Twitter, Critique and Children’s Literature … Oh, My.

There are plenty of people telling me I am too harsh on children’s books. I’m too quick to call out the overwhelming Whiteness of authors, illustrators, editors, and critics. I get pushback for directing criticism to our children’s literature organizations, literacy associations, critics and bloggers.

There are times when someone takes me to task and I wonder – have I gone too far? Am I part of the PC internet-Twitter-mob? (Is that even a thing?) Am I looking for racism, sexism, ablism, and homophobia where it isn’t?

Then I look to other critics who are, by in large, NOT straight, White, able or male and I see the same reactions, the echoes, the same plea for respect.

Recently Edi Campbell tweeted out a book cover and asked a small number of critics (including me) if we sawbadmood “the problem”.

I’ll admit I didn’t see what the issue was at first. I barely looked at the girl, noticed the book was written by Lemony Snicket (AKA Daniel Handler) and thought …. “What am I not seeing here? God, is there another watermelon joke?” I trusted my colleagues and I knew that if I wasn’t seeing the problem it did not mean there was not a problem. It meant I was not seeing the problem. 
So, I asked.
And, the answers were awful.  Sarah Hannah Gomez copy

First, Sarah HANNAH Gomez (tweeted out the book cover, accompanied by the racist image of a golliwog. Although usually found in the UK, the golliwog is yet another blackface image we could do without.

Then, Allie Jane Bruce provided another kind of image. AllieJaneBruce copyThere it was. The awful truths. That “mood” was a call-back to a racist visual trope aimed right at Black and African American kids who would see it and feel it, even if I did not Once I saw it I could not unsee it. Read Edi Campbell’s blog post about the book here CrazyQuilts blog.

We have to decide, as a community of book lovers … do picturebooks matter? Do they help kids see the world? Do they help kids build themselves? If reading and books matter than we have to come to the realization that images within books matter, too. We cannot believe that books are important but that representation isn’t. We, as a community of educators, cannot have it both ways.

It matters that this book confirms the age old visual trope of black = bad, and curly = unruly and must be tamed! (see the stick). If picturebooks matter than the messages contained within the words and images matter even if we, as adults, do not initially see those messages. LB Kids

After emailing and tweeting the author and the publisher for a few days, there was a response – an actual apology. Not a “sorry YOU took offense” but an actual “oops” and promise to do better.

Books matter. Those of us who’s identity was built in part by the books we read know this to be true. Books save lives, they open doors, they allow us to escape into worlds and possibilities beyond what we see. But, the flip side of this is that books can damage and degrade readers who see themselves represented as the problem, the issue to be solved, the condition to be cured.

That is what many critics, book bloggers, and awards committees do not want to admit. The lists and honors matter to teachers and parents because they rely on experts. But, who is the expert on non-White, non-heterosexual, disabled representations? badmood

Again, I did not see the problem even when it was, literally, staring me in the face.

The Eisner award nominations came out about a week ago and Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts was on the list. She appropriated Latinx culture, and completely erased Native American history in her graphic novel (link to my critique, link to Debbie Reese’s critique). I’m not surprised but I am disappointed by the nomination.

White authors using culture and identities as cheap plot devices and lazy tropes – including books like Telgemeier’s Ghosts – isn’t new. The overwhelming, overrepresentation of White, straight, able males in children’s books isn’t new.

What is new is our voices on social media. We will not be silenced by a call for niceness. Instead, we will raise our voices to be heard above the din of fragility. We echo each other. We seek out allies who recognize the beauty of diversity, and the strength of hearing stories in told in #ownvoices, like Gene Yang’s Reading Without Walls Challenge. If all your book lists, including that stack of books you have ready for summer reading, feature people who look and sound like you, make an effort to read beyond yourself.

Start with 2017 We’re The People book list.
Read blogs like Latinxs in Kidlit, The Brown Bookshelf, Disability in Kid Lit, CrazyQuilt, The Dark Fantastic, and American Indians in Children’s Literature.

 

Amplifying #Own Voices

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

I recently spoke to a group of graduate students at Boston University about representations of Native Americans in children’s and YA literature. I was once again reminded of the importance of this work because so many of these students had heard of only one book by a Native author (Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutly True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).

I highlighted this excellent graphic published by Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison (link here) and then spoke about Ghosts, a graphic novel we can all just skip.

diversityinchildrensbooks2015_f

Although I began the evening by addressing some of the multiple problems in Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts (see Debbie Reese, Yuyi Morales and my blog post), I didn’t stop there. Instead, I took advantage of the time and promoted books and authors who, in my opinion, got it right.

I read from Tim Tingle’s How I Became a Ghost, and gushed over The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp, and talked about Sherman Alexie’s other books. As I talked and answered questions I noticed something important – people were on their screens. Ipads were out, cell phones were on, laptop screens were up and eyes were no longer directed towards me.

Now, usually academics HATE it when electronics take center stage while we are talking. It usually means we have lost the audience, their attention drawn to FaceBook, or shoe shopping or the latest poll numbers. But, as I walked them through what it means to be a mis- and under represented person, spoke about how to read for authenticity, and mentioned blogs to be checked, I didn’t mind seeing the distraction.

Because, I knew what they were doing.

They were ordering books.

They were putting their dollars where it matters.

After my a few people expressed concern and disappointment that they had never heard of the books I mentioned. In addition, they expressed worry that when they looked for books about non-White, straight, male or cis-gender, able people they were unsure whether or not the book was “good” or not. Some felt unsure about purchasing books when they might not recognize authentic representations vs familiar stereotypes and tropes. In other words, they WANT to read the good stuff but right now in their development they aren’t sure about what is the good stuff. Fair enough.

Introducing the 2016 Amazon-Hack-a-Thon for children’s and YA literature!

Here’s how it is going to work. People are going to suggest children’s and YA books that provide authentic representations – not stereotypes and tropes! No smiling slaves or lesbians getting shock treatment! People on the autism spectrum who are not freaky-math-geniuses. Mexicans who aren’t gardeners. Asian women who are not submissive. Non-White, straight, male, and able people who exist for themselves and not as simple props in the story, there save White people with wisdom!

Where was I? Oh … Right.

  • First step, books. Go here to suggest books.
  • Second step, read. Go HERE to see the list of suggested books. Read one (or more).
  • Third step, write. Return to the list of suggested books and follow the included Amazon link or find it on your own. At that point, if you feel like it, write a positive review. You can also cross-post your review on GoodReads if you are a member.
  • If you see another positive review that you agree with, click on the YES button next to “Was this review helpful to you?”

Your review doesn’t have to be long or intricate. Instead, write a paragraph about what the book made you think about, how it made your feel when you read, what it reminded you of, or what surprised you. Focus on what you liked, how the book challenged you or made you think. Then publish it to Amazon or Goodreads.

Repeat.

That’s it. Please share this post widely. Maybe we can catch the attention of other readers. Maybe we can help authors by getting the word out about their books. Maybe we can get publishers to notice when those books get more sales. Maybe we can amplify each other’s voices.

Author Intent in Children’s Literature

“The birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.”

(Barthes,1998, p. 386)

The issue of representation in children’s literature has been on high octane overdrive for the last 18 months or so. For me, the breaking point was the advent of the We Need Diverse Books social media campaign. The twitter conversation exploded into a full on outcry from readers and authors. There were and continue to be many bloggers who are focused on issues of representation, and the work is becoming part of a larger conversations about race and privilege that have been a long time coming. These conversations are not easy, they are not comfortable, and there are no easy answers.

Recently, another picturebook, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, featuring the all too familiar happy-slave trope. Click here to link to an article by Hillel Italie that provides an overview of the issues.

I had heard about the Cake from other scholars in children’s literature, but it wasn’t until I attended the American Library Associations Mid-winter conference here in Boston that I got a chance to see it. It would be easy to say I was shocked, or surprised. But, what is hard for me to admit is that I wasn’t caught off guard at all. I am rarely surprised by the tropes used in children’s literature and other media that reduce people and cultures to collections of stereotypes and caricatures. I am not surprised when books avoid the terrible truths in our collective history.

There is a strong contingent of smart, caring people in the children’s literature community who I disagree about representations like those in A Fine Desert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington. In the past I have found it difficult to participate in these conversations about privilege and Whiteness, and representation. I get mad and start to rant. I scare the dogs. I threaten my computer. But, I am working on sitting and thinking, instead of standing and yelling. And, in this space I am going to talk about an often used defense about books that have objectionable representations of people, cultures, and history.

The Good People Argument

  1. The author is a good person
  2. The author did not intend malice
  3. There is a note in the back of the book that explains the authors intention
  4. Therefore, no one should take offense at the depiction of an under-represented person or culture in the actual body of the text

I have never understood this argument. By in large, I do not know the authors of the books I read. I don’t know Dorothy Parker, Kurt Vonnegut, William Saroyan or Douglas Adams (some of my favorite dead authors). And although I have met Andrew Smith, Nathan Hale, and Laurie Halse Anderson (some of my favorite not-dead authors) I can’t say I know them. And, it shouldn’t matter. Their intent or general personhood cannot matter to me as the reader. Barthes, a French literary critic, wrote about the end of the author’s control of the story.

The author’s intentions when creating a book are changed by time and experience. Once an author has written an imagined scene, or person, or event with all the emotions attached, the idea is changed by the act of writing. The author is changed as well. Books are created by change. They are imagined, dreamed, doodled, written, rewritten, edited, proofed, thought about, talked through, destroyed and reborn in a million ways. By the time I begin to read the author has faded, and in their place stands the book. The intention has dissipated into time and space and events of the day. The intent has no baring on the object in front of me. It it my responsibility to make sense of the book, using all I have at my disposal; my experiences, my understanding, my interpretation.

I care about the book in front of me. The story, the characters, the language and what it makes me see and feel and how it affects me. I’m glad the author exists, so that they can write again, because I am a greedy reader. Unfortunately, that is the contract an author agrees to when they write and send a book out into the world. The book must represent itself to me, the reader.

 

References

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Art and Interpretation: An Anthology of Readings in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. Ed. Eric Dayton. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1998. 383-386. Print.

What Are You Reading? December 29, 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

I’ve been thinking about simplicity lately. The idea that an image can be simple but not easy has grabbed my attention.

The difference between simple and complex isn’t easy to understand. This is one reason why text leveling does not work for measuring the difficulty of a text. Text leveling measures what it is designed to measure – the length of words, sentences, and paragraphs; the commonality of words and punctuation used to construct the sentences. Text leveling programs measure these factors accurately, but what these measures miss is what I have begun referring to as the “cognitive-aesthetic” work that readers do when reading. That is why Hemingway ‘s  The Sun Also Rises has a lower Lexile score than Atwater’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins (read the New Republic’s article here) that means Hemingway’s language might be simpler but the story is not.

The issue is NOT that the measures are wrong, it is that they are being used incorrectly. It is as if I asked for a vegetable peeler and got a hammer. The hammer is designed to do a job, and in the right hands it can do those jobs well. But take a hammer to a ripe mango and all you have is a big mess and that is what these measures are doing for classroom reading – making a giant mess.

And, when utilized on graphic novels, comics and even informational books with an abundance of images, things go very wrong, very quickly.

And so I have been thinking about cognitive-aesthetic comprehension. I began looking at books that express great emotions – an abstract and complex construct – with little detail and little or no color.

Happypigeon

depressed pigeonMo Willems is an expert on the use of muted colors, simple lines, and few details to convey great emotional range and depth in a character. How else can he take us from a happy-go-lucky Pigeon to a despondent Pigeon? Willems changes the “pupil” location, the neck, the tail, and the wings. We, the reader, read into these changes and interpret the emotional context of the character.

Andy RWorried_owlyunton shows us a depressed and worried Owly by manipulating similar aspects of the bird – especially the eyes. Using the same downcast pupils in large, white orbits he is cueing the reader to interpret worry or sadness or, even, depression.

But what about artists who don’t use these kinds of large, rounded eyes? How do they provide the reader with cues to the emotional life of a character?

Veil_persepolisMarjane Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis uses deceptively simple, solidly inked illustrations. Typical of the book is this illustration of Marjane and her friends as they are made to wear veils for the first time in their lives. Satrapi provides the reader with a view of the changing world these girls are experiencing during Iran’s religious revolution. She uses a few details to delineate girls from one another, including their eyes, a bit of hair on the forehead, and a single line for the mouth and yet we see a range of emotions from comfort or acceptance to worry and resignation.

Keaton_face_BlufftonIn Bluffton, Matt Phelan gives us a character who is known for his deadpan expression. Buster Keaton’s youthful face is shown with almost no expressive lines, slightly raised eyebrows, and like Satrapi’s young girls, a single line for a mouth. But, somehow I look at that face and wonder at the depth of character that is going on behind those eyes.

The lack of color is not the most striking aspect of these images – instead it is the abstractness that I actually forget about. Even without color and in only two dimensions, the human face is a complex set of lines and angles.

Dorothea Lange_Mother

Dorothea Lange’s photos capture the depth of human emotions without the use of color, as in her famous photo Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. Although we have to work to comprehend the emotions the photo is a realistic depiction of a human face rendered into a two-dimensional image.

What amazes me, as a reader and a scholar, is the ways highly abstract faces emote such strong responses without the details that would make them realistic.

The Pigeons happiness and sadness is obvious. Keaton’s emotionless face gives away nothing and yet I interpret it as having much to reveal if only given a chance. This use of highly abstract images can create characters that we as readers work to understand. But, and this is the part I am still thinking about, why are we compelled to do that work? The work the reader undertakes – to interpret a simple set of lines into a meaning of emotion, thought, an personality – is not easy and in fact the work is often far from frivolous.

maus
From Art Spiegelman’s Maus
Harlem Hell Fighters
From Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks and Caanan White

What are you reading? Monday, April 28

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

Here goes my list of reads for the past few weeks. Happy to see loads of action on Jen’s  Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki’s  Unleashing Readers!

 It is the end of Spring semester here at Boston University, which means that my reading hours are being used for other things. It also means, my writing hours are geared toward research articles and grading.

But, just like the chick-a-dees and blue jays that are hopping around my trees and urging Spring to come, take off its coat, and stay for a while, I got a box of book that I recently ordered in the mail. So, I’m looking. I’m skimming. I’m treating myself to a read now and again and here is what I have.

———

Yossel Yossel: April 19, 1943 by Joe Kubert (2003)

This one is going to take me a while to finish. I can take it in small pieces, but as a whole it is an overpowering book.

Yossel is an historical account of WWII, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the life of one boy who drew. Kubert uses a heavily, pencil or coal sketch style on paper that appears to be newsprint but feels much heavier.

The images are sketches, with the dividing lines left intact, reminding me that it is a person who drew the portraits. The voice is of a young boy seeing a world filled with Nazi horror, and becoming numb to the horror.

 

————-

La Perdida

La Perdida by Jessica Abel (2006)

Another black and white graphic novel, very autobiographical. The story focuses on a young American women who decides to live in Mexico City. It details her relationships, her acquisition of language, as well as the culture she comes to understand.

The illustration style is sometimes heavy handed, suffering from too much cross-hatching to show shadows and depth. Like many autobiographies Abel uses an abundance of written text instead of trusting the illustrations to carry more of the story.

So far, I’m not a huge fan, but the story is compelling.

——–

Mermaid and the shoeThe Mermaid and the Shoe by K.G. Campbell

Although not a graphic novel, I  needed something to lighten the mood a bit. The cover is very wistful and sort of drab, using a dark watercolor pallet with one bright spot (the red shoe).

I suspected the story was going to be yet another Disney-fictation of Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid tale.

I was wonderfully wrong.

This is a beautiful story that sneaks up on you in the veil of “Yeah, I’ve seen this a thousand times before”. Instead, it is the story of Minnow, who discovers the power of asking AND finding the answers to her own questions.

 

 

What are you reading Monday? March 17, 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

Feeling like I’m on a roll here. For the second week in a row I am adding my list to Jen’s from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers!

———

GrasshopperI finished Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. It is a wondrous read the is at once completely banal and full of everyday adolescent angst filled emotional subjects like love, sex, and identity, as well as end-of-the-world-threatening, megalomaniacal, out-of-control, mad science gone wrong. The narrator, Austin, presents these topics in the same tone. Or, should I say he alternates between  overly and underly (it’s a word) dramatic tone and neither ever seems quite appropriate. And yet, it is always right.

Austin may or may not be bisexual, or gay, or something. He loves his best friend Robbie (who is gay), who loves Austin and whom Austin might be IN love with but he’s not sure. Austin is sure that he is in love with his girlfriend Shann (who is not gay). The idea of Robbie and Shann kissing makes Austin horny – of course, life makes Austin 16 year old horny.

The book is filled with intertwining and complex relationships such as Austin’s boss – who is also Shann’s step-father and the brother of the megalomaniacal, out-of-control, mad scientist, who is dead but still makes a rather important appearance. There is a fair amount of history, and some geography and …  The important thing about this book is OH MY GOD JUST READ IT!!!!!!!

———-

In prep for my children’s lit class this week I am also re-reading 

manfish Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne, Éric Puybaret.Manfish-dream

The illustrations provide a sense of peace and beauty, as well as respect for the ocean.

But the true beauty of this biography is being able to follow Cousteau as a boy who was curious about film making and oceanography. This is a terrific example of an interesting, beautiful non-fiction pciturebook. 

———-

A-River-of-WordsI am also rereading A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant. I used to say I was not a poetry person. I think that is not an accurate  description. I think I am a very picky poetry person. It can be a difficult genre for me to read, but then I will find someone who plays with words in a way I understand, who paints pictures and reveals new ways of seeing the world that I can share in. One such poet is Carlos WilliNYT2008102115061160Cams.

I want to love this book because it brings poetry into the hands of kids. I want to love this book because it is a stunning example of mixed-media illustrations. I want to love this book because it explains how this poet was also a doctor and how not giving up poetry helped him be a better doctor. But, it is a difficult book for me to read. Although the illustrator does offset the prose into beige text boxes, the actual poetry is often presenting as part of a tableau that confuses written text with illustrations. I can view these pages as pieces of art but the pleasure of reading is more often lost to me.

riverofwords2_zoom

The mixed-media creates a jumbled and confusing reading space for me that I find exhausting. I want this book to be truly multimodal so that I can hear the written prose and poetry while taking in the illustrations. Then, I could truly love this book.

What are you reading Monday, March 10, 2014

Mon Reading Button PB to YATrying to get back into the blog swing this week so I am adding my list to Jen’s from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers.

To begin with I have been rereading George O’Connor’s  series about the Greek gods of mythology, The Olympians. I  wrote a teacher guide for First:Second on the series (I’ll link to that as well) and I wrote a blog post (Go here for that ….) featuring Hades.

Olympians-Poster-color-e1392443488972The basics about the whole series are — great color, exciting stories, seriously weird characters, and so much more variation that I expected. I terrific set for most classrooms, just be sure to read them before putting them on the shelf – there are references to sex, very short skirts on some of the men, and extra-marital affairs seem to be had by all. The vocabulary is no joke either! Also, terrific author’s notes about O’Connor’s research.

——————-

Wimpy_Kid_7_Art

My partner and I have been reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel with our younger son. I traveled a bit last week and so I missed out on the middle part. I’m not a big fan of the Wimpy Kid books for my own reading, I just don’t like or hate Greg enough to care what happens. I think the books are heavy handed and moralistic (not what I look for in a book). But, and this is important, both our sons have loved this series … and so I read the books and try to connect with my boys.

——————-FANGIRL_CoverDec2012-725x1075

I read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell … Click here for that post … I started reading Fangirl after that on the recommendation of a student in my children’s literature class. Fangirl is a BIG book, and has lots of stuff going on, including twins going to college and making mistakes, roommates, roommates ex’s, new love, fanfiction, a book withing the book, and plagiarism. Did I mention it was really-really long?

I can imagine it being a great read for YAs who read big books about people having feelings but somehow it didn’t stick with me. I can’t put my finger on my issue, but I am pretty sure it was me and not Rainbow.

——————-

JourneyJourney by Aaron Becker is so fantastic I keep going back to it. It is one of those wondrous, rich, complex wordless picturebooks that holds all the possibilities of the world inside the covers.

A girl begins the story by taking a large red crayon in hand and creating a door that begins the journey. The detailed pen and ink with watercolor drawings are breathtaking. Taking the time to read all the tiny bits and pieces, to see the questions and the connections across the story was and continues to be an engaging process.

This book is so deserving of the Caldecott honor! In addition Aaron Becker has a terrific web page that includes a documentary about the making of Journey (StoryBreathing), a book trailer, and links to his blog, and other cool things like signed prints (just in case anyone wants to send me things for my office walls).

—————-

I am currently reading Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle thanks to my friend Kristin. The book is weirdly wonderful, just the kind of thing I love. The characters and story stay with me when I am not reading it. In fact I think I can hear it calling me from the other room. I’ll write more about it when I am done.

  Grasshopper

It’s Monday … What are you reading?

http://thereisabookforthat.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/imwayr.jpg

From Teaching Mentor Texts

“It’s Monday! What are you Reading? is a meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journeys. It is a great way to recap what you read and/or reviewed the previous week and to plan out your reading and reviews for the upcoming week. It’s also a great chance to see what others are reading right now…you just might discover the next “must-read” book!

Kellee Moye, of Unleashing Readers, and I decided to give It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? a kidlit focus. If you read and review books in children’s literature – picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels, young adult novels, anything in the world of kidlit – join us! We love this meme and think you will, too. We encourage everyone who participates to visit at least three of the other kidlit book bloggers that link up and leave comments for them.”

——————

I’m going to give this a shot. I read a lot of graphic novels but I also read everything from picturebooks to YA novels. This will give me a chance to talk, in brief, about those books as well.

Scaredy Squirrel prepares for Holloween by Mélanie Watt from Kids Can Press

Scaredy

I have long been a huge fan of Scaredy Squirrel. He is a total hypochondriac, pretty OCD, and generally anxious to a degree that makes me feel pretty good about myself. This Halloween edition is a mix of surprisingly helpful advice on things like carving pumpkins, and silly stuff like “The apple: A Scary Fruit”. I’m usually not a big fan of themed books, but this one is pretty funny.

————

If You Could be Mine by Sara Farizan from Algonguin Young Readers

IfYouCouldI have been searching for lesbian stories in YA novels for a while now. There are simply not enough out there so anytime I find one, I read it. I have been disappointed more times than not at the quality of writing, the flat characters, or the general sense of disgust at yet another doomed romance. It feels like no one wants lesbians to be happy. So, it was with great trepidation that I started If You Could be Mine.

It is all of those things I just complained about – a doomed lesbian teen romance. But, it is so much more. The characters are alive and breathing. The setting, modern Iran, reads less like a ravel log and more like the authors back yard that she is letting us see for awhile. And, although the romance is doomed, the characters are, amazingly, not.

————-

FANGBONE! by Michael Rex from Putnam Juvenile

Michael Rex Fangbone 1

I’ll be blogging about this one soon. Let me just say … AWESOME!!! Full of silliness, honor, dodgeball, and gnarly big toes that must be kept safe. Enough said ….