Yesterday, on Twitter, I happened upon Kheryn Casey’s blog via a link posted by Karen Sandler, who has visited me here before. Of course, this is a topic that has always been a part of the conversation about YA and books in general. Who do these books represent and who, implicitly, is worthy of representation? But Kheryn’s blog adds another wrinkle to the dialogue, which is the question of beauty and the standard which is still so very narrow so that even most white people would not qualify as beautiful according to those parameters.
It seems to me that these days the question of beauty is even more pressing in YA these days. Don’t believe me, take a walk in that section of your local bookstore next time you’re there. The shelves are filled with books covered with pictures of impossibly attractive (mostly white) young people. Not a freckle or blemish among them. Even when you only get part of the body, which is is happening more and more, the image is that of an (generally white) ideal. The folks on these covers don’t look like anyone that I knew when I was that age. They don’t even look like anyone that I know now. I don’t know what young people are supposed to feel when they see those covers. Is it aspirational? Are they supposed to want to look that way? To be those people? Mostly, when I look at them I feel an aversion (quick survey of YA demo girls sitting at my table–images should be more realistic, not just perfection). I’ve said before that I tend to gravitate toward books without people on the covers.
Even more than the obsession with a certain kind of beauty that is reflected on the covers is the obsession with that beauty that is reflected in the pages. I can’t count YA that I have read recently where beauty, however that beauty is quantified, is harped on from beginning to end. All that matters is the beauty of the characters–the outward appearance–and I dare say that this obsession is a relatively recent phenomenon.
The books I read growing up were not so concerned with making sure that I understood that the characters were beautiful. In books like The Dark is Rising, A Wrinkle in Time, even Harry Potter, beauty is not the question–in fact, none of the Potter characters were described as real lookers (except Gilderoy Lockhart and we see what that was worth. Oh, yeah, and the French girl Ron’s brother marries). There were descriptions, sure, and perhaps the mention of a character being gorgeous, but the harping wasn’t happening and the covers of these books only reinforce that idea. It did not seem to be the aim of authors like Cooper, Rowling, and L’Engle to tout beauty and the rarified spaces that it opened up for those who had it. Their books are more about who the characters are not how they look. They celebrate qualities such as intelligence, bravery, loyalty, and love. Qualities that anyone can aspire regardless of whether their hair is black or brown or yellow or red and their eyes are green, blue, brown, purple, or orange.
This is the kind of writing that I do. My main characters are copper-skinned, green-eyed people of color, but there is a method to that madness. Throughout my first book (can’t say the same for the second because the twins are in high school and all bets are off) not one character makes a value judgement based on the outward appearance of the character. I don’t know if I say once that my characters are beautiful. That doesn’t matter, more importantly, my characters are however my readers imagine them to be in their heads. What matters to me is not that readers understand how beautiful my characters are, but that they understand who my characters are inside, what they’re going through, and how it’s changing them (for better or worse).
Now to wrap up….how to wrap up? What are your thoughts about the beauty obsession in books, be it either as a reflection of a still largely Eurocentric notion of how beauty is defined or this increasing obsession with beauty as the be all end all in terms of the characters worth?
Will post pics soon (meaning, like, tomorrow.