Monday, May 13, 2019

Problematic Patterns In White Narratives About BIPOC Critique

“Cancel culture,” “Attack,” “Toxic,” “YA Twitter mob,” “McCarthyism,” “Apartheid,” “Online lynch mob,” “New-Age censorship,” “Orwellian,” “Cesspool,” “Public shaming,” “Pile-on culture,” “Thought police,” “Book burners,” “Diversity Stormtroopers,” “Cannibalistic,” “Dangerous people…”

The list goes on and on (and on and on). These are just some of the phrases regularly leveled at BIPOC scholars who utilize anti-racist lenses in their critiques of children’s literature.

Who levels these charges? Overwhelmingly, White people: librarians, teachers, book creators, publishing professionals, journalists, bloggers, and more.

Today, we examine patterns that crop up time and time again as White people create, disseminate, and escalate racist narratives about BIPOC advocates and criticism in the world of children’s literature.

(“We,” today, is Allie and Kazia Berkley-Cramer, our newest RWW member, who you can read more about at the end of this piece. Welcome, Kazia!)


Critique and criticism are an integral part of any literary or artistic community, and the world of children’s literature is no exception. Members of the community--reviewers, creators, librarians, teachers, booksellers, parents, authors and artists themselves--constantly share feedback publicly, whether on Goodreads, blogs, Twitter, or other preferred social media platforms. It’s part of the process. And at least once a year, a children’s or YA book--often a highly anticipated release--is publicly critiqued and the situation quickly escalates.

Here is the pattern we’re seeing:
  1. As per usual in children’s lit publishing, folks from the community get hold of a galley, egalley, jacket copy, art sample, early copy, etc. of a book.
  2. Folks (usually BIPOC) provide critique laying out the precise ways the work reinforces problematic, oppressive ideologies, sometimes asking others to reconsider their initial enthusiasm--sometimes publicly, sometimes privately, sometimes semi-privately. These are often intra-community conversations.
  3. White people, especially journalists with mainstream platforms and huge numbers of followers, blow up these discussions--mischaracterizing the nature of criticism, equating critique with attack, ascribing motives that include jealousy, attention-seeking, and downright malice, describing the critical community in ways that depend on racist and sexist stereotypes, crying “censorship” and “book banning” and leaving all nuanced discussions behind.
In her recent Arbuthnot lecture, Dr. Debbie Reese commented on the long history of this pattern, which predates social media and the Internet itself, and the media’s framing of these discussions. “Instead of taking children’s literature seriously… and the analysis that we try to do as critics of children’s literature, it got framed as entertainment, and drama. Assaults on freedom of speech. To the [Diversity] Jedi, those mainstream articles were ignoring the criticism that can shape children’s literature, and they were ignoring the audience for all these books. That audience is young people.… For the mainstream media, articles about these books were part of the 24-hour news cycle. They were big news in these 24-hour periods, gone from the next 24-hour cycle. But for the parents, and the teachers, and the librarians that use children’s books, and for the writers and editors and publishers, reviewers and critics who create, promote, and study children’s books, our concerns about books are not a 24-hour news cycle. For those of us who believe in the power of children’s books, we’re in it 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. We know children’s books shape the future. For hundreds of years, Whiteness has had its way, but today, we’re using social media to push against Whiteness.” (We highly recommend the entire speech, which you can see here. These remarks, 50:20-52:53.) The media’s framing, with its emphasis on “drama,” ignores the context of these discussions and their place in the long history of the fight for BIPOC representation. It also ignores the real impacts these books have on real people--primarily children.

When the overwhelmingly White, mainstream, media report on these “dramas,” they rarely include the voices of the BIPOC scholars whose critiques are under fire. We highly recommend following our Kindred Spirits (list on the right-hand side of the screen) as they lead the field of criticism as well as discussions about criticism. We especially recommend, in addition to viewing Dr. Reese’s Arbuthnot lecture, these Twitter threads by Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.


When White folks jump in, leveling charges of censorship and thought policing, responding as if the very existence of criticism with an anti-oppression lens is irrational and unexpected and new, they can literally endanger the lives of critics who have been doing this work for eons. To call criticism a “mob” or similar is to further marginalize already marginalized voices, to irrationalize them and often to equate oppressed groups with oppressors, such as when online voices are referred to as “lynch mobs.” Equating resistance to oppression with oppression itself is a highly effective, long-practiced technique used to weaken that resistance. Framing advocacy for marginalized groups as “violent” also ignores the fact that BIPOC critics run the risk of real violence from White supremacists and other terrorists who wish them bodily harm. The vast majority of us would never send a threat of violence, or wish such a thing on anyone, but when we White people buy into the narrative that BIPOC critics are “overly forceful” or “violent”--even White people who want to support their advocacy work--we are part of this problem.

Many times, White journalists (and non-journalists) cite the fact that many of these conversations happen on social media as evidence of the irrationality and ignorance informing it--conveniently disregarding that many of the people engaging and leading these discussions on social media are experts in their fields, with enormous credentials and decades of experience. White professionals frame the BIPOC who participate in criticism, especially women, as ringleaders, out to censor and damage other authors. This framing is rooted in racist and sexist stereotypes, not in facts. And although the presence or absence of scholarly qualifications shouldn’t ever disqualify someone’s lived experience, framing BIPOC critics doing advocacy work as an “angry Twitter mob” railroads over the fact that many of those prominent critics hold PhDs.

And when White journalists who employ all of the above techniques insert themselves into conversation about and/or among BIPOC critics and creators, they exploit the intra-community nature of these conversations and discredit the multi-varied expertise, opinions, and experience of Black, Indigenous, and people of color--an especially pernicious and toxic form of racism.

As Sam Bloom notes, we as a broad professional community, and White people in particular, need to come to terms with our hypocrisy in discussion criticism--who gets to be a critic, and when? Do we only cite BIPOC criticism when it’s convenient and furthers our viewpoint, or do we genuinely absorb what these scholars say to better form our own opinions? Do we value “professional” reviews over blogging and other social media, thereby prioritizing people who have the privilege of time (and thus also money) to review for journals, either completely for free or very little? While several organizations, including Kirkus and SLJ, have made a particular effort to diversify their staff of reviewers (in the best and broadest sense of the term), those with the time, energy, and connections outside of their “regular” jobs to take on this work are few and far between.

And, accusations of censorship are often wielded as clubs to strike down well-reasoned arguments; who gets to wield these clubs? Who gets to say “this is censorship” and have that sentiment believed? Throughout modern US history, the answer is almost always: White people. When BIPOC cite the CCBC statistics as evidence of the censorship of BIPOC voices, do prominent anti-censorship organizations like the NCAC and PEN throw the weight of their institutional support behind them? We’ve yet to see that.

Furthermore, whose books are canceled or postponed or celebrated by the establishment? Who bounces back, and how easily? We’ve seen an abundance of White authors and illustrators--Sophie Blackall, Jack Gantos, Daniel Handler, Meg Rosoff, Lane Smith, Raina Telgemeier, Jonah Winter, Nora Raleigh Baskin--win awards, headline book festivals, and publish further titles with ease after BIPOC scholars and critics laid bare the racism in their words, works, and deeds. Indeed, each of these authors had a long list of White protectors ready to go to bat for them, and none of them has had books actually canceled due to a public, critical outcry. This is White privilege at work.

Note, too, the pattern of specific anti-Blackness at work here--the protective outcry in defense of Black creators has been strikingly small in comparison to the fervent defense we see time and again of non-Black creators, especially of White creators. We urge anyone who believes Black creators are treated equally in this industry to check both the facts and their privilege.


Fellow White people, we ask you to consider how you perpetuate racism in how you talk and write about BIPOC critics. We ask that you evaluate your priorities, consider that books have an impact on their readers, and that impact CAN be harmful. We at Reading While White are White folks committed to learning about, and undoing, our White fragility in the context of how we respond to criticism--we ask you to join us in that commitment.

We ask you to consider this: choosing to not buy, not read, not keep, or not lift up books that are not in keeping with values of embracing equity is NOT censorship. Choosing not to provide additional platforms for creators who perpetuate racism and white supremacy is NOT censorship.

We ask that, before you level knee-jerk and irresponsible accusations of “censorship”, you consider this: do you believe that critics have the right to criticize? Or does that not fall under your definition of “free speech”? And, in turn, by leveling charges of censorship, who might you be silencing? We ask you to listen and understand critique for exactly what it is: asks for action, asks for better.

-Allie Jane Bruce
-Kazia Berkley-Cramer is excited to be joining the team at Reading While White! She’s been an avid (but quiet) reader of the blog since its inception, and is honored to be jumping into the fray. She is a White children’s librarian at a medium-sized public library, and in addition to an MS in library science, she also holds an MA in children’s literature. She co-founded the Stonewall speculation blog Medal on My Mind, is a book reviewer, and served as a member of the 2019 Sibert Award committee.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

An Open Letter Regarding The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter Exhibit at the UMN Children’s Literature Research Collections

Today, members of the children’s literature community ask for action and change from the curators of an exhibit currently housed at the University of Minnesota.

Please read the letter below and leave a comment that includes your name if you would like to lend your support. (If you have trouble commenting, please email us at with the text of your comment, and we will gladly post it on your behalf.)

[Ed. 9am 5/9/19: Please note that we will wrap up signature gathering at 4:30 pm EST today (Thursday, May 9), and will also close comments at that time. We will send this letter with signatures to the Kerlan Board this afternoon at their board meeting. Ed. 4:30pm 5/9/19: Comments for this post are now closed.]

May 8, 2019
Leonard S. Marcus and Lisa Von Drasek, Curators
Members of the Kerlan Board
The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter
Children’s Literature Research Collections (CLRC Kerlan)
Anderson Library, University of Minnesota

Dear Mr. Marcus and Ms. Von Drasek,

We write to you today to ask for a public response to concerns regarding the erasure of racism in books and by authors featured in the exhibit, The ABC of It: Why Childrens Books Matter, that was first mounted at The New York Public Library in 2013 and brought to the University of Minnesota CLRC with an accompanying book in February of 2019.

Racism in societal institutions is more visible than ever and is being addressed in museums, schools, and in the children’s book industry. In this moment, the exhibit that proclaims that “children’s books matter” uses children’s books and words about those books to tell Indigenous People and People of Color that their children’s experiences with anti-Native and racist books do not matter.

Before the exhibit’s opening events on February 26 and 27, Trisha Speed Shaskan and other children’s book authors questioned Von Drasek on her directive to docents:

“Don’t be political. Do be culturally sensitive. For example Dr. Seuss was a racist. Yes he was, there is certainly a time and a place to discuss this. Comments can be put on post-its on the second floor. Caddie Woodlawn is racist. Yes it is. Again we welcome discussion. This exhibit is through one lens, there are others.” (Lisa Von Drasek, docent training document)

We are astonished that while Von Drasek acknowledged the well-documented histories of these books’ racist content, she refused to add new signage. Instead, she added a display of academic articles in the corner of the second floor. The exhibit opened and was not well-received by many members of the children’s literature community, particularly because neither the February 26 nor February 27 event included Q&A opportunities to publicly address these concerns with both Leonard Marcus and Lisa Von Drasek. On March 6, Von Drasek added signage to a few of the exhibits, but their placement and size are insufficient. She also began publishing a series of blog posts addressing the racism in Seuss and Caddie Woodlawn on the UMN Continuum’s Blue Ox Review page, but when they were criticized, they were revised, deleted, and republished again, without explanation.

Another response was to announce the “The ABC of It: Whose Story is Being Told? Race, Inclusion, and Representation in Childrens Literature” panel, to be held on May 10. Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens, authors of an article on Seuss, and Dawn Quigley, author of an article on Caddie Woodlawn, were invited to speak on the panel. When Ishizuka and Stephens learned about the whiteness and whitewashing of the exhibit and hostile responses to those who had spoken out about it, they communicated their concerns to Von Drasek in writing and verbally. Von Drasek failed to address, or even acknowledge, any of their concerns, which reflected the collective concerns of their colleagues of color, who have been silenced, ignored, gaslighted, and further marginalized through this process. In protest of the individual and institutional racism occurring around the exhibit, they canceled their participation in the panel.

On Friday, May 3, the panel was canceled because the fourth panelist, Andrea Davis Pinkney, was not able to attend. The web page with that announcement indicated that it may be rescheduled. There was no invitation to ask other panelists, or for the event to continue with Dawn Quigley.

While blog posts and panels can be useful, they are ultimately of no use to the initial visitors who went through the exhibit without the new signage providing some context to artists like Theodor Geisel or with books like Caddie Woodlawn and Little Black Sambo. As well, they are of little use to those reading the accompanying book.

Given the totality of these events, and because the exhibit is expected to travel to new communities, we the undersigned members of the children’s book community in Minnesota and beyond, recognize that the CLRC is an essential and respected institution in the study of children’s literature and therefore respectfully request that the CLRC:

1.      Acknowledge that The ABC of It exhibit and book were flawed in their inception and execution
2.      Explain why blog posts were posted, revised, deleted, and re-posted without comment
3.      Update the accompanying The ABC of It book to include more context for Seuss, Caddie Woodlawn, and other problematic works as identified
4.      Agree that the exhibit, as it travels to new communities, and the digital educational materials to be launched in September 2019, will contain the additional signage and/or more information
5.      Include the BIPOC literary community in future exhibit- and event-planning committees.

We await your reply.


John Coy, children’s book author, former Kerlan Board member and Kerlan Award winner

Sarah Park Dahlen, Associate Professor and former Kerlan Board member

Shannon Gibney

Katie Ishizuka, The Conscious Kid

Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe), Asst professor, children's book author

Debbie Reese (Nambé Pueblo), American Indians in Children’s Literature; 2019 Arbuthnot Lecturer

Stephen Shaskan, current Kerlan Board member, children’s book author & illustrator

Trisha Speed Shaskan, Kerlan volunteer, children’s book author

Ramón Stephens, The Conscious Kid

Martha Brockenbrough, children’s book author

Anne Ursu, children’s book author

Kelly Barnhill, children’s book author

Edith Campbell, librarian; blogger

Nina Victor Crittenden, children’s book illustrator and author

Sarah Hamburg

Laura Hamor

Sarah Warren, children’s book author/early childhood educator

Kirstin Cronn-Mills, children’s book author and educator

H.M. Bouwman, Professor and children’s author

Dr. Laura M. Jimenez, Boston University

Sally Morgan, children’s book author

Kristin Johnson, children’s book author, writing instructor

Stephanie Watson, children’s book author

Cristina Rhodes, PhD

Bao Phi, Children’s Book author

Andrew Karre

Megan Maynor, children’s book author

Swati Avasthi, children’s book author and professor

John Yopp

Nicholas Yopp

Savita Yopp, student

Molly Beth Griffin, children’s book author and educator

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

Susan Marie Swanson, children’s book author and educator

Tasslyn Magnusson, PhD, poet and children’s book author

Olivia Ghafoerkhan, children’s book author and professor

Cori Doerrfeld, children’s book author and illustrator

Regina Santiago

Chayse Sundt, youth librarian

Mike Jung, children’s book author

Kristin McIlhagga, PhD

Megan Atwood, children’s book author and professor

Kate Messner, children’s book author and educator

Marcie Rendon, author

Charlotte Sullivan Wild, children's book author, former educator

Jean Mendoza, PhD

Laura Ruby, children’s book author and educator

Peter Pearson, children’s book author

Sherrie Fernandez-Williams

Links to more information regarding the exhibit:
       Marcus, Leonard. 2019. The ABC of It: Why Childrens Books Matter. University of Minnesota Press.
       Kirch, Claire. 2019 January 10. Kerlan Collection Adapts 2013 ‘The ABC of ItExhibition. Publishers Weekly.
       Reese. Debbie. 2019 March 6. Debbie. A Critical Review of THE ABC OF IT: WHY CHILDRENS BOOKS MATTER by Leonard Marcus. American Indians in Children’s Literature blog.
       Kirch, Claire. 2019 March 7. The ABC of ItOpens at the Kerlan Collection: A Photo Essay. Publishers Weekly.
       Kirch, Claire. 2019 March 12. An ABC of Controversy: The Kerlan Collection Tweaks Exhibit in Response to Concerns about Racism. Publishers Weekly.
       Reese, Debbie. 2019 May 2. A Brief Visit to Minneapolis. Twitter.