Middle-Grade Narrative Writing: Using Mentor Texts to Describe Skin Color

3 Strategies for Describing Skin Tone in 16 Mentor Texts

skin color description

More Shades Please

My love for makeup doesn’t often apply to my posts here on the blog, but in this case, my love of all things Ulta and Sephora inspired the reason behind my most recent mentor text scavenger hunt. My favorite beauty guru on YouTube is Jackie Aina, and she is the one who taught me how to work on my skincare routine, use a primer, and not be scared of concealer (I am still scared of false lashes). I make this connection to the beauty industry because Rihanna caused a major uproar about inclusivity in the beauty industry with Fenty Beauty in September of 2017. She released 40 shades of foundation, while many lines are well under 25. Now that Fenty has 50 shades and matching concealers, more people are demanding that makeup brands adhere to at least a 40 shade continuum minimum. 

MAC Studio Fix? 63 shades. 

Urban Decay Stay Naked Weightless Liquid Foundation? 50 shades. 

Clinique Even Better Foundation? 56 shades. 

Fenty was not the first to include as many of these shades, but they were and are the ones pushing for those shades to have range. The skin tone colors listed in a foundation shouldn’t be all at the end of the lightest part of the spectrum; this includes drugstore brands and more prestige brands. As I was trying to understand the complex nature of matching a foundation to my skin tone, I got to thinking about how skin color and skin tone are described in works of fiction-specifically works of middle-grade fiction and young adult fiction. The latest Urban Decay Launch creates a guide that is a great outline for understanding the various elements that make up skin color. 

Here is how the video information is broken down:

  • 9 shade intensities (Ultra Fair, Fair, Light, Light-Medium, Medium, Medium-Dark, Dark, Deep, Ultra Deep)

  • 3 mastertones that describe the overall tone of the color of your skin

    Cool-Burns easily (Blue/Purple Veins)

    Neutral-Bakes then burns in the sun (Blue/Green Veins)

    Warm-Tans easily (Green/Olive Veins)

  • 7 undertones that describe the hue of your skin (Pink or rosy, blue or plum, green or olive, neutral, yellow or golden, orange or peachy, and red or rich)

Inclusivity in Beauty. Inclusivity in Books. 

Confused? Yep. I will still go to stores to test multiple colors on the side of my cheek before choosing a new foundation. The point is that the colors are available to the consumer. Here is the connection that doesn’t involve you trying to find your perfect undertone: The same call for inclusivity in the beauty industry is also in the same call for the materials that we put in front of our students. This necessity drives the movements behind #WeNeedDiverseBooks and a call for diverse classroom libraries. We have to make materials available to our students. 

I bring up this description of skin tone though as a conversation starter for how skin color is often depicted in works of fiction. If we focus on diverse literature, it is important to look at how characters are being represented on the page. How are our students able to describe themselves? What descriptions do they see while reading? What is included in our weekly read aloud? These questions impact the makers of stories in the publishing industry, and they impact the strategies we are using to teach our children. These questions are necessary to bring up and think about in terms of engaging with my young writers that need to have access to mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors in my classroom.

This post outlines different strategies as they are observed in 16 different middle-grade and young adult works of fiction. I am using mentor texts here to show my young writers that the works of published authors are not only accessible but can be unlocked to show them how to write. This post will give a great starting point to the young writer that desires to describe their character AND also make connections to that character’s background, culture, or identity through the use of skin tone identification. 

First, Where Do You Find This Description?

While a place you often find skin color descriptions can naturally be found in a character snapshot, there are other places that they often come up in stories. No place in a mentor text is off limits, but I found that the following seven places are places that are recurring in multiple middle-grade and young adult books that I am looking at in terms of writer’s craft.

Some Examples:

  1. Character first person narration. 

  2. First introductions or when characters first meet (You will notice many of the mentor text examples have page numbers that are less than 50)

  3. Character interaction that leads to a conflict reveal or the character feeling judged in some way. 

  4. The author uses figurative language to describe the character or the moment. Similes or metaphors are sometimes major spots for character skin color description. 

  5. When there is a moment of reflection in a mirror or the character is dressed up for an occasion or perhaps even in a costume. 

  6. When characters are examining familial resemblances. 

  7. In a moment of action or physicality. When action is happening, it is easier to describe the body in motion. 

Middle-Grade Mentor Text Passages for Skin Color Description

Strategy #1: Many authors use simple and clear color identification. 

In the examples below, you will find the authors use simple and clear identification markers when it comes to skin tone. An author may simply write that a character is white, brown, black, bronze, amber, copper, mahogany, etc. Sometimes other strategies for description are used alongside a simple color identification, and sometimes the description stands alone.

Other colors often found in literature:

  • Alabaster

  • Ivory

  • Gold

  • Blush

  • Rose

  • Tan

  • Ebony

  • Sienna

  • Terra-cotta

  • Sepia

Songs for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

“She pointed into the house while taking a gulp from her water bottle. Summer had hit Houston already, and Eleanor’s brown face was shining with sweat” (71)

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee

“I have no problem with Bernard being Black. Obviously. I’m Black too. It’s him being huge and mean and scary” (2). 

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee

“Yolanda puts her hand over her mouth, but I can tell she’s got a big grin going. If she wasn’t so brown skinned, I bet I would see a blush steaming up her cheeks” (16).

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee

“It’s easy to tell who got caught, because a few tables over, a girl’s face is getting redder and redder while her friend whispers in her ear. Daddy talks a lot about what he calls white privilege, but if you ask me, getting so red that everyone can tell when you’re embarrassed is no kind of privilege. Her blush makes it look like someone scribbled over her face with a red marker” (29-30).

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

“In my room, a mirror hangs on the other side of the closet door. No matter how many times I shut it, that door cracks. Now, as I check inside to make sure nothing’s been left behind, the mirror faces me. It hates me too.

We stand in a stare-off like Celie did in The Color Purple, this old movie that Mama watches every dang time it comes on TV. In the movie, gorgeous Shug Avery makes Celie face herself in the mirror to convince her she’s beautiful, even though Shug called Celie ugly in the first place. “You sho’ is ugly.” That’s exactly how Shug said it too. And here I am, facing myself like Celie. “Well?” I say. “Get on with it.”

Look at you, with that wide nose, my reflection says. 

I pinch my nostrils down. 

And those big lips. 

I smash my lips tight. 

And that nappy head. 

I finger the tangles loose. 

Don’t get me started on how black you are. 

I want to say something, but what? That I think I’m cute? ‘Cause I’m not. That I have good hair? ‘Cause I don't. That I’m not dark? “Cause I am” (9-10).

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

“A tall white lady stands by a classroom door eyeing everyone passing by” (52-53).

The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

“Mima said he looked

Like a baby bird who’d fallen from its nest

Or more like a viejito ruso, a Russian old man

With his white skin, bald head, and light eyes.

No one could explain exactly why 

He was so fair, so unlike

The bronze of our skin

Except for Mima, who said that 

Five hundred years of colonization

Gave him those colors

And that he would brown up in no time” (41).

Blended by Sharon Draper

“He reaches out his right hand to Imani. “Uh, I just want to say I got your back, Imani. Me and my friends. Not all white people are haters, ya know?”

Imani blinks hard, then smiles. “Thank you,” she says. “That means a lot.”

She offers him her own hand. They touch. Four fingers of her slim brown hand grab four fingers of his surprisingly large pale hand. For just a second their palms brush. Their thumbs latch” (109). 

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

Chapter 16

“Maniac kept trying, but he still couldn’t see it, this color business. He didn’t figure he was white any more than the East Enders were black. He looked himself over pretty hard and came up with at least seven different shades and colors right on his own skin, not one of them being what he would call white (except for his eyeballs, which weren’t any whiter than the eyeballs of the kids in the East End). 

Which was all a big relief to Maniac, finding out he wasn’t really white, because the way he figured, white was about the most boring color of all”

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

“He’s the biggest and the whitest boy I’ve ever seen.”

I hold up the original shot of Michael as evidence. 

“There is either no sunshine in Minnesota, or this kid is a vampire” (50). 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

“Two officers get out. One black, one white. Their hands linger too close to the guns at their waists.

No, no, no. 

“We got a problem here?” the black one asks, looking squarely at Daddy. He’s bald just like Daddy, but older, taller, bigger” (191). 

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

“I snap my head up from the heavenly slice of pie to find Oloye Ronke studying me expectantly. Her emerald iro sparkles bright along her mahogany skin, chosen precisely for the way it shines against the white stucco of the tearoom walls” (33).

Strategy #2: Many authors make tone comparisons that depict lightness or darkness. 

Shades of skin color often come up as well as a way to denote the actual imagery of the character. While authors are not putting mastertones and undertones often in their character descriptions, they are referencing where characters are at along the spectrum of shades. This can range from lightness to darkness or from paleness to deepness. 

Some words to describe shade or tone:

  • Light

  • Dark

  • Pale

  • Deep

  • Fair

  • Pallor

  • Ruddy

  • Rich

  • Warm

  • Cool

Songs for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

“When we found our room on the fifth deck, a woman with dark brown skin, wearing black pants and a light blue shirt with gold buttons, smiled like it was the best news ever that we’d arrived” (151). 

Songs for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

“I hadn’t seen any kids on the ship, which wasn’t a surprise since school was still going on. But that evening at the “welcome aboard” party, a girl across the pool waved to me. She looked about my age and had straight black hair, light brown skin, and the kind of glasses I’d wear if I needed them-black frames that made you look smart” (155). 

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

“As I wait by the stupid desk pretending not to hear a thing, more kids drift in-mostly white kids. One white girl with glasses brushes by fast. She takes a seat by the wall, moves her desk a little to the left and then a little to the right, and back and forth like two more times before sitting down. As I watch her, a girl with light brown skin breezes past smelling like Grandma’s Avoncreams. Jasmine, maybe? And this girl has dreadlocks. The locs aren’t even all the same size, some fat and some thin. Trust me, ain’t no boys checkin’ for her with that never-seen-a-comb hair, ‘cause where I’m from, if your hair’s not straight, bobbed, pixied, or even braided, then you can forget it. It’s a waste to be a Lite-Brite with a nappy hairstyle like dreadlocks” (54-55).

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

“He had pale white skin like my uncle, and hair that always fell into his eyes. Even as he asked, he was holding it back with his hand” (20). 

The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

“On Thursday, I wait to see him

Walk into La Pena Cultural Center. 

Ivan of the shy smile

Light-bark-brown skin

Dark bushy curls on top

That shape into a peak

Like a growing tree. 

Branch-like legs

And arms so lanky long

They reach for the sun

When he plays capoeira” (21).

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

“My school is filled with kids who do not look like me. 

Kids with pale freckled skin, 

Kids with hair the color of summertime corn. 

And kids with skin darker than mine, 

Kids shorter than me, 

And kids taller than me. 

I have never seen so many 

Different types of people in one place” (113).

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

“Seriously, you’d think he was a hunk like, oh, say, Jake Rodrigo, the star of all the Iquanador movies. Now that’s dreamy. A long braid down his back. Dark skin. Muscles. And those green eyes with reptilian pupils, not to mention his aeris zoom that lets him hover and glide through the air. I keep a magazine poster of him in my locker” (56). 

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

“A guy got on, 

Definitely older than me, 

But not old. 

Medium-brown skin. 

Slim. Low haircut, 

Part on the side. 

No hair on his face, none at all.

Not even a mustache. 

Gold links dangling

Around his neck

Like magic rope” (74).

The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon

“Styx Malone was black like us, only darker. He was darker than anyone I’d ever met. That was one of the things I was thinking, even while he was busy squeezing the life out of my brother” (20). 

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

“Her brows knit in concentration, deepening the creases in her shaved head. With her dark brown skin and muted kaftan, Mama Agba looks like any other elder in the village. You would never guess a woman her age could be so lethal” (3).

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

“I lower my forkful of coconut pie and push my shoulders back, almost impressed by the number of critiques Mother can hiss under breath in one minute. She sits at the top of the brass table with a gold gele wrapped snug around her head. It seems to catch all the light in the room as it shimmers against her soft copper complexion” (32).

No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

“I watched Soleil’s pale skin turn bright pink” (18). 

The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

“Ivan is Black-xican-Black and Mexican

Mixed like me. 

A little different than my 

Black-Puerto Rican-Mexican-ness

But with the exact same deep amber in our skin

And reddish-brown honey in our eyes” (47).

With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo

“I’m not interested in a Malachi, Mala-can’t, or a Mala-nothing. But he is a tall, dark-skinned dude, at least six foot four, and I already know he’s a ball player and probably a player player from the way he walks-all swag and probably not one intelligent thought in his head” (38).

With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo

“Chef Ayden isn’t a tall man and has the kind of dark skin that’s so free of blemishes it looks polished” (62).

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

“Is everything okay? Ms. Laverne’s dark brown face was crisscrossed with worry” (7).

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

“Amari was beautiful. His skin was so dark, you could almost see the color blue running beneath it. His eyes were dark too. Dark like there was smoke behind his pupils. Dark and serious and...infinite. In that fifth-sixth grade class, I didn’t know how to say any of this. I wanted only to look at him. And look at him” (13). 

Strategy #3: Many authors use food or comparisons to objects to describe skin color. 

Many authors make food and spice comparisons in writing when referring to skin tone. You will see descriptions that feature “cinnamon” or “caramel” or “chocolate” to denote color. While the reader can see what is going on in the story because they are able to make the comparison in their mind, it is interesting to see the parallels between how often people of color are described with food items in comparison to the number of white characters in fiction. Authors will also make references to skin color in terms of inanimate objects or natural elements as well. 

Some common examples:

  • Glue

  • Paper

  • Sand

  • Clay

  • Onyx

  • Seashell

  • Sheet

  • Snow

  • Pearl

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

“He looks at me with those baby blues. He got a tan over break. I used to tell him he was so pale he looked like a marshmallow. He hated that I compared him to food. I told him that’s what he got for calling me caramel. It shut him up” (79).

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee

“On the very first day, in my very first class, there he was. Jace Hayward, with his cinnamon skin that’s just a little lighter than mine, and those wide, lime-green eyes, and a grin as cool as lake water” (8)

Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

“He’s with a tall, red-haired boy, 

With fingers the color of milk

That brush lint off my brother’s sweater softly

The way that Aman sometimes squeezes my hand. 

Xavier” (173). 

Blended by Sharon Draper

“I wonder if other people are watching us, like we’re some kind of reality TV show. “Chocolate family meets vanilla family in the artificial reality that is a mall. Caramel daughter caught helplessly between the two” (23). 

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

Chapter 14

“Maniac loved the colors of the East End, the people colors. 

For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why these East Enders called themselves black. He kept looking and looking, and the colors he found were gingersnap and light fudge and dark fudge and acorn and butter rum and cinnamon and burnt orange. But never licorice, which, to him, was real black” 

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

“Standing this close I realize that I only reach to Michael’s shoulder. From here, I can also see that the Florida sun is already working its magic on him. He’s not the color of glue anymore, at least. There are bunches of freckles on his nose. If they connect, it might look like he has some pigment in him” (112-113). 

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

“Bow, Zelie.” Though the warning is evident in Mama Agba’s voice, I can’t bring myself to move. This close to Yemi, the only thing I see is her luscious black hair, her coconut-brown skin, so much lighter than my own. Her complexion carries the soft brown of Orishans who’ve never spent a day laboring in the sun, a privileged life funded by hush coin from a father she never met” (4). 

Writing Mindset Reflection: How would you create a lesson with mentor texts where students look at the importance of skin color descriptions? What do you notice in your own reading?