Thursday, November 7, 2019

When White Feelings Dominate

In an October 28 article titled “Yes, But… One Librarian’s Thoughts About Doing It Right” in OLA Quarterly (a special issue devoted to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion), librarian Heather McNeil shares her thoughts and feelings about a variety of subjects related to racism. Her piece is divided into four sections, titled as follows: “Collection Development”, “Dr. Seuss”, “Debbie Reese”, and “Reading While White.”

It is impossible for me to respond to this piece without appearing, to some at least, to be operating from a place of defensiveness; any assertion to the contrary will be met with some incredulity. Nevertheless, regardless of whether we’re believed, I can honestly say that this piece is not the result of, or meant to be a response to, the criticisms McNeil directs at Reading While White. If you want to read what she says about us, you’re welcome to check out her article, and to agree or disagree with her at your discretion.

I am, however, deeply troubled by the blatant disrespect Ms. McNeil directs towards our colleague Dr. Debbie Reese. McNeil’s language, and the content of her attack on Dr. Reese, are part of a larger pattern of White dismissal of Dr. Reese’s work; I’ve heard many White people disparage Dr. Reese using similar tactics.

Before you continue reading the rest of this post, please read Dr. Reese’s response here if you haven’t already.

Now, here are my own reactions.

1 - Never does McNeil refer to Dr. Reese as “Dr.” She calls her “Debbie Reese” and “Ms. Reese”, ignoring and erasing the scholarship and qualifications that Dr. Reese brings to her work. She also neglects to name that Dr. Reese is Native (she is tribally enrolled, Nambé Pueblo), thereby dismissing the lens of expertise Dr. Reese brings to her work through her lived experiences as a Native person.

2 - McNeil titles the paragraph “Debbie Reese”. She does not title it “American Indians In Children’s Literature” (the title of Dr. Reese’s blog) or “An Indigenous Critique of Whiteness In Children’s Literature” (the title of Dr. Reese’s Arbuthnot lecture, which McNeil criticizes). In titling the section “Debbie Reese”, McNeil levels an attack on Dr. Reese as a person, rather than criticizing Dr. Reese’s ideas, words, or actions.

I’m speaking to my fellow White people now. If you retain only one thing from this response piece, please let it be this: When you name your BIPOC colleagues without their permission, you are potentially putting them in danger. The words that seem innocuous to you can become lightning rods for some (like Neo-Nazis and the alt-right) who seek to do real harm to BIPOC people. I am so grateful to the BIPOC people who have educated me about this.

3 - McNeil begins the passage about Dr. Reese thusly:

“Hoo boy. Opening a can of worms here.”

This is, in written form, what many of us have heard countless times in conversations in professional spaces. Someone says “Debbie Reese” (almost always omitting the “Dr.”) and follows it with a sigh, a chuckle, a groan, or some equivalent of “Hoo boy. Opening a can of worms here.”

This is racism in action. This is the moment when we White people enter into the unspoken agreement that Dr. Reese, as a person, constitutes a Problem--and we agree to unite to contain and constrict this Problem.

4 - McNeil then goes on to say:

“Believe me, I admire her work.”

This is another key component of the unspoken White agreement. This is the part where we White people cover our bases. We are “the good ones”, so we say something meaningless about how much we support Dr. Reese in theory, before going on to dismiss her in actuality.

And therein lies the crux of the issue. Many of us White people like the idea of supporting Dr. Reese in her work, but balk and withdraw when Dr. Reese doesn’t prioritize our comfort in how she conducts her work.

And when the lived reality of fighting racism doesn’t live up to our White expectations and imaginations, that’s when we write articles about our White feelings, and because we’re White, get them published in peer-reviewed, academic journals.

-Allie Jane Bruce

Postscript: Yes, I’m aware that Ms. McNeil can, if she should so choose, point to this post and say “See? Reading While White DOES want me to feel bad.” There’s really no way to counter this self-fulfilling White fragility, so I won’t try, especially since according to her, the damage is already done; we already made her feel bad. Ms. McNeil is free to read this post or not, to feel however she may, and to process those feelings however she may wish. My only suggestion is that she process these feelings in private and with other White people, so as to not task BIPOC people with still more White-feelings-oriented labor. Ms McNeil: We are ready and happy to have a conversation if you wish to talk; just email us.

Ed. 12/11/19 1:45pm: With apologies for the lack of timeliness, I want to highlight this piece by Max Macias. Thank you, Max, for providing the link in the comments below, and thank you for your activism.

Ed. 2/3/19 12:20pm: Please also see the American Indian Library Association's Fall 2019 Newsletter, available here, which contains a formal rebuttal of McNeil's article.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Reviewing While White: Exile from Eden

Andrew Smith’s Exile from Eden, the sequel to his award-winning Grasshopper Jungle, had its book birthday last week (September 24, 2019). There is… a lot to unpack with this book, and today I’m going to highlight some of the racism and sexism that abounds in Smith’s latest YA novel. Quotes and page numbers are from the advanced readers copy. Spoilers ahead, if you care about that sort of thing.

Before we dig in, some background: At the end of Grasshopper Jungle, protagonist Austin, his best friend/boyfriend Robby, Austin’s girlfriend Shann, and several of their parents move in to a massive underground bunker (aka "Eden"). There, they hope they will be safe from the ginormous, horny praying mantises (also sometimes called Unstoppable Soldiers) that have taken over Iowa and also possibly the USA. Austin is unethically nonmonogamous (he is dating Shann while also dating Robby, which Shann knows about but does not consent to) and at the end of Grasshopper Jungle has sex in the bunker with Shann. Exile from Eden is set sixteen years after the end of Grasshopper Jungle and is narrated by their son, Arek.

One of the few characters we meet from beyond “Eden” is a twelve-year-old boy. Described as “brown-skinned” with “wild dreadlocks,” his name is Breakfast (edible brown child, much?). He is frequently described, by himself and the narration, as “completely wild” and he is obsessed with the idea of having money. “‘You have to be wild to survive,’ he told Olive. ‘Just look at me, wouldja? There’s no denying I’m wild. Who’s got money? Me. I’ve got money. Wild’” [16].

Breakfast (again, the only brown character) spends most of his time naked because he “hates wearing clothes”, and he is constantly “scratching his balls,” spitting, and urinating. He is described as animalistic: “Roaring incoherently like an animal, which was basically what Breakfast was anyway” [107-108]. Also, wait for it: his only companion turns out to be a CHIMPANZEE who doesn’t talk (because, ahem, she’s a CHIMPANZEE) and whom he GENUINELY BELIEVES IS JUST A VERY HAIRY GIRL WHO NEVER TALKS BECAUSE SHE JUST AGREES WITH WHATEVER HE HAS TO SAY. Holy cow. Just let that sink in.

The three main human women in Exile from Eden fall neatly into the maiden/mother/crone series of archetypes, existing with few hints at any interior life beyond their relationships to Arek.

Arek’s love interest is his only peer, Amelie Sing Brees, a biracial (Chinese and White American) teen girl who is his aunt by partnership (Arek describes his father Austin’s partner Robby as his father as well, and Amelie is Robby’s half-sister). Arek constantly puts her on a pedestal, regularly saying she’s braver than he is, and she simultaneously has no shame about and no knowledge of anything related to Arek’s sexuality. In keeping with the “maiden” trope, which requires sexual purity and vulnerability simultaneously, Amelie is almost sexually assaulted by a rogue ex-soldier (human, not praying mantis). Even this, though, is really about Arek; we learn almost nothing about how Amelie feels and it is a plot point primarily used to further Arek’s emotional development and increase “drama” (*ahem* #menwritingwomen). Arek’s mother Shann is described as an emotional deadweight whose depression is oppressive (“Thirteen was a bad year for me. My mother’s sadness and anger became a stormy ocean inside the hole, drowning me, and I think Robby was only trying to make me happy” [13]) and whose parenting is overly controlling (“‘Why have you never taken me outside like this before?’ I asked. / My father shook his head. ‘Your mother and grandmother would never stand for it.’ / Robby nodded. ‘There will be hell to pay when we get home, Porcupine’” [34-35]). Arek’s grandmother (Shann’s mother) is described as uptight, obsessed with the perpetuation of traditional nuclear familial structures and traditions, and in particular obsessed with circumcising Arek. The symbolism is… rich.

Arek’s primary influence seems to be his father Austin, the misogynistic protagonist of Grasshopper Jungle, and unfortunately the two-dimensionality with which he views and treats women seems to be a patriarchal lineage. Unsurprisingly, Austin constantly perpetuates toxic masculinity by both ignoring the women who make up a *literal* 50% of his community and passing that misogyny onto his son. Austin completely ignores Shann as a co-parent, undermining and belittling her role. Likewise, Arek is vaguely aware that his mother’s emotional distance may have been caused by something (gee, I don’t know, maybe the MASSIVE AMOUNT OF UNACKNOWLEDGED TRAUMA she experienced since the finale of Grasshopper Jungle??), but he has no interest in understanding her better.

In perpetuating these most basic systems of oppression without using his text to push back against them, Smith makes readers complicit in that oppression and further perpetuates the idea that this representation--inaccurate, harmful, and insulting to his readers--is acceptable. This is not a surprise; we all remember the “keep YA kind” debacle of 2015. Nevertheless, it’s frustrating and disappointing that Smith, his editor at Simon & Schuster (David Gale), and his agent (Michael Bourret) have chosen to yet again ignore both the specific critiques Smith has previously received (it’s been almost exactly four and a half years since “I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female” and the street date of Exile) and the important work of scholars like Edi Campbell and Kyla Wazana Tompkins, who highlight the problematic associations of black children with monkeys and brown children as comestible. When you’re been gifted the tools to do better, it is shameful to fail so greatly.

--Kazia Berkley-Cramer

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Stories White People Tell...and Control

We recently received a question: Why are so many picture books (often biographies) written by White authors and then illustrated by a BIPOC artist? And often these stories are labeled as #OwnVoices [credit: Corinne Duyvis] when really it’s a White person telling the story of a racial minority. If the publisher came up with the idea, why not choose a person from that background to both illustrate AND tell the story? If the author came up with the idea, what does this say about White people and our insistence to control the narrative? And ultimately, what is the impact of this pattern of White-authored narratives about BIPOC on child readers?

A few of us at RWW thought we’d explore this question, and we are sharing our reflections below.


ALLIE: There is an overabundance of “overcoming pain” narratives in these White-authored, BIPOC-illustrated, non-fiction picture books. I think of what Zetta Elliott termed the “White appetite for Black pathology.”

We have decided not to list examples because we do not want any BIPOC illustrators to be dragged into the spotlight against their will, or feel compelled to respond to this piece, or, especially, feel pressured to justify their choices. We ask that our readers--especially White readers--be mindful of this dynamic as well, should you choose to comment or respond to this piece.

But the pattern is undeniable--just look for picture book biographies in your library, if you need a starting point. And as a pattern, these books indicate a system that favors White authors telling stories of BIPOC pain, a system in which a BIPOC artist’s role is to illustrate those White author’s words. Giving these books a BIPOC illustrator doesn’t solve the problem of that White appetite for BIPOC pain.

SAM: One obvious issue - how much (and what kind of) research has the White author done about this subject? Can we trust this person to tell this story? I think the answer a great majority of the time is a resounding NO, and yet… we still see these books, over and over.

ELISA: I think there are so many factors at play, including what you wrote about, Allie, and how White-controlled school curricula can often reinforce and motivate these pain narratives. I’m also thinking about how much nonfiction authorship has traditionally (even if implicitly) meant expertise in a subject area, and how we White people are all too often regarded as an expert on everything--even experiences that are not our own.

I would think that the way picture books are acquired has to do with this too. Unless the publisher has the idea outright (as our questioner brought up) it is my understanding that manuscripts are often acquired first, and then the illustrator is assigned later. Assuming that is true (at least most of the time), this would mean publishers are signing White creators’ manuscripts first and then inviting BIPOC creators into the projects. In which case, the White lens is still the one on which the entire project is based. A White author received a book deal about a BIPOC subject - and this could very much mean that a BIPOC author did not.

Still, I do not in any way want to devalue the impact of illustration and visual literacy! Reading pictures is as important as reading text--and talented artists have and will continue to share their voices and make their mark in ways that are incredible.

ALLIE: Oh, I totally agree. Especially for the youngest kids, who will dive into these books by sitting with and absorbing the pictures long before they can read the words. BIPOC illustrators can imbue their artwork with an authenticity that will speak to young readers in ways that words cannot, and that is invaluable.

The term #OwnVoices gives a name and identity to a crucial piece of the puzzle of inequity in children’s literature: the ability and access people from marginalized groups need in order to tell (and publish!) their stories, rather than be crowded out by dominant voices who overwhelm that ability. It is one of many important markers to note and track in books’ subjects and authorship, and at the same time it is a complex issue. Unfortunately, the term can be and has been weaponized by people attempting to police what topics BIPOC can and cannot write about. We do not live in a binary world in which a work is completely “OwnVoices” or “Not OwnVoices.” (For more on this topic, I highly recommend these FAQs by Corinne Duyvis, who originated the #OwnVoices term and hashtag.)

So while we might all agree that an #OwnVoices illustrator is a positive… it is not a systemic fix. It feels more like an easy and comfortable halfway-path for the Powers That Be… a way for publishers and marketers to be able to put a book in the “OwnVoices” category (that false binary) without addressing the deeper problems with inequitable representation and the White fixation on BIPOC pain narratives. In short, it’s part of a system that preserves the power White people have to tell BIPOC stories.

ELISA: I remember hearing about White male authors negotiating language in their book contracts requesting BIPOC artists--especially women and nonbinary people--be hired to illustrate their manuscripts. This can prevent all-male or all-White projects and can have the impact of increasing the numbers of BIPOC illustrators publishing books. At the same time, I can also see where this might end up assuaging guilt and supporting that “comfortable halfway-path” you describe.

If someone is thinking we’re reading too much into this, one challenge might be to look for books where a BIPOC author has written about any nonfiction subject, and a White artist has been hired to illustrate it. Can you think of any? (I can think of only a few.) That it is harder to list the latter and super easy to list the former shows that this pattern is undeniable.

Looking at biographies about BIPOC subjects written by White people can also reveal (through the topics and themes that keep emerging: pain narratives, books about athletes and musicians from more than a half-century ago, etc.) where White adult interest lies. When White creators and publishers control the industry, White people are determining what is interesting, which stories are worthy of exploration, whose stories are being told, and how they are told through text (White-authored books, even biographies about BIPOC subjects, often appear to speak to White readers as a default audience). What topics, themes, or subjects might emerge (or how might these same stories be written differently) if these books were not authored by White people?

SAM: I think you’re both right about this pattern being more palatable for the White-dominated publishing world. Think of the White authors who have made a career writing books about BIPOC subjects - I wonder how often one of these authors thinks to themselves, “Hmmm, maybe I should step aside and let an insider tell this story.” Recently I heard a story about a White author being asked what research they did before writing a book centered around a culture that wasn’t their own. The author’s response? That they “probably should have.” (I asked for and was given permission to link to the post in question.) The sheer audacity to not only try to tell the story instead of using one’s privilege to leverage a BIPOC voice, but also to show such flippant disregard for authenticity? That’s a White people thing.

ELISA: That’s an all-around yikes and YES. Another thing we White people like to do is pretend that because informational texts are rooted in facts, that they are somehow race-neutral and that the identity of the creator does not matter. (Pretending Whiteness has no meaning is a pretty effective strategy to both ignore and maintain White dominance.) Remember when the Tham Luang cave rescue happened last year in Thailand? I remember listening to voices on Twitter talking about what an awesome children’s book the story would make, but also joking that a White person would probably write and publish it first. Sure enough, that’s what happened. All books contain a point of view--including informational texts. And that’s before we address how many children’s books claiming to be nonfiction actually contain misinformation, stereotypes, or nothing at all about BIPOC (straight up erasure).

ALLIE: I also think about the impact on BIPOC illustrators, to have these projects so constant and prevalent. Your job is still to illustrate a White person's words. And the message implicitly sent to White illustrators: You don't have to deign to illustrate the books that "those people" write.

These messages are deeply dangerous. The CCBC statistics we’re all so familiar with are highly useful, but statistics alone do not tell the full story, do not encapsulate all the subtle methods by which White people cling to a White-dominant world--in this case, by controlling who gets to tell the story.

SAM: So where does this leave us; namely, what can I do as a _____ (fill in the blank: teacher, librarian, caregiver, general kidlit person, etc.) to make sure I de-center the dominant White cishet male gaze in books about marginalized people and groups in as many ways as possible - the writing, the visuals, all the way down to the editing and publishing - in my interactions with the children in my life? How do we (speaking now about the wider kidlit world) make sure we de-center the dominant White cishet male gaze in books about marginalized people and groups in as many ways as possible - again, the writing, the visuals, all the way down to the editing and publishing? Should publishers hire sensitivity readers for nonfiction titles in which the book creators do not share the same identity/identities as the person or groups that the book centers? We in the kidlit community need to consider the ramifications of this pattern.

ALLIE: Well, I’m a definite “yes” on that last question, and I know many publishers do indeed hire sensitivity readers for nonfiction as well as fiction (good on them.)

I think for me, it comes down to recognizing that this pattern is part of a system of White oppression in children’s literature. That system is nuanced and tricky. It adapts to challenges to its power, and those adaptations aren’t always immediately obvious. We won’t out-smart racism by introducing more binaries (“#OwnVoices Only!!”) into the equation, but we can recognize racist patterns for what they are, and use the tools available to us to fight (e.g. the OwnVoices identifier) against these racist patterns.

ELISA: Agree. And I'm pushing myself to remember, always, that although there are a lot of adults in the kidlit ecosystem, it is young readers who are on the receiving end of these patterns once these books are out in the world and into their lives.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Summer Reading

It’s almost summer, which means people are starting to plan or make goals for their next few months of reading. If you’re looking for recommendations, look no further than the 2019 Summer Reading List published by the We Are Kid Lit Collective

Formerly known as We’re the People, the We Are Kid Lit Collective was founded by Edi Campbell in 2015. The website explains that the group "works to create materials and opportunities to recognize the humanity of Indigenous and People of Color (IPOC) in youth literature. Our work is premised upon the principles of social justice, equity, and inclusion and centers IPOC voices in children’s literature in order to identify, challenge and dismantle while supremacy and both internalized and systemic racism. Our intended audience includes educators, librarians, caregivers and young people. We look for ways to improve the literacies of IPOC children, promote books written by and about IPOC, and to encourage gatekeepers to bring a lens of critical literacy to their work." 

The 2019 Summer Reading List was curated by a team of authors, librarians, and scholars: Tad Andracki, Edi Campbell, Laura Jiménez, Sujei Lugo, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Debbie Reese, and Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez. Every title was read and vetted by at least two professionals to ensure the books celebrate “diversity, inclusivity, and intersecting identities.” Check out the list and all of the other resources available on the We Are Kid Lit page!

What additional books are you looking forward to reading this summer? Please share in the comments. Here are a few titles some of the RWW contributors are excited to read or recommend:

Jenna: The only Octavia Butler I’ve read is Kindred, so I’m excited to delve into more of her work, starting with this new edition of Parable of the Sower. My favorite book of the year so far is Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by debut author Roselle Lim so I’ve been recommending that nonstop as a great summer read.

Allie: I cannot WAIT to dive into An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States For Young People, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Debbie Reese, and Jean Mendoza. For my own recommendation, although this came out a while ago, I want everyone to read Mother of the Sea by Zetta Elliott, a novella that straddles the line between YA and Adult and between realism and magical realism. It’s a powerful work of art and activism.

Sam: So, I’m currently in the midst of Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, which is required reading for everyone in children’s and young adult literature. I just finished Good Talk: a Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob, and it was one of those books that you want to reread the moment you finish it. (The only reason I didn’t do that was because of the size of my to-read pile!)


Megan: I’m looking forward to both The Dark Fantastic and the adaptation of  An Indigenous People’s History of the United States . Recent or not-so-recent reads I can’t stop thinking about include The Griefkeeper by Alexandra Villasante (just finished!), Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali, and A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata. The New Kid by Jerry Craft is about the school year but so funny and fearless that there’s never not a good time to read it. Finally, although it’s not by a BIPOC author, I want to also give a shout out to A.S. King’s Dig, which has me thinking a lot about how White writers can address race and racism--something I think this book excels at (and although I wouldn’t say it’s the main point of the story, it’s not not the point, either).

Elisa: There are so many good books here! My summer book club is discussing The Dark Fantastic and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States For Young People, so I’ll be reading those too. I’m also looking forward to reading and learning from Eve Ewing’s 1919, a book of poetry spotlighting stories from the Chicago race riot. Another one on my to-read list for August (when it gets released) is Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. I recommend everybody take a look at
This Place: 150 Years Retold, a comics anthology exploring stories of Indigenous resistance and leadership past, present, and future.

Kazia: Like Sam, I just read Good Talk and can’t recommend it enough! I have two nonfiction titles at the top of my (small) TBR pile of books for grownups:The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang and A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland by DaMaris B. Hill. Last year I read and loved The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, so this summer I’m also really excited to get my hands on her sophomore romance, The Bride Test!

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.