Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reviewing While White: Medical Mayhem by Stephanie Bearce & Eliza Bolli

By Elisa Gall
Cover image of Medical Mayhem from:

In Twisted True Tales from Science: Medical Mayhem, Bearce’s casual writing style describes facts about medicine and medicinal history for a middle grade audience. Bolli’s black and white sketches mix with photographs and colorful cartoon-like art to give the pages a humorous, accessible feel. But that comical tone will end for many readers (as it did for me) when they come upon back-to-back sections introduced with two large images.
Image 1 - from "Try Tobacco"
The first image is part of a section called “Try Tobacco,” which details how First/Native Nations peoples in the 15th century used tobacco as a toothpaste and also to relieve earaches, toothaches, and itches or sores from snake and bug bites. The author mentions how figures like Columbus and his crew “certainly weren’t the first” on North and South American land and that the continents had “thriving populations who had established trade routes, governments, and medicines.” The Spanish’s believed superiority over the First/Native Nations people is referenced, but rather than explain how those beliefs resulted in harmful actions and genocide, the author writes that the “Spanish missed out on the opportunity to learn...about healing plants and medicines from the Native Americans.” No specific tribes are named nor are there any references to modern-day (or present tense) First/Native Nations peoples. The image of a smiling, cigar-smoking man with braided hair, a nose and face striped with blue paint, and three feathers above his head overpowers the section; it is a recognizable stereotype of a First/Native Nations person. Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, a member of the Tulalip Tribes and an Associate Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, found in a study the negative effects that stereotypes like this can have on First/Native Nations children and their self-esteem.

Image 2 - from "On Pins and Needles"

The next section, titled “On Pins and Needles,” focuses on traditional Chinese medicine, specifically acupuncture. The author explains how many people still use the practice today, and writes, “It seems that the ancient Chinese physicians may have had the right cure after all.” The illustration accompanying this section features another stereotype; it is a character with big teeth and slanted eyes that is reminiscent of Cousin Chin-kee (an amalgam of notorious Asian stereotypes) in Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. In an interview about American Born Chinese, Yang speaks about that character and the emotional impact that visual stereotypes can have on readers. With Yang’s book, the stereotypes are confronted and interrogated. In Medical Mayhem, both images sit unchallenged underneath their respective chapter headings. Regardless of the artist’s intent, these pictures communicate messages to readers about First/Native Nations and Asian people; they dehumanize them and mark them as “other,” reinforcing White superiority. While some readers might claim that the book contains several caricatures of different types of people and identities represented, White people have the luxury of seeing caricatures of them as comical and benign. It can't be ignored that caricatures and other grotesque distortions have been used historically (and still function today) to perpetuate stereotypes; these stereotypes influence actions and behaviors which can harm members of minoritized groups in very real ways.

This book and some of the conversations I’ve had around it remind me of this image Dr. Grace Yia-Hei Kao recently linked to on the blog affiliated with the Women’s Studies and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University:

A triangle-shaped visual representing examples of overt and covert white supremacy

There are some elements of racism and the White supremacy embedded into our culture that seem “obvious.” Then there are those that are more subtle, that are hidden or masqueraded as socially acceptable. While discussing this book with colleagues and friends, the issues with this book’s images seem more out in the open, above the line. I can’t assume that every reader will look at these images and see “obvious” stereotypes, but many readers I’ve spoken with are also troubled by the illustrations. This leads me to remember that some creators and editors didn’t see it. It wasn’t obvious to them (either that or they chose to ignore it).

In Is Everyone Really Equal?, Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo explain the dynamics of White racial superiority and the indirect messages White people receive about superiority.  They write, “...[the messages] come at us collectively and so relentlessly that resistance is virtually impossible. While we may explicitly reject the notion that we are inherently better than people of Color, we cannot avoid internalizing the message of White superiority below the surface of our consciousness because it is ubiquitous in mainstream culture.”

To me, that’s important to remember too, because even as I am aware of problematic books and work to review these texts critically, they are affecting me and the readers with whom I share and discuss them. They are reflecting and perpetuating cycles of oppression and dominance, as symptoms of current injustices but also as media influencing how the next generation is socialized. That pushes me to question what I don’t yet know or see, and to keep working to move that line down, lower and lower, until no norms of White supremacy (whether overt or covert...explicit or that triangle graphic or books, within myself, or elsewhere) are ever deemed acceptable or excusable.

Update 7/23/17: The publisher of the book, Prufrock Press, responded and announced that they would be making changes to the book after Dr. Debbie Reese contacted them on Twitter. Dr. Reese is sharing that exchange and more information on the American Indians in Children's Literature blog.


Friday, July 7, 2017

The White Canon of Schools

The work of making books for children and teens more diverse and inclusive is ongoing.  How do I know?  MANY People of Color offered specific examples throughout the American Library Association conference in Chicago. One area of work that needs attention is the continued Whiteness of the literary canon, especially in our K-12 schools.  
During his 2017 CSK Honor speech Jason Reynolds (video) recalled a discussion with his college English professor.  Their debate was focused on Reynolds’ interest in writing a thesis about the expansion of the traditional canon to acknowledge the contributions of the wide diversity of U.S. authors.  His White professor would not accept this idea.  This White gatekeeper of culture said a work must “shape and shift the face of literature” to be considered canonical.  Reynolds offered some remarkable examples (Nikki Giovanni, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Phillis Wheatley to name a few). The professor denied all of these possibilities. Will you do the same?
Let’s talk about the work to be done in our high schools. If you work in or liaison with secondary schools what are the titles students are required to read (i.e. the canon)?  Steven Wolk reported the results of a national survey he conducted to answer this question.  The top ten titles (with a three way tie for 10th) identified in his article What Should Students Read? (Kappan Magazine V91 N7 2010) were:

The Great Gatsby
To Kill a Mockingbird
Catcher in the Rye
Lord of the Flies
Romeo and Juliet
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Animal Farm
Of Mice and Men
Hamlet, 1984, The Things They Carried

According to this survey the White canon maintains a firm grasp on the reading lives and imaginations of all secondary students. Wolk said of his findings “When looking at what students are required to read in school in 2010, it might as well be 1960.” These books are required reading. Think about the dynamic of a system that continues to force a diverse student body to read mostly White male authors.  Compulsory reading of the White literary canon is one way White supremacy is expressed and sustained in schools. Are the required books in schools near you overwhelmingly White?  Can you use your power to make change? What will be the pushback?  How do we redefine classic?  The first Printz award winning book, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, shaped and shifted the face of literature - right?! United States schools were legally segregated until the 1960s.   Would it be reasonable to establish sometime after Brown vs. Board of Education as a timeframe to select our readings?  
Reynolds presented the need to make the expansion of the canon a reality in our K-12 schools. This is part of the work. I don’t have the answers to all of these questions.  But, I do know we need to get to answering them without delay.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

What We Celebrate

With ALA’s Annual Conference in the books, I’ve had opportunities to learn about the experiences of people of color at this year’s conference, and to reflect on my own experiences and the role I play as a White person in majority White spaces such as library conferences. (If you haven’t read the posts by April Hathcock, Edi Campbell, Sarah Park Dahlen, or Fobazi Ettarh, you’ll want to leave this site and do that now.)

I had an opportunity to invite a White educator friend to the Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder banquet this year. If one thinks of the banquet as representative of mainstream American children’s literature, it’s no surprise that the celebration ends up being a majority White space. My friend, it being her first ALA experience, noticed and named this. I was not surprised by her noticing, but it was a moment of learning for me in that it made me realize how comfortable I have become in that room. My friend’s acknowledgement pressed me to remember that while the whiteness in that room is not surprising, I can’t let myself “get used to it.” It needs to be at the forefront of my mind. I get to choose every day whether institutional racism in my world and in my field bothers me or not...whether to notice or think about it or not...when for others that whiteness is poking at them day in and day out, causing pain and planting weights I won’t ever have to carry.

As much as conferences exhaust me, I love connecting with people and learning ways to improve in my practice. I get energized and often have a feeling of being part of something bigger than myself. This too, is complicated. While there is work being done to dismantle racism in the field (and it is worth noting that much work is being done and led by people of color and First/Native Nations folks), youth librarianship still has so far to go. That I feel energized is partly dependent upon others feeling exhausted...that I feel seen and understood and welcomed is the other side of the coin which makes others feel excluded. I can’t forget this.

I was at a session for ALSC (an ALA division to which I am a member) when the organization was described by a White woman as “welcoming” and “inclusive.” For many people, it is those things, but one White woman’s experience can’t be taken as universalto accept that would be to ignore and undervalue Hathcock’s, Campbell’s, Ettarh's, and Dahlen’s experiences and shared perspectives. I can’t ignore how whiteness in my organization affects who does and does not see it as “welcoming” and whose voices have been heard and ignored historicallyand are heard and ignored today. (Alec Chunn’s recent ALSC Blog post “And the Work Continues” speaks to some of these challenges.) Racism is embedded into our profession (and world) and just saying an organization is welcoming and inclusive doesn’t make it so.

This conference I also found myself reflecting on Megan Dowd Lambert’s “alongside, not despite.” I am celebrating the ALA Youth Media Awards alongside the history of the awards Javaka Steptoe spoke to in his Caldecott acceptance speech. I am listening and viewing recordings of honorees and library leaders sharing their favorite award-winning books alongside being disappointed when they laud problematic books such as Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, and The Little House series. I am psyched about this year’s award winners and honorees alongside being aware that we have awards named after Theodor Seuss Geisel and Laura Ingalls Wilder, creators with complex legacies worth interrogation.

The Geisel Award website says that Geisel was “always respectful of children.” The Wilder Award website shares that Wilder “wrote...primarily to entertain. She was interested in providing her young readers with information on how life was lived by their ancestors. Wilder’s books were not about the country’s leaders; they were about the country’s people.” I don’t believe these statements are wholly true. Geisel’s propaganda dehumanized people of Japanese ancestry and from other marginalized racial and ethnic groupsthat work wasn’t respectful. Wilder’s books include characters saying “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” To me, this represents a limited and biased view of who is included when we say Wilder’s books represent “the country’s people.”

Without recognizing these creators’ whole legacies, what do having a Wilder Medal and a Geisel Award say about whatand whothe profession values? What do those stickers on books communicate to children? What feelings of inferiority do they generate, or what feelings of dominance do they support? Of course, these awards (monuments to Wilder and Geisel) aren’t the only instances in librarianship, the country, or the world where we have pieces of our unjust past and present made visiblein America we have money, textbooks, the National Anthem, and 4th of July celebrations, just to name a few. But when we celebrate an award honoring someone’s life’s work, and part of that work is in opposition to the core values of the association, we are being selective in what we are remembering. Sometimes we are consciously selective. Other times we are getting “used to it,” becoming comfortable. I need to step away from that comfort and remember that it is NOT okay. To me, this is all worth noticing, naming, and changing.

Elisa Gall

Friday, June 30, 2017

Roundup of Links, post-ALA Edition

Well, another ALA (American Library Association) Annual Conference has come and gone. And while we are tired – like, really tired, friends – it’s worth noting that there are different levels of “tired.” Check out these amazing post-ALA reflections from women of color to find out more about this:

  • Edi Campbell discusses her conference experience in characteristically perceptive language here; at one point she references...
  • ...this post from April Hathcock, wherein Hathcock discusses the exhaustion that comes from being a person of color in an overwhelmingly White space; and finally,
  • Sarah Park Dahlen talks about her ALA here, finishing with a call to young librarians of color: “We see you,” writes Dahlen. “We’re here for you. We do the work for you, and the young people we all serve.”
  • This one isn’t from a woman of color, but it’s another excellent wrap-up from the conference. ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children, a division of ALA) blogger Alec Chunn, who refers to himself as a white man in his post, talks about his takeaways from Annual, including a thoughtful discussion of a diversity panel in which the speakers of color experienced microaggressions at the hands of the White facilitator.
Moving on from post-conference thoughts:

Here’s to a restful and restorative weekend for all of you.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Reviewing While White: The Warden's Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

By Allie Jane Bruce

Set in the 1950s in the fictional town of Two Mills, PA, The Warden’s Daughter tells the story of 12-year-old Cammie’s spiral into depression and rage as she is forced to finally come to terms with her mother’s death and her own impending young-adulthood.

I find much in this book troubling, but first and foremost Boo Boo’s character--or should I say caricature?  To me, she reads as little more than a stereotype of a sassy Black woman.  Here’s an excerpt:

    “Now,” Boo Boo went on, “she be up there”--she gestured toward the apartment--“snootin’ around with y’all.  Like she live there…” She reached down between her bosoms and pulled out a huge red bandana.  She dusted my face with it, made me laugh.  “Y’all tell your daddy, fire that arnge hair and hire on Boo Boo.  Boo Boo’ll do him some dustin’ like he ain’t never seen!”

Here, we see a Black woman caricatured and dehumanized (her speech and “bosoms” add to the stereotype) asking, like a good mammy figure, to do some cleaning for her paternalistic White prison warden.  I wonder how many times this will be read aloud in classrooms, and how the above section will land with Black students (particularly Black girls) in the room.  I also ask: why is Boo Boo the only one with a nickname (Boo Boo? seriously?) rather than a real name?

Boo Boo’s function in the book goes from (stereotypical) comic relief to (spoiler) her suicide, which serves to propel Cammie even further into depression and self-destruction.  So, this Black character is functionally a non-humanized tool used to further the complex White main character’s development--a pattern that’s been identified as a problem in stories from Blood Diamond to To Kill a Mockingbird.

I also question the taste and wisdom of presenting a nostalgic, voyeuristic view of prison (centering a White warden and his daughter) with no racial examination or unpacking.  No book is published or exists in a vacuum, and publishing The Warden’s Daughter in the face of public cries to examine mass incarceration seems willfully ignorant at best.  In a time when we need children’s books that shine a light on the structural racism embedded in the prison system, I hope that authors and publishers have more, and better, books in store.  Those seeking more relevant and topical prison stories might try Jacqueline Woodson’s Miracle’s Boys and After Tupac and D Foster.  Other ideas?  Leave them in the comments!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Reviewing While White: Loving Vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell


Powell, Patricia Hruby. Loving vs. Virginia. Ill. Shadra Strickland. Chronicle Books, 2017. 260 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4521-2590-9

One of my favorite podcasts is Politically Reactive hosted by comedians W. Kamau Bell (who has a new (adult) book out this season) and Hari Kondabolu.  The duo take on big contemporary issues with a healthy dose of humor.  There are plenty of episodes that make me laugh while simultaneously producing outrage.  In a recent episode the guys talked with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Kahn-Cullors about a range of issues including the erasure of Black women’s voices historically (such as Fannie Lou Hamer) through to the present moment (including BLM).

Thankfully Fannie Lou Hamer’s words are available to youth in Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Ekua Holmes (Candlewick Press).  When I read Weatherford’s book I was stunned by Hamer’s story and that I had never read or heard anything about her.  Weatherford and Holmes reclaimed a voice that was nearly lost to us. Voice of Freedom is an example of the  potential of youth publishing to uncover stories and voices that have been suppressed. It set a promising standard for future books.  This is why I found myself with a mixed reaction to Loving vs. Virginia:  A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Shadra Strickland.

Powell does an admirable job of crafting a narrative of this interracial love story. It is ideally suited for a young adult audience.  The lives of the Lovings in picture book form never really worked for me. Powell has shared why she wrote this book as a documentary novel:

“I could show the two falling in love and running through the woods at night. I could show Sheriff Garnet stopping Richard’s car and saying about Mildred, “Who you got in there?” rather than just writing that the sheriff was racist and stopped black people in cars in order to intimidate them. In a “documentary novel,” I could show all this and also create dialogue that draws the reader into the emotional heart of the story.”

Accompanied by Strickland’s illustrations, these imagined scenes do serve to make the story more novelistic.  Do they serve to effectively document the past?  I’ve learned from many wise book evaluators that we must consider a book as it is and not as we wish it to be. Powell’s stated purpose was to add fictional elements that would string together the historical record.  She has accomplished her purpose on the fictional side. The beautifully illustrated fictionalized scenes are joined by period piece photos and newspapers. The book falls short when it comes to expanding the historical record. Why write a documentary novel if not to enlarge the factual knowledge about events?

My disappointment is the information that was gathered but left out.  The acknowledgements by Powell reveal that she has done the hard work of a documentarian - beating the pavement to interview many people associated with or connected to the Lovings. Specifically, she met with members of the Rappahannock Nation, yet this thread of the narrative is missing in the story.

There are many unanswered questions about Mildred Jeter Loving when it comes to her tribal ancestry.  Debbie Reese* has done exhaustive research on this topic at her blog American Indians in Children's Literature.   Here is a succinct timeline by Dr. Reese that highlights the conflicting social and political identify issues of a bi-racial woman in the U.S.

“In the 1950s, Mildred Jeter said she was Indian. We don't know if she said that out of a desire to avoid being discriminated against, or if she said that because she was already living her life as one in which she firmly identified as being Indian. Either way, it is what she said about who she was on the application for a marriage license.

In the 1960s, because Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving's marriage violated miscegenation laws, their case went before the Supreme Court of the United States. To most effectively present their case, the emphasis was on her being Black.

In the 2000s, Jeter and her children said they are Indian, and specified Rappahannock as their nation.”

This raises so many questions about the life of Mildred Jeter Loving. The information that was gathered by Powell from Rappahannock voices was left out of this story. I don’t believe this was a purposeful erasure by Powell.  Erasing First/Native Nation voices and lives is so deeply rooted in White culture it continues to happen with little conscious thought by most of us White folks. What is the purpose and promise of a documentary novel for children and teens?  To me, this documentary novel would reveal more about the Rappahannock Nation and Jeter's connection to it, and explore why Jeter felt the need to avoid the discussion amid the politics of the 1960s.

~ Ernie Cox 

*We’ve received some criticism here at RWW for relying heavily on Debbie Reese’s scholarship on First/Native Nations.  For me there are two simple reasons I point to her work.  1.) She has done more research on this topic than anyone else I can find. 2.) She has influenced my thinking on this topic and I MUST give visible credit to her.  To do otherwise would mean erasing her voice (for more about how White men have systematically robbed the intellectual work of Persons of Color or First/Native Nations look at Hidden Figures or Breakthrough! How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever by Jim Murphy.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Stepping into the Gap

Last week I read Edi Campbell’s blog post Voices.

It’s been rubbing against my conscience--and consciousness--ever since.  Even as I was reading it I felt it--the friction of absence, ironically. The discomfort of acknowledging what I missed as a White reader. I was blind to the racist image that can be seen in Voices in the Park. I didn't see it back in 1998, when it originally came out in the United States, and not the last time I took a look at it.

I’m not going to spend time talking about intent. I’m not going to spend time arguing whether or not the image of the gorilla in the book is racist.  I’m not going to spend time criticizing or defending the book.  None of that is the point for me right now.

The point is that my understanding of the gap between what I see in a book as a White reader and what readers who aren’t White may see was further illuminated. I’ve known the gap is there; I try to be mindful of it.  But it’s so much bigger than I realized. A flashlight isn’t enough to illuminate it. A floodlight may not be enough. The only way to understand it is to step into it.

The point, as Edi Campbell writes, is about perception. And I need to be out in that gap, beyond what I can clearly see, beyond my comfort zone, to begin to understand perspectives beyond my own. 

What all of us see and do not see is influenced by our experiences and by the internalized racism that lives in our hearts and minds and pulses through society. We didn’t invite it to take up residence, but there it is anyway, blocking the light and we don’t even necessarily know it.

But once we do know it, we can’t ignore it. Not if we want change in the children’s and young adult book world and change in society as a whole. But as we in the children’s and young adult literature world have proven over and over, we often can’t talk about the impact of racism on the work we do without backing into corners, because it makes us so uncomfortable.

Sure those of us who are White readers and writers and editors and critics can live with our limited field of vision; we can choose not to step into the gap. We’re doing fine. But others are not. Sometimes they’re hurting. Sometimes they’re angry. Sometimes they’re dying.  

Any newspaper will tell you this is not hyperbole.

None of this is easy, for anyone. Edi asks herself,

“When am I sensible and when am I sensitive? When am I giving into my own colonized thinking (not seeing things), when am [I] waking people up and when am I crying wolf? And what do others think? Publishers have to be able to trust marginalized people when we say ‘this is wrong’. Yet, when do we really know whether an image is being used to exoticize human diversity (and reinforces age old stereotypes) or simply to express creativity? I do think this deserves a robust discussion, yes of course on this blog, but even more so in publishing houses where images are created and taken to our children.”

Are we up for that? Are we up for robust discussion, not to mention an honest accounting? Are we ready to step into the gap? If we aren’t, then I believe these very same conversations we’ve been having in one way or another for well over fifty years will continue for another fifty with too little to show for them. Gains will be made, but I’m guessing they will be made largely outside the publishing mainstream, not within it. Within it, we will be asking the same questions we’re asking now, we were asking years ago.

Gains outside the mainstream are not enough. Good intentions are not enough, either.

Edi asks, In the 21st century can we not be sophisticated enough to overcome colonization of our minds?”

I would also ask, Can we not be courageous enough and compassionate enough to do so, either?

Megan Schliesman