Friday, June 30, 2017

Roundup of Links, post-ALA Edition

Well, another ALA (American Library Association) Annual Conference has come and gone. And while we are tired – like, really tired, friends – it’s worth noting that there are different levels of “tired.” Check out these amazing post-ALA reflections from women of color to find out more about this:

  • Edi Campbell discusses her conference experience in characteristically perceptive language here; at one point she references...
  • ...this post from April Hathcock, wherein Hathcock discusses the exhaustion that comes from being a person of color in an overwhelmingly White space; and finally,
  • Sarah Park Dahlen talks about her ALA here, finishing with a call to young librarians of color: “We see you,” writes Dahlen. “We’re here for you. We do the work for you, and the young people we all serve.”
  • This one isn’t from a woman of color, but it’s another excellent wrap-up from the conference. ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children, a division of ALA) blogger Alec Chunn, who refers to himself as a white man in his post, talks about his takeaways from Annual, including a thoughtful discussion of a diversity panel in which the speakers of color experienced microaggressions at the hands of the White facilitator.
Moving on from post-conference thoughts:

Here’s to a restful and restorative weekend for all of you.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Reviewing While White: The Warden's Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

By Allie Jane Bruce

Set in the 1950s in the fictional town of Two Mills, PA, The Warden’s Daughter tells the story of 12-year-old Cammie’s spiral into depression and rage as she is forced to finally come to terms with her mother’s death and her own impending young-adulthood.

I find much in this book troubling, but first and foremost Boo Boo’s character--or should I say caricature?  To me, she reads as little more than a stereotype of a sassy Black woman.  Here’s an excerpt:

    “Now,” Boo Boo went on, “she be up there”--she gestured toward the apartment--“snootin’ around with y’all.  Like she live there…” She reached down between her bosoms and pulled out a huge red bandana.  She dusted my face with it, made me laugh.  “Y’all tell your daddy, fire that arnge hair and hire on Boo Boo.  Boo Boo’ll do him some dustin’ like he ain’t never seen!”

Here, we see a Black woman caricatured and dehumanized (her speech and “bosoms” add to the stereotype) asking, like a good mammy figure, to do some cleaning for her paternalistic White prison warden.  I wonder how many times this will be read aloud in classrooms, and how the above section will land with Black students (particularly Black girls) in the room.  I also ask: why is Boo Boo the only one with a nickname (Boo Boo? seriously?) rather than a real name?

Boo Boo’s function in the book goes from (stereotypical) comic relief to (spoiler) her suicide, which serves to propel Cammie even further into depression and self-destruction.  So, this Black character is functionally a non-humanized tool used to further the complex White main character’s development--a pattern that’s been identified as a problem in stories from Blood Diamond to To Kill a Mockingbird.

I also question the taste and wisdom of presenting a nostalgic, voyeuristic view of prison (centering a White warden and his daughter) with no racial examination or unpacking.  No book is published or exists in a vacuum, and publishing The Warden’s Daughter in the face of public cries to examine mass incarceration seems willfully ignorant at best.  In a time when we need children’s books that shine a light on the structural racism embedded in the prison system, I hope that authors and publishers have more, and better, books in store.  Those seeking more relevant and topical prison stories might try Jacqueline Woodson’s Miracle’s Boys and After Tupac and D Foster.  Other ideas?  Leave them in the comments!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Reviewing While White: Loving Vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell


Powell, Patricia Hruby. Loving vs. Virginia. Ill. Shadra Strickland. Chronicle Books, 2017. 260 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4521-2590-9

One of my favorite podcasts is Politically Reactive hosted by comedians W. Kamau Bell (who has a new (adult) book out this season) and Hari Kondabolu.  The duo take on big contemporary issues with a healthy dose of humor.  There are plenty of episodes that make me laugh while simultaneously producing outrage.  In a recent episode the guys talked with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Kahn-Cullors about a range of issues including the erasure of Black women’s voices historically (such as Fannie Lou Hamer) through to the present moment (including BLM).

Thankfully Fannie Lou Hamer’s words are available to youth in Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Ekua Holmes (Candlewick Press).  When I read Weatherford’s book I was stunned by Hamer’s story and that I had never read or heard anything about her.  Weatherford and Holmes reclaimed a voice that was nearly lost to us. Voice of Freedom is an example of the  potential of youth publishing to uncover stories and voices that have been suppressed. It set a promising standard for future books.  This is why I found myself with a mixed reaction to Loving vs. Virginia:  A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Shadra Strickland.

Powell does an admirable job of crafting a narrative of this interracial love story. It is ideally suited for a young adult audience.  The lives of the Lovings in picture book form never really worked for me. Powell has shared why she wrote this book as a documentary novel:

“I could show the two falling in love and running through the woods at night. I could show Sheriff Garnet stopping Richard’s car and saying about Mildred, “Who you got in there?” rather than just writing that the sheriff was racist and stopped black people in cars in order to intimidate them. In a “documentary novel,” I could show all this and also create dialogue that draws the reader into the emotional heart of the story.”

Accompanied by Strickland’s illustrations, these imagined scenes do serve to make the story more novelistic.  Do they serve to effectively document the past?  I’ve learned from many wise book evaluators that we must consider a book as it is and not as we wish it to be. Powell’s stated purpose was to add fictional elements that would string together the historical record.  She has accomplished her purpose on the fictional side. The beautifully illustrated fictionalized scenes are joined by period piece photos and newspapers. The book falls short when it comes to expanding the historical record. Why write a documentary novel if not to enlarge the factual knowledge about events?

My disappointment is the information that was gathered but left out.  The acknowledgements by Powell reveal that she has done the hard work of a documentarian - beating the pavement to interview many people associated with or connected to the Lovings. Specifically, she met with members of the Rappahannock Nation, yet this thread of the narrative is missing in the story.

There are many unanswered questions about Mildred Jeter Loving when it comes to her tribal ancestry.  Debbie Reese* has done exhaustive research on this topic at her blog American Indians in Children's Literature.   Here is a succinct timeline by Dr. Reese that highlights the conflicting social and political identify issues of a bi-racial woman in the U.S.

“In the 1950s, Mildred Jeter said she was Indian. We don't know if she said that out of a desire to avoid being discriminated against, or if she said that because she was already living her life as one in which she firmly identified as being Indian. Either way, it is what she said about who she was on the application for a marriage license.

In the 1960s, because Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving's marriage violated miscegenation laws, their case went before the Supreme Court of the United States. To most effectively present their case, the emphasis was on her being Black.

In the 2000s, Jeter and her children said they are Indian, and specified Rappahannock as their nation.”

This raises so many questions about the life of Mildred Jeter Loving. The information that was gathered by Powell from Rappahannock voices was left out of this story. I don’t believe this was a purposeful erasure by Powell.  Erasing First/Native Nation voices and lives is so deeply rooted in White culture it continues to happen with little conscious thought by most of us White folks. What is the purpose and promise of a documentary novel for children and teens?  To me, this documentary novel would reveal more about the Rappahannock Nation and Jeter's connection to it, and explore why Jeter felt the need to avoid the discussion amid the politics of the 1960s.

~ Ernie Cox 

*We’ve received some criticism here at RWW for relying heavily on Debbie Reese’s scholarship on First/Native Nations.  For me there are two simple reasons I point to her work.  1.) She has done more research on this topic than anyone else I can find. 2.) She has influenced my thinking on this topic and I MUST give visible credit to her.  To do otherwise would mean erasing her voice (for more about how White men have systematically robbed the intellectual work of Persons of Color or First/Native Nations look at Hidden Figures or Breakthrough! How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever by Jim Murphy.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Stepping into the Gap

Last week I read Edi Campbell’s blog post Voices.

It’s been rubbing against my conscience--and consciousness--ever since.  Even as I was reading it I felt it--the friction of absence, ironically. The discomfort of acknowledging what I missed as a White reader. I was blind to the racist image that can be seen in Voices in the Park. I didn't see it back in 1998, when it originally came out in the United States, and not the last time I took a look at it.

I’m not going to spend time talking about intent. I’m not going to spend time arguing whether or not the image of the gorilla in the book is racist.  I’m not going to spend time criticizing or defending the book.  None of that is the point for me right now.

The point is that my understanding of the gap between what I see in a book as a White reader and what readers who aren’t White may see was further illuminated. I’ve known the gap is there; I try to be mindful of it.  But it’s so much bigger than I realized. A flashlight isn’t enough to illuminate it. A floodlight may not be enough. The only way to understand it is to step into it.

The point, as Edi Campbell writes, is about perception. And I need to be out in that gap, beyond what I can clearly see, beyond my comfort zone, to begin to understand perspectives beyond my own. 

What all of us see and do not see is influenced by our experiences and by the internalized racism that lives in our hearts and minds and pulses through society. We didn’t invite it to take up residence, but there it is anyway, blocking the light and we don’t even necessarily know it.

But once we do know it, we can’t ignore it. Not if we want change in the children’s and young adult book world and change in society as a whole. But as we in the children’s and young adult literature world have proven over and over, we often can’t talk about the impact of racism on the work we do without backing into corners, because it makes us so uncomfortable.

Sure those of us who are White readers and writers and editors and critics can live with our limited field of vision; we can choose not to step into the gap. We’re doing fine. But others are not. Sometimes they’re hurting. Sometimes they’re angry. Sometimes they’re dying.  

Any newspaper will tell you this is not hyperbole.

None of this is easy, for anyone. Edi asks herself,

“When am I sensible and when am I sensitive? When am I giving into my own colonized thinking (not seeing things), when am [I] waking people up and when am I crying wolf? And what do others think? Publishers have to be able to trust marginalized people when we say ‘this is wrong’. Yet, when do we really know whether an image is being used to exoticize human diversity (and reinforces age old stereotypes) or simply to express creativity? I do think this deserves a robust discussion, yes of course on this blog, but even more so in publishing houses where images are created and taken to our children.”

Are we up for that? Are we up for robust discussion, not to mention an honest accounting? Are we ready to step into the gap? If we aren’t, then I believe these very same conversations we’ve been having in one way or another for well over fifty years will continue for another fifty with too little to show for them. Gains will be made, but I’m guessing they will be made largely outside the publishing mainstream, not within it. Within it, we will be asking the same questions we’re asking now, we were asking years ago.

Gains outside the mainstream are not enough. Good intentions are not enough, either.

Edi asks, In the 21st century can we not be sophisticated enough to overcome colonization of our minds?”

I would also ask, Can we not be courageous enough and compassionate enough to do so, either?

Megan Schliesman

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Roundup of Links, pre-ALA Edition

This time of the year can be a bit wild for those of us in the children’s literature world. Whether you are a public librarian with crowds of children at your summer reading programs, a school librarian or teacher breathing a sigh of relief after another school year, the parent of a child with the summer ahead of your family, or in some other way busy, we hope you are able to take a few moments of calm each day. Easier said than done!

Here’s a handful of links that are recommended reading:

* The U.S. political landscape is obviously a shitshow right now, but here is a practical look at the ways we as White people can be aware of and help change our behaviors that perpetuate racism.

* More practical advice here, this time on how to support books created by people of color and First/Native Nations.

* Laura Jiménez brings back a letter she wrote in the wake of the Pulse shootings in Orlando last June, and it is an absolute must-read.

* Finally, Edi Campbell takes a look at representation through non-human characters in children’s books, using Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park as an entryway.

All seven of us will be at ALA this coming weekend in Chicago. If you see one of us, please stop and say hello!