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.

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.