A Checklist to “See” Race/Culture in Kid/YA Books

“A story is a trick for sneaking a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind.” — Jonathan Gottschall, “Why Storytelling is the Ultimate Weapon.”

Here are ten tips for adults interested in messages about race and culture that might go unnoticed “under the waterline” in stories for children and young adults. I’ve offered these in other contexts, but this list is designed particularly for bloggers and reviewers. As always, I welcome questions, corrections, and clarifications.

  1. Look for overused tropes like an older magical negro or a noble savage.
  2. Notice a smart/good peer of color whose only role is to serve as a foil for a flawed hero.
  3. Check the cover art for whitewashing or overexoticization.
  4. Pay attention to when and how race is defined, if at all.
  5. Notice if the setting, plot, and characters are in charge of the casting.
  6. Pay attention to how beauty is defined.
  7. Notice outsider “bridge” characters and generic versus specific cultures.
  8. Check for a “single story” that underlines a stereotype about another culture.
  9. See who has the power to make change and who has the power to be changed.
  10. Ask questions about the storyteller’s authenticity, privilege, and power.
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