Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Coming in September: Spotlight on #OwnVoices

Here at Reading While White we are approaching our first anniversary, and we've decided to celebrate by focusing on the positive for the month of September. Rather than talking about what's wrong in children's and YA books, we're going to talk about what's right. We want to shine the spotlight on some of the amazing books that have been written by authors and artists of color and Native authors and illustrators.

We've been inspired by Dr. Ebony Thomas and her graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania who've tweeted daily book recommendations under the tag #HealingFictions as part of their Humanizing Stories project.  We've also been inspired by Corinne Duyvis who created the #OwnVoices hashtag to recommend books with diverse characters created by authors and illustrators from the same diverse group.

The RWW team is committed to posting a review each day during the month of September of a book we highly recommend that represents #OwnVoices. Most of them will be new books, but we'll also include a few that have been around a while.

There are a lot of great #OwnVoices books out there that we want to shine a spotlight on.  We hope you will be inspired to find these books, check them out, buy them, read them, talk about them, and share them with the children and teens in your lives.  And don't do it just because these books represent diversity. Do it because they're great books!

Friday, August 26, 2016

When We Was Fierce - Rounding Up the Links

Candlewick's decision to pull e.E. Charlton-Trujillo's young adult novel When We Was Fierce days before its publication date has lots of people talking. Below you'll find a collection of links to the many discussions surrounding the situation. Meanwhile, the book recently received its fourth starred review (from the Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books) and a favorable review from VOYA.

Getting Down. Getting Over. - Edi Campbell, Crazy QuiltEdi

(Australian author) Ambelin Kwaymullina - guest post on the Alpha Reader blog

The Getdown and When We Was Fierce - Latinas Chat Media (featuring Maria Nieto, Linda Nieves-Powell, Sophia Quintero, and J.F. Seary; starts near the 40-minute mark)

On Choosing Texts for Students - Millie Davis, NCTE blog

So You Bought A Racist Book For Your Library: Now What? - Angie Manfredi, Reading While White

When We Was Fierce + A Birthday Cake for George Washington + A Fine Dessert... - Debbie Reese, American Indians in Children's Literature

What Does When We Was Fierce Mean for Latinx Kids? - Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, guest post on Crazy QuiltEdi

Can You Hear Us Now? - Edi Campbell, Crazy QuiltEdi

The Rocky Unpaved Roads of Good Intentions - Ibi Zoboi, guest post on Reading While White

Black Voices Matter - Zetta Elliott

When Whiteness Dominates Reviews - KT Horning, Reading While White

Review: When We Was Fierce - Edi Campbell, Crazy QuiltEdi

Guest Review: When We Was Fierce - Jennifer Baker, guest post on Crazy QuiltEdi

You can also see discussion regarding When We Was Fierce on twitter by searching #jivefierce.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Reviewing While White: Mary Jemison, Native American Captive.

By Ernie Cox

Whiteness is difficult to see and talk about for many of us (White people) because we know it by another name – “normal”.
In The Racial Contract Charles W. Mills explains how the White normative view is established and maintained: “…what it requires to achieve Whiteness successfully, to become a White person, is a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities.”  
In the new Based on a True Story series from Macmillan, the White point of view is the lens through which young readers experience the timeline of United States history. The decision to contract this series with a single White author has ensured a series that will only strengthen the dominant White narrative of U.S. history while ignoring the realities and perspective of people of color and members of the First/Native Nations. By way of example, we will review one volume (which to date has not been reviewed in professional journals) in this series – Mary Jemison: Native American Captive by E.F. Abbott.
The book opens in 1743 with Mary Jemison’s pregnant mother making the transatlantic voyage to America. The passengers are weary:
“Thirty days. And still no land in sight”
“Why did we want to go to America?”
“What will we find there”
“Land to call our own”
“Wild savages”
“Freedom” (page 2)
By 1758 Mary and her siblings are helping to tend the family homestead in central Pennsylvania.  “Travelers from western Pennsylvania told frightening stories. More and more colonists were attacked by savages”  (page 6).  In his scholarship about Whiteness, Mills details how the dichotomy of savage (in this case First Nations) and civilized person (Europeans) is constructed around the description of space:
“Europeans, or at least full Europeans, were ‘civilized’ and this condition was manifested in the character of the spaces they inhabited”  (pg 42, Racial Contract). Those spaces included the cities of Europe, the colonial towns, and the settlements.  Abbott devotes time to detailing how Mary’s family toiled to make the land civilized.

“The family had worked hard to make their farm. They cut down trees and pulled stumps. They built a house and barn. They had fields for crops, meadows where lambs and calves could wander, and an orchard dotted with pink apple blossoms.” (pg 4).
“NonEuropeans were ‘savages’ and this condition was manifested in the character of the spaces they inhabited”  (pg 42, Racial Contract). The White narrator of Jemison’s story foreshadows the danger: “A savage would be silent.” “A savage would creep quietly through the woods – until, at the very last moment, he would whoop the death yell” (pg 8).
Mary wants to escape the the frontier and move to Philadelphia. “Let the wild animals and wild people have these woods”.  The narrator repeatedly equates First/Native Nations people to animals.   The Shawnee men who arrive at the Jemison’s farm  “were desperate with hunger – like bears waking up from their hibernation starving and cross”  (pg 21).
In selecting Jemison’s story as a way to explore the colonization of North America, Abbott inevitably casts First/Native Nations people as aggressors.  According to the author’s note, the major source of information for this book was A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison by James E. Seaver in 1823. Seaver wrote the book based on interviews with Jemison. Abbott found that many dates in Jemison’s recollection were inaccurate, but the larger problem with Abbott’s book is that the entire narrative of colonisation is through the eyes of a White person.  Even the version of the Seneca creation story was taken from Seneca Indian Myths by Jeremiah Curtin, a White folklorist.   

We can find no source information to indicate that Abbott contacted or read the accounts about Mary or the larger social history of the Seneca Nation by anyone other than White scholars of a different era. Today’s young readers will be little more enlightened than Mary was in the late 18th century. Several images are included in Abbott’s book to provide context for the historical period.  Among them is this image from the Library of Congress. Note the caption on the original.

Montcalm trying to stop the massacre.jpg

Abbott captions this image as “A wood engraving of Native Americans attacking the British during the French and Indian War.”  Images and text work together to establish the members of the Seneca tribe as the aggressors.  
After Mary is taken away by Shawnee men and sold to members of the Seneca Nation she begins to understand more about the First Nations.
“The Six Nations have signed a treaty with the Yengeese at Easton” Jako-ki said
“Six Nations?” Mary said
“Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, Cayuga, Tuscarora, and Seneca,” Jako-ki said.
The Seneca women go on to explain how many treaties have been broken. Mary recalls her father describing the First/Native Nations as savages who “didn’t deserve the land because they didn’t farm or build houses.” “Now Mary knew differently. She slept in a bark house. She ate the corn the tribes grew” (pg 94).  What Mary doesn’t realize and readers are not told is that “The Seneca were the largest of six Native American nations which comprised the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations, a democratic government that pre-dates the United States Constitution.”  https://sni.org/culture/

Nina posted a few months back about In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall.  In that review she talks about the refreshingly different perspective provided in that story, which is grounded in a First/ Native Nations point of view. The “Indian Captive” narrative has a long history in children’s literature. Lois Lenski won a 1942 Newbery Honor for her book Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison. Why is it that over 70 years after Lenski’s book the same narrative (albeit poorly written and researched compared to Lenski) of White superiority over First/Native Nations is still being published? Most libraries are well stocked with narrative voices such as Abbott.  Mary Jemison: Native American Captive does nothing to enlarge the scope of children’s literature. If the complete story of North America is to be told publishers need to seek out stories by more First/Native Nation authors.  Mary’s story ends in her old age explaining her history (and by extension the story of the Seneca) to White kids who live nearby.  The Based on a True Story series leaves contemporary kids in the same position - dependent on the White normative view to understand U.S history.  

Thursday, August 18, 2016

On White Fragility, by Guest Blogger Justine Larbalestier

Author Justine Larbalestier. Photo by Niki Bern.
Why do we white people hate talking about race?

My theory is that it makes us feel like we are the baddies. A notion we recoil from because we have been taught all our lives that white people are the goodies. So many of our stories are about us saving (some part of) the world from racism and exploitation: Dances with Wolves, The Help, Avatar (some other world) etc. All too often in these stories, as in probably the most famous example, To Kill a Mockingbird, we're also the baddies doing the terrible things but that's okay because we're the white saviours.

The story we often tell ourselves about white colonialism is that we saved the "savages" from their brutish, cannibalistic lives by giving them Christianity and civilization. 
We tend to edit out our "gifts" of small pox, massacres, slavery, and the fact that the vast bulk of verifiable incidents of cannibalism were committed by white people. *Cough* Donner party.

Coming to terms with the fact that, not only are we not the goodies, that historically we are, in fact, the big bad is not easy. Nor is realising that individually we white people can, and frequently do, hurt people on a daily basis because we don't think about how our whiteness smooths our path for us while flattening others.

When we are called on our (usually) unthinking racist statements and acts we tend to fall apart. All too often other white people rally around to tell us that the problem is not what we’ve said or done—nope, it's those mean people calling us on it.

“I'm a good person. I can't be racist.”

This spectacle is called white fragility.

It doesn't have to be that way. We white people can get out of our own way.

Here's what I do when a Person of Colour or an Indigenous person calls me out (in the non-­duelling sense):

1. Assume they're speaking in good faith because they know more about racism than I do. Too many of us whites are convinced we know more about racism than the people who actually experience it. We don't. Even those of us with PhDs on the subject.  Someone saying something mean about us because we're white is not the same as systemic racism.

2. Listen. That uncomfortable feeling? I've learnt that it's a good thing. I no longer run away from it.

3. Learn. This is the part where I figure out why the criticism is making me feel uncomfortable. Always remembering that feeling uncomfortable is nothing compared to being subjected to racism. Discomfort isn't lethal.

4. Assume that the calling out is not about me but about making the world a less racist, more equitable place.

5. Do what I can to make the world a less racist, more equitable place. Obviously, this is the hardest part.

Ways white writers can make the world (or publishing, at least) a less racist, more equitable place:

To help diversify YA, we white authors can support Indigenous authors and Authors of Color by reading their books, recommending their books, blurbing their books, and recommending them to our agents. When we're invited to conferences, or festivals, or to be in anthologies, make sure they're not majority white. We need to make more space for People of Colour and Indigenous people in our very white publishing industry.

These are by far the most important things we can do personally to increase diversity.

However, I keep seeing white authors getting hung up on whether white people are allowed to write from points of view not our own. Spoiler: we're allowed. No one is stopping us. Will doing so make YA more diverse? No, it won't.

Obsessing over that question has little to do with making YA a more diverse genre and everything to do with centering the concerns of white authors. A more important contribution to making YA more diverse would be to stop obsessing about it. Yes, we were taught by To Kill a Mockingbird that racism can be solved by a well-intentioned white person saving the day, but maybe it's time to say goodbye to that more­-than­-fifty­-years-­old model.

Recently I've said I'm going to focus on writing white main characters in my single point of view novels. That's a personal decision. I've not told anyone else to do likewise.  This decision is also not much of a contribution to diversifying YA. It's about my journey grappling with my whiteness and racism and fragility.

My name is Justine Larbalestier and I'm white and fragile.

For too long time I believed in being a white saviour. I thought that by writing from the point of view of a Person of Colour I was helping make YA more diverse. I was helping YA's diverse readership see themselves represented. There were so few books for them! I was supplying the lack! I was doing good!

For years the response to my books—glowing reviews, award nominations, fan letters from People of Colour—supported my belief that I was doing good.

I had read critiques of the white saviour complex but was sure they didn't apply to me. But one day in early 2009 a black woman blogger wrote a critique of my novel Liar.

Liar has a black teen protagonist. The blogger wrote that the book hurt her, that it was full of painful tropes, and that she would not read anything else I wrote unless it was not about People of Colour because I could not be trusted with the stories of anyone who isn't white. Further, that she wasn't going to read any more books with PoC protags by white people because we always get it wrong.

I felt like I'd been punched.

It was the most painful criticism any of my books had ever received and I've had reviews call for my books to be burnt and me to be slapped.

I sent the critique to several friends so they could reassure me she was wrong.

Yes, in the face of someone literally stating she had been hurt by the racist tropes in my book, all I wanted was reassurance. I thought my hurt feelings were more important than her actual pain.

That right there is white fragility.

I'd love to tell you that I understood that at the time. I didn't.

I knew enough not to say anything publicly. I just moaned to my friends.

Not long afterwards people started realising that the cover of Liar had been whitewashed. That particular blogger wrote brilliant critiques of the whitewashing. She was one of the many voices who helped get the cover changed. I continued to follow her work online and found myself agreeing with the majority of it.

Which only made her criticism burn more. She was right about so many other things, did that mean she wasn't wrong about my book? I wanted to believe she was wrong. My friends had told me she was. Besides, she'd gotten several details of the plot wrong. Clearly her anger blinded her. It was an angry, disgusted, sarcastic review.  She used the word "ugh" a lot. She wasn't being reasonable.

I ignored the critique and went on to write (with Sarah Rees Brennan) yet another book with a PoC main character, Team Human. This time the protagonist was Chinese ­American. There were no critiques from well­-known bloggers. I saw one or two reviews on Good Reads by Chinese ­American reviewers who had problems with it. But it got great trade reviews! Lots of other Chinese ­American readers loved it!

I kept thinking about that review. More and more blog posts and articles were appearing about the lack of PoC and Indigenous writers in YA and the need for diversity.  The conversation was starting to shift from merely being about representation. There was growing talk about who wrote those trade reviews, who gave out those awards. Overwhelmingly white people.

I'm not sure when it happened but sometime in the last few years, amidst the growth of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices, I started to realise that blogger was right. Of course she was right. Liar had hurt her. I had hurt her. More than that, I finally realised her critique was not about me. It wasn't all that much about my book, either.

She was explaining what it's like to read books by white people that purport to be about people like her, that arrogantly trample on her lived experience, without a thought as to how that affects her. She was saying she'd had enough. She didn't trust white writers like me. And why should she?

We white people tend to judge books individually and not within the wider context of systemic racism. PoC and Indigenous readers don't have that luxury. They can't step outside their lived experience. The racism in one particular book might seen mild—or even invisible—to white me, but for the PoC reader who has been bombarded with those tropes over and over and over again, it's too much.

Her critique showed me how high the stakes are.

Before I read her critique I had never seriously considered the harm I could cause writing PoC and Indigenous characters.

Her angry, disgusted, sarcastic critique was what finally got through to me.

The fact that it took me so long to hear what she was saying also made me realise that there is no way to talk about white privilege or racism that doesn't get heard by many white people as an attack. Even if she had written her critique in a nice way I'd still have felt gut-­punched.

Frankly, back when I first read that critique I'd read hundreds of books and articles about white privilege, white supremacy, appropriation, diversity, racism. Most of them written very nicely indeed with nary an angry word. I'd not thought any of them had much to do with me because I was sure that I'm one of the good ones. Like that nice white lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird who saves the day.

Frankly, her anger got through to me more effectively than if she had been nice.


I reread that critique while writing this essay. Here's the thing: it wasn't that angry or sarcastic. It was more sad and disappointed.

It sounded angry to me back then because I didn't want to think about how my books weren't helping YA to become diverse. I didn't want to think about how I was part of the problem. I wasn't ready to listen so I heard it as angry yelling.

Until we white writers are ready to listen, until we're ready to accept that, yes, we are a part of systemic racism, yes, we benefit from white supremacy, it doesn't matter what the tone is, we won't be able to hear or understand what's being said.

A big part of why we find it so hard to listen is that we whites are rarely taught about race. Unless we're very lucky, our parents don't sit us down and explain it. Our teachers mostly don't either. Most of us have not been prepared to think or talk about race. As a result most of us will literally do anything we can to avoid talking about it.

This feeling that we're the baddies is so uncomfortable we change the subject as soon as possible.

Or, just as bad, we follow through on naive notions about how we can fix it. You know, like writing a nice book about a good white lawyer who tries to save a black person from being jailed for a crime they didn't commit because they've been framed by a bad white person and now racism is over. Yay! A white man once told me that was the most important novel ever written about race. He wasn't joking.

We white people have much unlearning to do. Step one: throw away the myth of the white saviour. Let other communities speak for themselves.

Note: Thank you, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Scott Westerfeld and Doselle Young for your feedback on earlier drafts of this essay. All remaining infelicities of expression and unclarity are mine all mine. I'd also like to thank Edi Campbell and Debbie Reese for their amazing blogs. They are two of the best resources out there on YA, Children's Literature and representation of PoC and Indigenous people. For some of the other people who have shaped my thinking on these issues check out the people I follow on Twitter.

Although the single point of view novels I write now have white main characters they are not all-­white books. I don't live in an all-white ­world so I don't write all­-white books. The books I'm working on that have multiple point of view characters are also not all-white.

I didn't name the blogger I discuss above because she critiqued my book without naming it. She did that because she was tired of white people yelling at her every time she critiqued a book for being racist. I wasn't about to point more of them in her direction.

Justine Larbalestier is an Australian-American author of eight novels. Her most recent, My Sister Rosa, is about a seventeen-year-old boy whose ten-year-old sister is a psychopath. It was published in February by Allen and Unwin in Australia and New Zealand and will be out in North America in November published by Soho Press. Her previous novel is Razorhurst, which takes place on a winter’s day in 1932 when Dymphna Campbell, a gangster’s moll, and Kelpie, a street urchin who can see ghosts, meet over the dead body of Dymphna’s latest lover, Jimmy Palmer.  Her most popular novel, Liar, is kind of self explanatory, i.e. it’s about a liar. She edited Zombies versus Unicorns with Holly Black. Her other novels include How to Ditch Your Fairy and the Magic or Madness trilogy.

Ed. 6/20/20 by Allie: Due to too much spam, I'm closing the comments on this post. If you want to leave a comment here, email us: readingwhilewhite@gmail.com

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Interview: Renée Watson talks Langston Hughes, I, Too, Arts Collective, gentrification, and more.

Author and I, Too, Arts Collective Founder Renée Watson

Reading While White is delighted to be joined by Renée Watson, founder of I, Too, Arts Collective, today.  Below, RWW team member Allie Jane Bruce interviews Renée.

Allie: Congratulations on launching this initiative!  How did it happen?  Did you just pick up the phone one day and say to the owner, "I want to turn this brownstone into a space for poets”?

Renée: Believe it or not, it really did happen that way. Only before the phone call, I had been thinking about how I really wanted to see that space used for something meaningful in the community.

I have been thinking this for many years now and the more Harlem changes, the more urgency I felt to do something. So before making the phone call, I had a proposal together and had thought out a whole businesses plan—you know, the practical stuff.

Once I shared my vision with the person who owns it, she was very moved and agreed to give us till the end of August to raise money for the lease.

Did you and she talk about the gentrification happening in Harlem?  Is that a motivating force for both of you?

Yes, we’ve talked a lot about gentrification and our hope to preserve this space instead of seeing it become overpriced condos.

For me, gentrification is very complicated. I appreciate not having to go across town to get healthy food options, I’m the first person in line for a good brunch, and as a writer I spend a lot of time in coffee shops working.  I enjoy shopping at trendy stores but I am not for erasing a people’s history, pushing them out so that they can’t afford to live in their neighborhood, their home. This is one of the reasons why I started I, Too, Arts Collective.
Watson's YA novel This Side of Home
is about twins who have different
reactions to the gentrification impacting
their Portland neighborhood.

As I’ve toured the nation on a book tour sharing This Side of Home with young people, I’ve heard countless stories of communities being dismantled, of local and cultural histories being erased. I hope that restoring Langston’s home can be a way of reclaiming space, a way to ensure that Harlem’s literary history—Black literary history—will be preserved.

So, yes, it is about standing up against gentrification. But my other motivation is about providing a space for people of color and people from marginalized communities to have a haven to create and tell their stories. Our stories matter and so many people try to speak for us, try to come in and “give us a voice."  I, Too, Arts Collective is not about giving a voice but providing a space for young and emerging artists, as well as professional artists, to share and develop the artistic voice they already have. To put on record for themselves where they come from. Inspired by Langston’s body of work, we hope to encourage people to not shy away from the pain or only write about the joy, but to create art in response to it all.

When I read Langston Hughes, I'm struck by how much of the social issues present in his work are front and center in the USA today.   I'm thinking especially of his (out of print) book Black Misery, which was from a child’s point of view.  For example:

"Misery is when you heard / on the radio that the neighborhood / you live in is a slum but / you always thought it was home."

And also: "Misery is when you start to help an old white lady across the street and she thinks you're trying to snatch her purse" and "Misery is when the taxi cab won't stop for your mother and she says a bad word."

What do you think Langston Hughes would be writing about today, if he were alive?

I think he'd be writing the same kind of poems he wrote back then—poems about Black lives and how they matter. Poems that humanize otherness. I have been reading his poems, as well as poems by Lucille Clifton a lot lately. They are keeping my spirit intact, keeping me from wallowing in sorrow and frustration. There is sadness in their work, yes, but there is also an unapologetic pride and joy there too. There’s a truth telling, a rebuking, an honoring, and a love that Langston writes with. When I teach him in the classroom, I ask young people to think about how they can also be recorders, responders, rebukers, rejoicers and rebuilders of their world through art. I encourage them to compare and contrast the times we are in now and the times that Langston lived through—what’s changed, what’s the same? How far have we come, what more do we need to do?

I love how you crystalize these ideas: "to compare and contrast the times we are in now and the times that Langston lived through—what’s changed, what’s the same? How far have we come, what more do we need to do?" Will you make it an explicit part of your goal at I, Too, Arts Collective to feature poets who are "recorders, responders, rebukers, rejoicers and rebuilders" pondering these questions?

Absolutely. Our summer intensive program will be a social justice and art program. Participants will create art (writing, visual, and performance pieces) in response to a social issue they care about.

This is not to say that we won’t also teach the craft of writing poetry. I think it’s important that both craft and social awareness are nurtured. I want our young people to create from a place of passion and skill. I also believe that besides the artistic and creative component of our workshops, we are building world citizens of the 21st century. The need for critical thinking skills and empathy are crucial. Through art making, I believe young  people can develop and practice life skills that will help to create the world in which we want to live. So even if our young people never become professional artists, the life skills that the arts impart and cultivate, to me, are just as important. I say this often, but I really do believe that artists are problem solvers—we understand what it means to revise, to start over even. With each project we work the muscle of perseverance and commit to seeing something until the end. This means that every artist knows that change is sometimes slow. That progress needs to be revisited, reassessed. That there is always work that can be done. In our workshops, we’ll talk explicitly about this relationship between our art making and our activism.

Before moving on—I want to stress that I do intend for the space to be fun and full of laughter. Sometimes when we talk about social justice and art, it takes on a heaviness. And yes, there is a time to think critically and challenge the system.

There is also a time to celebrate and honor unsung heroes, to reflect on what’s beautiful, what’s worthy of praise. That’s what I love about Langston’s body of work. It is not hopeless even though it speaks of struggle. There’s joy there, there’s an intentional and calculated hope. That, too, is the legacy we want to continue.

How can people support I, Too, Arts Collective?

We’ve launched a fundraising campaign and I’d like to invite people to get involved by giving what they can. We’re accepting donations starting at $5+ and there’s a variety of perks when you give. You can check out our campaign page here and see our launch video below.

Another way to support us is to spread the word and keep up with our progress by following the hashtag #LangstonsLegacy or following us on Twitter: @ITooArts

Renée, thank you so much for launching this project, and for taking the time to talk with us!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

So You Bought A Racist Book For Your Library: Now What?

My library still has Little House on the Prairie. Several copies, in fact.

We have them even though I know how racist and inaccurate they are. And I still buy new copies when the old ones wear out.  I bet it’s the same at your library.  These are part of the compromises we make when we work in libraries.  Often in online discussions, you’ll hear some librarians or authors make it seem like if you recognize racist and problematic content in books you must be the kind of librarian who pulls those titles from your shelves and tears them up in front of your patrons.  But there’s so much more nuance in these situations and that, of course, makes them difficult. Librarian's reactions to the Little House range from  wanting to remove them to finding ways to teach with them.  

Even though my library has several copies of Little House on the Prairie we also have several copies of The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. I often get to share with people checking out Little House my love for Birchbark and how I think they make wonderful companion reads. More than once I have seen parents and kids head back to the shelves and check out The Birchbark House to go along with Little House.  Is this a perfect solution?  Of course not.  But it’s a direct one with often immediate results.  It’s the kind of solution I don’t think I’ve ever heard from the crowd of naysayers who chime in with “Wow, when did we get so POLITICALLY CORRECT!” and “Wow, I guess you don’t believe in intellectual freedom!” in online discussions, blog comments, and sometimes even in person at conferences and workshops.

I have been reminded of this example and these encounters time and again as people brought up justified concerns about books from A Fine Dessert to the more recent When We Was Fierce. I have seen many librarians who were unaware of the problematic content of these titles who now find themselves at a loss for what to do now that these books are on their shelves.  Many librarians pre-ordered When We Was Fierce based on the starred reviews it received from three major publications.  As of this writing, Candlewick has put the book on hold, so that e. E. Charlton-Trujillo could “allow herself a further review of the text.” But many librarians already ordered it.  The question I’ve heard over and over is “I’ve got this thing, now what?”

Megan did an amazing job writing about accusations of censorship in a library setting and I urge all librarians wrestling with this question to take the time to read it and consider how it applies to their library and their collection development. Like Megan, I am not giving you prescriptive advice on, “Do this or else you’re a bad librarian!” But I think there are some issues here worth taking a deeper, more considerate look at.  

First: if you did, in fact, pre-order When We Was Fierce I ask you to really ask yourself why.  Did you just look at three starred reviews and then look no farther? Did none of the sampled dialogue in the reviews make you somewhat wary?  The Publishers Weekly review quotes this dialogue: “Jive brothers rolled in hard./ They walked intent.... I didn't want nuthin' to do with their truth.” Jive brothers? Nuthin’? Does that sound to you like the way contemporary African-American teens talk?  Honestly? The Kirkus review quotes these phrases: "He wanna have speak" and "We all held our wait." When I read those reviews a bell in the back of my head instantly started ringing.  It sounded, to me, like a Saturday Night Live sketch - the imagined and deliberately simplistic way someone who is not familiar with it might think African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) sounds.
Read the reviews for When We Was Fierce closer.  There are more warning signs.  In Booklist’s starred review there is an allusion made to the “semi-invented vernacular” but there is no deeper look at what that means. When I read that I wondered: “Why does the author feel a need to invent a vernacular when AAVE already exists?  Is it because the author can’t actually converse in AAVE and doesn’t understand code-switching while using it?” (Edith Campbell touches on code-switching and how it relates to this book in her review.) These were warning signs to me.  

What else was troubling? This line from Kirkus’s review: “Only the free verse's frequent apostrophes connoting a dropped letter are stereotypical and distancing.”  How could someone write this, I wondered, and still give the book a positive review?  How could Kirkus still star this book? If you read a professional review, even one that is starred, even one that is overall positive, and it mentions something is both “frequent” and “stereotypical and distancing” that should give you at least a moment or two of pause when it comes to purchasing.  Do you have the money in your budget and the room on your shelves for a book with a flaw that major?  

What To Do First

So the first thing we can do, as purchasers and librarians who work in collection development, is be more deliberate and wary when we read reviews. Often, we are asked to just look at the stars or even gloss over the content of the reviews. Who has the time to read ALL the reviews?  I know our time is at a premium - I do collection development too and am a final selector - but it’s important, it’s necessary to be critical even of sources that are supposed to be critical themselves. This takes time and it is on us.  And it’s worth it. Ask yourself hard questions: Does this sound true?  Does this sound complete? What biases do these sources bring to this review?  What knowledge or experience is lacking from it? That onus IS on us; that IS what curating a collection deliberately and thoughtfully means.

But what if you did order When We Was Fierce (or A Birthday Cake for George Washington, which actually had negative professional reviews so you were given some warning before ordering) and it’s been shipped and processed and is on your library shelves as you read this? I can’t tell you if you should pull it from your shelves or not.  That’s a decision you have to make based on reviewing the material yourself and your own collection development policies.  I would ask, however, that in both the case of When We Was Fierce and A Birthday Cake for George Washington you consider that the publishers have said these books are not ready to be sold.  That is not insignificant.  I would also urge you to take some time and actually review the material yourself - not just rely on the reviews (negative or positive) - and then think about how your patrons might react and interact with such work and about what messages that sends them about the library as a welcoming place for all. Once you have looked at it, read it yourself with a truly critical eye, listened to the voices of people like Jenn Baker and Edith Campbell and Zetta Elliott and Ibi Zoboi and Kwame Alexander: would you still purchase it? If the answer to that is no - if the answer to that is no and you know that the publisher and the author have chosen to postpone the book so it isn’t released in the form you have then yes, that might be a legitimate reason for you to withdraw it.  

As you consider When We Was Fierce on your shelves, I also ask you to think of the Publishers Weekly review that says it “gives voice to the unheard.” Why that line?  Because it is so very, very wrong.  It is wrong to assume that this book is an authentic representation of the voices of African-American teens.  And it is wrong to assume these voices are not part of YA and children’s lit - they are and always have been.  While these voices might be marginalized within YA and children’s lit it is on us, as educators and librarians, to change that. And we can.  We can do it up spotlighting and booktalking and putting face out on our shelves the books that have authentic and humane diverse voices and experiences.  Are these voices “unheard” because they don’t exist or because the majority culture simply refuses to listen?

You can show you are listening by making sure your collection has more than just When We Was Fierce or Little House on the Prairie.  And be ready to booktalk those titles and promote them to your patrons. We can listen and we can push forward with truth. That’s what you can do now and always.


He Said, She Said by Kwame Alexander

Tyrell, Bronxwood, and Kendra by Coe Booth

A Wish Before Midnight and The Door at the Crossroads by Zetta Elliott

See No Color by Shannon Gibney

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Show and Prove by Sofia Quintero

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds (everything by Jason Reynolds, to be honest.)

Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia

After Tupac and D Foster and Miracle’s Boys by Jacqueline Woodson

Literally anything Walter Dean Myers wrote, I mean. Come on.