The very first science fiction/fantasy book I read was Call of Madness by Julie Dean Smith. I was twelve years old, and I received the book from my sister as a Christmas present. It was an amazing story about a princess named Athaya, and for years to come, Athaya was the name I used for every single character of every game, every choose your own adventure, every bout of make-believe. Athaya was everything. Unfortunately, Athaya was also white.
On the surface, the race of science fiction/fantasy characters doesn’t matter; it is fiction, after all. It’s not real, but honestly, the fact that even in a make-believe world, everyone of power is/was Caucasian was a debilitating realization for younger me. I could never see myself as Athaya. I would never have her hair, her skin, her physique. I would never have her father, her brothers, and if I couldn’t have them, I definitely couldn’t have Tyler, her tragic castle guard love interest, so what could I have? I didn’t have representation in The Sleepover Friends. I didn’t have representation in J.R.R. Tolkien. No one looked like me in Shakespeare or Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Anderson, and no one looked like me in Call of Madness.
Instead, I got handed Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, Langston Hughes. I was expected to have read all of Maya Angelou’s memoirs, to know every statistic about the Civil War, slavery, and the first black everything, and nothing was wrong with these teachings. My parents wanted to cement me in reality, and the argument for realism versus fantasy is a heavy one. Many believe that realism is for adults and fantasy is for children. While I could argue the point of how fantasy is also for adults, even if we follow that ideal, that means that all children, of all ethnicities, deserve magic. When I was a child, I wanted fairies and witches, mushroom houses and faraway lands. I wanted princes and princesses, dragons and unicorns, and everything I received when it was allowed, did not look like me. Children love magic, and they deserve to see themselves in the books they read.
There are many benefits to allowing and encouraging fantasy and science fiction reading with kids. One of the most important perks is that science fiction encourages critical thinking. Children get to experiment with their world view. Fantasy takes fictitious experiences and invites young readers to use fledgling literary analysis. They get to subconsciously and consciously take these scenarios and apply them to their own world, to make connections between the fiction they are reading and the reality they live. Not only that, but they get to escape, and honestly, we all need the opportunity to escape sometimes.
Over 500 million Harry Potter books have been sold, and the genre of science fiction/fantasy sells well over half a billion dollars per year. Yet, the minority ethnic realm is just now beginning to catch up with this trend that we have been involved in for hundreds of years. What began with the adult speculative mysticism we find in Pauline Hopkins’ Of One Blood continues in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, what we floundered to identify with in Orson Scot Card’s Magic Street can be found in the locs of L.A. Banks’ vampire huntress, and finally, all of these foundations have built a platform for our children, where a plethora of books have emerged, allowing them to travel unexpected worlds and explore the outside of the box thinking inherent to the suspension of disbelief found in science fiction and fantasy books.
So, pick up a fantasy book, read Rachel Isadora’s version of The Princess and the Pea, expose your children to The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin, take a twirl around Little Gold Star: A Spanish American Cinderella Tale by Robert D. San Souci, and definitely dive into Don’t Bring Your Dragon to the Library by Julie Gassman. Remember, we are not just trying to read minority ethnic books, but normalize them in our children’s lives. Up until now, it’s all been a bit fuzzy, but clarity is coming.