So I’ve now read six books on my summer reading list, and yesterday I finished The Wilder Life. It was such a fun read, and it made me want to jump back into my Little House obsession, which spanned many, many years. I don’t remember the first time I read the series, but the last time was just a couple years ago. I reread it all the time. I have tie-in books, paper dolls, and box sets. I know Little House trivia as well as I know American Girl trivia, which is a lot. Those two things were my obsession when I was young.
Funny that it never bothered me when I was reading that the books do display a little racism (I suppose I gradually noticed it more and more as I got older and read the books more). The racism is passable, I guess, when you view it in relation to both the fact that the books were written in the 30s and 40s and that they take place in the 1870s and 1880s. It’s a little less excusable than the racism in Huckleberry Finn, but it’s fine. Whatever. They’re such fabulous books.
Stepping into McClure’s memories of Little House, and her adventures to the museums and sites of Laura’s life, made me think, though, that people would probably be very confused if I were to have written that book. Not people who know me, of course–anyone who knew me when I was a kid probably knew that I was always holding a book, and usually that book was something I had read a million times already, like a Little House book. I think people would be confused if I wrote a book like The Wilder Life because I’m not white, so there’s little chance that someone like me, a biracial little girl, would have lived a life like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s. I think it would be fascinating if there had been a biracial Laura out there, but there’s no evidence that there was, and her life probably would have been quite different from Laura’s, anyway. And even if there had been a girl like that, who knows if her life circumstances would have led her to be a writer.
Laura’s being white never made me feel ashamed or uncomfortable about adoring her stories or imagining what my life would be like if I lived like she did. She was a perfectly acceptable role model simply because we had things in common–we both get annoyed by our too-perfect older sisters, we both tend to say the wrong thing or make rash decisions, we both like to teach, write, and sing. Those aren’t race specific. But it was always clear to me, if sometimes at the back of my mind, that I didn’t really have any role models who weren’t right. I had plenty of non-white personalities presented to me, most in the form of books and calendars with titles like “Great African American Woman” and “Unsung Black Heroes.” It’s wonderful that I had parents who tried to alleviate the gap between their races and mine. But the best role models, or just heroes/heroines, are the ones that come to you organically, not didactically. Why didn’t I find books about little girls who were like me inside and out? Sure, beauty’s on the inside, and all that, but I would say any brown girl knows that it starts to grate when you realize that nobody looks like you. I’m going to guess that most white children, when reading, just see that the character they’re reading about has divorced parents just like them, or likes to read just like them, or wishes they could run away from home, just like them. And that’s all I wanted to see. But anytime I was reading when I was young and found someone who was just like me on the inside, I would look at them on the outside and feel slightly invalidated. It’s a good thing to find yourself in different types of people and be exposed to new kinds of people, but when you ONLY find yourself in different people and not people similar to you, it’s discouraging. It makes you wonder if you’re doing the wrong thing or living the wrong way. And then when you read all those biographies of the people you’re supposed to idolize, you might find them inspirational, but what seven-year-old in 1995 can identify with a female slave passing as her male master in order to escape to freedom, even if she is a black seven-year-old? It’s a lot easier to identify with living in a house with your family, listening to your father’s stories, and helping your mom with the housework. Except oops! Sorry, black girl; you can read that story, but you could never star in the movie adaptation.
And let’s be honest–literature has yet to become truly diverse. And it has yet to give children organic role models and heroes of different colors who remain as organic as the white ones like Laura. Where are the black, brown, and yellow protagonists? Where are the characters of color whose spunky personalities and storylines revolve around the same things as stories with white protagonists?
That’s especially a problem in contemporary historical fiction and classic children’s historical fiction. There is an idea that many Americans hold, which is that history is something that only started in 1776, and it only happened in states that were part of the Union. That means that I’ve heard people from Philadelphia and the like say that Tucson is “so not historical” and has no culture (if they mean high culture, sure, but it’s funny, since usually white people use the word “culture” to mean “ethnic,” and they think “ethnic” means “not white,” and Tucson certainly has non-white culture), etc etc. Really, Tucson was “found” (by Europeans) only about 10 years after Philadelphia, and there is far more pre-US history recorded having to do with Tucson than Philadelphia. And yeah, there are a couple really great children’s novels that feature protagonists of color in areas of the US that used to be Mexico. But they’re not crazy popular, and they’re generally picked up by smaller presses. I wish the bigger presses, as well as the huge powerhouses like American Girl, would pick up the slack. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, we have Addy, so the American Girl line does feature diversity.” It’s not exactly hard or creative to put a black girl as a slave. Duh. You can’t do it any other way. But why couldn’t the 1940s character be black as well? Why couldn’t the main 1970s character be Chinese, instead of having the Asian girl be the sidekick? Why this huge refusal to make minority characters the mainstream? There are good writers out there who could totally create an excellent character and fit them into the American Girl formula, or who could do some research and write a version of Little House that takes place in Arizona before it’s a state. Whatever. But I think a large amount of the blame or responsibility needs to be placed in the big companies that can afford to take risks, who have the ability to market and, if you will, indoctrinate its existing customer and fan base to accept more diverse literary offerings. I just wish they would actually do it.