By Kendra James
Like most of my friends in elementary school, I was obsessed with The American Girl dolls and books The dolls lacked comprehensive diversity back then, in that they had one single doll of colour until 1997. I owned Felicity Merriman, a white girl who lived in colonial Williamsburg, but received Addy Walker, a former slave who escapes from the South into Philadelphia, soon after she debuted in 1993. As per my mother’s rule, I read all six of Addy’s books before being gifted the doll. But unlike Felicity’s, I didn’t often revisit them for pleasure. In my constant search for American historical fiction with protagonists of colour written for young readers, I often come across the same problem I did when I was younger: it’s all really depressing.
Addy Walker’s story begins in Meet Addy while she’s still enslaved, and I have vivid memories of one paragraph where her overseer forces her to eat tobacco leaf worms. If you had asked me, when I was younger, to state a fact about Harriet Tubman I would have told you about the time her mistress threw a porcelain sugar bowl at her head. Meanwhile, Felicity’s biggest worry in life in Meet Felicity was saving a horse. My favourite young adult historical fiction author, Ann Rinaldi, wrote stories that spanned across races, but her romantic stories about southern belles and women of the revolutionary war were always more fun to read than her sanitised retellings of the Jeffersons and the Hemmings or Sioux boarding schools.
In pre-Mattel age when the American Girl Doll franchise was still owned and partially run by Pleasant Rowland and her Pleasant Company, I devoured their 90 page novels about young girls scattered throughout various points of American history. Back then they were a genuinely decent source of early education and introduction into various facets of American history for an 8 year old girl. I credit the dolls and their books for the love of middle and young adult historical-fiction I took into my adult life, but that doesn’t mean they were all fun.
Maybe I fixated on strange things when I was younger, but it was always the worst elements of these books, American Girls and others, that stuck with me, and I get the feeling that’s not the experience for the little girls with a wider variety of characters who look like them to choose from.
White characters not only get a wider variety of books to choose from, but books in a wider variety of settings. Characters of colour in American hist-fic tend to exist strictly within certain boundaries of time or not at all. African-Americans exist within the boundaries of slavery, the Jim Crow South, or the Civil Rights movement. Native Americans exist in the mythical west until about 1870 or so, Asian-Americans exist during World War 2, only in the west (and only from Eastern countries), and I had to reach out to our followers to fill in the gaps my childhood reading material left when it came to Latin@s.
These stories need to be told, of course. Diverse literature for young readers is extremely important. The world needs YA literature about Japanese Internment during the Second World War, but they shouldn’t be the only books Japanese-American children get to see themselves reflected in. This isn’t to encourage the erasure or minimalisation of the realities that people of colour have historically faced, but rather a desire for authors and publishers to realise that all of us existed in America outside the times of our most publicised oppressions. And that, even during the most difficult times, we still had lives that didn’t necessarily completely revolve around the overhead political themes of the day.
With that in mind, and because I’m 26 year old woman who still reads almost exclusively YA and middle grade fiction, I’ve compiled a list (that is by no means complete) of historical fiction with POC characters that might allow young and middle adult readers to have a little more fun with their reading escapism.