One of the benefits of growing up basically lacking any interest in watching TV* is that the primary exposure to stories that my sister and I gained was through books. And one thing that my mother did really well was pick books - both picture books that she read aloud to us, and novel-length books that we read to ourselves - that were very diverse in terms of the racial and ethnic identities of the characters therein. Part of this was simply because books aimed at younger children tend to be more diverse in this regard than books aimed at adults or even teenagers (which I think is actually pretty insulting towards adults. So a child is perfectly capable of identifying with someone of a different race and finding that person's story engaging, but an adult isn't? What a depressing thought), but part of it was, I think, deliberate.
My mother chose books that reflected my sister's and my interests, and what I was interested in as a child from a very early age was history and folk- and fairytales. I was fascinated in particular with how people lived in other times and places, and I was intrigued by patterns, tropes and recognisable archetypes in folk- and fairtales (although I didn't know the technical terms for these things at the time). I found it absolutely amazing that versions of the story most commonly known in the English-speaking West as Cinderella existed in China, Egypt and elsewhere. I adored seeing history through the eyes of children who were, I thought, just like me.
One of my fondest memories is the fact that whenever we went on a long holiday (anything lasting more than a weekend), we would borrow different books of folktales from the library and my mother would read her way through them over the course of the holiday. We read Russian folktales, Middle Eastern folktales, Celtic folktales, Japanese folktales, and, on one particularly awesome holiday, Fearless Girls
, a collection of folktales from around the world where girls and women are the focus. (One of the best things about this book is that its stories represent a diverse range of female experiences. There are girls who fight monsters, there are girls who go on journeys, but there are also, in one Chinese story, a mother- and daughter-in-law who politely pretend not to have noticed that they inadvertently insulted one another when thinking they were alone. That is, the book represents more than one kind of heroism.)
I also remember beautiful picture books retelling Native American folktales and Indigenous Australian stories of the Dreamtime.
All of this is very well and good, but I'm not sure if all this was an entirely positive thing. The Indigenous stories are very telling. If all the stories about PoC that you are reading are set in the past, or at least in some indeterminate (but seemingly historical) folktale time, you run the risk (if you are white) of thinking that PoC being heroic and central to their own stories only in the past. At least in terms of the books I read, this problem was especially prevalent in terms of representation of Indigenous characters (most of the books I read that had a 'modern Australian' setting had a fairly representative range of characters in terms of the major immigrant (and I include white Australians in that) groups that lived in Australia at the time).
There was one picture book that I think did a good job of addressing this problem. Not coincidentally, it has been my favourite picture book for over twenty years. The book is My Place
by Nadia Wheatley, illustrated by Donna Rawlins. It was published in 1988 to mark the bicentenary of white settlement in Australia - which could have been a problematic subject in terms of commemoration, but for the fact that Wheatley's writing an extremely pointed, subversive message.
The book begins in 1988. Each set of three pages represents one year in the life of a single house (and later, farm, and later still, area) in suburban Sydney. After a particular child (who lives in the house) describes his or her life, family and the house and surrounds (and background historical events: eg the character in 1918 talks about WWI, the character in 1938 talks about the Depression), you skip back 10 years and the whole process begins again with a different child. Sometimes a child will be the aunt or parent or grandparent of a previous child, and sometimes he or she will be the child of an entirely new family. The house's changing owners reflect the diversity of post-settlement Australia; there is a Greek family, an Irish family, a German family (who have to change their name from Müller to Miller during the First World War), a Chinese family who arrive at the time of the Gold Rush, a family whose members were convicts and so on.
Most importantly, the story is bookended with two Indigenous families. That is, it opens with an Indigenous family in 1988, and it closes with an Indigenous family in 1788 (who were nomadic, but whose narrator says, 'I belong to this place'). This is a powerful and important point to make in a book that would, if these people's stories were absent, be commemorating the genocide and dispossession of Indigenous people. By emphasising that Indigenous people were there before white settlement, and are still there now, the book totally reframes the discussion of place, identity and belonging. And it closes with an image of a yellow setting sun between a red sky and a black land in a deliberate echo of the Australian Aboriginal flag
, with the words (a discussion between the final narrator and her (I think, but I'm not sure if I'm remembering correctly) father): 'How long will we belong to this place?' 'Forever and ever.'
I am not saying that reading these stories as a child made me magically free of racism (in many other ways, my education about issues of race was severely lacking, and I have messed up in this regard before and may do so again in the future). But I think having a diverse and representative** range of experiences depicted in literature and read by everyone is an important piece in the Educating Clueless White People puzzle. And because this piece is basically me remembering my childhood, and because I am white, I haven't talked about these things from the perspective of a PoC, but if these kinds of stories are important for Clueless White People, then I can only imagine that they are even more so for PoC. Because you can only see yourself doing brave and clever and amazing things, you can only see yourself as part of the story, if people write and publish and read your stories, and, most importantly, if you yourself are able to do so.
*We did watch some TV, mainly shows on ABC Kids, but it was very restricted and for the most part, my sister and I preferred to play games or read books.
** I'm talking about race here, but this goes for representation in terms of sexuality, gender identity, disability etc as well.