|Laura M. Jiménez
Our RWW Interviews series continues today with a conversation between Allie Jane Bruce and Laura M. Jiménez. Jiménez earned her Ph. D. in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology from Michigan State University in 2013. She is currently a lecturer in Boston University School of Education’s Language and Literacy program. Her research primarily focuses on reading comprehension and issues of representation in young adult literature with a special interest in graphic novels. Her work has appeared in The Journal of Education, Journal of Language & Literacy Education, Journal of Lesbian Studies and, most recently, The Journal of Literacy Research. She is currently working on a large-scale project looking at the ways women and girls are represented in graphic novels.
In addition, she writes a blog (http://booktoss.wordpress.com/) in which she reviews graphic novels and brings her understanding of graphic novels, YA literature and representation to a wider audience.
Can you share your origin story? How did you get started in this work, and what has changed over time?
Originally, in grad school I studied literacy, reading, and reading motivation. I wasn’t interested in literature then. I read a lot, though, I always have. Reading saved my life when I was a kid. But in academia, literature and literacy are separate, and I was looking at literacy.
Then I started teaching children’s literature, and I found out that the way that it’s taught is very marginalizing along race, class, and sexuality lines. That bothered me. It’s also not grounded in literacy research. So, I changed the way I taught. Instead of putting all the “others” in the “ethnic aisle,” which, in academia, means the final week of class or in its own course, I taught it as a normal part of children’s literature. And it was really difficult for my students, way more difficult than I thought it should be. I was teaching the people who would go on to be American teachers--White women for the most part--and they were having a really really hard time connecting with these stories outside of their lived experiences. And the more stereotypical and trope-ful the book was, the easier they could connect with it. So I had to ask, how do I get people from White America to learn how to read and experience books in ways that are so different from them? The answer came largely from W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of dual consciousness. So when I write my blog, I’m trying to help White, straight, able people develop that dual consciousness. It’s my way of saying, “I see the world this way. This is how I can translate it for you so you can also see the issues that I am seeing.”
At first I was writing about books that I liked, good fit for classrooms. About a year ago I decided, after talking to Debbie Reese, that I was going to take the idea of criticism head on--real, literary criticism. Using race, queer, feminist theory to do that work on an open blog space. Now, I research and write almost exclusively about graphic novels. What finally did it for me was when I had read and posted about Delilah Dirk by Tony Cliff. It was being touted as this great adventure story for girls, and it was incredibly sexist and misogynistic. Her physicality is completely stereotypical, her cleavage is always perfect and out there, her arms are like little twigs, her upper arm is the same thickness as her lower arm even though she’s this sword-wielding badass. The importance of image can’t be understated. And the response I kept getting: “It’s so fun! He tried.” And I finally said, “I can’t give a medal for trying. Kids, girls, boys, everybody, deserves a better representation than this.” It completely rankled me, and I took the gloves off.
Now, I don’t go looking for bad books. Unfortunately, it’s not that hard. I blog about the fabulous, I blog about the crap. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of crap, pumped out under the guise of diversity in literature. That’s what really bothers me.
Tell us about your research in graphic novels. What questions are you asking? What have you learned so far?
I look very closely at comprehension and motivation. Typically, when academics look at graphic novels, everyone is saying “Look how motivating we are!” and nobody has asked “what are kids learning from this?” Recently, that’s changed. What we’ve seen is that reading graphic novels is different from reading print novels. It takes different processes, attention, time. I’m not sure that reading graphic novels will directly transfer to reading print. I’m not saying it won’t, there’s just no research base to say that it will. I suspect there is a subset that will like the metacognitive work you do in both--the questioning, the predicting, inferencing, finding evidence. I think the higher order thinking you do when you’re reading graphic novels will transfer over to print. But I’m not sure yet.
Here’s what we do know: kids that read graphic novels learn content, solid information, from them, that they are then able to produce on standardized tests. In one study I’m involved in, kids read Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy, and then we asked them standard history questions about the American Revolution. We didn’t teach the book like a history text; they read it like a novel. But they learned the content and the vocabulary.
The other thing is, all the kids wanted to read the books. That’s the motivation piece. We know that if they don’t want to read, kids will actually put more work into avoiding reading than the reading would actually take. I borrow a lot of my thinking and teaching on this subject from library science--that “shut up and get a book in their hands” mentality. If they don’t like it, get another one. That is very very different from literacy-- “they should read this book for this reason.” That’s the traditional thought. What I tell people is, the question is, “are they going to read or are they not going to?” And the arbiter of that is the child. The older the child, the more sophisticated they are in subverting the systems they need to read. So the single best thing we can do is motivate them.
And graphic novels are additive, because they contain visual cues as well as verbal. We have enormous visual cortexes; we really are built to see the world. We think that that visual component attunes the memory, and makes it easier to retrieve. It is possible that reading multimodal books embeds the information in a sort of multi-dimensionally or multiple places in your brain.
In all the work that you do, what are you most proud of?
I recently got the only piece about graphic novels in Journal of Literacy Research. It took two years, and I brought in a second author to help me with the writing. I’m hoping it’ll change the way the literacy field looks at graphic novels. They’re not just popcorn, not just useful to keep the kid busy in the back of the classroom. They’re complex, multi-dimensional literature.
How do you stay motivated or promote self-care when facing frustration or pushback?
I am very bad at self-care. I think I am much better at handing out advice about taking care of yourself. I am great at giving that advice, telling people to take a night off, but I’m the worst at actually doing it. Luckily, I have a group of friends that give that advice right back at me. So when I’m feeling completely drained, I just get angry, and then I’m not good. And then I need to step back, take time off, spend time with my kids, cook a meal, read for pleasure. I have people to tell me that, and I am smart enough to listen.
Who are your heroes, both within and without the children’s literature world?
Debbie Reese. She is an inspiration, a touchstone. I venture beyond my own identity: lesbian, Latina, nontraditional learner. But I’m looking at representation of marginalized communities, which means I’m looking at communities I’m not a part of. In some ways, that holds its own problematic issues. But I can always go to her and say, “Am I totally off base here?” She knows what’s going to get kickback, she knows when you’re sticking your neck out. And she’s so generous.
One hero I’ve never met - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who talks about the balance between knowledge and skill, finding flow. He’s looked at aesthetics, and how people read and react to what they’ve read--very needed.
What advice do you have for others looking to do equity work in the world of libraries and youth literature?
What I’ve discovered is that treating White, straight, able people as the problem or the enemy does not work. I take that stance seriously. Whiteness as an identity can’t be the problem--I start with that in mind. I have to give them opportunities so they have the chance to be aware of their own identity. It sounds strange to people, but I truly believe that White people do not realize that they are White. It’s like trying to ask a fish to identify the water. So I try to give them opportunities to see the water. I have them identify their identities out loud. I get them used to literally saying the words out loud: race, racism, White, Latinx.
In my teaching experiences, which are mostly with middle class White women, I think they have decided the best way to not get in trouble is to not talk about race, sexism, really all identity. Just avoid it. Avoid it at the cost of anything. I have to break through that training. We can’t deal with it if we don’t talk about it. So I have them read WONDER and OUT OF MY MIND, as a paired texts. By that time, at the end of the semester, I’m really looking for them to name the kind of flat character that Palacio gives us in Auggie--the object he acts as versus the kind of character Draper gives us in Melody. I also look to see if they can figure out that she’s Black. She doesn’t name it because she doesn’t need to. By and large, there’s usually one or two people who don’t see it. But the rest of the class does, because we have a community that can talk about it. That last class, I am hoping I don’t have to say one word. If I get them there, it’s been a successful semester.
The one thing that frustrates me the most--and I’m glad that Reading While White is doing what it does--is that if I say something about a book, if Debbie or Edi says something, we’re all told that we’re not giving the author a chance. That they tried. We are not believed. If you look at the traffic RWW get vs the traffic I get or Edi gets, even though we’ve been doing this for longer, you get more, and the only difference is that you’re White. To be honest, part of me resents that. And, I am glad that there are people willing to amplify our voices. If I write something, and you pick it up, that means so many more people will be willing to hear it. And that is paramount to my work. You get a lot of crap, the same criticism, but at the end of the day, you are heard and you are believed. Without White voices, our message can’t be heard. We are not believed. It’s good that your team realizes it.
-Allie Jane Bruce