There's a moment in Meg Wolitzer's otherwise quite fine Belzhar that strikes an all-too-common sour note. When narrator Jam meets her English classmates at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school, she describes "a neatly-pressed type of boy...; a beautiful African American girl...; and a boy whose face is obstructed by a gray hoodie." Translation: there are three white kids and one black kid in the room; absent a specific description, the assumption is that a character is white. (Jam describes her roommate as "half Asian, half Jewish"; how does she know?)
In his near-future superhero adventure novel, School for Sidekicks, Kelly McCullough takes a subtler, entirely more successful tack. Briefly, 13-year-old Evan, wannabe superhero (and really, who isn't?), having finally manifested a superpower, finds himself enrolled at Hero High, ready to live his dream. There, as at Wolitzer's Wooden Barn and schools for exceptional children everywhere, he meets his teachers and peers. But the way that McCullough describes them through Evan's narration makes the experience both more specific and more inclusive than the vast majority of its ilk.
Evan's kind advisor Mike has "a broad face and dark hair in a buzz cut,” and his eyes are “soft brown and strangely gentle." One roommate, Jeda Marquez, likewise has brown eyes and a "face that was a slightly lighter shade of brown." Another roommate is described reading a Braille book several pages after his introduction. Friend Alissa is a "pretty, muscular girl with deep black skin and short curly hair somewhere between an Afro and a crew cut."
His mentor, Foxman (hilariously, a seriously messed-up Batman type), has dark skin, brown eyes, and "short hair [that] held as much gray as black." Readers learn with casual economy that Melody is gay, but her most salient physical features are her Mohawk and piercings. Then there's gender-indeterminate Blurshift, who's always referred to with plural pronouns.
This world is depicted as diverse in a way that too few are, but it would be easy to assume that, varied though its population is, unless a nonwhite, nonnormative feature is noted, readers can assume a character is Caucasian—until Evan (as Meerkat) and Foxman respond to an alert to find a burglary in process and "a slightly tubby white man in his fifties" at the scene, along with "a skinnier, seedier version of" the same.
In addition to bringing a welcome corrective to a world where young, dark-skinned men are too often perceived as criminal, the naming of the burglars’ skin color provides critical information to readers on how to understand the book: when a character's physical features are not named and no further clues given, they can picture that character as they choose. Dark-haired, brown-eyed Mike and Foxman could be of African, American Indian, Latino, South Asian, Middle-Eastern, or Mediterranean descent—or a combination—that's up to readers. Crucially, Evan never describes himself or his family physically or by identity (beyond his dad's two moms). Aside from gender, he is otherwise largely undefined and therefore open to interpretation.
While it's not perfect (one student is described generically as Native American), overall it's subtle, generous, and altogether brilliant: a model for inclusive writing in the 21st century.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor.