Ghosts: Swing and a Hard Miss

Today I am writing about Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts. I got my copy last week. I was excited to read it, bring it to my children’s lit courses, talk it up on my blog and basically have a welcome party for another great Telgemeier graphic novel for young readers.

But I can’t. I can’t because, like many authors before her and, unfortunately, many authors to come, Telgemeier is dealing in cultural appropriation.

Cultural Appropriation

I define cultural appropriation as Privileged individuals using something from another culture without showing understanding of the culture or giving credit to that culture. Here are a few very good pieces on the subject …. Decoded; True Tea; Huffpost’s Black Voices.

The problem with cultural appropriation is that privileged individuals (usually White, sometimes straight, and often male) get rewarded for being edgy, cute, or exotic. These privileged individuals get credit for “discovering” and “giving us [read other White people] a look at a new culture [read as anyone not White].” But, and this is important, for the people who’s lives and histories have been taken and used for consumption, their culture is not exotic. They don’t need to be discovered because they are not lost, nor unknown. The argument that this White person (or straight person or male) is giving voice ignores the fact that people could learn about a culture by listening to the actual people of that culture.

But that isn’t what is happening. What is happening is peoples histories, stories, pain, and pride is being stripped away and reduced to the easiest object or image to be consumed by those who already have too much privilege and power.

 Being Latinx and Reading Ghosts

I grew up in Southern California thinking of myself as Chicano-American. My father’s family is from Mexico and my mother’s is from Minnesota by way of Ireland and Germany. I grew up on the Latinx side of the street which means when my White friends thought Little House on the Prairie was romantic, I saw it as a land grab. The first time I saw anything but a stereotyped Latinx in a book was Sandra Cisneros House on Mango Street, published in 1984 and almost immediately challenged and banned.

The cover of Ghosts doesn’t give much away. It has a girl standing with eyes wide, mouth agape, and hands clenched looking awe struck with a younger girl in front of her looking happy and relaxed. The title page looks like a Pinterest image of a Dia de los Muertos altar but, I was hopeful.

The story begins with a family (the two girls on the cover and their mom and dad) in a minivan moving from Southern California to “Bahía de la Luna” (moon bay). The town name is clearly seen on a freeway sign (I wondered when this book set because I don’t remember California freeway signs having accent marks). There is a resort in Oaxaca, Mexico called Bahía de la Luna, but this family was headed north to a town with lots of fog. Between the name and the description of the town I was reminded of Half Moon Bay, a small city on the Pacific coast, south of San Francisco.

While reading I learned that the younger girl, Maya, has cystic fibrosis, which is why the family is moving. On page 12, after running up a flight of stairs in her new house Maya is panting, a goofy sort of crossed eyed, open mouthed look on her face. Her older sister, Cat, tries  hard to be understanding but she is both annoyed by her sister and scared for her. After their parents tell them to go explore, an adventurous Maya leads a superstitious Cat down a path to the beach. In an old and abandoned arcade on the beach they meet a boy who talks of the cities reputation for ghosts. That evening Maya and her family head to a neighbor’s house for dinner which Cat does not want to attend. So far, a pretty straight forward Telgemeier book.

Then the name … The neighbors are the Calaverases. They are Mexican, and their name is Calaveras (skull) and they live in a town full of ghosts. That is the equivalent of a family named Advent Calendar living in town with a reputation for elves.

Of course, the kid from the beach is Carlos Calaveras who plays maracas with Maya while the adults talk and Cat sits and eat chips and guacamole. Turns out Maya and Cat’s mom, Leona, is a fully assimilated Mexican who rejected her heritage, married a White guy and basically has turned away from everything Mexican, even the food. This is an important detail since that is how Carlos temps Cat into joining him and Maya on a tour of the local mission.

Give a girl a concha (sweet pastry with a shell shaped sugar pattern) and she’ll be yours forever. So, the kids go to the local mission which Carlos insists is a doorway to the spirit world. He also says the ghosts prefer to speak Spanish because they were from Mexico.

Yeah, so this is the first thing that really makes no sense. The Catholic Mission system was a way for the Spanish to colonize California. Probably tens of thousands of Native Americans and Mexican Indians were killed and enslaved in these missions. The ghosts these kids find would most likely be Ohlone in that area of California, not Mexican. Even if they were Mexican, chances are they would be from some other tribe that was forced to speak Spanish. Why would these ghosts “prefer” to speak the language of their colonizers? Someone -Telgemeier, an editor, anyone with an internet connection – should have spent 10 minutes investigating Spanish missions.

Back to the book. Maya has an attack from playing with the ghosts and needs to be hospitalized. Family drama ensues.

September rolls around. Maya has to stay home while Cat goes to school. Cat meets Seo Young who talks about nail polish, froyo and going to the “midnight party on November 1st” (Dia de los Muertos) where she met a cute boy. Who is dead. Because that is what Dia de los Muertos is about. Ghostly hook-ups. Maya slowly gets better, although she needs a tank and breathing tube to deal with her ever weakening lungs.

As October approaches more Dia de los Muertos stuff appears and the book is the worse for it. For those who celebrate Dia de los Muertos the holiday is about honoring and remembering family and friends who have died. We make ofrendas (offerings) as a way to invite the dead back to visit and see that the family is alive and well and continuing. It is a 3000 year old celebration of birth, life, death and rebirth. It is not a “Mexican halloween” which is how Telgemeier treats it. Cat wears a la Catrina costume for halloween, which is pretty much the standard for cultural appropriation – right up there with black face, headdresses, and the sexy bandito costume.

In Telgemeier’s graphic novel the ghosts have a bit of an obsession with orange soda in a bottle. The dead basically want to party all night long, drink orange soda, and don’t seem to care if they are with family or just randos on the street. The end of the book is full of music, flying, an inexplicable dead light house attendant, and a black cat who delivers Mexican food.

If you are teaching kids about Dia de los Muertos, please look elsewhere.

Digger by Ursula Vernon


MONDAY logo 2015
My professional reading practices have changed in the last year. I am slowly working through a subset of all the graphic novels published in the last 10 years or so. I read, graphic novels with female protagonists that might show up in a k-12 classroom almost exclusively .

That means I’m reading within genres I’m usually not interested in and books that I wouldn’t usually open. Although it might not be exactly what Gene Luen Yang had in mind when he started Reading Without Walls but it has opened my eyes to lots of new authors or at least authors I didn’t know about. Besides that, it has changed the patience I have for books.  I tend to stick with them past the first 10 pages, even if I am NOT in luuuuvvvvv with the book.  

DiggerOne of the books I would never had picked up, if not for this project, is Digger: Volume One by Ursula Vernon, published way back in 2005. Originally a web comic Digger, a no nonsense wombat, ends up tunneling into Lord Ganesh’s temple and talks to the resident statue. The black and white graphic novel begins as a fairly traditional “stranger in a strange land” story.

The true strength of the book is in the characters. Digger is both kind and snarky, giving a genuine portrait of a hard working wombat who is trying to figure her way out of a very weird situation. There is also a hyena sort of thing (who Digger names Ed), ShadowChild who recently emerged from an abandoned egg, a slug who listens to the leaves, and a whole bunch of librarians and resident temple rats. 

Vernon provides us with a long list of interesting and individualistic characters that have a wonderful assortment of flaws and charms. There are no easy tropes in this book, instead the book is a great representation of a hero’s tale. Digger works hard at understanding how her new world works and how she can get back home. Digger 2007-02-13-compassion

I have to admit, I didn’t love this graphic novel in the beginning. It was a difference in taste. I tend to prefer graphic novels that stretch the reader, creating lots of open space between the images and the words for me to figure out. In the beginning of this books there seemed to be too much that is both shown and stated. I think Vernon’s over reliance on Digger’s narration made it hard for me to get into the book. For instance, there is a terrific series of panels where Digger and ShadowChild are trying to retrace her steps back to Ganesh’s temple. The route is marked by a series of statues whose large and pointed tongues point (quite literally) the way to the temple. The images, along with her progress, made it clear, but Vernon chose to include a verbal explanation which, for me, was unnecessary.

Because of my commitment to reading graphic novels with female protagonists I kept reading well past when I would usually let this book go. And, I am glad.

digger-2

The book passes the Bechdel test early and often with many named female characters talking to each other, almost exclusively about something other then a man. In fact this book shows a series of strong female, male and non-gendered characters moving through an interesting landscape, evolving and revealing more about themselves and the world they live in with each step. Once I became accustomed to the symmetry between the images and the words, I began to enjoy the story. There are many interactions between the characters that made me laugh, and then think, and then laugh again. Vernon takes on many philosophical ideas without preaching.

I have to say, I strongly encourage people to pick this Hugo award winning series and begin reading, and keep reading because it is well worth the time.

 

The Fragility of Priviledge

I’ve been reading lots of graphic novels (per usual), thinking about female protagonists (again, per usual), but I have also been reading loads of theory: Critical Race Theory; Feminist theory; Womanist theory; Queer theory; Narrative theory; Literary theory.

all the theory meme

Why you might be asking yourself? Well, theory in academic research guides the way we frame the questions we ask, figure out the ways we should ask those questions, and how we should interpret what we find. Theory is one way for us to make connections and, in the case of socio-cultural theory, to better grasp how we are viewing the world and how the world is viewing us. It a bit like philosophy in that way.

In both my personal and professional lives I tend to be less interested in all things theoretical. I’m much more of a doer, much more pragmatic, in the way I approach the world. That means my ideal statement of theory would read something like “we need to look at the ways women and girls are represented because LOOK AT THE DAMN WORLD, PEOPLE!!!!” But, that does not go over well in academia, so I have been reading.

Although I hate to admit it, but all this reading is helping me gain some perspective on the the cultural upheaval happening in children’s literature. A sort of mile high perspective, if you will.

We in children’s literature (teachers, librarians, authors, publishers and scholars) are trying to work through some serious identity chiz and it’s not going smoothly. At issue is the status quo of children’s books wherein a White, straight, male, middle class and able bias is being directly and repeatedly challenged by many different people all over the internet.

At the heart of the powerful and repeated defense of the “neutral” status quo might be feelings of vulnerability and guilt. I’m just guessing here but it sounds like those who have, historically, been so privileged that they never considered their own privilege in the world are getting a wake up call. The feelings are manifesting themselves as various forms of fragility, including but not limited to,

  • White fragility
  • Straight fragility
  • Male fragility
  • Middle-class fragility
  • Able fragility
  • Book and media fragility*

That last one isn’t a thing yet but maybe it should be. I define book fragility as the protection of books no matter how hurtful they are to those who are represented by the easy and stereotypical tropes.

You’ve seen book fragility. You may have even felt it. It is the gut wrenching “oof” when someone first told you there is a problem with the”The Giving Tree” who never speaks and is consumed by the male protagonist. Or, when you read an article about “Little House” as the story of the great White land grab. Or, when a bunch of people stood up and said all picturebooks with smiling, happy slaves are hugely problematic. I could go on, but I’m guessing you get it (if not, you might want to head over to We Need Diverse Books and Reading While White).

I have been the one to deliver this kind of heartbreaking news about beloved books. No one is ever happy to hear it. No one wants to hear that the book they loved as a child or as an adult makes someone else hurt. I get that. It is like learning that the steak you love is made out of cute cows. That’s got to hurt.

But, the reactionary defense of fragility is a mystery to me.

Why defend? Why deny and blame those of us who are hurt? When I say I am tired of seeing all the lesbians either killed or raped or given shock treatment and then killed, people say I am over reacting. They defend those lazy tropes with “but that happens”. And I say, yes, but we lesbians also live happily ever after and I hardly ever get to see that in a book.wonder-woman-comics-volume-1-tpb-softcover-souple-issues-v3-90074

thornI don’t understand the powerful pushback I get when I assert that girls and boys need to read and see female characters as whole people and not just tits and ass. So, no, I can’t recommend Bone by Jeff Smith, Wonder Woman by almost anyone, or Delilah Dirk by Tony Cliff. These graphic novels all highlight women whose breasts are always peeking out of various cleavagesDelilahDirk1, hips and thighs that can’t be held by mere clothe, and finally clothes that are generally on the verge of spontaneously exploding.

Little Robot

When I see the obvious link between poverty and color in Little Robot by Ben Hatke, I’m going to write about it. Other people are going to see the connection, think about it, and they will also write about it (check out Comics Alternative podcast). And, no, I am not looking forward to seeing this same character in Mighty Jack.

I’ll admit, I have no experience being privileged, but I have seen the over-represented, male, White, able, and straight identity protected. I think lots of people need to get used to feeling book fragility and then they need to get over it. Because those of us who experience racism, sexism, and all forms of violent intolerance are speaking up and we are going to keep speaking, no matter what kind of fragility we are stepping on.

Bera the One-Headed Troll

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

To say this summer has been hard is an understatement.

But, life goes on. And, it goes on better when we have things to help with all the tears we shed and the frustrations we experience each day.  With that in mind, I am writing today on a great book by Eric Orchard, published by FirstSecond.

Bera This is a great piece of fantasy, written with wit and kindness. The illustrations appear to be fine pen with wash of watercolor over the panels. Most of the books has a dark orange, almost brown cast to the color scheme. Orchard’s gothic style just hinges on the edge of actually scary but he pulls back just enough to make the creepiness feel cute (but in a good way).

Reading Bera reminded me of a halloween story I have never read or heard of but feel as if it is just out-of-reach familiar. I have re-read it many times now, and each time I am charmed by the story, the illustrations, and Bera.

We enter the book as Bera, a troll, is finishing up the pumpkin harvest. She is the royal pumpkin grower and lives on a small island with Winslow (and owl) and her many-greats-dead-aunt Dota for company. Berta is happy and satisfied with her hard work and quiet life. But, then a human baby shows up on her shores and her adventure begins.

The thing I appreciate most about Bera isn’t her outlandish deeds of bravery or her victories in the face of unrelenting opposition. Nope. Bera is no Lara Croft. in fact, most of the time she has no solid plan other than to find a hero and hand over the kid and get back to her island.

I appreciate that.

She is brave in the face of things that scare her, including Cloote who is the witch who stole the baby in the first place and runs around in a amphibious boat thing with long legs and tiny feet, is armed with shields that look like skulls. Along the way Bera evades Cloote, makes friends with wizarding hedgehogs, rats, and even rescues a goblin! All the while, she is trying to FIND a hero, she is being a hero.

This graphic novel passes  Bechdel test. But, just as importantly, it shows a female character learning, growing and changing in interesting ways.

 

 

 

 

An open letter to the world on June 14, 2016

I usually write about graphic novels. Today I am writing to the world about living in the world as a cis-gendered, Latina-lesbian, with two sons and a wonderful, patient wife who keeps marrying me because the laws change but our commitment does not.

Last weekend I attended the Children’s Literature Association’s (ChLA) annual conference in Columbus, Ohio. I presented research, talked about graphic novels, heard important ideas about books and reading. I also took part in a panel organized by Dr. Katharine Slater, supported by the ChLA board and the ChLA Diversity committee, and focused on the needs of minority scholars.

I did not want to be there, sitting in front of a room mostly filled, with so many women of color, with so few White allies. My reluctance to participate is born from a lifetime of being called out, threatened, and assaulted being a person in the world.

Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen began the panel by addressing the fact that we, as women of color, were taking a chance by representing ourselves, as ourselves, to the academy. I sat next to Dr. Marilisa Jimenez Garcia, and Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and heard their stories, and shared my own. Unfortunately, our stories are not unique. The women in the audience spoke of being regularly ostracized, criticized and summarily dismissed personally and professionally. I left the room feeling drained. Later that afternoon I heard Dr. Park say the words I know to be true, “We are not the problem. Racism is the problem.”

More Than Racism

That night I enjoyed the company of friends at the ChLA awards ceremony filled with congratulations, hotel conference food, and laughter. Later we had what can only be described as the first annual ChLA Prom Night. In one corner of the room I danced with gay men, lesbians, and straight allies I had come to know and appreciate. We clustered together and celebrated the end of a long day with silliness and joy. At one point a gay male colleague confided, “I used to go dancing all the time. I miss it.” And I knew what he meant.

The next day, Sunday, as I stood waiting for my phone to charge before I got on an airplane to return home, I saw the news. I knew what it meant, even if the news anchors didn’t say it; Mass shooting, Pride week, a nightclub called The Pulse. We were, once again,  hunted for being ourselves in the world.

It was not a coincidence that a coward with an assault riffle killed and wounded more than 100 LGBTQ people on Latin Dance Night in Orlando during Pride week. It was a planned attack by a rage-fueled man with a million excuses and the tacit approval of a nation. Make no mistake about the importance of the everyday aggressions against my communities; racism, homophobia, and misogyny work hand in hand to destroy the person I am in the world. They give a pathway to hate turned to action. As we danced and laughed and drank on that very same Saturday night, we were part of the same LGBTQ community who takes refuge in music, community, and joy, who celebrate ourselves and each other in the world.

More than One Man

I returned home on Sunday feeling wounded. On Monday I picked up my 13 year-old son from middle school. He got in the car and asked if I knew about what happened in Orlando.

“I do. What do you think about it?” I asked.

“Maybe Trump is right. Maybe we do need to keep them out.” He said, quietly, as we drove down sun dappled New England streets. I found myself defending Muslims and trying to tell him it was a single man who destroyed that night. I ran through the list of non-Muslims who had bombed buildings, and opened fire in public places, killing and wounding so many out of hate. I explained it is more about guns than faith. As we drove, I defended a religion with a long and lively history of damning, imprisoning, and killing LGBTQ people to my son because I want him to be better than that.

But if I was honest with him I would say I know religion is a problem. The Catholic Church, along with the vast majority of organized Protestant religions damns me to hell for the person I am in the world. The Church of Latter Day Saints damns me, and my children, for the person I am in the world. The majority of Muslim countries have laws against me, and a faith that condones killing me in horrific ways, for the person I am in the world. So, it was one man, but he was not alone.

Be Brave Enough

White, cis-gendered, or straight people often ask, “But what can I do?” They ask me in private, in classes, in conversation, and they asked at the ChLA panel. My answer is the same. You can be brave. Brave enough to say, “That is not ok” out loud and in public. When faculty members says, “but she sounds so white” after meeting an African American job candidate, you can respond, “that is not appropriate”. You can refrain from putting the burden of racism on the one non-White student. You can be brave enough to defend my right to marry, to raise children and have all the rights you have had for so long. You can be brave enough to shut down the “all lives matter” defense of racism. Call out the “what about men?” misogyny. Shut down the “she was drunk and wearing that” rape culture. You can listen, without excuse or argument, when we say that words matter, actions hurt, we are mistreated and misjudged everyday single day for being ourselves in the world.

And let me be clear, you will need to be brave to stand with us because you will be uncomfortable. Your actions will cause tension, you will not be appreciated by aggressors for  standing up and speaking out. You might shake, feel queasy, or doubt your decision to step out of your privileged, safe space. There will most likely be pushback, accusations and suspicion. It will never be easy, just as living in a world designed for you is never easy for me.

I am tired.

I am haunted.

I am hunted.

You can choose to be brave enough to defend who you are not.

Sincerely,

Laura Maria Jiménez, a person in the world, every day.

Death Vigil

MONDAY logo 2015

I have been trying, once again, to get into comic books. And again, I have had limited success. There is just something so unsatisfying about the length of the form. It is as if I am only getting a single bite of the story and then I have to direct my attention elsewhere. I know many readers – both kids and adults – who love the compact form but for me, there is not enough time to get lost. And, in order for me to put up with some of the issues I have with reading (in general) I need to get lost.

To combat this issue I have turned to collected volumes. That way I get the feel for comic book arcs but they have enough “there” there (to quote Gertrude Stein) for me to get into.

DeathVigil_vol1-1Death Vigil, Vol 1 by Stjepan Sejic (Image Comics). This comic follows a happy/merry troop of dead heroes who defend the world from darkness and evil, all with the help of The Grim Reaper (Bernadette). Yeah. I know. It sounds really odd but the mix of horror, action and goofy-pun ridden sarcasm works well.

This is a comic book series that Sejic writes, draws and paints, all with equal parts blood and guts, and happy family. I’ve never seen his work or at least I didn’t recognize it when I started reading, but I am now a big fan. Let me be clear – this is a YA and Adult comic series! This volume collects the first 8 comic books and stands on solid ground as a graphic novel (This isn’t always the case). Although girly-goth characters, especially in comics, are fairly popular and often a disappointment (lots of cleavage and butts and not much else) Sejic creates a collection of both men and women who care deeply about each other and defending man-kind. Oh, and death.

Passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Interesting characters that stay with you. Beautiful images (with a lot of bloody ick! so just be aware) and a story line that held my attention so much so that I am pre-ordering the second collection.


Sq Girl

I have seen the comic books and heard about the character of Doreen Green, a mutant who has the power of squirrels, for a while. I thought it was about time I pick it up and give it a shot.

Once again, not a big fan. Full disclosure, I’m not a fan of most Marvel/DC stuff so for it to impress me there needs to be a lot of work.

In general the comic if fine. It’s fun, sort of tongue in cheek hero stuff. I mean, how serious can a superhero be when her super powers include talking to squirrels, being super strong, and having a huge tail.

This is collection follows Doreen as she tried to balance life as a new college student and saving the world. Her roommate, an African-American woman with a cat and a knitting fetish, soon finds out Doreen’s secret identity and becomes an ally.

In general, the puns and ironic self-reflection quickly wear thin and after that there isn’t much here. The characters are flat and uninteresting, and as with many of the DC/Marvel comic books, this is another overly Marvel-centric.

Feminist Reading as “Regular” Reading

MONDAY logo 2015

“The higher you go, the fewer women there are.” Wangari Maathai 

It is International Women’s Day today. I am celebrating by being worried about the Republican Presidential candidates, because as a group they scare the living bleep out of me.

I also got the chance to reflect on why I read graphic novels for representations – including representations of women. I received an email asking why I think it is “appropriate” to keep track of the numbers? Why don’t I focus on other aspects? Why “reduce” characters to numbers?

I have to admit, I am sometimes surprised by the ways my research has turned. Comics are traditionally a male dominated form. That’s not news. But, now that more women are writing and more women and girls are featuredWW_Cv49_Neal_Adams_var-1-580x892 there is a sense that everything is fine. 

And yet …. Wonder Woman is reduced to a butt shot and a raised foot on the cover of her own comic book.

And yet … When asked when will there be “enough” women on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg responded “when there are nine.” Think about the fact that her response is a radical notion even though for most of our history as a nation we have had nine men. 

And yet … when everyday misogyny is called out on twitter, using the #YesAllWomen hashtag, the backlash is incredible and scary. 

And yet … when I ask both boys and girls about it they say, “Dress codes are only for the girls … well, girls and the black kids.”

So, I read graphic novels with female protagonists and I ask,

  • How many male characters speak or can be identified?
  • How many female characters speak or can be identified?
  • Do female characters speak for themselves?
  • Who drives the plot forward? 
  • Are women and girls allowed to be varied and authentic or are they represented as boobs and butts, no matter what the age? 

Why do I read and count and make pie charts? Because the charts keep looking like this …

Authorscharacter

 

 

 

Critical Reading: The Nameless City

MONDAY logo 2015

I’m late for “It’s Monday”. Our house has had a visitation from some sort of vicious stomach virus from hell.  We are slowly coming out of it, but there are ramifications.

Nameless CoverRecently, I had the chance to read The Nameless City (2016) by Faith Erin Hicks. Full disclosure, I am a big fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon, and I liked The Legend of Korra, especially the last season. I mention this because the style Hicks uses, in this first in a planned trilogy, evokes a similar feeling. The setting, like The Last Airbender, is what I can only describe as “vaguely Asian-ish”.

There are three “tribes” of people who are constantly at war, and the main prize seems to be the City. For the last 30 years the Dao have controlled the city, but it is a tenuous hold. Aside for the warning factions, there are also the citizens that live in The Nameless City. They call themselves The Named.

The protagonists are Kaidu and Rat. Kaidu is a young man who has just arrived in the The City to begin his training as a Dao soldier and to meet his father for the first time.  His father is a general, his mother is “tribe leader”. Rat, on the other hand, is a homeless orphan who fends for herself. She is s survivor, like most of The Named.

Rat agrees to teach Kaidu to run navigate  the cities rooftops the way she does in exchange for food. Lots and lots of food. He learned a bit about the history of The Named, a continually conquered people and Rat learns that not all conquerers are comfortable with colonization. Rat, Kaidu and a Named woman who guards the prince, foil a plan to kill the Dao General of All Blades.

The Nameless City is a good book. The story is a good balance between friendship, discovery, and political intrigue and makes for a fast paced story. The full color illustrations communicate the action and emotion very well.

But, it is not a perfect book. I find it odd that as a book that features two strong female characters does not pass the Bechdel Test. The reason? The two female characters never talk to another female. Ever. When I realized this I looked more closely at the characters. It turns out there are 17 men who speak and 2 women who speak.

In addition to the issue of female representation, there is the issue of randomly using the “tribe” trope as a nod towards an indigenous community. There is no reason that I can see for patterning the Dao after some sort of tokenized Alaskan indigenous people. The Dao are shown with spears and fur and have leather boots but there isn’t really anything made of this “culture”.

Although I enjoyed the book, I can’t recommend it, because of these issues of representation. I hope the author takes the criticism in the way it is intended. I hope she adds some substantive female characters, and looses the vaguely “native” trope in favor of the political and cultural struggle she touches on. It would be amazing to see a graphic novel about a colonizing force and the people under it’s rule as they move beyond that power dichotomy.

Say it With me: Intersectionality

I’ve been reading and thinking about the ways identity overlap and intertwine within individuals, and how people decide what to forefront about themselves and why, and how those decisions effect how they are seen. On Super Bowl Sunday I was impressed with Lady Gaga’s rendition of the national anthem> But, I was simultaneously angered by the ridiculous snub of Marlee Matlin’s (an academy award WINNING actress) ASL performance. I watched Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance (watch here beginning at 1:30) the monday after the Super Bowl because it would be physically and emotionally impossible for me to care less about the game itself.

What I knew about Queen B’s halftime show was my 13 year old son thought her and her crew were way more boss with their synchronicity then Bruno Mars and his guys. But, when I watched it I saw a powerful, jaw dropping political statement and I thought, “Oh, she’s done it now.” From the natural hair of the dancers, and call out to the Black Panther berets, to the Malcolm X formation, and Pancho Villa’s gun belts (which may have been more about Michael Jackson, but I’m Mexican, so I went with what I know), to the unapologetic booty shake.

1024px-Pancho_Villa_bandolier_crop  

What, you might be asking, does any of this have to do with reading, selecting, or using graphic novels in your classroom? Wait for it ….

This is how intersectionality works. I was happy about Lady Gaga (White woman), mad about Marlee Matlin (White, straight woman who played a lesbian and is deaf), impressed with Beyonce´ (Straight, Black woman) and happy to see Bruno (Latino, maybe gay but no one seems to care) perform with Coldplay (a bunch of White guys from England) that I am neutral about because they always sound like Maroon 5, ALL AT THE SAME TIME. I did not have one feeling over the other. I was not happy about the ASL snub because I like what Bey was doing. Nor was I expecting Bruno to kiss a guy because Lady Gaga’s sexual identity often confuses me.

This is often how we approach issues of representation in children’s and YA literature. Books have either good or bad representations, and that singular view overpowers the more complex ways of reading books. But, what if we look at a book not to simply defend it, but rather to see what kinds of representations exist or can be found within it.

Little Robot

On Monday I posted a short conversation I had with my my 10 year old son about Little Robot by Ben Hatke. I left out a lot of what my son and I talked about because it ranged into intersectionality and I wanted to spend some time with the ideas before writing this post.

First off, both of us agree it is a great graphic novel. The images are clear and clean with a highly representational look to them – which means people look like people, trees look like trees and robots look … well, like they belonged in the world. The colors were bright and clear but not overbearing. My son said the paneling was “regular, so it was easy to figure out where to look and where to go next. Probably a good book to start reading beginning graphic novel readers”. The story unfolded in a well paced manner, characters were developed through interactions with each other and the world around them. According to my son, it was a sweet story about love and acceptance.

But, and here is the thing, there is no such thing as a perfect book. Here are some comments from my son that he and I talked about:

Why is the poor kid the Black one? There was a White guy getting on the bus with the main characters (assumed to be) older brother, and there was an “old White grandpa” with a swing set in his backyard, so it isn’t like there were no White people. When I asked him why this was important he said, “It might not be, but … I don’t know … it makes me feel like Black skin means poor.”

The book doesn’t pass The Bechdel Test. There are 3 male characters, and 1 female characters that we were able to identify. I asked why he thought the main character was a girl and my son said, “Her hair, maybe? Or, her … the way she is. She’s a girl. Also, the author always draws girls.” He recognized Hatke’s style from reading the Zita the Spacegirl Adventures series. We talked about the robots and gender for a while and decided they don’t have a gender. They are not boy or girl, they are robot so the rules are different.

And, what about the girl? She remains nameless, but she is not unimportant, voiceless, or powerless by any means. “She’s kind of a bad-ass, you know?” He was looking over the page where she takes on an evil robot about four times her size, manages to save her friend, and turn things around so everyone is happy. “She’s a serious genius. Like one of those guys on Robot Wars, except she’d probably cry if her robot got messed up. Yeah, that’s the other reason she’s a girl. A boy would probably blow things up.”

Would I put this book in a classroom? Absolutely, without question. It is a great book. And, what makes it even better is the possibility within the narrative to have conversations about race, gender, poverty and robots.

Little Robot

MONDAY logo 2015

It is Monday. My sons have another snow day, even though there is no new snow on the ground. The snow is coming, or so they say.

Little RobotI recently got a copy of Little Robot by Ben Hatke (published by First:Second). My ten year old son, Alex, took it. He does that a lot. We “share” books, which usually means he keeps them in his room and feels a disturbance in The Force when I manage get my hands on them. So far he has claimed the Timmy Failure series (by Stephan Pastis), LumberJanes (by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis and Noelle Stevenson) and anything by Matt Phalen or Gene Luen Yang

When I mentioned I wanted to write about Little Robot, he ignored me and kept playing MineCraft. Did I mention he is 10? I started with a general “what did you think about the book?”

Alex: It’s good. It’s more for little kids, except for the no underwear situation.

I made him close MineCraft and talk to me because I did not understand anything he was saying, plus … snow days. Tried again and this time things made much more sense.

Alex: First off, I liked it. I know it is supposed to be for little kids because a) the main character is a little kid, and b) there isn’t much reading and you know, teachers wouldn’t think it was really reading. Also, little kids might not ask too many questions.

Me: Questions?

Alex: Yeah. First off, where are her (main character’s) parents? She’s got a brother who goes to school and then POOF, she’s out of the window and exploring. Also, why doesn’t she have any clothes on? I mean, if she’s old enough to go make fake robot art, repair real robots, and find dead animals. Shouldn’t she be wearing pants? Or, shoes?!?

Me: How do you know the main character is a girl? And, what about the little robot?

Alex: She’s wearing a nightgown (eye roll and implied DUH!). Also, she’s too nice. I think a boy would have on shorts and no top (redacted conversation about nipples). The robot? The main one? I think it’s a boy, but that’s probably because there isn’t anything boy or girl-ish about it and I’m a boy, so I think of it as a boy.

Me: So if you were a girl?

Alex: First off, no. But, I’m guessing a girl would think the robot was a girl. I guess the author was pretty smart that way. It’s a book for all little kids.

He returned to MineCraft to build an entire city scape that rested on top of layers of TNT. He planned on blowing it up later in the afternoon while he videotaped the explosions. He’s 10.