Where's My Character?

Years ago, I started my teaching career by tutoring kids in literacy. By some stroke of luck, one of my first students was a young Somalian girl, and this lead to tutoring her brother, their next door neighbours, the kids across the street, the ones around the corner, and their cousin a few blocks away. Before I knew it, I was tutoring about ten Somalian children every week, and getting invites to birthday parties and school functions with the families. It was a really wonderful time for me: being invited into people’s homes where the families were so open to sharing their culture and their traditions was a really humbling and gratifying experience. Plus the kids were eager and cheeky, so teaching them was always fun.

 

Of all the great moments during this period, one lesson still really stands out. I was teaching a boy, who was about five or six. Let’s call him Ali. I remember that he was only in his first year of school, but he was already big and strong; so much bigger than all of the other kids. Ali had energy, and a loud, curious voice. The kind of voice that asks questions at the wrong time, louder than all the other kids. A voice that probably got him into trouble at school a bit too often. We would sit down with a book, and he’d sit and listen, keen to get involved in the story and check out all of the pictures. On this particular day, we were reading a children’s book about a girl at school. The girl had some kind of show and tell, or some news to tell the class, something like that. The main character, the girl, had a name, and so did some of the other students. They had names and characters and dialogue to speak, and funny voices to go with it. As we read the book, I pointed to the characters who were speaking, making sure Ali knew their names, trying to make them seem more alive to him. At one point, he jumped in, interrupting the story.

 

“Who’s that?” he said.

 

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I stopped reading, looking at where he was pointing. The illustration showed a mixed bunch of kids in the class. Among those kids was one little black boy, right up the back, but still part of the class. This, of course, was the character Ali was pointing to.


“Who’s that?” he said.


I didn’t know what to say. He doesn’t have a name. He’s not really a character. He’s just one of the kids in the class but we don’t know who he is. All pretty valid statements. I think that in the end we just made up a name for him and then Ali was happy to keep reading and find out what happened in the story.


I’m embarrassed to say that before that moment I hadn’t really given any thought to the race of the kids in the picture books that I used for tutoring; I’d only been looking at the books in terms of their stories, their literary elements, the ways in which I might use them to teach concepts. Here I was teaching ten Somalian children, and I had never thought to try to engage them by using books that had children that looked like them or even included storylines about multiculturalism, refugees, or African/Australian experiences (And yes, there are many brilliant kids books about those things, you just have to look for them).


His questioning; his eagerness to know more about that particular character, made me rethink the way I’d been teaching. It made me rethink a lot of children’s books. It made me rethink lots of stories and toys and games that we present to children. Before this moment, the concept that we should include a variety of characters in our stories was little more than a feel-good idea to me. It was something that I believed in because it sounded like a good thing to do, but that I honestly didn’t really put into practice. But here it was, in a real, concrete moment. Here was a real child with a real desire to connect with a character that looked like him. This isn’t about filling quotas, or a theory of inclusion and diversity, this was a real human need.


So whenever I hear some white person relaying a story about how silly it is that a particular school goes to so much effort to use black dolls, or tell non-white traditional stories, or to learn about other religions and festivals, I get pretty damn annoyed. This is not political correctness gone mad. How insulting to all of the children who are finally getting to see some aspect of their character reflected back to them.  And how limiting for the white Australian children. As if the white kids don’t need to learn about others’ stories and cultures, and value them alongside their own. This is about showing ALL kids that they are worth being a character in a book. A character with a name, a personality and dialogue to speak, and a funny voice to go with it.