Saturday, October 29, 2016

Seeing Myself in Books (and Book Character Parades)

This post mentions Halloween, so if you celebrate the holiday and are planning on dressing up, here’s a reminder to reflect on your costume and how your “fun” might come at the expense of others. 

When I think about Halloween, I am reminded of a chapter in Debby Irving’s Waking Up White where she describes a conflict in her then-school community about their Halloween parade tradition. Irving learned that Halloween is troubling and spiritually harmful to members of her school community; to many parents, the parade presented deep conflict when their children wanted to participate in it. Their feedback was brought to a school committee, and everyone worked together to start a new, more inclusive tradition, ending the parade but recreating “the feel-good, spirit-building vibe the parade had once delivered.” Instead, students dressed as beloved book characters and held a parade on Dr. Seuss’s birthday in March to celebrate Read Across America Day. (In case you’re wondering, this story is in chapter 25 of Irving’s book. If you haven’t read it, I recommend doing that NOW.) 

Thanks to social media, I’ve seen many schools host book character parades during October and throughout the school year. While I’ve never walked in a book-specific costume parade before, I love a good literary costume. As someone who does celebrate Halloween, whenever I dress up I try (youth librarian that I am) to go with a kidlit theme. This year, I’m going to be Hilda from Luke Person’s comics and soon-to-be Netflix series.

I’ve noticed something about my book costume choices over the years. Every character has been White like me—except when I was Toad from Frog and Toad (by Arnold Lobel, a White author-illustrator). When I think of potential children’s book costumes, most of the human options are of White characters because in children’s books, most of the human characters are White, and most of the other (non-human) characters are by White creators. My experience is the reflection-heavy disco ball side of the illustration by David Huyck presented through Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen’s blog:
While I as a White person have options, options, and more options about children’s book character costumes that reflect and affirm that aspect of my identity, not everyone has that same privilege. (I should note that this lack of diversity isn’t exclusive to race. In Australia, for example, librarian Ozge Alkan worked with author Hazel Edwards and illustrator Serena Geddes to create Hijabi Girl after Alkan’s students, sick of dressing as Little Red Riding Hood for their book parades, were looking for a young character in a hijab to dress up as.)

I brainstormed characters by People of Color/First Nations authors who might make an appearance at book character parades this year: CJ & Nana, Ling and Ting, Niño, Super Indian, Sparrowboy, Marisol McDonald, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern...the list goes on. Have these characters ever crossed my mind as costume options for me? If so, what held me back from dressing up? Was it fear or caution so as not to offend people by appropriating a culture or claiming an #OwnVoices character for myself? Was it worry that people wouldn’t recognize me given the differences in how that character looks and my own appearance?  Did I wonder, subconsciously, if those books were somehow not “visible” or “classic” enough for people to “get” my costume without explanation? Was I just choosing a character that was easy and comfortable for me to see myself as? While there is an art to selecting and creating a memorable costume, “classic” is problematic and “visible” is too often a measure of marketing budgets or perceived majority interests, which don’t always lean in favor of diverse, inclusive books and series. Is it possible, in the right context, for a White person to respectfully dress up as a character with a different racial identity? (People in the cosplay community have discussed this and more after some cosplayers altered their skin color while dressing up.)

If a character is not identified right away, a costume is one way to start a conversation and spread the news about great books. And how often have I seen (or perhaps expected) children to dress as White characters when they don’t identify as White? I feel anxiety about even considering going as a human book character who doesn’t look like me; I’m working to mark that discomfort and remind myself that it is nothing compared to the experience of going to a Halloween store, or turning on the T.V., or walking into a bookstore or library and not seeing an abundance of characters affirming my own racial identity. Does that mean I shouldn’t be Hilda this year? Does that mean schools or libraries shouldn’t do Halloween or book character parades? Does that mean I should dress up as characters who don’t share my same identity? Not necessarily.

Something is lost when a member of a privileged group dresses up as a character who doesn’t belong to that same group, even if it is done with as much care and thoughtfulness as one can muster. While Black Hermione creates a wanted mirror, a White Peter at a book character parade could take something away, for a quick web search for “children’s literature costumes”  demonstrates that White reflections and choices aren’t lacking.

Debby Irving’s school community transitioned to a book character parade because it delivered a “feel-good, spirit-building vibe” without the feelings of exclusion that the Halloween parade caused. Book character parades can be a step towards inclusivity worth celebrating and supporting; but, if the children’s literature ecosystem is not yet wholly inclusive, can a parade about its books be?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Juana & Lucas

Juana & Lucas jacket art
Juana & Lucas. Written and illustrated by Juana Medina. Candlewick, 2016. 88 pages. ISBN 978-07636-7208-9 

Here in the United States, books about children living in Latin America are few and far between. That's just one of the reasons I was so delighted to find Juana Medina's new book for newly independent readers.

Juana is a funny, amiable girl who lives in modern day Bogotá, Colombia.  Lucas is her dog and her constant companion. Aside from Lucas, she loves drawing, Astroman, repollitas (brussels sprouts), Bogotá, her mami, and her best friend Juli.  She'd rather play fútbol than go to school -- she detests her school uniform which is hot and itchy. She's also not too wild about her math class, and really dislikes her new English class. In fact, much of the book is devoted to adult friends and relatives trying to convince her that English is worth learning. 

Spanish words appear frequently and naturally in the text. They are almost always cognates so they are easy for non-Spanish speakers to translate. And there is enough context to help readers understand the Spanish.  

The book is generously illustrated on every page, making this a good choice for  children who are just getting into chapter books. But there is a sophistication to the artwork, as well, which includes diagrams of significant people, pointing out the most important things about them. 

Juana & Lucas interior

And Juana's voice is sharp and distinctive. She walks the fine line between being Everychild and being singular. In literature she is most akin to Atinuke's Anna Hibiscus, but she is part Ramona, too. Young readers will find her very appealing and we can hope that this will be the first volume of many about Juana and Lucas.

It's extraordinario!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Awards Discussion Fodder: Thoughts on Stereotypes

Let’s talk about stereotypes.  Award season is right around the corner, and while I’m not writing this with any specific book in mind, it’s good to think about stereotypes when considering award contenders.

So what is a stereotype?  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about this much better than I can, but I’ll give it a shot.  Here’s what Merriam-Webster brings to the table:

Stereotype (n) - an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things with a particular characteristic

Let’s take this apart.  A stereotype is, indeed, a belief.  But it’s not necessarily a belief about “all” people in a group.  Melissa Harris-Perry, for example, talks about multiple stereotypes of Black women: the “mammy,” the “hyper-sexualized woman,” and the “angry Black woman.”  In this sense, there are multiple “single stories” of Black women (to borrow Adichie’s term).  The fact that (most) people don’t believe that any one of these stereotypes applies to the entire population of Black women doesn’t mean that they’re not stereotypes.

“Untrue”--that’s another problem.  Is it untrue that some East Asian people play the violin?  That some Latinx kids play soccer?  That some Jewish people have relatively big noses?  And why shouldn’t they? (Says the Jewish girl who has fought for a proper bagel and lox.)

The problem with stereotypes is that they are reductive, not that they are categorically false.  Which brings me to my personal definition:

Stereotype (n) - A reductive story, told about a person or people, that intentionally or unintentionally dehumanizes them.

So what does this mean for book evaluation?  I think it means we need to pay attention when characters are given stereotypical traits.  Is the Native character just there to be noble and stoic?  Does the South Asian character just talk about math and samosas all the time?  Does the Black best friend do more than be the Black best friend?

If a character includes a stereotypical trait, it’s important to ask whether the author actively counters that stereotype.  If you want examples, go read something by Gene Luen Yang, who could teach a master class in defeating stereotypes.  In The Shadow Hero, for instance, Hank’s mother begins the book as a stereotypical Chinese “tiger mom” and, over the course of the book, becomes fully human and 3-dimensional.  American Born Chinese (SPOILER ALERT!!!) employs a different strategy to nullify Chin-Kee, who embodies every grotesque, inhuman stereotype of a Chinese man: Chin-Kee winds up beheaded and exposed as the non-human thing it is.

So ask yourself: When an author introduces a stereotype about a character, does s/he work to counter that stereotype by humanizing the character?  Because as much as we wish books existed in a vacuum, they don’t; including a minor East Asian character whose defining trait is playing the violin is loaded, and different from including a minor White character whose defining trait is playing the violin.  Neither is necessarily bad--what matters is whether all of the characters are allowed to be fully human.

If and when someone brings up a concern about stereotypes, it’s important that we listen, especially if we were previously unaware that something is a stereotype.  That lack of awareness is itself a privilege, and we should welcome the chance to remedy our ignorance.

-Allie Jane Bruce

Ed. Note 10/19 - Thank you, Tsujimonster, for pointing out my mistake with "s/he". That is 100% my error, and I'm sorry. I should have used "they" so as to not exclude people who identify as nonbinary. I'm going to leave it as-is in the piece, for maximum transparency and to avoid confusion, but I'll say here: In the 2nd-to-last paragraph, where I say "...does s/he work to counter that stereotype...", I should have said " they work to counter that stereotype...." -AJB

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: The Adventures of Sparrowboy

By Brian Pinkney. Simon & Schuster, 1997.  ISBN: # 978-0689810718. Click here to purchase.  

For a #ThrowbackThursday spotlight on #OwnVoices today, I would like to invite you all back to 1997: a time when print newspapers regularly arrived on doorsteps and Brian Pinkney’s The Adventures of Sparrowboy was published to great acclaim. 

Image from
 The picture book features Henry, a paperboy who is feeling depressed by the headlines in the news. While reading the paper before he makes his deliveries, he finds solace in the comics. He especially loves the story of Mark Steed, a police officer (Black like him) who changes from mortal to superhero when he transfers powers with a falcon and defends the defenseless as “Falconman.” Fiction becomes reality when a sparrow jumps in front of Henry’s bicycle and the two experience a mysterious “ZAP!”

Henry flies over his handlebars and soars into the sky, loop-de-looping over the neighborhood, delivering papers and helping animals and people in distress along the way. When he realizes that by flying, he has grounded the bird, Henry makes one final heroic act. After returning things to normal on Thurber Street, Henry notices that the big adventure has made him feel “just a little better.”

Pinkney employs the scratchboard technique of illustration for which he is famous, but his traditional picture book format shifts when the superhero elements come into play: captions, panels, and sound effects enthral readers and provide clues to them about what is actually happening. (The Falconman comic strip Henry loves is written by “Barney Nipkin,” a Brian Pinkney anagram.)

Even though print newspaper deliveries might not be part of every family’s routine in 2016, and a tween with a paper route is even harder to find—most young people still know what a newspaper is (and the comics format is as beloved as ever). The Adventures of Sparrowboy is relevant to today's readers, on account of the ever-increasing popularity of comics and graphic novels and the reality that the world's news can still be hard to grasp.

The Adventures of Sparrowboy validates the experience of seeing difficult news, and also engaging in a thrilling escape. It is recommended to any fans of visual narrative, especially those self-identified superhero kids looking for someone new to celebrate.
Reviewed by Elisa Gall

Friday, October 7, 2016

Leaves Changing Color

Award Season is full upon us!  A few weeks ago Kirkus announced its Finalists for the Kirkus Prize in Young Reader's Literature. Children's and Teen Editor Vicky Smith called it "a Heckuva List," and it is. Narrowed down to just two titles in each of three subcategories (picture books, middle grade, and young adult), it features diversity in style and audience as well as in authorship.   Few lists of this length do, to this extent. 

That is, until this week, when the National Book Award Finalists were announced. Of course, we'd seen the longlist earlier so I was already hopeful, but following years when it was remarkable to have more than one writer of color among the finalists, it is wonderful to see, here too, a broader readership represented. 

Building on two strong years for diversity in the ALSC Newbery and Caldecott awards, can we hope that award juries, and the organizations that run them, are taking fully to heart the need to bring to the table voices that might have previously been undervalued? Are they finally asking: whose excellence in literature, and why? Setting standards by a canon that responds primarily to White voices is an exercise in exclusion, and ultimately, irrelevance. The books now being recognized for major awards by book creators of color and First Nations/Native people can only make the field stronger, and expose previous year's lists' paltry tokenism.

Looking at these lists, I'm reminded of what Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a talk last year at Georgetown University Law Center:

"People ask me sometimes ... 'When will there be enough women on the court?' And my answer is: when there are nine."

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

#OwnVoices Reviews

Throughout September we posted a daily review of a book we recommended that represented #OwnVoices. We hope you all enjoyed reading the reviews as much as we enjoyed writing them. There's nothing quite like connecting readers with good books!

We never had trouble finding a book a day to review, and, in fact, we had more books on our initial list than there were days in September. And that's not counting the books that are still coming in. So we're going to keep going. Not daily, but off and on, as we find books we especially want everyone to know about and read.

Unfortunately, there continue to be new books published every year with stereotypes, inaccuracies, and inauthentic points of view. We'll still write about them and call attention to them. But one way to counter these problematic books is to hold up the really good books that are out there that do get it right. And we hope publishers will continue to find and publish #OwnVoices so we all can continue to read them and share them with children and teens.