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.


Sam Bloom said...

I think this is a powerful discussion to have with people, Megan, and I thank you for sharing it with us! When you wrote that "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," you've hit on something that I think *EVERY* teacher/librarian/adult struggles with. Personally, my difficulties lie not with something I read during childhood (but God knows I probably have myriad reading experiences I just can't remember at this point) but instead with some extremely formative reading experiences I had in my children's lit classes when I was in education classes in college. The book that REALLY resonated with me, so much so that I tend to caress it lovingly when it comes across the desk (I work at a public library so I have occasion to do so quite often), was Maniac Magee. I look back on it now and, honestly, I'm scared to reread it because I can recall some of the stereotypes Spinelli played on (the White savior, the magical POC, etc.) quite skillfully. But that's my privilege as a White person, that I can choose to NOT reread it and everything will go on just fine in my life. So thanks again, Megan, for having these conversations, and for sharing those experiences with us!

Ms. Anna said...

Oh man, this was the palate cleanser I needed after reading a post on Horn Book about revisiting childhood favorites today. Thank you Megan!

Stacy Whitman said...

I'm syllabus planning for a cultural competency class for editors this month, and this is going in the syllabus alongside my already-planned discussion of the Little House books. Thanks!

Cheriee Weichel said...

Thank you for a couple of reasons.
First, I'm going to go back and revisit my childhood heroine, Pippy Longstocking. I'll have to see how that goes.
Second, as a retired white teacher librarian who still reads children's literature, I'm struggling a lot these days with how I can review and respond to books written by other white people who are telling other culture's stories. I'm in a position now where I need to make a decision about whether or not to recommend a title that I feel incompetent to assess. (I finally asked a friend who is within the culture to read it and promised to provide the wine when we talk about it)
I'm pissed off that the author, who also teaches creative writing, even wrote the book to start with.
What do we do in these kinds of instances.?

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comments everyone! I can't figure out how to thread replies, so I will post responses here:

Sam, I first encountered Maniac Magee as a grad student, too, and I haven't reread it since then. But I remember feeling similarly to what I think you describe--like wow! How exciting to read about an anti-racist White kid. But... then in class discussion I started questioning how anti-racist this White kid really is, and how he essentially espouses a colorblind worldview, and I remember talking about how very *safe* this book is for White readers. Your post makes me want to reread it, and then talk with you about it.

Anna, I looked at that post, and I must admit that I have written/felt/said similar things in my life. One take-away from that post for me is a resistance to "alongside" and a clinging to "despite." Nostalgia and sentimentality are powerful pulls! And in the context of this discussion, when I am aware of their pull, I try to think about the price of their seduction, which is one paid out of the unearned privilege I'm afforded as a White person. I've definitely encountered many students who want to reread a beloved book from childhood and return to a perceived state of childhood innocence, and they initially regard a broader, critical rereading (whether grounded in Critical Race Theory or another lens) as an acquiescence to disillusionment. One thing I've asked students to consider is why the word "disillusion" carries a negative connotation. Isn't losing one's illusions a good thing? Isn't it a step toward authenticity, honesty, and openness to other perspectives and experiences?

Stacy, I've seen you post on Twitter a bit about the course you're planning, and I am honored you're including this post. Have you seen Sarah Hannah Gomez's Horn Book piece: Decolonizing Nostalgia? It came out too late for me to assign last semester, but I referenced it in class. I'd love to talk with you about your class someday and trade notes.

Cheriee, I'll respond in another post because this one got too long...

Thanks again for commenting everyone.

Unknown said...

Cheriee, Pippi Longstocking was a book I tried to read with my kids and then stopped reading just a few pages in. The myriad references to "cannibals" and such put me right over the edge. I'd be interested to know what your rereading brings you.

I'm a reviewer too (for the Horn Book and Kirkus) and I hope I'm not overstepping by saying that if you "feel incompetent to assess" a book you should tell your editor so. Sure, asking friends for input could help, but maybe your editor could find a reviewer better-suited to the task? It's humbling to say "I am not the right person for this job" but it's also potentially a moment of passing the mic to amplify the voice of someone who's been marginalized and who could offer a great deal.

And, when I've encountered books I have ideological or other objections to in an assignment from the Horn Book I've told them that if they want a positive review in the Magazine (as opposed to the Guide, which does carry negative reviews, too) I am not the right person to review it for xyz reasons. Sometimes they have reassigned a review, but most times they've taken my input and put a book in the Guide instead.

As for Kirkus, I've given negative reviews to many books there (sometimes for ideological reasons sometime not), but the anonymity rule won't let me say which ones. And in a few cases my reviews there have even prompted publishers to make changes to problematic content, or they have sparked broader discussion of books on various blogs and social media. It's hard not to jump in on those conversations myself, but I don't. My review is my contribution. And, I can also think of a few time when I've reviewed a book and missed something that someone else points out in another review, on social media, or on a blog, and then I kick myself a little, listen a lot, and try to do better.

I understand the impulse to be "pissed off" at authors, but I think it's more about the systems that allow books to make it through several stages of vetting and editing only to reach f&g or print stage with racist or otherwise problematic content intact. We know that individual authors are people who make mistakes and have limitations like everyone else, but perhaps tied to this discussion of nostalgia and sentimentality is the impulse to make celebrities of authors and hold them up as somehow infallible or untouchable. I haven't thought that through, but it seems related.

Thanks again for your reply

Ms. Anna said...

Thanks, again, Megan for your response. I really appreciated your article as it put into words what I was too frustrated to say. I too have had those same responses in my ignorant past, and I want more than that from places like Horn Book--it's frustrating to see such an uncritical piece on such a big platform. I understand it, I just want us to be better/further along and my frustration really came through that day.

We met briefly at ALA via Melissa ZD, and what I admire about both of you is the careful consideration and kindness you put into your words--even about hard topics. I tend to have an emotional reaction long before I can articulate what is actually bothering me, so I always appreciate and learn from you thoughtful people :)

Unknown said...

Yes--I remember meeting both of you there (you had on a great dress, blue I think?). I'm so looking forward to Annual next month. Maybe our paths will cross? And for what it's worth, I think letting emotions (including frustration and anger) get the best of us *is* best sometimes, and it's honest and often just plain generous.