I read this article (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/31/fashion/31disney.html?_r=1&ref=fashion) with professional as well as personal interest, because I think it touches upon a lot of things that are also concerns in children's literature. (Well, literature in general, but my focus is on the young'uns.) As I recently discussed with one of my authors, who is Caucasian but has African-American and Latino characters in the middle-grade novel he is working on, there's always a concern that the character of color will end up being a caricature, an offensive stereotype, if written by a non-minority. When you look at the examples of the stereotype-ridden old cartoons cited in this article, which definitely had their counterparts in books, you can understand why people would be sensitive to this issue. This is a big reason why many publishers seek at least one creator of a book featuring minority characters and issues to be of that background him- or herself. Especially in picture books, publishers have often wanted the illustrator to be portraying characters of his or her same race, largely because of the horribly racist images produced in our country's past.
Another reason, of course, is to give authors and illustrators of color the voice and platform they deserve and have historically been denied. And, while I don't want to get too political or controversial here, I also know that some people are of the mind that no person can write from the perspective of a marginalized group if he or she has not had the same experience. Some may say that this in itself is racist, continuing racial divides and/or perpetuating the idea that people of color are always different, always victims. I take no stance either way, but I do want to note that there are notable exceptions to the rule of careful treading. The recent Greenwillow release Soul Enchilada, by David Macinnis Gill, for example, features a half-black, half-Tejana protagonist, and I don't think there's a white character (or at least not one explicitly stated as such) in the book. The reviews I've seen have all been quite good, and I think what really makes his book work is the amazing voice Gill gave the main character--Bug is so unique and so believable, you forget a middle-aged white man created her.
What I also thought was interesting in the Times was the comment by the African-American mother who said, “I don’t know how important having a black princess is to little girls—my daughter loves Ariel and I see nothing wrong with that—but I think it’s important to moms.” I think it's important to moms because they see what not having a black princess says about the place of their own little black princesses in our society.
Still, this relates to another concern in putting in minority characters just for the sake of diversity--the concern of tokenism. I've always felt that it would be pretty obvious to young readers if the kids of color were always the side characters and never the protagonists, teaching them subtly but surely that only white kids can be the stars. And while I advise against writing "message-y" books and instead tell writers to tell the story they are truly passionate about and the story that truly is a story, I do know that the best story will always say something to the reader, will impact kids so thoroughly.
At the same time, I'm torn about all this because of a personal experience I had: I used to have a "reading buddy" at a public school in New York City, who I would read with every other week at lunchtime from when she was in first grade through when she was in third. The books she picked out were never particularly literary or difficult, but tried to help her get the most out of them anyway, taking delight in how she became less and less shy about reading out loud, and how she actually seemed to be retaining the definitions of the harder words I would point out to her as we read. Her parents were Mexican immigrants, her dad a short-order cook and her mom a cleaning lady, and she had told me about how she, her parents, and her two brothers all shared one bedroom in their Brooklyn apartment, while her aunt, grandmother, and uncle shared the other. I was happy to hear her say that she was reading a chapter book with her dad every night, and how she would read picture books to her little brother. One day we were reading a book with a Latino character named Jose [insert eye roll] in it, and he said a basic Spanish phrase. I thought it was very token-y, but my buddy read the phrase so excitedly, pronouncing each word (including Jose's name) perfectly, and then proudly announcing afterwards that she spoke Spanish like Jose, too. It made me realize that it really is so important for kids to see themselves in movies, TV, books, etc., and even if it starts out with a "Muchas gracias" by Jose or an imperfect Princess Tiana, it's something.
I'd love to hear any of your thoughts on this topic. And also on the statement made by a columnist quoted in the article, who said that Disney should be ashamed because "[t]his princess story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community.” I'm not sure why that's so shameful. If it celebrates a city with a rich African-American history at a time far before the betrayals of our government in Hurrican Katrina, isn't this a good thing? Might it not increase more pride and interest in New Orleans, and interest in helping to rebuild it and its people? Or am I missing something?