An interview with Jeremy Whitley about his race-positive, gender-bending, subversive series for kids, princeless.
Princeless series [recommended for ages 8+] by Jeremy Whitley (Action Lab Entertainment)
Synopsis: As a young girl Princess Adrienne was already critical of the princess stories her mother read to her. What kind of parents imprison their daughter in a tower? she scoffed. Until one day her parents do imprison her in a tower, as is the custom, so that the brave knight who slays the dragon guarding her can win her hand. But Princess Adrienne doesn’t want to be saved or belong to a prince. So she decides to save herself and her seven sisters who are also trapped in towers. When her ruthless father, the king, hears about the “short knight” trying to free the princesses he calls for “his” head. Adventure, suspense and fun ensue. Along the way, we meet others (like her brother, Prince Devon!) who need to go against convention and expectations just to be themselves.
Melissa: Thanks so much for writing the Princeless series! What were you trying to do in regard to race with the story?
A 4 year-old Asian American girl — let’s call her Amy — lives down the street from me. She’s a truly lovely little girl — friendly, curious, fearless.
The first time we met face-to-face was in a restaurant. She and her mom were picking up some carryout as Melissa, our girls, and I were finishing up a meal. Amy looked at me, walked over, and stroked my cheek. She reached up to touch my hair, then held my hand, talking all the while. It was awesome.
The next time I saw her was at a neighborhood block party. She saw me, came over, and plopped down in my lap. Then, as before, she talked nonstop, asking questions, making observations, showing me the ropes.
Please don’t freak when your kid notices race
My neighbor was having a stoop sale this morning, and although I have been living next to this woman, her son and husband for the past two years, today was the first day that I reached out and talked with her. She is Japanese, from Japan. Her husband is from Japan. Her son was likely born in the United States but goes back every summer to Japan.
I am half-Japanese and, like an imposter, feel both attracted to and intimidated by Japanese Japanese people when I encounter them. Maybe this is why I haven’t reached out to this neighbor before?
I get self-conscious about the degree to which I am what I say I am if she doesn’t see it. I imagine this Japanese woman looking at me and wondering to herself: Japanese? She doesn’t look or sound Japanese. But, she does know something about my dishes … hmmm.
Taking a deep breath, I respond to my daughter with a wish of my own.
I've begun to see that it’s not about having the “right” answers when kids ask about race. Don’t get me wrong: I think there are better and worse answers to offer. There’s also a lot to be said for having a calm, thoughtful answer in the first place, sending the important signal that it’s fine to talk about race openly.
At the end of the school day this past fall, I drove to pick up my 5 year-old daughter, Estella, from kindergarten. As we walked down the steps outside, Estella said she felt like walking instead of driving. It was a beautiful day, and so I happily agreed to take a walk around the block and then drive home.
We were at the tipping point of the New England autumn. Some of the leaves were beginning to turn yellow, and a few were already burning red. We were admiring the colors as Estella skipped along, her little hand in mine, when she said, “Daddy, I wish that we lived in a world where people couldn’t change their skin color.
Race and representation in bedtime stories and afternoon play
Five year-old Fatimah pulled a yellow book from the shelf of Philz Coffee’s mini-library. She flipped through its pages and put it back. “No pictures,” she explained.
“What kinds of pictures do you like?” I asked.
“Smiling pictures, not angry,” she said. I pulled out a magazine from underneath a stack of books.
“That’s not a book, that’s a magazine!” She rejected my compromise as she pulled out yet another book. It, too, was rejected. “Nooo, this has no pictures!”
If we learn one thing from Fatimah’s insistent search for a book with pictures, let it be this: visuals matter.