by Sam Bloom, Allie Jane Bruce and Elisa Gall
After reading Jonah and Jeanette Winter’s The Secret Project (Beach Lane Books, 2017), a few of us at Reading While White wanted to discuss our own reactions to it and what we have learned from reading and reflecting on criticism including Dr. Debbie Reese’s review at AICL. During this conversation it also came to our attention that Reese’s critical review was posted to the All The Wonders promo page and later taken down, adding another layer of complexity to our discussion (we recommend you read “What Happened to “A Second Perspective” at All The Wonders?” by Dr. Reese as well). Feel free to join our conversation and add your questions and/or thoughts in the comments!
Elisa: When I first read The Secret Project, I was immediately drawn into the visual narrative of the ending. It was so gripping that I found myself focusing on that part of the book and remembering little else. When I saw the critical review on AICL, I knew that I had allowed myself to be wooed by the final pages. Sometimes a “WOW” effect like that can lead readers to prioritize one successful piece of a book over its serious problems. To me, that choice to overlook is the epitome of privilege I carry with me as a White, non-Native reader.
Sam: I really liked it on first read. It’s embarrassing now, having seen the things Debbie pointed out, that seem so obvious. When I saw the spread with the Hopi man, I thought to myself, “I’m sure they got it right, this is the Winters we’re talking about.” That’s such a naive statement, but it was my first thought, so I just glossed over it. And like you, Elisa, I was gobsmacked by that ending.
Elisa: Sam, that hope (“I’m sure they got it right”) is something I’ve noticed myself having. I find myself wanting to take the easy route of just going with the flow and trusting that a book (especially from a publisher or author whose past work I admire) is authentic and accurate. Looking critically and asking questions can be tough work. It definitely pulls me “out” of the narrative, which is why almost subconsciously I find myself resisting and wanting to “gloss over” as you put it. I have grown accustomed to getting to stay “in” the books I read. I try to remember that so many readers NEVER get to stay “in” (and some never get “in” at all) because the world of children’s literature has never been inclusive to them.
Allie: What you’re describing is, I think, a set of skills that are not prioritized in library school. I’m reminded of this post that Megan wrote about her process of letting go of A Fine Dessert a year and a half ago.
I need to practice that skill of letting go. It is a professional skill. When I love a book for a particular reason, and then find out that it contains one (or more) problematic elements, I need to do what Megan did with A Fine Dessert: Sit. Breathe. Think. Go through whatever mental process I need to go through. Then, practice saying the words “I changed my mind.”
Megan’s older post is, in fact, so completely on-point here that I want to quote from it:
I cannot ignore the voices of those who have helped me understand something I didn't consider before: No matter how thoughtful the intent was in depicting this mother and child, the end result is that it can be seen as perpetuating painful imagery of "happy" slaves.
Am I ashamed I didn't see this myself? Yes. Because it's the kind of thing I'd like to think I wouldn't miss.
But I'm not so ashamed that I'm going to dig in my heels.
I can let go of A Fine Dessert.
Did I come to this decision easily? No. Am I sad about letting go of the book? Yes.
But it's a small sadness.
Yes, I still appreciate many other things about A Fine Dessert, but I can also accept that this is a fault it cannot overcome for me when it comes to recommending it to librarians and teachers.
Swap The Secret Project in for A Fine Dessert, and alter that second line to read, “No matter how thoughtful the intent was in depicting the setting, or how successfully it communicates the massive global and moral implications of developing nuclear weaponry, the end result is that it erases Pueblo people from this story.”
Elisa: Yep. It is admittedly tough to come to terms with the fact that a title you first thought was excellent, or even haven’t read yet but want so much to be flawless, misses the mark...but again, tough for whom? Is it as tough as being a Native reader who sees (to quote Debbie Reese’s recent post) The Secret Project as yet another book in the “ever-growing pile of books in which this or that topic is more important than Native people?” Whose reactions and feelings are being prioritized if criticism is ignored? And there is plenty to talk about with regards to the way the conversation about this book played out after concerns were being discussed.
Allie: I followed the way the conversation unfolded with great interest. I had hopes that this would become a groundbreaking case of mainstream non-binary thinking, that we could acknowledge the merits of the book, and talk about how powerful that ending is, and also acknowledge the ways in which it erases Pueblo people, and what implications that has in the context of our history and our world. Instead, I saw the same patterns as always, and found myself asking the same questions as always.
Particularly troubling to me was Matthew Winner’s comment on AICL, in which he says that All the Wonders enters into a “verbal agreement” with book creators to shine a positive light on their book. If I were entering into an agreement, verbal or written, to promote somebody’s work to the exclusion of criticism, I would change my job title from “librarian” to “salesperson” and ask to be paid for this work. Now, it’s not my prerogative whether anybody else follows that advice--except that it impacts our profession as a whole when leaders in the field refer to themselves as “teachers” or “librarians” but in fact serve as de facto members of publishers’ advertising teams (for more of my thoughts on this, see my post responding to the recent Wall Street Journal article here). I see so much personal, passionate “I looooooooved this book” from the “rock stars.” By contrast, I see such rational, researched, informed opinions from Debbie. But somehow Debbie is always the one who gets called “nasty” or “unprofessional” while the “rock stars” are seen as the pinnacle of the profession.
Sam: I think some of the backlash Debbie received is due to the fact that she is a woman, and the “rock stars” are men. I’ve been called a “rock star,” too. For doing the same damn thing an enormous number of women in the profession have done before. What’s that phrase about standing on the shoulders of giants? Well, I am certainly standing on the shoulders of giants to get to a point where I can get invited to the publisher dinners and shmoozy events, and guess what: pretty much EVERY ONE of those giants is a woman. And yet I, as a man (a White man, at that) may get up and read a story or two to kids; I may sing and dance and act goofy; I may do book talks for school age kids; and I’m the “rock star” even though there are how many women doing ALL of those things, probably with more skill and grace, who won’t get any attention for simply DOING THEIR JOB?
Elisa: I know we have shared Robin DiAngelo's work on White Fragility before, but it is worth sharing again to notice these patterns you’re describing. You make good points, too, about "librarian" versus "advertiser." I have been reflecting on this a lot. The line has definitely become blurred. Influence marketing works (which is why we see it), but it is so important for our profession that it becomes clear if/when librarians are getting paid (or given benefits) to celebrate a book/author/publisher. Librarians DO spotlight and promote books and authors, but after careful evaluation. And even then, it is okay (expected!) to reevaluate your position after receiving new information. You might even change your mind.
It feels good to get a book sent to you because a publisher thought you'd like it, or invited to a dinner with a creator whose work you admire. These gestures can feel like agreements. Let's be real - it is business! It can be hard to separate those warm fuzzies from problematic texts. But it is imperative. I acknowledge my own participation in this system. I keep telling myself: you want to go to that dinner or schmooze with creators? Fine. But then be ready for the hard reality that at the end of the day, no matter what you’ve been given or how much you like that person, you have to do your job.
Allie: We spend much of our professional lives, by nature of the profession, in the thick of conversations about judging books, whether to spend budget money on this book or that, whether this book is good enough for this list or that award. We form opinions, positive and negative, sometimes passionately so, informed by our expertise in book evaluation, our experiences sharing the book with kids, observations about a book’s accessibility, popularity, and so much more. When it gets into that “passionate” territory, though, let’s face it: It’s often hard to separate one’s personal love or hate for a book from a professional assessment, based on expertise, research, and knowledge.
Elisa: I agree. And going back to how critics can get accused of bullying or being “nasty,” I think there is a myth that it is somehow always easy or fun for critics to interrupt racism or bias in a text. It can be disappointing, alienating, and scary. If representation of your identity is at the center, it can be traumatic and in some instances, people’s safety can be put at risk. No matter how it is shared though (and even if/when it is directed at something I am passionate about), I am working to remember that criticism reflects care and commitment. It is how things improve, because I have hope that discomfort will lead to deeper reflection in the future, and more honest, thoughtful, and accurate books getting made as a result.