Saturday, October 31, 2015

On Letting Go

It's never easy discovering a serious fault with a book I originally appreciated greatly.

It's never easy, and yet...what do I have to lose, really? What am I giving up when I can admit something may not be as wonderful as I originally thought?

And so it is with A Fine Desert: Four Centuries, Four Families, and One Delicious Desert. I liked so much about it from the outset when I read and discussed it with colleagues last spring.  I still like so much about it: The small details, the big arc, the way it looks at continuity and change from such a child-friendly perspective.

As for the much-debated way it handles the blackberry fool made in 1810 by an enslaved woman and child? I confess I glossed over much of it. The only image that gave me pause initially was the one in which the mother and child are closeted away eating the treat together. I remember asking, "How is a child reader going to make sense of that scene without any explanation?"  This idea of an unmediated experience with that part of the book was particularly worrisome to me. But while I did think briefly of children of color, of Black children, and wondered if it would generate a sense of shame or confusion, I read the author's and illustrator's notes, and let my vague sense of discomfort go.

After all, there is so much wonderful in the book, in both the writing and the art. That contemporary family and community at the end brought it all home for me.  Yes, this is the world we live in, and I love it. So I've enthusiastically featured A Fine Desert in several talks to Wisconsin librarians.

Fast forward to now. I've had ample opportunities to read various articulate opinions on the depiction of this enslaved woman and child. I've had ample opportunities to think. To consider. To learn.

And I've changed my mind.

I cannot ignore the voices of those who have helped me understand something I didn't consider before: No matter how thoughtful the intent was in depicting this mother and child, the end result is that it can be seen as perpetuating painful imagery of "happy" slaves.

Am I ashamed I didn't see this myself? Yes. Because it's the kind of thing I'd like to think I wouldn't miss.

But I'm not so ashamed that I'm going to dig in my heels.

I can let go of A Fine Desert.

Did I come to this decision easily? No. Am I sad about letting go of the book? Yes.

But it's a small sadness.

Yes, I still appreciate many other things about A Fine Dessert, but I can also accept that this is a fault it cannot overcome for me when it comes to recommending it to librarians and teachers.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Reviewing While White: The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

by KT Horning

John Roy Lynch is hardly a household name but he should be. Born into slavery in Mississippi in 1847, by age 22 he was appointed Justice of the Peace by the governor of Mississippi and that same year he was elected to the state House of Representatives. At age twenty-five, he was elected Speaker of the House in Mississippi and later that year he won national office as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

And he truly did live in an amazing age, as referenced in the title of this new picture-book biography by Chris Barton with illustrations by Don Tate.

Most of the children's nonfiction books dealing with African Americans that we see these days are historical, and, of these, most are either set during slavery times or during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.  They are important stories to tell, to be sure, but the steady stream of them year after year contribute to a body of what one of my colleagues on the Coretta Scott King Award Committee once referred to as "a literature of despair." 

Because he was born in 1847, the first part of Lynch's story does take place during slavery times, but the narrative moves quickly to his life during the Reconstruction era where he learned to read, bought land, studied law, became a noted orator, and got elected to public office. The twelve years that followed the end of the Civil War did indeed make for an amazing age -- not just for Lynch but for African Americans throughout the South. From the author's note, we learn that there were sixteen African Americans from Southern states who served in the U.S. Congress from 1870 to 1877. For comparison, from 1902 to 1972, there were zero.

My question as I was reading this book is why have I never read anything about this man before? Or, for that matter, any of the nearly two thousand other elected officials?  It made me think of an episode of African American Lives, the PBS series about genealogy created by Henry Louis Gates, that I saw several years ago. I remembered seeing comedian Chris Rock break down and cry when he learned that his great-great-grandfather had been elected to  the South Carolina House of Representatives during this same era. He explained his emotional reaction: "If I had known this it would have taken away the inevitability that I was going to be nothing."

The man and his story are amazing, and it's a story all children should know. But what is equally amazing is the telling. Chris Barton pulls no punches when writing about the White resistance to change. He doesn't attribute racist actions to one bad slave owner or overseer as is so often the case in children's books depicting slavery.   Speaking of the vindictive wife of Lynch's owner, he writes: "She was not alone in rage and spite and hurt and lashing out. The leaders of the South reacted the same way to the election of a president -- Abraham Lincoln -- who was opposed to slavery." Barton describes the scene after Emancipation: "Freedom, however, soon turned sour. Mississippi whites passed laws to make Mississippi blacks into slaves under different names: 'Apprentices.' 'Vagrants.' 'Convicts.' " Later on, he refers to members of the KKK as "white terrorists."

I can't recall when I've seen a book for children that is so deliberate about calling out racism for what it is. And he does it with such clear, simple language, making this complex period in history accessible to young readers, just as Don Tate's clear stylized illustrations do.  Even though the illustrations use a cartoon style, there are no happy, smiling slaves here. What we see instead is the pain and suffering they endured and later, the look of pride and determination on the face of John Roy Lynch, a free man.

I have to admit, I was initially taken aback when I read about Lynch's father, an Irish overseer, "loving" Lynch's mother, an enslaved woman. These relationships could never really be equal. And loving? Hmmm. So I went directly to the source: Lynch's own autobiography,  Reminiscences of an Active Life, where he did characterize his parents' relationship as a loving one and described the struggles they went through to try to get married.  So if their love was a myth, it was one John Roy Lynch believed himself.

Although Lynch's story as presented here ends with Reconstruction, a detailed timeline at the book's end fills out the rest of his life, side-by-side with events occurring on a state and national level, such as the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 eight years after it passed.

Taken as a whole, Chris Barton's book can serve as a model for White authors who choose to write about African American history for children.  He obviously respects the intelligence of young readers and he refuses to sugarcoat the uglier aspects of our history. And in bringing this story to light, he presents a truth that takes away that sad inevitability that Chris Rock and many others have grown up with.   Like John Roy Lynch and his age, they are filled with "amazing promise and potential."

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On Safety and Comfort... Or Rather, Safety vs. Comfort

As a White person, I hear a lot about "safe spaces".  We White people are always stressing about how to make something "a safe space", or thanking each other for creating one.  A noble intention if ever there was one; and yet, as Brendan Kiely points out:
"...there are, without a doubt, many of us who wake up with good intentions, but as we proceed with our day, impact others in devastating and destructive ways—and it is the impact, not the intention, that lasts. Therefore it is the road from those intentions to those impacts that we need to be critical of, that we need to better understand, that we need help deconstructing so we can lessen, avoid, or even stop, each other from delivering those harmful impacts."
I've been trying to examine the road from good intentions to harmful impacts ever since I read those lines, and that has led me to question the notion of a safe space.

Question 1 - Safe for whom?  Whose experience of "safety" are we concerned with?

Too often, I believe, a space is deemed "safe" or "unsafe" depending on the experiences of White people in those spaces.  When we think about safety, let's de-centralize Whiteness.  And that leads me to ask...

Question 2 - What do we mean by "safe"?

Safe should mean, "I won't get attacked for what I say" or "I won't get fired for what I say" (pausing here to note that many, many people have been fired for doing anti-racist work; this concern is real).  I think we White people are seldom actually worried about those things when we talk about "safe spaces".  Sure, sometimes, we are.  But unless you go "old-school racist" (what we here at Reading While White refer to as bigotry) or hard-core anti-racist, we White people are pretty much safe from physical attack or job loss as a result of a conversation about race.

But even though our spaces are, mostly, safe, we get uncomfortable so easily.  I get uncomfortable when people challenge me, or rather, accurately describe something I've said as problematic, without conforming to the White norm of apologizing a million times first, or taking me aside and telling me gently and privately.  I may react to such situations by
-Saying "well, just to play devil's advocate..." which is really just a passive aggressive of saying what I truly think, without having to own it--why would anyone want to advocate for the devil?
-Saying "hang on, let's pause and take a deep breath and look at this calmly," invoking the White luxury of reacting intellectually, rather than immediately and emotionally, to racism.
-Launching into an angry tirade, describing how I've worked hard to get everything I've got/got passed over for a promotion because of affirmative action/am marginalized along another identifier, as if any of that erases my Whiteness.
-Burst into tears.  This is really real.  Watch for another post from me in the future devoted entirely to this subject.

All of these are tactics I can use as a White person to, intentionally or involuntarily, thwart someone's attempt to interrupt White privilege.  All of these actions demand that energy be expended to comfort me, or play by my White rules, rather than actually acknowledge and discuss the problematic nature of whatever it was I said.  And these actions are especially frustrating for people of color and First/Native Nations people who find themselves in the position of having to take care of someone who just said something problematic.

Let's face it.  Usually, when White people talk about a "safe space", what we really mean is "a space that is comfortable for me."  Or, to take it a step further, "a space in which other people censor themselves to protect me."  To paraphrase: "A space that is comfortable for White people and unsafe for everyone else."

So let's stop worrying so much about creating comfortable spaces and worry more about whether our spaces are truly safe for all.  Yes, be careful before you say something that might get you fired.  But creating a space that is truly safe for people of color and First/Native Nations people often necessitates making that space uncomfortable for White people.

The world needs more uncomfortable spaces.  I hope Reading While White becomes one of them.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Matter of Trust

In their novel All American Boys, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely confront racism head-on, tackling police bias and violence and White privilege, in a story that moves back and forth between the perspective of two teens, one Black, one White. This novel by two authors, one Black, one White, has me continuing to think about the question of who writes what, and reflecting on what it means to me as a reader.
Never, for one minute, did I wonder about the authenticity of Rashad Butler, the book’s African American main character, and his family and Black and Latino friends.

By contrast, I don’t know what to make of the portrayal of Kara in A.L. Sonnichsen’s Red Butterfly, about a Chinese girl living with her adoptive White mother in China. The novel adds unusual and weighty complexities to an adoption story (which is never an uncomplicated topic) when Kara discovers her mother has never officially adopted her; it’s why they live a life of such seclusion in China, and also why they’ve never been able to go to the United States, where her adoptive father is—her mother has no papers for Kara, an infant she found abandoned while living in China. When the authorities finally discover them, Kara is sent to an orphanage, and eventually to a another family in the U.S., all while experiencing understandably conflicted feelings about her White mother, who loves her and whom she loves, and her new family.

What is the principle difference between these books when it comes to evaluating them for me? In short, All American Boys co-author Jason Reynolds is Black.  A. L. Sonnichsen, the author of Red Butterfly, is White. She grew up in Hong Kong, spent time in China as an adult, and adopted a child from China after a lengthy time fostering her. She did not approach this story ungrounded or uninformed. Still, how do I know if her portrayal of Kara and her situation is accurate and authentic culturally, not to mention emotionally? (I mean that as genuine question, not one weighted with judgment: I really am not sure but I am struggling.)

Which brings me to a simple truth: If I am reading a fictional book focusing on the experience of someone who is African American, or Chinese, or Puerto Rican, or Lakota and the author is writing from the perspective of a cultural insider, I don’t question the authenticity of that portrayal. (Although there have been authors who make claims of Native heritage in particular that are spurious, so we can’t always take everything stated as true.)  I take what I am reading first and foremost at face value, as one story that offers one perspective from a reliable source.

But if the writer is not African American or Chinese or Puerto Rican or Lakota, I want to know what gives her or him the authority to write that character and situation.
Asking the critical questions of “who can” and “who can’t” doesn’t change the fact that, always, someone will.  For me the question of “can you write” or “should you write,” the complexities of which have been explored probingly and eloquently on this blog and elsewhere, comes down to a matter of trust when I have a book in hand.  And what I care about at that point is whether the author had the knowledge and understanding and experience to write that character and situation reliably.  It might be incredibly literary, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.
To answer that question, I start from a position of skeptical.  In other words, I don’t give my trust away easily. I try not to anyway.
It’s a matter of trust for children, too. As an adult, I know to ask questions. I’m still learning to probe more deeply, but at least I know to be skeptical. (Though I think I’m not always skeptical enough.)  Children don’t know to ask unless they’ve been taught to do so. Or they’ve learned to ask because they’ve seen essential aspects of their own identity misrepresented, misunderstood, whitewashed.

The matter of trust becomes profoundly important when we think of those children.

As a parent, I remember the trust it required that first time I sent my daughter off to school when she was starting kindergarten. It was a little terrifying.

Now I try to imagine being the parent of a child of color or First/Native Nations child. What layers of fear surround the school experience for them that I can't begin to understand, other than in an effort to be an empathetic outsider? I imagine some of that fear comes from wondering what might be said or done as their children begin to move through school—what expectations will or won’t be placed upon them, what judgments will or won’t be made, what opportunities will they or won’t they be given because of racism. And I imagine at least some of that fear may come from wondering what it is they'll be asked to read and see. What depictions of experience reflecting or denigrating or negating their racial and cultural identity will they be shown, generally with innocent or even the best intentions?

I imagine all of that. And I’m writing about it here. But my empathy has limits. It can even be wrong. So what I can’t imagine is making the leap from such thinking to building an entire book around an experience I cannot truly understand from the inside out.  

I’m not a novelist. But I am a reader and critic. And I confess, more and more I find myself not knowing what to do with books by White authors featuring primary characters of color.  I’m not sure anymore what it will take for me to trust that they’ve done it well, and by well I mean accurately, authentically, so that a cultural insider will say “Yes, this works.” (And that’s not to assume a homogony of opinion among such readers.)

None of this means I won’t be moved or entertained by what they’ve written.  And then I’ll wrestle with what I know and what I feel I need to find out in order to decide if I can feel confident recommending it to teachers and librarians. I won’t always get answers or assurances.  I’m not convinced it’s absolutely impossible to write responsibly outside one’s own culture. But in general, my skepticism is growing regarding whom to trust.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Guest Blogger: Brendan Kiely

Reading While White is pleased to offer occasional guest bloggers who offer their own perspectives on race and books for children and teens.

Special thanks to Lisa Nowlain for creating the
frame and font for our "Guest Blogger" series.
Learn more about Lisa here.
The White Boy in the Third Row
by Brendan Kiely

Last week, I was on the stage of an auditorium in a huge Washington DC public school, presenting with Jason Reynolds the novel we co-wrote together, All American Boys. Put simply, the novel is about two boys, one black, one white, who must decide what role they will each play in their community after the black boy is brutalized by a white cop and the white boy witnesses it happen. And while the story is told in alternating chapters from the two boys’ points of view, it is also about the effect the violent interaction has on the families, friends, teachers, and other community members around the two boys.

For the last three weeks, Jason and I have been doing nearly three presentations a day to middle schools, high schools, libraries, bookstores, and non-profit organizations in cities across the country. At each event, we have to be clear, concise, and direct, because everywhere we go, no matter the demographics of the community we’re speaking to, we’re talking about police brutality, racism, institutional racism, and white privilege. We feel committed, and we try to remain as humble and honest as possible, because it is a hard conversation to have, but we have been invited to these places to have it, so we’re going for it.

As I sat on the stage in DC, and looked out over the crowd of 300 students in the auditorium, I was reminded of the courage and honesty of the kids who deal with all of these issues in a real way everyday. They asked tough questions: “Why are more people of color the victims of police brutality?” “Why does it feel like my neighborhood is under Marshall law?” “Do you think Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter, and why?”

We’ve been answering these questions everyday, and by being forced to speak about it all so often and so publicly, I’ve grown used to answering these questions as quickly and directly as possible, while still trying to be thoughtful and conscious of context and impact—but I know I need to try much harder to be more thoughtful of both.

This particular DC school’s population was very diverse (in the true sense of the word), and while I do not have the actual statistics of the demographics, a scan of the crowd gave me the impression that there was a broad mix of black, white, Asian, and Latino students—and we were conscious to try to answer questions from kids of all backgrounds. We always carve out a substantial portion of our presentation for questions, because no matter where we are kids always have tons of questions. And at this event, I saw a white boy in the third row with his hand up for nearly the entire time. Before we left, I thought I should call on him. When I did he asked, “Do you think you will turn away white readers from your book by having a white cop beat a black boy in the first chapter? Are you afraid that by writing a book like this, you will turn away white readers from your book, or even turn away more white people from the whole Black Lives Matters movement?”

I was stunned. I’d thought about people not liking the book. I’d thought about the danger of someone hearing about the book and dismissing it before reading it—not realizing the complexities and nuances Jason and I tried very hard to add to all the characters’ lives in the novel, cops included. But I’d never thought that the book might do danger to the very people I claimed to be working with in the Black Lives Matters movement. I had to take a breath. I’m so glad I did, because if I’d just answered straight from the gut, I’d have said something dumb, no matter how factually correct, and I would have done exactly what he was warning me about.

After the breath, I gave him the short, most honest answer I could after he made me reflect on it. “Yes,” I said. “But I’d like to explain.”

I don’t know where the question was coming from. He could have been the one kid in class arguing that All Lives Matter. He might have had a police officer in the family. He might have been arguing that by talking about race, we make it all much worse. But he also might have been genuinely worried—maybe he was struggling with how to talk to other white people about all these difficult topics, too?

I wanted to address his question honestly, but not in a defensive way, not in a condescending way—I was talking to another white person, someone I hoped, if he read Quinn’s narrative in the novel, might feel inspired to further educate himself about the tentacle-like effects of white privilege as they reach out in all directions around him, even if he is in a very diverse community.

As a white man, I don’t believe I should take an “us” versus “them” approach to other white people. How can I? Because I’ve begun to think and feel more critically about my own white privilege than I used to, have I somehow abandoned my whiteness?

No. The white boy in the third row is also me. How do I sit in his shoes, shoes that I can most easily slip into, and dialogue with the man on stage imploring everyone to recognize why the Black Lives Matter movement shouldn’t be seen as a threat to our community and country, but instead is simply another step in the long march for social justice and equity?

I took a little longer than usual answering his question. I explained that we tried to recognize the humanity of all the characters in the book, including the police officers, and we tried to be as crystal clear and honest about the fears all these characters have, what each of them wants to protect, and how the recognition of those fears and the decision to confront them shape the narrative arc of the book. In a sense, we hoped that we could write a book that didn’t push anyone away, but rather recognized and honored the nuances and complexities in the fictional community in the novel, as a way to recognize those same nuances and complexities that exist in the real world. I don’t think there are many people in the world who wake up in the morning, twist their moustaches and contemplate their evil, villainous plans for the day. But there are, without a doubt, many of us who wake up with good intentions, but as we proceed with our day, impact others in devastating and destructive ways—and it is the impact, not the intention, that lasts. Therefore it is the road from those intentions to those impacts that we need to be critical of, that we need to better understand, that we need help deconstructing so we can lessen, avoid, or even stop, each other from delivering those harmful impacts.

I believe, at the end of the day, there are more of us who want to lessen that harmful impact, and we all need help (especially those of us who are white) holding each other accountable. I’m grateful for my wife, my friends, and my family, who all help me in this, and I’m grateful too to all the people I’m meeting while out on the road talking about All American Boys.

For example, elsewhere on the tour, at another festival, a middle aged white man walked up to me and Jason and told us that he was the father of two black boys he and his white wife had adopted.  He told us that he was reading All American Boys with his sons and, in effect, he explained that it was just one more small piece in his on-going process of trying to better understand his own life in comparison and contrast to his sons’ lives. “When I heard my sons talking to me about their lives, I had to listen,” he said. “So I’ve been listening and learning and after years of doing this I feel a little more like a whole man.”

Those words nearly broke my heart. I could have sobbed in the convention hall. Instead, I swallowed them as a reminder that I need to do a better job, too. That I’ll always need to do a better job. That there is no arrival point. I’ll never arrive at some point where I’m outside the system of systemic racism—I’ll always be in it, and because I am, I have to do the best job possible calling people into the conversation that recognizes it, in order to do the work to try to deconstruct it. I’ll always need to do a better job “calling people in” rather than “calling people out.”

So, thank you white boy in the third row. Thank you for calling me back in.

Brendan Kiely received an MFA in creative writing from The City College of New York. His debut novel, The Gospel of Winter, has been published in eight languages, was selected as one of American Library Association’s Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults 2015, and was a Kirkus Reviews selection for best of 2014. He is the co-author, with Jason Reynolds, of the novel All American Boys (S&S). Originally from the Boston area, he now lives with his wife in Greenwich Village.

Find Brendan on Facebook.

© Brendan Kiely

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Some Swoon-Worthy Women in Children's Literature

I confess that the recent article in NY Magazine about crush-worthy men in children's literature had me flashing back to that subway incident of five years ago.  I was filled with rage, and let it out on Twitter:

Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but I was angry.  This sort of thing happens every time a mainstream media outlet decides to write about children's literature: Someone skims the surface and deems themself expert enough to write about us.  This one struck a nerve with me, though, because I see this adoration within the field as well--and it translates directly into more money and opportunities for White men.

Good-looking men in this field, particularly White men, go straight to the top and cash in.  (Christian Robinson was the only man of color named in this article--where the heckedy heck was Christopher Myers?  Gene Luen Yang?  Matt de la Pena?  Kadir Nelson?)  It's true of authors, illustrators, and librarians.  And I can count the number of times I've heard one of these hotshots name his White-man-privilege in public on one hand.

So, let's balance the scales a bit, shall we?  There are women in this field who should be rockstars, and women of color and First/Native Nations women have to work the hardest to get an iota of the recognition that some of these dudes get for showing up.  I mean--have y'all read Zetta Elliott's books?  Go read Bird and A Wish After Midnight and Room In My Heart (I'll still be here when you get back).  Let's throw a parade every time Grace Lin comes to town.  Coe Booth and Jenny Han deserve followings on par with the John Green devotees.  How about we crowd around Rukhsana Khan or Cynthia Leitich Smith at the next party?  Let's feature illustrators Vanessa Brantley-Newton and Julie Flett on bookmarks, pamphlets, calendars, and blogs.  I want to see lines wrapping around the block for Kashmira Sheth and Kat Yeh. And Yuyi Morales--well, everything about her just makes me swoon.

Let's give it up for the women of color and First/Native Nations women who make this field great, who work twice as hard for half as much.  Who am I missing?  List it in the comments.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Reviewing While White: First Man

by Sam Bloom

In late 1909, Robert Peary and Frederick Cook feuded bitterly—and publicly—over whom had first “discovered” the North Pole. At that point in time, Matthew Henson was a virtual unknown; after all, he was a Black man living in the U.S., so why would the fact that he actually beat Peary (a White man) to the Pole count for anything? As Simon Schwartz writes in the introduction to his latest work imported for readers here in the U.S., First Man: Reimagining Matthew Henson (translated by Laura Watkinson and published by Graphic Universe), “Western culture seems to be based in an objective view of history and the world in which we live” (p. 4). A good point, but regrettably it’s Schwartz’s very own “objective view of history and the world,” and his stereotyped depictions of Greenlandic Inuit, that sinks this graphic novel.

I’m a pretty voracious comics reader, and I’d never read anything from Schwartz, so I was thrilled to see a new title from the German author/illustrator. Plus, I was woefully unversed on the life of Henson, so I started First Man with a great deal of anticipation. I soon learned that Henson was quite the adventurer: sailing the seas as a teenager; accompanying Peary on a surveying expedition in Nicaragua (to investigate the feasibility of a shipping route between oceans that would eventually become the Panama Canal); acting as Peary’s “faithful black servant” on many journeys to Greenland and attempts at the North Pole. It was on these trips to the far north where Henson made a lasting impression on the Inuit, who dubbed him Mahri Pahluk (“Matthew, the Kind One”). This fact, according to Schwartz’s introduction (pp. 4-5), led him to create First Man.

I absolutely burned through my first reading, gobsmacked mostly by the brilliant job Schwartz does portraying the “historical injustice” of “Henson’s lack of recognition” in the history books (p. 4). It’s obvious that Schwartz is passionate (almost to a fault) about his subject; anything resembling a flaw in Henson’s persona gets swept under the rug, while Peary conversely is raked through the coals (for example, both men had affairs in Greenland, but only Peary’s doings are shown here). But though I was emotionally gutted on my first reading, it was during my second time through that I began to feel really and truly queasy.

When you’re a member of the dominant culture, racism can be hard to spot at times. This is what I told myself after finishing that second reading; I was trying to justify how I had not been previously able to see the stereotypes that Schwartz perpetuates here (and that we see over and over again in literary depictions of people of First/Native Nations).

Throughout the book, Schwartz uses Inuit-inspired art to symbolize Henson (and other characters). (Schwartz does not include any notes of whether he vetted the art, or anything involving the Native Greenlanders, with a person of Greenlandic Inuit descent.) On page 51, a grizzled, elderly Native Greenlander is the first to refer to Henson as “Mahri Pahluk,” a look of wonder in the old man’s eyes. As everyone else goes about their business, the “shaman” (as he is later referred, on page 80) uses his staff to draw a mystical-looking picture in the snow, an image that implies he believes Henson has some kind of powers (and that echoes the “mask” Henson wears in the Inuit art sections of the book). Later, the “shaman” leads Henson to “massive meteorites that are sacred to the Inuit” (p. 155), where Henson has a supernatural experience. All the while, Henson grumbles that he doesn’t know what is going on, apparently following the old man because of the squiggly lines of mysticism emanating off of his body. This exotification of Inuit culture is all too familiar in children’s literature.

In Nina’s review of Jump Back, Paul, she discusses the inherent problems of an outsider writing dialect. Here, Schwartz uses what I thought of as “Inuit storyteller voice”; the results are predictably insulting. After the scene with Matthew, the old man and the meteorites, “[T]he devil Tahnusuk drove the first wedge into the group” (p. 64). Eventually Peary discovers the meteorites and arranges to have them shipped back to New York; the “Inuit storyteller voice” reads, “And while the Oopernadeet [Americans] dragged away the three sacred stones, the Raven cast out the shaman for his betrayal and gave him to the devil Tahnusuk” (p. 81); in the next panel we see the old man falling to his death from a high cliff. On pages 94-95, describing the Americans’ arrival at what would be the expedition in which Henson reached the North Pole, Schwartz uses a two-page spread with Inuit-inspired art and the “Inuit storyteller voice,” including the cringe-worthy line, “The breath of Tahnusuk clung to the visitors” (p. 94).

The book ends in 1962, with a group of Greenlandic Inuit kids sitting around reading a Superman comic book (to Schwartz’s credit, the kids are dressed realistically and without stereotype). An old man makes the kids put away “that garbage” so he can slip into the “Inuit storyteller voice” and share Mahri Pahluk’s tale—as the group sits on an ice floe in the shape of the tracing the “shaman” had made in the snow when he first met Henson—“And among those same Oopernadeet, there was also Mahri Pahluk… who was the first man to defeat Tahnusuk but who could not escape the Devil’s gaze” (p. 152).

In his introduction, Schwartz admits, “I am not a historian but a graphic novelist” (p. 5). That’s all fine and dandy, but some of Schwartz's choices at revisionist history did leave me scratching my head. A timeline in the backmatter clears up some things, but not others, leaving a blurry line between fact and fiction. The sacred stones really did exist, and Peary actually did have them shipped back to New York City. But did the Inuit really admire Henson enough to trust him with the knowledge of those same stones? Was there really a “shaman” who jumped (or was pushed) off that cliff? Do the Inuit really believe in “Tahnusuk,” the devil that is referenced repeatedly by the “Inuit storyteller voice”? And did the Native Greenlanders really live in tipis, as Schwartz depicts here? I am not sure of any of these things, but if I were Simon Schwartz, I would have been absolutely certain to find out (and then name my sources). While I agree that Henson’s story must be told, how unfortunate that in doing so Schwartz perpetuates stereotypes of the very people whose respect toward Henson was the impetus for this story. You see, people of First/Native Nations have had their stories ruined by those outside of their culture for far too long; by continuing that sad tradition, Schwartz leaves his young readers out in the cold.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

National Book Awards: A Very White Longlist

Oh, National Book Award, you are breaking my heart! When the longlist of National Book Award finalists was announced a few weeks ago, I was struck first and foremost by the lack of diversity on the list.

Okay, so there's one book by two African-American authors, there's one book about a gay kid, and beyond that it's White, White, White, White, White, White, White, White, and White.

I'm not trying to take away from these books. I appreciated  the atmospheric weirdness of Bone Gap and am looking forward to Steve Sheinkin's biography of Daniel Ellsberg, which I hear is amazing. I always enjoy a good M. T. Anderson, and am interested in seeing not one but two first novels  represented on the list, so I will definitely take a closer look at those. And I will no doubt be reading the others, just to keep up with current events.  Walk the Earth a Stranger, for example, has been heavily criticized for its treatment of Native peoples on Debbie Reese's blog, American Indians in Children's Literature. I feel obliged to give it a read.

But what I really want to be thinking and talking about instead is All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brandon Kiely and Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older and Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon. These are the books everyone is buzzing about.  Why are none of them on the long list? 

The National Book Award works differently from most other awards in the children's and young adult literature world. Publishers have to nominate titles for consideration, and there is a submission fee of $135 for each book submitted.  That really limits the number of books any one publisher can afford to submit, and it also closes out many smaller publishers who can't afford to shell out the money for a submission, not to mention what they would have to pay should a book become a finalist. In that case, they would have to pay $3,000 into a promotional campaign and pay for their authors to attend the ceremony.  The chairperson of each judging panel may request a book be submitted for consideration, but with these, the publisher must still agree to all of the above payments.
So I wonder: were books by authors of color even submitted by their publishers? If not submitted, were they requested? Or were they submitted and ruled not worthy of being on the longlist?  There's no way of knowing, really, although G. Neri, a judge on this year's panel, may have offered some hints in when he revealed his Top 25 favorites that didn't make the list. His extended list is only a little bit more diverse -- he includes a handful of books by authors of color. But even so, his is still a pretty White list, especially if you add in the ten finalists.

Last year the diversity represented in the NBA shortlist was thought to be so notable that I was asked to blog about it.  I didn't actually find it quite as unusual as the people over at The Conversation did, given that most of the books were still by White authors, but the end result was that Jacqueline Woodson won the award for Brown Girl Dreaming, a shining moment that was tainted by the racist joke Master of Ceremonies Daniel Handler made right after she accepted the award. Jackie wrote a beautiful opinion piece on this for the New York Times, called "The Pain of the Watermelon Joke." Brown Girl Dreaming went on to win the Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Honor, and a Sibert Honor.

Now it's almost a year later. Are we any wiser?  I'm not sure we are if this letter to the editor at Horn Book is any indication.  Do our books -- and book awards -- reflect any more diversity?  I don't think so.

I'm not saying that I think an author of color should win the National Book Award every year. But I do think they should have at least a few more places at the table, especially when they are writing such excellent books as All-American Boys, Shadowshaper, and Everything, Everything. What would it take to get them there?

Tomorrow we'll learn the names of the five finalists in each category. I'm not sure I can muster up a whole lot of enthusiasm. Chances are, I'll be busy reading The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Monsour. My bookstore just emailed to let me know they have it on hold for me. I can't wait to read it.

UPDATE 09/14/2015: And an Even Whiter Shortlist 
 The NBA finalists were announced this morning. They are: 
  • The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
  • Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
  • Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin
  • Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
  • Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Monday, October 12, 2015

Guest Blogger: Ibi Zoboi

Reading While White is pleased to host occasional guest bloggers who offer their own perspectives on race and books for children and teens. 

Or, For Colored Children Who Considered Literary Suicide 
When the Rainbow Wasn’t Enough
               by Ibi Zoboi

“I don’t like to read” is a something I hear very often in New York City public schools, which I’ve learned to translate as, “I don’t like to read what my teachers make me read.” Which, in fact, does not always mean, “I don’t like to read books that don’t reflect my experiences.”

I once asked a class of Brooklyn ninth graders, many of whom were avid readers, if they’d like to see a Twilight or Harry Potter set in the ‘hood. They all shouted no. I didn’t ask them why. I already knew the answer.

My children’s school has an annual book fair. I have a hand in selecting the titles sold there, and of course, I pick out a wide range of diverse books that reflect the school’s demographic (which isn’t very many). I handed a copy of Christopher Grant’s Teenie, with a beautiful black girl on the cover, to a beautiful black girl. She scrunched up her face and shook her head, as if I’d just handed her a plate of chocolate-covered Brussels sprouts. She’d already bought two John Green novels—neither of which had any black girls on the cover, or in them.

As I’m writing this, my almost 11-year-old comes over to announce that she’s just finished reading Edwidge Danticat’s new YA novel, Untwine. She tells me to read it soon so we can discuss. Yesterday, my almost 13-year-old returned Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ to me. “How was it?” I asked. “It was interesting,” she said. “It’s not as vanilla as the other book. It’s not vanilla at all.” 

By vanilla, she means white. Not just white people, but a white feel, a white tone. A book can have only white characters and feel very much not-vanilla—there’s something universal about the voice, the characters, and the themes. She’s probably heard me say this about books. And maybe, in some indirect way, I’ve taught my daughters how to read like this. Because their mother is a children’s book writer, and has to read the canon as part of her job, my daughters are privy to most of the award-winning, bestselling, and even some of the obscure, and under-the-radar children’s books. This sets them apart from their peers, and maybe their ELA teachers, too. I tell them they’re privileged in this sense. They’re little black girls who love to read, and own books, and have parents and grandparents who read. This is their black privilege.

Black privilege includes the art of biculturalism. The very nature of being black and consuming media inundated with the white experience warrants biculturalism. Our Friday Family TV night line-up confirms the range in what we can appreciate—from Blackish (a hit or miss in our house), Fresh off the Boat, and even The Goldbergs (with its many references to black music) to the very vanilla The Middle.

This is how we read. My daughters and I can enjoy Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap for its voice and setting and characters, as much as we can find truth in Renee Watson’s This Side of Home. I’ve been trained to do this all my life as a student, though, without having a Renee Watson or Jackie Woodson to balance out the Shakespeare, William Golding, Stephen Crane, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The very first black author I read was Alex Haley. I read Queen in the eleventh grade because Halle Berry starred in the TV adaptation. I discovered the mirror in Alex Haley’s books in a roundabout way—through a Hollywood movie star who looked like me (according to the cute boys in high school).  As a result, I discovered a whole world of slave narratives that provided mirrors within mirrors which allowed me to see the full trajectory of my existence. They were the history lessons I’d never learned in school. Because of Alex Haley, I was able to contextualize nineteenth century feminism via the Bronte sisters and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Edgar Allan Poe stories paled in comparison to my understanding of the horrors of slavery. Later in college, while working in bookstore, I sought out black women poets to better appreciate Emily Dickinson. Not the other way around.

Now, as an adult and a children’s book writer, I can immerse myself in Laini Taylor’s books knowing that while this sort of grandiose mythological world-building is virtually absent in books featuring characters of color, there are still the magical worlds of Wole Sonyika, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison that have yet to make their way into YA novels.

YA author Meg Rosoff recently stated that every single book out there in the world can provide narrative context for all marginalized readers. This has been the thinking since the advent of the written mode, and it’s why Beowulf is still taught in high school English classes, even in predominantly black schools. Whiteness and Western mythology as a default narrative was the only way in which colonialism was allowed to take root and spread throughout the world—beginning with, what some could consider, the holiest of all books.

My mother-in-law was an English professor and I once asked her what she read as a child growing up in Trinidad. She read British classics way before she read any Harlem Renaissance writers. My husband is, and has always been, an avid reader. He actually owned books and made frequent trips to the library growing up in Trinidad and Liberia. He’d never read a book about black boys. Yet, he discovered the magic of story in Frank Herbert’s Dune and in the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley, Isaac Asimov, and Phillip K. Dick. He’d read Octavia Butler without knowing that she was a black woman.

This sort of literary biculturalism is why we have an Octavia Butler (a Ray Bradbury fan) and a Toni Morrison (a William Faulkner fan). An outlier, in this case, would be Zora Neale Hurston whose literary foundation is within the black southern oral tradition. When there is no precedent for our existence in the world of books, we find a seed of validation within white narratives. It’s not an outright mirror, but tinted windows maybe, out of which we can see our muted, somewhat distorted selves.

What specificity in diversity or literal diversity does is sharpen that reflection. Indeed, every book can and should be a window. This is how we learn about the world. But we are not houses unto ourselves. What exists for my public school students who are reluctant readers or who read below grade level, are only mirrors. They look to each other for validations of themselves. They find it in music mostly. Yet, if whiteness remains the default narrative, I can’t help to think that white supremacy has a hand in deciding which mirrors they see. Like a house of mirrors, their reflections can be distorted in order to suit the whims of institutional racism. I think they know this instinctively. Maybe they don’t trust books like they don’t trust standardized tests to accurately measure their brilliance.

There’s a certain truth that only a writer telling her own story can bring. From that deep place of lived experience comes validation—a clear, sharpened focus on the specificity of human existence. What reading widely in children’s and YA literature has taught me is that there is indeed specificity in the white experience. Some of my favorite books are about incest in rural Australia, fairy wars in a modern-day industrial town, a time-traveling homeless man in 1970s Manhattan, and a personified pagoda. With over three-thousand children’s books published each year by white authors, there is room for specificity. My children and I absolutely have to read widely to understand the full spectrum of the human experience. And within the books that feature children and teens of color, we’ll hopefully find validation. 

While they were reading Renee Watson’s This Side of Home, my daughters would shout out, “Facts!” As in, Renee was laying down some real truth in that story. Now they can understand how gentrification further marginalizes the people in our neighborhood. And because we’ve read and loved The Hunger Games, we can contextualize how there is a larger system at play—how The Capitol reinforces institutional oppression. Maybe we live in District 11 or 12 and fertile farm land or coal are now hot commodities, so the Capitol residents want to move in.

Bicultural literacy needs to be intentional. It’s intellectual survival, especially in this age of Common Core and high stakes testing. A queer black boy absolutely needs to see himself within the pages of an empowering picture book, while also making personal connections to Where the Wild Things Are. And hopefully, with some sharp critical thinking skills, he will gain a better understanding of how and why he is marginalized as a queer black boy in the first place. This is what the Common Core proponents are asking of our students: text-to-self and text-to-world connections.

But when there’s no reflection of the self within any text, then there’s no understanding of the world as a truly validating and safe place. The world becomes cold and dangerous, and readers who don’t see themselves reflected in anything around them imagine themselves to be monsters. So they become apprehensive. They don’t try, they don’t push. And this sort of unrealized potential fails us all.

“…If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” -Junot Diaz

Ibi Zoboi holds an MFA in Writing for Children from VCFA. Her debut middle grade novel My Life As An Ice Cream Sandwich is forthcoming from Dutton Young Readers.

 © Ibi Zoboi