when diversity is not a strategy but an essential element of the story being told: Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

We Need Diverse Books. We absolutely do. Books that don't merely place a "non-mainstream" character into the story for the sake of inclusion. Books that go much deeper than the announcement of, or allusion to, skin color, origin countries, sexual preferences. Books that don't operate as if conforming to PC checklists. Books that function outside the circle of slogans and tell real stories.

Truly diverse books are books in which the culture and cultural heritage and economics of the characters are essential to the story being told. They explore wide ranging personages, languages, histories, orientations, dreams. They are steeped in the particular social and personal pressures faced by very particular (and particularly well-drawn) characters. They introduce characters that seem to live not just on the page, but off it.

Middle grade/YA novels such as Ann E. Burg's Serafina's Promise, Thanhha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again, Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming, Kwame Alexander's Crossover, A.S. King's Ask the Passengers, and Patricia McCormick's Never Fall Down and Sold have, among many other titles, introduced lasting, fully dimensional, diverse characters to younger readers. With her second stunning middle grade novel, Blue Birds, Caroline Starr Rose has made another important addition to this canon.

Blue Birds is a novel in verse that explores a little-known chapter of American history concerning the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke. It's late in the 16th century. English explorers have arrived to Roanoke Island, off Virginia. Conflict and distrust erupt among the native tribes and the English.

Into this setting Rose has placed two young girls—Alis, from England, and Kimi, a Roanoke who has watched the English bring disease and disaster to her world. Out on her own, Alis discovers the natural beauty of the place. Watching, Kimi must decide whether or not to trust this fair-skinned creature. Will Alis and Kimi be able to peel back the social prejudice and befriend one another? Will they be able to step over the great divide that rises whenever individual people are presented with difference? And what will they do—what can they do—as tensions mount in their respective communities?

Rose has given us a complex story, a real and researched story, a story that, despite its roots in late 16th century America, feels contemporary. The questions about other are neither dodged nor trumped, and they never feel commercially strategic. The questions arise because such questions naturally do, because this is the story Starr is telling. And look how gracefully and honestly she tells it:

Why do they dress as they do?
To speak their language,
does it feel as it sounds,
like sharpened rocks on  your tongue?
What makes their skin
the color of a snake's underside?
Why do the men not keep their faces smooth
but grow hair from their cheeks?
Do they ever bathe?
For their strong odor lingers
long after they've gone.

Though they
have brought us heartache,
must all of them
be enemies?
In bringing readers Alis and Kimi, Starr has not just brought us a distant era. She's brought her readers a way of sinking in with real questions about difference—and a credible suggestion that such differences might be overcome.


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