Tuesday, April 23, 2019

An Open Letter to the Children's Book Guild

Today, Martha Brockenbrough, Julie Foster Hedlund, and Ishta Mercurio ask for action and change from the Children's Book Guild in response to an incident that occurred at a recent event.

Please read the letter below and leave a comment that includes your name if you'd like to lend your support.

[Ed. 9am 4/25/19: Please note that we will wrap up signature gathering at 8pm EST tonight (Thursday, April 25th), and will also close comments at that time. We will send this letter with signatures to the CBG the following morning.
Update 8:15pm 4/25/19: Comments are now closed.]

April 23, 2019
Rhoda Trooboff
Children’s Book Guild

Dear Ms. Trooboff:

We are members of the children’s book community writing in support of Carole Lindstrom, who was treated in an unacceptable manner at a recent luncheon. We are also writing in support of Dr. Debbie Reese, a respected authority in children’s literature and the representation of American Indians. And we are writing to suggest some changes to your protocol for handling these incidents when they occur.

To summarize what happened: Your membership chair, Jacqueline Jules, initiated a conversation with Ms. Lindstrom during the lunch. Ms. Jules wanted to know what Ms. Lindstrom thought of Dr. Reese, and the intentions behind Ms. Jules’s questioning do not appear to be benign.

Dr. Reese, who is so respected in the field as to be selected to give the prestigious May Hill Arbuthnot lecture, is frequently criticized by people who do not wish to understand her work, and who do not wish to understand the nuances of cultural representation. She is beloved by people who are committed to writing better books for the children we serve. She is patient, generous with her time, straightforward with her comments, and has made a groundbreaking difference in understanding racism directed at Indigenous people.

Ms. Jules’ question itself was inappropriate. Dr. Reese is an industry professional, and it is in bad form to disparage an industry professional at an industry function. Furthermore, when Ms. Lindstrom explained that Dr. Reese is a friend, Ms. Jules should have dropped the subject to respect that statement and the boundary it implied. Ms. Jules did not. Instead, she continued, prompting Ms. Lindstrom to leave the luncheon. Then she initiated unwanted physical contact with Ms. Lindstrom, and then she followed her outside after Ms. Lindstrom had made it clear she wanted no part of the discussion.

No one inside the room did anything to end this disturbing treatment or to intervene on behalf of a guest. What’s more, when your organization heard Ms. Lindstrom’s complaint, you shared it with Ms. Jules without first getting Ms. Lindstrom’s consent. And you do not seem to have any sort of policy for your organization on harassment, or any protocol in place for bystanders to intervene and end the harassment. It also confused many people aware of what had transpired that your organization would choose this week to single out Ms. Jules as “Author of the Day,” a choice that seems the opposite of apologetic. [Clarification: The “Author of the Day” designation was created by the Chesapeake Children’s Festival, not by the Children’ Book Guild. The CBG was boosting the promotion.]

We, the undersigned, believe the Children’s Book Guild owes Ms. Lindstrom and Dr. Reese apologies, and we believe you would be well-served by creating policies that protect people from harassment of all sorts when they attend your meetings.

Sincerely yours,

Martha Brockenbrough
Julie Foster Hedlund
Ishta Mercurio

Martha Brockenbrough is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction for young readers. She teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Julie Foster Hedlund is an author, freelance writer, and founder of 12x12, program to support motivation and accountability for picture book writers.
Ishta Mercurio is the author of the forthcoming picture book SMALL WORLD, illustrated by Jen Corace and published by Abrams.

[Ed. 6:45pm 4/23/19: We hear some people are having trouble commenting. If this is you, please feel free to email us, readingwhilewhite@gmail.com, with the text of your comment. We'll be glad to post it on your behalf.]

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Seizing the Narrative

On Saturday April 13th I attended the 2019 Arbuthnot Honor Lecture delivered by Dr. Debbie Reese.  It was clarifying and motivating, and  I have since been thinking more about the way the work of Dr. Reese and other BIPOC colleagues is framed within the field of youth literature.

In her April 4th column at Kirkus Reviews that looked forward to the lecture, Children’s Editor Vicky Smith provided a much-needed counterpoint to the wave of attacks on “Toxic Twitter” and the marginalizing of bloggers within the youth literature industry.   In it, I see her deliberately using language of active change-making often used to defame women of color and Native women, and instead praising it (emphases added):
“I celebrate the Diversity Jedi who have seized the children’s-literature conversation from those who’ve controlled it and forced it to open up.”
“Reese’s is one voice among many that have been raised in sustained, earned rage over the past several years, demanding that the industry do better in its representation of marginalized identities.”
“The methods of the Diversity Jedi are often not gentle. I know this from personal experience. But (if you permit the extension of the metaphor) it takes concerted, violent effort to take out the Death Star.”
She defends the use of “rage” and “violent effort” to make needed positive change against a force that is in itself violent, as she alludes through her “Death Star” metaphor, and that is an appropriate argument.   But I am also concerned that without understanding why and how these kinds of words have been used to denounce Dr. Reese and BIPOC Diversity Jedi, this argument might play into the hands of those who condemn anger when it comes from a BIPOC community—most frequently women of color and Native women—as a way of shoring up the status quo of White supremacy.

We all get angry, but only some of us are allowed to express it “righteously.”  I emailed briefly with Vicky Smith this week regarding her editorial and the issues it brought up for me, and she pointed out: "I figure if people are mad, it’s a good idea to try to understand why."  So I’d like to think about other ways to describe what we are doing when we engage in these critical spaces, and how to recognize what we each bring with us to that space.
What others have called “angry” I have understood to be raising one’s voice to be heard because White people are not listening.  
What others have condemned as “violent” I see as activism that threatens the status quo, to which the status quo reacts.
What others have called “unprofessional” I see as colleagues disrupting an unspoken code of Whiteness that has nothing to do with our work, and in fact prevents us from doing our work by preventing us from questioning.
Here are other words to describe the work of the Dr. Reese and many of the Diversity Jedi:  

  • Inquisitiveness. Seeing something not right—Whiteness’s refusal to admit the stranglehold it has on children’s literature—Dr. Reese asks questions.  She has dedicated her career to it, and her critical analyses are based in questions. By asking a question, she asks us to engage in a different perspective, which is surely the point of critical analysis, but may not be where Whiteness was trying to keep the conversation. I think this is what is perceived of as “seizing the conversation.”
  • Persistence.  Undoing the hold of White supremacy on our professional discourse and the creative process of writing and illustrating books and media for youth is the work of generations. Racism is persistent, so only by exposing and pressing against it persistently can we make any change.  I think this is what is perceived of as “demanding.”  
  • Intrepidness.  Every time I see Dr. Reese speak, I am amazed at how undaunted she appears.  Not fearless, perhaps, but working with clear sight of the threats facing her.  I think this is what is perceived of as “not gentle.” What does being gentle with racism get anyone?

I don’t want to suggest that we shouldn’t use the right word, or seek to reclaim the right to “earned rage,” but I do want White people to recognize the work that our BIPOC colleagues do to engage in our common critical spaces, and the rhetorical tactics that are frequently used against them and are designed to elude the White gaze.   
It means so much to the future of our field that Dr. Reese was selected to give the 2019 Arbuthnot Lecture, and that the video of this lecture was recorded and archived.   There is much to take away from this talk, and I encourage you to watch the whole thing…even if you already saw it live.   For my own work, the main takeaway was a line of inquiry that Dr. Reese posited about half way through, in regards to what makes an award-winning book.  It’s a segment that typifies what I would call Dr. Reese’s intrepid, persistent inquisitiveness. She is talking about the fact that there “is no neutrality” in books centered in a nostalgia for colonized Native land (transcription, and errors, my own):
“In fact, if you think about it, every children’s book that is set on this continent—that book is set on what used to be Native lands. If we could hold that fact front and center, every time we pick up a children’s book that is set on this continent, how might that change how we view children’s literature? How might that shape that literature as we move into the future? I don’t know—it’s hard to think about it…but I want to think about it.  I think we should think about it.”
These questions from her broke open a haze I have had in my mind in regards to struggling with nostalgia in literature.  I’m thinking about it. Dr. Reese got me thinking again, and I will be forever grateful to her for it, because I have some sense of what she’s staked to enter the conversation and move the narrative.  As have so many colleagues.  Thank you.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

An Open Letter to Scales on Censorship and School Library Journal

Reproduced, with permission from School Library
Journal © Copyright Library Journals, LLC
a wholly owned subsidiary of MSI Information Services
Each issue of School Library Journal contains a full-page segment entitled Scales on Censorship, where Pat Scales, former chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, answers questions on censorship. Today Sam Bloom responds to one question from the March 2019 piece, which is pictured here but can also be found here or on page 28 of the print copy.

Hello! I have read Scales on Censorship for quite a while, and like many others, I have trusted Pat Scales over the years to give well-reasoned responses to challenging questions.

However, I was taken aback by one of the responses in the March issue (see photo). In it, Pat Scales answers a question on how to handle “books containing any amount of cultural misrepresentation”; namely, “Where do we librarians draw the line between sensitivity and censorship?”

I agree that this is a tough question, one I grapple with on a daily basis. I also agree with Scales’s statement that it’s “our duty to purchase books that accurately portray the ethnicity of the main characters”; to that I’d add any number of intersecting identities (gender, sexuality, etc.). But I take issue with Scales’s qualifier that “to remove or refuse to purchase a book because someone sees a small inaccuracy is censorship.”

First of all, let’s talk about the choices book buyers make when deciding how to use their budgets. In terms of deciding not to purchase a book based on cultural inaccuracies, well, I feel like we’ve had this talk beforemany, many times before. Librarians make purchasing choices based on a book’s quality every day. Is it censorship to not purchase a book because it gets poor reviews? I’d say no–that’s simply an informed purchasing choice. And how could cultural inaccuracies *not* affect a book’s quality? (Also, if I may go back to Scales’s “small inaccuracy” comment? That inaccuracy may not seem so “small” to someone else. I also encourage Scales to examine the White privilege that allows her to minimize that which could cause pain to someone from a marginalized group by dubbing it “small”. Not to mention that Scales’s phrasing–“someone sees” an issue–subtly deemphasizes that problematic content in books really does exist, it’s not just people “seeing things.”)

Now on to the issue of librarians who “remove” books with problematic content. I see this referenced a lot in articles from mainstream press, and as an argument it lacks nuance. I certainly cannot say for sure that no single librarian has pulled a book from the shelves because they found it problematic, but in my experience this isn’t a recurring issue sweeping through libraries nationwide. In my large library system, we have hundreds of copies of Little House on the Prairie and its sequels; we also still have 20 live copies of a book that a publisher actually pulled from publication three years ago! And if you walk into a children’s room anywhere in the country, I wager you will find at least one copy of Ghosts in the collection.

Referring librarians to the WNDB resources page is a great call. I want to point out, however, that several of the sites listed by WNDB are curated by the very same “bloggers and library professionals” whose “strong opinions” regarding cultural representation in books leads them to “sometimes use their online space to aggressively influence book-purchasing decisions.” So I guess Scales recommends people read these bloggers *unless* they are critiquing a book, and as long as they conform to her idea of what meets the criteria for “non-aggressive”?  I don't think it's fair or constructive to those of us serving youth to reject the work of these individuals when they are critiquing representation while holding up their work when they are recommending books; both aspects of these bloggers’ work are critical to all of us serving children and teens. Scales’s whole framing of the power dynamics–bloggers are people who “aggressively influence” decision-makers by making problematic books their “target”–stems from a place of White privilege and fragility and fails to acknowledge that some books, and some content within books, in fact constitute acts of aggression against young readers.

Furthermore, I am also concerned with the way Scales framed A Fine Dessert within her response. Yes, it received some “excellent reviews,” but as Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey has shown, the overwhelmingly White/female/cishet world of reviews shouldn’t always be taken at face value. Not to mention that in March 2015, before any internet activity had gained steam in relation to A Fine Dessert, John Lithgow wrote this in his New York Times review: “In a bold and somewhat unsettling choice, they portray a smiling slave woman and her daughter….” Critique of this book was not limited to social media; and the fact that some critique does originate online does not lessen its validity. It is far past time for us to acknowledge and embrace the fact that some of the critical perspectives on books are coming not from review journals but from professionals in our field writing on blogs and elsewhere on social media. Again, let’s recognize our privilege as White people in the profession when we start picking and choosing when and if we are willing to listen to critical voices on social media. I believe we can fold these critical perspectives into our consideration and understanding of specific titles.

Here’s what Scales wrote next: “Instead of removing the title because bloggers thought a few pages were problematic, librarians should engage young readers in conversation about the controversy.” This remark feels flippant and dismissive of some scholarly and expert opinions, but I would also caution adults (especially White adults) that this is a conversation that would take a great deal of preparation and education for the adults in question. A poorly handled conversation with young children about slavery could very well reinforce stereotypes.

Finally, regarding Vamos a Cuba, Scales wrote that “other Cuban Americans” disagreed with the Cuban American school board member who first recommended the book be pulled from the shelves. Scales then asked, “Whom do you believe?” A shared heritage for any of us does not mean identical experiences or perspectives and so the fact that there was and is disagreement is not and should never be surprising. But this makes it all the more critical to be as informed as possible when making selection decisions when it comes to accuracy and authenticity, and today we are fortunate to have informed critical perspectives from professional sources outside those we have traditionally relied on. “Whom do you believe” is a starting point, not the end point, and there isn't necessarily a “right” or “wrong” answer for any book, but there are “informed” and “uninformed” choices, and it is our responsibility to be as informed as possible in selecting materials according to our local policies and procedures.

I don’t believe the two things in Scales’s last sentence should cancel each other out. I am working and listening and opening myself to ways of learning how to be culturally sensitive, *and* I am using my skills from library school (though not every librarian has been to library school, nor do I believe one has to go to library school to be an effective librarian) to understand the importance of reading reviews from journals such as School Library Journal *and* from blogs on our Kindred Spirits list. Which brings me to Scales’s closing thought, about the need to parse “which reviews and online tools to trust.” Questions about cultural authenticity and censorship do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they free of power imbalances and racist, oppressive legacies. I do not accept the binary thinking that says criticism = attack = censorship, and I encourage all White members of the children’s literature community–including myself, my fellow members of Reading While White, and Scales–to examine and question the White privilege we necessarily bring to these discussions. Until that happens, I no longer trust Pat Scales to give advice where censorship intersects with cultural representation.


Sam Bloom