Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Freedom Over Me

Bryan, Ashley. Freedom over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life. A Caitlyn Dlouhy Book / Atheneum. 52 pages. ISBN 978-1-4814-569-6

Peggy, John, Charlotte and child, Stephen, Mulvina, Jane, Athelia, Qush, Bacus, Betty. It is with little more than these names that this book began. 

Ashley Bryan explains in his author's note that he acquired a collection of slave-related documents and found among them an 1828 estate appraisal for the Fairchilds: “Eleven slaves are listed for sale with the cows, hogs, cotton; only the names and prices of the slaves are noted (no age is indicated).”

From those names, Bryan imagines lives into being. 

Each of the eleven African and African Americansmen, women, one teenager, one childis introduced with a portrait and first-person narrative poem. The portraits show somber faces alive with fine lines, set against backdrops comprised of scraps of historical documents relating to slavery. On each portrait, the individual’s name and age appears at the bottom in a light, lovely script: “Peggy, age 48.”

Next to the name and age, in heavy type, is the purchase price. For Peggy: “$150.” 

In a book that emphasizes the full humanity of these individuals, that speaks the imagined truths of their lives but also gives weight and breath to their imagined hopes and dreams, the atrocity of slavery is represented first and foremost by that purchase price accompanying every portrait. These are human beings who are owned, who are “appraised” and assigned a dollar value like cotton or cattle.

The first-person narrative for each individual provides some of the details of her or his life as Bryan imagines it. Peggy is a cook in the Big House. She remembers her village being raided, her father being killed, being captured along with her mother and surviving the journey to America that many others did not. She is not only a cook, but a healer, and wanders the estate gathering herbs.

For each subject Bryan offers a second poem, a dream poem, and an accompanying painting that breaks free of all formality and sobriety in a vibrant, joyful scene. In “Peggy dreams,” Peggy reflects on her given name. She was Mariama before she came to America, which means “Gift of God.” She finds joy in relieving the suffering of her fellow slaves. “Mrs. Fairchilds's dinner guests / praise my cooking. / The praise, however, / that touches my heart / is to hear the slaves / call me Herb Doctor.”

“Bacus, age 34” ($250) is a blacksmith. He’s married to “Charlotte, age 30,” a basketmaker, and they have a daughter, “Dora, age 8,” with whom Charlotte is being sold ($400). Bacus knows of slave insurrections, has studied the stars and thought about running, wondering if all three of them can make it to safety. But he’s worried now about being sold and separated from his family. Charlotte learned how to weave as a child in Africa. Now the owners profit from her skill. She knows she and Bacus could earn enough to live in freedom if they can escape. Their daughter is “Dora” to the owners, but Charlotte and Bacus call her “Akua, Sweet Messenger.” When Charlotte is busy weaving, others in their community help care for Dora.

In “Bacus dreams,” the blacksmith tells how every strike of his hammer against hot metal is an outlet for his anger, a blow for justice. In “Charlotte dreams,” she speaks of her artistry as a means of self-discovery. In both dream poems the speakers note the distance and difference between how their owners see them, and who they are.

Enslavement weighs heavily on these individuals as Bryan imagines them—of course it does. The psychic brutality of slavery is at the foundation of this work. But what rises from its pages are eleven vibrant lives: people with history and hopes, dreams and drive, talent and tenderness. So, too, does a glimpse at the connections and community that help sustain them. 

The institution of slavery sought to erase the humanity of those who were enslaved. Ashley Bryan brings that humanity into full relief here, because while there is no way of knowing what these individuals truly hoped and dreamed or who and what they loved, hoping and dreaming and loving is simply and profoundly part of what it means to be human. 

Reviewed by Megan Schliesman

Monday, November 28, 2016

When the Personal Is Not Professional (Or, It's Not about Me ... or You)

There is a place for loving books in my personal life and there are many titles that I have strong emotional attachments to. This includes childhood favorites as well as recently published books that spark a deep response in me.

I imagine the same is true of most of us in the field of children’s and young adult literature. We believe in the power of books to shape and to transform and to move young readers because we have experienced it, often from the time we ourselves were children. We are passionate about books in general, and specific books in particular.  And the books that have shaped or transformed or touched us individually, even in small ways, are the ones we tend to feel most passionate about.

When it comes to favorite books from childhood, I think it is easier for many people to understand that holding them dear is a matter of personal opinion rather than professional judgment. As a result, it’s often (but not always) easier for us to also hear cultural criticism of those beloved titles. We can love the book personally while accepting the criticism professionally. (Allie wrote recently about being able to hold these two things simultaneously.)

When it comes to new books, however, I think the line between personal opinion and professional judgment too often gets blurred or disappears altogether. Maybe this is part of the reason why exchanges on social media are simultaneously impassioned and entrenched: it's hard to separate the personal from the professional.  And sometimes, it's hard to separate egos too--at least that's how it seems when people respond to critiques, especially cultural critiques, of books in which they are clearly emotionally invested with either passionate defense or passionate disregard, the end result of which is the same: dismissal of the concern as ultimately irrelevant. Discussions around books at this time of year when awards are on everyone’s minds can become particularly passionate and particularly entrenched.

The work I do as a professional evaluating books for children and teens is absolutely informed in part by my personal response to the books I read.  And I read a lot of things that don’t move me at all.  I read others that leave me feeling ambivalent, even as I see a place for them in a library collection. As a result, when something does impact me strongly (positively or negatively), you can bet I take notice. And when the impact of what I’ve read is to feel pleasure, even excitement, of course I hope others will feel the same.

I know I’m not alone in this.

But there is a problem when that personal response becomes a deeply invested emotional attachment that gets in the way of our professionalism.

When a book deeply moves us in some way it’s understandable that we become emotionally invested. Maybe it’s something that delights, perhaps even sparking a sense of joy; maybe it makes us feel hopeful; maybe we are saddened by what we read, but that sadness nourishes a sense of empathy. Maybe we find its literary elements astonishingly complex or lyrical; it’s visual elements striking or brilliant, and our excitement at its accomplishment makes us want others to feel the same.   
Our emotional investment can make us eloquent in our praise. It can also fuel an infectious enthusiasm. (One of the things I love most about the work I do is being able to share my enthusiasm for specific books with others.)
But that emotional investment, in a book, or in an author or illustrator, can also make us unable to hear criticism that is essential to evaluating the same book with our professional rather than personal lens. And professionalism demands that we do just that: seek out and seriously consider informed perspectives when it comes to accurate and authentic representation of race, culture, ethnicity, sexuality, gender and other aspects of identity reflected (or absent) in a book we are evaluating when its content is outside our own experience.  Instead, we too often take it personally. Egos get bruised. And that has to stop. It has to stop if we are ever going to move into truly constructive conversations. And it has to stop because this business of being a librarian, reviewer and critic is not about us.

The late Ruth Gordon, librarian, writer, editor, brilliant and blunt commentator and critic, used to challenge people who said they “love” a book.  She made me stop and think about how we use this word in our work.

I have come to the conclusion that saying we love a book is a place we may start. It isn’t the place any of us should end in our work as professionals.

Yes, it can be hard to hear and consider criticism of a book we “love” and think is exceptional. But it's also our job to be able to do so, because the work we do isn't in service to ourselves, or to books and authors and illustrators, no matter how much we may admire and appreciate them. The work we do is in service to children and teens. Ultimately, in our roles as professionals, our emotional investment belongs with all of them.

Megan Schliesman

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Deep Conversation About Binary Thinking

Look, I understand the need for a verdict on a book. Do I spend my limited budget and shelf space on this book? Yes or no? This is our lives, as librarians. But more and more, I wish I didn’t have to make that decision, because what I want to do is have a conversation about the book.

It might surprise some to learn that a collection-development “no” verdict from me doesn’t necessarily equal “this book is poorly executed,” and a “yes” doesn’t mean “this book is well executed” (you’re welcome, James Patterson). And a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean “this book is problematic,” and a “yes” doesn’t mean “this book is not problematic.” Sometimes a book is well executed and not problematic, but not something I can devote budget to (this happens most often with upper YA, since my school ends at grade 8). And more often than people think, yes, I include a problematic book in the collection. This is the real world.

One example of this is As An Oak Tree Grows by G. Brian Karas. I use this as a teaching tool to discuss rewriting history, particularly the erasure of First/Native Nations people, with 6th graders. I am lucky that Bank Street has the Claudia Lewis Research collection, which is open to anybody within Bank Street to browse and check out from (including kids), but is separate from the main collection; that’s where one can find As An Oak Tree Grows.

When a book is problematic, I often want to talk about it with kids. We parse out what messages it sends and how those messages might impact different readers. Sometimes these are “mild offences” (we talk about gender stereotyping in Jon J. Muth’s Zen Shorts as examples of microaggressions) and I struggle with whether I should put the book in the Claudia Lewis collection or the Main Children’s collection. Either way, though, the book is available to anyone with a Bank Street library account.

I get frustrated when people conflate yes/well executed/not problematic or no/poorly executed/problematic into lump categories, or respond to me as if I have done so. I like having conversations that dig deep into ways in which books are problematic and ways in which they are empowering. I learn so much from these conversations. And when I read criticism or critique of something I love (even something I love as much as Hamilton!)--it actually doesn’t ruin it for me. It makes me grateful that I have the chance to learn something new.

It took me a while to develop this ability; the idea that I can simultaneously love something and critique it--holding both of those truths at the same time--runs counter to typical White culture. It requires “and” thinking, instead of “but” thinking (next time you’re in an argument, try saying “yes, and” instead of “yes, but” and see what that’s like). I used to respond to criticism of things that I love defensively; that reflex was born of binary-based thinking and a perfectionist worldview in which criticism necessarily undoes us.

So ten years ago, I might have refused to read criticism of Hamilton, because I believed that valid criticism would “cancel out” the things that I loved about it. (Incidentally, it also used to be very hard for me to hear criticism of myself. One of the best things about ditching a perfectionist worldview was that it liberated me from constantly needing a slew of defense mechanisms to preserve a perfectionist-based self-image.) Now, I love that I know so much more about First/Native Nations’ people’s presence in the Revolutionary War, and at the Continental Congress, and the relationships that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had with First/Native Nations people. I also learned about how the show largely erases enslaved people and First/Native Nations people from history, and while I didn’t love this, I parsed out how the show reflects the society in which we live, and I’m grateful for that. We’re living in an age of questioning age-old assumptions and rethinking how we’ve always done things--how lucky we are, to be alive right now!

So when a new book comes along that offers an opportunity for rich, educative conversations, I want to have those conversations. As Brave As You, for example, I love. And I want to have conversations with kids about Genie, Ernie, and Grandpop and how much I love their relationship and their growth over the course of the book. And I want to talk about how the book misappropriates the word “ninja” (the plural of “ninja” is “ninja,” ninja practice ninjago, and someone is not studying to be a ninja unless they are studying to be a paid assassin--these are factoids that a ninja-obsessed child would most likely know) and what messages that sends. I am extremely fortunate to have a good friend who educated me on ninja, and I want to carry forth the rich conversations she and I have had about it, and share what I’ve learned. Talking to someone who is only interested in fitting As Brave As You into a good/bad binary won’t help those conversations.

These complex, rich conversations won’t provide any easy answers for a question like “Do I spend my budget money on this title, or not?” but they might help inform such a decision. Likewise, they might inform conversations about “does this book belong on a ‘Best Of’ list?” or “does this book deserve an award?”. In some cases, such as “does this book book further or deter understanding about a culture?”, a binary “yes” or “no” is useful--this is why I appreciate Debbie Reese’s blog (which, incidentally, includes more non-binary thinking than many give her credit for) and regularly use it to inform my decision-making.

I know that you have to make a yes or no decision about whether to buy a book, but please don’t let the need for that decision prevent you from also having a rich, complex conversation about the book. And if there are problematic titles in your collection, I highly recommend that you have conversations with kids about them and encourage them to think in non-binary ways. Otherwise, they might not be able to understand that J.K. Rowling’s misappropriation of Navajo culture is not OK.

-This post brought to you by an enthusiastic Harry Potter fan

Allie Jane Bruce

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Listen, Slowly

As part of our Spotlight on #OwnVoices, we will feature books not published in the last year on Throwback Thursday. Today Sam looks at a novel published last year.

Thanhhà Lai. HarperCollins, 2015. 272 pages. 9780062229182. Click here to purchase this book.

Mai can’t believe her parents are making her go to their native Vietnam for the summer. A California girl through and through, Mai would rather be on the beach with her best friend Montana, hoping for a glimpse of HIM (the boy Mai is crushing on). But instead, Mai’s dad (Dr. Do-Gooder, as she calls him) sets up “a one-man surgical clinic” to treat kids in remote villages; Mai gets dragged along as a companion to her grandmother, Bà, who is embarking on one last search for her long missing-in-action husband Ông, Mai’s grandfather. But Mai just wants to get the trip over with already: “I get that my preteen anxieties can’t compete with Bà’s classic suffering. After all, she lost her husband in THE WAR, which I always think of in all caps. Still, selfish or not, I’m going home as soon as I can maneuver around the sad saga of Bà.”

Mai is a hard character to love at first, seemingly as egocentric and shallow a 12-year old as you could find. But she undergoes a transformation of sorts while in Vietnam: she listens to relatives speak, slowly learns the language, and develops an understanding and appreciation of the culture; she becomes friends with Út, the polar opposite of girly-girl Montana, and translator Anh Minh, who speaks English with a Texan accent; and finally, through her love for Bà, Mai shows heart that has been there all along, hidden under the snarky, Facebook-checking tween veneer.

After winning the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor for her debut novel-in-verse Inside Out & Back Again, it wasn’t as if Lai was going to sneak up on us. But what did surprise me was how funny her follow-up is. (Chapter 13, I’m looking at you. Without getting too spoiler-y, it involves thong-related confusion.) Mai’s narrative voice is hilarious, authentic, and maddening in equal measure. (Speaking of voice, I highly recommend the audiobook, expertly narrated by Lulu Lam—she gets Lai’s mix of sarcastic wit and poignantly beautiful prose just right.)

It’s a rare thing for an author to knock it out of the park on her first two books. I know I’m but one of many who can’t wait for Thanhhà Lai’s next release.

Reviewed by Sam Bloom

Monday, November 14, 2016

On Safety Pins, Advocacy, Whiteness, and our field

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few days.  Thinking about our field, and the White people in it.  To borrow from Dave Chappelle--we need to get our shit together.

So let’s start communicating in clear, non-bullshitty ways.  Here are my expectations for White people in the field (and to be even clearer, I am a White woman, and much of this I’m writing down to hold myself accountable).

White people, I expect you to study the history of race and racism, colonialism and white supremacy in the USA and in children’s literature, and to learn how all of the above are still alive and well today.

White men, I expect that in addition to studying the above, you will become experts in patriarchy and misogyny and how they are linked to White supremacy.

I expect you to learn about racism as a system that allots power disproportionately to White people, and our unique responsibilities as White people to dismantle that system.

I expect you to commit the time and money you can to this education process.  I expect you to read books, read articles, and watch videos.  A starter list: The Root, Colorlines, Latina Lista, Indian Country Today, Hyphen magazine, and The Aerogram.

I expect you to, if you possibly can, attend an anti-racist training.  I highly recommend The People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism Workshop, Border Crossers’ trainings, and SEED trainings.

I expect you to prioritize this education process over your yoga class.

I expect you to educate yourselves before you take actions, recognizing that one of the most dangerous things we White people can do is act without education.

I expect you to ask for guidance, to hold yourselves accountable to people of color and Native people, especially women.

I expect you to lift up people of color and Native people, especially women (and not just authors and illustrators--I expect you to lift up librarians and teachers and activists).  I expect you to thank them for what they have taught you.  Start with our blogroll.  Become fans of those people.

White men--I expect you to recognize that you are uniquely safe in the USA.  You have a shield that nobody else has.  I expect you to use that shield to advocate for others.

White women - I expect you to educate yourselves on White Feminism and take responsibility for organizing with other White women to interrupt it.

White men--I expect you to connect with other White men, to organize to undo White patriarchy.  Including the White men you feel you are better than, smarter than, separate from. Your life may not depend on it, but your humanity does.

I expect that when someone says “ouch” to you, you will apologize.  I expect you to expunge “I didn’t mean...” and “What I meant was…” from your vocabulary and to introduce phrases like “You’re right. Thank you for educating me” and “I clearly have some learning to do.”

I expect you to name racism when you see it.  When someone else names racism, I expect you to listen and back them up.  And when other people deny or erase their experiences, I expect you to say, “that is not OK.”

White people who are exhibiting safety pins, or their characters with safety pins, I expect you to stop and consider how you have responded to the work of people of color and First/Native Nations and their allies when it comes to naming racism in the children's book industry.  Too many of us ignore, dismiss, or actively undermine their work to fight racism.  Please do some soul-searching and ask yourself how “safe” you really are.

Here's something else to consider: not everyone finds the safety pins a meaningful symbol. For some people, they erase the very real reality that they aren't safe.

White librarians, teachers, bloggers, and reviewers: I expect you to stop merely advertising for books by/about marginalized groups and to prioritize advocating for them. Let me break this down.

Too many of us happily advertise for ourselves, for book creators, or for publishers when it costs us nothing and gains us rewards (like fancy dinners.  And free books.  And connections with authors/illustrators.  And fancy jobs.  And fuzzy warm feelings.)

Too many of us disappear when we are called upon to advocate for marginalized people, to put ourselves on the line when it gains us nothing (except our humanity) and could very well cost us something (like the above perks).

Too many of us trample people of color and Native people, especially women, in the field, in our field.  Too few of us advocate for women of color and Native women who are librarians.  Too few of us thank them.

Too many of us make light of the struggles of people of color and Native people. Too many of us utilize their struggles to get the laugh, to advance our brands. This must stop now.
(Make no mistake here--I am in favor of humor as a coping mechanism. But humor that makes a joke of oppression--and thereby strengthens the oppressor--is not OK. Good humor makes fun of the oppressor.  Better humor highlights the nature of oppression.  The best humor weakens the oppressor.)

Too rarely do we name our privileges as White people and White men in this field.  White people, I expect you to name your whiteness openly and frequently.

Too often, our White fragility and male fragility is activated when people of color name racism and when women name sexism.  Too often, we demand to be comforted in those moments.  By people of color and Native people, and by women.

White people, I expect you to make mistakes.  Over and over and over again.  I expect you to apologize for them, over and over and over again, without asking anyone--especially women, people of color, or Native people--to take care of you.  I expect this to be a struggle (it is) and I expect you to not give up.

You can no longer be passive, non-racist, "good" people; you need to work to actively dismantle this mess.

If it makes you feel uncomfortable or confused or guilty or shameful, sit with that for a while (those feelings won't kill you--I speak from experience), then help each other organize.

The thing to do now is soul-search.  Listen.  Read.  Talk to other White people who are a little further on this journey.  Let yourselves be educated about the special powers and privileges you have by virtue of being White--especially White men, especially now.  Challenge yourself to ally (verb) every day.

White people, including Allie, I expect and accept nothing less from you.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

November 9: Affirming Our Love, Renewing Our Commitment

Today, we at Reading While White express our love for all children, and renew our commitment to open space in children’s and YA book publishing for voices that affirm the lives of children of color, of First Nations/Native children, of children of LGBTQ+ and queer communities, of children of all abilities, of children of all faiths.

As we all get to work today, we invite you to share your thoughts here.  And if you are looking for one small thing you can do today, we ask you to buy a book by a person of color, or First Nations/Native writers or illustrators, and share it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Day of the Dead, Ghosts, and the
Work We Do as Writers and Artists:
Guest Blogger Yuyi Morales

Author/Illustrator Yuyi Morales

In October of 1994 I was still dealing with immigrant depression when, on the streets of Walnut Creek, California, I saw something strange. As I pushed my sons stroller, we passed houses covered with spider webs, bloody skeletons, ghosts hanging from trees, and a plastic chainsaw laid on a front lawn. I even recognized a mask from a horror movie on the lawn. When I returned to my mother-in-laws house, where I lived during my first year in the USA, I asked her in my broken English what I had just seen. She explained it was Halloween.

Ever since that first sight, I found it interesting how Halloween precedes the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead. At first sight they even seem to have a similar theme — death — and yet they are profoundly different. Just like my two grandmothers.

I grew up in Mexico in the house of my paternal Abuela, a devout Catholic who said that during the Day of the Dead, you had to receive your deceased loved ones with offerings and an altar, or else face dire consequences. My maternal grandma, a single mother of twelve, had converted to a small new evangelical church and believed that celebrating the dead was a thing of the devil. She had taught my mother to stay away from this and many other traditions. Day of the Dead in Mexico can hardly be avoided; the streets filled with cempasúchil flowers and the smell of copal incense follows you everywhere. When my mother eventually abandoned the church, many of our friends started including our family in their celebrations by sharing their leftover bread baked for the altars, and we soon participated in the feasts of the food our family and friends hosted. As a teenager, I had my own break with both of my grandmothers beliefs, and I passionately tried to learn what it meant to celebrate the Day of the Dead beyond the bounds of religious ceremonies.

Last summer, during my residence at the Maurice Sendak Fellowship, one of my fellow authors brought me an advance readers copy of Raina Telgemeiers graphic novel Ghosts. I love graphic novels and I had heard that Rainas books are a huge hit with kids, so I was excited to see this book. I began reading and found a story featuring a mixed Mexican American family whose youngest child, Maya, is affected by cystic fibrosis. But to my disappointment, something felt off. My first surprise was the name of the protagonist. “Catrina” is a term used in Mexico to satirize poor Mexicans who aspired to adopt European aristocratic identities. Cat, short for Catrina, and her family move to a cloudy California town where they make friends with a Mexican family named the Calaverases (from the word calavera, Spanish for skull, another invented name that made me pause). As Carlos Calavera befriends Catrina and her younger sister, he tells them the town is inhabited by ghosts. The narrative, although touched by stereotypes, makes for an interesting ghost story — the relationship between Cat and Maya is complex and tender as they love each other while dealing with their fear of Mayas possible death. But when the story attempts to weave in the celebration of the Day of the Dead, which in this book takes place on the night of Halloween rather than on November 2nd (!), it reinvents what is to a large, living community a precious, ancient, and even sacred tradition. 

"I feel that this image says so much about the Mexican people's
playful relationship with the idea of death." Yuyi Morales

Woman in Morelos. Photo: Yuyi Morales
Day of the Dead can be traced back to the Aztec rituals honoring the deceased during the eighteen months of their calendar. After the Spaniards conquered Mexico, these rituals were made to coincide with the Catholic ceremonies of All Saints and All Souls, condensing the celebrations into two days, November 1st for honoring the children and November 2nd for honoring the adults. In small towns, entire communities prepared under strict rules for the ceremonies, while urban settings celebrated with sugar skulls, skeleton toys, and a playful attitude of life being one with death. At the heart of the celebration there is the belief that during the days reserved for honoring the deceased, our relatives and friends now dead should be received lovingly when they visit us from the afterlife for this one day of the year. In Ghosts, these ideas get muddled by the construction of a world where, on the Day of the Dead, random ghosts, rather than the souls of the departed, come on the midnight after Halloween to have a grand party with strangers. I know that at least one of my grandmothers would turn in her grave if she read that on the Day of the Dead ghost cruises and ghost pirate ships tether to the docks, and that teenagers fall in love with cute dead boys attending the celebration.
Yuyi Morales's Day of the Dead altar, 2016.
Photo: Yuyi Morales
According to the author, Ghosts is inspired by her experiences of the annual celebrations for the Day of the Dead in the streets of the Mission district, the Latino neighborhood in San Francisco, of which I have also been a participant since the late 90s. The first time I attended one of these celebrations I was delighted to do it in community. From the time I had emigrated to the USA, most of my celebrations were spent alone at home with my son. I was surprised by Day of the Dead in the Mission neighborhood; this was nothing like the reverent ritual back in Mexico. Gathered for the procession, behind the Aztec dancers and the families with candles and pictures of their dead loved ones, was a huge crowd. San Francisco, in all its amazing diversity, had come to join the celebration, and some of the participants paraded wearing costumes with masks, or their faces painted like skeletons, ghosts and other strange creatures. In the procession a woman carried a picture of Frida Kahlo, which made me wonder if she didnt have a relative or a loved one to honor instead. That same night I got invited to a Dia de los Muertos party where there was dance, drinks, and a costume contest. The winners were a white couple dressed like sexy vampires. The receiving of our loved ones dead had turned into a Halloween spectacle. Like the author of Ghosts, I have enjoyed the San Francisco festival for years. As an immigrant I find joy by sharing in community the traditions that sustain me. But while I can enjoy dancing with my friends on that night, I would never suggest one can learn about the spirit of Day of the Dead by partying at a street festival.

I think I can understand why an author would decide to use Day of the Dead to tell a story that tries to make sense of death not as the end, but as a continuation of life. At its core, this celebration gives a way for people, in this case children, to ease the fear of death of our loved ones. But for all of its good intentions, Ghosts, carries out an erasure of essential parts of an ancient tradition by rewriting it as a celebration rife with stereotypes, at the expense of a very alive cultural practice.

The other day I read a comment on Amazon in response to Debbie Reese, a tribally enrolled member at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico, who expressed concerns that Ghosts had given an inaccurate portrait of who were buried in the California Missions. “I don't appreciate you getting ... offended over a beautifully crafted novel that has nothing to do with your heritage,” the comment read.

I was astonished, and then I reasoned that a response like this one is the product of the continuous colonialism we all have been a part of. When groups of people have been systematically erased from narratives, books, history, and the world, they become invisible to the rest of us. When people cant be seen, they can be reinvented into anything, including mascots, bandidos, liars, exotic things, merchandise, romanticized beings, things of the past, or folklore. 

Why do I think we need this discussion? I know I need it because I am a teller of stories, and I could be the author who, in my enthusiasm to tell an inclusive story, might use my craft to erase and redraw identities, practices, and ways of living that are not part of my imaginarium, but that are about real people living real lives. I need this discussion because I hope that no child has to explain that something I wrote in a book is an inaccurate picture of who he or she is, because of how difficult it is to refuse an imposed identity once it has been written in a book by a prominent author. I need this discussion because I want to cast away the fear that in order to avoid making mistakes that could hurt the most vulnerable, I would have to work under rules that constrain my imagination, impair my art, smother my voice… Except, that isnt what is being asked from us, authors, is it? 

Photo: Antonio Turok 
I like to believe that what it is actually asked of me and of everybody who is committed to children and literature is to be strengthened by principles. Principles like honesty, so we have the courage to say what we feel and who we are, but also to recognize that our vision of the world is always limited and that there is nothing wrong with admitting we still need to learn things we don't know. Principles such as respect, so that we listen to the voices of those who are seldom heard before we attempt to be their voice. Principles like love, so that we see the humanity and the power of others as we see ours, so that we connect not as saviors or victims, but as equals.

This year my Day of the Dead will be celebrated in the altar I built to honor my dead loved ones, whom I will receive with joy in my house. There will be no fear of ghosts visiting, since my friends who left before me, my long-gone grandparents, my deceased teachers, and my relatives dead will come invited by the bright light of the marigold flowers I arranged. They will arrive as a gust of wind, a feather floating on the sunlight, a butterfly, a hummingbird, or a whisper; and after they eat the spirit of the food I placed on the altar for them, and they play with the toys I offer them, drink a much needed glass of water, and even read some books I will leave for them, they will be ready to take the long journey back to the land of the afterlife until they return next year. Meanwhile I will keep them alive in my memory, in the stories I tell, and in the best of our traditions.