At a childrens birthday party, Nicola Yoon was taken aback when the balloon artist told her that the faces on the princess balloon figures merely came in peach

During the first couple of years or so of my young girls life, I fretted primarily about maintaining her alive. During infancy, everything was a choking hazard. In toddlerhood, every sharp corner seemed determined to encounter her head. After those fragile and harrowing first two years, I turned my attention to more emotional and spiritual concerns. I focused on teaching her to be kind, brave, and curious. I taught her that princess were cool if they did things besides just hanging about in palaces, appearing fairly and waiting to be rescued.

These days, Im working on teaching her perseverance, stranger-danger and sticking up for herself. I want her to be happy and I want her to know that happiness is something you work at. The easiest thing to be in this world is unhappy.

One of the things I want most though is for her to love herself. Component of loving yourself is loving the skin youre in. I mean this metaphorically and literally, but right now Im focusing on the literal meaning. Im Jamaican-American and my husband is American of Korean descent. Our daughters skin colour is brown and I need to teach her to love the scalp shes in. How do I do that in a country with as huge a race problem as America? America is a country that loves the theory that all men are created equal, but doesnt love the practice.

How do I teach her that shes smart and beautiful and that she can be anyone she wants to be when the country and media tell her otherwise? Or entirely erases her outright? How many cartoons and TV demonstrates feature merely white boys and girls? How many black and brown and Asian characters( if you can find any at all) are relegated to the position of lowly side-kick?

Nicola Yoon, with her daughter and husband. Photograph: Penguin

This struggle to show my “girls ” positive representation is something I fight for every day. I fight by uncovering her to media that depicts characters of colour in a beautiful way. I oppose in my own volumes by making the main characters people of colour. My books reflect the diverse and beautiful world that “were living in”. Im even part of an activist organisation dedicated to increasing diversity in children media, We Need Diverse Books.

But what else can I be doing? Its a question Im always asking myself. And a few weeks ago, part of the answer presented itself to me.

My daughter is now five. What this means is that most of my weekends are expended at kids birthday parties feeing pizza and cupcakes and singing Happy Birthday woefully off key. Such was the lawsuit a few weekends ago. It was a pizza-making party at a local pizza place. Image 20 five-year-olds and their parents kneading dough, spreading sauce, sprinkling cheese and layering pepperoni. Like anything else involving five-year-olds, it was complete chaos and lots of fun at the same period. While the pizzas were cooking, the kids lined up to get balloons constructed. This is pretty standard fare at these parties. Usually theres a face painter or a balloon artist. At the fancier parties, theres both.

Id never seen a balloon artist this good before. Im not exaggerating when I say she was phenomenal. She could make anything the kids asked of her, and she was fast. The children didnt even have time to get impatient and whiny. She was so skilled that she didnt have to look while she was constructing her elaborate creations. She made foot-long bloom crowns, castles. She even made a car.

After pizza and juice, she decided to stimulate more creations to leave behind extras in case some child inevitably popped their own by accident. By attaining extras she was sparing some poor mother the tears and drama. Along with the standards swords, butterflies, crowns she also made elaborate princesses, complete with hair and limbs and a gown. She drew faces on each with black markers.

All the princess were white. Which is to say, she used the peach balloons blown up into perfect realms for the faces. I noticed this after the fifth or sixth balloon drifted by. I checked out the balloon collecting on her tool belt. There were three tints of brown balloons. My “girls ” was too busy eating cake to notice the princess, but eventually she would and shed want one. I wanted her to have one that had her skin colour. At the very least, I wanted her to see that brown princess balloons existed. I went over to the balloon artist and I asked her if she could make one using the brown balloons. She replied and Im quoting, because I recollect what she said exactly with this: We dont stimulate princess in those colours.

Nicola Yoon What I saw astounding was that shed never thought to construct brown faces in the first place. Photograph: Penguin

I told her that I didnt understand. She had the balloons there on her tool belt. She said yes, she had brown balloons, but they werent the right type to induce faces. She looked away from me and maintained building her peach princess. And then she shrugged. I sort of nodded and walked away from her. In the moment, I was so taken aback that I didnt know what to say. I procured my husband and told him about the exchange. I wont repeat what he said, but he was angry.

Im non-confrontational. Fights attain me uncomfortable. Ill be discouraged if I can. Furthermore, Im a sunny kind. Optimistic. A benefit-of-the-doubt giver. I believe that people are mostly good. I believe that if people know the right thing to do, theyll largely do it.

So, heres the thing: I believed her about the brown balloons. I had no reason not to. They probably werent the right kind for constructing faces. I dont guess she was lying to me because she didnt want to make a brown princess. What I found astounding though was that shed never thought to construct brown faces in the first place.

Surely, I couldnt have been the first person to ask. And if I were, why hadnt it mattered to other mothers? Why didnt it matter to her?

I get asked about diversity in childrens literature a lot. Im the first black novelist to make No 1 on the New York Times young adult list. My first volume, Everything, Everything, has been made into a movie, and my second one, The Sun is Also a Star, is a National Book Award finalist and has been optioned by MGM and Warner Bros. I answer all these diversity questions patiently. When I tour, I make sure to talk about why diversity in childrens literature is important to me and why it should be important to everyone. The leading characters in my books are people of colour and will continue to be.

Back at the party, my husband asked me if I wanted him to say something. I said no. I said I wanted to do it. I went back over to her and I said: Its not OK that you dont make princesses in that colouring. She started to explain again about the types of balloons. I heard her out and then I said: Its still not OK. There are brown princesses. There are black princess and its not OK for you to do that. We built eye contact and I held it. She nodded and said, OK. And I walked away again. I dont know if what I said mattered to her. I dont know if shell do the same thing at the next party.

Heres what I do know: I wont shy away from these awkward dialogues any more. Ill say the thing that needs to be said. I dont mind being a little uncomfortable. Its worth it if it means we can make a better world.

Heres another thing that I know: Its 2017 and princess come in all colours. Its period everyone knew that. Its past time.

Nicola Yoon is the author of Everything, Everything and The Sun is Also a Star , published by Random House Childrens Books. The cinema Everything, Everything is on general release in the UK

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