Monday, May 23, 2016

What to do when "nonfiction" centers Whiteness?

The other day, I came across a copy of The House That George Built (by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Rebecca Bond, Charlesbridge, 2012).

A play on The House That Jack Built, the book features a sing-songy rhyme on the righthand side of each spread (“This is the lot / that grand, scenic spot, / for the President’s House that George built”) and a more detailed history of the President’s house’s conception, building, and completion on the left. Painterly watercolors add to the book’s storybook-like feel.

Not until more than halfway through does the book acknowledge that our White “Founding Fathers”--the ones who fought so gallantly for freedom--enslaved other human beings to create the President’s House. And even that information is couched in bowdlerizing language: “By now over one hundred workers--free men and slaves--lived on the construction site in small, temporary huts. They labored from sunrise till sunset, six long days a week. But with presidential duties and the house, George worked seven.” In the Author’s Note, the topic of enslaved people’s labor on the President’s House is similarly relegated to a small paragraph towards the end. That’s it.

I am accustomed to prettified versions of America’s history, but I lingered over this one (which somehow never showed up on my radar screen back in 2012). Here’s why: I cannot mentally square the care and precision the creators took to call the building the “President’s House” rather than the “White House” (it was not called “the White House” until the early 1900s) with the revisionist decision they made to frame the book around the idea that “George built” it.

Why so careful to get the building’s name right, but so free to credit a slaver with having built it, when the only actual building that George participated in was pounding in some wooden stakes to mark the site?

Accuracy is a big deal in anything labeled nonfiction. I’ve been on enough award committees to know that even the slightest error can doom a book. The author and editor were probably hyper-aware of this as they made the decision to consistently call the building the “President’s House”. But what to do when accuracy isn’t the issue so much as White-centricity? I can already hear the denizens of George-defenders telling me “but it was his project! He envisioned the house, that’s what the authors meant, it’s supposed to be a metaphor! Anyways, you have to consider the time--slavery was legal!” OK, I get all that. And, I also get that George’s point of view isn’t the only point of view from which we can look at this story. Where’s The House That WE Built, told from the point of views of the enslaved Black people, free Black people, and immigrants who actually built the thing?

I do see some promising signs of change. More and more reviewers are naming a White-dominant narrative as a problem (Kirkus being a prime example), but we also need authors and editors to consider whether their narratives--particularly their “nonfiction” narratives--are White-centric.

Consider, for example, Bold Riders: The Story of the Pony Express (by John Micklos, Capstone, 2015).

Over and over, this pithy book presents First/Native Nations people as one of a series of obstacles the brave Pony Express riders needed to surmount:

“The route crossed mountains, rivers, and deserts. Winter snowstorms and spring floods might prevent delivery. Riders also needed to cross land claimed by many American Indian tribes. Some of these tribes were warlike. How could lone riders get through?” (p. 13)

“Riders spent long hours in the saddle and faced many dangers. They might get trampled by a herd of stampeding bison. They might have to outrun hostile American Indians. Even if all went smoothly, they finished their shifts stiff and sore from their hard rides.” (p. 19)

“The brave Pony Express riders had many adventures and faced many dangers. History shows that the Paiutes were at war with settlers and soldiers along the Pony Express route. When riders said they had tangled with or escaped hostile Paiutes, they were likely telling the truth. Sometimes they even had scars to show. We also know that some riders lost their lives in the line of duty.” (p. 20)

The p. 20 quote, in particular, intrigues and troubles me. Micklos seems to know that something in this narrative is “off”, and is defending his White-centric narrative with “these are FACTS.” But that’s a strawman argument. I don’t think anyone would dispute that Paiute people fought White Pony Express riders.

The problem is the way the narrative is framed and constructed in the first place. Why were the Paiute people attacking?  Were they, in fact, attacking--or defending themselves?  Page 13 refers to land “claimed by many American Indian tribes,” but if the First/Native Nations people were there first, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the White people “claimed” that land? Why are the First/Native Nations people described as “hostile” and “warlike”, while the White people are described as “soldiers”? Why, for that matter, don’t we use the term “invaders” instead of “riders”? Where are the narratives that are just as by-the-numbers accurate, but centered in non-White points of view?

Don Tate’s Poet comes to mind, as does 1621: A New Look At Thanksgiving, and for teens, Howard Zinn’s Young People’s History. I’d love more. Leave them in the comments (and publishers, feel free to send us more of the real thing!).

Ed. 6/19/2016: Alyssa Mito Pusey, Senior Editor at Charlesbridge and Editor of The House That George Builtresponds via CBC Diversity.  In her post, Alyssa models what a productive, constructive dialogue can look like, and also bravely shares her own feelings:

For me, it’s a nerve-racking time, in some ways. Authors and editors are being held to more rigorous standards, and I really don’t want to mess up. I certainly don’t want to incur the wrath of the blogosphere. More importantly, I don’t want to produce books that perpetuate racial stereotypes and white privilege, however unintentionally.

My fears aside, this is also an exciting and empowering time. I feel like my eyes are being opened, like I’m learning and growing with every article and blog post—Allie’s included. I’m receiving and acquiring more biographies of people of color. I’m asking experts and other readers for honest feedback on questions of representation. And I’m trying with every book to be as inclusive as possible.

I’ve got a long way to go, clearly. But I hope to keep on improving as an editor—and to do what I can to help publish nonfiction that accurately reflects our diverse world.

Alyssa, a huge thank THANK YOU goes out to you from me and the whole RWW team.  I particularly admire how you make space for your own fears as well as the excitement and empowerment you're feeling, and how you phrase this as a "yes, and" rather than a "yes, but"--you're excited AND afraid, not excited BUT afraid.  This is a crucial distinction, and something I, as a white person, need to practice, as this type of thinking runs counter to white culture.  Again, thank you.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

BEA Round-up, Housekeeping, and some links

Image by Lisa Nowlain
With today’s post you get a twofer: first, a brief recap of School Library Journal’s (SLJ's) Day of Dialogue; second, some housekeeping reminders and links.
I traveled to Chicago for BookExpo America (BEA) last week. One of the main reasons I went was SLJ’s Day of Dialogue on Wednesday. Check the link and you’ll see why; it was an amazing line-up of book people. But as wonderful as those authors and illustrators were (and are), the panels were overwhelmingly White. Yes, there was at least one person of color on each panel, but 20% (or less) representation isn’t enough. And the fact that there was not a single First/Native Nations panelist is unacceptable. Plus, the two keynote speakers and all four moderators were—you guessed it—White. Now, I’m honestly not sure how much of this is on SLJ and how much is dictated by the publishers, but I’m assuming that SLJ will work to do better if they have anything to say about it based on their commitment to cultural competency in their reviews.
Now, on to the housekeeping. It’s been a while since we’ve highlighted our supporting documents, all of which can be found directly underneath our banner. Don’t forget to look at our FAQs; we’ve added a few things since our inception. We get questions sometimes about our comment policy, so check that out too. And finally, don’t forget to visit the blogs in the Kindred Spirits section as often as you can!

Here are some links from the last few weeks:

Latinxs in KidLit: a history of the Belpre (first in a proposed series; also, check Latinxs in KidLit for features on winning Belpre authors/illustrators)

Debbie Reese has written a series of posts on Thunder Boy Jr., the new picture book debut from National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie (illustrated by Caldecott Honoree and many time-Pura Belpre winner Yuyi Morales):
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Have you been watching the #WhitewashedOUT hashtag on Twitter this month? This link will give you a bit of background on the situation, spurred on by so many appalling Hollywood casting decisions. A related hashtag to follow: #StarringJohnCho, which imagines the Harold and Kumar star in big Hollywood roles played by White male actors. Good stuff there.

Finally, from the NCTE blog: “In my own work with Black high school writers, I want my students to see not only themselves in what we are reading, but I want them to recognize their own capacity to be writers and thinkers.” - Latrice Johnson

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Free Choice Reading & Tokenism

Being in a public library, at this time of year all I can think is “summer reading,” and I know that for many it is the same.   Kids need to read during the summer; kids read when it’s fun; it’s fun when they get to choose their own reading.  

But choosing their own reading really means just that; if a grownup is suggesting a book, it’s almost automatically tainted. So having a selection of books that kids can choose from is key.   Ergo: summer reading lists.

What is in your summer reading list? Do you have one, or use one? What kind of choice does it offer readers?

Last year Edith Campbell assembled a group of colleagues to create the We’re the People summer reading list.  Now in its second year, it gently suggests at the top of the website that you use it to “add to your summer reading list” books that are written, illustrated, and about people of color or First Nations/Native Americans.   However, I think it functions beautifully as a stand alone summer reading list in its entirety, and calls attention to the a “one of each” token representation that sadly still exists in many book lists out there.

The title of this list recalls for me the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)’s “We the People” Bookshelves that were promoted 2003-2011.  The program awarded sets of selected titles to public and school libraries; each year’s “classic” book collection was related to “a theme important to the nation's heritage. ...In addition to introducing young readers to good literature, the Bookshelf promotes understanding of abstract or general ideas through the power of particular stories.”  The first year’s list, on Courage, included Little House on the Prairie and The Matchlock Gun.  Debbie Reese posted a wonderful letter by Jean Mendoza in 2007 about continuing concerns with these booklists, asking that the “We the People” Bookshelf “get in synchrony with reality.”  Some of the final lists in the project showed slight improvement.

Besides summer reading lists, many libraries offer free books in the summer, as outreach or incentive for summer reading programs.  My library offers a giveaway book as the prize to approximately 6000 children who read at least 20 days in the summer.  Buying enough paperbacks that will offer the right selection to any kid who stops in one of our 17 libraries is a challenge; we want to make sure that when they browse the prize bin, they feel they are being awarded a prize.   We buy most of these books from Scholastic’s Literacy Partnerships, the arm of the publishing giant through which providers who are giving away books to children can buy very cheap paperbacks.  Scholastic has always offered titles to serve a diverse community, though I still wince when I must seek out the word “multicultural” in the curated sets, and dodge over-used standards and problematic titles.  We don’t rely on Scholastic, as it also does not fully meet our demand for popular non-fiction and graphic novels.  At the same time that I sense its selection is improving, we continue to advocate for and secure funding to raise our price point per giveaway paperback, so that we can shift more of our purchases to other vendors.

In its related arm Scholastic Reading Club (through which kids can purchase inexpensive paperbacks through their classroom), Scholastic’s We Have Diverse Books partnership with We Need Diverse Books resulted in a “Special Collection of More than 75 Diversity-Themed Books for Children” list, and there are plans for 8 such lists in the 2016-17 year.  It’s progress, I guess.  Still, I yearn for kids to have the choice wherever they look for a selection of recommended books that will inspire them to read for themselves, for fun, without having to seek the “special” section.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Reviewing While White: A Tyranny of Petticoats

by Megan Schliesman

I like the concept of A Tyranny of Petticoats. This short story collection is subtitled “15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers & Other Badass Girls.” In her introduction, editor and contributor Jessica Spotswood writes: “I realized what I really wanted was to edit an anthology of stories about clever, interesting American girls throughout history written by clever, interesting (though not necessarily all American) women.” (p. x)
What’s not to love?
So yes, I like the concept, and in fact many of the stories, but I’m also struggling with how the theme is explored when it comes to racial and cultural diversity.

My first moment of unease came a bit later in the introduction. Spotswood states: “I suggested that we think diversely in terms of geography, historical eras, and our heroines’ races, sexualities, religions, and opinions on all manner of things.” So far so good. Then she goes on, “America is a melting pot. I hoped our fifteen stories could, in some small way, reflect that reality.” (p. xi)
The Tyranny of Metaphor
While there have been both critics and defenders of the term “melting pot” (and alternates, such as “salad bowl,” that have received some traction), reading it here was a disappointment. I understand the good intentions in using it, but  America—in present and in the past—is a place of vibrant diversity and complicated realities surrounding that diversity, and I think readers deserve explicit acknowledgment of this. “Melting pot” doesn’t begin to cover it.

But, ok. Melting pot.
There are fifteen stories in A Tyranny of Petticoats. Eight of the stories feature characters of color: five about African Americans, one about a Chinese American, one about Latinas, and one about a character referenced as “brown” with no development of this aspect of her identity. A ninth story is about a character who is Inuit. So, at first glance, promising when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity.
And yet, of the fifteen writers contributing to A Tyranny of Petticoats, only four of them, from what I’ve been able to determine, are women of color, and none of the contributors are from First/Native Nations. This is not nearly as diverse as I was hoping given the stated intent to reflect diversity. And while I don’t want to negate the diversity of voices that contributed to A Tyranny of Petticoats, the resulting diversity of stories across the collection was a strange, and at times unsettling mix.
Kekla Magoon, who is African American, wrote about an African American teen in “Pulse of the Panthers.” The other three contributors of color are of Asian Pacific heritage. Marie Lu wrote the story about the Inuit girl in Alaska. Caroline Tung Richmond and Y.S. Lee both wrote stories about White protagonists. The three remaining stories about the African Americans, the one story about the young woman who is “brown,” the one story about the Latinas, and the one story about the Chinese American, were all written by White authors. Of these, the story about the Latinas, the story about the Chinese American, and one of the stories about an African American (along with one story about a White character written by a White author) have supernatural/mystical elements. The story about the Native Alaskan has a spiritual element.
Let me be more specific:  The one representation of Latino culture in this anthology is a story about the three fates who are living out their current lives as three Mexican American sisters; the one representation of Chinese American culture is a girl who can see ghosts and commune with spirits; the opening story about an African American young woman who escaped enslavement with her father and is part of a pirate ship crew ends with her becoming a ghost of the sea; and the one representation of First/Native Nations cultures is an Inuit girl who saves herself from violent White traders with her own grit and some guidance from the Seal King.
One of These Things Is Not Like the Other
If I were reading an anthology of the extraordinary that goes beyond courage, grit, and fortitude—one in which mysticism, the supernatural, and perhaps spirituality were a clearly stated scope of the collection—I wouldn’t have been as unsettled, especially if that collection were broadly diverse in intent and specifically diverse in execution, and clarified its scope in terms of both spiritual beliefs and the fantastic (which are two very separate things). In such a collection, any representation of culture would, by nature of the overarching theme, be expected to include something supernatural or otherworldly and perhaps spiritual. I think of the marvelous collection Diverse Energies published by Tu Books/Lee & Low. It was intentionally diverse science fiction and fantasy and it felt (although I have no doubt it wasn’t) effortless.
But this is framed and clearly stated as historical fiction, and the inclusion of stories with supernatural, if not spiritual, elements was a strange choice to me. Surely there are plenty of “badass girls” who can be imagined throughout and across U.S. history and authentically grounded in a variety of cultures without resorting to the fantastic. What am I to make of these stories? Are they grounded in any authentic cultural beliefs, or simply spun from their authors’ imaginations?  The same is true of the spiritual element in the Inuit story—is this drawn from cultural beliefs, or the author’s imagination? If it is “authentic,” there is also the question, as Debbie Reese recently noted, of whether it is in fact religious and whether including it might be considered sacrilegious.
There is an author’s note following each story and as a general rule they reveal the thought and inspiration that went into the tales. Following “El Destinos” [sic] Lesley Walton writes, “”I always found mythology to be a delicious combination of magic and humanity….I thought of all those times when one’s cultural and national identity seemed at odds, and I wondered what might it be like to be divine and yet, at the same time utterly human….suddenly I had Valeria, Rosa, and Maria Elana, three immortals sent down to live as Mexican American sisters during the years after the Texas annexation” (p. 83).  Marissa Meyer’s note for “Gold in the Roots of Grass” talks about her fascination with western history and the gold rush, and her joy in doing research, but gives no mention to the Chinese American content of the story (p. 185). In her note following “The Journey” Marie Lu writes of loving Julie of the Wolves and of researching Alaska, loving “the blurred line between history and Inuit folklore….the facts already feel magical” (p. 41). J. Anderson Coats writes of the Mother Carey legend that is part of the opening story, “Mother Carey’s Table,” and of the fact that “about 25 percent of sailors on pirate or privateer vessels were people of color” (p. 19).
One of the first things I pay attention to in any anthology is the diversity of contributors, whether or not diversity is in any way the point of the collection. If it lacks racial diversity, I’m more than just disappointed. I’m angry. Because to my mind, from where I’m standing in the twenty-first century, the creators of that anthology failed a major requirement in executing their vision, whatever that vision was. They have failed their vision and they have failed readers. I say this even if I read and like the stories or poems included.
The failure for me in A Tyranny of Petticoats is less clear-cut. There are marvelous stories in this collection, including Magoon’s “Pulse of the Panthers,” about an African American teen living in rural California whose view of the world expands when her family hosts a group of Black Panthers from Oakland in 1967; Y.S. Lee’s “The Legendary Garrett Girls,” about two White sisters tending bar and taking no crap on the Alaskan frontier in 1898; and “Pearls” by Beth Revis, in which a young White woman escapes Chicago and an unwanted marriage, finding independence and community both on the Wyoming frontier in 1876.  Two stories, “City of Angels” by Lindsay Smith, set in 1945 Los Angeles (featuring the character with “brown” skin), and “The Whole World Is Watching” by Robin Talley, set in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention and featuring an African American woman, have main characters who are lesbian.

Again, I don’t want to negate the diversity that exists in this collection. And I’m not suggesting that the answer to “Who can write what?” is to simply “Write what you know” because what a writer knows is not necessarily so easily defined nor is it static. But this anthology definitely fell short for me by not ensuring a broader range of diversity among the contributors. I think this contributed to serious gaps between idea and execution, particularly when it comes to the inclusion of the supernatural in half of the stories that are racially diverse. This is true regardless of the fact that I enjoyed many of the individual stories as pieces of fiction. This misplaced, mistaken exoticism in an anthology of historical fiction feeds into broader cultural stereotypes, and that is something I’m sure was never the intent of this anthology, or of the individual writers. But the “magical” person of color and the “spiritual” Native are, indeed, the dominant representation of racial and cultural diversity here.

There is a a second volume in the works, The Radical Element: A Tyranny of Petticoats 2. There are some wonderful authors already contributing--I hope even more diverse voices will be included. It is stated as being a mix of fact, fiction, and fantasy. I’ll also be curious to see how well those combined elements and the writers serve the stated theme of "young woman throughout history whose voices have been ignored too long."