The answer to this complicated question is love. I fell in love with a black woman, and I fell in love with her hair. My wife isn’t just any black woman, she is one of the foremost academics on race, gender and Intersectionality. And, she has a poof! The Poof is a great ball of curly hair that sits on top of her head. And in my head, he’s definitely a character. He can stretch and form into shapes. “Hello there, how are you?” the Poof will ask. “What’s that thing?” the Poof wonders as he points to different objects around the room. “Can we go play?” the Poof whines as I form him into a giant question mark. My wife knows that for me, this is normal. I’ve been creating characters since I was little, complete with personalities, sound effects and storylines.
After one too many attempts to play with her hair before her morning tea she suggested, “Perhaps you should do something with him.” A picture book! It’s a great place to introduce this character and the African-American heroine he’s attached to. Her personality would be a combination of my wife, my nieces, and the daughter we never had. The perfect Yin to the Poof’s Yang.
But I had a dilemma. “How will African-Americans see a white guy writing about a little black girl? Will they be offended? Should only black people write about black people?”
What my wife, and many others told me is this: It’s ok to create a diverse character, as long as you acknowledge that their diversity is an element of who they are and what their experience is. It doesn’t have to define everything about them, but you can’t ignore it either. If you strike this balance, and you truly love your characters, you will convince others that they are worthy of being loved as well.
She also told me to do my homework. She is a professor after all! I decided to start at my local book store. I figured, a picture book is a picture book, right? This is where all characters are equal in a child’s eyes. Everybody loves stories about wild things and princesses, animals and monsters. There must be room in there for a little girl with magic hair! But that’s not what I found. With the exception of the small, unorganized “World Heritage” section tucked away in the corner, I didn’t see a single book that had a black face, let alone an Asian one. And that had a profound effect.
I wanted everybody to fall in love with Ange-Marie and her Poof. I wanted them to love her earnestness and his nuttiness. I created more characters. Ling, a little Asian girl who’s a daredevil and a fashionista, and red-headed Dylan, the shy boy who gets taken along for the ride. I consulted with teachers and experts in diversity. I studied the classics. I learned word structure and cadence. Last, I found an incredible illustrator who loved my characters as much as I did.
My goal was never to exploit or profit off a community that was not my own. My goal was to create characters who were universally loved. Now I can respectfully attend a black book festival or a natural hair show confidently knowing I’ve succeeded. I can see that my message has reached not just little black girls, but girls and boys, moms of multiracial kids, and people who love that my characters teach them it’s ok to be different. So why does a short skinny white guy write about black hair? The answer is: I don’t. I create characters I love.
Stephen Hodges began his creative career in second grade by recording epic stories with his best friend. His love of storytelling and theater carried him to the film industry where he has worked on some of the largest productions in Hollywood including “The Matrix Trilogy” and “Battleship”. His producing experience includes documentaries, commercials and corporate work for Fortune 500 companies. Stephen is a graduate of Arizona State University with degrees in Intercultural Communication and Broadcast Journalism. He is hard at work on the next Magic Poof book and animated series as well several other television projects. Stephen currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their star-in-the making Havanese dog, Buttercup.
Stephen has very kindly offered special pricing on The Magic Poof for Little Pickle Press readers. Time is limited, so act now and join the diversity discussion!