We have all heard the saying.
Catch them while they are young.
Focus on the children and you will build the future you want to see. But what is that future you claim to be building? Are you building a future for change? Or is it a future that maintains a status quo that serves some groups over others?
In publishing, the issue of the future comes to the fore in children’s literature. In 2014, the non-profit organization We Need Diverse Books was founded in response to a publishing industry that publishes children’s book that fail to address the diverse experience of what it is to be a child in the United States today. The purpose of WNDB is to “help produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.” Since its foundation, WNDB has helped shape the conversation on diversity in children’s literature, highlighting the good work that is being done and exposing the instances when children’s literature perpetuates racism, ableism, and gender discrimination.
In 2019, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Associate Professor of Children’s and Young Adult Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, joined the conversation with her groundbreaking book The Dark Fantastic. Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games (New York University Press, 2019. Paperback, September 2020).
By taking a closer look at the representation of race in fantasy, Dr. Thomas cracks open the thick shell of the genre’s deep legacy of non-inclusivity and racism. Dr. Thomas picks apart the massively popular franchises of Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Merlin, and The Vampire Diaries and reveals their use of race, which, on the surface, looks like an empowerment of Black characters, but which at closer scrutiny is only more of the same.
The Dark Fantastic is a groundbreaking book for several reasons. First, it is one of few academic publications to discuss race in children’s literature. Second, to my knowledge, it is the only such publication to take fandom into account as an authentic source. Third, in addition to revealing children’s literature and publishing’s relationship to race, it simultaneously shines a light on racism in the genre of fantasy as a whole. Fourth, it presents a Theory of the Dark Fantastic and in so doing moves the field of research forward in that it provides future scholars and authors with a framework in which to position the work of their own as well as that of others.
The Dark Fantastic is a groundbreaking book on race in children’s literature that exposes and highlights while charting a way for the future of children’s literature.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.