Kids draw what they know — themselves, their family, maybe a house with the sun shining above it. When it comes to drawing people, boys mostly draw boys and girls mostly draw girls. That goes for race as well. There are exceptions, of course, but the basic idea is that children’s drawings reflect who they are and the world around them.
When I became a professional illustrator, I got a crash course in moving beyond that. It came in the mid-to-late 1980s, when I started getting a lot of work drawing illustrations for grade school textbooks.
Right around that time, the major publishers had developed a new editorial approach. It required the content of their books to include a broad mix of people — all races, sexes, body types, hair styles, ages, physical abilities, and so on. Also, professional stereotypes were out the window. A black man could be a professor, a Hispanic woman could be a doctor, a white man could be a nurse. The goal: to have every kid represented in the books and to present any profession as a possibility to anyone.
There weren’t quotas. Each illustrator just had to remember to mix it up. If you hadn’t drawn an American Indian girl in a while, draw one. About the only rule was to avoid exaggerated features than reinforced racial stereotypes. On the flip side, you didn’t want to draw the same face over and over, just coloring it a different shade of brown or peach.
Work would be assigned in batches, like 20, 50, or 100 illustrations at a time. The repetitiveness of the work made that “mix-it-up mindset” stick, and it crossed over into my other work. Illustration assignments outside of textbooks wouldn’t often specify race or sex. So I consciously varied it on my own.
I remember one gratifying moment about 10 years later, when the approach paid off. I was talking to a high school art class about being an illustrator, and I’d brought along six of my illustrated maze books to show as examples.
At the end of my talk, a girl came up to me and asked, “I bet you don’t draw any women characters?” It was the kind of “gotcha” moment I’d heard of, because a lot of media at the time wasn’t very inclusive. But she didn’t get the answer she expected.
I opened Mastermind Mazes and showed her the main character, a woman scientist named Sara Bellum. Next to her was her male assistant, Sir Rebral. The girl was surprised, but even more so when I opened another book, Double-Cross Mazes. The main character in that one was Avery Waverly, an African-American TV host. The girl who’d asked me was also African-American.
Thanks to the experience of working for the textbook publishers, I wasn’t caught in an embarrassing moment. And I’d like to think it offered that girl a ray of hope that she wasn’t forever going to be ignored as a woman or as an African-American. I don’t really know because she didn’t say another word. I got the feeling she’d asked that question before, but it was the first time she’d gotten that response.
The fact is, we’re a very diverse country. It’s nice when we can accept and embrace that — and not just in the media. It’s even more important in our personal interactions and in public forums, because … we’re all here bobbing about in the same boat.