Reading the Baby-Sitters’ Club books at a young and impressionable age (8-10?) meant that I learned a lot from them. I learned what the word decorum means. I learned what it’s like to have a step-family. I learned what buffalo-head nickels and fedoras and tourniquets are. I even learned what a (derogatory) oreo is. But one lesson I had internalized so hard I took it for granted – until this week – was that it’s normal for ballerinas to be black.
In the Babysitters’ Club books, the original four girls are all in eighth grade (forever), but they quickly branch out into other members, including two Junior members, best friends Mallory Pike and Jessi Ramsey. Each of the BSC girls has traits that differentiate her from the others: Mallory’s are that she
has red hair wears glasses [discovered when re-reading!] and comes from a big family; Jessi’s are that she does ballet and that she’s black. According to this website (and there’s more about Jessi and ballet on this blog), Jessi claims that racism no longer exists in the world of ballet, but with Misty Copeland’s recent promotion to principal ballerina making headlines, it seems that is untrue.
As a children’s librarian, I’ve read countless series with a carefully constructed balance of race. Series that come to mind include the Flower Power series by Lauren Myracle, the Beacon Street Girls by Annie Bryant, the Mother-Daughter Book Club by Heather Vogel Frederick. These series almost always include a redheaded girl, a brown- and/or blonde-haired girl, an Asian girl, and a black/brown girl. Sometimes, as in the case of Flower Power, they even include a character with gay parents, just to fully round things out on the diversity scale.
The characters are almost always very different in terms of interests and personalities, sometimes to the point of being caricatures, so you wonder why they’re friends, but there are two takeaways to writing about a group of friends like this. One is for kids of all backgrounds to see themselves as protagonists – not just represented in the book as a minor character for diversity’s sake, but actually as a protagonist. This is getting better every day, and is the goal of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign on Twitter.
The other takeaway is for kids – readers – to understand that they can make a conscious choice to overcome the subtle racism that they have already absorbed from their surroundings and to choose as friends people who may look different from themselves, but share something – an experience (overcoming a bully, as in Flower Power; adjusting to a new school, as in Beacon Street Girls; being dragged to a mother-daughter book club, as in Frederick’s series) or simply a friendliness and openness. It is human nature that we gravitate toward others who look like us, but what if “like us” referred to physical expressions of our personalities (clothing styles, hair/makeup styles – though these are definitely currently influenced by our class, race and culture) and not skin color, hair color, gender, age?
I’m not denying that the Baby-Sitter’s Club books are flawed, especially when representing a world as technical and detailed as ballet, but I think they teach a very valuable lesson, which is that you can be anything you want. Maybe that’s a really Millennial outlook, but it’s one thing we can count on many fiction writers to do: depict the world as they wish it would be, and leave as their mark a small, subtle shift in the way people think things can be. Ann Martin gave us a world in which a black girl can be a principal ballerina; hers and other series give us worlds in which kids can be friends with kids who look different than them, because they have other things in common. By showing us how this world can exist, they are taking steps towards making it reality, and that is the beauty and optimism of fiction.
I grew up understanding Jessi’s ballet skills as a fact of life, so Ms. Copeland’s achievement surprised me at first and then thrilled me. Maybe she will be offended that I didn’t know how hard it had been for her to get there, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that racism doesn’t exist. Just that, for a while anyway, one reader (okay, probably lots of readers) were moving through the world blissfully unaware that it wasn’t the norm. Any aspiring black dancer would have found herself represented, if not in the actual world, then in a book. And that’s got to be better than nothing.