Monday, March 21, 2016

The Inaugural Walter Dean Myers Awards

The Walter Award winner. L to R: Brendan Kiely, Jason Reynolds,
Kekla Magoon, Ilyasah Shabazz, Margarita Engle.
On Friday morning, We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) presented the inaugural Walter Dean Myers Awards for Outstanding Children’s Literature at the Library of Congress.  The Walter (as it is often called) was awarded to Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely for All American Boys. Two Walter Honor Books were named: Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle; and X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon.

WNDB President Ellen Oh
Ellen Oh, President and CEO of WNDB, spoke briefly about the award and the gorgeous setting for the ceremony, noting, “We walk in the footsteps of giants, many of whom are in this room.” Author Jon Scieszka, the first-ever National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, spoke about his memories of Walter Dean Myers, noting: "Walter could do the talk, if he had to, but he was really a doer." He then turned the program over to host Christopher Myers, the award namesake’s son and a multi award-winning author/illustrator himself, who spoke about the various fights involved in creating children's literature that reflects our world.  "We are fighters here, and this is where the fight happens: In an exchange of ideas," said Myers.

Walter Honor recipient Margarita Engle
In her acceptance speech, Margarita Engle said, “Being misunderstood is a writer’s greatest nightmare. And to be understood is a dream.” After reading a poem from Enchanted Air, Engle spoke about the historically tense relationship between the US and Cuba, noting, “When I was a student, it was easier for a US citizen to walk on the moon than to visit Cuba... I hope [Enchanted Air] will not just speak to Latinos... but also to readers from other backgrounds who might feel like a bridge or a storm for any reason.”

Walter Honor recipient Ilyasah Shabazz
Kekla Magoon shared a question that she and Ilyasah Shabazz have frequently been asked: With The Autobiography of Malcolm X being widely read, why do we need a book about the first 14 years of the Civil Rights activist’s life? As Magoon said, even when things are bad, young people have the power to make a change in their lives, a capacity that Malcolm X exemplifies. As Magoon and Shabazz were set to receive their awards, Shabazz returned to the microphone and delivered one of the day’s most powerful statements, directed at adults who work with children: “When young people are in pain, they don’t always make the best decisions. That’s what happened to my father and that’s why we need adults to see the beauty in, and invest in, our kids.”

In his acceptance, Brendan Kiely called for change, both in the world of children's literature and in the larger world.  "This is one of the most dangerously powerful aspects of privilege--the privilege to look away, to choose NOT to engage.  Just as the statistics clearly expose the injustice in the world of law enforcement, the numbers are starkly apparent in book publishing, too.  We need a more diverse workforce, a more diverse array of book reviewers and books reviewed, and a much larger pool of diverse authors getting published regularly."

Jason Reynolds added, "We need stories that appeal to the diversity inside us.  I am not a monolith."

Walter Award winners Brendan Kiely and
Jason Reynolds read Bad Boy by Walter Dean Myers.
"The most exciting thing about The Walter Awards," said Chris Myers, "is that we get to define what is is we're looking for.  It's nice to define our own standards, to have a hand in creating our own Canon."

-by Sam Bloom and Allie Jane Bruce

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Long Haul

Image by Lisa Nowlain
It’s 2016.
It’s 2016 and the increased attention given to discussion of multicultural literature, race, and racism in children’s and young adult literature over the past two years, including the launch and ongoing work of We Need Diverse Books (which looks at all aspects of diversity), and important if sometimes painful discussions of books like A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington, among others, feels like a turning point of some kind.
Maybe it’s social media and the internet, which has enabled the discussion to extend farther within and beyond the world of children’s and young adult books. Maybe it’s that we’re starting to see effort to create tangible and meaningful change to the status quo. School Library Journal’s commitment diversifying its reviewers is one example of this. So, too, is its launch of Indie Voices, a quarterly review of self-published books reflecting diversity, which builds on the important work of author, activist, and scholar Zetta Elliott, who has been calling attention to the possibilities and importance of self-publishing for some time.
And yet this increased visibility comes with an increased sense of resentment, sometimes vague, sometimes overt. Why are activists calling for changes and challenging racism in children’s and young adult literature so demanding, so radical, so angry, so sensitive, so unwilling to give kids credit? And why can’t we understand that change takes time?
I want to talk about that one in particular.  That change takes time.
It’s true. Change does take time.
But it’s 2016. And as we look at recent, welcome examples of change and progress, it’s important to understand and remember that this work—to get more books published that authentically reflect the diverse lives of children and teens, to get those in the children’s and young adult book world who are gatekeepers in one way or another to do something that is not only meaningful but lastinghas been going on for a long time.  A very long time.
Many people reading this blog know that. They know it because they’ve been part of the effort for years. Sometimes decades.
But not everyone knowsor acknowledgesthat everything happening today, right now, has grown out of activism that stretches back years. Not a few years. Not ten or twenty. Not even fifty. Nancy Larrick’s 1965 Saturday Review article “The All-White World of Children’s Books” wasn’t the starting point, either.
Everything happening today is part of an ongoing effort that spans at least ninety years. Think of Pura Belpré, reaching out to the immigrant communities in New York City in the 1920s, and eventually writing books reflective of her Puerto Rican culture, which many of them shared. Think of Augusta Baker and Charlamae Hill Rollins, both advocating for collections reflecting diversity and the lives of children and teens in the mid-twentieth century. This foundational work took place long before the Larrick article, which articulated a reality with which families of color and First/Native Nations had been aware for years and years.
In 1980, the now-defunct Council on Interracial Books for Children published a checklist for evaluating books for racism and sexism. It was published in their Bulletin and has been reprinted and republished in print and online over the past 36 years. Many others have offered culturally-specific insight into racism in children’s books.

And yet stereotypes and racism persist, not occasionally, but consistently.
Add to all of this the numerous books and articles that have been writtenand continue to be writtenby scholars, librarians, and teachers, not to mention the commitment of activist authors, artists and publishers (Children’s Book Press, Just Us Books, and Lee and Low, to name a few) across more recent decades, and a detailed picture begins to develop of a struggle for change that has more than paid its dues. And sure, we can point to progress, but when we're having some of the same discussions and conversations and arguments we were having ten and twenty and thirty and fifty and more years ago, we can also point to systemic and, yes, willful resistance to change.
Yes, change takes time. But the long haul has already happened, and there is still so far to go.
That’s maddening, to say the least.
If you want a refresher, or want to learn more, about the history of activism around multicultural literature, here are some people and efforts to start reading about (please add your own suggestions in the comments):
  •  Augusta Baker
  •  Pura Belpré
  • Rudine Sims Bishop
  • Council on Interracial Books for Children
  • Daniel Duran
  • Violet Harris
  • Coretta Scott King Task Force
  • Debbie Reese
  • Charlamae Hill Rollins
  • Barbara Rollock
  • Isabel Schon
  • Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin

And the "Kindred Spirits," listed to the right, are among many who are ensuring the work continues.

Finally, when people of color and First/Native Nations and allies demand more multicultural books, and authentic multicultural books, when they call out racism when they see it, they are doing more than advocating for books, they are advocating for the lives of children and teens.
None of us should ever forget that.
(Check out the We Need Diverse Books “Looking Back” series for more history.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"The All-Too-Familiar Fog of White Authenticating"

Thank you to Lisa Nowlain for our new blogger portraits!

A couple weeks ago I presented online to a class at San Jose State University's SLIS program.  The class was Info 263, "Materials for Children," taught by Elizabeth Wrenn-Estes, who asked me to speak to our work on this blog, and my approaches to critical analysis of children's literature.

There were a few late questions that I didn't have time to answer, and rather than write an email back to the class, I thought I'd try to answer them here.  Some of you may be able to add other thoughts, and I'm hoping some of the class might continue the discussion.

Nina, since so many book reviewers are white, do you think that books written by non-whites will get the same chance at a good review as white authors?

Statistically, in reality? No. Because white people don't "get" everything in stories by people of color or First Nations/Native people.  I've learned so much from people taking the trouble to point out some very obvious things to me.  For instance, long ago I presented an oral review (thank goodness I hadn't published it) in which I complained the pacing was "off" in a picture book because the protagonist, on a journey, encountered four strangers, and it felt like one beat to many to me.  Someone graciously pointed out to me that in many cultures, things in stories happen in "fours" instead of the "threes" of most European traditions. 

Malinda Lo went into this from the writer's point of view last month on Twitter. She said "If you don't explain the context for non-Asian readers they won't get it. But if you over-explain you lose the storytelling tension." Numerous reactions prompted her to expand: 

Nina, how big of an impact do book reviewers have and do you think that a reviewer’s race has a large impact on what books get more publicity and recognition? Do you think that reviewers try to separate themselves from the race they identify with and look at the big picture when reviewing?

Getting any reviews at all definitely has an impact on selling book.  Even a negative review can help sell a book over no reviews at all, though of course it doesn't serve a book as well as a positive review. 

Given my thoughts about the first question above, I certainly think that the race and background of reviewers, as a whole, has a large impact on the recognition of books. On an individual case, theoretically, if we can each hold ourselves individually accountable to reading with an full understanding of our biases, it shouldn't.  But I think it has an exponential impact as you look at the entire publishing output.  If, collectively, we can gain momentum on our individual accountability, we should be able to shift that overall impact. Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal are clearly making strides to hold themselves and reviewers accountable, especially since Lee & Low started collecting survey data for the Diversity Baseline Study

So how do you celebrate diversity without normalizing whiteness?

In the example I gave above about my cluelessness with a review, I was normalizing Whiteness; assuming that my knowledge as a White person was not based in any cultural or racial context, but was somehow "normal."  When you read for analysis, you should try to locate yourself...your own person with your own perspective...within your mind, and observe yourself reading and reacting to a text.  If you are White, you should examine that reaction and assume that not everyone experiences it that way.  "It's not all about you," is a mantra that works for me.  

I do think that normalizing Whiteness has gotten in the way of appreciations of many books by people of color.  It's hard to prove, but I feel like I've seen it enough, in Mock Newbery discussions, for instance, when a mostly White group starts comparing one excellent book with another.  Inevitably, some people "just feel" that Excellent Book A (by a White person) does "more" for them than Excellent Book B (by a person of color).  It probably does; and that's not the point. 

This has dangerous repercussions not just for the immediate reception to a book in its publishing year, but on what standards are set in the literature in general. Since my post on Jump Back Paul by Sally Derby, I've been reading more about Paul Laurence Dunbar.   Poet Kevin Young writes about him in his prize-winning collection of essays The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Graywolf Press, 2012).  He talks of the famous review by White "tastemaker" William Dean Howells, which secured Dunbar's success in the White literary establishment.  This review praised Dunbar's dialect poems in a very particular way remains today the most accessible interpretation, repercussions of which can still be seen in Sally Derby's book, for instance, despite the fact that Black writers, like Young, have been offering alternative interpretations for decades. Young says "Howells's simple if not simplistic review is still appended to most editions of Dunbar, making it impossible to get to Dunbar without the all-too-familiar fog of white authenticating." 

Or, as students in the Oakland schools African American Male Achievement classes explained to me, it's "Matrix thinking."  Clear the fog, see through the Matrix.  It's not all about you, White people.