Over the past several months I’ve become a connoisseur of character descriptions in kids’ books. The main character of Patrice Kindl’s Don’t You Trust Me? describes herself as “white-bread-white,” which I found winningly forthright. Less forthright are the many, many books that still assume a white default and give white characters elaborate descriptions of everything but their skin—long, curly red hair and freckles; a short, brown bob and green eyes; a blond crew cut and blue eyes—while relegating their characters of color to bare-bones descriptions: Asian, black, and the colossally meaningless “looks Latina.” Some authors will mention Afros and dreadlocks; the most pusillanimous of them will mention Afros and dreadlocks without actually saying whether the people wearing them are black, white, or brown.
Which is why I was so excited when I read The Sweetest Sound, the story of a painfully shy young African-American girl with a golden voice. In it, author Sherri Winston (who is also a freelance contributor to Kirkus) easily celebrates the intricate differences among black Americans.
On the very first page, narrator Cadence introduces readers to friend Faith, “from the Dominican Republic, so even though people assume she’s African American, she speaks Spanish quite well.” (So much for that “looks Latina” baloney.) She has a “gazillion tiny black braids” and a “chocolate-brown complexion.” Miss Sofine at the diner has skin “the color of dark-roast coffee” and an “old-school” beehive. Cadence’s dad has “soft brown eyes” and “clay-colored cheeks” that turn “deep cranberry” when he blushes. Her biracial (black/white) friend Zara has “pale gray-green eyes” and “springy ringlets that [reach] all the way to her butt.” Cadence herself has “light, light brown” skin, “gray eyes,” and “really thin, wispy hair” that she wears in a pixie cut.
These rich descriptions are an object lesson in the physical and cultural diversity of black America, one other authors would do well to heed. Vicky Smith is children’s & teen editor.