Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Role Models – Writers and the Characters They Create

When my writing partner and I sat down to really dig into writing our first novel, one of the details we agreed on was that the characters should not be just like characters in most other kids’ literature. We wanted them to reflect multi-cultural families – but we didn’t want the story itself to be ABOUT how the girls were of a certain ethnicity. They were going to be just girls…with different names and different skin colors, who spoke different languages and had different family dynamics…but the story would be about their adventures and challenges.

Now, I think I’m more sensitive to the ethnicities presented in the books my kids read, and to the story lines. I love finding a good story that happens to present main characters who aren’t just like me and my kids. In other words, I want my kids to read about different people (all kinds of different) but I specifically love the stories where they see that really, underneath the skin color, able-ness, language, religion, whatever… we are all the same.

Without knowing much about it, I picked up a copy of Lisa Yee’s Bobby the Brave (Sometimes) for my 8 year old son. I liked the art work on the cover…and didn’t have much time to do anything other than read the jacket flap before I bought it. A fourth grade boy who has to overcome weird challenges involving a new gym teacher named Mr. Weiner House (anything about “wieners” is always a big hit with my son!) and encounters with a 27-toed evil cat (cats, are strangely, also a huge hit). It sounded like perhaps I’d finally found something other than dragon books for him to read.

We started reading it together, and I was in love with Lisa Yee from about page 3. Not only is Bobby part of a family comprised of more than one ethnicity (his last name is Ellis-Chan), but that is just part of the story. His family is just his family – sort of in the background for most of the action, like multitudes of other kid’s books. The story is not about how he has a mother who is one color and a father who is another. Thank goodness!

The detail that cinched my desire to be Lisa Yee’s new BFF? The typical gender roles and a little bit turned on their heads for the Ellis-Chan family. Finally…my son could read about a boy whose father was the stay at home parent! A father who, like his own, cooks dinner every night and makes up new recipes (some a hit, some decidedly not). And this fictional Dad was a professional football player before he decided to stay home with his children. So cool! I dare you to find a more perfect role model for a young boy – tough football player turned parent/chief-cook-and-bottle-washer. LOVE this.

Bobby’s mother goes into the office everyday (like me!) but is still an involved mother. And…(here’s another detail I just love) Bobby’s big sister is the star quarterback on the high school football team.

Hooray for mixing it up with the role models and family dymanics!

I’m trying to work in some of this greatness – some mixing of traditional gender roles, etc. – into one of my works in progress. I just wrote a scene this week where a kidnapped prince meets the guard – a huge, tough, stinky, strong woman – who is keeping him trapped in a tall, tall tower.

Not nearly enough, I know…but I figure at least I’m trying!

Have you written non-traditional gender roles or family dynamics into any stories? Have you read any kids’ books lately where the characters were of different ethnicities, but the story didn’t focus on that detail? Let me know!


  1. I am actually writing a story about a girl with one hand, but it's not a focus of the story, even though it's part of who she is. She's also guarded by a tough female guard.

  2. Sounds like quite a story, Andrea!