When I first learned about Jane Mount’s Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany, I was excited. (I love books! This is a book about loving books? What is there not to love?!) My heart sank, however, when I saw this preview spread of the “Formative Faves” page via Amazon:
Almost every book featured in this spread was written by a White person—and one of them is Little House on the Prairie. (I'm not sure that having your humanity denied to you through racist depictions and erasure in literature—both singularly and systemically—inspires bibliophilia.) Every human illustrated on this page is depicted with the same shade of pinky-pale skin. I know that this is just one spread of the book, and there are attempts elsewhere to include voices of readers and authors of varying identities; still, the message this particular spread sends to me is that the “Formative Faves” page was made with White readers in mind.
The stories I read in my own formative years are not too different from those listed in the book. If I made a list of my favorite books from when I was a kid, only one title would be a book by an author of color. There are more racist titles by White people in my childhood memories than authentic multicultural stories or #OwnVoices texts. I can’t change what I read as a child, nor can I deny my majority-White authored reading history. I will never know how much I missed out on, how many stories I did not get to hear, because creators were not given opportunities to write or publish their own stories and also because my grown-up gatekeepers did not give me access to all of the books that were published. I will spend a lifetime trying to understand the effect this lack of connection to these stories and problematic representation in these stories had on my development and socialization. I must continue working to unlearn the lessons taught subtly and explicitly through the stories I did and did not (and still today, do and do not) have opportunities to read.
When I think about my childhood reading, I can choose not to think about the racist books I loved. Because I do not face racism as a White person, it is easy for me to (though I am working to not do this) fall into the trap of making racism a “thought experiment” or glossing over what is problematic. This is all a result of privilege. I don’t have to carry the trauma of having to suffer through book lists, read alouds, and a celebrated ‘canon’ of books that dehumanize or erase me because I am White. When I think about my childhood reading experiences and I feel warm and fuzzy, these feelings are a result of all of the books I connected with as a kid, the books that affirmed me, all of the racial mirrors I had (taking Rudine Sims Bishop’s metaphor into account). Those feelings of coziness and belonging are NOT universal, and White readers like me have to stop pretending that they are. Racist books, even those from the past, are not ever reflective of the way all people “thought back then.” As long as there have been books, there have been people fighting racism in books—and today, with more knowledge, I can be thoughtful in choosing which books from my past I want to celebrate in my present.
Nostalgia for a racist institution like #kidlit (or politics, or school, or film, or theater, or fine art) will always support racism. Because children’s lit is an institution brimming with White supremacy culture, nostalgia reflects and perpetuates this reality. In our capitalistic society, #kidlit book nostalgia has also been commodified—and its racism has been embedded in that too. Do you love Out of Print clothing? Take a look at how many T-shirts you can buy that celebrate books by creators of color (not many). How about MerryMakers dolls or the children’s literature posters made by Litographs? See how few IPOC artists are represented in what is available.
I’m not saying that people should not celebrate a favorite book or author with a tote bag or other merchandise. I am asking my fellow White people to think more about what the tote bag selection says about the industry and its history, and what systems these collections of merchandise continue to support. Book nostalgia and capitalism will never stop chugging out book-themed stuff for us to consume, but librarians, teachers, and readers can work to see how this too is part of the push to romanticize the past—and that ‘looking back’ also impacts our culture of today. Whenever and however we celebrate this past, and assume that readers’ formative experiences were positive and affirming, who are we assuming as the default audience? When White stories, creators, and readers are centered over and over and over again—White people like me are being told that we matter more. That our stories matter more. That our lives matter more. We see this in the “classics.” We see this in what book T-shirt options exist. And this has a direct connection to the inequities we see today, from the practitioner end (for example, the lack of racial diversity in upcoming conference lineups like #mra50) and publishing (see CCBC’s most recent statistics on racial diversity in children’s book publishing).
Last month I had a chance to visit the American Writers Museum. In the room focused on children’s literature, there is a mural celebrating children’s “classics.” Unsurprisingly, this mural reflects both the lack of diversity in children’s literature as well as the overt (yet unchallenged in this display) racism in titles like Little House in the Big Woods and Island of the Blue Dolphins. Until there is equity in the children’s literature ecosystem, there will never be equity in our culture of #kidlit nostalgia or celebrations of the classics. We can’t erase nor can we forget the past, but we can choose when, why, and how much to focus on it. We can intentionally examine this past critically, following the lead of people doing this now using the hashtag #DisruptTexts. We can work to understand our nostalgia and the purpose it serves. Hopefully this work will translate into action, including conscious choices to focus less on upholding and romanticizing the past and more on what changes needs to happen, and what excellent books can be celebrated, today.