Thursday, April 18, 2019

Seizing the Narrative

On Saturday April 13th I attended the 2019 Arbuthnot Honor Lecture delivered by Dr. Debbie Reese.  It was clarifying and motivating, and  I have since been thinking more about the way the work of Dr. Reese and other BIPOC colleagues is framed within the field of youth literature.


In her April 4th column at Kirkus Reviews that looked forward to the lecture, Children’s Editor Vicky Smith provided a much-needed counterpoint to the wave of attacks on “Toxic Twitter” and the marginalizing of bloggers within the youth literature industry.   In it, I see her deliberately using language of active change-making often used to defame women of color and Native women, and instead praising it (emphases added):
“I celebrate the Diversity Jedi who have seized the children’s-literature conversation from those who’ve controlled it and forced it to open up.”
“Reese’s is one voice among many that have been raised in sustained, earned rage over the past several years, demanding that the industry do better in its representation of marginalized identities.”
“The methods of the Diversity Jedi are often not gentle. I know this from personal experience. But (if you permit the extension of the metaphor) it takes concerted, violent effort to take out the Death Star.”
She defends the use of “rage” and “violent effort” to make needed positive change against a force that is in itself violent, as she alludes through her “Death Star” metaphor, and that is an appropriate argument.   But I am also concerned that without understanding why and how these kinds of words have been used to denounce Dr. Reese and BIPOC Diversity Jedi, this argument might play into the hands of those who condemn anger when it comes from a BIPOC community—most frequently women of color and Native women—as a way of shoring up the status quo of White supremacy.


We all get angry, but only some of us are allowed to express it “righteously.”  I emailed briefly with Vicky Smith this week regarding her editorial and the issues it brought up for me, and she pointed out: "I figure if people are mad, it’s a good idea to try to understand why."  So I’d like to think about other ways to describe what we are doing when we engage in these critical spaces, and how to recognize what we each bring with us to that space.
What others have called “angry” I have understood to be raising one’s voice to be heard because White people are not listening.  
What others have condemned as “violent” I see as activism that threatens the status quo, to which the status quo reacts.
What others have called “unprofessional” I see as colleagues disrupting an unspoken code of Whiteness that has nothing to do with our work, and in fact prevents us from doing our work by preventing us from questioning.
Here are other words to describe the work of the Dr. Reese and many of the Diversity Jedi:  

  • Inquisitiveness. Seeing something not right—Whiteness’s refusal to admit the stranglehold it has on children’s literature—Dr. Reese asks questions.  She has dedicated her career to it, and her critical analyses are based in questions. By asking a question, she asks us to engage in a different perspective, which is surely the point of critical analysis, but may not be where Whiteness was trying to keep the conversation. I think this is what is perceived of as “seizing the conversation.”
  • Persistence.  Undoing the hold of White supremacy on our professional discourse and the creative process of writing and illustrating books and media for youth is the work of generations. Racism is persistent, so only by exposing and pressing against it persistently can we make any change.  I think this is what is perceived of as “demanding.”  
  • Intrepidness.  Every time I see Dr. Reese speak, I am amazed at how undaunted she appears.  Not fearless, perhaps, but working with clear sight of the threats facing her.  I think this is what is perceived of as “not gentle.” What does being gentle with racism get anyone?

I don’t want to suggest that we shouldn’t use the right word, or seek to reclaim the right to “earned rage,” but I do want White people to recognize the work that our BIPOC colleagues do to engage in our common critical spaces, and the rhetorical tactics that are frequently used against them and are designed to elude the White gaze.   
It means so much to the future of our field that Dr. Reese was selected to give the 2019 Arbuthnot Lecture, and that the video of this lecture was recorded and archived.   There is much to take away from this talk, and I encourage you to watch the whole thing…even if you already saw it live.   For my own work, the main takeaway was a line of inquiry that Dr. Reese posited about half way through, in regards to what makes an award-winning book.  It’s a segment that typifies what I would call Dr. Reese’s intrepid, persistent inquisitiveness. She is talking about the fact that there “is no neutrality” in books centered in a nostalgia for colonized Native land (transcription, and errors, my own):
“In fact, if you think about it, every children’s book that is set on this continent—that book is set on what used to be Native lands. If we could hold that fact front and center, every time we pick up a children’s book that is set on this continent, how might that change how we view children’s literature? How might that shape that literature as we move into the future? I don’t know—it’s hard to think about it…but I want to think about it.  I think we should think about it.”
These questions from her broke open a haze I have had in my mind in regards to struggling with nostalgia in literature.  I’m thinking about it. Dr. Reese got me thinking again, and I will be forever grateful to her for it, because I have some sense of what she’s staked to enter the conversation and move the narrative.  As have so many colleagues.  Thank you.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

An Open Letter to Scales on Censorship and School Library Journal


Reproduced, with permission from School Library
Journal © Copyright Library Journals, LLC
a wholly owned subsidiary of MSI Information Services
Each issue of School Library Journal contains a full-page segment entitled Scales on Censorship, where Pat Scales, former chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, answers questions on censorship. Today Sam Bloom responds to one question from the March 2019 piece, which is pictured here but can also be found here or on page 28 of the print copy.

Hello! I have read Scales on Censorship for quite a while, and like many others, I have trusted Pat Scales over the years to give well-reasoned responses to challenging questions.

However, I was taken aback by one of the responses in the March issue (see photo). In it, Pat Scales answers a question on how to handle “books containing any amount of cultural misrepresentation”; namely, “Where do we librarians draw the line between sensitivity and censorship?”

I agree that this is a tough question, one I grapple with on a daily basis. I also agree with Scales’s statement that it’s “our duty to purchase books that accurately portray the ethnicity of the main characters”; to that I’d add any number of intersecting identities (gender, sexuality, etc.). But I take issue with Scales’s qualifier that “to remove or refuse to purchase a book because someone sees a small inaccuracy is censorship.”

First of all, let’s talk about the choices book buyers make when deciding how to use their budgets. In terms of deciding not to purchase a book based on cultural inaccuracies, well, I feel like we’ve had this talk beforemany, many times before. Librarians make purchasing choices based on a book’s quality every day. Is it censorship to not purchase a book because it gets poor reviews? I’d say no–that’s simply an informed purchasing choice. And how could cultural inaccuracies *not* affect a book’s quality? (Also, if I may go back to Scales’s “small inaccuracy” comment? That inaccuracy may not seem so “small” to someone else. I also encourage Scales to examine the White privilege that allows her to minimize that which could cause pain to someone from a marginalized group by dubbing it “small”. Not to mention that Scales’s phrasing–“someone sees” an issue–subtly deemphasizes that problematic content in books really does exist, it’s not just people “seeing things.”)

Now on to the issue of librarians who “remove” books with problematic content. I see this referenced a lot in articles from mainstream press, and as an argument it lacks nuance. I certainly cannot say for sure that no single librarian has pulled a book from the shelves because they found it problematic, but in my experience this isn’t a recurring issue sweeping through libraries nationwide. In my large library system, we have hundreds of copies of Little House on the Prairie and its sequels; we also still have 20 live copies of a book that a publisher actually pulled from publication three years ago! And if you walk into a children’s room anywhere in the country, I wager you will find at least one copy of Ghosts in the collection.

Referring librarians to the WNDB resources page is a great call. I want to point out, however, that several of the sites listed by WNDB are curated by the very same “bloggers and library professionals” whose “strong opinions” regarding cultural representation in books leads them to “sometimes use their online space to aggressively influence book-purchasing decisions.” So I guess Scales recommends people read these bloggers *unless* they are critiquing a book, and as long as they conform to her idea of what meets the criteria for “non-aggressive”?  I don't think it's fair or constructive to those of us serving youth to reject the work of these individuals when they are critiquing representation while holding up their work when they are recommending books; both aspects of these bloggers’ work are critical to all of us serving children and teens. Scales’s whole framing of the power dynamics–bloggers are people who “aggressively influence” decision-makers by making problematic books their “target”–stems from a place of White privilege and fragility and fails to acknowledge that some books, and some content within books, in fact constitute acts of aggression against young readers.

Furthermore, I am also concerned with the way Scales framed A Fine Dessert within her response. Yes, it received some “excellent reviews,” but as Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey has shown, the overwhelmingly White/female/cishet world of reviews shouldn’t always be taken at face value. Not to mention that in March 2015, before any internet activity had gained steam in relation to A Fine Dessert, John Lithgow wrote this in his New York Times review: “In a bold and somewhat unsettling choice, they portray a smiling slave woman and her daughter….” Critique of this book was not limited to social media; and the fact that some critique does originate online does not lessen its validity. It is far past time for us to acknowledge and embrace the fact that some of the critical perspectives on books are coming not from review journals but from professionals in our field writing on blogs and elsewhere on social media. Again, let’s recognize our privilege as White people in the profession when we start picking and choosing when and if we are willing to listen to critical voices on social media. I believe we can fold these critical perspectives into our consideration and understanding of specific titles.

Here’s what Scales wrote next: “Instead of removing the title because bloggers thought a few pages were problematic, librarians should engage young readers in conversation about the controversy.” This remark feels flippant and dismissive of some scholarly and expert opinions, but I would also caution adults (especially White adults) that this is a conversation that would take a great deal of preparation and education for the adults in question. A poorly handled conversation with young children about slavery could very well reinforce stereotypes.

Finally, regarding Vamos a Cuba, Scales wrote that “other Cuban Americans” disagreed with the Cuban American school board member who first recommended the book be pulled from the shelves. Scales then asked, “Whom do you believe?” A shared heritage for any of us does not mean identical experiences or perspectives and so the fact that there was and is disagreement is not and should never be surprising. But this makes it all the more critical to be as informed as possible when making selection decisions when it comes to accuracy and authenticity, and today we are fortunate to have informed critical perspectives from professional sources outside those we have traditionally relied on. “Whom do you believe” is a starting point, not the end point, and there isn't necessarily a “right” or “wrong” answer for any book, but there are “informed” and “uninformed” choices, and it is our responsibility to be as informed as possible in selecting materials according to our local policies and procedures.

I don’t believe the two things in Scales’s last sentence should cancel each other out. I am working and listening and opening myself to ways of learning how to be culturally sensitive, *and* I am using my skills from library school (though not every librarian has been to library school, nor do I believe one has to go to library school to be an effective librarian) to understand the importance of reading reviews from journals such as School Library Journal *and* from blogs on our Kindred Spirits list. Which brings me to Scales’s closing thought, about the need to parse “which reviews and online tools to trust.” Questions about cultural authenticity and censorship do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they free of power imbalances and racist, oppressive legacies. I do not accept the binary thinking that says criticism = attack = censorship, and I encourage all White members of the children’s literature community–including myself, my fellow members of Reading While White, and Scales–to examine and question the White privilege we necessarily bring to these discussions. Until that happens, I no longer trust Pat Scales to give advice where censorship intersects with cultural representation.

Sincerely,

Sam Bloom

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Fighting For Justice: An Interview With the Authors

Today, in our third and final post in this series, we're so excited to welcome three authors: Stan Yogi of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up; Arisa White of Biddy Mason Speaks Up; and Laura Atkins, co-author and organizer of the Fighting For Justice series, which includes the aforementioned books. Everyone, thank you so much for joining us.

Allie: Can you share your origin story? How did you get started in this work?

Stan: Thanks, Allie, for letting your readers know about the Fighting for Justice books. I got involved with the series because of Malcolm Margolin, founding publisher of Heyday. In October 2009, Heyday released Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California, a book I co-wrote with my friend Elaine Elinson. Several months later, Malcolm asked if I’d be interested in writing a children’s version of Wherever There’s a Fight. I thought that was a great idea, and I agreed. Our initial vision was to tell the stories of 10 Californians who fought for civil rights. That plan morphed into a series of books, each one focused on a different civil rights activist.

Malcolm Margolin, Stan and the book Wherever There’s a Fight.

Fred Korematsu’s biography launches the series in part because his story is a keystone to Wherever There’s a Fight. I also feel a personal connection to Fred because my parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts were incarcerated during World War II, just like Fred and his family, because of their ethnicity.

A picture we show in our presentations of Stan’s mother graduating from high school at Manzanar. Stan asks, “Why do you think my mother was sent to a prison camp when she was fifteen years old?”
When I was an undergraduate at UCLA in the early 1980s, I heard Fred Korematsu speak. He impressed me, not only because his story is so dramatic (defying the government’s orders to leave his home, getting arrested, challenging in the Supreme Court the incarceration of Japanese Americans but losing his case, discovering decades later that the government had lied about the justifications for imprisoning Japanese Americans), but also because he was such a soft-spoken, humble man. He taught me that I can make a difference if I speak out against what I think is wrong and if I stand up for my beliefs. Ever since then, Fred has been one of my heroes.
An image of Fred Korematsu as an older man that we share during presentations

Around the same time that I first heard Fred Korematsu speak, I participated in the movement among Japanese Americans to seek an apology and monetary redress from the U.S. government for Japanese Americans who had been unjustly incarcerated during World War II. My work in the redress campaign nearly 40 years ago has resulted in a lifetime of activism, including working 14 years at the ACLU of Northern California, where I met my Wherever There’s a Fight co-author, Elaine.

Laura: Thanks so much for the invitation to share our stories and feature the series! As Stan and I share when doing school presentations with Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, I was raised in a family of activists. My dad was involved in the Freedom Rides, and both of my parents were part of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the 1960s. My mom was an early feminist and a member of a women’s activist singing group, and my stepmother volunteered with the farmworkers’ movement. So I was steeped in a tea of “speaking up” as a young person. That led me to become a young activist myself, starting in middle school — something I also speak to in our school presentations. I was arrested twice in high school as part of the anti-nuclear and anti-Apartheid movements.

A slide from our presentation, showing Laura at an anti-nuclear group meeting in middle school, and getting arrested with a group of Berkeley High School students blockading at Lawrence Livermore Labs.

Activism has been a core part of my identity for as long as I can remember. So getting to be part of helping to tell civil rights stories from our nation’s history, well, it’s a dream come true. And getting to do this by co-writing with different authors whose lived experience connects to the story being told, well, that’s even more of a dream come true. I’ve been a children’s book editor for around 25 years — as an assistant at Children’s Book Press and Orchard Books, and then an editor at Lee & Low Books — and more recently, offered freelance editorial services to people who are indie-publishing their own books. Working collaboratively fits me perfectly, as I’ve been working with folks on telling their own stories for a very long time. I believe that we are all part of an interconnected world and narrative, and that each of our well-being is based on collective well-being. I see this work as grassroots community-based storytelling, with a lot of voices influencing the telling.

Arisa: The black lesbian mother warrior poet Audre Lorde was the first to articulate for me, in her Sister Outsider essays, that the “personal is political.” She is part of the lineage of my social justice work. As well as growing up Rastafarian, two to six years of age, oriented me toward a distrust of government, to be vigilant of white-supremacist conditioning, to question everything. Injustices were close to home. My mother and stepfather gathered friends for food and groundation—talks of politics in the US, Jamaica, and Guyana, back-home nostalgia, about the similarities and disappointments of anti-blackness across the globe.

Over the years, I was involved with more “formal” public actions against anti-oppression, often finding a way to incorporate my poetry. Writing and reading poems in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, safe spaces for women, for the end to the Kosovo War; working with a Zen Buddhist priest to bring poetry writing and meditation to incarcerated youth in Brooklyn, NY. When I went off to graduate school, where I began dating someone in the master’s program for social justice education, we started a series of monthly parties and conversational gatherings for queer people of color. LeftOut was a space for QPOC to form community while existing in predominantly white towns and colleges. With the same partner, I learned some of the language, theory, and pedagogy of anti-oppression work and began to apply that knowledge to my poetic practice, teaching, and self—thinking about the ways our socialization inhibits authentic self-actualization and promotes fear of other, and doing the personal-inner work needed for a radical love ethic necessary for individual and collective change. The ambitious root of each of my poems is this epic desire to repair.


Allie: I’m noticing a connection between art and activism, both in your personal stories and in your work--Arisa, you talked about this specifically, in both how you fold your own poetry into your anti-oppression work, and in advocating for others to have access and resources to express themselves via art. Your books are about activists; and, they themselves are a form of activism, both in form and content. How did you decide to tell these stories in verse, rather than a straightforward narrative? What was the poetry-writing process like when you were working collaboratively?

Laura: I came on board initially to work with Stan as a developmental editor, and he had been approaching the book as a more traditional prose biography. I was then asked to pitch as co-author and I suggested the use of the poetic biography alongside what we call insets: sections with photos, drawings, timelines, definitions and questions for the readers. Once Heyday decided they wanted to go in that direction, I took the lead in writing the poems and Stan took the lead in writing and conceptualizing the insets. With the second book, Arisa, as a poet, took the lead on the poems and I swapped roles to leading on the insets. Though I’d say that Arisa and I did more co-writing on both sections, maybe because it was the second book and we had to go further in conceptualizing how to approach telling Biddy Mason’s story. And our editor, Molly Woodward, helped enormously with all of the writing and thinking for both books.



First poem and first inset page from Biddy Mason Speaks Up

We had a few motivations for choosing free verse for the biography. We did a focus group with librarian Heidi Bartsch from the West Contra Costa County School District and several of her fourth grade students. She suggested that, while we were aiming at a fourth grade reading level, we write below that as many of her students read below grade level. We liked the idea of using short lines with lots of space on the page so that struggling readers could more easily decode the book. We also were drawn to the idea of engaging students directly with these people’s stories, using a present tense poetic narrative. Starting the first book with Fred getting a haircut, which was a wonderful suggestion by author Betsy Partridge, meant that all readers could relate to Fred’s experience. Because we all get our hair cut. We’ve also had students share their own poetic approaches to telling stories, and it seems a form that young people can relate to and replicate naturally, in their own voices.



First poem and first inset page from Fred Korematsu Speaks Up

Allie: I’m struck by Stan’s description of Fred Korematsu as a soft-spoken, humble man. This flies in the face of the common image of changemakers as loud, oppositional combatants of the powers that be. What can we learn from him, about different “modes” of activism? What personal lessons have you all learned in researching and writing about the subjects of your books?

Stan: Fred Korematsu’s life as a civil rights activist taught me two key things. First, people have different journeys to activism. Fred was initially motivated by love, not Constitutional principles when he defied the government’s orders that all Japanese Americans on the West Coast leave their homes to be imprisoned in camps. He wanted to remain in Oakland with his girlfriend. But he also understood that the government was violating his rights. After his girlfriend ended their relationship, Fred soldiered on with his lawsuit because he firmly believed that the government was wrong.


In the early 2000s, Fred connected the racism Japanese Americans experienced during World War II with the hatred directed at Muslims after 9/11. He submitted a “friend of the court” brief to the Supreme Court in solidarity with Muslim men whom the U.S. government had detained without charges or trials.

My initial activism centered on issues that directly impacted me as an Asian American and as a gay man. But, like Fred Korematsu, I too saw parallels between my experiences and those of others who face discrimination. Recognizing those connections motivated my work with the ACLU in support of immigrants, women, youth, as well as people of color and LGBTQ individuals.

I also learned from Fred Korematsu and Biddy Mason that there isn’t just one way to make a difference. We can’t all deliver rousing speeches before thousands of people like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King or go on hunger strikes like Cesar Chavez. But individuals can speak out for their beliefs in ways that are organic and meaningful for them. Fred Korematsu liked speaking to students and educating them about the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. In doing so, he encouraged them to stand up for justice. Biddy Mason provided financial help to Los Angeles flood victims and others in need. When Laura and I present to students about Fred Korematsu, we tell them that if they like art, they can create drawings or paintings that depict unfair situations, like people did through artwork that we include in our book. Or if they like music, they can sing protest songs. Or if they like to write like Laura and me, they can compose stories about ways to fight against injustice. Speaking out in ways that fit our personalities and utilize our unique talents not only creates meaning for us but also enables us to sustain our activism over time.

Example of how we include art created by Japanese Americans in Fred Korematsu Speaks Up

Laura: I love Stan’s answer and don’t have much to add. Just that I’m inspired as I research the lives of people who persevered even in the face of enormous obstacles — living as an enslaved woman, being unjustly imprisoned by the government. People like Biddy Mason and Fred Korematsu inspire me to keep on standing up and speaking out. I hope that we can change the world for my 11-year-old daughter, and all the young people in the next generation who deserve a world that accepts and embraces all of them, no matter their “race, creed or color” (as Fred Korematsu said in his speech in the courtroom when his criminal conviction was overturned).

Arisa: Biddy Mason reminds me of the collective effort that goes into our liberation. You do what you can, where you can. She incited in me a curiosity about plants, their medicinal qualities, and my life became illuminated by the nature around me. There is spirit as there is air, and we must nurture our spirits because it’s a force that has effect. I understood more deeply the politics of care held between black women. Biddy Mason helped me see myself a little bit more wholly. She is a lesson in digging into the silences to find what was not told to us.

Example of how we include plant remedies in Biddy Mason Speaks Up

Allie: Who do you see engaging in the “politics of care” today? If you were to choose a contemporary activist to highlight in a Fighting For Justice book, who might you choose?

Laura: It’s a good question, in part because we are developing the idea for the next Fighting for Justice book, and this may be someone (or more than one person) living today who is an indigenous Californian. This is still very much in early development, so nothing set. I’m especially inspired now by young people who are speaking up: Emma Gonz√°lez and all of the young people creating a powerful and inclusive movement to speak out about gun control. Also Greta Thunberg who is taking direct action on climate change, and getting the whole world to pay attention. I’m honored to be working with Regina Evans to develop school presentations on Biddy Mason (Colby College hired Arisa to teach poetry, so she is now based in Maine and will Skype in to visits when she can). Thanks to Arisa’s connection with Regina and her work, we featured her story at the end of Biddy Mason Speaks Up, showing how Regina is a survivor of trafficking herself, and that she has become a modern-day abolitionist using creativity, theater, entrepreneurship, philanthropy and love to support current young people who are survivors of trafficking. She could have a whole book about her and the amazing work that she does to support her community.

Feature on Regina Evans at the end of Biddy Mason Speaks Up. You can see a video of the powerful talk she gave at the launch event here.

Stan: Thanks, Arisa, for bringing up the politics of care framework. In difficult times like now when so many communities are under attack, it’s important to remember the politics of care—for ourselves and for others. Like Laura, I think there are many inspiring contemporary activists who are speaking out on specific challenges, as well as leaders like Rev. William Barber, who are making connections among different communities and issues. I’m especially impressed by Marielena Hincapi√©, the Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center, an organization defending the rights of low-income immigrants. Marielena immigrated as a child from Colombia to Rhode Island. She’s not only generated positive societal changes through her work as a lawyer, advocate, and educator on behalf of immigrants. But she’s also an amazingly kind person who cares deeply about the negative impacts of xenophobic policies on individuals, families and communities.

Marielena Hincapié, executive director of National Immigration Law Center speaking outside the Supreme Court after oral arguments on Trump's latest Muslim Ban, photo by Lorie Shaull
Arisa: There are so many people that it’s hard to pinpoint one person. Who immediately comes to heart is Rev Angel Kyodo Williams, writer, activist, and ordained Zen priest for the spiritually-engaged transformative work she’s doing, reminding us all of the importance of personal accountability for collective change. Choreographer and dancer Amara Tabor Smith, who uses her art to bring healing attention to the mental health of and violence faced by African American women. Scholar, educator, writer and doula, Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is active in illuminating the scholarship and cultural productions of queer black feminists with her academic and community teachings, intergenerational archival projects, and experimental creative writings that embody the intersectionality of queer black women.

Rev Angel Kyodo Williams

Allie: What advice do you have for the generation that’s reading your books and wondering how they, too, can become changemakers?

Stan: I echo the advice Fred Korematsu shared when he talked with students: Don’t be afraid to speak out for what you think is right. I add to that: Don’t be discouraged if the changes you seek don’t occur immediately. Big societal shifts take time and the efforts of many people. Change is oftentimes incremental. There may be one step backward before two steps forward. As civil rights activist sang in the 1950s and 1960s, “Keep your eyes on the prize” of your ultimate goal and don’t be disheartened (at least for too long) by setbacks.

Arisa: Let your desire to make change be connected to your heart.

Laura: Nourish yourself along the way — find the things that feed your soul. I love being in community, so am happiest when working with others with shared values towards change, while also enjoying each others’ company and learning from one another. And remember, we are stronger together (as rad children’s book creator Maya Gonzalez says and expresses beautifully through her art). We can lift each other up. I love sharing information about important children’s books that don’t always get attention in the mainstream publishing world (you can see a bunch of awesome social justice and mostly #ownvoices Bay Area creators at this website). Let’s amplify the good work and support each other along the way.

The powerful art of Maya Gonzalez graces the Activist Children’s Book Creators and Activist Books Facebook page.

Allie: Thank you all so much for sharing your time, wisdom, and expertise. I and so many others will continue to learn about courage, activism, and speaking up from your answers and your books. I can’t recommend the Fighting For Justice series highly enough; these books should be in every Middle Grade collection and classroom.

Illustrator Yutaka Houlette, Laura, editor Molly Woodward, and Stan at the Fred Korematsu Speaks Up launch event. You can see videos of Stan and Laura’s presentations on the Fighting for Justice school visit page.

Arisa and Laura at the launch event for Biddy Mason Speaks Up. We have all of the videos from our launch events shown on our revamped Fighting for Justice website.



Cave Canem graduate fellow Arisa White received her MFA from UMass, Amherst, and is the author of Perfect on Accident, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, Black Pearl, Post Pardon, A Penny Saved, and Hurrah's Nest. Her poetry has been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, NAACP Image Award, California Book Award, and Wheatley Book Award. The chapbook “Fishing Walking” & Other Bedtime Stories for My Wife won the inaugural Per Diem Poetry Prize. She's the co-author of Biddy Mason Speaks Up, the second book in the Fighting for Justice series for young readers. Arisa serves on the board of directors for Foglifter Publications and Nomadic Press and is an assistant professor of poetry at Colby College. arisawhite.com



Stan Yogi is the co-author with Laura Atkins of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, an award-winning children's book. He is co-author with Elaine Elinson of Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California. He is the co-editor of two books, Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley and Asian American Literature: An Annotated Bibliography. His essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Daily Journal and academic journals and anthologies.


Laura Atkins is the author of the picture book Sled Dog Dachshund, and co-author with Stan Yogi of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award, New-York Historical Society Award, ILA Social Justice Book Award, and the Jane Addams Honor Award. With Arisa White, Laura co-wrote Biddy Mason Speaks Up, just featured in the New York Times. Laura spent a decade working at traditional children’s publishers and now freelances as an editor with individuals and publishers, including Cassava Republic Press and Parallax Press. With an MA in Children's Literature and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Laura is passionate about diversity and equity in children's books. She and her daughter live in Berkeley, California. lauraatkins.com

Monday, February 11, 2019

Stepping Up

If you haven’t read this account of what happened at Midwinter by April Hathcock, please do, because it’s important. It’s important because it lays bare how, for all the talk of equity, diversity, and inclusion in our field, we have a long, long way to go.

It’s important because it lays bare the work we White people have to do in learning how to be allies.

And it lays bare how, once again, a person who experiences racist trauma, while still traumatized, ALSO has to do the work of educating us—of telling us what should have been done, and what needs to be done.

For me, personally, it has also laid bare a gap. While I wasn’t at Midwinter, since reading this I have been asking myself: If I had been in that Forum session, would I have been shocked into silence by the attack, or worried about making waves in the moment (so damnably ingrained), or would I have spoken up? If I had spoken, up, would I have known how to do it in a way that didn’t make things worse for the person being attacked?

A few years ago, there was an ongoing chaotic situation in my neighborhood. There was an afternoon when I was home and heard a woman outside yell “Don’t touch me!” I didn’t think, I didn’t hesitate, I just acted: storming out of the house with words booming out of my mouth, uncharacteristically bold and loud: “Take your hands off her!” The man backed away.

My response in that moment to a woman in danger was instinctive. My response to racist attack in the moment, whether in a professional setting or on the street, has got to become just as instinctive. And bold. And uncompromising.

But it also also needs to be informed, with the integrity and needs and safety of the person being attacked at the forefront of my thinking.

So I’m committing myself to better understanding exactly what it takes to do that, in the moment and long term. As an individual moving through the world, and as a member of the American Library Association, I ask: How can I embody in action the ideals I claim in words, and how should I demand ALA do the same?

At the end of her post, April Hathcock laid out definitive steps she wanted to see the organization take, starting with an apology, but moving on to meaningful actions to educate members.  Here is the response of ALA’s Executive Board to-date:

To which I say: This statement of partial ownership is a start.

Yes, the Executive Board apologized. There’s a problem, though, in citing past work the ALA has done toward diversity and inclusion, as it does in the final paragraphs, with the “it takes time” caveat. We all know it takes time, none more so than those who have been biding their time even as they work for change. There’s a problem in particular when “it takes time” comes after a statement acknowledging that the organization fell short in enforcing its own code of conduct.

There’s a problem, too, when “it takes time” comes after stating, “The ALA attorney and President-Elect met with April Hathcock in the Council meeting room shortly before Council III to share some nonpublic information about events after the incident in question. ALA leaders deeply regrets any distress this caused; it was not intent of the attorney or ALA to threaten Ms. Hathcock in any way.” Not intending to cause harm and not causing harm are two very different things. Not intending to cause harm starts with considering the potential harm of any action you are considering and making choices that do no harm. In this case, after the fact, it requires acknowledgment of why the action taken felt threatening.

REFORMA released a statement in response to what happened at Midwinter, and it underscores the fact that racism is not a new thing at ALA conferences, and that the systemic racism that permeates our culture also permeates our profession and professional organization.

ALA is a member organization. Obviously, individual members are not all in synch regarding their beliefs and values, but this hasn’t stopped ALA from a stated commitment to diversity and inclusion, and to committing to applying a social justice framework to its strategic directions work. That’s something as a member I’d like to take pride in; I do take pride in it, up to a point. But I want my professional organization to dig deeper and work harder to make its stated ideals a reality. That means not only owning completely when a mistake has been made, but also calling on all of us who are members--not just BIPOC--to be part of the work.

And I need to demand the same thing of myself that I’m demanding of ALA, because challenging racism is not the sole responsibility of BIPOC. It’s the responsibility of White people, too.