So I was listening to a really interesting episode of Annotated, a BookRiot Podcast, about The Baby Sitters Club. They had so many interesting things to say, and I highly recommend it if you’re a 90s kid and a podcast listener. But one of the things that got me really thinking was when they started talking about Claudia and representation.
Pre-BSC (and honestly, post-BSC too) it was unusual for minority readers, especially young minority readers, to see themselves in a book character. This episode of Annotated talked at length about the benefit of that, which I won’t go into much detail about here because so many other bloggers have said it so eloquently before.
But while I was listening, I really got to thinking about my favorite book series from the 90s. I was a BSC fan like anyone else, but my absolute favorite series was Animorphs. I know, you’re not shocked. I’ve only talked about it like, a million times. And if you’re thinking about what the folks on Annotated were talking about with Claudia, it’s really cool that so many young, black girls got to see themselves reflected in the character of Cassie. But here’s the thing.
I absolutely identified with Cassie too.
In Animorphs we were presented with two young women. Rachel was a tall, super-model-esque Blonde with a kick-ass-first-ask-questions-later attitude. Cassie was a small, quiet, black girl who cared deeply for animals and feelings. And when ten-year-old me first encountered this series it was not the girl who looked like me I identified with, but the one who thought like me. Cassie.
How powerful is it that for the three years I read and re-read this series I saw myself most reflected in the minority character?
At the time I didn’t think anything of it. Literally, it didn’t occur to me that Cassie was a minority. In my little white privilege bubble I didn’t have to worry about it. But now, as an adult, I realize that I probably learned more empathy for African American people by reading about and caring for Cassie than any amount of social studies lessons about Dr. King and Rosa Parks. Unlike so many of my peers, I instinctively understood that black people are people because Cassie was just like me.
I think one of the reasons Animorphs was probably such an effective lesson in empathy was because the author, Katherine Applegate, didn’t make a big deal out of it. Once per book when characters were getting described her skin color would come up (at the same time as Rachel’s blonde hair), but it was never made a big deal of. Racism and discrimination weren’t a big theme in the books. Everyone was human, and everyone’s life was at risk by the Yeerks. I think the normalization of the characters of color in that series was partly because of the lack of social justice themes.
Don’t get me wrong, books like The Hate U Give are incredibly important. But I think that sometimes it’s good to have a book where interracial characters are just … there. No fanfare, no big neon sign.
We talk so much about representation in books, and how it benefits those being represented. But we know the research, reading builds empathy. I think it reasons to stand that reading about people who look different than you builds even more empathy. So I believe that as important as representation is for the represented groups, it is equally important for those not represented to be reading. I think (I hope) I am a better person each time I read a book where the main character looks different from me, whether skin color, gender, weight, hair-type, or religion. And I want to thank Katherine Applegate for helping me get there.