Probably). I did ask Diana, and she was able to come up with 1) The Circle of Magic series by Tamora Pierce, which has one of the four main magical characters being black and 2) W.I.T.C.H. with a similar set up.
But the fact that I didn't know of any, and when we worked on it there were really only two series, is disturbing. For early readers, for picture books, publishing seems (from the outside, anyway) to have opened up: there are amazing and excellent books that include many colors of people. But as the children get older, the field seems to thin. And while many excellent books have a “black friend,” far fewer have a black hero/ine. And fewer even, of these, are magical fantasy books. Realistic fiction seems to have a better handle on it. But fantasy? I'm not seeing it. And the covers don't help. Diana pointed out that the Wizard of Earthsea books, excellent as they are, often have an image of Ged on the cover, and they always show him as a white person. Take a look at him there at the top. But the book says he was the color of dirt. White? I don't think so.
But this must be, at least in part, because I am not reading the right ones. Right?  Tell me, everyone: what should I tell this reader? What should I tell my kids? What can we do to force the world of publishing to open itself up to the world outside, and make both of them stronger, better, and more alive?

19 thoughts on “Black & White & Read All Over or, What’s the Deal With Racism in Fantasy Books?

  1. As I scoured our shelves this morning seeking an answer, I found myself sadly agreeing with you. Most stories featuring African American heroines seem to be set in the era of slavery.
    One that is not, but still has whiffs of it, is “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy” by Gary Schmidt.
    Its a lovely book, but the friendship between the two children is described as “forbidden.” (sigh)
    It saddens me to think of how very far we all still have to go.

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  2. My first thought was The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, but despite its imaginative elements it’s really not a fantasy book.
    I’m looking over my very comprehensive YA fantasy collection and coming up with a whole lot of disappointment. Sad.

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  3. Interesting conundrum with youth fantasy literature characters. I wonder if there are many black fantasy authors? I think authors tend to use people they are close to as inspiration. Perhaps the time is right for the right author to break into this untapped niche.

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  4. I agree that black characters are sadly few and far between in fantasy.
    Neil Gaiman often uses multicultural casts. His latest, The Graveyard Book, has at least two black characters (unfortunately, not the hero). Most of his books are for adults, though.
    An older book, not fantasy but historical fiction with a fantasy “feel”: The Golden Goblet by Eloise Jarvis McGraw is set in ancient Egypt.
    I’ll be interested to see other suggestions, as race in fantasy is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

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  5. So, I remember reading “The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm” and loving it back in my YA days… unfortunately I remember absolutely nothing about the plot. It is set in Zimbabwe in the future, and from the Wikipedia description sounds as SF as I remember. The three child protagonists of the book are definitely black.

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  6. When I was ten or so, I read Lavender Green Magic, by Andre Norton, which I think fits the bill. My memory of it is hazy, but I was definitely struck by the fact that the main character was black and how I had to change my own internal imaginings and assumptions to match up with that. Anyway, I really don’t remember it clearly enough to speak to its literary value, but the Amazon reviews are positive and ring distant bells. For instance, I remember the hedge maze and the herbal pillow resonating for me…..

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  7. While I don’t know of any other books or authors besides the ones mentioned above, I have a friend in the publishing world who says that publishers definitely look on the web to see what their readers are thinking. So for instance, a Facebook page to bring back a particular author or book in print might garner some attention if there are enough people on it. I wonder if someone started a Facebook page about this very topic, what publishers might have to say about it?

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  8. I’m surprised that you allude to Justing Larbalestier’s “cover fail” adventures without noting that her previous books are also fantasies that feature main characters of color. In the popular and funny How to Ditch Your Fairy all of the main characters are non-white. The protaganist is 14 in that one. Her previous trilogy, Madness or Magic also features a half Aborginal girl, and a hispanic New Yorker.
    On her blog the author has links to many blogs and such that talk about this very thing; more reccomendations might be found there. http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/

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  9. de-lurking to say hello, i adore your posts and the conversations in this space. now, if i can muster up the courage to share my two cents…
    i sell children’s (and y.a) books for a living, and i was thrilled to see ‘asleep’ by wendy raven mcnair when it came into the store. a teen superhero fantasy book with all african american characters, and shockingly enough, an african american girl on the cover. or at least her face. or part of it. so…yeah. the publishers still have a long way to go in this area.
    also, ‘the hunger games’ by susan collins might be an interesting choice if you want to approach it from the opposite angle. it’s gender nonspecific and there has been a lot of speculation as to whether or not there are races of people AT ALL in this book, the characters are so often physically altered (characters who die their skin pea-green, wear wigs, etc.). it also happens to be one of the best y.a. fantasies i’ve read in the last year, and i read a whole heckuva lot. although, i think your diana totally puts my reading habits to shame. 🙂

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  10. Somebody mentioned Neil Gaiman above– a good Gaiman read is “Anansi Boys.” It is not young adult, but a 13 year old girl might enjoy it– the main character is black, and it’s a wonderful read.

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  11. I can’t remember whether/which specific characters are black but Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore series (Gifts, Voices, and Powers) is surely all about race and is amazing.

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  12. I saw this important discussion only now. Like the rest of you, I’m hard put to find fantasy books for young people with black heroes/heroines. Sad, but true.
    I’m not sure if she’s too old for them, but the 13-year old might like Patricia Wrightson’s books about the Australian Aboriginal boy Wirrun. I read them many years ago, so I’m not sure how they hold up, but they left a fond memory. And the protagonist is definitely black.

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  13. Hi,
    I’m Wendy Raven McNair and my husband came across this great thread and told me about it. Thanks Minde Briscoe for your post mentioning my fantasy YA novel, ASLEEP.
    I wrote ASLEEP for this very reason, my teen daughter loves fantasy books but couldn’t find any with main characters who reflected her. I created Adisa Summers, an African American natural girl, who is introduced into the secret world of super beings.
    I initially took the traditional “query” route and a major agency was interested enough to request the whole story. They eventually responded with a glowing critique but concluded “After carefully reviewing Asleep I must inform you that we cannot offer you
    representation. Due to our already cramped client list, we cannot successfully give your work the attention it deserves.”
    I eventually self published and I’ve been getting great feedback however as a self published author, distribution has been challenging to say the least.
    Long story short; These diverse stories are out there so keep asking for them (on line, in book stores, even publishers), eventually the major players will take notice and make them more readily available. This thread is definitely a great start.
    Regards,
    Wendy
    http://wendyravenmcnair.com/

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  14. in the book the innkeeper’s song by Peter S Beagle has a Black main character, Lal and a brown skinned chacracter as well. I loved this book as a child!

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