It all began with stickers. It's a paperdoll concept in the form of stickers and my daughter LOVES to play with them. There are shirts and skirts and shoes and dresses--all stickers. And the girls come in every nationality...also cool. But what I thought wasn't so cool was when my three-year-old daughter pointed to the African American girl and asked for the "chocolate" one. She requested "vanilla" next.
Lydia loves sweets. LOVES. So it didn't surprise me that when noticing differences, she made a connection to food, specifically chocolate and vanilla--her favorites. But, I wasn't comfortable with her terminology, so I explained that every person in the world comes in all different shades. There's brown and dark brown and beige and light beige, etc., etc.--all different colors, all the same on the inside. But it's not nice to refer to people as chocolate or vanilla. End of story, moving on, let's choose a skirt.
This was all well and good until we were out in public and Lydia pointed out an African American person. "What color skin do they have, Mommy?" I told her again that all people have different colors of skin. She then proceeded to say, "It's not nice to call people chocolate face." And I wanted to crawl into a corner of the store and die of humiliation. My goal was to raise colorblind children. And now, my daughter was saying "chocolate" and "face" in the same sentence. We were past the point of ignoring, of hoping that if we didn't talk about it, it would just go away (like many embarrassing things kids do). In fact, it became apparent that we needed to talk about it. That Lydia was beginning to notice differences and that this would continue--and not just with skin color, but with heavy and thin and boy and girl and glasses and hair (or lack thereof) and any and all differences out there. And I was responsible for helping to guide her through the process to understanding.
So, I began the search for picture books. Because skin color was the particular difference she had landed on, I decided to start with that topic. And you know what? I didn't find a whole lot out there. There were a few picture books, one by an author Lydia loves, but after reading the description of the book, I wondered if it would send the right message. There were all sorts of comparisons to skin and food! Granted, the comparisons were to yummy food, but still! Call me crazy, but I don't want my daughter walking around comparing people to melted chocolate. I did, however, find a few new favorites. ALL THE COLORS OF THE EARTH, SHADES OF PEOPLE, and THE SKIN YOU LIVE IN (what a beautiful message!) are at the top of the list.
When Lisa and I talked about it, we realized we struggle with essentially the same issue in our own writing. As we were writing THE LIAR SOCIETY, we wanted race to be a non-issue. We created Pemberly Brown as a diverse school, but when describing the diversity, we seemed to fall short. There's nothing worse than reading a book and not properly imagining a main character. Ditto to book covers that feature a character completely different than described in the book; it drives us crazy. If a main character is black, I want to see them that way in my head. If a main character has red hair, I want to imagine it. If a main character is a boy, I want to know. But here, as writers, we lacked the right words. We used words like "caramel" and "mocha" to describe Bradley Farrow's skin and explained that Grace Lee's eyes were shaped like "almonds." Here we go with food again. WHO AM I TO JUDGE?
What's the answer? How do I raise a child who ignores differences, but instead focuses on what makes us the same? Or is it okay to embrace our differences? After all, those differences are what make us unique. The world would be an awfully boring place without them. Obviously, this isn't just a hot topic in parenting, but in publishing as well. With cover-controversies like LIAR, MAGIC UNDER GLASS and the re-designed SILVER PHOENIX cover (to name just a few), it's clear that our differences aren't always handled very graciously. But we'd love to get YOUR opinion today. Any advice for an embarrassed mom?