Photo: Katniss and Rue hang out in the first Hunger Games film.
What happens when two great black women fiction writers get together to talk about race in young adult literature? That's exactly what happens in the conversation below, where Zetta Elliott (below left), a black feminist writer of poetry, plays, essays, novels, and stories for children, and award-winning Haitian-American speculative fiction writer Ibi Aanu Zoboi (below right) decided to discuss current young adult sci-fi.
ZETTA ELLIOTT: Do you remember reading books as a child that served as a mirror for you?
IBI ZOBOI: Not at all. I remember having to read the Chronicles of Narnia. I went to a Catholic school in Bushwick, Brooklyn and Sister Ann was reading it to us and we were bored to death. It was all Black and Latino kids in the class. The nuns for the most part were Irish. I remember Sister Ann loved the book and we were like, “YAWN.” I was that kid who did not read because I just didn’t care about the characters.
ZETTA: I recently met a Black teenager who told me she didn’t like to read. And I said, “But there are so many great books out there and many of them are being made into movies. Did you see The Hunger Games?” And she had. After we parted ways I thought to myself, “What do Black girls do when they’re watching The Hunger Games? Do they identify with Katniss more than Rue?” I thought of Jacqueline Bobo and her work on Black women as cultural readers. So many of us walk into the theater knowing that Hollywood is going to screw us over. And so we’re already prepared to navigate around stereotypes and extract meaning from the film. I was listening to the lively commentary during the film and it was clear the Black women and girls were engaged with the movie. I thought, “They’re finding a way to enjoy this experience even if there are no Black girls on the screen.” Would you take your daughters to see the films?
IBI: I’m taking my 11-year-old to see Catching Fire. She started to watch The Hunger Games but she stopped at the scene where Rue is killed. Both of them were in awe of Rue. I let them watch the trailer and my youngest said, “Can I have my hair like that?” I watched their faces as they watched this little brown girl. All their friends were into the book and the movie. But I know for sure that if Rue were the hero, it would have a totally different impact on them.
All my friends are waiting for Annie [starring Quevanzhane Wallis]—not that it’s going to be a great movie, but it’ll be fun since we’re all planning to make a day of it, twenty little black girls getting together. I remember taking 5 different groups of girls to see Precious. And by the third time I was like, “Oh my goodness. What am I doing?”
ZETTA: You thought the film would be a mirror for them.
IBI: And that longing is so deep, you gravitate toward anything that comes up.
ZETTA: This idea of a text serving as a mirror makes me think of Rudine Sims Bishop’s essay about books serving as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. In my author presentation in schools I’ve started using Tina Kugler’s illustration on the statistics on racial disparities:
I noticed in the previews that came on before Catching Fire that there are so many YA novels being turned into films—including Divergent. And so you have predominantly young white women being featured in these books that are then being adapted into films—
iBI: And garnering a much larger audience. That’s the subject of my MFA thesis. If you’re going to create an atypical hero—she’s a girl, she’s not as pretty, or maybe she’s clumsy—you’re going to raise her to the rank of hero and let her save the day. Why not go deeper and get that girl who’s really at the bottom of the pile? Around the world, girls of color are the most marginalized group. So if you’re going to write a story about the marginalized, why not reach down and pick the darkest girl?
ZETTA: I haven’t read the trilogy, but I watched the first film at home and the second one in the theater. And when it got to the part where Gale was being whipped, I could sense the tension in the [interracial] audience. And I thought to myself: “How many people in here went to see 12 Years a Slave?” It’s interesting to me that in the white imagination, the dystopian future involves white people living through the realities that people of color have lived or are living through right now!
IBI: I read the trilogy before I even knew there was going to be a movie. Rue and Thresh came from District 11 and it’s far worse than District 12. The description in the book indicates, at least in my imagination, that it’s a Black district. They’re sharecroppers.
ZETTA: Picking cotton?!
IBI: Right. And they’re the only district whose residents get whipped.
IBI: And they sing.
ZETTA: Oh, Lord.
IBI: That’s their art, their skill. In Catching Fire, District 11 was the first to rebel.
ZETTA : There were so many moments in the film when I wondered, “Was that really in the book?” Because Rue’s mother has what looks like 5 remaining children, all about the same age. That image struck me as the stereotypical single Black mother with too many kids.
IBI: Reading the book, I had to wonder why the hero didn’t come from District 11 if they’re the most oppressed. I remember thinking Rue’s role in the whole novel is what this comic book writer calls “fridging.” Women in comic books serve to bring out the male hero’s deep humanity. The woman dies and then the hero taps into—
ZETTA: His sense of justice.
IBI: Right. And that was Rue. Katniss befriends Rue, who was like a little sister. You want her to make it as much as Katniss, but we know what happens.
ZETTA: So what do you think of the backlash against the casting of a Black actor to play Rue? I think even President Obama recently said he has hope because the younger generation is making progress when it comes to race relations. As someone who works with young people I see a lot of behavior, online and elsewhere, that indicates the exact opposite. When some white readers saw Rue on screen they were outraged and said some pretty horrific things on Twitter. And the same thing happened with Beetee in Catching Fire, where at least the geeky technology guy was Black. The only other Black man hauls off and kisses Katniss without warning, and I thought, “There’s another stereotype of the hypersexual Black male!” Or Thresh killing that white girl in the first film—that’s the black savage. Obviously we’re sensitive to stereotypes because we teach and write about race and representation. But it did make me wonder if white artists are able to imagine a future where they don’t reproduce the same hierarchies and stereotypes.
IBI; I think white people have the luxury of living in a white envelope. They don’t have to think about the Other. They may see them on the periphery, but they have the luxury of not thinking about anything that exists outside of their own bubble.
ZETTA: That brings me back to Rudine Sims Bishop and how she said the lack of diversity in children’s literature is also harmful to white children because they grow up thinking they’re the center of the universe. And that then makes it very hard for them to communicate cross-culturally because they haven’t had to learn how. So what are your fears and your hopes for your daughters specifically in terms of finding heroes in literature and film?
IBI: I have more hope than fear at this point. I’m teaching my daughters in an indirect way to think critically about everything they’re consuming. If they’re watching TV, I ask, “Where are the brown girls?” To them it seems like there’s more diversity because of what I intentionally put in place around them. They don’t see a dearth because on our bookshelf there is abundance of books that feature girls and boys of color. In terms of what we can do, I think it has to start at the ground level. I see it in the classroom. The teachers don’t know what books are out there. And if the teachers don’t know, the kids don’t know, and their parents don’t know. It’s choice fatigue if they walk into a bookstore.
ZETTA: Sarah Park Dahlen just wrote an article about this in Gazillion Voices. She teaches Social Justice and Children’s Literature in the at St. Catherine’s University and she’ll give her students—who are about to become librarians—a list of multicultural books. She sends them into bookstores across the Twin Cities and they consistently cannot find those books. That was the motivation for my friends and I to start The Birthday Party Pledge website. We wanted people to commit to buying multicultural books as gifts for kids for one year, but it was really about putting a description and images of multicultural books from all genres online so that parents know what’s available. There may not be many books by and about people of color being published annually, but cumulatively we have something on our site for almost everyone.
That goes for speculative fiction, too. African American kids love fantasy, but there aren’t that many books out there.
Chart from The Diversity Gap in Children's Books.
ZETTA: There aren’t! We made a list and I think we only found 55 or 56 titles over a thirty-year period. And think of how many sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal titles will be published just this year featuring white protagonists. I feel like publishing is part of the same system that allows us to have a black president, which seems to increase diversity but doesn’t increase equity. I want people to have equal opportunities but the way the publishing industry is structured right now, that’s not going to happen.
IBI: I’m way more optimistic than you are. I think the industry has reached its tipping point.
ZETTA: Well, the demographics are changing. The majority of children under the age of five are now of color. And by 2050, is it? The country will be majority people of color. We have a lot of work to do.