Thursday, June 22, 2017

Reviewing While White: Loving Vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell


Powell, Patricia Hruby. Loving vs. Virginia. Ill. Shadra Strickland. Chronicle Books, 2017. 260 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4521-2590-9

One of my favorite podcasts is Politically Reactive hosted by comedians W. Kamau Bell (who has a new (adult) book out this season) and Hari Kondabolu.  The duo take on big contemporary issues with a healthy dose of humor.  There are plenty of episodes that make me laugh while simultaneously producing outrage.  In a recent episode the guys talked with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Kahn-Cullors about a range of issues including the erasure of Black women’s voices historically (such as Fannie Lou Hamer) through to the present moment (including BLM).

Thankfully Fannie Lou Hamer’s words are available to youth in Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Ekua Holmes (Candlewick Press).  When I read Weatherford’s book I was stunned by Hamer’s story and that I had never read or heard anything about her.  Weatherford and Holmes reclaimed a voice that was nearly lost to us. Voice of Freedom is an example of the  potential of youth publishing to uncover stories and voices that have been suppressed. It set a promising standard for future books.  This is why I found myself with a mixed reaction to Loving vs. Virginia:  A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Shadra Strickland.

Powell does an admirable job of crafting a narrative of this interracial love story. It is ideally suited for a young adult audience.  The lives of the Lovings in picture book form never really worked for me. Powell has shared why she wrote this book as a documentary novel:

“I could show the two falling in love and running through the woods at night. I could show Sheriff Garnet stopping Richard’s car and saying about Mildred, “Who you got in there?” rather than just writing that the sheriff was racist and stopped black people in cars in order to intimidate them. In a “documentary novel,” I could show all this and also create dialogue that draws the reader into the emotional heart of the story.”

Accompanied by Strickland’s illustrations, these imagined scenes do serve to make the story more novelistic.  Do they serve to effectively document the past?  I’ve learned from many wise book evaluators that we must consider a book as it is and not as we wish it to be. Powell’s stated purpose was to add fictional elements that would string together the historical record.  She has accomplished her purpose on the fictional side. The beautifully illustrated fictionalized scenes are joined by period piece photos and newspapers. The book falls short when it comes to expanding the historical record. Why write a documentary novel if not to enlarge the factual knowledge about events?

My disappointment is the information that was gathered but left out.  The acknowledgements by Powell reveal that she has done the hard work of a documentarian - beating the pavement to interview many people associated with or connected to the Lovings. Specifically, she met with members of the Rappahannock Nation, yet this thread of the narrative is missing in the story.

There are many unanswered questions about Mildred Jeter Loving when it comes to her tribal ancestry.  Debbie Reese* has done exhaustive research on this topic at her blog American Indians in Children's Literature.   Here is a succinct timeline by Dr. Reese that highlights the conflicting social and political identify issues of a bi-racial woman in the U.S.

“In the 1950s, Mildred Jeter said she was Indian. We don't know if she said that out of a desire to avoid being discriminated against, or if she said that because she was already living her life as one in which she firmly identified as being Indian. Either way, it is what she said about who she was on the application for a marriage license.

In the 1960s, because Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving's marriage violated miscegenation laws, their case went before the Supreme Court of the United States. To most effectively present their case, the emphasis was on her being Black.

In the 2000s, Jeter and her children said they are Indian, and specified Rappahannock as their nation.”

This raises so many questions about the life of Mildred Jeter Loving. The information that was gathered by Powell from Rappahannock voices was left out of this story. I don’t believe this was a purposeful erasure by Powell.  Erasing First/Native Nation voices and lives is so deeply rooted in White culture it continues to happen with little conscious thought by most of us White folks. What is the purpose and promise of a documentary novel for children and teens?  To me, this documentary novel would reveal more about the Rappahannock Nation and Jeter's connection to it, and explore why Jeter felt the need to avoid the discussion amid the politics of the 1960s.

~ Ernie Cox 

*We’ve received some criticism here at RWW for relying heavily on Debbie Reese’s scholarship on First/Native Nations.  For me there are two simple reasons I point to her work.  1.) She has done more research on this topic than anyone else I can find. 2.) She has influenced my thinking on this topic and I MUST give visible credit to her.  To do otherwise would mean erasing her voice (for more about how White men have systematically robbed the intellectual work of Persons of Color or First/Native Nations look at Hidden Figures or Breakthrough! How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever by Jim Murphy.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Stepping into the Gap

Last week I read Edi Campbell’s blog post Voices.

It’s been rubbing against my conscience--and consciousness--ever since.  Even as I was reading it I felt it--the friction of absence, ironically. The discomfort of acknowledging what I missed as a White reader. I was blind to the racist image that can be seen in Voices in the Park. I didn't see it back in 1998, when it originally came out in the United States, and not the last time I took a look at it.

I’m not going to spend time talking about intent. I’m not going to spend time arguing whether or not the image of the gorilla in the book is racist.  I’m not going to spend time criticizing or defending the book.  None of that is the point for me right now.

The point is that my understanding of the gap between what I see in a book as a White reader and what readers who aren’t White may see was further illuminated. I’ve known the gap is there; I try to be mindful of it.  But it’s so much bigger than I realized. A flashlight isn’t enough to illuminate it. A floodlight may not be enough. The only way to understand it is to step into it.

The point, as Edi Campbell writes, is about perception. And I need to be out in that gap, beyond what I can clearly see, beyond my comfort zone, to begin to understand perspectives beyond my own. 

What all of us see and do not see is influenced by our experiences and by the internalized racism that lives in our hearts and minds and pulses through society. We didn’t invite it to take up residence, but there it is anyway, blocking the light and we don’t even necessarily know it.

But once we do know it, we can’t ignore it. Not if we want change in the children’s and young adult book world and change in society as a whole. But as we in the children’s and young adult literature world have proven over and over, we often can’t talk about the impact of racism on the work we do without backing into corners, because it makes us so uncomfortable.

Sure those of us who are White readers and writers and editors and critics can live with our limited field of vision; we can choose not to step into the gap. We’re doing fine. But others are not. Sometimes they’re hurting. Sometimes they’re angry. Sometimes they’re dying.  

Any newspaper will tell you this is not hyperbole.

None of this is easy, for anyone. Edi asks herself,

“When am I sensible and when am I sensitive? When am I giving into my own colonized thinking (not seeing things), when am [I] waking people up and when am I crying wolf? And what do others think? Publishers have to be able to trust marginalized people when we say ‘this is wrong’. Yet, when do we really know whether an image is being used to exoticize human diversity (and reinforces age old stereotypes) or simply to express creativity? I do think this deserves a robust discussion, yes of course on this blog, but even more so in publishing houses where images are created and taken to our children.”

Are we up for that? Are we up for robust discussion, not to mention an honest accounting? Are we ready to step into the gap? If we aren’t, then I believe these very same conversations we’ve been having in one way or another for well over fifty years will continue for another fifty with too little to show for them. Gains will be made, but I’m guessing they will be made largely outside the publishing mainstream, not within it. Within it, we will be asking the same questions we’re asking now, we were asking years ago.

Gains outside the mainstream are not enough. Good intentions are not enough, either.

Edi asks, In the 21st century can we not be sophisticated enough to overcome colonization of our minds?”

I would also ask, Can we not be courageous enough and compassionate enough to do so, either?

Megan Schliesman

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Roundup of Links, pre-ALA Edition

This time of the year can be a bit wild for those of us in the children’s literature world. Whether you are a public librarian with crowds of children at your summer reading programs, a school librarian or teacher breathing a sigh of relief after another school year, the parent of a child with the summer ahead of your family, or in some other way busy, we hope you are able to take a few moments of calm each day. Easier said than done!

Here’s a handful of links that are recommended reading:

* The U.S. political landscape is obviously a shitshow right now, but here is a practical look at the ways we as White people can be aware of and help change our behaviors that perpetuate racism.

* More practical advice here, this time on how to support books created by people of color and First/Native Nations.

* Laura Jiménez brings back a letter she wrote in the wake of the Pulse shootings in Orlando last June, and it is an absolute must-read.

* Finally, Edi Campbell takes a look at representation through non-human characters in children’s books, using Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park as an entryway.

All seven of us will be at ALA this coming weekend in Chicago. If you see one of us, please stop and say hello!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Whose Reviews? And Other Thoughts on Collection Development, Intellectual Freedom, and Diversity

I was recently talking to a library school class about intellectual freedom and the importance of following policies and procedures. At the same time, I was thinking about the discussions that have taken place around diversity in some of the collection development workshops I’ve been part of. And about the discussions that have taken place on social media, where cries of censorship are inevitable every time someone has had the audacity to suggest that a book by a beloved author or illustrator, or book that’s been collecting a string of positive professional reviews, or is an old favorite of many, falls short or is problematic when it comes to cultural representation and does not necessarily deserve a place in every library collection.

I’ve written thoughts on this subject here, and here, but lately I’ve been thinking more about the relationship between collection development, intellectual freedom, and inclusiveness.

I want to start by saying that yes, there are absolutely threats to intellectual freedom when it comes to collection development in libraries, even beyond the self-censorship that is an ongoing struggle in the work we do. For example, in many libraries, collection development is done with little time, and sometimes even less training. This can be especially true in smaller libraries and schools. A person may have great instincts but no access to, and sometimes even no awareness of, review journals and other professional resources. They may have had little or no exposure to intellectual freedom as a concept that provides the philosophical framework for collection development to help ensure access to relevant resources for the entirety of the communities they serve.

Because of time or resource and other constraints, some may rely on Amazon to find out about books, or an algorithm to select what they’ll purchase. It may feel like an efficient or accessible or even necessary way to do the work of collection building, but at what cost?  It’s likely to eliminate or severely hamper the odds of acquiring books that are outside of the publishing mainstream, and undermines what it is we are striving to do in school and public libraries: meet the many and varied needs and interest of EVERYONE in our communities, an idea that goes hand in hand with intellectual freedom.

These are sometimes the realities of working in understaffed and under-resourced libraries. Policies and procedures, if they exist, often have a tenuous relationship to what is actually happening.

Or there’s this: the absence of board-approved policies and procedures for collection development and reconsideration of materials; or the subversion of policies and procedures by administrators and boards; or the stripping-down of policies and procedures to such a bare minimum that they provide no real guidance for either collection development or, in the case of a challenge, reconsideration (what, exactly, is the book being evaluated by to determine whether it belongs in the collection?).

But even as we grapple with these things--and we have to grapple as a profession with all of this--we also need to be talking about how library staff are choosing the materials they are collecting specific to the question of whose voices are privileged and whose go unheard in that process.  

So if you’re worried about intellectual freedom, ask yourself this:

How does a school or public library collection development policy support—or inhibit—seeking out books beyond the mainstream—those from large and mid-size presses – to include collecting materials from small presses, or self-published materials, that may speak to the diverse population and diverse needs of their constituencies?

Do policies and procedures demand professional reviews?  Many small press and most self-published book will never be reviewed in professional journals.  They may be highlighted on a website or blog devoted to promoting critical discussion of inclusion and diversity in books for youth, however.  The same kinds of blogs may also offer cultural critiques of books lauded in mainstream journals.  Chances are these voices are marginalized in terms of collection development, if they are considered at all.

How can we address the fact that some of “procedure’s” part of policies and procedures may be undermining the critical need for building collections that are inclusive, reflective of and responsive to the needs of children and teens who are diverse themselves and living in a diverse world?

I think we are at a critical juncture in our field as we consider the relationship between intellectual freedom and diversity and inclusion. They are foundational values to the work we do, in theory. In practice, the institutions that have developed—the review journals, the recommended lists, mainstream publishing itself and those acting as mouthpieces or influencers in social media and elsewhere—too often pit one value against the other.

The bias toward traditional publishing—and Whiteness--in the field of children’s and young adult literature isn’t necessarily going to go away in the next five years. Some collection development policies already call for materials that are free of stereotype and bias. But openly acknowledging the bias toward traditional publishing in professional review journals and providing ways to counter that bias is another way to codify real commitment to inclusiveness in collection development.

There is nothing wrong with citing the need for professional reviews and recommendations in policies and procedures. What’s wrong is narrowly limiting how we tend to define those sources.  In the 21st century, there is a significant critical discourse happening beyond traditional outlets, and policies and procedures should reflect this and validate a broader range of sources and resources for making informed, professional decisions: blogs on which librarians and educators of color review books and provide recommended lists are just one example. I invite you to share others.

Megan Schliesman

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Bring It Back: The People Shall Continue

Ortiz, Simon. The People Shall Continue. Ill. Sharol Graves. Children’s Book Press, 1977. 23 pages. ISBN: 0892391251

First published by Children’s Book Press (now an imprint of Lee and Low Books), Simon Ortiz’ epic, poetic story of Native peoples, The People Shall Continue, begins with creation. It honors and reflects the differences among cultures (“Some say, ‘from the ocean.’ / Some say, ‘From a hollow log….’”) while also connecting the dots to demonstrate their similarities and cohesion (“The teachers and the elders of the People / all taught this important knowledge: / ‘The Earth is the source of all life… The people must be responsible to her.’”)

Never does the People’s story fall into the “it was a simple paradise” trope. As the People from the North, West, East, and South give and take meat, fish, corn, and hides to each other, there are cold winters, famines, and fights among them. Their leaders stress the need for patience and respect for each other and the Earth. Also absent is the “Columbus, the first European to discover the Americas, arrived out of the blue” narrative. In Ortiz’ story, the People remember visitors from a long time ago, who never stayed for long before returning home. Likewise, nothing about European invasion is sugarcoated; the Spanish, “heedless and forceful,” come “seeking treasures and slaves.” Soon, the English, French, and Dutch arrive as well, teaching about “a God whom all should obey” and claiming they are “special men of this God.” Thus, Ortiz names the specific invaders, and though he does not cite Christianity by name, he includes it as a means by which European invaders justified genocide.

As colonialism takes root, the People fight back. Here, for the first time, Ortiz names specific tribes and leaders: “In the West, Popé called warriors from the Pueblo and Apache Nations. / In the East, Tecumseh gathered the Shawnee and the Nations of the Great Lakes, the Appalachians, and the Ohio Valley to fight for their People…” There is no submission, no “lambs to the slaughter” narrative; and, after over 300 years of war, from necessity, the People “began to settle / for agreements with the American government.” Next come the Treaties, then the missionaries, boarding schools, miners, railroads, forced resettlement--all are named for the destructive forces they were and are. And yet, Ortiz grounds everything the People endure with survival and hope: “All this time, the People remembered. / Parents told their children, / ‘You are Shawnee. You are Lakota… / This is the life of our People. / These are the stories and these are the songs. / This is our heritage.’”

The book ends with a new beginning. As the People learn and live history, they assert: “We must fight against those forces / which will take our humanity from us. / We must ensure that life continues. / We must be responsible to that life. / With that humanity and the strength / which comes from our shared responsibility / for this life, the People shall continue.” At this point, “the People”--which begins the book as a phrase that denotes Native peoples--expands to include all marginalized groups. In that expansion, that invitation, Ortiz preserves, protects, and honors the humanity of everyone who has been dehumanized by systemic racism, poverty, and oppression. In this poem, Ortiz suggests a way forward: Recognize our shared humanity. Work together. There are more of us. They cannot dehumanize us if we humanize each other.

I can see a multitude of uses for this book in classrooms, as well as within families and communities. An English teacher could dig into the language that somehow reaches the pinnacle both of melodic poetry and accessible storytelling. A history teacher could use it as a framework for an entire curriculum or unit. Book creators and publishers should take note of the last page, which models responsible bookmaking with a note that thanks people who helped by name, and also acknowledges that although the book is in English, it’s meant to be told orally by a tribal storyteller.

I would love to see this back in print, ideally with new art. Currently, while there is a wide variety of People portrayed (I am not expert enough to know whether the clothing and hairstyles are accurate), the backgrounds are one or two solid colors, and little storytelling happens in the pictures or in the turn of a page. I would so love to see what Julie Flett would do with this text, were she given the opportunity to re-illustrate it…

Please please please, bring it back!!

-Allie Jane Bruce

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Alongside, Not Despite: Talking about Race and Settler Colonialism in a Children’s Literature Graduate Course

Photo courtesy of Megan Dowd Lambert
by Megan Dowd Lambert
I teach an elective graduate course called The Child and the Book at Simmons College, in which we critically examine how children, childhood, reading, and childhood reading are represented and constructed in fiction. We turn to scholar Rudine Sims Bishop’s framework of Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors to consider who is included and who is excluded from those representations and constructions, we read adult memoirs of childhood reading, and we address the role of adult mediation in children’s reading transactions in various contexts. I open the semester with a reading memoir assignment that asks students to revisit a book from their own childhood reading in order to juxtapose their memories of reading it with their rereading as adults. This exercise highlights the slipperiness of memory, the pitfalls of sentimentality and nostalgia, and the instability of textual meaning when one rereads a text and it provokes responses unrecalled from an earlier reading, or when one considers readings from diverse perspectives and critical lenses.
The majority of my students are White women, and in almost every semester I’ve taught this course I’ve had students use this assignment to revisit a book from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I also assign either Little House in the Big Woods or Little House on the Prairie in this course, and we inevitably discuss how rereading books from this series prompts students to critically examine the series’ overt racism and its attendant, unvarnished idealization of settler colonialism and Westward expansion. The most recent time I taught this class, I paused the discussion after a student said she was struggling with how to reconcile her fond childhood memories of co-reading the books with her mother and her contemporary recognition of how the series perpetuates ideologies that are abhorrent to her.
“I feel bad saying I love these books despite their racism,” she said.
“Then don’t say that,” I told her. “Say you love them alongside their racism and then interrogate what that means for you as a White reader.”
I don’t think this directive made her feel less “bad,” but that wasn’t my goal. Some of the best learning can happen when students become uncomfortable with their readings and must interrogate them. To quote scholars Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer: “Although certainty is comfortable, it can also be oppressive and limiting.”1
As a teacher, an important part of my role is to prevent such discomfort from devolving into defensiveness. My shift to have students say “alongside” rather than “despite” was spontaneous that day, but it ended up being an effective tool to push them beyond affective, nostalgic responses and into critical engagement with, not only books in Wilder’s series, but others we studied throughout the semester, as well. The word “despite” had allowed White students to neatly avoid confronting the text’s racism, and to thus cling to a reading imbued with a false racial innocence.  On the other hand, the word “alongside” prompted White students to grapple with the racial privilege necessary to say they loved a book even as they plainly regarded its racism. Then they progressed toward a consideration of how they would respond to a similar statement about a book that somehow denigrated a marginalized population to which they belong: “I love this book alongside its misogyny, its anti-Semitism, its Islamaphobia, its homophobia, its ableism, its classism…”
Many of my students are future teachers and librarians, so we also considered how actions, not just words, can communicate attitudes toward particular books through decisions about displays, book-talks, programming, curriculum, or collection development.  During this discussion, a student asked, “But how can we know which book will harm or offend which readers, patrons, or students as we make these decisions?” This question got to the heart of the ethical dilemma that my students were grappling with in their thinking about real readers’ responses to literature and how they would serve them in their professional lives, and I drew on personal experience to help inform our conversation. I am not a librarian, nor am I a classroom teacher who works with children. But for nearly a decade I worked at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, where I led drop-in storytimes and oversaw the Reading Library. Leading storytime isn’t a regular part of my work now, but whenever I do get the chance to do one as a volunteer at The Carle, in my kids’ classrooms, or as a visiting author with two picture books of my own, I’m careful to always include books by diverse authors and illustrators, and I track the titles I use in order to keep myself accountable (a practice I advocate to my students and that I stretch to model in my syllabus development).
But today the young readers with whom I interact most often are my own children—three sons and three daughters, ages 2-20. Ours is a multiracial, adoptive, blended, queer family, and issues of representation, diversity and inclusion have been every bit as important in my family reading life as they have been in my professional life. Two of my sons are Black, and I don’t think they could be more dissimilar in temperament and personality. Their differences lead me to believe that my younger son is more likely to be personally harmed by a book’s racist content than his older brother ever has been—meaning  that he might internalize something he found degrading and have feelings of embarrassment, shame, sadness, hurt, or a questioning of his own worth.
While I do believe the potential for individual harm is important, it isn’t the only factor when I (and, I’d wager, others, too) speak out about racism in books for young people, or when I guide my students in considering how their critical reading will inform their work in classrooms and libraries, or when I think about the books I choose to purchase or borrow for my family’s reading at home. In addition to weighing the potential for individual harm, I also think about how literature, like any art, not only both reflects culture and its attendant sociopolitical power structures, it helps create it. My older son might scoff at what he reads as a flat, racist caricature of a Black teenager devoid of humanity and brush it away like so much dirt off his shoulder, while my younger son might feel personally wounded and wonder “Is this how other people see me?”; but both are harmed and endangered by the perpetuation of dehumanizing depictions of Black people in a society rife with the stereotype of the Black male menace to society.
The stakes are high in a society where the phrase #BlackLivesMatter needs routine explanation and justification, and where, as Native scholar Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman, reminds us in her work, Native people are routinely relegated to the past and erased as contemporary members of sovereign nations.2 I’m not naively saying that efforts to call out racism and idealized depictions of settler colonialism in children’s books will directly prevent the many violent manifestations of racism and attacks on Native sovereignty in our society. I am saying that the stories we tell (and read and teach and display and circulate) can subvert or reinforce underlying dominant ideologies of race and White supremacy that contribute to that violence and often allow its perpetrators to act with impunity.
The work of critiquing books that reinforce such ideologies can feel woefully inadequate, especially when confronted with seemingly intractable indifference or resistance amid cultural forces that extend well beyond our bookshelves. But I’m hopeful when I see my students (all of them, not just the White students I reference above) push themselves in their critical thinking about books and about the child readers that they will work with in their careers.  There’s grace in this work, and it’s a necessary corollary to that of creating and advocating for diverse books that can help create a safer, more humane society for all.
Nodelman, Perry and Mavis Reimer. The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, 3rd edition. Allyn and Bacon, 2003, p. 3.
In this blog post, Reese shares these guiding questions that she uses when reviewing children’s and YA literature with Native content:
  1. Is the book by a Native author or illustrator?
  2. Does the book, in some way, include something to tell readers that we are sovereign nations?
  3. Is the book tribally specific, and is the tribally specific information accurate?
  4. Is it set in the present day? If it is historical in structure, does it use present tense verbs that tell readers the Native peoples being depicted are part of today's society?
Megan Dowd Lambert grew up in Vermont and earned her BA at Smith College and her MA in Children’s Literature at Simmons College, where she is now a Senior Lecturer in Children’s Literature. She is the author of Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking About What They See, which introduces the Whole Book Approach to storytime that she developed in association with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. In 2009 she was named a Literacy Champion by Mass Literacy, and she has served on the 2009 Geisel, 2011 Caldecott, and the 2012 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Committees. Megan won a 2016 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor for her first picture book, A Crow of His Own, illustrated by David Hyde Costello (Charlesbridge 2015). Her second picture book, Real Sisters Pretend, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell (Tilbury House) was published in 2016. Charlesbridge will publish A Kid of Their Own, a sequel to A Crow of His Own, in 2019. Megan reviews and writes for Kirkus Reviews and The Horn Book and is a Staff Blogger for Embrace Race: A Community about Race and Kids. She lives with her family, including six children ages 2-19, in western Massachusetts.