Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Bring It Back!: I Look Like a Girl

Hamanaka, Sheila. I Look Like a Girl. William Morrow and Company, 1999. ISBN: 9780688146252

“I look like a girl, // but I’m really a tiger, / with a rumble, a roar, and a leap! // I look like a girl, / but I’m really a dolphin, / with a / spin and a splash / in the sea.” So begins Sheila Hamanaka’s poetic, mesmerizing, and sadly, out-of-print I Look Like a Girl. Four children, whose skin and hair range from light to dark, reveal that appearances can deceive; someone who looks like a girl may actually be a condor, mustang, wolf, or jaguar.

A pattern emerges early in the book. “I look like a girl,” the child declares; the page turn that follows reveals the animal behind the facade. Both fantastical and physical, fierce and playful, the painterly illustrations leap off the page and into the reader’s imagination. The accessible yet exquisite poetry packs a punch, too: “Throw out those glass slippers. / Send the fairies to sleep. / No prince is waiting for me. // For if you look twice, / past the sugar and spice, // the eyes of a tiger / you’ll see.”

While it makes no explicit references to trans or nonbinary children, the underlying messages may resonate with some. Appearances mean nothing; labels are faulty; what’s important is in a child’s heart. Once, after I read this aloud to 3rd graders, a child said: “Wait, I’m confused. Is that kid a girl?” Another child immediately responded, “The point is it doesn’t matter, just BE WHO YOU ARE.” (To read more about how I use this book with kids, click here).

During the past few months of #MeToo, particularly the moments in which the world of children’s literature has grappled with sexual harassment and abuse in our ranks, I’ve often thought of I Look Like a Girl. I’ve seen kids respond to it with everything from fist pumps and “YES”es to soft sighs of relief that someone gets it, a reaction I share. As stories of sexist mistreatment, manipulation, and worse arise, we need to balance them with stories that affirm, empower, and provide safe haven. At its simplest, I Look Like a Girl is an exquisitely written, dynamically illustrated poem. At its most powerful, it reaches across time and space to let children know that they are unique but not alone.

William Morrow, the book’s original publisher, is now an imprint of HarperCollins. I’d so love to see a reprint--and the time is now.

Reviewed by Allie Jane Bruce

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Reviewing While White: Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life by Shelley Tougas

Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life, by Shelley Tougas. Roaring Brook Press.

Reviewed by Allie Jane Bruce.

NB - I read, and use page numbers from, a galley of this book.

It was with trepidation that I picked up Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life. My feelings about the Little House series are overwhelmingly negative. The more I read analyses of race and racism in these books (for a start on this subject, check out this and this), the more I think this one needs to go the way of the dodo. To be fair, I never liked the books (they just were never my cup of tea, even when I was a kid) so I’m not battling any nostalgia or fondness, as many of my colleagues are when reflecting on these books or contemplating letting them go. As I read the description of Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life, I wondered: Is this an homage to the Little House books? Or is it critical? I then tried to let go of any questions or expectations, and as much as I possibly could, approach the book with a blank slate (although I did bring what I know about history and critical race theory, as I bring those to everything).

White, 12-year-old Charlotte is one of three siblings; her single mother, whose irresponsible nature and love of talking about “creative energy” frustrate and irritate Charlotte, moves them from place to place in search of inspiration and a “spark” that will finally make her a successful writer. Of all the places they’ve lived, Charlotte hates Walnut Grove, a home of Little House writer Laura Ingalls, the most. Her twin brother, with whom she’s always shared borderline-psychic superpowers, drifts from her and reinvents himself as a popular kid. Unable or unwilling to make friends herself, Charlotte pretends to need remedial help with her schoolwork so that she can spend lunchtime in the classroom with her teacher. Undeceived, her wise teacher assigns her a series of essays about the real history of Walnut Grove, Manifest Destiny, and the ways that Westward Expansion (which I call Westward Invasion… but we’ll get there…) impacted the people and environment around them. As Charlotte reads and learns (she reads a new essay, and learns something new, every 30 or 40 pages, a device I found contrived and clunky), she gradually settles in and starts to make friends; but just when things are looking up for her, Mom falters and decides it’s time to move again. This accessible, digestible middle-grade realistic fiction will delight some; cynical and unromantic, Charlotte is a memorable and captivating personality. Some readers will also hail it as a nuanced, progressive look at the Little House series; nevertheless, as I argue, it ultimately fails to actually interrogate the racism and problems in the Little House series--instead, it makes a pretense at interrogating them. The book therefore serves to evolve, rather than interrupt, racism; and it does so in the guise of interrupting racism.

For my close reading of the book, and my argument and conclusions about how it evolves racism, visit my guest post at American Indians In Children’s Literature. There, I argue that Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life is the next generation of racism. Watch closely, especially if you’re White; racism is evolving before our very eyes.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Reviewing While White: Tinyville Town: I’m a Police Officer

Cover of Tinyville Town: I'm a Police Officer
by Brian Biggs.
Board books are often one of children’s first experiences with literature. Young people chew them, cuddle with them, and yes, read them. They serve as an introduction to what many caregivers hope will be a lifetime of reading. They help children make sense of the world. Creating successful board books is no easy task given their limited format, length, and broad audience (they must be enjoyed by children and, at minimum, tolerable to adults, even upon their thousandth re-read). This challenge increases when a book is about a complex topic about which audiences will have varied opinions and experiences.

I thought of this challenge when I first saw Tinyville Town: I’m a Police Officer, written and illustrated by Brian Biggs. I also thought about Amy Martin’s post, “Rethinking Books about Police” and the police book evaluation toolkit created by the Oakland Public Library. A book about a police officer for young readers is an ambitious topic, especially considering the racism, mass incarceration, and police violence in our world. 

In its Kirkus review, this book is described as “A worthy introduction to the concept of police officers,” so I was interested to see how this book might follow the pattern of the other Tinyville Town books (such as I’m a Librarian) while also setting itself apart. 

The police officer and town residents discover
a monkey eating bananas and donuts.
The book opens with a Black police officer and her cat, waking up and heading out for their day. Her fellow officers have different skin tones, as do the people in their community of Tinyville Town. The officer is shown rescuing a cat from a tree and making sure a girl doesn’t slip on a banana peel. When the bakery and grocery store are robbed, she searches for the culprit: “Big ears. Long tail. Likes bananas and donuts.” As she follows the clues (and readers recall a White, bearded zookeeper putting “missing” posters up throughout the book), the “perpetrator” (not “suspect”) is shown having a picnic. The robbera monkeysmiles wide as the White zookeeper pulls it away (off the page, presumably back to the zoo). The officer heads back home for a good night’s sleep.

The monkey character smiles and waves goodbye
to the police officer as it is taken away.
I am deeply troubled by the perpetrator in this book being a monkey. The police force kills a disproportionate number of Black people in this country, and there is a racist history of comparing Black people to monkeys (as explained by Wulf Hund and Charles Mills here). I’m sure some readers will say that I’m reading too much into thisthat an animal is just an animal. But of all the non-human characters from which one could choose, it is a monkey, and it is important to remember that monkeys have been used throughout history to dehumanize Black people and justify genocide. Conversations continue today about this type of imagery, as seen this week when the clothing company H&M apologized for posting a photo of a young Black model in a hooded sweatshirt with the words “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle." Furthermore, for the suspect to return to the zoo sends a message to readers that those stopped by police are brought to places where they belong. Right now New Jersey prisons are trying to ban Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and schools in Texas are trying to prevent students from reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. These stories and messages do not exist in a vacuum, and neither does this book.

I am sure that the team that worked on this book did not intend to have those connections drawn. The “messy thief” monkey is in the book all the same. I do not believe one book has to do everything, nor do I think I can predict how every reader will react to every text (consciously or unconsciously). Some readers aren’t even speaking, so I’ll never know exactly what they are thinking in the moment. But just because readers don’t express their feelings through speech doesn’t mean that they aren’t paying attention and growing in understanding of their surroundings, their literature, and themselves. They’re taking it all in. What messages are we endorsing as they do so?

-Elisa Gall

Monday, January 8, 2018

Rethinking Books about Police: Putting OPL's New Toolkit to Work

Amy Martin is the Children's Collection Management Librarian at the Oakland Public Library in California, and has worked as a children's librarian in Oakland, San Francisco, and Chicago. All views expressed are her own, and do not reflect those of her employer.

Let’s talk about police books for children.

When I worked as a branch children’s librarian in East Oakland, I had preschool teachers ask me for books on community helpers--firefighters, postal workers, teachers, police. I handed over the early nonfiction titles we had on police, even as something pinged in my brain telling me I wasn’t giving them the right information.

I am White and grew up in a middle class suburb, and with the exception of having been detained without cause during a protest, I have not experienced a threat to my safety or civil rights at the hands of police. I have a vivid image of the one time my family called police to our home in my childhood: we had come home and found a door slightly open, and an officer came to check the house for us. He arrived within minutes of our call and greeted us politely. After confirming that no one was in our house and nothing was missing, he left without incident.

The books about police in my library’s collection matched my experience. However, they did not match the experience of everyone in our community. For example, the patron who told me quite cheerfully one morning that she and her four children had been pulled from their beds by police in the early morning and made to kneel against a wall for hours while officers searched their building for a suspect. The books in my library did not match the experience of the children I met who’d had parents arrested, or stopped or searched without cause, or had loved ones brutalized.

It was after the murder of Philando Castile that it clicked for me: we were not seeing the experiences many people of color have with police in children’s books, and something was wrong with that. Are we doing children a disservice when every book we provide about police says they only protect, never harm, when it is possible to watch police officers harming unarmed people on video? Where is the book for the four-year-old daughter of Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, who was sitting behind him in the car while he was killed? Or the book for a child in need of reassurance after hearing about a police killing?

My colleagues at Oakland Public Library (OPL) and I began a conversation that month that eventually led to Evaluating Children’s Books about Police: a toolkit for librarians and other evaluators of children’s literature. Almost a year in the making, it grew from shared observations of working with children and talking with them about police. We took extensive notes on the books in our collections. We talked about what was missing. We reviewed our work with community members, activists, and an officer from the Oakland Police Department.

We developed the toolkit as a professional book evaluation tool. The guiding questions it offers can certainly be used to evaluate nonfiction “community helper” books, but they can also be used with picture books and fiction. As an example, I’ll use a book that, at first glance, may seem an unlikely suspect:  I’M AFRAID YOUR TEDDY IS IN TROUBLE TODAY, by Jancee Dunn, illustrated by Scott Nash.

The title page of TEDDY shows a lone police car in front of a house. The story opens with two police officers in front of the closed front door, addressing the reader directly. A brown-skinned officer with feminine features has arms crossed, while the white-skinned male-appearing partner stands with fists on hips. (The officers’ genders are never stated, so I will use the  singular “they” pronoun to refer to both.) Both wear angry expressions. “Oh good. You’re home,” the brown-skinned officer says, then introduces themself as “Officer Hardy,” who goes on to say  that the police station “received a number of calls,” and that they’re “afraid your teddy got in a little trouble today.”

On the following page, as they open the door, Officer Hardy warns the reader to “prepare yourself. It’s not a pretty scene.” Balloons and streamers are now visible both inside and outside the house. On the pages that follow, Officer Hardy details the (lighthearted) destruction that has been wrought on the reader’s home by their teddy bear, who invited other stuffed animals over for a wild party: pancakes and sprinkles everywhere, a broken bed, crayon drawings on the walls, and chocolate syrup in the bathtub. A page with four angry human faces shouting into phones states that “your neighbors” were “not happy. Not happy at all,” indicating that neighbors called the police with noise complaints when the stuffed animals started playing loud music and dancing.

Officer Hardy states that police pursued the fleeing stuffed animals, “searching house to house,” eventually catching them all with the help of the Fire Department. They then reveal all the stuffed animals confined in a closet.

Teddy is then singled out, with the next illustration showing Teddy standing alone between the two officers, both of whom look angry, rubbing his paws together with a worried facial expression. Officer Hardy points at Teddy as they ask him to “Come with me, please. I’m going to have to take you down to the station.” All three appear against a white background, removing them from the immediate setting of the story.

In three illustrations across the two following pages, Officer Hardy shrinks to a child’s size, their expression shifting from stern to delighted as they comment that “I used to have a teddy bear once. He looked a lot like you. Gosh, I haven’t thought about him in years.” On the following page, Officer Hardy bends down to Teddy’s level and places a hand on Teddy’s shoulder. Wearing a friendly expression, they inform Teddy that “this time I’m going to let you go.” The officers then assist all the other stuffed animals into their squad car, saying “I’ll drop you all off at home.” On the final page, Teddy smiles and winks underneath a gentle admonishment to “be good, now.” The lit cell phone in Teddy’s paw, along with his mischievous expression, hint that Teddy does not necessarily plan to heed this recommendation.

With that long summary complete, I’ll turn now to Evaluating Children’s Books about Police, and demonstrate some ways an evaluator of children’s books might use this tool to examine TEDDY.

The evaluative content of this toolkit is arranged in two sets of bullet points: “What could an inclusive perspective look like?” and “Questions to consider when evaluating a police book for bias.” In the first section, we imagined what elements--words, images, concepts--we didn’t necessarily find in the existing body of literature that might acknowledge young readers who feel discomfort or negativity around police officers. In the second section, we focused on problematic elements of existing books that seemed to pop up over and over again (I have a spreadsheet of occurrences of these problematic elements, if numbers are your thing). I’ll talk through the elements in each section that stand out to me in reading TEDDY.

  • Does this book acknowledge the feelings of fear and anxiety children may have on seeing police? For example: "sometimes, if you see a police officer, you may feel scared."
  • Does this book acknowledge that some people have negative experiences with police officers? If so, is there any discussion of how these experiences might impact a person, family, or community?

TEDDY is a picture book about stuffed animals coming to life and having a wild party. The emotional core of the story is in the tension that exists between smiling stuffed animals playing with balloons and sledding down couch cushions and stern, angry adult humans, primarily two uniformed police officers, dealing with the resulting mess; the resolution comes from those officers relenting and deciding not to pursue punishment for the toys. The overall tone of the narrative is tongue-in-cheek; the fun of Teddy’s party contrasts with the sharp law enforcement cadence Officer Hardy uses to describe it: “We don’t know for sure who thought of the chocolate sauce, but we suspect it was the cow.”

Have you seen those videos of police officers pulling over people of color who have not committed any traffic violation, then surprising them by handing them ice cream? This article in The Root by Preston Mitchum describes how these videos get shared on social networks as moments of joy, for the “fun” of seeing people’s fearful expressions turn to laughter and relief when they realize they are the subjects of a prank intended in lighthearted fun by its perpetrators. The police department of Halifax, Virginia executed the ice-cream stunt twenty times on a Friday in summer 2016 as a PR move, believing that videos of people of color laughing and accepting ice cream from a benevolent white officer would generate good feelings toward their department. Mitchum’s article points out that what looks like happiness on the part of the drivers is actually “That relief every time we interact with police officers because we never know if we will leave that interaction alive.” Ijeoma Oluo takes this one step further in The Establishment, likening the videos to an abusive partner hinting that they might hurt you, only to say it was a joke; the relief in this sudden revocation of a threat is meant to create loyalty in the victimized partner.

There is generally nothing amusing or cute about arriving at one’s home and seeing a police car parked outside, or uniformed and frowning officers blocking the resident from entering their home. The decision to open TEDDY with both of these images introduces the central problem with the book, similar to the problem with the ice cream videos: ice cream pull-overs are cute and happy to viewers who’ve never felt their lives were in danger during a traffic stop. The worst they’ve escaped is the minor annoyance of a traffic ticket, not the physical danger of being shot. TEDDY is meant to be funny and charming, but this book is only funny and charming if you do not believe there is any inherent danger in police being in your home.

Could a child who has had a frightening encounter with a police officer at home, or who’s heard about or been warned about such encounters by family or friends, enjoy this book? Could any person who has had a negative police encounter read this book and see it as funny? The lack of respect for readers who share these experiences amounts to a flat denial of “the feelings of and anxiety children may have on seeing police.”

  • Do this book's illustrations show diversity in race, sex, age, gender expression, and religious identity among police, as well as people with whom they interact?

There are two officers in TEDDY. Officer Hardy, who delivers the entire text of the book, reads visually as African American. In my research leading to Evaluating, it was common for a children’s book about police to feature a person of color in a primary role. Creators of these books seem to have gotten the message that it’s racist to show only people of color as suspects and white people as police officers, and it’s actually rather difficult to find one that features only white officers. The Kirkus Review for TEDDY noted that “investigating officer Hardy is a black woman and her subordinate a white man, in an especially nice touch,” but I’d argue that it’s an expectation in a contemporary children’s book, if an unspoken one.

The illustrator seems to avoid questions about race in supporting characters because they are mostly stuffed animals. It’s worth noting, though, that the one human doll among the toys is white with blond hair, and Teddy himself is a light golden-tan in color. Regardless of why the illustrator made this choice, the fact remains that children see a bear with light not dark fur who is spared a trip to the police station.

  • Does this book explain the rights children have in interacting with police--for example, that children may ask to have a parent or other adult present during questioning?

The text of this book is in second person, directed to the child reader of the book. There’s no indication as to whether an adult resident of the home is also present. A throwaway line such as “I see you’ve got your grown-up with you” could have placed an adult on the child’s side in the interaction. There’s no mention of the fact that a child has the right to ask for a parent or guardian to be present during questioning by police. If this is a child alone, as the text implies, then the book is modeling that it is safe and normal for police officers to question a child alone without asking if they would like a parent present.

  • Does this book acknowledge that some people choose to call the police and some people do not?  Does it acknowledge the perspective that calling police is not the only way or right way to get help?

Police in this story were called by “neighbors,” all of who appear angry, to investigate a loud party. Noise complaint calls are an example of “quality of life policing,” or what’s more commonly known as “broken windows policing.” Creators of Campaign Zero describe how “broken windows policing has led to the criminalization and over-policing of communities of color and excessive force in otherwise harmless situations. In other words: police calls for issues such as excessive noise tend to inversely impact people of color, and benefit White people. In fact, writers like Nikole Hannah-Jones have argued that the act of calling police is, itself, primarily available to white people, since people of color are disproportionately at risk of being harmed or killed after police are summoned, even if they are the ones who make the call.

Of the four neighbors depicted making angry calls to police in TEDDY, two appear white, one is racially ambiguous (light skin and dark hair), and one has light brown skin. The artist appears to have made an effort not to show four white people calling police with noise complaints, but in this case the attempt to show diversity begs the question: Is this realistic?

  • In many communities, police officers are required to wear body cameras on their uniforms. Do this book's illustrations depict body cameras on police uniforms?

In Oakland, police are required to wear body cameras, which, as Campaign Zero notes, have been shown to be an effective tool for capturing instances of police brutality. In fact, California is one of five states with laws requiring police officers to wear body cameras (in a couple states, only under certain conditions). Other states have laws about how body cameras are to be funded or documented in public record, for a total of thirty-four states with some form of legislation on the books about body cameras for police. Although the officers in TEDDY are drawn with enough detail to show they have badges, radios, batons (no guns), disabling chemical sprays, and notebooks, they do not have visible body cameras.

Now I’ll move  to the second section of Evaluating:

  • How does the author of this book refer to people being pursued by police? Many children's books refer to people being pursued with language implying guilt, such as "criminals" or "bad guys." However, US laws protecting due process render such terms inaccurate, as people being chased by police have not been proven guilty in a court of law. People being pursued or arrested are suspects.

This implication of guilt and “badness” comes up so often in children’s police books that its absence in TEDDY is actually what is noteworthy. In 2016, when OPL children’s librarians began our research, every single police book I reviewed contained language implying guilt used inappropriately: books consistently described police as pursuing and arresting “bad guys” or “criminals.” One of the first points contributed to our toolkit by a children’s librarian was that “People being pursued or arrested are suspects,” and it is inaccurate to call them a bad guy or criminal. There’s no such use of this language in TEDDY, which is consistent with the fact that all escape punishment in the end.

I’ve already discussed the book’s failure to indicate the presence of an adult. Though Teddy is (presumably) not a parent and is ultimately not arrested, it’s worth noting that a great body of literature exists around parental arrests and optimal procedures for ensuring the safety of affected children, including the two resources linked above. What’s visible in the work that exists around parental arrest points to this indisputable fact: it is traumatic for a child to witness the arrest of a parent, guardian, family member, or friend. In the case of a parent, it’s so traumatic that a common recommendation is for the arresting officers to ask the parent if they would like their child to be cared for in another room during the arrest.

It can be assumed that a child’s teddy bear is a close companion, in a familial role. The moment in which Officer Hardy informs Teddy that they will be brought to the police station is not a depiction of arrest, but it is not far off. Furthermore, the illustrations then imply Officer Hardy changes their mind based on the fact that Teddy reminds them of their own childhood teddy bear. While this makes for a happier ending, with Teddy released rather than led away in handcuffs, it also suggests that either Teddy was going to be detained for frivolous reasons, or that the officer has given preferential treatment to a suspect based on a personal connection.

I’ll note that Evaluating is pointedly not a bibliography. Any list of titles we might have produced would be outdated as soon as it was published and require constant maintenance to stay relevant. We definitely found books that tempted us to recommend them to everyone, but to be practical, the children’s librarians who collaborated on this toolkit chose to focus on empowering librarians to evaluate police books for children themselves.

TEDDY received three reviews in professional journals: Kirkus and Publishers Weekly in July, and School Library Journal in October. None mention any of the problems I’ve discussed. Publishers Weekly states that “readers will revel in the vicarious, rule-breaking fun.” School Library Journal calls it a “humorous tale of stuffed animal mayhem that will entertain early elementary students and provide a fun read-aloud for younger children.” Kirkus notes the intended humor of the story while saying it could have been stronger, ultimately calling it a “fair if somewhat ephemeral story.” Oakland Public Library might have purchased TEDDY as a read-aloud based on these reviews; fortunately, I was sent a review copy and discovered the problematic elements;  selectors chose not to buy it with this additional information.

The fact that all three professional reviews of TEDDY missed the problematic police content assures me that now is the right time for Evaluating Children’s Books about Police. It’s somewhat more accepted today among children’s book reviewers that race, class, and privilege must be considered in evaluating children’s books; however, racism in police-community relations did not occur to any of the reviewers for TEDDY as something critical to consider and as important to mention as skin tone.

In releasing this toolkit, OPL hopes to bring awareness to the need for sensitivity toward varying experiences of police in children’s books. We welcome feedback and consider Evaluating a living document, open for review and conversation.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Giving Tuesday Ideas

For Giving Tuesday this year, I’ve compiled a list of organizations that I believe are doing essential work to fight racism and injustice.

(I recognize that it is a privilege to be able to donate money, and don’t want to pressure anyone to donate to all--or any--of these causes.)

This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list of worthwhile organizations, just a starting point.   Leave more in the comments!

The People’s Institute For Survival and Beyond is a community organizing collective and home to the Undoing Racism Workshop. Donate here.

Colectivo Ilé works to fight racism, colonialism, sexism, and militarism in Puerto Rico. Learn more and donate to their Huracán María fund here.

The International Refugee Assistance Project (a sub-organization of the Urban Justice Center) mobilizes legal aid from lawyers and law students to advocate for human rights for displaced people and refugees. Donate here.

UndocuFund provides support to undocumented people in Sonoma County, CA, who were directly impacted by the recent wildfires and do not qualify for federal aid from FEMA. Donate here.

Thousand Currents funds and connects grassroots organizers who are working towards climate, food, and economic justice. They work primarily with organizations led by First/Native Nations people and women. Donate here.

ProPublica is an independent, non-profit team of investigative journalists specifically dedicated to exposing corruption and abuses of power. Donate here.

The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, which includes classes for adults and an immersion school for children, works to reclaim and revive Wôpanâak (Wampanoag language), which European invaders killed for five generations. Donate here.

Safety Pin Box gives money directly to Black women who are organizing and serving Black people. Subscribe here, or just donate here.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund works for racial justice in the fields of criminal justice, education, voting rights, and more. Donate here.

The Trevor Project provides crisis intervention for LGBTQ youth and advocates for legal and systemic justice for LGBTQ people. Donate here.

The Center for Reproductive Rights advocates legally for reproductive freedom as a human right. Donate here.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, founded in 1971, advocates for many marginalized groups; it’s also the umbrella organization for Teaching Tolerance, which provides free resources to educators, and the Intelligence Project, which tracks hate groups in the United States. Donate here.

Though I’ve done my best to vet all of these, I recognize that I can never 100% know whether an organization is guided by, and lives out, anti-racist principles, and am open to any feedback (use the comments).

-Allie Jane Bruce

Monday, November 13, 2017

Reading Stories, Reading Lives

Over the summer I read a New Yorker article about the paintings of British-Ghanian artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (“A Bird of Few Words,” June 19, 2017). In it, Zadie Smith discusses the response of critics to Yiadom-Boakye’s work, including the commentary of Robert Storr in the catalogue accompanying the exhibit of Yiadom-Baokye’s work at the New Museum in New York.

She quotes Storr as follows:

“The impact of her [Yiadom-Baokye’s] pictures is of encountering people ‘we’—the general North American art audience—have never met, coming from a world with which ‘we’ are unfamiliar. One that we have no basis for generalizing about or projecting our fantasies onto.’”

In responding to Storr’s commentary, Zadie Smith writes: “There is a respectful caution in this kind of critique which, though undoubtedly well intended in theory, in practice throws a patronizing chill over such work. Yiadom-Boakye is doing more than exploring the supposedly uncharted territory of black selfhood, making—in that hackneyed phrase—the invisible visible. (Black selfhood has always existed and is not invisible to black people.)”

As I read these words they struck me deeply, because it resonated with a lot of what I’ve been thinking about, and trying to articulate, in terms of children’s and young adult literature criticism.

“Black selfhood has always existed and is not invisible to black people.”

Of course the same is true for any group of people historically marginalized and dehumanized by the mainstream narrative: their selfhood has never been in doubt--except by those of us (read mainstream society if you must, read White critics and readers if you’re feeling less threatened and more courageous about looking our profession and ourselves in the eye) who, in reading a work by an African American author or Mexican American author or Korean American author or Choctaw author, try to fit into the framework we’ve constructed to understand their experience, rather than letting the experience and selfhood that exists on the page—and in the real world—speak for itself.

There’s a genuine tension here, I know. Isn’t the whole point of being a critic to say what we think about the book? How can we do our jobs if we don’t?

Well, to begin with, we can ask ourselves what we should constantly be asking ourselves: What assumptions are we making about the lives of people of color and from First/Native Nations in the real world that influence our response to the book?

And what assumptions are we making about readers—is our idea of audience expansive and inclusive?

“Black selfhood has always existed and is not invisible to black people.”

Writers who are cultural insiders understand this innately and it shows in their writing. Critics/reviewers who are cultural insiders know it, too. And so, of course, do readers who see dimensions of their own experiences and identities fully realized on the page.

Sometimes, though, I think the rest of us don’t take this selfhood on faith. So we look for clues, and we don’t always see them, even when they’re right in front of us, in characters who laugh and cry and argue and make amends and annoy and get annoyed and have quirks and contradictions in the way every living, breathing human does. Instead we see the struggle. Or the violence. Or the streets. Or the outsider.

I worry we see the context but not the characters and by extension the lives those characters represent, or we do see them and they are held up as something exceptional. Either way, they are othered.  

Perhaps this is also why we have too often admired inaccurate books by writers who are outside an experience--they fit our perceptions of that experience but not the reality.

“Patronizing chill,” to quote Smith, is a real danger in our field, too.
Because publishing for children and teens has always to some extent responded to the world as it is (along with imagining the world that we want), it’s not surprising that we’re seeing a number of books in which racism and police violence plays a role or is a theme. The high profile cases in the news in recent years, and the Black Lives Matter movement in response, have raised our social consciousness. And by “our,” I mean mainstream society’s, and I mean White people’s. Because racist police violence targeting Black and brown-skinned people, if I can use  Zadie Smith’s words in a different context,  “has always existed and is not invisible to Black people.”

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely has become a deservedly popular choice for all-school reads.The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas topped The New York Times bestseller list for months. A number of other books exploring and reflecting dimensions of police violence against Black and brown-skinned people are also coming out this year. It seems we (read those of us who aren’t Black and brown-skinned) are finally seeing what has been visible and known but went unseen by us for for decades. (Remember the ending of If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson, published way back in 1998?)  The new graphic novel I Am Alfonso Jones, written by Tony Medina and illustrated by Stacey Robinson and John Jennings, offers a more expansive look at this painful history too many of us haven’t seen. 

We need to own our ignorance. But we also need to be careful how we use our newfound understanding.

I haven’t read all of the new books out this year addressing or even touching on this reality of  life in our country. I have read some of them, and one of the things I’m aware of is not wanting to fall into the trap of easily summarizing them as being  “about” police violence or racism. Once they get into readers’ hands, I believe a deeper truth becomes obvious: what they are about is people’s lives. The ones I have read, anyway, are about contemporary teens laughing and crying and arguing and annoying and being annoyed. They’re about kids trying to figure things out, and what those things are changes from book to book, character to character, life to life. But all of it--the living, the learning--ends up being violently disrupted by the reality of racist violence.

For me, this is not a subtle difference, because these stories--these characters’ lives--don’t matter because of the violence that happens in them. They simply matter.

Here’s something else I think we who are White librarians and teachers need to also keep in mind: What message are we sending to children and teens if the only books we ask or demand White kids read about children of color or from First/Native Nations speak to the violent disruption of their lives?

It’s wonderful seeing All American Boys as an all-school read. It’s wonderful seeing The Hate U Give being so widely talked about and shared. But please, let’s not stop there. Black selfhood is complex in both those stories, but no single book is ever enough, however important the story it tells of and to the world we live in.

In her novel Piecing Me Together, Renée Watson’s main character, Jade, is an African American scholarship student from a poor neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, attending a predominantly White private high school. After Jade is chosen by her guidance counselor to be part of a mentoring program, she is paired with an upper middle class African American alum of the school. Jade did not ask to be part of the mentoring program, it’s just assumed she’ll find it useful. Then Jade is NOT chosen to participate in an international volunteer trip her school sponsors, despite having tutored some of the students chosen to go. The volunteer program is the reason Jade was willing to leave her neighborhood high school and make the long bus trip every day. When she asks her teacher why she wasn’t chosen, he explains it’s because she has already been given the opportunity to participate in the mentoring program. Why, she challenges--her teacher, her guidance counselor, her mentor--does everyone assume that because she's young and Black and poor she only needs help, and "opportunities," but has nothing to offer, anything to give?

Jade’s story is no less important for White readers than All American Boys, or The Hate U Give, or The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds, or Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. These and other works--by Jason Reynolds and Jacqueline Woodson, by Renée Watson and Nikki Grimes and Rita Williams-Garcia and Varian Johnson and Walter Dean Myers and Virginia Hamilton and so many other Black authors, and other writers of color and from First/Native Nations--need to be shared widely.

Yes, many of us all say that all the time. But how do we act on it? And in what way are  assumptions we make about or labels we attach to books, and readers, and the lives of children and teens, getting in our way?

Sharing stories is powerful. We all believe that or we wouldn’t be doing the work we do. And we absolutely need to be intentional about diversity in selecting and in reading, but we also need to give readers diverse stories without limiting either the stories or the readers by labels of our own making.

Beauty and pain, joy and challenge, humor and heartache, injustice and kindness. None of these things is mutually exclusive in selfhood, in stories, or the lives of children and teens.

Megan Schliesman