Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Are We Privileging White Voices in Criticism?

Sometimes I think White people working in children’s and young adult literature want to believe that in our little corner of the world, we’ve worked it all out. “It” being racism. Sure, we need more diverse books, but that’s just a matter of time and effort. Otherwise, we’re good, right?
And if you don’t read the voices of people of color and First/Native Nations critics in our field, you might be able to go along believing that illusion, or you could if it weren’t for the fact that a lot of discussion around a handful of books has drawn attention to the fact that White people, too, are asking questions and calling out racism where they see it.

I know White voices are privileged in the creation of children’s and young adult literature. I work at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center where we keep track of the number of books by and about people of color created each year.  I always say those numbers tell just part of the story, but it’s an important part. The other part of the story is, of course, the terrific books that come out each year by First/Native Nation authors and artists and authors and artists of color.  But oh, how we need more of them. I don’t sense great disagreement on this point among those in the field.
But are we also privileging White voices in criticism?

Of course there’s no simple answer to that question. For one thing, it depends on who “we” are. And I know there’s irony in asking that question on a blog created by White people. It was something we struggled with when developing Reading While White. We owe our existence to the voices of people of color and First/Native Nations within and beyond the field of children’s and young adult literature from whom each one of us has learned. We believe we have a responsibility to challenge racism--it is work that is demanded of all of us. But we have no desire to be heard over their voices, or in lieu of them.
I’m still learning to understand the broader context of racism that informs the perspective of people of color and First/Native Nations individuals writing about children’s and young adult literature, and I know there are other White readers and critics doing the same. Yet when I look online, where much of the discourse in our field is occurring, I also see many White voices that are dismissive of people of color and First/Native Nations critics; sometimes it seems like what those critics have to say is summarily rejected.

It’s not essential that we all agree with one another. I read books all the time that have starred reviews or end up on best-of-the-year lists and ask myself, “Really?”  Tastes differ. Absolutely. But when it comes to the critical issue of combating racism in children’s and young adult literature, it’s more than a matter of taste. It’s a matter of knowledge and experience, and we need to be willing to listen to one another, and especially to the voices of those who are speaking from positions of knowledge and experience that those of us who are White do not have. That doesn’t mean White people can’t speak or don’t have valuable things to say, but let’s speak from a place of understanding that acknowledges we may not know everything.

Instead, too often, the reaction is to dismiss a critical response to a book by calling it, or the person writing it, angry or strident or picky or censorious or politically correct when First/Native Nations critics and critics of color point out passages or portrayals they consider problematic. When White critics add voices of agreement to what is being said, we are dismissed as having been manipulated by guilt. And if the book in question is written or illustrated by someone White, reverse racism may be added to the mix of accusations against all of us.

That isn’t showing understanding, or knowledge, or even a willingness to engage. That’s showing a desire to shut the conversation down. And that privileges Whiteness, too, because shutting the conversation down assumes it isn’t important, and that concerns about racism don’t matter.

So at the heart of this post is this question: "Am I privileging White voices in criticism?" Because it's up to all of us who are White to ask ourselves that question.

I hope White readers of this blog will take a look--or another look--at some of the blogs we link to. These are some of the voices of people of color and First/Native Nations individuals who are passionate about children’s and young adult literature—just like you, just like me. They represent a multiplicity of perspectives, experiences, opinions and responses to books and to our broader field. Read what they have to say, and at a moment you find yourself feeling angry, or upset, or insecure, or uncertain (and yes, you will have them; I know I do), take a depth breath and ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?”

In doing so, you may not change your mind, but you might find you have questions or comments that don’t begin or end with dismissing the criticism outright. You might even discover that you do, indeed, have something to learn. Because all of us do. And we are privileged to be able to learn from one another.  

Megan Schliesman

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A White Man on the Coretta Scott King Book Jury

As many readers know, the Youth Media Awards (YMAs) are like a less pretentious version of the Academy Awards for Young Adult and Children’s Literature. (By the way, the YMAs are coming very soon—click here and bookmark to watch live on Monday morning, January 11.) For as long as I’ve been paying attention to the YMAs, the Coretta Scott King (CSK) Awards have always been my own “Best Picture”; though announced near the beginning of the ceremony, everything else is, to me, a bit anticlimactic. So to say that I’m chuffed to serve on this year’s CSK book jury is a major understatement. But not only is it a thrill to be part of it, it’s also a privilege.

If you haven’t read it yet, now is the perfect time to go take a look at Amy Koester’s excellent guest post at Heavy Medal, The Privilege of Serving. In it, Koester writes, “When a reader does not recognize their own privilege, deep, honest discussion simply isn’t possible.” That really resonates with me as I read books for CSK, whose #1 criteria (as listed on the award website) is to “portray some aspect of the black experience, past, present, or future.” As a White male, do I know what exactly the “black experience” is? Honestly, no; how could I? All I can do is read all the eligible books, do some research, and focus on listening during our forthcoming awards discussion.
Nobody has more privilege than White men. And generally speaking, this privilege manifests itself in White men controlling discussions and talking far more than listening. Black women, on the other hand, too often find their words silenced (the term “intersectionality” was originally coined in reference to Black women and the way they were/still are discriminated against based on race AND gender). The CSK jury consists of seven members; four are Black women (the remaining two are White women). I’ve served on two award committees prior to this year, and I’m guessing my former Newbery and Sibert mates would agree that I’m good at talking. The listening part has not always come so easy.
In an award discussion, every committee member’s voice is crucial to the act of coming to consensus. But with all the crap women have to deal with (especially women of color), isn’t it the least I can do as a White man on the CSK jury to let someone else do most of the talking for a change?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

All I Want for Christmas....

Has anyone been into a bookstore in past weeks to browse for suitable gifts for the children in your lives, and had a little trouble?

Or how about this one: a parent called me last week wondering how to find, in our catalog (so she could place a hold; it's how she most conveniently uses the library) Christmas books that were "just about Christmas," which for her meant no Santa, no presents.  We had them for her, of course, but the glut of Christmas books available was just impossible for her to negotiate online.

Allie's review of "An Invisible Thread Christmas Story" was a perfect illumination to me of the problem I always face at this time of year in particular.   Publishing seems to be, in this day, more and more profit-driven at its bottom line. Christmas books sell, and bookstores exist on narrow margins. I get it.  The problems Allie pointed to in this kid's version of a New York Times bestseller suggest that the only motivation behind this book was money, and that it was therefore written to attract a very particular buying market.  I'm sure I'll hear the line that it is subsidizing "worthier" books, but that seems like a deal with the devil to me, or at least a pallid excuse for selling the "White Savior" story in this way.   This isn't limited to Simon & Schuster, by the way; we see exactly the same problems on our Thanksgiving shelf, etc.

I understand marketing forces and the need, sometimes, to just make some money... especially for authors and illustrators, for whom it is generally scarce. But it concerns me when the sheer volume of "marketable" holiday books trade on goodwill to entrench stereotype, and drown out other voices and perspectives.  

KT often quotes the poet Alexis DeVeaux: "Buying a book is a political act."  This goes for our library collections as well as personal purchases.  When I manage the forethought to order the book I really want to buy for a present through my bookstore, or manage to find a title on the shelves I actually like and that has a character of color... I delight in not only my little "ka-ching" for that title, but the fact that I didn't buy what the publishers' sales departments shoved in my face.  I know that bookstores notice too the books that are being requested, and purchased, especially in this season they count on to land in the black.

Do you have a favorite book for children you purchase at this time of year, or a new favorite? We Need Diverse Books has a holiday list; are there others you've found helpful?

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Duty of Professional Reviews

You can’t read all the books.

I know.  You have the best of intentions.  Heck, you WANT to read them all. You have piles dedicated to this very purpose and you know that it is an important part of your job as a youth librarian.  I am there with you.  No matter how fast I read (and I’m a pretty fast reader) I still feel the overwhelming crush of all the books I am not getting to.

How can you know what to buy?  What to recommend?  How can you ever know enough?  Well, I suppose the philosophical answer is you can’t.  You can’t but you keep trying because, well, what else is there. But the more tangible answer is that, as librarians, we can look to reviews.  We have numerous professional resources that, with their larger staffs of writers, cover more than one single person ever could.

I am writing today for these reviewers.  I, myself, review for School Library Journal and it is a dream to someday be a Kirkus reviewer.  I do not take my reviewing assignments lightly because I know that thousands of librarians across the country will be using them to make and justify purchasing decisions. Many librarians can't get advance review copies of titles (and no librarian can get them all!) so the reviews are often the only guide they have for assessing content. In times of limited budgets, in conservative climates, reviews are often the difference between “I can absolutely justify needing that on my shelves” and “I have to pass for another Rick Riordan book.” Some institutions require at least two positive reviews to purchase material. If you are a reviewer, I am asking that you too remember this responsibility when you are critically evaluating titles.

I specifically want to look at the professional reviews for Katie M. Stout’s 2015 title Hello, I Love You.  This is a YA book about an American girl who, on the run from her personal problems, enrolls in a boarding school in Korea.  Once there, she falls for a Korean pop star.  From this premise, this sounds like a book with tons of teen appeal: boarding schools, K-Pop, a diverse love interest, a look at another country and culture, the fish out of water heroine.  I can see plenty of librarians interested in adding it to their collections based on those factors.  But when you look at the professional reviews, a troubling thread is revealed.

Publishers Weekly hints at the trouble with this:

“Grace's stubborn cultural naiveté, while not necessarily unbelievable, grates from the start.”

School Library Journal is more precise:

By setting the tale in Korea, Stout has an opportunity to open a window into Korean culture for her readers; sadly, the opportunity is often missed. The book too closely follows Grace's first person cultural ignorance, and an unfortunate a number of stereotypes are perpetuated.”

But Kirkus, as always, cuts right to the chase and says:

Stout's depiction of Korea is often shockingly insensitive and riddled with errors and inconsistencies. Grace thinks crowds of Korean people smell like garlic, is nauseated by Korean food, and obsesses over the horrors of squat toilets. A Korean character incorrectly describes Hangul, Korean writing, as a syllabary rather than an alphabet. In the end, the plot is a variation on the classic "White Savior" story (think Dances with Wolves). It's deeply unfortunate that a novel set in Korea with many characters of color is primarily about its white protagonist's journey of self-discovery. Skip this embarrassing example of clueless cultural appropriation.”

These three reviews, especially when taken together, clearly expose some real troubling content within the book.  It was glaring enough that, to some degree, every reviewer felt like it warranted a mention in their review.

Look - I haven’t read Hello, I Love You. That is why this is not a review of that book. But these three professionals have.  And they are giving me valuable information on if I want to buy this book for my library. And beyond that, they are also giving me valuable insight into how this book handles race and Korean culture.

Have you ever read a book that had problematic content and then thought, “Wow, I wish there had been some mention of that in the professional review before I bought it!”  I have. But the reviews for Hello, I Love You make me feel some hope that we’re moving forward - that we’re moving towards a world where these kinds of critical comments about problematic elements of books are not only welcomed but required for reviews to be considered successful and useful. When I read these reviews I felt like I could make an informed decision about purchasing for my library that was backed up by librarians who take our role in selection seriously.

If you’re a reviewer, you have an obligation to comment on these things, from microaggressions all the way through to the more blatantly obvious examples like the ones described in Hello, I Love You so that people can use your review to make an informed purchasing decision.  If you happen to be an editor for a professional publication, please consider letting your reviewers explicitly know that you welcome and encourage this kind of introspection. If you are someone who reads and uses these professional reviewers, look for this type of precision and make use of it when you come across it.

Because the fact of the matter is: we can’t read all the books.  We have to rely on each other.  

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Reviewing While White: "An Invisible Thread Christmas Story", aka, "A White Savior Christmas"

by Allie Jane Bruce

In 1986, then-six-year-old Maurice Mazyck stood on a Manhattan street, asking strangers for money and food.  Laura Schroff, who worked in advertising, bought him a meal.  She continued to buy him meals every week for the next three years.  The two formed a mutually-valued relationship.  Forth they went, together.

In 2012, Laura published their story in a book for adults called An Invisible Thread (Simon and Schuster, co-authored by Alex Tresniowski).  An Invisible Thread was a #1 New York Times bestseller, is available in 12 languages, and is on its way to becoming a film.  I have not read An Invisible Thread, but apparently Mike Huckabee liked it a lot.

And in 2015, An Invisible Thread Christmas Story (Simon and Schuster, extracted from An Invisible Thread, written by Schroff and Tresniowski, illustrated by Barry Root) appeared in my office.  Joy to the world.

Here's a bullet list of what I caught in An Invisible Thread Christmas Story:

  • It's a White savior story.  A White Lady Bountiful (Laura) swoops in and saves a poor, hungry Black boy (Maurice) from the wicked, wicked streets.  White savior narratives are inherently problematic because they erase the fact that White people are at the root of the oppression of people of color and First/Native Nations people in the first place.  There is a supreme irony in telling a story, even a nonfiction story (based on an isolated event), that inverts the larger truth and portrays people of color and First/Native Nations people as unable to fend for themselves and White people as generous saviors.
  • The story purports to be first-person ("I/me/my") from the point of view of Maurice, yet all three of the book's creators are White.  In a time when we're engaging in debates about #ownvoices, cultural appropriation, and authenticity, this feels beyond wrong.
  • The text never names the fact that Laura's ability take Maurice to meals, have him over at her apartment, and bring him on a family vacation--without fear of being misunderstood or arrested--is afforded to her by her Whiteness. If a Black man approached a six-year-old White girl on a Manhattan street and said “Can I take you to get something to eat?”, as Laura does to Maurice, he would very likely end up in jail.  By contrast, Laura's actions are held up as the epitome of kindness (so much so that the book includes backmatter on Small Acts of Kindness, eg "If you have a chart of family chores, add 'kindness' to the list.")
  • It's really, really materialistic... Four pages are devoted to presents and wrapping paper...
  • The text never names the fact that Maurice is Black and Laura is White, nor that their races are linked to their unequal socioeconomic statuses and the inequitable amounts of wealth and resources to which they have access.

Feel free to add anything I missed in the comments.

In my research into An Invisible Thread (which, again, I have not read) I learned that Laura Schroff also comes from a troubled family.  But, Laura's troubled family is positioned differently in our society's power structure than Maurice's troubled family is positioned, because Laura's is White, and Maurice's is Black.

When he arrives at Laura’s sister’s big, beautiful house, Maurice thinks “This has to be the luckiest family in the world.”  Yes, we White folks are very lucky.  Nothing else.  Not smarter.  Not more moral.  Not more capable.  Not more deserving.  Just luckier.  And the creators of An Invisible Thread Christmas Story capitalize on that luck.  They choose to ignore the systems and structures that keep White people “lucky”, and they profit on a narrative that portrays a lucky White person as a generous, loving, savior and a Black person as a grateful recipient of White generosity.  This is no act of kindness.  This is, quite simply, an act of racism.

The only thing that White dominance requires to keep on chugging is for White people to do nothing to interrupt it.  Let’s interrupt it.  Let’s recognize this White savior story for what it is, and reject it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Reviewing While White: See No Color

 by Megan Schliesman

In See No Color, author Shannon Gibney explores the myth of colorblindness in the context of transracial adoption in a story about Alex(andra), a biracial teen who was adopted by White parents as a very young child.

Alex has two White siblings, a brother who is also in high school and an eleven-year-old sister.  For her family, Alex is simply Alex, the sister and daughter that they love. There are so many small ways in which Gibney conveys that love, and the familiarity and knowledge that are part of being a family, through Alex’s eyes.

But no matter how much her parents wish it were otherwise, Alex’s experience in the world is different than the rest of her family’s. They love her, and they genuinely believe that is enough. Of course it isn’t enough. It isn’t enough when she has been reminded over and over by outsiders that she is different from everyone else in her family. It isn’t enough when, despite looking Black, she not only doesn’t feel comfortable with other Black kids at school but feels judged by them. It isn’t enough when she feels different from the rest of her family.

Alex’s parents are not only hesitant but ill-equipped to talk about race. When her dad points out, “you’re only half black,” Alex assumes he’s trying to minimize her Blackness, as if there is something wrong with it.

When Alex starts dating Reggie, a Black player from another baseball team, she lets him believe her parents are a mixed-race couple. It sets the stage for a series of small lies she keeps telling to steer him away from meeting her family. She doesn't want him to know she's adopted by White parents; she can't even articulate why.

Dating Reggie is eye-opening for Alex, not just because it’s the first time she’s really fallen for someone; it’s also the first time she’s spent time socially with Black people. There is a vibrant sense of warmth and energy between Reggie and his mother, and an undeniable difference culturally. When Reggie’s mom says “nigger” in the context of a funny exchange between her and Reggie at the dinner table, Alex drops her fork in alarm and has to go to the bathroom to recover.

It is also at Reggie’s suggestion—because Alex complains about how hard her hair is to manage—that Alex makes her first trip to a Black hairdresser, the same one his aunts go to. Her mom drops Alex off into a community of Black women that is foreign to their family. The woman working on her hair tries to ease Alex's anxiety and get a sense of what Alex wants. The problem is that Alex isn't sure herself. She emerges with relaxed hair. She hates it.

Alex has also discovered a series of letters her Black birth father wrote her over a number of years (he tracked her down because she’s been in the news for her baseball skill). She can’t believe her parents have withheld them from her. It doesn’t matter to her that her birth father was in violation of  the rules by trying to contact her while she’s still a minor, or that her parents saved the letters (clearly a point of disagreement between them), intending to give them to her when she was older. 

She wants to meet him.

Gibney, a mixed-race transracial adoptee herself, skillfully and courageously navigates the emotional terrain of Alex’s story, going to hard and challenging places. The result are some scenes that are unforgettable to me, such as Alex’s discovery of her adoption papers (she looks hard for them), which include how much the adoption cost, and the realization that she was labeled “special needs” because she is mixed race, and therefore it cost less than adopting a White child would have. Alex’s pain at the discovery of these facts is palpable, and she has no one with whom to talk about them.

Alex secretly travels to Michigan to meet her Black birth father, who has turned his life around since she was born. She meets his Black wife, who welcomes her; meets her younger half sister, who immediately makes Alex try to feel at home. But it’s not home. Not family. Theirs is a different family culture; different values; different rules. She will probably go see them again, but they cannot solve this puzzle of identity, which is as much about feeling as fact.

It’s only when she goes to the library to research more about adoption that things begin to shift for Alex. And it happens by accident when a young Black woman shelving books overhears Alex’s hesitant inquiry and later approaches her offering to help. It turns out she, too, is a transracial adoptee. She understands what Alex was really trying to ask, and shows her a web site about transracial adoption where, finally, Alex begins to find affirmation for what she’s been feeling.

I do have some quibbles and concerns with See No Color. I found the setting of Madison, Wisconsin, to be generic rather than specific in execution, but that’s because I live here. Alex’s sister Kit, the only one in her family who seems to understand Alex’s need to talk about race and identity, is unbelievable to me as an eleven-year-old. Many adults aren’t as insightful and mature as Kit. An even bigger concern for me was the storyline with Alex’s birth father, which felt more plot device than organic to me, especially in comparison to the rest of the story.

But the emotional authenticity of See No Color ultimately defines this novel that breaks new ground in young adult literature about adoption, giving visibility and voice to dimensions of that experience that have never been so honestly articulated. I hope we see more books moving forward; Gibney’s novel, as fine and as illuminating as it is, cannot speak to the entire spectrum of experience, nor should it be expected to.