Thursday, October 21, 2010

How to portray racism in middle grade novels

What I'm Writing: Gods Willing
What I'm Reading: Doing research on Civil War era Boston
What I'm Knitting: Moooooo

The start of National Novel Writing Month is only about nine days away, so I've been frantically researching and planning my novel.

I usually don't have a lot of research to do when I write. I tend to either make up my own world where my only limitation is my own creativity, or base a story in the modern US - something I know.

I had planned on writing a romance for Nanowrimo this year, but this one little strand of thought kept nudging at my brain, telling me there was a different idea, a different storyline, I should persue. I let that nudge turn into a full-fledged kick and took a couple of weeks to flesh out an idea. I liked it and decided to run with it.

This idea: a Middle Grade novel that starts in a to-be-determined era in US history and then veers into the realm of fantasy, seemed pretty straight forward at first. It would be a I'm-kidnapped-and-need-to-save-myself type story. All well and good, right? Well, not so much.

First off, I needed a city - an industrial port town is essential to the plot. Boston! my mind shouted. 'k, I can do Boston - never been there, but I can do enough research to portray it well enough - and since this will be set.... hmmmm.... when would be a good time period?... how about just after the Civil War... yes, that's good - I won't have to know modern Boston, just a Boston during its growth.

No problem! Yeah, right.

I began planning out the plot, naming and then learning my characters, refreshing my knowledge of the mythic part of the novel, ordering books about historical Boston from ebay and my local library. It was going well - I was filling a journal with scraps of information, character studies, plot points - 30, 40... almost 50 pages. And then I received my first book on historical Boston and spent an evening and a bit of the next morning skimming through it. Wow.

I had already decided my MC would be an Irish boy, but little did I realize how reviled the Irish were in pre-Civl War Boston. The protestants hated the new Irish immigrants (Potato famine refugees by the thousands) - seeing them as violent, barbaric, even. The Irish took over much of the housing and many of the jobs the free blacks in Boston had held before, so that caused even more strife. The Irish, in turn, didn't much like the blacks - worrying that if slavery was abolished, they'd lose their jobs to the freed slaves who would flood north.

The Irish proved themselves during the Civil War, fighting for their new homeland and President, and so, after the war, they were more highly regarded (black Bostonians, on the other hand, didn't see as much benefit from the outcome of the war as the Irish did - Go figure. (and I'm not talking about blacks that won their freedom through the war - I'm speaking about already free blacks - big difference)).

So all this information seived through my brain and began changing the tone and complexity of this novel. I pushed back the time frame, deciding to set the novel during the Civil War. I had already created a character of African descent who would now have a bigger role in the book, thus bringing out some of the racism and fright/hatred of the period.

All of a sudden, this seemed like a hell of a lot to take on, but I believe I'm up to the task.

My biggest worry now is how to portray racism in a book meant for middle grade readers. I'm certainly not going to sugar-coat it, but I also don't want to push the envelope too far. I won't be using some of the language - the titles, if you will - that were hung on the people of different nationalities, as that would be too coarse. The story has to lead to understanding and redemption at least on an individual level, as history shows that we're still struggling, as a nation, with those ideas.

All-in-all, the novel is going to be grittier than I had first imagined, but more truthful as well.

I'd love to hear your thoughts - what place does historic racism have in the books children read?

I've pretty much decided that I'm not going to worry so much about what's considered polite and just write the hell out of this thing and see where it takes me.


  1. You have a strong story idea here. Stay with it and follow your "gut." The history of this country and racism is pretty ugly, yet the facts are the facts. Perhaps the ugliness of racism will be a valuable lesson to your young readers by reading about it in a story context. As I see it, a big problem in our country today is that being "politically correct" has just become a euphemism for cowardice. Fear of "offending" has become an excuse for not standing up for what is right and just. How do we overcome our weaknesses if we're afraid to even acknowledge them as they are in all their ugliness. To my knowledge, none of the problems I'm aware of have been solved by being "politically correct" but by people who have had the courage to face the ugliness, call it what it is, and then do something to change it for the better. I think you have a great story idea and I wish you the best in crafting of it.

  2. Happy Duff :)
    Thanks so much for your input. I love your point on 'politically correct' never solving anything.

    I am going to write this one from the gut and hope I can do it justice.

    I, for one, don't think we need to protect children from every bit of ugliness in the world, but I also don't want to bash them over the head with it. So, I think this might be quite an interesting tightrope to walk.

    Here's to November!! (how are you coming with your nano plan??)

  3. I haven't read "Huckleberry Finn" in a long while, but I think that might be a great contemporary resource on racism, see how he handled it. Also, I think JK Rowling did a commendable job of doing exactly what you are attempting: exploring racism, genocide, slavery, and class discrimination within the context of a 'children's' story.
    I think the trick is to focus on showing how people are living and reacting to each other. Referring to this block of black housing versus the nicer Irish housing, the resentment that foments, etc. would add texture and detail to the story as it advances it. An air of matter-of-factness would also drop the reader right into the feel of the times.
    I also hate political correctness. Extensively labeling people (often incorrectly) is more divisive than simply accepting who we are and embracing it. It also didn't exist back then. People called a spade a spade, so to speak. Maybe you don't want to use the harshest of racial slurs, but they are all nasty, really. It's hard to choose the least of all evils, but to leave them out completely would be dishonest. Even 'mick' is a way of throwing the Irish all together. Have you researched slurs in use at that time?
    I have a funny story about that word. My sister worked at a huge insurance company once, and was looking at the employee roster. "Wow, we sure do have a lot of 'Mcs' working here," she commented. Then the light bulb went off and she gasped and laughed. "OH! 'Micks'! I get it!"
    In any case, I think you should use the appropriate words if the need arises, and edit them later if need be. Otherwise, I'd focus on describing the state of racism and how it affects day-to-day living, which would be more powerful than slurs anyway.

    Will there be racism in the fantasy part as well? Something to mirror in both worlds? When I read Harry Potter, I loved how Harry was stuck between two worlds, each side hating him for who he was for completely opposite reasons.

  4. bk7,
    Yes, the racism (though in a different form) will carry over into the fantasy part of the novel.

    LOL - Love the story about your sister. Isn't it amazing how we can see/hear something over and over again and then one day it 'clicks.'

    My intent is to weave the life of the MC - both in Boston and later in the fantasy world - in such a way that the racism is shown as a part of daily life - it's not right, but it's a fact in his world. I won't be so much highlighting it as adding it to the story to help set the time, place, and atmosphere.

    Yep, my plan is to just write the darn thing and then worry about editing it all later.


  5. As a follow-up to the post:
    Jennifer Laughran - Literary Agent for Andrea Brown Agency - who handles children's books, offers an open thread each month for writers to ask whatever questions they'd like.

    Isn't that awesome?

    October's thread is here:

    So I posed the question to her on her thread. This is her response:

    I think that you have to be truthful to the story you are telling. It is more insulting, both to your audience AND to the history you are trying to tell, if you aren't honest about how people were treated back then.

    That said, you are telling ONE CHARACTER'S story, so you have to be truthful to that. If something is meant to be shocking, one great alarming example of it will make the point better than a bunch of tiny examples. If something is NOT meant to be shocking, like, this is just how the world is, then your character will not even think twice about it.

    You should probably read other books set in the era (particularly with racial themes) to see how it was handled there.