A few months ago, a story popped into my head whole. Somehow, a picture book idea I’d been mulling over called Rock Swap (inspired by one of my daughters who loves collecting rocks) morphed into a short story about a girl named Adrika who collects rocks and ends up defeating an old rakshasa named Hidimbi. At the time, we were driving to my parent’s apartment for Thanksgiving, and I didn’t have a pen handy, so I dictated the story into my phone as my family listened. Later I revised it.
My older daughter loved this story. She really wanted me to turn it into a book and a movie and make millions of dollars from it. I informed her that probably wasn’t going to happen. Then, she asked if I could print this out for HER to sell in our front yard. (A side note: she is obsessed with the idea of making and selling things.) So last week, when she asked again about printing out and selling one of my stories, I said, what about Rock Swap? She was so excited. We revised it together, and I told her she could draw the cover.
Immediately, she knew which scene she wanted to draw, but she still had all sorts of questions for me about color choice—what should Adrika wear, what color should the font be, etc. I asked her questions to help her figure it out for herself. On her own, she decided, of course, Adrika should have brown hair, like her, but then my brown-eyed daughter said, “Can I draw her with blue eyes on the cover?”
This threw me. I wasn’t sure how to respond. Even though I had a specific girl in mind when I wrote Adrika, I had never really described her eyes. My mistake, I guess, if I had something specific in mind. So, should I encourage my daughter’s artistic side by telling her to draw Adrika however she wanted? Or would I have to turn this into a teachable moment of some kind?
Still dithering, I started off with, “Why?”
“I think it’ll look better.”
It’ll look better? Mommy guilt rammed right through my heart. I felt I had failed my daughter in some way. She genuinely felt that blue eyes would look better than brown eyes on the cover of this book. I fought to control my expression so I wouldn’t seem judgmental.
I said, “I like blue eyes, but I was really picturing an Indian girl who looked like me, or like you. And we both have brown eyes.”
“I don’t think brown eyes will look right on a cover. This brown is too dark, and Indian people can have blue eyes.”
“I suppose that’s true,” I said, wondering whether I was the one being closed minded. “But there are so many characters with blue eyes. And I wanted this character to have brown eyes.”
“Let me show you the brown,” she said. “Then you will see that it’s too dark.” She colored on a scrap of paper and brought it over to me.
I looked at the page. “This looks like your eye color,” I said. It did. “I have dark brown eyes. Does this look like my eye color?”
Her eyes flicked from the page to my eyes and back again. I could tell from her expression that she agreed and was still thinking about this.
I said. “When you tell me this color is too dark for the cover, it makes me sad. It makes me think you don’t like your own beautiful brown eyes.”
She didn’t say anything. She went and colored the character in with brown eyes and tan skin like hers.
I don’t know exactly what was going on in her head, did she change her mind about who can be on the cover of a book? Or instead, did she decide she couldn’t talk to Mommy about this any more? I didn’t ask, not sure I wanted to know the answer, and honestly not sure she would know the answer anyway.
I’ve seen how my daughter grins at herself in the mirror–I know she likes the way she looks, but will that change as she gets older? Will seeing mostly lighter-skinned people with blue eyes all over her books and TV shows gradually teach her that her own appearance is somehow inferior?
I hope by continuing to talk to her and read her my stories about brown-eyed, brown-skinned, dark-haired girls, she’ll continue to love her own appearance as much as she does now. I hope she’ll be able to truly feel that eye color really doesn’t change whether a person is worthy of being a main character in a story. I hope so. I suppose time will tell.