Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Rocky Unpaved Roads of Good Intentions

          by Ibi Zoboi

I write for children. I have the very best of intentions. This is a dream career and one that relies on altruism, empathy, love, and most important of all, respect. The same goes for parenting children. However, I am a smother. I have the very best of intentions to keep my children safe and arm them with the necessary tools to navigate life’s challenges. I am raising Black children. I have a tendency to hover, hug and squeeze for a moment too long, and shower them with wet kisses in public. But as they approach their teen and tween years, I have to step back and allow them room to breathe. The same goes for writing middle grade and young adult novels. I have to step back and allow the story, characters, and setting room to breathe. That book will go out into the world with wings of its own and fly, planting seeds in the hearts and minds of young readers along the way. And like parenting, this all begins with good intentions.

My children attend a wonderfully diverse progressive school where good intentions are woven into the fabric of the school community—from their social justice curriculum to their over-the-top parent involvement. The school has been lauded for their racial and socioeconomic diversity. However, the mostly white teaching staff and volunteering parents paint a different picture.

I am Haitian-American. I have family in Haiti who are often in need of money. Even in a country drowning in good intentions with its ten-thousand non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and constant stream of aid money, there are still those who have to rub two sticks together, as they say in Haiti, in order to make a buck. The shoe company, TOMS, launched an ad campaign last year where white twenty-somethings are shown frolicking through Haitian countrysides and beaches amongst laughing schoolchildren. THIS IS HAITI, they proclaimed.

My children’s school sounds like an ideal work environment for a young teacher of color—one that honors social justice work and educating the whole child. Yet, for whatever reason, the school seems to be in a perpetual cycle of “trying to find the right fit” when it comes to hiring teachers of color. And as for Haiti, there are Haitians who desperately want to work with these NGOs, not as noble artists in some equal exchange agreement, but as administrators with long-term contracts and housing benefits. However, as the TOMS ad suggests, humanitarian work is healing waters, warm island sunshine, and grateful, laughing children for outsiders only.

My husband, Mr. Z., is a public school teacher. He has good intentions as well. He has a deep well of patience, and goes above and beyond for his students, much like many of his colleagues. However, over the course of his twenty-year career, I've witnessed how time and time again, his deep connection with his students is sometimes seen as a threat. The evaluation often begins with, “You have a great rapport with the students, but…” As a Black male teacher, his good intentions come with risks. A recent Huffingtonpost video and article about his former school highlighted this dichotomy. A fellow art teacher, a white woman, was featured in the video, shedding a few tears and speaking of her love for her students and the many hardships in their lives. The video also showed glimpses of an art show that Mr. Z. helped to curate. Mr. Z. was not featured in the video. He could not have possibly shed a tear for his students and their hard lives, I suppose. In this case, someone else’s good intentions are held up as an example of excellent teaching, while Mr. Z.’s was simply “a good rapport, but…”.

This is the hierarchy of good intentions that reeks of White-Man’s-Burdenism. There is a self-perceived burden of doing something, making it right, and fixing things for the Other—that this Other cannot help themselves, even if this help comes from members of their own community.

Make no mistake, members of marginalized groups can also wear the cape of White-Man’s-Burdenism. In 2010, six months after the devastating Haitian earthquake, I launched a Kickstarter campaign to conduct a writing workshop for teen girls in Haiti. It was successful. I published a beautiful anthology of their poems. I reaped the rewards of my good intentions. However, toward the end of the workshops and my stay in Haiti, I had to step back and listen.

For many of the girls, it was not their first time participating in a writing workshop. Their schools have had poetry recitals and contests. Most importantly, those girls could not eat my good intentions. They could not use them to pay for school or uniforms or much-needed toiletries. I could not press cold-hard good intentions into their hands so they could go about living their lives after such tragedy. This workshop and resulting anthology was my own accomplishment. It was for my own healing and need to do something, anything. I felt duty-bound to give these girls a voice, but didn’t realize that they already had a voice. Their writing and thoughts exceeded my expectations. They didn’t need me to give them a voice. They had spoken loud and clear when I asked them what they wanted and needed: money and opportunities to make more money. My anthology and good intentions did not do that for them.

Recently, I spoke out online against this sort of well-meaning activism. Several fellow children’s writers participated in a Black Lives Matter initiative. Something didn’t sit right with me when I was asked to use the name of Alton Sterling, hours after his death, to offer critiques or ARCs of my novel in exchange for donating to the Sterling family or the Black Lives Matter movement. I had the visceral reaction that this was too raw, too soon. I asked that the founder consider removing the middleman and rewards, and have people donate to the family directly. As another fellow writer pointed out, it was a “mismatch of cause and activity.” But the initiative continued because, in this situation, direct action trumps mourning. The overwhelming need to “do something” supersedes quiet, reflective time to ask “wait, what is happening to us?” Good intentions outweighed perceived inactivity. 

With the recent criticism of e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce, I couldn’t help but to wonder about this heavy burden of good intentions. When the discussion about the book was first brought up in a private Facebook group, I was at my agency’s retreat. Charlton-Trujillo was also there. I was one of two Black people at this retreat, and the only Black woman. My dear friends were very vocal about the problems in this book. And at times, I was within arms-length from the author. So we talked. I set the book and everything I’ve read about it aside to connect with the person away from screens and social media, to have a real heart to heart. The beautiful scenery and overall good vibes at the retreat begged for this sort of exchange.

After our conversation, I was reminded of the few times I had to approach some of my children’s teachers with, “I know you love your students, but this is problematic.” I truly cannot deny the author’s love, heart, and purity of intentions—it was all there. Having my children in progressive schools with mostly white teachers warrants that I rely on intuition—to feel a person out, connect with their heart, and gauge where their intentions may lie. And in most cases, this heart, these good intentions, are shrouded in White-Man-Burdenism—this need to save or help or give voice to without asking, “What is it that you want? What is it that you need from me, or how can I help you?”

I’ve learned this from my husband over the years. He’s realized that he’s a high school teacher, not a replacement father-figure to his students. He only listens without rushing to action, then asks, “What are YOU going to do about it?” or “What would YOU like me to do?” He empowers his students this way. He’s not there to save them from themselves. As an art teacher, he gives them supplies to create mirrors in the form of visual art. These mirrors are outlets and tools for self-expression. These mirrors are not windows into their hard lives for others to watch with pity. Their perceived pain and trauma is not fodder for guilt, thus fueling White-Man’s-Burdenism in the minds of voyeurs. Their art belongs to only them—however beautiful, disjointed, or painful.

I’m still learning how to do this as a writer for children. I have to shed the need to save, to write for, or to give voice to. The mirror needs to be held up to myself first. When I tell a story, I have to remind myself that this is about me and others like me first and foremost. I center my own experiences within the story, so that when it goes out into the world, I will personally connect with my readers, and they to me. Writing gives voice to the writer and no one else. The truth within the story will resonate with readers on its own. Problematic books written by outsiders are a mirror held up to that writer and the group she belongs to. The book says “This is what I think of you, or this is how I perceive you.” This voice, this perception does not belong to us. That is your voice as the writer. That is your truth, not ours.

Like the smothering parent that I am, every good intention needs to step back and check itself. Loosen that grip, let go of that need to save or protect or speak on behalf of, and ask instead, “What do YOU need?” or “What would YOU like me to do?” 

We need room to tell our own stories. Even if we hurt ourselves in the process with our own problematic content, we need breathing room to be reflective and unearth those deeply-planted seeds of colonization. We were taught to hate ourselves and everything about our traditions. Serving us more self-hate in the form of help, or placing warped, tainted lenses -- not mirrors -- before everyone’s eyes in the form of story, only deepens this wound. 

And like those teen girls in Haiti, we would like you to give us money (grants, scholarships, etc.), or create opportunities that will enable us to support ourselves and our families. Money and opportunities are tools for empowerment. Intend to empower us, level the playing field, cultivate true equity. Instead of writing our story, let us write it ourselves and get paid for it. Then we can begin to create self-sufficiency to rebuild our families and communities. Step aside and let us also stand at the helm of your non-profit organization or company whose mission it is to help or save us. Don’t stand on our backs and shoulders perpetually reaching down, offering to assist, while you remain standing on our backs and shoulders for all of eternity.

Most important of all, listen. Yes, to the help. Yes, to offering to assist and doing something so that there is a sea change. But when we say, “Ouch! That hurts,” or “We can do it ourselves,” step back and listen. Give us room to breathe.

Here are some bite-sized questions:

Before Writing the Other, ask yourself:
1) Is there another book like it written by a person from that community?
2) How can I center my own story and voice without appropriating another culture or community?

3) How can I discuss [insert issue here] through the lens of my own community?  

Ibi Zoboi holds an MFA in Writing for Children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her debut young adult novel, American Street, will come out from Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins in February 2017, and a middle grade novel My Life As An Ice Cream Sandwich is forthcoming from Dutton Young Readers. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

When Whiteness Dominates Reviews

by KT Horning

In the past twenty-four hours we've seen thoughtful critical reviews from Jennifer Baker and Edi Campbell about a new book coming out next week by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo, When We Was Fierce (Candlewick). Both reviews offer African-American perspectives on the book that contrast sharply with the praise it has received so far from White reviewers and librarians on social media. Why is it that Whiteness continues to dominate professional reviews? And what can be done to change that?

Last week I spoke to School Library Journal reviewers who were nearing the end of an eight-week course on Diversity and Cultural Literacy in Professional Reviews. The group had already heard from experts such as Debbie Reese, Angie Manfredi, Malinda Lo, Allie Jane Bruce, and Edi Campbell, and they had already done extensive reading and participated in online discussions with each other.

I think it’s great that Kiera Parrott and Shelley Diaz of SLJ are providing these kinds of opportunities for their team of volunteer reviewers. We need to see more positive steps forward in our profession for our reviewers and for people in our field at large. Because let’s face it, the majority of children’s book reviewers are White, as are most members of book evaluation and a award committees. Our experiences as White people are limited. How can we discern if a book about a child of color is authentic? In order to do our job, we have to seek out and listen to diverse voices. And those voices are not appearing much in the professional review journals.

A case in point: When We Was Fierce by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo. The book deals with a group of African-American teenage boys in the inner-city who get caught up in gang activity. I first became aware of this book when I started seeing the advance praise and reviews for it in the professional journals. Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist all gave it glowing starred reviews. Normally, this would make me eager to get the book, but something stopped me short -- the lines that the reviews quoted from the book. A sample:

“Jive brothers rolled in hard./ They walked intent.... I didn’t want nuthin’ to do with their truth./ Sometimes it don’t matter what you want or intend./ It’s gonna go how it go” [quoted in Publishers Weekly]

“He wanna have speak”; “We all held our wait.” [quoted in Kirkus]

It’s sort of Black English. But not really. One of the reviews made reference to a “semi-invented vernacular” and right away that waved a red flag for me. Coming from a background in Linguistics, I know that African-American Vernacular English is not “broken English.” It has complex and consistent grammatical and phonological rules, and you can’t just “make it up.” It’s a living, breathing language.

If Charlton-Trujillo were creating a form of English for people living in the future, as Anthony Burgess did in A Clockwork Orange and Russell Hoban did in Riddley Walker, I might buy it. But she’s not. She’s putting words in the mouths of characters who supposedly live in the Here and Now. In fact, it’s the raw immediacy of the story that these reviewers seem to be especially high on.

In her seminal study, Shadow and Substance: Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children’s Fiction, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop cited language as one of the five key traits that define books reflecting authentic Black experience, what she called “culturally conscious fiction.” These are five traits that cultural outsiders can get right, but rarely do. They don’t walk the walk, talk the talk (in this case, literally), and they haven’t, as Virginia Hamilton once said, “lived the life.”

But here’s the thing. If I hadn’t had a background in Linguistics that made me sensitive to language usage (and misusage), I might have taken these reviews at face value and simply trusted the judgment of these three reviewers.  I might have completely jumped over this line in the Kirkus review: “Only the free verse’s frequent apostrophes connoting a dropped letter are stereotypical and distancing.” Frequent apostrophes… stereotypical… You know what that conjures up? A Joel Chandler Harris-type fake “Negro dialect.” And keep in mind that this line appears in a starred review. So are we saying that stereotypical speech from an African-American character is not only okay but highly recommended? Can’t we do better than that?

Booklist goes one step further and drives its starred review home with a feature interview with Charlton-Trujillo entitled “Teeth, Truth and Tenacity.”  In it the author talks about the language she used:  “Right from the jump, I could hear the music of T’s world that hadn’t existed in YA before.” Hadn’t existed in YA before?  That’ll be news to Jacqueline Woodson, Coe Booth, Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, Kekla Magoon, and many more. And any of them might point back to the work of Walter Dean Myers, Virginia Hamilton, and Alice
Childress, whose book A Hero Ain’t Nothin But a Sandwich was published so long ago that I read it as a teen while listening to the Jackson 5. Charlton-Trujillo goes on to explain her invented vernacular:  “Slang can become dated quick, so I had a unique opportunity to incorporate some slang along with a new vernacular.” Suffice it to say that some opportunities are best not taken.

Even though two of the three starred reviews were anonymous, they read to me as evaluations by cultural outsiders. The book is a week or so away from publication and we’re just now beginning to get responses from prominent African-American critics. They see the book completely differently. They are not finding it “[g]raceful, trenchant, moving, and utterly necessary” as the Booklist reviewer did.  They have found it inauthentic, even offensive.

Jennifer Baker and Edi Campbell are offering important insider perspectives that are sadly lacking in the professional journals. White people can and should learn from them. Please read their reviews and think hard about them before you place When We Was Fierce into the hands of a young reader.

Update (July 26, 2016): Zetta Elliott has added her voice on her blog with this essay: Black Voices Matter

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Challenging Accusations of Censorship

Those who fight against censorship in our field are typically hailed for their commitment to intellectual freedom and their defense of the rights of children and teens to read and have access to a wide range of materials.

Those who challenge racism in our field are often vilified, and sometimes accused of being censors.

Last week in his RWW review of There Is a Tribe of Kids, Sam Bloom concluded that “it is not a book I will be personally sharing with (human) kids.” Sam did not say whether he or someone else would or would not purchase it for the library where he works. Still, author Roseanne Parry took Sam’s statement as an “invitation to censorship.”

If you don’t agree with Sam’s or Debbie Reese’s review of the book and their decision not to recommend it, that’s fine. We hope you read and reflected on what they had to say before making up your mind, but no one is demanding you agree with them. It’s a big leap, however, to go from disagreement to the suggestion or accusation of censorship.

It’s time to talk about the idea that critical analysis of a book resulting in the decision not to use or perhaps even purchase that book is censorship. We need to talk about it in theory, and we need to talk about it in practice, and we need to talk about in the context of challenging racism in children’s and young adult literature.

From Theory to Practice

The principles of intellectual freedom are foundational to the work of librarians, and to our lives as citizens.

The work of challenging racism is also foundational to both, critical to the well-being of all citizens and the future of our democracy.

Can these two foundational things coexist? Absolutely, even as we acknowledge it’s not always easy to hold them both in the same hand.

Let’s be honest, however. The principles of intellectual freedom have an uneasy coexistence with many of our daily decisions as librarians. They provide guiding ideals that our profession and our democracy rely on.  But when we put them into practice, the results are extraordinarily varied both across and within individual libraries because the jump from theory to practice is not necessarily clear-cut.  (There is a reason why our profession has both a brief Library Bill of Rights and a lengthy document offering interpretations of its points.)

The Hard Work of Selection

Among the misperceptions our profession struggles against, especially when facing a complaint or challenge, is that the library is either promoting a specific “agenda” or that anything goes when it comes to materials in the collection. In fact, nothing could (or should) be further from either truth.
Selection, as any librarian knows, is—or should be—a thoughtful process grounded in the library’s mission and stated criteria and guidelines for choosing books and other materials. Ideally these are outlined in a board-approved selection policy that affirms intellectual freedom and the Library Bill of Rights.

Selection can’t (or shouldn’t) be done by rote.  It requires holding the entire community a library is serving in one’s mind. It requires abandoning all assumptions about that community and striving to understand its many facets. It requires confronting fear. It requires moving into uncomfortable spaces.  It requires balancing budget considerations and myriad, sometimes competing interests to determine priorities and choices.  And of course, it requires making decisions without seeing most of the books or materials firsthand.

Selection is also a responsibility that is mired in subjectivity no matter how hard we try to avoid it, because it is a human activity. Even if all other factors are accounted for (and they never can be—even a vendor using some sort of algorithm began with human decision-making), even the most conscientious selector brings bias to the work.

Challenging Racism in the Collection

Let’s say a librarian decides not to purchase There Is a Tribe of Kids. Is it censorship?

The answer to that question is: I don’t know. You don’t either. Not without talking to that librarian and understanding the thinking behind the decision. Because that thinking is key. Is critical. And to make a blanket statement calling it censorship without knowing how that librarian came to the decision: whether they considered the book in light of their selection policy guidelines and criteria and in light of their budget and priorities, would be irresponsible.

It’s likely many libraries will purchase this book. But many individual librarians may choose not to highlight or feature it in displays or programming because of their concerns about racist imagery. Is that censorship?

No. In fact, there are many books in library collections that are likely never to disappear, because of popular appeal (the “Little House in the Big Woods” is one example that comes to mind). In truth, we believe it is the responsibility of librarians and educators to be aware of and understand these concerns, starting with popular works that have been around awhile, and NOT to feature or promote them. Let readers find them on their own if they choose.

Back to There Is a Tribe of Kids. Let’s say the book is not purchased by a librarian for a library collection specifically because of concerns it perpetuates stereotypes. Is that censorship?

Again, to make a blanket statement suggesting it’s censorship when a book is rejected without considering the context in which that decision was made is irresponsible. Some libraries, for example, have statements in their policies saying materials should be free of stereotype and bias. (See the comments of our “Not a Contradiction” post from last fall for a few examples of such language.)

And sure, you can argue that whether or not a book perpetuates racist stereotypes is a matter of perception and open to interpretation. And you can argue that library collections will always have things that offend. I can argue those points, too. I believe them. But I’m guessing no one would be up in arms or crying censorship if someone at a tribal library, or at a public library in a community with a large Native population, said they weren’t purchasing the book because of the imagery that’s been called out and questioned. Why should a librarian serving a predominantly White community, or a diverse, multiracial community, be any less concerned with its impact?

Librarians reject books for purchase all the time based on a variety of factors. (And too often, outside of large cities, those factors and the general mindset are weighted against diversity.)  We should be mindful of how we make selection decisions. We should ask questions. But choosing not to purchase a book because of criticism that it perpetuates stereotypes isn’t necessarily the same as choosing not to purchase a book with gay, lesbian, or transgender content out of fear it will be challenged, or because it goes against one’s personal or religious values.  No policy supports fear-based decision making. No policy supports decisions grounded in personal bias. No policy (I hope) supports excluding particular groups from representation in the collection. But neither does any policy prescribe what MUST be purchased.

Collection development is a responsibility that relies on professional judgment and knowledge. And even as we see efforts beginning to address cultural competency among reviewers in professional journals and on selection committees, the fact is that people of color and from First/Native Nations are underrepresented within the traditional structures and systems in which books are created and evaluated. And too many librarians are oblivious to this. Yet if we are to make truly informed collection decisions--if we are to be truly knowledgeable--we need to understand that fact. We need to listen to and consider the voices of people of color and Native critics in forums where they have a voice. Because I can promise you this: kids will never stop “playing Indian” if they continue to see books and images that normalize and even romanticize it.

It isn’t an abandonment of the principles of intellectual freedom if a decision not to purchase an individual book is one made in service to a thoughtful and informed understanding of the library selection policy.

And it isn’t censorship to choose not to share or promote or feature a book that is in the library collection.

We’ve said it before on this blog: the principles of intellectual freedom are paramount to the work we all do, but context matters, and no text is sacred.

Censorship is serious. Racism is serious. Let’s not diminish the hard work of confronting either by brandishing one against the other. Instead, let’s acknowledge that this work being done is messy and complicated and challenging, but also that it needs to be done.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Embracing Discomfort

Ernie Cox
The Reading While White team is jumping for joy this week, because Ernie Cox is joining us.  Ernie works as a Teacher-Librarian in Iowa City and was chair of the 2016 Newbery committee.  Ernie's first post as a Reading While White blogger is below. Welcome to Ernie!

The manuals for book awards administered by The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) were recently updated to include a statement on Diversity and ALSC Media Award Evaluation. It concludes with this passage (the entire statement is available in any of the award manuals at

“As individuals serving on committees evaluate materials according to the criteria outlined for their specific charge, they should strive to be aware of how their own perspectives and experiences shape their responses to materials. Every committee member brings unique strengths to the table, but every committee member also brings gaps in knowledge and understanding, and biases. Committee members are strongly encouraged to be open to listening and learning as well as sharing as they consider materials representing diverse experiences both familiar and unfamiliar to them.”
When my colleagues and friends here at Reading While White invited me to contribute to this blog I wish I could tell you I was filled with excitement. I felt uneasy, perhaps uncomfortable too. What was the source of my discomfort? The professional discourse in children’s literature has shown us that for many good-intentioned folks it is difficult to “be aware of how their own perspectives and experiences shape their responses to materials (children’s literature and media)”.  That includes me. I’ve also heard what can happen when we listen to other perspectives - new insights into our own gaps and biases appear.  I read through the resources on the RWW site to better understand what this blog was all about.  Scanning through Peggy McIntosh’s piece on White privilege I came across this point:

“I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”

That is where the discomfort was for me. I’ve rarely had to speak or write about Whiteness. This might be the ultimate luxury of White privilege - being oblivious to our invisible impact on the world and not needing to say one word about it. Like an award committee’s work, the work of being an ally for a diverse and inclusive profession (and society) is a process.  Unlike an award committee’s work, it is an unfolding process spanning years. A process that will require me to be uncomfortable.  That my discomfort is primarily cognitive is another testament to my privilege. I look forward to getting to know more about myself and others through this blog.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Reviewing While White: There Is a Tribe of Kids

by Sam Bloom

For months now, I’ve been thinking about the dynamic in the children’s lit world centered around whether you can be a fan of an author/illustrator’s work and still be able to look critically at their books. (We saw this at work last fall when beloved illustrator Sophie Blackall caught heat for her illustrations in Emily Jenkins’s A Fine Dessert.) I started (and scrapped) several attempts at a blog post on the subject, until one day in June when I found that Zetta Elliott had brilliantly and succinctly said everything I had ever wanted to say about this phenomenon:

I love my friends. At times, I gush about my friends because they’re brilliant and creative and inspiring. But I am not a “fan” of my friends, and when a librarian comes up to me to express her appreciation for my books, I don’t think of her as a “fangirl.” To me, fans are not in their right mind—they’re fanatics! Their enthusiasm and excitement overwhelm their ability to think critically, and THAT can be a real problem when your job is to objectively evaluate and acquire books.

YES! Especially that last sentence. It’s so very true that those of us in this relatively small (and tight-knit) children’s book world have to strike a balance between celebrating the creators of the books we love while also (a) thinking about what the books are saying about the world, and how that affects young readers, and (b) holding the creators of the book accountable when things go wrong.

Which brings us to Lane Smith’s latest picture book, There Is a Tribe of Kids (Roaring Brook, 2016). I’m guessing you don’t need an introduction to Smith’s work; suffice it to say his books (especially his collaborations with Jon Scieszka) are perennial favorites that I still return to frequently. (By the way, as much as I love Scieszka he hasn’t always been the most culturally sensitive writer; see Debbie Reese’s take on the unfortunate Me Oh Maya, an entry in the Time Warp Trio series.) The “enthusiasm and excitement” that Zetta mentioned above are definitely there for me when it comes to Lane Smith’s books.
But when this title (along with the book cover) flashed across the screen at a Macmillan publishing preview event this past January, I immediately grew leery. It was really the combination of the title, with its use of the word “Tribe” in an obviously playful way, and the shots of the (human) kids from the title on the last two spreads. Minh Lê touches on this unfortunate juxtaposition in his review in the New York Times Book Review: “Some readers may detect something ill-advised, if not sadly familiar, in its echoes of the longstanding trope in children’s literature that uses Native imagery or “playing Indian” to signify wildness, especially since the word ‘tribe’ is so central to this often captivating book.”

I understand that “tribe” can be used in reference to a group of goat kids. Smith sets this up in the first few spreads when the human “kid” protagonist is left behind by a group of young goats, the other “kids” from the title. It’s a clever bit of wordplay, but “tribe” is a loaded term, and to me the repartee falls flat. (Ill talk more about this later; for now I highly recommend you stop and read this Teaching Tolerance piece, The Trouble with Tribe, before you continue. It’s worth it.) Smith shows the child protagonist using play to connect with his new “tribe,” happy to be included. As Lê  writes, “Within the confines of the book, this is a heartwarming finale.”

IMG_2880.JPGBUT. Take a look at the detail on the left; it comes from the book’s penultimate spread, a visually stunning wonderland that is equal parts Swiss Family Robinson and the Lost Boys from Peter Pan. And yes, it does make for a sweet ending within the confines of this book. But a child of Native/First Nations will not experience this story and these illustrations (kids with feathers or distinctly feather-shaped leaves sticking out from their heads, living a simple, primitive life) “within the confines of the book.” Children of Native/First Nations live in a world that oppresses and colonizes them and has done so for hundreds of years. And here we have a book that implies that it is okay to play “Indian,” to costume one’s self in Native dress, and the bottom line is that this is NOT okay.

I believe that Smith’s intention here was to create a kind of childhood utopia, with the giant treehouse and the lack of adult intervention and the closeness to nature and all of that; a paean to being a kid. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that! But looking back at the aforementioned piece from Teaching Tolerance, which reads in part, “To be in a tribal state is to live in an uncomplicated, traditional condition,” it gets a bit thorny. By creating the primitive scene as a sort of unspoiled, unevolved mini-society, Smith is reinforcing the age-old stereotype which led to (again quoting from Teaching Tolerance) “the concept of tribe [as] a cornerstone for European colonial rule in Africa.” And again I’ll harken back to one of Lê’s comments: using “tribe” in the title was certainly “ill-advised.”

But here’s the thing: Lê’s mixed review of the book is the exception to the rule, as There Is a Tribe of Kids has garnered 4 starred reviews to date and sits at 2nd place in the Goodreads Mock Caldecott voting. As most reviewers are White, this brings up some questions. Are we all too enamored with Lane Smith to see the problems here? To return to Zetta Elliott’s earlier point, are we able to “think critically” about and “objectively evaluate” books when they are created by someone we greatly admire? If it wasn’t Lane Smith’s name on the front cover, could we more easily see the problems inherent in There Is a Tribe of Kids? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that this is a book that I personally won’t be sharing with (human) kids.