Thursday, December 29, 2016

RWW Interviews: Edi Campbell

Edi Campbell
Today we kick off our RWW Interviews series with a conversation between Elisa Gall and Edith (Edi) Campbell. Campbell is a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Indiana State University. She has served as the Indiana State Ambassador for USBBY and on the WNDB Walter Award Committee, YALSA’s BFYA jury, and CYBILS Nonfiction Awards committee.  She is a member of the 2018 Printz Award committee and she works with a team to coordinate the annual We’re the People Summer Reading List. She blogs at and can be found on Twitter at @CrazyQuilts. Thank you, Edi, for sharing your insights with us!


To many of us, you are an online superhero. Can you share your origin story? How did you get started blogging?
Super hero? No, I’m just a librarian doing her thing. There are so many, many more librarians, publishers, editors, authors and illustrators who have done this for such a long time! Their persistence has made it that much easier for me to do what I do. Just imagine some of the things I post that would have had serious consequences just a few decades ago. Because of what they have stated, exposed, spoke and risked, those of us working today are able to feel hopeful.

So, how did I get started?? I came into the library after spending part of my career teaching Social Studies. I had actually been a school librarian for a couple of years before I began blogging. I was looking for a new technology to master and I was also thinking about so many librarians and teachers who kept saying that they had a difficult time finding books by African American authors. I thought that could be something to blog about. I thought I could combine my interest in technology and in books to promote literacy for African American teens. I immediately saw the need to also include books for Latinx and my blog continued to become more and more inclusive.

What has changed since?
I think several things have changed over the years. I’ve tried different things over the years, some more interesting than others. I think I blog to promote Native American authors, authors of color and their books rather than to promote literacy and that’s probably because I’m not in a school library any more. Much of the sharing I used to do on my blog is now done on Facebook and Twitter and I think that brings up one major change in my blog: I just don’t post as much as I used to. I think my posts fell off when I was on BFYA and then the Walter Award Committee, and I’ve not really recovered from that, not gotten back into the blogging routine. Next year, I’m on another award committee so I’ll be back to blogging without talking about current books that are eligible for that award.

Something else that has changed since I started would be that other forms of social media have come about that have actually provided a voice to marginalized people. This has been a huge development.

You’ve talked about the importance of connecting with people with whom you disagree. How do you break the echo chamber?
I have two Twitter accounts and two Facebook accounts and it amazes me how many people I connect with that seem to share my same perspectives. I’ve even reconnected with people from grade school and high school and still I see little dissent on my FB feeds.

At this time when we’ll “unfriend” someone who says the slightest thing with which we disagree, it seems that it takes a conscious effort to connect with people of differing opinions. It’s following that person who says something you don’t completely agree with or in ‘real life’ it’s taking the risk of saying some things others may not agree with and being able to listen to others’ reactions. I’m beginning to think that coming offline and having those face to face connections is where we’re really going to build robust communities. Online, where there is no chance to read body language or facial expressions we tend to parse words while expecting nuanced conversations. It’s easy to get caught up and misunderstood online.

I like what Ashley Hope Perez said a few weeks ago in giving advice to people who want to be allies. She suggested using social media as a tool for listening. Sometimes, just listening helps us grow more than thinking we have to say something, especially if we’re listening to people outside the echo chamber.

In all the work that you do, what are you the most proud of?
This is going to feel like a punt, but I am most proud of my children and this definitely includes my daughter in law. While I maintain that they have become the awesome people that they are despite me, I am so very, very proud that they are my children. I learn so much from them! They are truly amazing people.

I take pride in being a librarian. While people claim librarianship is dying, I find it to be a very vibrant and demanding profession that requires me to keep learning, allows me to innovate services and provide ways for me to make a difference for others.

Can you tell us about the We’re the People list?
This is also something of which I’m quite proud! For the past couple of years, I’ve been able to work with some of the most amazing people in children’s literature (Tad Andracki, Sarah Park Dahlen, Sujei Lugo, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Nathalie Mvondo, Debbie Reese, Ed Spicer and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas) to create summer reading lists for all ages of children. We work together throughout the year to identify books written by authors of color that are chapter books, picture books, middle grade, young adult and adult crossover. We critically review each book so that our list contains books that we would be proud to give any child.

We look for books from small and large publishers, as well as self-published books. Intersectionality is extremely important as we look for books that also include LGBT+ characters, those with disabilities and those from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. We want biographies as well as sports books, speculative fiction and mysteries. We try to apply diversity in every sense of the word. It’s a lot of work, but it’s good work.

How do you stay motivated or promote self-care when facing frustration or pushback?
I don’t work alone. From the very beginning, I’ve been with a network of people who are just amazing! The network has changed over the years, but it’s always been there and I can always turn to them for clarity, strategy or for a good laugh. Being surrounded by people of integrity is the key to accomplishing most things in life, including remaining sane.

Balance is a critical part of self-care, but it can be challenging when you earn your living by your passion; when you want to get away from work, yet you want to read a book! I’ve only recently questioned ‘what am I doing for me?’ It helps to be healthy, to eat to live rather than living to eat and to get out in nature as much as possible. I think celebrating is an important part of this equation, but in equity work, it can seem like there is so little to celebrate at times, but there are small successes and it helps to stay positive to recognize them.

Who are people you look to for advice and inspiration?
My family really takes a strong interest in what I do. My children keep up with much of what I’m doing and we talk about many issues that intersect with my passion, and with their passions, too. Talking to them, getting a perspective from outside that echo chamber really helps. And the inspiration I get from my daughter-in-law as well as my three children knows no limits.

Children’s literature is an intersecting world. We have so many differences within this community, but we have that common drive to get good literature to our children and that really holds us together. I’ve approached so many people for advice and rarely if ever have been turned away.

There are too many people in children’s literature who excel at what they do to begin naming names, too many people who have shared wisdom or advice with me and who inspire me.

What advice do you have for others looking to do equity work in the world of libraries and youth literature?
I’d say if you’re interested in doing equity work in libraries and/or children’s literature, you should be clear about why you want to do this work. If it’s about what you want to get and not what you want to give, you may want to spend your efforts on something else.

I’d say understand that you’re joining a network of people who are and have been entrenched in this work; build upon their knowledge. Know that we’re reaching a point in time where those who are LGBT+, disabled, Native American or people of color know who we are and what we want. We’re not looking for missionaries to represent our interest. We need workers who honor the past while creating a new future. I’d say forget patience, we’ve been patient too long. Look back and fly forward.

- Elisa Gall

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Introducing Our RWW Interviews Series

We are pleased to introduce our newest series, where we will feature key players from the children’s literature world in conversation with a core member of Reading While White (RWW). The topics will vary, but all will be pertinent to our thrust of racial diversity and inclusion in books for children and teens. We are grateful to Edi Campbell, who gave us the idea for this series; appropriately enough, Elisa Gall’s interview with Edi is due up first (check back tomorrow morning).

Our interviewees will be mostly women of color and First/Native Nations. Why? Because we want to reflect the reality of who has been doing the work in this field. Of course there are men among the “Diversity Jedi,” but let’s be honest: when we men do anything in children’s literature (or any other field, for that matter) we get heaped with more praise than we deserve, or at least more praise than a women would get in the same situation.

We look forward to these conversations and hope you will tune in to our first interview post tomorrow.

- Sam Bloom

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Spotlight On #OwnVoices: When We Were Alone

Robertson, David A. When We Were Alone. Illus. by Julie Flett. Highwater Press, 2016. 24 pages. ISBN 978-1-55379-673-2.

An inquisitive young girl, working in the garden with her kókom, asks a series of questions.  "Nókom, why do you wear so many colours?" "Nókom, why do you wear your hair so long?" "Nókom,why do you speak in Cree?"

Nókom's answers come in three parts: What life was like at home, in her community; what life was like at the school she went to, which was far away from home; and what life was like when she and her classmates managed to escape from the watchful eyes of their captors for a few minutes at a time, during which they remembered, and briefly re-lived, happy times.

Robertson's straightforward yet poetic text (" the school I went to, far away from home, they cut off all our hair. Our strands of hair mixed together on the ground like blades of dead grass") makes this deceptively simple book accessible to roughly first grade and up, and Flett's delicate collages encapsulate the mood of every page turn.  Descriptions of the enforced bleakness of life at boarding school, as children were dressed mono-chromatically, punished for speaking their own languages, and prevented from seeing their family members, are reflected with appropriately bleak renderings; in the rare moments children can snatch alone, splashes of color and vibrancy emerge.

Perhaps most noteworthy about When We Were Alone is how it elegantly balances three separate narratives: life at home, in the community; life at a dehumanizing "school"; and, brief snatches of humanity and happiness in the face of that colonial force.  As important as it is to teach children the truth about race and colonialism in history, there is a danger of instilling in them a narrative in which Native peoples are necessarily victims.  When We Were Alone honestly presents a history that attempted to victimize Cree children--and then counters it with a narrative of survival, humanity, and community.  A first purchase for every children's collection.

Reviewed by Allie Jane Bruce.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Bring It Back: The Secret Stars

Slate, Joseph. The Secret Stars. Illus. by Felipe Dávalos. Marshall Cavendish, 1998,  32 pages ISBN 0-7614-5027-0 op
On the Night of the Three Kings, Sila and Pepe think excitedly about the toys that might appear the next morning, and they worry that the frigid weather might make locating their New Mexico home next to impossible. Their grandmother, cuddled with her grandchildren under a cozy quilt, assures them that the Three Kings will find a way to navigate by stars even with clouds in the sky. (“There are stars behind clouds / and in many secret places.”) As they sleep in bed, she takes them on a dream where they find stars shining everywhere: in the twinkle of the freezing flowers, a spider’s icy egg sac, and even in the chicken coop. The children wake on the day of the Three Kings to notice beautiful stars in the veins on their grandmother’s face, presents waiting for them in the barn, and three frozen and glistening pine trees:
“Look-ee, look-ee there, Sila,” cries Pepe.
“The pines have become the Three Kings!”
“And their crowns and capes,” says Sila,
“they are filled with stars.”

Through their dialogue, the family’s faith and love shines as brightly as the glittering pieces of nature they discover together. The Three Kings, each with a different skin tone, are shown on the title page and later as figures on the mantle, but the mysteries of their gifts are left for readers to interpret. The text is engaging, full of metaphor (“She is the warm hearth on this cold night. / She is the nestling log.”) and descriptions, such as the “Rat-a-tat-tat” of the freezing rain on the rooftop. The illustrations combine spot art with paintings within frames, reflecting the Southwestern setting. A darker palette allows for shining objects to pop, reinforcing the mood of discovery and feel of light amid the shadows of winter. 

While this is about a specific holiday, the family’s warmth and the children’s enthusiasm and anticipation will have universal appeal. It’s no surprise to me that the Pura Belpré Award Committee recognized Dávalos with an honor for illustration in 2000. Let’s get it back in print so that more families can snuggle up like grandmother, Sila, and Pepe and create new memories reading and sharing this story together.
 -Elisa Gall

The #OwnVoices tag in this case applies only to the illustrator. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Bring It Back!

I'm sure we've all had the experience of setting out to buy a favorite book as a gift for a child or a teen -- or replacing a worn library copy of a popular item -- only to find out that the book is out of print and no longer available.

This seems to happen with even greater frequency with books by and about people of color and First Native/Nations. Joseph Bruchac's memoir Bowman's Store: A Journey to Myself was published by Dial in 1997 and went out of print so fast it never had time to find its audience or work its way into the secondary curriculum -- and this in a time when teachers were crying out for authentic books about First Native/Nations for their classrooms. Luckily, Lee & Low managed to bring it back into print just four years after its original publication, and it's been in print and available from them since 2001.

Just this fall Lee & Low has brought back into print another great book, Mama and Papa Have a Store by Amelia Lau Carling (as well as the Spanish language version La tienda de mamá y papá, with the translation by Carling as well).  This exceptional picture book recounts part of the author/illustrator's early childhood in Guatemala as a member of a second generation Chinese immigrant family. It was originally published by Dial in 1998 and it won the Américas Award, as well  a Pura Belpré Honor for illustration in 2000. In the early years of the award, there were so few Latinx books that the Belpré Award was given every two years so there would be a large enough pool from which to choose. And there were times when one of the awardees would already be out of print by the time the award was announced.

But Lee & Low can't bring every great book back into print.

I always want to buy John Steptoe's brilliant picture book Baby Says (Harper, 1988) as a gift for every new baby I know. But I can't because it's been out of print for years and I can't afford the $47.50 used book dealers are asking for for it on Amazon. It's a shame Harper never had the foresight to issue it as a board book. They wouldn't even need to change the trim size or truncate the text. How can we let publishers know that we want these books when we can no longer buy them to demonstrate that?  Diverse books need to stay in print longer than they currently do, and they need to be available in paperback and board book editions, too.

With this in mind, we're launching a new series on Reading While White called "Bring It Back!" We hope to call attention to the great  #OwnVoices books we have on our library shelves which have all too quickly disappeared from the stores and warehouses. Because it's not just that #WeNeedDiverseBooks.  #WeNeedDiverseBooksToStayInPrint.

--KT Horning

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Freedom Over Me

Bryan, Ashley. Freedom over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life. A Caitlyn Dlouhy Book / Atheneum. 52 pages. ISBN 978-1-4814-569-6

Peggy, John, Charlotte and child, Stephen, Mulvina, Jane, Athelia, Qush, Bacus, Betty. It is with little more than these names that this book began. 

Ashley Bryan explains in his author's note that he acquired a collection of slave-related documents and found among them an 1828 estate appraisal for the Fairchilds: “Eleven slaves are listed for sale with the cows, hogs, cotton; only the names and prices of the slaves are noted (no age is indicated).”

From those names, Bryan imagines lives into being. 

Each of the eleven African and African Americansmen, women, one teenager, one childis introduced with a portrait and first-person narrative poem. The portraits show somber faces alive with fine lines, set against backdrops comprised of scraps of historical documents relating to slavery. On each portrait, the individual’s name and age appears at the bottom in a light, lovely script: “Peggy, age 48.”

Next to the name and age, in heavy type, is the purchase price. For Peggy: “$150.” 

In a book that emphasizes the full humanity of these individuals, that speaks the imagined truths of their lives but also gives weight and breath to their imagined hopes and dreams, the atrocity of slavery is represented first and foremost by that purchase price accompanying every portrait. These are human beings who are owned, who are “appraised” and assigned a dollar value like cotton or cattle.

The first-person narrative for each individual provides some of the details of her or his life as Bryan imagines it. Peggy is a cook in the Big House. She remembers her village being raided, her father being killed, being captured along with her mother and surviving the journey to America that many others did not. She is not only a cook, but a healer, and wanders the estate gathering herbs.

For each subject Bryan offers a second poem, a dream poem, and an accompanying painting that breaks free of all formality and sobriety in a vibrant, joyful scene. In “Peggy dreams,” Peggy reflects on her given name. She was Mariama before she came to America, which means “Gift of God.” She finds joy in relieving the suffering of her fellow slaves. “Mrs. Fairchilds's dinner guests / praise my cooking. / The praise, however, / that touches my heart / is to hear the slaves / call me Herb Doctor.”

“Bacus, age 34” ($250) is a blacksmith. He’s married to “Charlotte, age 30,” a basketmaker, and they have a daughter, “Dora, age 8,” with whom Charlotte is being sold ($400). Bacus knows of slave insurrections, has studied the stars and thought about running, wondering if all three of them can make it to safety. But he’s worried now about being sold and separated from his family. Charlotte learned how to weave as a child in Africa. Now the owners profit from her skill. She knows she and Bacus could earn enough to live in freedom if they can escape. Their daughter is “Dora” to the owners, but Charlotte and Bacus call her “Akua, Sweet Messenger.” When Charlotte is busy weaving, others in their community help care for Dora.

In “Bacus dreams,” the blacksmith tells how every strike of his hammer against hot metal is an outlet for his anger, a blow for justice. In “Charlotte dreams,” she speaks of her artistry as a means of self-discovery. In both dream poems the speakers note the distance and difference between how their owners see them, and who they are.

Enslavement weighs heavily on these individuals as Bryan imagines them—of course it does. The psychic brutality of slavery is at the foundation of this work. But what rises from its pages are eleven vibrant lives: people with history and hopes, dreams and drive, talent and tenderness. So, too, does a glimpse at the connections and community that help sustain them. 

The institution of slavery sought to erase the humanity of those who were enslaved. Ashley Bryan brings that humanity into full relief here, because while there is no way of knowing what these individuals truly hoped and dreamed or who and what they loved, hoping and dreaming and loving is simply and profoundly part of what it means to be human. 

Reviewed by Megan Schliesman

Monday, November 28, 2016

When the Personal Is Not Professional (Or, It's Not about Me ... or You)

There is a place for loving books in my personal life and there are many titles that I have strong emotional attachments to. This includes childhood favorites as well as recently published books that spark a deep response in me.

I imagine the same is true of most of us in the field of children’s and young adult literature. We believe in the power of books to shape and to transform and to move young readers because we have experienced it, often from the time we ourselves were children. We are passionate about books in general, and specific books in particular.  And the books that have shaped or transformed or touched us individually, even in small ways, are the ones we tend to feel most passionate about.

When it comes to favorite books from childhood, I think it is easier for many people to understand that holding them dear is a matter of personal opinion rather than professional judgment. As a result, it’s often (but not always) easier for us to also hear cultural criticism of those beloved titles. We can love the book personally while accepting the criticism professionally. (Allie wrote recently about being able to hold these two things simultaneously.)

When it comes to new books, however, I think the line between personal opinion and professional judgment too often gets blurred or disappears altogether. Maybe this is part of the reason why exchanges on social media are simultaneously impassioned and entrenched: it's hard to separate the personal from the professional.  And sometimes, it's hard to separate egos too--at least that's how it seems when people respond to critiques, especially cultural critiques, of books in which they are clearly emotionally invested with either passionate defense or passionate disregard, the end result of which is the same: dismissal of the concern as ultimately irrelevant. Discussions around books at this time of year when awards are on everyone’s minds can become particularly passionate and particularly entrenched.

The work I do as a professional evaluating books for children and teens is absolutely informed in part by my personal response to the books I read.  And I read a lot of things that don’t move me at all.  I read others that leave me feeling ambivalent, even as I see a place for them in a library collection. As a result, when something does impact me strongly (positively or negatively), you can bet I take notice. And when the impact of what I’ve read is to feel pleasure, even excitement, of course I hope others will feel the same.

I know I’m not alone in this.

But there is a problem when that personal response becomes a deeply invested emotional attachment that gets in the way of our professionalism.

When a book deeply moves us in some way it’s understandable that we become emotionally invested. Maybe it’s something that delights, perhaps even sparking a sense of joy; maybe it makes us feel hopeful; maybe we are saddened by what we read, but that sadness nourishes a sense of empathy. Maybe we find its literary elements astonishingly complex or lyrical; it’s visual elements striking or brilliant, and our excitement at its accomplishment makes us want others to feel the same.   
Our emotional investment can make us eloquent in our praise. It can also fuel an infectious enthusiasm. (One of the things I love most about the work I do is being able to share my enthusiasm for specific books with others.)
But that emotional investment, in a book, or in an author or illustrator, can also make us unable to hear criticism that is essential to evaluating the same book with our professional rather than personal lens. And professionalism demands that we do just that: seek out and seriously consider informed perspectives when it comes to accurate and authentic representation of race, culture, ethnicity, sexuality, gender and other aspects of identity reflected (or absent) in a book we are evaluating when its content is outside our own experience.  Instead, we too often take it personally. Egos get bruised. And that has to stop. It has to stop if we are ever going to move into truly constructive conversations. And it has to stop because this business of being a librarian, reviewer and critic is not about us.

The late Ruth Gordon, librarian, writer, editor, brilliant and blunt commentator and critic, used to challenge people who said they “love” a book.  She made me stop and think about how we use this word in our work.

I have come to the conclusion that saying we love a book is a place we may start. It isn’t the place any of us should end in our work as professionals.

Yes, it can be hard to hear and consider criticism of a book we “love” and think is exceptional. But it's also our job to be able to do so, because the work we do isn't in service to ourselves, or to books and authors and illustrators, no matter how much we may admire and appreciate them. The work we do is in service to children and teens. Ultimately, in our roles as professionals, our emotional investment belongs with all of them.

Megan Schliesman

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Deep Conversation About Binary Thinking

Look, I understand the need for a verdict on a book. Do I spend my limited budget and shelf space on this book? Yes or no? This is our lives, as librarians. But more and more, I wish I didn’t have to make that decision, because what I want to do is have a conversation about the book.

It might surprise some to learn that a collection-development “no” verdict from me doesn’t necessarily equal “this book is poorly executed,” and a “yes” doesn’t mean “this book is well executed” (you’re welcome, James Patterson). And a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean “this book is problematic,” and a “yes” doesn’t mean “this book is not problematic.” Sometimes a book is well executed and not problematic, but not something I can devote budget to (this happens most often with upper YA, since my school ends at grade 8). And more often than people think, yes, I include a problematic book in the collection. This is the real world.

One example of this is As An Oak Tree Grows by G. Brian Karas. I use this as a teaching tool to discuss rewriting history, particularly the erasure of First/Native Nations people, with 6th graders. I am lucky that Bank Street has the Claudia Lewis Research collection, which is open to anybody within Bank Street to browse and check out from (including kids), but is separate from the main collection; that’s where one can find As An Oak Tree Grows.

When a book is problematic, I often want to talk about it with kids. We parse out what messages it sends and how those messages might impact different readers. Sometimes these are “mild offences” (we talk about gender stereotyping in Jon J. Muth’s Zen Shorts as examples of microaggressions) and I struggle with whether I should put the book in the Claudia Lewis collection or the Main Children’s collection. Either way, though, the book is available to anyone with a Bank Street library account.

I get frustrated when people conflate yes/well executed/not problematic or no/poorly executed/problematic into lump categories, or respond to me as if I have done so. I like having conversations that dig deep into ways in which books are problematic and ways in which they are empowering. I learn so much from these conversations. And when I read criticism or critique of something I love (even something I love as much as Hamilton!)--it actually doesn’t ruin it for me. It makes me grateful that I have the chance to learn something new.

It took me a while to develop this ability; the idea that I can simultaneously love something and critique it--holding both of those truths at the same time--runs counter to typical White culture. It requires “and” thinking, instead of “but” thinking (next time you’re in an argument, try saying “yes, and” instead of “yes, but” and see what that’s like). I used to respond to criticism of things that I love defensively; that reflex was born of binary-based thinking and a perfectionist worldview in which criticism necessarily undoes us.

So ten years ago, I might have refused to read criticism of Hamilton, because I believed that valid criticism would “cancel out” the things that I loved about it. (Incidentally, it also used to be very hard for me to hear criticism of myself. One of the best things about ditching a perfectionist worldview was that it liberated me from constantly needing a slew of defense mechanisms to preserve a perfectionist-based self-image.) Now, I love that I know so much more about First/Native Nations’ people’s presence in the Revolutionary War, and at the Continental Congress, and the relationships that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had with First/Native Nations people. I also learned about how the show largely erases enslaved people and First/Native Nations people from history, and while I didn’t love this, I parsed out how the show reflects the society in which we live, and I’m grateful for that. We’re living in an age of questioning age-old assumptions and rethinking how we’ve always done things--how lucky we are, to be alive right now!

So when a new book comes along that offers an opportunity for rich, educative conversations, I want to have those conversations. As Brave As You, for example, I love. And I want to have conversations with kids about Genie, Ernie, and Grandpop and how much I love their relationship and their growth over the course of the book. And I want to talk about how the book misappropriates the word “ninja” (the plural of “ninja” is “ninja,” ninja practice ninjago, and someone is not studying to be a ninja unless they are studying to be a paid assassin--these are factoids that a ninja-obsessed child would most likely know) and what messages that sends. I am extremely fortunate to have a good friend who educated me on ninja, and I want to carry forth the rich conversations she and I have had about it, and share what I’ve learned. Talking to someone who is only interested in fitting As Brave As You into a good/bad binary won’t help those conversations.

These complex, rich conversations won’t provide any easy answers for a question like “Do I spend my budget money on this title, or not?” but they might help inform such a decision. Likewise, they might inform conversations about “does this book belong on a ‘Best Of’ list?” or “does this book deserve an award?”. In some cases, such as “does this book book further or deter understanding about a culture?”, a binary “yes” or “no” is useful--this is why I appreciate Debbie Reese’s blog (which, incidentally, includes more non-binary thinking than many give her credit for) and regularly use it to inform my decision-making.

I know that you have to make a yes or no decision about whether to buy a book, but please don’t let the need for that decision prevent you from also having a rich, complex conversation about the book. And if there are problematic titles in your collection, I highly recommend that you have conversations with kids about them and encourage them to think in non-binary ways. Otherwise, they might not be able to understand that J.K. Rowling’s misappropriation of Navajo culture is not OK.

-This post brought to you by an enthusiastic Harry Potter fan

Allie Jane Bruce

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Listen, Slowly

As part of our Spotlight on #OwnVoices, we will feature books not published in the last year on Throwback Thursday. Today Sam looks at a novel published last year.

Thanhhà Lai. HarperCollins, 2015. 272 pages. 9780062229182. Click here to purchase this book.

Mai can’t believe her parents are making her go to their native Vietnam for the summer. A California girl through and through, Mai would rather be on the beach with her best friend Montana, hoping for a glimpse of HIM (the boy Mai is crushing on). But instead, Mai’s dad (Dr. Do-Gooder, as she calls him) sets up “a one-man surgical clinic” to treat kids in remote villages; Mai gets dragged along as a companion to her grandmother, Bà, who is embarking on one last search for her long missing-in-action husband Ông, Mai’s grandfather. But Mai just wants to get the trip over with already: “I get that my preteen anxieties can’t compete with Bà’s classic suffering. After all, she lost her husband in THE WAR, which I always think of in all caps. Still, selfish or not, I’m going home as soon as I can maneuver around the sad saga of Bà.”

Mai is a hard character to love at first, seemingly as egocentric and shallow a 12-year old as you could find. But she undergoes a transformation of sorts while in Vietnam: she listens to relatives speak, slowly learns the language, and develops an understanding and appreciation of the culture; she becomes friends with Út, the polar opposite of girly-girl Montana, and translator Anh Minh, who speaks English with a Texan accent; and finally, through her love for Bà, Mai shows heart that has been there all along, hidden under the snarky, Facebook-checking tween veneer.

After winning the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor for her debut novel-in-verse Inside Out & Back Again, it wasn’t as if Lai was going to sneak up on us. But what did surprise me was how funny her follow-up is. (Chapter 13, I’m looking at you. Without getting too spoiler-y, it involves thong-related confusion.) Mai’s narrative voice is hilarious, authentic, and maddening in equal measure. (Speaking of voice, I highly recommend the audiobook, expertly narrated by Lulu Lam—she gets Lai’s mix of sarcastic wit and poignantly beautiful prose just right.)

It’s a rare thing for an author to knock it out of the park on her first two books. I know I’m but one of many who can’t wait for Thanhhà Lai’s next release.

Reviewed by Sam Bloom

Monday, November 14, 2016

On Safety Pins, Advocacy, Whiteness, and our field

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few days.  Thinking about our field, and the White people in it.  To borrow from Dave Chappelle--we need to get our shit together.

So let’s start communicating in clear, non-bullshitty ways.  Here are my expectations for White people in the field (and to be even clearer, I am a White woman, and much of this I’m writing down to hold myself accountable).

White people, I expect you to study the history of race and racism, colonialism and white supremacy in the USA and in children’s literature, and to learn how all of the above are still alive and well today.

White men, I expect that in addition to studying the above, you will become experts in patriarchy and misogyny and how they are linked to White supremacy.

I expect you to learn about racism as a system that allots power disproportionately to White people, and our unique responsibilities as White people to dismantle that system.

I expect you to commit the time and money you can to this education process.  I expect you to read books, read articles, and watch videos.  A starter list: The Root, Colorlines, Latina Lista, Indian Country Today, Hyphen magazine, and The Aerogram.

I expect you to, if you possibly can, attend an anti-racist training.  I highly recommend The People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism Workshop, Border Crossers’ trainings, and SEED trainings.

I expect you to prioritize this education process over your yoga class.

I expect you to educate yourselves before you take actions, recognizing that one of the most dangerous things we White people can do is act without education.

I expect you to ask for guidance, to hold yourselves accountable to people of color and Native people, especially women.

I expect you to lift up people of color and Native people, especially women (and not just authors and illustrators--I expect you to lift up librarians and teachers and activists).  I expect you to thank them for what they have taught you.  Start with our blogroll.  Become fans of those people.

White men--I expect you to recognize that you are uniquely safe in the USA.  You have a shield that nobody else has.  I expect you to use that shield to advocate for others.

White women - I expect you to educate yourselves on White Feminism and take responsibility for organizing with other White women to interrupt it.

White men--I expect you to connect with other White men, to organize to undo White patriarchy.  Including the White men you feel you are better than, smarter than, separate from. Your life may not depend on it, but your humanity does.

I expect that when someone says “ouch” to you, you will apologize.  I expect you to expunge “I didn’t mean...” and “What I meant was…” from your vocabulary and to introduce phrases like “You’re right. Thank you for educating me” and “I clearly have some learning to do.”

I expect you to name racism when you see it.  When someone else names racism, I expect you to listen and back them up.  And when other people deny or erase their experiences, I expect you to say, “that is not OK.”

White people who are exhibiting safety pins, or their characters with safety pins, I expect you to stop and consider how you have responded to the work of people of color and First/Native Nations and their allies when it comes to naming racism in the children's book industry.  Too many of us ignore, dismiss, or actively undermine their work to fight racism.  Please do some soul-searching and ask yourself how “safe” you really are.

Here's something else to consider: not everyone finds the safety pins a meaningful symbol. For some people, they erase the very real reality that they aren't safe.

White librarians, teachers, bloggers, and reviewers: I expect you to stop merely advertising for books by/about marginalized groups and to prioritize advocating for them. Let me break this down.

Too many of us happily advertise for ourselves, for book creators, or for publishers when it costs us nothing and gains us rewards (like fancy dinners.  And free books.  And connections with authors/illustrators.  And fancy jobs.  And fuzzy warm feelings.)

Too many of us disappear when we are called upon to advocate for marginalized people, to put ourselves on the line when it gains us nothing (except our humanity) and could very well cost us something (like the above perks).

Too many of us trample people of color and Native people, especially women, in the field, in our field.  Too few of us advocate for women of color and Native women who are librarians.  Too few of us thank them.

Too many of us make light of the struggles of people of color and Native people. Too many of us utilize their struggles to get the laugh, to advance our brands. This must stop now.
(Make no mistake here--I am in favor of humor as a coping mechanism. But humor that makes a joke of oppression--and thereby strengthens the oppressor--is not OK. Good humor makes fun of the oppressor.  Better humor highlights the nature of oppression.  The best humor weakens the oppressor.)

Too rarely do we name our privileges as White people and White men in this field.  White people, I expect you to name your whiteness openly and frequently.

Too often, our White fragility and male fragility is activated when people of color name racism and when women name sexism.  Too often, we demand to be comforted in those moments.  By people of color and Native people, and by women.

White people, I expect you to make mistakes.  Over and over and over again.  I expect you to apologize for them, over and over and over again, without asking anyone--especially women, people of color, or Native people--to take care of you.  I expect this to be a struggle (it is) and I expect you to not give up.

You can no longer be passive, non-racist, "good" people; you need to work to actively dismantle this mess.

If it makes you feel uncomfortable or confused or guilty or shameful, sit with that for a while (those feelings won't kill you--I speak from experience), then help each other organize.

The thing to do now is soul-search.  Listen.  Read.  Talk to other White people who are a little further on this journey.  Let yourselves be educated about the special powers and privileges you have by virtue of being White--especially White men, especially now.  Challenge yourself to ally (verb) every day.

White people, including Allie, I expect and accept nothing less from you.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

November 9: Affirming Our Love, Renewing Our Commitment

Today, we at Reading While White express our love for all children, and renew our commitment to open space in children’s and YA book publishing for voices that affirm the lives of children of color, of First Nations/Native children, of children of LGBTQ+ and queer communities, of children of all abilities, of children of all faiths.

As we all get to work today, we invite you to share your thoughts here.  And if you are looking for one small thing you can do today, we ask you to buy a book by a person of color, or First Nations/Native writers or illustrators, and share it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Day of the Dead, Ghosts, and the
Work We Do as Writers and Artists:
Guest Blogger Yuyi Morales

Author/Illustrator Yuyi Morales

In October of 1994 I was still dealing with immigrant depression when, on the streets of Walnut Creek, California, I saw something strange. As I pushed my sons stroller, we passed houses covered with spider webs, bloody skeletons, ghosts hanging from trees, and a plastic chainsaw laid on a front lawn. I even recognized a mask from a horror movie on the lawn. When I returned to my mother-in-laws house, where I lived during my first year in the USA, I asked her in my broken English what I had just seen. She explained it was Halloween.

Ever since that first sight, I found it interesting how Halloween precedes the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead. At first sight they even seem to have a similar theme — death — and yet they are profoundly different. Just like my two grandmothers.

I grew up in Mexico in the house of my paternal Abuela, a devout Catholic who said that during the Day of the Dead, you had to receive your deceased loved ones with offerings and an altar, or else face dire consequences. My maternal grandma, a single mother of twelve, had converted to a small new evangelical church and believed that celebrating the dead was a thing of the devil. She had taught my mother to stay away from this and many other traditions. Day of the Dead in Mexico can hardly be avoided; the streets filled with cempasúchil flowers and the smell of copal incense follows you everywhere. When my mother eventually abandoned the church, many of our friends started including our family in their celebrations by sharing their leftover bread baked for the altars, and we soon participated in the feasts of the food our family and friends hosted. As a teenager, I had my own break with both of my grandmothers beliefs, and I passionately tried to learn what it meant to celebrate the Day of the Dead beyond the bounds of religious ceremonies.

Last summer, during my residence at the Maurice Sendak Fellowship, one of my fellow authors brought me an advance readers copy of Raina Telgemeiers graphic novel Ghosts. I love graphic novels and I had heard that Rainas books are a huge hit with kids, so I was excited to see this book. I began reading and found a story featuring a mixed Mexican American family whose youngest child, Maya, is affected by cystic fibrosis. But to my disappointment, something felt off. My first surprise was the name of the protagonist. “Catrina” is a term used in Mexico to satirize poor Mexicans who aspired to adopt European aristocratic identities. Cat, short for Catrina, and her family move to a cloudy California town where they make friends with a Mexican family named the Calaverases (from the word calavera, Spanish for skull, another invented name that made me pause). As Carlos Calavera befriends Catrina and her younger sister, he tells them the town is inhabited by ghosts. The narrative, although touched by stereotypes, makes for an interesting ghost story — the relationship between Cat and Maya is complex and tender as they love each other while dealing with their fear of Mayas possible death. But when the story attempts to weave in the celebration of the Day of the Dead, which in this book takes place on the night of Halloween rather than on November 2nd (!), it reinvents what is to a large, living community a precious, ancient, and even sacred tradition. 

"I feel that this image says so much about the Mexican people's
playful relationship with the idea of death." Yuyi Morales

Woman in Morelos. Photo: Yuyi Morales
Day of the Dead can be traced back to the Aztec rituals honoring the deceased during the eighteen months of their calendar. After the Spaniards conquered Mexico, these rituals were made to coincide with the Catholic ceremonies of All Saints and All Souls, condensing the celebrations into two days, November 1st for honoring the children and November 2nd for honoring the adults. In small towns, entire communities prepared under strict rules for the ceremonies, while urban settings celebrated with sugar skulls, skeleton toys, and a playful attitude of life being one with death. At the heart of the celebration there is the belief that during the days reserved for honoring the deceased, our relatives and friends now dead should be received lovingly when they visit us from the afterlife for this one day of the year. In Ghosts, these ideas get muddled by the construction of a world where, on the Day of the Dead, random ghosts, rather than the souls of the departed, come on the midnight after Halloween to have a grand party with strangers. I know that at least one of my grandmothers would turn in her grave if she read that on the Day of the Dead ghost cruises and ghost pirate ships tether to the docks, and that teenagers fall in love with cute dead boys attending the celebration.
Yuyi Morales's Day of the Dead altar, 2016.
Photo: Yuyi Morales
According to the author, Ghosts is inspired by her experiences of the annual celebrations for the Day of the Dead in the streets of the Mission district, the Latino neighborhood in San Francisco, of which I have also been a participant since the late 90s. The first time I attended one of these celebrations I was delighted to do it in community. From the time I had emigrated to the USA, most of my celebrations were spent alone at home with my son. I was surprised by Day of the Dead in the Mission neighborhood; this was nothing like the reverent ritual back in Mexico. Gathered for the procession, behind the Aztec dancers and the families with candles and pictures of their dead loved ones, was a huge crowd. San Francisco, in all its amazing diversity, had come to join the celebration, and some of the participants paraded wearing costumes with masks, or their faces painted like skeletons, ghosts and other strange creatures. In the procession a woman carried a picture of Frida Kahlo, which made me wonder if she didnt have a relative or a loved one to honor instead. That same night I got invited to a Dia de los Muertos party where there was dance, drinks, and a costume contest. The winners were a white couple dressed like sexy vampires. The receiving of our loved ones dead had turned into a Halloween spectacle. Like the author of Ghosts, I have enjoyed the San Francisco festival for years. As an immigrant I find joy by sharing in community the traditions that sustain me. But while I can enjoy dancing with my friends on that night, I would never suggest one can learn about the spirit of Day of the Dead by partying at a street festival.

I think I can understand why an author would decide to use Day of the Dead to tell a story that tries to make sense of death not as the end, but as a continuation of life. At its core, this celebration gives a way for people, in this case children, to ease the fear of death of our loved ones. But for all of its good intentions, Ghosts, carries out an erasure of essential parts of an ancient tradition by rewriting it as a celebration rife with stereotypes, at the expense of a very alive cultural practice.

The other day I read a comment on Amazon in response to Debbie Reese, a tribally enrolled member at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico, who expressed concerns that Ghosts had given an inaccurate portrait of who were buried in the California Missions. “I don't appreciate you getting ... offended over a beautifully crafted novel that has nothing to do with your heritage,” the comment read.

I was astonished, and then I reasoned that a response like this one is the product of the continuous colonialism we all have been a part of. When groups of people have been systematically erased from narratives, books, history, and the world, they become invisible to the rest of us. When people cant be seen, they can be reinvented into anything, including mascots, bandidos, liars, exotic things, merchandise, romanticized beings, things of the past, or folklore. 

Why do I think we need this discussion? I know I need it because I am a teller of stories, and I could be the author who, in my enthusiasm to tell an inclusive story, might use my craft to erase and redraw identities, practices, and ways of living that are not part of my imaginarium, but that are about real people living real lives. I need this discussion because I hope that no child has to explain that something I wrote in a book is an inaccurate picture of who he or she is, because of how difficult it is to refuse an imposed identity once it has been written in a book by a prominent author. I need this discussion because I want to cast away the fear that in order to avoid making mistakes that could hurt the most vulnerable, I would have to work under rules that constrain my imagination, impair my art, smother my voice… Except, that isnt what is being asked from us, authors, is it? 

Photo: Antonio Turok 
I like to believe that what it is actually asked of me and of everybody who is committed to children and literature is to be strengthened by principles. Principles like honesty, so we have the courage to say what we feel and who we are, but also to recognize that our vision of the world is always limited and that there is nothing wrong with admitting we still need to learn things we don't know. Principles such as respect, so that we listen to the voices of those who are seldom heard before we attempt to be their voice. Principles like love, so that we see the humanity and the power of others as we see ours, so that we connect not as saviors or victims, but as equals.

This year my Day of the Dead will be celebrated in the altar I built to honor my dead loved ones, whom I will receive with joy in my house. There will be no fear of ghosts visiting, since my friends who left before me, my long-gone grandparents, my deceased teachers, and my relatives dead will come invited by the bright light of the marigold flowers I arranged. They will arrive as a gust of wind, a feather floating on the sunlight, a butterfly, a hummingbird, or a whisper; and after they eat the spirit of the food I placed on the altar for them, and they play with the toys I offer them, drink a much needed glass of water, and even read some books I will leave for them, they will be ready to take the long journey back to the land of the afterlife until they return next year. Meanwhile I will keep them alive in my memory, in the stories I tell, and in the best of our traditions.