Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What Makes A Classic?

This post has been in my mind a long time, even before we started talking about it in comments to our early October post, "Not a Contradiction,"  or heard of the Amazing Grace Solution.  I've been thinking of the place that classics have in a library collection, of what that term means, and of how and when it gets used.  I think it is true that a good library collection has books from across many decades, and these will, by necessity, reflect changing attitudes and values. That's part of the reason for having them in the collection.  But how do we choose which books stay on the shelf for all that time? Whose attitudes, whose values, determine a set of "classics"?

When I think of what makes any single classic last on the shelf, there could be several reasons.  Some have been enshrined in popular media, whether people actually expect the literary tome they encounter with, say Pinnochio or Gulliver's Travels.  There are some titles I suspect hang on simply because teachers keep on using them, such as Amazing Grace. Then there are award winners, and some books that simply seem to have perennial child appeal, like Harriet the Spy.  Finally some seem simply to "exist" as classics:  Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book...   who canonized these, and with what in mind?

"What Makes a Classic?"...or, "Who"?  In almost each of these cases above, the status granted a book comes from an establishment (educational, library, or wider literary critical circles)  that is overwhelming White. While I think we hope our classics represent our literary "heritage" in some way, I question the self-fulfilling loop of a limited perspective.

This is, of course, what we are talking about in general when we ask where is the diversity in children's literature, and our awards.  But I'm also thinking specifically about branch public libraries, in which an adult comes asking for some classic children's books, or requesting a specific one, and the indignation that can come along when we don't have something ready for them to match their expectation.  (Perhaps this goes for bookstores, too.)

Where does this question come from, and what is it in the classic in someone's mind that makes it a classic? I can accept, as a generalism, that all classics have excellence and appeal in their aesthetic and technical delivery...  something in the writing that made them connect with an audience in a strong, broad, and lasting way.    My question is, when an adult is looking for a classic to share with new audience, what IS it that they want to share?  Is it the actual message in that book?  Is it the experience the adult had reading it, that they would like to replicate? Does the adult hope to recapture that experience for themself, by sharing it?

It probably is all three, and more, but I don't think we often ask ourselves these questions.   I think that if adults can recognize, and place to the side--for later, for themselves--the nostalgia of their own experience, and rather focus on what it is they hope for the child they are sharing the book with... some classics might not seem so classic. And perhaps that classic is still exactly right, but I don't think we can know unless we re-examine them.  Being asked to question your own cherished memories of a book is not a pleasant experience, similar to Megan's experience On Letting Go.

The 25th Anniversary edition of Amazing Grace has been reprinted in the US without the image of Grace posing, stereotypically, as Hiawatha.   The UK 25th edition retains this picture.  In an interview in the Guardian, the reporter leads off with: "Mary Hoffman’s groundbreaking Amazing Grace gave us one of the first black heroines in a picture book."  Now, I can't speak to the British picture book scene in 1991 when Amazing Grace was first published, but here I recall some remarkable picture books like Mirandy and Brother Wind or Flossie and the Fox that had been acclaimed here just years earlier, and these are simply the ones that spring to my mind.

In the interview, British author Mary Hoffman says (I am cutting and pasting, I recommend reading the whole interview):

When I was young, it was quite common to be told there were things you couldn’t do because you were a girl ... So I decided right from the beginning that Grace would be a black girl, just to add to the challenges she might face....  I based Grace on me.....

Picture books still have a long way to go in showing the diversity of our culture and the variety within families. Things are better than they were 25 years ago but they won’t really become fully inclusive until more books are written and illustrated by members of the BAME [i.e. "POC"] community themselves.

I got a little flak for writing about a black child when I was myself white but I didn’t mind. What was important was that someone should write that book and no-one else was doing it. It was also ironic since one of the points of the book is that all stories are for all people.

Twenty-five years later, I still believe that.

This speaks both to what made Amazing Grace such a meaningful book for so many, and to why it remains problematic.  What makes Amazing Grace more well-known than, say Mirandy and Brother Wind?  Money. More people have purchased the former, and requested it in libraries, meaning libraries will keep it on and replace it, more, and from what I can tell the reason people keep requesting it is simply because they hear of it from a person or place they trust. I cannot see what can possibly be behind the motivation to reprint Amazing Grace except for money, especially as the Hiawatha picture has only been removed in one country. This points to it being a market-driven decision, rather than an authorial or editorial one.  While I'm certainly glad that American audiences won't have to see the Hiawatha picture (well, depending on whether their libraries replace all their copies...hear that ka-ching?), I also wish some of the market attention that Amazing Grace gets could get spent on more and various books.

If you haven't read Amazing Grace in a while, I encourage you to revisit it, and think about Mary Hoffman's statement in the interview that one of the points of the book is that "all stories are for all people."  Look at the stories that Grace enacts through the book:  Joan of Arc, Anansi the Spider, the Iliad, [Treasure Island or some other pirate story], Hiawatha, The Jungle Book, Aladdin, and ultimately of course: Peter Pan.  All Stories?  Really?  Whose stories are these exactly? Whose tokens? Whose classics?

With the 25th Anniversary Edition of Amazing Grace as just one example of a classic made classic within many of our own lifetimes, I wonder:
  • Who is using this new edition, and why? 
  • What other books might serve the same purpose?
  • What is it that makes this a classic? Who made it so, and why?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Reviewing While White: Home

by Sam Bloom

Home (published by Candlewick Press) is Carson Ellis’s first book as both author and illustrator, and it is generating a fair amount of Caldecott buzz, as evidenced by its standing on the Goodreads Mock Caldecott list (12th out of 69 books as of November 17). And understandably so: it’s an auspiciously beautiful debut. You can tell just by touching this book: Ellis and her editors at Candlewick Press obviously took great care in its design. The paper is a lovely cream, nice and thick, pleasing to the touch. The bibliographic information tells us that Ellis hand-lettered the entire book, which is pretty impressive to me (my handwriting is abysmal). Turning to the first spread, we see two horses racing away from a small country home with a dove flying away from the house (a dove that the observant reader will find in nearly every illustration). This lovely scene is more than a little reminiscent of the work of Alice and Martin Provensen. (According to Erin and Phillip Stead’s excellent Number 5 Bus series, where Ellis spoke at length with Mac Barnett, the Provensen-esque art seems to have been a conscious choice.)

A bit later in the book, a full page spread shows a large boat headed for shore; judging from the wash hanging on a line, the lookout gazing through an eyeglass, etc., it appears that the boat is looking to land and perhaps set up roots. But there’s someone already on the land: three people (clearly meant to be from First/Native Nations) wait at the head of the long, earthy slope, looking toward the approaching boat. The text reads, “Some homes are boats. / Some homes are wigwams.” A flock of birds ascends overhead, including the ubiquitous dove. Now, if I’m not very much mistaken, the dove is usually a symbol of peace. So what is going on here? Is Ellis making a political statement? If so, what is it? Is she trying to show peace between the (mostly) White members of the boat’s crew and the people of Native/First Nations on the land? But that would be revisionist history to the extreme! And about that crew: would there really be people of color out on deck, dressed in clothes just like the White sailors’? Or would they be in chains down belowdecks? I’m puzzled… and I’m an adult who studies children’s books as a part of my vocation. What of the child who sees this? What will they surmise from this baffling illustration? And what if the reader is a child of Native/First Nations, or a descendent of the Diaspora--how will these images register?

Turn the page and you’ll see another full page spread, this one apparently meant to take place in the Middle East. A shirtless man (with brown skin) stands holding a scimitar, guarding something, perhaps the ladder down to the “underground lair” featured at the bottom of the illustration. There is even a lamp (ala Aladdin and Robin Williams) on a table, where some nefarious-looking (also brown-skinned, natch) men are counting coins. Again: what is going on here? Does Ellis realize the misconceptions that she is reinforcing with this spread? In a country where Arabs receive death threats after pretty much any terrorist attack, how is this a good idea?

The homes themselves are pretty amazing. For instance, the “Japanese businessman” stands in front of a radical, stone-looking, geometrically fascinating piece of work. And… oh, wait. The “Japanese businessman’s” eyes are closed… it almost looks as if he is squinting. Yeah, that’s a pretty offensive stereotype too. Oy. And then there’s the white-toothed, smiling, poor-but-happy Kenyan blacksmith. Oy vey.

I’m embarrassed to admit I glossed right over all of this on my first read. I am a White man with all of the privileges that come with the position, so to speak, and I often miss things that I really should see in books. I’m getting better, but I’m still numb to so many problematic things.

I have to do better. We all have to do better.

In all the recent discussion on A Fine Dessert, this was a popular excuse for the book’s defenders: “I didn’t notice this, the kids I was reading to didn’t notice this [bonus points if said kids were not White!!!], so it can’t really be that harmful, right?!” Wrong. It still hurts, folks.

In January, Julie Danielson interviewed Ellis for Kirkus. Ellis mentions a few people in the interview: her editor at Candlewick, Liz Bicknell; and Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, who provided “mountains of feedback and support” during the making of Home. I’m familiar with these three folks, especially Barnett and Klassen, who consistently produce top-quality, wisely created books. And I believe that Ellis is ultimately the responsible party here, but I wonder if Bicknell, Barnett or Klassen ever questioned Ellis on some of the problematic parts of the book. I wonder if anyone else along the way saw anything wrong here.

Debbie Reese reviewed this back in the Spring. That review was an eye-opener for me. I’m grateful for Debbie’s persistence in pointing out the problematic content in children’s books despite comments like this. (On a related note, don’t use this book to teach your kid/your class point-of-view. Just don’t, okay? I’m sure we can brainstorm a ton of infinitely less problematic titles that could do just as well in that regard.)

As beautiful as this book is, as talented as Carson Ellis undoubtedly is, there is more than enough troubling content in Home to cancel out the aesthetically pleasing bits.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Reviewing While White: Up and Down with "Over the Hills and Far Away"

                                                                            by Megan Schliesman 

I was excited when I first picked up Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes from Around the World, a collection compiled by Elizabeth Hammill and illustrated by more than 70 artists.  Excited because it’s a hefty, substantial and visually arresting offering that was making an intentional effort at multiculturalism, and in doing so would hopefully offer something fresh in poetry collections for young children.

In her introduction, Hammill states she sought to create a "genuine intercultural experience" and the opening piece is a strong start of moving beyond the norm: a poem from the Tohono O’odham. But right away I had a question that I could not answer on my own: Who are the Tohono O’odham? I'm sorry I didn't know the answer myself, but I'm also sorry the book made no effort to enlighten me beyond the visual cue in the illustration: indigenous individuals in a desert landscape. I used Google to find out more about the Tohono O'odham, a Native nation in Mexico and the American southwest, and I was happy to discover from the brief bio in the back for the artist, Michael Chiago, that he is Tohono O’odham. I know Native voices have often been misrepresented in anthologies so the fact that Chiago gave permission to use his painting was reassuring to me, especially as the verse was not specifically sourced in the end matter.

The second verse is labeled “African Lullaby (Akan)” in the table of contents. I looked online to discover that the Akan people are from the Guinea coast of the African continent. The illustrator for the Akan verse, Meshack Asare, is a noted children's book creator from Ghana, where the Akan are an ethnic group.

I appreciated the thoughtful verse/illustration pairings like those above or that of the Tsimshian “laughing song.” The poem is illustrated by a Tsimshian First Nations artist, Bill Helin and came from his own family.

But there were also things about the volume that left me disappointed, uncomfortable, and a couple of times dismayed.

Early on there is a page spread featuring the juxtaposition of an “English” lullabye with which most of us are familiar: “Hush-a-bye, baby, / On the tree top” and a “Chippewa” lullabye.  Again, there was no specific source cited in the end matter for the “Chippewa” verse.  But the truly jarring and upsetting element was the illustration spanning the spread and the two poems. Northumbrian artist Olivia Lomenech Gill depicted a tree in the center of the spread branching out to each of the poems. There is a Native mother with her child on a cradleboard below the "Chippewa" verse on the right. On the left?  The Mayflower ship, with “Mayflower 1620-1621” written in script above the “Hush-a-bye” lullabye.

Let’s just think about that a moment. The event that symbolically represents the arrival of Europeans on this continent, which in turn led to the devastation and decimation of Native populations through brutal events that continue to resonate and dramatically impact the lives of contemporary Native people today, is paired with the historical image of a Native woman and her child in peaceful repose. I’m sure it was innocent, and even well-meaning, this British artist joining the two things. The baby hanging from a cradle in the treetop intentionally echoes the depiction of the baby in the cradleboard.  But the end result is far from innocent; it's a painful pairing of images.

Near the volume's end, I came to a page spread with three poems related to ghosts and skeletons. Two were labeled “African American,” and the first one went like this:

                                          W’en de big owl whoops,               
An de’ screech owl screeks,            
An’ de win’ makes a howlin’ sound;  
You liddle woolly heads                      
Had better kiver up                              
      Caze de “hants” is comin’ round.              

I was so appalled that I searched for source information.  While this poem is not specifically sourced (only a relatively small number of the poems are; general sources are listed from which, presumably, the others came), I found online that it is from a 1922 book called Negro Folk Rhymes, collected by Thomas Talley (one of the general sources cited--why the poem wasn't specifically attributed to this collection I don't know). I did additional research and learned Talley was an African American chemistry professor at Fisk University and also a collector of African American folklore. I am not a scholar, and cannot speak to the issue of authenticity, or to the politics of publishing and race at that time. What I do know is this: that language and that imagery (“liddle woolly heads”?) reinforces hurtful, damaging stereotypes that have been used to demean and dehumanize African Americans for generations. Was that the intent here? Of course not. Does that render it harmless? Hardly. The choice to include it in a collection for children makes me angry and boggles my mind.

I also had to wonder about the overall lack of balance regarding cultural diversity in the collection, and had questions about the cultural labels. Over half of the 148 entries are listed as "English," perhaps not surprising in an anthology grounded in nursery rhymes but also curious in a volume with "A Treasury...from Around the World" in the subtitle. Other poems labels include (but aren't limited to) Scottish, Welsh, South African, Australian, Maori, Yiddish, and Trinidadian. Poems from North America include labels such as American,Chinese American, African American, Anglo American, and the names of various First/Native nations. And there are several labeled simply "Latino."

The deeper I read, the more the labeling made me uncomfortable. American versus Anglo American versus African American? Ok.... From this do I presume all the poems labeled English are Anglo in origin? (They looked to be.) Where are poems reflecting the multiethnicity of British identity?  What about those labeled simply American--how do we interpret that label culturally? There is mixed messaging here. Additionally, was there no way to trace the handful of "Latino" poems to specific countries or regions? If there wasn't I wanted to know why.

I ended up wishing that rather than the labels, which I'm guessing were based on what was revealed in the sources consulted but collectively left me twitchy with discomfort, each poem had included a brief note on the page, which was done with the Tsimshian "Laughing Song," that told what was, or wasn't, known about its cultural origins. Not what the compiler knew but what could have been discovered with additional research (such as the fact that "Ojibwe" is generally the preferred term today for "Chippewa," or that in the source for one particular poem , the marvelous Pío Peep: Traditional Spanish Nursery Rhymes, compiled by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy, it's noted that the verses are widely known across Latin America.)

Conceptually, there are good intentions behind the creation of Over the Hills and Far Away, and there are marvelous moments within it. But I began to realize that this "around the world," "intercultural" book--as is so often the case--presents diversity as something that is is an add-on to Whiteness and western culture, which dominate the selections. I couldn't help but contrast this volume with the 1992 book This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World, edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, which privileges non-U.S., and often non-western voices, and another poetry anthology out this year, Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poets for the Next Generation, compiled by Brett Fletcher Lauer and Lynn Melnick. Please Excuse This Poem, an anthology for teens, is also clearly intentionally multicultural yet never states this as its intent. The end result feels effortless and genuine, rich and authentic: a true reflection of who we are.

It's true Over the Hills and Far Away is a very different book for a very different audience, comprised largely of poems I'm guessing are in the public domain. But Hammill was clearly open to broadly interpreting the definition of "nursery rhyme," which is wonderful. Was it truly impossible to find more culturally diverse and authentic offerings that more widely span the globe?

For me, Over the Hills and Far Away sometimes shines but overall falls short of, and in some ways seriously undermines, its best intentions.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What Does Thanksgiving Make You Think Of?

No one, not one single person or family or toddler, is going to storm the doors of your library — be it public or school  and demand that you do a special Thanksgiving storytime.  Literally no one.  And yet.  And yet you, as a librarian, might feel compelled to offer a program along these lines.  Maybe because you’ve always done it.  Maybe because it’s easy and quick to pull together.  Maybe because all the teachers in your school are doing units on it and you want to support them.  Maybe because you think your patrons, the majority of your patrons that is, don’t really think about it as a “holiday” but as a more secular tradition.  But I want to urge you to stop and consider why you’re doing these programs and the messages they send to all your patrons, especially your Native/First Nations patrons.

Chances are pretty good that, unless you are reading this from a reservation, you are reading this from occupied and stolen land.  In many cases, even if you are reading it from a reservation you are not on the true ancestral homes of the people who reside there but on government-created settlements.  You are on land that people were killed for. Can you sit with that for a few seconds?  Can you really?

This is something I am acutely aware of in New Mexico, where we have 22 recognized tribes. I grew up playing with Native kids, I work with Native people, I serve Native children. Maybe, in other places, it’s a lesson you don’t have to think about as much. But it’s still true.

Many years ago, I decided my library would stop putting up grinning turkeys and making displays with puns about FEASTS and GOBBLE.  We don’t have pilgrim coloring pages, we don’t make stacks of books that look like turkeys.  Let me assure you we still have piles of Thanksgiving books — picture books and non-fiction too.

But November is also Native American Heritage Month. So at my library, instead of another story about sharing maize, we make a conscious effort to spotlight and celebrate books by Native American authors. You can too — and you can even tie it in with that “classic” Thanksgiving you might be reluctant to let go of.

What do you think of when you think of Thanksgiving?

I am sure many will have the same answers about family, community, and tradition.  If those are the things that are truly important to you about Thanksgiving, why not share messages about that through the works of Native authors?  This is a way you can help your patrons understand that Native Americans are still with us today — not just forgotten noble savages of the long-gone past bringing white people corn.

If Thanksgiving makes you think about tradition and community, why not share Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith?  This picture book is about a young Muscogee Creek girl who is trying to find enough tin jingles to make her jingle dress special at a powwow. Readers get to meet the people in Jenna’s life and community and learn about the specialness of the Ojibway tradition of jingle dancing.

If Thanksgiving makes you think about family and tradition, why not share Kunu’s Basket by Lee DeCora Francis?  In this picture book, Kunu becomes frustrated when he finds making a pack basket isn’t as easy as he imagined.  All the men on Indian Island do it, why can’t Kunu?  His grandfather helps him learn patience and practice in this story about Penobscot Indian Nation in Maine.

If Thanksgiving makes you think about happiness and family togetherness, why not share Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk? Throat singer Kalluk shares an Inuit welcome for a baby in this tender, wondrous picture book full of arctic animals and Inuit traditions.

If Thanksgiving makes you think about cooperation and people coming together in peace and forgiveness, why not share with a class Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson? This longer picture book tells the story of how Hiawatha and the Peacemaker brought peace and united the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy in a model that would inspire the formation of the early American government.

If Thanksgiving makes you think about thankfulness and gratitude, why not share Thanks to the Animals by Allen Sockabasin? Little Zoo Sap has fallen off the sled in the cold winter forest, but the animals all keep him warm.  When his father Joo Tum finds him, he thanks the animals for saving Zoo Sap in this story from Passamaquoddy storyteller Sockabasin.

I’ve read Thanks to the Animals to kids several times during the Thanksgiving season and taken it to school visits when teachers requested a “Thanksgiving storytime” as outreach.  Not once ever has a kid or teacher said, “But this isn’t Thanksgiving!  I demand more pilgrims!”  Instead, they love hearing about Zoo Sap and all the animals.  Children understand the message of thanksgiving in the book and, like Joo Tum, they enjoy thanking the animals.  I also get a chance to discuss the Passamaquoddy tribe with the kids, which can be a great way to encourage adults to remember that Thanksgiving isn’t just about the same old story.

We, as librarians and educators, can be leaders in changing and expanding that story. We shouldn’t only celebrate and promote these works for one month.  We should make them fundamental texts we are excited to share with patrons all the time.  The works of Native authors and illustrators are worth our spotlight every month but, particularly in November, we can use this month, this holiday we “celebrate” without a second thought, to really help our patrons go beyond the same old story, the same old displays, the same old lies.

Additional Resources

American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving from the National Museum of the American Indian
Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth from the National Museum of the American Indian
Classroom Lessons from the National Museum of the American Indian
Curriculum Guide for Jingle Dancer from Cynthia Leitich Smith
Teaching Guide for Kunu’s Basket
More info on Celina Kalluk, including a video of her throat singing
Excerpt from the song and book Hiawatha and the Peacemaker
Allen Sockabasin reading Thanks to the Animals in Passamaquoddy