So here’s my question: How does this happen (or almost happen)? And I'm not asking in a rhetorical, throw-up-my-hands way. I want to know--how, almost a hundred years after Gone With The Wind came out, does the narrative of happy/smiling slaves still happen? For that matter, how do smiling Indians still happen? Smiling Skippyjon Jones?
Obviously, they happen because they sell. Let's go a little deeper, though--why do they sell? I keep thinking of Roy Wood Jr. on the Daily Show, explaining "If we want to win an Oscar, we have to make a movie about Black people being oppressed... Creed could have got an Oscar nod if they would have sprinkled a little slavery in it."
And what are my responsibilities here, as a White person? It mustn’t be to jump up and down on the creative trio of Black women behind this book. I need to examine my culpability and my responsibilities, and that always starts with some worldview shifting within myself. So with that in mind, I think the reason smiling/marginalized people narratives sell is that they allow White people to be in an empowered position with no accompanying shame or guilt. I have to get my hands dirty and find the part of myself that wants that power sans guilt, and reckon with it.
I agree, Allie, about examining my own responsibilities. While I definitely think it’s important for White people to call White publishing to task, I also want to tread lightly on how I, as a White woman, am empowered to determine how Black women talk about and approach slavery. (I am specifically speaking about Ramin Ganeshram, Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and Andrea Davis Pinkney.) I have been grateful that Black voices have led this conversation, with special notes of thanks to Edi Campbell, Allyson Criner Brown, and Dr. Ebony Thomas. I think the most important thing White librarians and critics can do in this situation is listen. So, I’ve tried to do that when it comes to A Fine Dessert and especially A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Before projecting my OWN ideas, I’ve tried to listen. I think I’ve learned a lot more that way.
Angie, I completely agree. And yet I feel like this is so hard to do when one is passionate about a subject, as much of the discussion that I have seen involves authors, youth services librarians, teachers, publishers -- obviously folks that care a great deal about children’s literature. But when it comes to a subject such as the way slavery is portrayed in a picture book, we White people really do need to take a step back.
I concur. At the same time, we began this blog because we know our job is also to speak, to do some of the work of challenging racism. To that end, I like your reference to worldview shifting a lot, Allie. Because that is absolutely necessary for change in the children's book world, and in the greater world of which that is a part. And yes to allowing for ownership of a self-perceived mistake or changing of minds without that becoming more fodder for criticism.
I also want to make room for "ownership of a self-perceived mistake" and at the moment am trying to respect that. I also recognize this is a scary time for book creators, so I'm willing to make room for their dismay. But I hold some discomfort around the way this unfolded, and am concerned at the message behind Scholastic's recall statement:
"While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, ....We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor, and illustrator."
That's some serious ass-covering going on, which I guess is to be expected, yet seems to be at the expense of the author, editor, and illustrator, while removing any responsibility from Scholastic itself. As a publisher that makes a heck of a lot of money on its proclaimed commitment to "providing books, magazines, and educational materials that portray the experience of all children, including those from diverse communities and backgrounds" I'm not really willing to let them divorce themselves from any responsibility.
I'm similarly discomforted by Emily Jenkins' apology for A Fine Dessert, at the same time that I respect and admire it.
Why are you discomforted by Emily Jenkins' apology, Nina? I thought it took courage for her to do that. I found it interesting that so many White people who were champions for the book seemed to disregard her apology and carry on as if it hadn't happened.
And meanwhile, those same fans of A Fine Dessert fought tooth and nail to defend the book’s illustrator, Sophie Blackall. In fact, here we are, several months later, and many are STILL defending Blackall while demonizing Jenkins. What’s up with that? Is it because Blackall defended her work while Jenkins did not? To me this ties into the White Lady tears phenomenon somehow, though I can’t quite put my finger on exactly how this is all working.
I agree it took courage. I'm trying to locate my discomfort. I guess I want writers to take responsibility for what they publish, before they publish it. Same goes for editors and publishers. Although (arguing with myself here), I guess Emily Jenkins' was taking responsibility in the best way she could, when she could, and I do respect that.
Where else my discomfort? I anticipated the backlash idea that now this would scare off all book creators from writing about difficult subjects...I was discomforted by that precedent. But I think I just talked myself out of that discomfort over at the Fuse 8 discussion.
Where else? Yes, an immediate reaction was thinking about how the illustrator and editor of the book would feel, since I admire their work as well. But, truthfully, they also hold responsibility, and at the end of the day I am more concerned with how young readers feel than book creators.
I think that's the bottom of my discomfort. And, yup, they are all White People Problems.
Something I haven't seen anyone mention is that A Birthday Cake for George Washington was written by a celebrity author who has no track record for writing picture books for young children. I would love to know more about the background of how this came to be published. Was the book Ganeshram's idea or someone else's?
There were many things in Ganeshram's post-controversy note that made me think that her argument might fly had she written a book for teens who might better understand the historical context. But 6 year olds?
I like Vanessa Brantley-Newton's illustrations for contemporary stories such as My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay and The Hula-Hooping Queen. Her characters always have bright eyes and big grins -- that's her style. They work in contemporary stories. But who thought she would be a good match for a book set in slavery times?
So going back to Scholastic's statement, "...we do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor, and illustrator" -- how does a book get all the way to publication before this determination is made?
KT, I’m interested in the celebrity angle of it too, especially because I read other writing from Ganeshram that seems to take more seriously the issues with Hercules and Deliah’s enslavement--and Hercules’s escape too. Imagine if the text spent less time on authentic mixing bowls and the hunt for sugar and looked at the information Ganeshram has here:
“Hercules decided his own fate soon enough. On his master’s 65th birthday, February 22, 1797, Hercules escaped in the wee hours, leaving his son Richmond behind.”
Why do we, as White readers, shy away from that story? Why do we want a story where Washington puts an arm around Hercules and praises him? I think that’s something everyone should consider when they’re processing their fierce feelings about this book - why do you need to make Hercules’s story more palatable to you? Why do you feel the need to bemoan “censorship” and wring your hands thinking about “the children” when, at the very least, we know this book was not telling children the full truth of Hercules and Delilah’s lives as even Ganeshram’s own research showed?
These are questions that, as Allie notes, are more than rhetorical. Ones I hope authors, illustrators, editors and publishers are not just asking themselves, but talking about, reflecting upon. Just as we need to reflect on it--all of us who are gatekeepers once books are published as reviewers and critics and selectors. This may feel like a time of crisis and uncertainty, but it’s also one of opportunity. Opportunity that too many people -- too many young readers -- have been waiting for someone to grasp onto for far too long.
I also agree with you, Nina, that it is a scary time for book creators. It’s not just about their livelihoods, what they are doing, but it’s their creative lives, and they wouldn’t be writing or illustrating if that creative expression weren’t essential to their identities. There is no joy or pleasure for any of us in looking at someone’s work and negating it in some way. None.
I also don’t want to suggest that this is a single “right” way to depict an experience. I’m not suggesting that every book with enslaved characters, for example, show those characters in constant misery. (Per Allie’s opening salvo, too often that is the trope in Hollywood). What I think we are suggesting, or what I’m saying anyway, is that I don’t want to see reality ignored. I want to come away from a book, no matter how young the audience, with the sense that the brutality of enslavement is understood, even if it isn’t the primary focus of the story. Obviously what is conveyed will differ based on the book and the audience. But I think, as an example, of Shane W. Evans’s Underground. In just a few words and powerful images, he conveys a palpable sense of fear, and underneath that is agency and determination, and at the end, such relief. It isn’t graphic in terms of the physical violence of slavery, and it doesn’t spell out the psychic violence, but it’s there all the same.
And White folks, can we please agree not to use some version of the “But slaves were happy sometimes!” argument in these situations? There’s something about a White person defending the Happy Slave trope that is deeply disturbing. Like Megan, I’m thinking back to Allie’s comments at the beginning about how this goes along with White guilt.
For sure. And it’s also a deeply disingenuous derailing argument: “I guess you think slaves never felt joy, so you must be the racist!” There are several books about enslaved people that show the complex realities of their lives -- Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate or Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and Kadir Nelson just off the top of my head. NO ONE is saying that picture books can’t, or shouldn’t, deal with slavery or other hard topics. Instead, we’re asking that there is actual nuance and honesty in these stories and images. Tell the truth -- not only can kids handle it, but many of them already know it. Stop assuming all audiences for these books will be White kids in White classrooms with White teachers.
I know that some of the conversation around both of these books has been a feeling of can’t-win: “We can’t show slaves happy! We can’t show slaves constantly miserable victims! What to do about slavery?”
I truly don’t know. I think it would be nice if we had more contemporary, sci-fi, and fantasy books about Black, Native, and Latino people, though. Not to mention historical fiction that’s not centered on slavery or segregation. This timeline of Black YA History is a powerful visual representation of the single-story problem. I love, for example, If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth. It’s historical fiction about an American Indian boy, set in the 70s. Lewis (Gansworth's protagonist) spends a memorable chunk of the book wondering if Paul is dead. I want more like this.
Recently a parent (a friend of mine, not someone from work) asked me to recommend something for her history-loving kid: historical fiction that features diverse characters, is not racist or otherwise problematic, is not overly violent or scary, and that her child--who is struggling to advance beyond the Amelia Bedelia level--could actually read. I couldn’t think of a dang thing. Anyone?
Sorry Allie. But I think I have an answer to your first question, our refrain, “How does this get published in the first place?” White people don’t speak up enough when we see it, out of fear of hurting feelings or being branded “politically correct,” and we silence people of color and First/Native Nations when they do. We have to get comfortable with asking uncomfortable questions about books, and making space for diverse opinions. This isn’t just about one book, or two books. This book got published because of everything before it. Maybe it can be one in a chain to make a real shift in children’s book publishing.
And this takes me back to Allie’s shifting worldview. Discussions happening in the children’s book world in recent months have been uncomfortable, to say the least. Sure, we can creep along the continuum of incremental change, and in twenty-five years be having similar discussions, and still be talking about dismal numbers in terms of representation of people of color and First/Native Nations. Or we can acknowledge and embrace discomfort and upheaval in the hopes that as a whole when the ground settles we’ll have moved a little more than a mere increment.
I know there are people upset about the book being pulled from the market and they speak to its importance in generating open discussion and serving as a learning opportunity. But to me, that decision, for better or for worse, is one form of upheaval, and I find it presents as much of an opportunity to talk and learn and ask questions as the book itself. In a way that decision, whatever is behind it, is leading to more critical questions than otherwise might have been asked within publishing. I hope so, anyway.
We started this conversation almost a week ago, and a lot has happened since then. PEN/NCAC issued a statement that Scholastic's decision to recall the book is censorship; yesterday, Scholastic responded that it is not. I suspect that we haven't seen the end of this story. But whatever happens, we White people need to listen first on this one; and when we do speak, we need to remember to focus on ourselves and our responsibilities. Let's hold each other accountable to that.