Thursday, April 27, 2017

Alongside, Not Despite: Talking about Race and Settler Colonialism in a Children’s Literature Graduate Course

Photo courtesy of Megan Dowd Lambert
by Megan Dowd Lambert
I teach an elective graduate course called The Child and the Book at Simmons College, in which we critically examine how children, childhood, reading, and childhood reading are represented and constructed in fiction. We turn to scholar Rudine Sims Bishop’s framework of Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors to consider who is included and who is excluded from those representations and constructions, we read adult memoirs of childhood reading, and we address the role of adult mediation in children’s reading transactions in various contexts. I open the semester with a reading memoir assignment that asks students to revisit a book from their own childhood reading in order to juxtapose their memories of reading it with their rereading as adults. This exercise highlights the slipperiness of memory, the pitfalls of sentimentality and nostalgia, and the instability of textual meaning when one rereads a text and it provokes responses unrecalled from an earlier reading, or when one considers readings from diverse perspectives and critical lenses.
The majority of my students are White women, and in almost every semester I’ve taught this course I’ve had students use this assignment to revisit a book from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I also assign either Little House in the Big Woods or Little House on the Prairie in this course, and we inevitably discuss how rereading books from this series prompts students to critically examine the series’ overt racism and its attendant, unvarnished idealization of settler colonialism and Westward expansion. The most recent time I taught this class, I paused the discussion after a student said she was struggling with how to reconcile her fond childhood memories of co-reading the books with her mother and her contemporary recognition of how the series perpetuates ideologies that are abhorrent to her.
“I feel bad saying I love these books despite their racism,” she said.
“Then don’t say that,” I told her. “Say you love them alongside their racism and then interrogate what that means for you as a White reader.”
I don’t think this directive made her feel less “bad,” but that wasn’t my goal. Some of the best learning can happen when students become uncomfortable with their readings and must interrogate them. To quote scholars Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer: “Although certainty is comfortable, it can also be oppressive and limiting.”1
As a teacher, an important part of my role is to prevent such discomfort from devolving into defensiveness. My shift to have students say “alongside” rather than “despite” was spontaneous that day, but it ended up being an effective tool to push them beyond affective, nostalgic responses and into critical engagement with, not only books in Wilder’s series, but others we studied throughout the semester, as well. The word “despite” had allowed White students to neatly avoid confronting the text’s racism, and to thus cling to a reading imbued with a false racial innocence.  On the other hand, the word “alongside” prompted White students to grapple with the racial privilege necessary to say they loved a book even as they plainly regarded its racism. Then they progressed toward a consideration of how they would respond to a similar statement about a book that somehow denigrated a marginalized population to which they belong: “I love this book alongside its misogyny, its anti-Semitism, its Islamaphobia, its homophobia, its ableism, its classism…”
Many of my students are future teachers and librarians, so we also considered how actions, not just words, can communicate attitudes toward particular books through decisions about displays, book-talks, programming, curriculum, or collection development.  During this discussion, a student asked, “But how can we know which book will harm or offend which readers, patrons, or students as we make these decisions?” This question got to the heart of the ethical dilemma that my students were grappling with in their thinking about real readers’ responses to literature and how they would serve them in their professional lives, and I drew on personal experience to help inform our conversation. I am not a librarian, nor am I a classroom teacher who works with children. But for nearly a decade I worked at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, where I led drop-in storytimes and oversaw the Reading Library. Leading storytime isn’t a regular part of my work now, but whenever I do get the chance to do one as a volunteer at The Carle, in my kids’ classrooms, or as a visiting author with two picture books of my own, I’m careful to always include books by diverse authors and illustrators, and I track the titles I use in order to keep myself accountable (a practice I advocate to my students and that I stretch to model in my syllabus development).
But today the young readers with whom I interact most often are my own children—three sons and three daughters, ages 2-20. Ours is a multiracial, adoptive, blended, queer family, and issues of representation, diversity and inclusion have been every bit as important in my family reading life as they have been in my professional life. Two of my sons are Black, and I don’t think they could be more dissimilar in temperament and personality. Their differences lead me to believe that my younger son is more likely to be personally harmed by a book’s racist content than his older brother ever has been—meaning  that he might internalize something he found degrading and have feelings of embarrassment, shame, sadness, hurt, or a questioning of his own worth.
While I do believe the potential for individual harm is important, it isn’t the only factor when I (and, I’d wager, others, too) speak out about racism in books for young people, or when I guide my students in considering how their critical reading will inform their work in classrooms and libraries, or when I think about the books I choose to purchase or borrow for my family’s reading at home. In addition to weighing the potential for individual harm, I also think about how literature, like any art, not only both reflects culture and its attendant sociopolitical power structures, it helps create it. My older son might scoff at what he reads as a flat, racist caricature of a Black teenager devoid of humanity and brush it away like so much dirt off his shoulder, while my younger son might feel personally wounded and wonder “Is this how other people see me?”; but both are harmed and endangered by the perpetuation of dehumanizing depictions of Black people in a society rife with the stereotype of the Black male menace to society.
The stakes are high in a society where the phrase #BlackLivesMatter needs routine explanation and justification, and where, as Native scholar Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman, reminds us in her work, Native people are routinely relegated to the past and erased as contemporary members of sovereign nations.2 I’m not naively saying that efforts to call out racism and idealized depictions of settler colonialism in children’s books will directly prevent the many violent manifestations of racism and attacks on Native sovereignty in our society. I am saying that the stories we tell (and read and teach and display and circulate) can subvert or reinforce underlying dominant ideologies of race and White supremacy that contribute to that violence and often allow its perpetrators to act with impunity.
The work of critiquing books that reinforce such ideologies can feel woefully inadequate, especially when confronted with seemingly intractable indifference or resistance amid cultural forces that extend well beyond our bookshelves. But I’m hopeful when I see my students (all of them, not just the White students I reference above) push themselves in their critical thinking about books and about the child readers that they will work with in their careers.  There’s grace in this work, and it’s a necessary corollary to that of creating and advocating for diverse books that can help create a safer, more humane society for all.
Nodelman, Perry and Mavis Reimer. The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, 3rd edition. Allyn and Bacon, 2003, p. 3.
In this blog post, Reese shares these guiding questions that she uses when reviewing children’s and YA literature with Native content:
  1. Is the book by a Native author or illustrator?
  2. Does the book, in some way, include something to tell readers that we are sovereign nations?
  3. Is the book tribally specific, and is the tribally specific information accurate?
  4. Is it set in the present day? If it is historical in structure, does it use present tense verbs that tell readers the Native peoples being depicted are part of today's society?
Megan Dowd Lambert grew up in Vermont and earned her BA at Smith College and her MA in Children’s Literature at Simmons College, where she is now a Senior Lecturer in Children’s Literature. She is the author of Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking About What They See, which introduces the Whole Book Approach to storytime that she developed in association with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. In 2009 she was named a Literacy Champion by Mass Literacy, and she has served on the 2009 Geisel, 2011 Caldecott, and the 2012 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Committees. Megan won a 2016 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor for her first picture book, A Crow of His Own, illustrated by David Hyde Costello (Charlesbridge 2015). Her second picture book, Real Sisters Pretend, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell (Tilbury House) was published in 2016. Charlesbridge will publish A Kid of Their Own, a sequel to A Crow of His Own, in 2019. Megan reviews and writes for Kirkus Reviews and The Horn Book and is a Staff Blogger for Embrace Race: A Community about Race and Kids. She lives with her family, including six children ages 2-19, in western Massachusetts.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

RWW Interviews: Elizabeth Denevi & Teaching While White

By Elisa Gall

I’m excited to continue our RWW Interviews series today with a conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Denevi. Elizabeth is the Associate Director for Mid West Educational Collaborative, a nonprofit that works with schools across the United States to increase equity, promote diversity pedagogy, and implement strategic processes for growth and development. Before that, she served as Director of Studies and Professional Development at the Chicago school at which I work - and she is a current parent in my school community.

Elizabeth writes and presents nationally on topics of social justice, equity, and diversity as educational excellence. She recently co-founded (alongside Jenna Chandler-Ward) Teaching While White, a new blog and podcast resource for promoting racial literacy and helping educators build skills to create anti-racist classrooms. I look forward to learning from TWW and I hope everybody adds it to their resource lists and bookmarks toolbars.

How did you get started doing anti-racism work? What has changed over time?

I started when I was teaching ethnic studies courses. As I got more into American history and literature, it became impossible to ignore issues of race. I went back to do my PhD so I could study racial identity development and to develop strategies for teaching about racial identity and racism in schools. Unfortunately, not much has changed over 25 years. We are still struggling to understand how race affects teaching/learning. And most teachers do not know that racially diverse classrooms create higher levels of critical thinking.

Can you share with our readers your definition of “diversity?”

“Diversity” is simply the presence of difference. In a school context, we are referring to differences which impact learning. Since we can correlate racial identity development with academic achievement and the social construction of race in schools, we know that racial differences matter. We need to explore our own racial identity as teachers so we can help our students to explore theirs.

Can you tell us about your new site?

I felt like I needed a way to keep my Whiteness front and center in my work with schools. And I don’t like to do anything alone, so as Jenna and I continued to talk about the kind of work we wanted to do with teachers, this felt like the right way to go. Writing has always been a way for me to consolidate my thinking, so I was eager to try the blog format. And Michael Brosnan has been a wonderful writing partner for years as he published the first piece I ever wrote about being White. Jenna had the brilliant idea to do a podcast, which is both terrifying and exhilarating. I think it’s a very powerful medium that I’m eager to learn more about.

Who are your heroes, both within and outside the education world?

Oh, my. This will sound corny, but my husband, Randolph Carter, is one of my biggest heroes. He was a Black Panther and has spent his life working for social justice in all kinds of contexts. He never quits and never backs down. He is uncompromising when it comes to the lives of children and people of color in schools. And he has raised three amazing children.

In your opinion, can classrooms or libraries ever be “neutral?” Why or why not?

Absolutely not.  This is such a critical issue. I am talking to teachers across the country who are terrified to talk about race or what is happening around race and ethnicity in our country right now. Most are White teachers who are scared to death of getting in trouble for saying or doing the “wrong thing.” They have seen their colleagues sanctioned, and even fired, for challenging racism and racial privilege in our current climate. They hope their silence, or even their decision to avoid any “controversial” topics, will keep them safe. The problem is that it’s an illusion. Because staying quiet is the same as keeping the status quo in place. And this collusion with racism extends way beyond classrooms and into administrative offices and boardrooms. The leadership structures are just as complicit, hoping they can just “go along to get along.” It’s an old story, but one that will always have the same ending. Teachers make choices every day what to teach. There is no generic curriculum. We have so much content out there, and we carefully choose what to teach based on many factors. Not one of those factors – be it our experience, identity, or location – is neutral.

Do you have a favorite children’s book to share? Can you recommend a professional book?

What a hard question! Because I’m a mom of multiracial kids, I love Black, White, Just Right because it names and affirms racial difference as just that -- different, not deficit. I’m also a huge fan of Todd Parr because his books do the same thing: affirm difference. For teachers, I love Mica Pollock’s work and Robin DiAngelo’s scholarship on White fragility. I’m also a fan of Paul Gorski  because he has held our feet to the fire on promoting equity. He reminds us that our work to make schools more just and fair is not about “inclusion” or “cultural competence.” It’s about being excellent, informed, well-trained teachers who know how to manage all kinds of differences so all children can thrive.

What advice do you have for other White people working on anti-racist practices?

Challenge racism because it’s bad for White people. If you try to end racism for people of color, then you can choose to fight or not. And if you get tired, or it gets hard, you can stop. If you do it for you, because it’s the only way you can get up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror, then you won’t stop. And you will see why racism is bad for everyone. The effects of racism clearly impact White people and people of color differently. But as B. D Tatum noted, it’s a kind of smog, and we are all breathing the same air.

Monday, April 17, 2017


By Elisa Gall

Photo from
 In two weeks, a few of us from RWW will travel to Kansas City, MO alongside teachers, librarians, academics, nonprofit leaders, activists, counselors, members of spiritual communities, high school and college students, and more to attend the 18th annual White Privilege Conference, or WPC. If you haven’t heard of the conference before, you might have questions about what it is all about. 

The WPC website offers several explanations:
  • WPC is a conference that examines challenging concepts of privilege and oppression and offers solutions and team building strategies to work toward a more equitable world.
  • It is not a conference designed to attack, degrade or beat up on white folks.
  • It is not a conference designed to rally white supremacist groups.
  • WPC is a conference designed to examine issues of privilege beyond skin color. WPC is open to everyone and invites diverse perspectives to provide a comprehensive look at issues of privilege including: race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, etc. — the ways we all experience some form of privilege, and how we’re all affected by that privilege.
  • WPC attracts students, professionals, activists, parents, and community leaders/members from diverse perspectives. WPC welcomes folks with varying levels of experience addressing issues of diversity, cultural competency, and multiculturalism.
  • WPC is committed to a philosophy of “understanding, respecting and connecting.

The conference was founded by Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. and it “looks at White Privilege intersectionally, in the context of various systems of privilege.” (You might also recognize Dr. Moore from the documentary film, “I’m Not Racist...Am I?”)
Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr.
Photo from
If you are attending WPC, there are pre-conference workshops held on Thursday. The main conference starts on Friday and goes through Sunday. There are a few keynote talks each day, and several sessions from which participants can choose. There are also daily caucus meetings where people with shared identities can get together and process learning from each day. There are early morning walks and discussions with Dr. Moore, and at night, there are film screenings, dinners, fundraisers, performances, and additional community events. All of these sessions offer learning opportunities for people to practice the process of anti-racism work.
You can register for WPC here. In addition, the Association for Library Service to Children is supporting a meetup at 7 p.m. on April 29 for members and prospective members interested in joining together to discuss their learning and conference experiences.  All are welcome to that event, even non-librarians and folks not registered for the conference. Click here for more information and to R.S.V.P. for that meetup. Allie, Ernie, and I will be there and look forward to meeting and learning with everybody. Please spread the word!
If you can’t make it to Kansas City this year, follow along with participants as they share their learning via #wpc18. ALSC members will also use #alscatwpc. If you are planning your professional development for the year ahead, note that WPC is always around the end of April. We believe this conference is a learning opportunity not to be missed, and we hope our conversations and tweets encourage even more people to engage in this work and perhaps attend the conference next year.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Reviewing While White: The Secret Project


by Sam Bloom, Allie Jane Bruce and Elisa Gall

After reading Jonah and Jeanette Winter’s The Secret Project (Beach Lane Books, 2017), a few of us at Reading While White wanted to discuss our own reactions to it and what we have learned from reading and reflecting on criticism including Dr. Debbie Reese’s review at AICL. During this conversation it also came to our attention that Reese’s critical review was posted to the All The Wonders promo page and later taken down, adding another layer of complexity to our discussion (we recommend you read “What Happened to “A Second Perspective” at All The Wonders?” by Dr. Reese as well). Feel free to join our conversation and add your questions and/or thoughts in the comments!

Elisa: When I first read The Secret Project, I was immediately drawn into the visual narrative of the ending. It was so gripping that I found myself focusing on that part of the book and remembering little else. When I saw the critical review on AICL, I knew that I had allowed myself to be wooed by the final pages. Sometimes a “WOW” effect like that can lead readers to prioritize one successful piece of a book over its serious problems. To me, that choice to overlook is the epitome of privilege I carry with me as a White, non-Native reader.

Sam: I really liked it on first read. It’s embarrassing now, having seen the things Debbie pointed out, that seem so obvious. When I saw the spread with the Hopi man, I thought to myself, “I’m sure they got it right, this is the Winters we’re talking about.” That’s such a naive statement, but it was my first thought, so I just glossed over it. And like you, Elisa, I was gobsmacked by that ending.

Allie: My first reaction was just like both of yours.  That ending--so sad! So powerful! So, just, beyond words (literally)!  To be honest, I still feel that way.  That ending is one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in a picture book, ever.  This is where I need to practice my nonbinary thinking: The book has incredible merits; the book erases Pueblo people.  These things are both true.

Elisa: Sam, that hope (“I’m sure they got it right”) is something I’ve noticed myself having. I find myself wanting to take the easy route of just going with the flow and trusting that a book (especially from a publisher or author whose past work I admire) is authentic and accurate. Looking critically and asking questions can be tough work. It definitely pulls me “out” of the narrative, which is why almost subconsciously I find myself resisting and wanting to “gloss over” as you put it. I have grown accustomed to getting to stay “in” the books I read. I try to remember that so many readers NEVER get to stay “in” (and some never get “in” at all) because the world of children’s literature has never been inclusive to them.

Allie: What you’re describing is, I think, a set of skills that are not prioritized in library school.  I’m reminded of this post that Megan wrote about her process of letting go of A Fine Dessert a year and a half ago.

I need to practice that skill of letting go.  It is a professional skill.  When I love a book for a particular reason, and then find out that it contains one (or more) problematic elements, I need to do what Megan did with A Fine Dessert: Sit. Breathe. Think. Go through whatever mental process I need to go through.  Then, practice saying the words “I changed my mind.”

Megan’s older post is, in fact, so completely on-point here that I want to quote from it:

I cannot ignore the voices of those who have helped me understand something I didn't consider before: No matter how thoughtful the intent was in depicting this mother and child, the end result is that it can be seen as perpetuating painful imagery of "happy" slaves.

Am I ashamed I didn't see this myself? Yes. Because it's the kind of thing I'd like to think I wouldn't miss.

But I'm not so ashamed that I'm going to dig in my heels.

I can let go of A Fine Dessert.

Did I come to this decision easily? No. Am I sad about letting go of the book? Yes.

But it's a small sadness.

Yes, I still appreciate many other things about A Fine Dessert, but I can also accept that this is a fault it cannot overcome for me when it comes to recommending it to librarians and teachers.

Swap The Secret Project in for A Fine Dessert, and alter that second line to read, “No matter how thoughtful the intent was in depicting the setting, or how successfully it communicates the massive global and moral implications of developing nuclear weaponry, the end result is that it erases Pueblo people from this story.”

Elisa: Yep. It is admittedly tough to come to terms with the fact that a title you first thought was excellent, or even haven’t read yet but want so much to be flawless, misses the mark...but again, tough for whom? Is it as tough as being a Native reader who sees (to quote Debbie Reese’s recent post) The Secret Project as yet another book in the “ever-growing pile of books in which this or that topic is more important than Native people?” Whose reactions and feelings are being prioritized if criticism is ignored? And there is plenty to talk about with regards to the way the conversation about this book played out after concerns were being discussed.

Allie: I followed the way the conversation unfolded with great interest.  I had hopes that this would become a groundbreaking case of mainstream non-binary thinking, that we could acknowledge the merits of the book, and talk about how powerful that ending is, and also acknowledge the ways in which it erases Pueblo people, and what implications that has in the context of our history and our world.  Instead, I saw the same patterns as always, and found myself asking the same questions as always.

Particularly troubling to me was Matthew Winner’s comment on AICL, in which he says that All the Wonders enters into a “verbal agreement” with book creators to shine a positive light on their book.  If I were entering into an agreement, verbal or written, to promote somebody’s work to the exclusion of criticism, I would change my job title from “librarian” to “salesperson” and ask to be paid for this work.  Now, it’s not my prerogative whether anybody else follows that advice--except that it impacts our profession as a whole when leaders in the field refer to themselves as “teachers” or “librarians” but in fact serve as de facto members of publishers’ advertising teams (for more of my thoughts on this, see my post responding to the recent Wall Street Journal article here). I see so much personal, passionate “I looooooooved this book” from the “rock stars.”  By contrast, I see such rational, researched, informed opinions from Debbie.  But somehow Debbie is always the one who gets called “nasty” or “unprofessional” while the “rock stars” are seen as the pinnacle of the profession.

Sam: I think some of the backlash Debbie received is due to the fact that she is a woman, and the “rock stars” are men. I’ve been called a “rock star,” too. For doing the same damn thing an enormous number of women in the profession have done before. What’s that phrase about standing on the shoulders of giants? Well, I am certainly standing on the shoulders of giants to get to a point where I can get invited to the publisher dinners and shmoozy events, and guess what: pretty much EVERY ONE of those giants is a woman. And yet I, as a man (a White man, at that) may get up and read a story or two to kids; I may sing and dance and act goofy; I may do book talks for school age kids; and I’m the “rock star” even though there are how many women doing ALL of those things, probably with more skill and grace, who won’t get any attention for simply DOING THEIR JOB?

Elisa: I know we have shared Robin DiAngelo's work on White Fragility before, but it is worth sharing again to notice these patterns you’re describing. You make good points, too, about "librarian" versus "advertiser." I have been reflecting on this a lot. The line has definitely become blurred. Influence marketing works (which is why we see it),  but it is so important for our profession that it becomes clear if/when librarians are getting paid (or given benefits) to celebrate a book/author/publisher. Librarians DO spotlight and promote books and authors, but after careful evaluation. And even then, it is okay (expected!) to reevaluate your position after receiving new information. You might even change your mind.

It feels good to get a book sent to you because a publisher thought you'd like it, or invited to a dinner with a creator whose work you admire. These gestures can feel like agreements. Let's be real - it is business! It can be hard to separate those warm fuzzies from problematic texts. But it is imperative. I acknowledge my own participation in this system. I keep telling myself: you want to go to that dinner or schmooze with creators? Fine. But then be ready for the hard reality that at the end of the day, no matter what you’ve been given or how much you like that person, you have to do your job.

Allie: We spend much of our professional lives, by nature of the profession, in the thick of conversations about judging books, whether to spend budget money on this book or that, whether this book is good enough for this list or that award.  We form opinions, positive and negative, sometimes passionately so, informed by our expertise in book evaluation, our experiences sharing the book with kids, observations about a book’s accessibility, popularity, and so much more.  When it gets into that “passionate” territory, though, let’s face it:  It’s often hard to separate one’s personal love or hate for a book from a professional assessment, based on expertise, research, and knowledge.

Elisa: I agree. And going back to how critics can get accused of bullying or being “nasty,” I think there is a myth that it is somehow always easy or fun for critics to interrupt racism or bias in a text. It can be disappointing, alienating, and scary. If representation of your identity is at the center, it can be traumatic and in some instances, people’s safety can be put at risk. No matter how it is shared though (and even if/when it is directed at something I am passionate about), I am working to remember that criticism reflects care and commitment. It is how things improve, because I have hope that discomfort will lead to deeper reflection in the future, and more honest, thoughtful, and accurate books getting made as a result.

[Ed. note 10/17/17: The Reading While White team has decided to close comments on this post.  Please email us with any questions.]