I have been reading Victor Kloss’s Royal Institute of Magic series – a somewhat depressing endeavor, since I just finished book 5 and he died (tragically, of lymphoma at age 35) while writing book 6. They are fun, though there are klunky bits the size of speed bumps throughout. One question I’m left with is, why does everyone in the vignettes from Queen Elizabeth’s time speak and write in a completely modern style? Even a house furnished in the late 1600s and deserted since then has “all the modern conveniences”. Also, since most of the book is set in modern England, why is everyone white, cis and able bodied?
A thing I’m liking about some children’s books today is that more and more are second-stage diverse. What I mean by that, is that it always seems like when authors are trying to introduce more diverse characters, the first stage is always “I’m ____ and that’s the central issue of my story,” where the fill-in characteristic could be poor, Black, geeky, fat, gay, Jewish, unathletic…. whatever. Those books are important and I’m not putting them down; they serve a needed purpose for broadening the world of literature, for providing representation to readers in those groups and for letting other readers step in the shoes of people not quite like themselves – or maybe surprisingly like themselves. But they’re not what I want to read, at least not as a steady thing. And they have a danger: read too many and you might start thinking that being (poor, Black, geeky, fat, gay, Jewish, unathletic, trans…. whatever) is in itself a problem.
What I want are the second-stage books, and I’d like to see even more of them. If I’ve got an old book that starts with a few (probably white, cis, reasonably prosperous) children in 1903 or 1955 or 1978 finding a magic amulet or garden or creature and having Adventures, and a somewhat newer book that starts with “Itâ€™s Mississippi in the summer of 1955, and Rose Lee Carter canâ€™t wait to move north. But for now, sheâ€™s living with her sharecropper grandparents on a white manâ€™s cotton plantation. ” (like one Amazon just recommended to me) then what I want to read is where young Rose Lee in 1955 gets that magic and those adventures. I don’t want her to become a Nesbit character with brownwashed skin, either; she’s got real problems in her life, and no Psammead or half-magic coin is going to change the entire Civil Rights movement. But she’s still a kid, and still deserves Adventures. Maybe along the way they change a few minds in her town, or fortify her to face what’s coming in the next few years. Or maybe it’s a different kid in a fictional setting with fictional challenges, but whose ethnicity or gender identity influences who they are and how they defeat their particular bad guys. I’m flexible that way. 🙂
For some concrete examples, Rick Riordan does a nice job – more so with each new series – of having kids with a variety of backgrounds fighting fictional guys. I can’t think of a good example of a “Rose Lee Carter the sharecropper’s granddaughter gets magic” sort of thing, though I’d love to hear of one. The closest things I can think of are Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog or maybe Chris Moriarty’s Inquisitor’s Apprentice – don’t ask me what it is about inquisitors! Jane Yolen’s Devil’s Arithmetic and Delia Sherman’s Freedom Maze do the opposite, sort of, using magic to send a modern girl into the rougher parts of her family’s history. Kate Saunder’s Five Children on the Western Front turns my question around, showing what happens when Nesbit’s privileged children face some real adversity. (Also, though I wouldn’t credit the series with very diverse characters, I was amused by a moment in one of Victor Kloss’s Royal Institute of Magic books where a character wonders if he’d have issues dating a half-elven girl.)
For adults, diversity might be a step ahead. I can think of a number of examples of characters who have some trait lower on the privilege scale being involved in fantasy adventures that happen more or less in our everyday world – the Twenty-Sided Sorceress series has a bunch. Patricia Brigg’s Mercy Thompson is a native American MC, Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant is biracial, and I know there are a couple different lesbian superheroine stories in my Kindle’s to-be-read folder. Kate Daniels doesn’t live in our current Atlanta but hers is a direct descendent of ours and the population is realistic. It took me a few minutes, but I thought of a few historical (or alternate history) fantasies involving characters who are unprivileged in the worlds they live in- Gail Carriger has a trans character who shows up in a couple of her series (and Lord Akeldama, who might be gay, but doesn’t really count – he’s rich and powerful enough to never have to deal with prejudice). And there’s Sherwood Smith’s Coronets and Steel trilogy, especially the third book with its biracial heroine (and her Jewish friends) in Napoleonic Europe).
It has occurred to me more than once, though, that the above paragraphs can be summarized as “Sure, I’ll read books about diverse characters … as long as they’re exactly the sort of thing I already like.” I have no defense, except that they’re not the *only* kinds of books I like. But I do like them when I find them!