Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt is a beloved book across the nation, filling the shelves of public and school libraries in every state. It’s won multiple awards and has been optioned for a movie. I’ve read it and here is a synopsis:
It only takes a few hours for Turner Buckminster to start hating Phippsburg, Maine. No one in town will let him forget that he’s a minister’s son, even if he doesn’t act like one. But then he meets Lizzie Bright Griffin, a smart and sassy girl from a poor nearby island community founded by former slaves. Despite his father’s-and the town’s-disapproval of their friendship, Turner spends time with Lizzie, and it opens up a whole new world to him, filled with the mystery and wonder of Maine’s rocky coast. The two soon discover that the town elders, along with Turner’s father, want to force the people to leave Lizzie’s island so that Phippsburg can start a lucrative tourist trade there. Turner gets caught up in a spiral of disasters that alter his life-but also lead him to new levels of acceptance and maturity. This sensitively written historical novel, based on the true story of a community’s destruction, highlights a unique friendship during a time of change. Source
Spoiler Alert!! Lizzie dies in the end. Not only does she die, but she dies of neglect, sickness, blah, blah, blah, but not before she leads the main character to enlightenment and self-reflection, touching the lives of many of the people in that small New England town. Like an angel, priest, or more aptly a sin-eater, she makes them better people just be allowing them into her presence.
So why are we discussing Lizzie? Well, I was looking at a new agent’s submission wishlist and he really wants to see another book just like Lizzie Bright. Pause (deep breath).
Pump your breaks. He didn’t ask for books with main characters of color. He asked for what that book is: contemporary fiction or historical fiction with a brown boy or girl that will help change the white main character’s perspective on life.
Lizzie Bright is a Magical Negro. There need only be one.
What is the Magical Negro?
The Magical Negro is typically but not always “in some way outwardly or inwardly disabled, either by discrimination, disability or social constraint,” often a janitor or prisoner. He has no past; he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist. He usually has some sort of magical power, “rather vaguely defined but not the sort of thing one typically encounters.” He is patient and wise, often dispensing various words of wisdom, and is “closer to the earth.” The magical negro will also do almost anything, including sacrificing himself, to save the white protagonist, as exemplified in The Defiant Ones, in which Sidney Poitier plays the prototypical Magical Negro. Source
These books exist and these characters exist in literature in so many ways and forms and, honestly, we could use a break. Little brown girls and boys don’t need to aspire to be anyone else’s guiding light. Let them be the hero, let them be the villain. You can even let them remain in their tried-and-true space as best friend, just make them fully realized with their own goals and dreams. And for God’s sake let them survive the end of the book.
Can you imagine how disheartening it is to identify with a character to only have that character die tragically in the end or as in The Help, walk off into the distance without any resolution to their own troubles? Am I the only one who wondered how Abilene was going to feed herself after telling off her employer? Why couldn’t she have gotten a new job or new lease on life too?
Can you name some?