It might surprise some to learn that a collection-development “no” verdict from me doesn’t necessarily equal “this book is poorly executed,” and a “yes” doesn’t mean “this book is well executed” (you’re welcome, James Patterson). And a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean “this book is problematic,” and a “yes” doesn’t mean “this book is not problematic.” Sometimes a book is well executed and not problematic, but not something I can devote budget to (this happens most often with upper YA, since my school ends at grade 8). And more often than people think, yes, I include a problematic book in the collection. This is the real world.
One example of this is As An Oak Tree Grows by G. Brian Karas. I use this as a teaching tool to discuss rewriting history, particularly the erasure of First/Native Nations people, with 6th graders. I am lucky that Bank Street has the Claudia Lewis Research collection, which is open to anybody within Bank Street to browse and check out from (including kids), but is separate from the main collection; that’s where one can find As An Oak Tree Grows.
When a book is problematic, I often want to talk about it with kids. We parse out what messages it sends and how those messages might impact different readers. Sometimes these are “mild offences” (we talk about gender stereotyping in Jon J. Muth’s Zen Shorts as examples of microaggressions) and I struggle with whether I should put the book in the Claudia Lewis collection or the Main Children’s collection. Either way, though, the book is available to anyone with a Bank Street library account.
I get frustrated when people conflate yes/well executed/not problematic or no/poorly executed/problematic into lump categories, or respond to me as if I have done so. I like having conversations that dig deep into ways in which books are problematic and ways in which they are empowering. I learn so much from these conversations. And when I read criticism or critique of something I love (even something I love as much as Hamilton!)--it actually doesn’t ruin it for me. It makes me grateful that I have the chance to learn something new.
It took me a while to develop this ability; the idea that I can simultaneously love something and critique it--holding both of those truths at the same time--runs counter to typical White culture. It requires “and” thinking, instead of “but” thinking (next time you’re in an argument, try saying “yes, and” instead of “yes, but” and see what that’s like). I used to respond to criticism of things that I love defensively; that reflex was born of binary-based thinking and a perfectionist worldview in which criticism necessarily undoes us.
So when a new book comes along that offers an opportunity for rich, educative conversations, I want to have those conversations. As Brave As You, for example, I love. And I want to have conversations with kids about Genie, Ernie, and Grandpop and how much I love their relationship and their growth over the course of the book. And I want to talk about how the book misappropriates the word “ninja” (the plural of “ninja” is “ninja,” ninja practice ninjago, and someone is not studying to be a ninja unless they are studying to be a paid assassin--these are factoids that a ninja-obsessed child would most likely know) and what messages that sends. I am extremely fortunate to have a good friend who educated me on ninja, and I want to carry forth the rich conversations she and I have had about it, and share what I’ve learned. Talking to someone who is only interested in fitting As Brave As You into a good/bad binary won’t help those conversations.
These complex, rich conversations won’t provide any easy answers for a question like “Do I spend my budget money on this title, or not?” but they might help inform such a decision. Likewise, they might inform conversations about “does this book belong on a ‘Best Of’ list?” or “does this book deserve an award?”. In some cases, such as “does this book book further or deter understanding about a culture?”, a binary “yes” or “no” is useful--this is why I appreciate Debbie Reese’s blog (which, incidentally, includes more non-binary thinking than many give her credit for) and regularly use it to inform my decision-making.
I know that you have to make a yes or no decision about whether to buy a book, but please don’t let the need for that decision prevent you from also having a rich, complex conversation about the book. And if there are problematic titles in your collection, I highly recommend that you have conversations with kids about them and encourage them to think in non-binary ways. Otherwise, they might not be able to understand that J.K. Rowling’s misappropriation of Navajo culture is not OK.
-This post brought to you by an enthusiastic Harry Potter fan
Allie Jane Bruce