Growing up, I read almost no books in which characters looked like me, and when they did, they were usually trying to reconcile their Indian and American heritages. I didn’t like these books. Sure, they were a necessary step in multicultural literature, but to me, they were irrelevant. The presented a false dichotomy; my identity was much more complicated than two traits. Even worse: these books bored me. I liked adventures and mysteries, fantasy and science fiction. I had more in common with Meg Murry, who tessered to other planets, than with these characters who were supposed to represent me.
via Writing Diverse Characters | anindita.org.
Anindita B Sempere writes advice on how to write characters from diverse backgrounds. This quote really spoke to me because of an article I wrote a few weeks ago where I stated that reading Black books often feel like homework.
Books about different ethnicities and cultures don’t get to be “normal,” “fun” genres like science fiction and fantasy, mystery, or just a wacky tale with PoC characters. They’re often heavy hitting, historical novels or infodumps on cultural traditions–important, but boring to a kid who otherwise reads Harry Potter and, as Anindita mentions, A Wrinkle in Time. Ethnic characters don’t get to be the Meg Murrays or the Sammy Keyes (a personal childhood favorite), they must deal with racism and oppression and sometimes a kid just wants a character who looks like them to have fun, have adventures.
Hopefully, the diversity campaigns going around (#weneeddiversebooks in particular) help make change, make awareness, so that children of different nationalities can pick up a book and find someone like them and also learn about characters who are not like them, without feeling like they’re going to be asked to write a book report afterwards. So that they know that children of color can enjoy life too.
I LOVED Encyclopedia Brown as a kid. He, Sammy Keyes, and Poirot were my detectives growing up–I read a couple of Nancy Drew stories, but mostly played the computer games (some of which were actually scary/creepy to me, haunted mansions and museums! Yikes!). A book I’d love to reread is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
It makes me want to write a children’s mystery story. I did once, as a child. I don’t remember the contents, but I do remember it was called “The Case of the Jewel Thief,” written with my middle school friends and based on a mixture of Sammy Keyes and the latest Olsen Twins novel series where they were detectives. But those amateur detectives didn’t look like me. I related to Sammy Keyes because she lived with her grandmother and, while I was too shy to actually want adventures in real life, I loved living vicariously through a girl who lived like me.
But you don’t really see black kids starring in mystery novels. If you know of any, please name them, I’d love to check them out. But maybe in my own writing I should develop a young black detective character who solves mysteries in his/her neighborhood. I think it might be tougher though, Sammy Keyes was set in the modern era of the 90s, but in a sort of small city where it was more believable for a teen to get around like she does and get into things, even with Officer Borsch getting in her way. I know city life. And New York City isn’t the easiest place to set a teen detective, but I’m sure it could be done. A small outer borough suburb, a missing item… oh the possibilities!
Kids love mysteries because they’re relatable adventures. They’re something they could see themselves doing–it’s not out of the realm of their possibility. Unlike, say, a young Indiana Jones type story or something similar, where the kid would need special knowledge or money or skills. Even the first few Harry Potter novels had a kid mystery element in addition to the magic. Almost anyone can be a young detective–I owned a book that taught me how, with information on finger printing kits and revealing invisible ink. They also teach kids to be more observant of their environment and the be careful who they speak to. Anything could be a clue. I remember looking around rooms I’d walk into with new eyes after reading a mystery novel and seeing different objects catch my eye in a new way. And everyone was a suspect–what mysteries lied behind the eyes of the mailman or the bus driver or the traffic lady? Mystery novels are a great way to secretly get kids to interact with the world in a different way without them even knowing it. And they’re just plain fun!
What were your favorite mystery novels as a kid growing up? Suggest some in the comments!