Friday, February 19, 2016

Reviewing While White: Braids & Buns, Ponies & Pigtails; 50 Hairstyles "Every Girl" Will Love

by Allie Jane Bruce

Don't be fooled by the smiling East Asian girl on the cover of Braids & Buns, Ponies & Pigtails by Jenny Strebe (Chronicle, 2016).  This guide to hairstyles for "every girl" firmly centers Whiteness.

By page 13, I found 9 tips to help "minimize frizz" and make hair more "smooth" and "silky".  Strangely, though, when I perused the "Tools" section (p. 8-10), I saw that Strebe recommends curling irons and silk pillowcases, but not the hot combs, straightening irons, and oil/grease that much of the population would need to pull off these styles (including me--I'd need a bathtub of keratin).

By this time, I'd committed, so I spent a good chunk of tonight doing tallies (it's OK, I was listening to Hamilton the whole time).  Here's what I found:

107 photos of girls who present White
14 photos of girls who present Black
22 photos of girls who present East Asian
4 photos of girls who present South Asian

I'm using "present" deliberately above, as I recognize that I cannot know how a person racially identifies merely by looking at them.

For each hairstyle, the book provides information on the "Difficulty Level", "Ideal Hair", and "Accessories".  "Ideal hair" indicates what texture hair works best for the style, and includes terms like "straight" and "wavy".  Here's how many times the book describes the following hair textures as "Ideal":

Straight - 3
Straight to Wavy - 24
Silky - 1
Wavy to Curly - 10
Wavy - 1
Curly - 2
Straight to Curly - 2
Afro texture to medium coarseness - 1
Thick and curly texture - 1
Wavy to frizzy - 1


This book promotes itself as a resource for "Every Girl" (in the subtitle).  This book features "Braids" as the very first word (of the title).  Yet, nowhere will you find braids or cornrows on Black girls (the closest is a Black girl wearing "ropebraid pigtails").

I guess they didn't mean "those kinds of braids."

What of the Black girl with tightly curly hair who happens upon this book, reads the title and the subtitle, then flips through it to find that nearly three-fourths of the pictures are of White girls, that more than half of the styles describe "Ideal Hair" as "straight" or "straight to wavy", and that not a single image of Black braids or cornrows is to be found?  What messages is this sending her?

I think the message "straight, smooth hair is ideal" is definitely there, but that's only half the problem.

The other half is a tougher nut to crack, and it goes like this: "Black girls, we're going to Other you, and we will never, ever acknowledge that we're Othering you.  You're just not Every Girl."

Sure makes me grateful for books like Hair Dance! (by Dinah Johnson, with photos by Kelly Johnson, Henry Holt & Co, 2007) and Puffy: For People Whose Hair Defies Gravity (by Aya de León, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013).  More like this, please (and feel free to leave more suggestions in the comments).

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Writing Diversity While White

Megan: In the call for diverse literature, books by people of color and First/Native Nations are essential. But that doesn’t mean White writers are necessarily absolved from responsibility to reflect the diverse world of children and teens. Yet it’s thorny--we know it’s thorny--when it comes to representing characters and cultural experiences that are not one’s own. It’s can be a challenge to evaluate them, too, when you are an outsider to the experience being represented.

Recently Nina and I were talking about two middle grade novels by White authors who brought diversity into the stories by establishing the main characters as biracial (both were Latino/White girls): Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb, and Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones. We appreciated both of these books, but in our discussions, found we had completely opposite reactions to which book we thought was more successful in terms of how it established and developed the diversity.

Nina: Yes! I read Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer first. I was impressed at how Jones incorporated aspects of Sophie/Sofecita’s culture and race into the story, but sometimes pieces felt inserted for expressly that purpose. For instance, when Sofecita goes into a “you must have had a hard time when you were young” aside to her Abuelita on page 75, we can tell this is where we’re supposed to learn something.  To me, Sophie’s biculturality never quite felt intrinsic to her as a character except to emphasize her situation as an outsider. It felt like an embellishment.

So when I read Moonpenny Island, I was wowed at how Springstubb uses biculturality to actually move the story.  It feel less explicit, yet more present, as it is the wedge between Flor’s parents, and her own divided feelings about island life.  

Megan:  And I had almost the exact opposite response.  I read Moonpenny Island first and appreciated Springstubb’s choice to make Flor biracial, but while we are told her mother is Latina, and there is a reference to Flor thinking about how it must feel for her mom to be the only Latino person on the island where they live, I didn’t find there was any deep development of the cultural dimension of their identity. There is an occasional Spanish word or phrase her mother uses, and the reference to Flor’s Dad once trying to learn Spanish. Her mom leaves to take care of her mother, Flor’s grandmother, and is staying with “the aunts.”

None of this was unrealistic to me but it felt a little bare bones. And interestingly I saw the wedge between Flor’s parents as being more about money and economics--they’re struggling financially and it creates a lot of stress and tension--and I thought this dimension of the story was marvelously developed and fully integrated.  

I agree, Nina, that Unusual Chickens… is more explicit but it also felt more authentic in the way Sophie’s bicultural identity and Mexican American heritage is part of who she is--deep down rather than surface. This is in part because a good portion of the story is told through letters to her Abuelita, and she is referencing family stories she’s been told, but it’s also in things like her awareness of being a brown-skinned child in a predominantly White community. Of seeing the boy riding past on his bike and noting that he is a “white boy.”

Nina: You are right that Sophie’s biculturality is much more a part of her character than is Flor’s.  But while Flor’s family’s culture is not deeply developed, I found it to be very firmly interwoven through the book, more than just the references you mention.  I think the first time we understand it is on page 17 when Flor thinks about the way her mother says her name. “No one else pronounces her name that exact way … it’s the way her name is meant to sound.”  We also understand that her mother’s family represents something she’s had to give up by moving to the island, there’s that bit on page 64-65 about how her mother behaves when they ride home to the island from a family visit that was very telling, and spoke to me of culture more than economics.

These are much more subtly presented than in Unusual Chickens, and ultimately I think both are valid; each book has such a different overall style, I think both presentations are warranted.  But because I was looking at these, when I read them, from a “Mock Newbery” frame of mind in which one might be pitted against the other, I did think about whether one presentation was better than the other.   I think, for instance, that many young White readers (especially those unfamiliar with Latino culture) may gloss over the passages in Moonpenny Island that I thought said so much about culture, because there’s nothing explicit. And from the opposite point of view, I wondered if Latino or bicultural readers would feel that Unusual Chickens was written towards a White readership, rather than towards them.  This is the point in my inquiry where I have to say, truly, I don’t know. The opposite read might also be true: that a bicultural reader might see through Moonpenny Island as a White writer’s good but ultimately limited attempt, and Unusual Chickens as refreshingly out there.  I appreciated Cindy Rodriguez’s take on it at Latin@s in Kid Lit.

Megan: I also wondered how the two books would read for cultural insiders. It’s interesting that you point to that scene in Moonpenny Island in which Flor describes how her mother says her name. Overall, it felt to me like Flor spoke about Latino identity in terms of her mom, rather than in terms of herself. But that scene did stand out to me as a vivid moment where Flor is really connected to something specific regarding their Latino identity as it impacts her.  But you are right that this may be an issue of subtlely, and also of not needing to narrate something that is so deeply ingrained for her.

By contrast, Sophie’s Latino identity is something she really owns and claims in Unusual Chickens. She is very aware not only of how it impacts her understanding of herself, but also how others may see her. For example, on page 133 when she goes to her first 4-H meeting: “...I took a deep breath and got ready to answer all kinds of questions as soon as I went in--who I was, when I came here, that I speak English just fine….” (Something I think the author did well are these occasional, small moments where stereotypes and racism are directly acknowledged and challenged.)

But your question of what bicultural or Latino readers would make of this versus me as a White reader is important to think about. So, too, are differences in family culture and individual personalities reflected in these stories. Sophie’s is a family where culture and identity and racism have been talked about--clearly. We see examples of it in the letters. We do not get as much evidence of that in Flor’s family, and yet Flor’s awareness of her mother’s unhappiness as being perhaps about more than money clearly came from somewhere.

I also think it’s important to acknowledge that these two books are different in every way except what we are discussing--that Flor and Sophie are both bicultural. The plots, the settings, the characters, the tone, and the modes of telling are completely distinct. Nothing about Unusual Chickens is subtle; everything about Moonpenny Island is, and this discussion has helped me appreciate how that subtlety can be seen as extending to the way Flor’s cultural identity is revealed and explored.

Nina: And this back and forth has also made me remember that there shouldn’t be one “best” way of writing this. Taking it back to the responsibility of White writers in general, I was curious to check in on how Springstubb and Jones present themselves on the issue.

Tricia Springstubb quotes her character Flor on the front page of her website: “I’ve never liked when people say, There’s more than meets the eye. Everything is visible, if we just know how to look. That’s why we’re here on this earth--to see as much as we can.” Then Springstubb goes on to say: “I’m a writer, so looking is my business. I try to see what’s in front of me, but what’s behind and underneath too. I try to work the hardest trick of all--seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. That’s where I discover the stories most worth telling.”

Kelly Jones includes this at the end of her “About” section of her website:

Curious about Kelly’s heritage?
Kelly is a white writer of Irish/Scottish/Welsh-American heritage. “Kelly” is a Gaelic name from her mother’s family; it means “warrior”. “Jones” is a very common Welsh name, and comes from her father’s family.
To respectfully write people who are not just like her, Kelly uses resources like Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, and asks cultural consultants for assistance. This assistance has been critical to writing good stories; a million, bazillion thanks to everyone who so generously helped her out!
I appreciate that both deliberately state their responsibility to write diversity, in ways as different as they’ve done it in their books.  

Friday, February 12, 2016

Thoughts on "But kids say this stuff!!!"

I frequently debate colleagues (in all spheres and via all media) on individual books’ merits/defects/quality/worthiness/appeal. With disturbing regularity, I raise a concern that a character has said or done something bigoted or racist, and that the book has not countered it. With disturbing regularity, I get a response along the lines of “but kids actually did/said/do/say this stuff!”

I scratch my head every time--does anyone think I don’t know that some kids play "Indian"? Or that some kids make fun of some accents? Or that some kids say or do hurtful things because it’s Tuesday? I was a kid, and I haven’t forgotten a thing. Also, I teach kids five days a week.

Accuracy is not the issue. When we see something problematic, we need to say, “that’s a problem.” Unless books name problematic content as such, they condone and perpetuate the problems.

Now, we can debate whether specific books name problematic content as such, or whether they don’t. I’ll have that conversation. I’ll also debate whether the author has done so seamlessly or clumsily, whether the hand of the author is visible or not. And I’ll gladly debate whether a flawed execution is a dealbreaker or forgivable.

You’ll lose me if I say “This is problematic and doesn’t name it as such” and you respond “Yes, but it’s accurate” (see also my comment on “yes, and” vs. “yes, but” here).

One example is the image of Grace as "Hiawatha" in Amazing Grace.

I'd never deny that some kids played and play "Indian" like this.  And I'll always assert that playing "Indian" like this is a problem.  And what messages does this image send to Native kids whose teachers read Grace aloud?  According to the American Psychological Association, "the continued use of American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities establishes an unwelcome and often times hostile learning environment for American Indian students that affirms negative images/stereotypes that are promoted in mainstream society... the American Psychological Association supports and recommends the immediate retirement of American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams, and organizations." Let's stop talking about accuracy and start talking about impact on kids.

Ed. 2/12 7:30am: I should mention that the U.S. 25th Anniversary Edition of Amazing Grace does not include this image.  I think this is a smart move, not to mention the right thing to do.

Lastly, take a hard look at that “kids actually do this” phrase. Who are “kids” in that sentence? It usually refers to kids who aren’t marginalized along the identifier being stereotyped or mocked. And that defense then reiterates the centering of non-marginalized kids. Which is the problem in the first place.

Believe it or not, I’m not arguing that we should erase the world’s problems from children’s literature. I don’t think books have the responsibility to present a problem-free world; in fact, I firmly believe that children's literature (and society as a whole) should be more upfront and direct about injustice and racism.

I’m not a fan of sugarcoating the world; I just like to point to the corrosive acid and say “hey, that’s not sugar.”

-Allie Jane Bruce

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Diversity in Reviews: Behind the Scenes with SLJ's "Gatekeeper"

By Kiera Parrott

Few people like to think of themselves as gatekeepers—least of all librarians. Yet that’s exactly the position I found myself in a little over two years ago when I left my job in a children’s library, where I spent a large chunk of my days finding the right book for the right reader at the right time, to become the editor of School Library Journal (SLJ) reviews, where I now sit among a privileged minority of “experts,” “tastemakers,” and—yeah—gatekeepers, helping determine what books are good, great, even distinguished. Indeed, review editors can affect the larger conversation about books, selecting which titles merit professional evaluation—and which titles can be ignored. As Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben so sagely warned, “With great power comes great responsibility.” What does all of this mean for diversity and representation within the pages of our magazine? How do I, sitting in a potentially powerful and privileged spot within the publishing ecosystem, ensure that our reviews not only shine a light on a diverse array of authors, illustrators, and subjects, but also surface stereotypes, cultural inaccuracies or insensitivities, or other problematic elements in text or illustrations? 

SLJ publishes over 6,000 reviews every year—roughly 300 book reviews in every issue—almost all of them written by school or public librarians who work with kids and/or teens every day. Working with a team of three other book review editors, I must ensure that the reviews we publish are not merely grammatically correct and factually sound, but that they accurately and fairly describe and critique each work. In an ideal world with infinite reading time and no deadlines (If there is a heaven, I’m really hoping it’s this exactly), the other editors and I would read every single book we assigned from cover to cover. Realistically, beyond some of the picture books, most of the titles we send to our reviewers will not be fully read by an editor. As a result, we place an enormous amount of trust in our reviewers. We trust that they accurately describe the plot and characters. We trust that they carefully articulate both the positive and negative aspects of the writing, pacing, characterization, and so on. We trust that they recognize—and critique—stereotypes, caricatures, or culturally inaccurate or insensitive portrayals. But do they? And how would an editor who hasn’t read the book know if a reviewer missed something important? These are the kinds of questions that keep a review editor up at night.   

About a year ago, Jason Low of Lee & Low Books asked me what our pool of SLJ reviewers looked like in terms of demographics. “Huh…,” I said, staring into the middle distance, my mouth slightly agape. “I have no idea. In fact, I don’t think anyone has ever asked that question.” 

Why not? Well, I had a pretty fair guess. SLJ, like many other professional review journals, recruits a fair share of its reviewers from the ranks of the American Library Association (ALA) membership, specifically its two youth divisions, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) and the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), as well as the American Association of School Librarians (AASL). Anyone who’s ever attended an ALA conference or meeting can attest to the general homogeneity: it’s largely White and female. Still, I couldn’t get Jason’s question out of my head. Sure, we might not be all that surprised by the results, but couldn’t a deeper look at the makeup of SLJ reviewers help us better understand where we stood and where we may need to focus our recruitment efforts? And wouldn’t greater transparency—owning up to those statistics and actively working to change them—be one important step in our efforts to bring more and better diversity to library shelves and, in turn, young readers? 

Shortly after my conversation with Jason in late 2014, we sent out a survey to our active reviewer base (at that time, about 350 individuals) asking about their racial and ethnic background, age, regional location, sexual orientation, language(s) spoken, educational background, and gender—becoming one of the first participants in Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey. The survey was optional and anonymous. Approximately 250 reviewers responded, offering us unprecedented insight into their demographic makeup. When the results started rolling in, I’m sorry to say, I wasn’t all that surprised. Largely reflecting the overall statistics within the publishing world at large and professional reviewers specifically, at the time of the survey SLJ reviewers were largely White (88%), female (95%), and heterosexual (90%). 

Though sobering, the data was also incredibly powerful for formulating focused goals. Beyond the clear mission to do better overall, we now had at our fingertips specific statistics. For instance, it was excruciatingly obvious that we needed to recruit more people of color. Specifically, we found that we had zero reviewers who identified as Native American. Not a single person. That blew me away. Here was something unacceptable that we didn’t and couldn’t know before sending out the survey—and something we could actively remedy almost immediately. 

Over the following months, we made a conscious effort to diversify our corps of reviewers and target those areas where we knew we were especially weak. I’ll be honest, it’s not been as fast a process as I hoped. One of the requirements of being an SLJ reviewer is that you must be a librarian. Ideally, a working librarian with access to a wide ranging collection, and, even better, regular interactions with kids or teens. Though the profession is slowly becoming less homogenous, children’s and teen librarians still mostly look a whole lot like me: White, female, cisgender, heterosexual. 

Despite the challenges, we’ve seen some excellent progress. Anecdotally, I can tell you we’ve recruited over 150 new reviewers, many of them from a rich diversity of backgrounds. We’ve reached out to organizations like REFORMA and local chapters of the Black Caucus to recruit new reviewers. We created a website, forum, and a monthly newsletter for SLJ reviewers, which contains resources, training material, and best practices with a large focus on how to evaluate literature with an eye towards diversity and representation. We hold monthly online chats with our reviewers, often using those informal discussions as a way to talk about diversity and evaluation of literature. And, this summer, editor Shelley Diaz (recently promoted to lead the SLJ reviews team), will be organizing a free online course for reviewers centered on examining how we look at “diverse books,” how we recognize our own blinders or prejudices when it comes to book evaluation, and how we clearly articulate both praise and criticism in professional reviews. 

The next step is to gauge our progress: are we any more diverse now than when we first sent out the survey? That’s a relatively easy question to answer. We’ll look at the numbers and see how we’ve done; we plan to send a follow-up survey sometime in 2016-2017. But there’s another question that’s much harder to answer: how are our reviews doing? Are our reviewers better equipped to recognize and articulate positive and negative elements within text and illustrations? Are they spotting stereotypes and critically examining literature for bias? Are we, the review editors, doing everything we can to help support our reviewers in this essential work? Are we shining a spotlight on excellent titles from a diverse array of authors and illustrators? These questions are much trickier to answer. And they still keep this review editor up at night. 

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.