When You Reach Me: The Race Card
January 7, 2010 by 70 Comments
As we’ve become fixated with the character of Julia, some people have pressed me to clarify my vague comments, and while I’m still not in possession of my copy of WHEN YOU REACH ME, I will make a better effort to be more specific.
First, however, let me remind you that I do think Julia behaves like a regular little girl (characterization) and that she grows and changes over the course of the story (character development). I think these aspects are distinguished–perhaps even most distinguished–especially for a supporting character in a first person narration.
One of the rites of passage for growing up white in America are those moments when you begin to realize that there is social injustice in the world, that various people are treated poorly for all the wrong reasons. There is a large body of literature for children written by authors about those moments when white children realize that racism exists in the world, typically these books feature a main character who experiences racism vicariously through the mistreatment of a friend or acquaintance. LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY (Newbery Honor, Printz Honor) and A NORTHERN LIGHT (Printz Honor, Carnegie Medal) are good examples. THE LIBERATION OF GABRIEL KING by K.L. Going is one that came out during my Newbery year; BONE BY BONE BY BONE by Tony Johnston came out during my Printz year. The list goes on and on. Now how many of these friendship stories can you think about from the viewpoint of the black character? Not many. Hence, I ask the question: Do the black characters function as a plot device that allows the white character to view the world differently? Or are they really fully developed characters in their own right?
Moreover, I’m not sure that the tropes of these friendship stories allow the same kind of visceral reaction you get when authors inhabit the black viewpoint in books about racism (CHAINS, THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, MONSTER, DAY OF TEARS, A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL). For me, there is a gentler, muted quality to the racism in those earlier stories (as there should be). That is an observation rather than a criticism. Indeed, I’m not saying that the stories mentioned in the previous paragraphs are bad. Far from it, they all deservedly won awards or critical priase. To me, however, they all followed the same formula when dealing with race and racism, and thus new books in the same vein begin to feel somewhat cliched, however original they may otherwise be. While WHEN YOU REACH ME does follow that pattern, that doesn’t make it a less deserving award-winner (besides the Newbery committee will not be comparing it to any of the books that I have mentioned here), but it does damper my enthusiasm slightly (and only slightly) on a personal level.
MIRANDA RECOGNIZES RACISM
Nina mentions and praises Miranda’s reaction to Jimmy’s ethnic slur: "I had never seen a grown-up do it before. If Mom had been there, she would have whacked him on the head with a plastic tray."
While this is more subtle than: "Dear reader, my author has just made an ethnic slur and now to prove that I do not condone the racial slur, I must not only have a visceral negative reaction, but I must point it out to you, dear reader, in the event that you are too stupid to otherwise note it."
It is not quite as subtle as: "I gave Jimmy a nasty look." Which requires the child to infer that the ethnic slur is wrong and that Miranda disapproves of it. I’m sure some people will argue that this is too much subtlety for a child audience, but I would disagree.
JULIA’S AMBIGUOUS RACIAL IDENTY
Julia’s skin color is described, but she’s never labeled racially or ethnically. She could be African American, but she could be Indian or Asian, too. Or biracial. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a similar technique employed by Virginia Euwer Wolf in the MAKE LEMONADE trilogy. It allows the reader to impose an ethnicity or racial identity on the character. We would generally recognize this as a strength, but there’s also a trade-off. Isn’t there also a generic quality to the character? One writer told me that, for example, when you set a book in the South, everybody knows that it’s hot and humid. What she looks for are the details in the setting that reveal a native understanding of the region. What are the details that would escape the notice of the casual visitor? Apply this to Julia’s characterization. She’s universal, but not very specific. Again, this is not a weakness of the book, generally speaking or in terms of the Newbery criteria, but it still left me wishing for those extra skillfully woven details. Another slight note of dissatisfaction.
JULIA AS A TOKEN CHARACTER
Julia’s darker skin color is foreshadowed before the big reveal in the store as evidenced by her crayon complaint, but it also raises other questions. Did none of the other children of color complain about crayons? Or were there no other children of color? Or did Miranda simply not note them in her narrative? For whatever reason, Julia is set up to be the token black character, the one that is going give Miranda her big epiphany about racism. At least in the beginning. She does grow into much more than that in the latter part of the story. And I realize as I’m typing this that it reminds me of THE WESTING GAME a bit in how Raskin created all those stereotypes and they all grew and changed into fully developed characters. So I’m perfectly willing to allow for Stead to do the same thing, but yet I still remain slightly puzzled that in a city as diverse as New York that you would need to set aside a single character as the Other . . . [Edited to add that Genevieve has already pointed out that Jay Stringer and others did come from other races and/or ethnicities so I am wrong right out of the gate. My apologies. Read the book twice, but the last time was way back in September.]
So you can see I sort of have ambivalent feelings these race issues as they are addressed in WHEN YOU REACH ME–which is why I proposed it as tentatively as I did, only moving into my devil’s advocate role as more and more people objected (and I objected to them objecting). I do think there is a layer of race in this book that we have not previously discussed. I wish more people would acknowledge it and discuss it, but I understand that nobody wants to damage the book’s reputation heading into the final week. Still waiting to get my hands on my copy for some textual evidence, but this lays the groundwork at least.