Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Conversation on A Birthday Cake for George Washington


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.


srhF92 said...

Thanks for this conversation. Just wanted to add to your ending thought, Allie, about focusing (as white people) on our own accountability. Would say, as always, that it's important to find ways to do this that de-center white feelings and experiences. For example, in thinking about this moment as an uncomfortable one, or as a difficult time for book creators-- I'd ask: uncomfortable for whom, and difficult for which creators in what ways? Who is bearing which burdens in the midst of this? Where was the discomfort *before* these more public and far-reaching conversations, and who bore it how? If there's concern about precarity in publishing in this moment more generally, who feels the most weight of that concern?

(Thinking about the racial disparities in access, marketing, and maintaining careers-- and also the difference in the fallout for the creative/editorial teams behind these two books. And, the disparity in concern about future ability to sell books. I know there's a lot of discussion about white people pulling back on writing across race, but let's face it: there is a market for those books. As mentioned in the post, those books are set up to sell. I'd like to think the structures undergirding that will change, but we're definitely not there yet. And if white creators are anxious that those structures will change, well... The concern that publishers will acquire even less books *by* people of color is a different one-- though as Ebony has mentioned, publishers holding that up as a threat doesn't have so much weight given the current dismal stats.)

I'm wondering, too, in the focus on our own accountability, if it's possible to think of ways to help move the conversation towards structural racism in publishing and, again, away from white feelings. (Have been trying to think about best ways to help in this myself, and would love others' thoughts.) The Diversity Baseline Survey out from Lee & Low today seems like a good place to start.

And wanted to share this link here, too, for anyone who hasn't seen it: http://linkis.com/fergusonresponse.org/n7nuf

-- Sarah H.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Sarah, you name something really important above: The need to de-center white experiences here. I sometimes feel a push/pull there: I feel the need to step up and do the work to take responsibility for my Whiteness, as it is my job (and not the job of people of color and First/Native nations people) to do that; and I feel the responsibility to step back and listen and learn and do my part to not center Whiteness in that regard. I sometimes can't tell when it's appropriate to do which. Like Nina said above--White person problems!!

The fact that we made this post a conversation is an attempt to show that we are first and foremost trying to listen and learn here. We also deliberately took it slowly, and did not rush to get a post out immediately after the announcement last week.

Anonymous said...

Has it ever occurred to the white people doing all the hand-wringing about "white guilt" and "white privilege" that black people are tired of hearing about it? I can't speak for the entire black community but, good grief, give it a rest already. Where was the outrage about the lack of diversity 30 years ago? 20? 10? Three accomplished WOC put out a well-researched picture book about slaves and white people have the gall to tell them how they should've told the story? That it wasn't the right kind of diversity? Would all those taking issue with the alleged whitewashing of history in this book sit their preschoolers down to watch "12 Years a Slave"? It doesn't get much more real than that. I'm going to guess they wouldn't because smart people understand that there is a limit to what children can comprehend and process. So essentially critics are saying there should be no picture books dealing with themes like slavery because to show anything other than the abject horrors is a gross and offensive injustice. Most kids' books about black people do show the depressing, tragic reality of being black in America. There's only so much of that a reader can take. Everyone, no matter their race or walk of life, expresses at some point the breadth of the human experience, even slaves. Black people are not one dimensional no matter how bleak their lives may be. Their stories, the full range of them, deserve to be told just as it is for white people. You can support the diversity or you can not. What you don't get to do as white people is tell or decide for people of color how we tell our story.

Moyrid said...

Great discussion here. This was really nicely put together and there is lots of food for thought here. Allie for historical fiction with diverse characters my son and I loved White Crane by Sandy Fussell https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3020180-white-crane

Allie Jane Bruce said...

I didn't know White Crane, and I'll definitely check it out! Thanks!

Unknown said...

The people I know most outraged about this book are black, not white.


Moyrid said...

I believe Scholastic pulled the book because of criticism from black readers like this article by Demetria Lucan D'Oyley at The Root-- -http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2016/01/children_s_book_showing_slaves_happily_baking_a_cake_is_just_another_attempt.html?utm_content=buffer75253&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Erica S said...

KT wrote, "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?"

Was it perhaps Andrea Davis Pinkney who chose the artist? Isn't that usually what the editor does? In any case, her statement supported the choice of illustrator as well as the final illustrations.

I presume it was a different editor over at Knopf who chose the same illustrator to do Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers' Journey from Slave to Artist, which also depicts universally happy slaves, but did not get slammed for that when it first came out in February, 2015.

Maybe the team of people (author, illustrator, editor) at Scholastic saw the positive reviews for Sewing Stories and felt their gut instincts for Birthday Cake were correct. Not only were there positive reviews, but apparently no social media outcry, either. Is the book that much better?

K T Horning said...

You raise a good question, Erica. I wondered the same thing about "Sewing Stories," which is very similar in style and tone. I think it was probably all in the timing. "A Birthday Cake for George Washington" came out right after all the discussion of "A Fine Dessert," so people were very attuned to the issues. Had the publication dates been reversed, with "Birthday Cake" being published first and "Sewing Stories" coming out after "A Fine Dessert," would "Sewing Stories" have received more attention? It's hard to say.