Thursday, December 29, 2016

RWW Interviews: Edi Campbell

Edi Campbell
Today we kick off our RWW Interviews series with a conversation between Elisa Gall and Edith (Edi) Campbell. Campbell is a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Indiana State University. She has served as the Indiana State Ambassador for USBBY and on the WNDB Walter Award Committee, YALSA’s BFYA jury, and CYBILS Nonfiction Awards committee.  She is a member of the 2018 Printz Award committee and she works with a team to coordinate the annual We’re the People Summer Reading List. She blogs at and can be found on Twitter at @CrazyQuilts. Thank you, Edi, for sharing your insights with us!


To many of us, you are an online superhero. Can you share your origin story? How did you get started blogging?
Super hero? No, I’m just a librarian doing her thing. There are so many, many more librarians, publishers, editors, authors and illustrators who have done this for such a long time! Their persistence has made it that much easier for me to do what I do. Just imagine some of the things I post that would have had serious consequences just a few decades ago. Because of what they have stated, exposed, spoke and risked, those of us working today are able to feel hopeful.

So, how did I get started?? I came into the library after spending part of my career teaching Social Studies. I had actually been a school librarian for a couple of years before I began blogging. I was looking for a new technology to master and I was also thinking about so many librarians and teachers who kept saying that they had a difficult time finding books by African American authors. I thought that could be something to blog about. I thought I could combine my interest in technology and in books to promote literacy for African American teens. I immediately saw the need to also include books for Latinx and my blog continued to become more and more inclusive.

What has changed since?
I think several things have changed over the years. I’ve tried different things over the years, some more interesting than others. I think I blog to promote Native American authors, authors of color and their books rather than to promote literacy and that’s probably because I’m not in a school library any more. Much of the sharing I used to do on my blog is now done on Facebook and Twitter and I think that brings up one major change in my blog: I just don’t post as much as I used to. I think my posts fell off when I was on BFYA and then the Walter Award Committee, and I’ve not really recovered from that, not gotten back into the blogging routine. Next year, I’m on another award committee so I’ll be back to blogging without talking about current books that are eligible for that award.

Something else that has changed since I started would be that other forms of social media have come about that have actually provided a voice to marginalized people. This has been a huge development.

You’ve talked about the importance of connecting with people with whom you disagree. How do you break the echo chamber?
I have two Twitter accounts and two Facebook accounts and it amazes me how many people I connect with that seem to share my same perspectives. I’ve even reconnected with people from grade school and high school and still I see little dissent on my FB feeds.

At this time when we’ll “unfriend” someone who says the slightest thing with which we disagree, it seems that it takes a conscious effort to connect with people of differing opinions. It’s following that person who says something you don’t completely agree with or in ‘real life’ it’s taking the risk of saying some things others may not agree with and being able to listen to others’ reactions. I’m beginning to think that coming offline and having those face to face connections is where we’re really going to build robust communities. Online, where there is no chance to read body language or facial expressions we tend to parse words while expecting nuanced conversations. It’s easy to get caught up and misunderstood online.

I like what Ashley Hope Perez said a few weeks ago in giving advice to people who want to be allies. She suggested using social media as a tool for listening. Sometimes, just listening helps us grow more than thinking we have to say something, especially if we’re listening to people outside the echo chamber.

In all the work that you do, what are you the most proud of?
This is going to feel like a punt, but I am most proud of my children and this definitely includes my daughter in law. While I maintain that they have become the awesome people that they are despite me, I am so very, very proud that they are my children. I learn so much from them! They are truly amazing people.

I take pride in being a librarian. While people claim librarianship is dying, I find it to be a very vibrant and demanding profession that requires me to keep learning, allows me to innovate services and provide ways for me to make a difference for others.

Can you tell us about the We’re the People list?
This is also something of which I’m quite proud! For the past couple of years, I’ve been able to work with some of the most amazing people in children’s literature (Tad Andracki, Sarah Park Dahlen, Sujei Lugo, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Nathalie Mvondo, Debbie Reese, Ed Spicer and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas) to create summer reading lists for all ages of children. We work together throughout the year to identify books written by authors of color that are chapter books, picture books, middle grade, young adult and adult crossover. We critically review each book so that our list contains books that we would be proud to give any child.

We look for books from small and large publishers, as well as self-published books. Intersectionality is extremely important as we look for books that also include LGBT+ characters, those with disabilities and those from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. We want biographies as well as sports books, speculative fiction and mysteries. We try to apply diversity in every sense of the word. It’s a lot of work, but it’s good work.

How do you stay motivated or promote self-care when facing frustration or pushback?
I don’t work alone. From the very beginning, I’ve been with a network of people who are just amazing! The network has changed over the years, but it’s always been there and I can always turn to them for clarity, strategy or for a good laugh. Being surrounded by people of integrity is the key to accomplishing most things in life, including remaining sane.

Balance is a critical part of self-care, but it can be challenging when you earn your living by your passion; when you want to get away from work, yet you want to read a book! I’ve only recently questioned ‘what am I doing for me?’ It helps to be healthy, to eat to live rather than living to eat and to get out in nature as much as possible. I think celebrating is an important part of this equation, but in equity work, it can seem like there is so little to celebrate at times, but there are small successes and it helps to stay positive to recognize them.

Who are people you look to for advice and inspiration?
My family really takes a strong interest in what I do. My children keep up with much of what I’m doing and we talk about many issues that intersect with my passion, and with their passions, too. Talking to them, getting a perspective from outside that echo chamber really helps. And the inspiration I get from my daughter-in-law as well as my three children knows no limits.

Children’s literature is an intersecting world. We have so many differences within this community, but we have that common drive to get good literature to our children and that really holds us together. I’ve approached so many people for advice and rarely if ever have been turned away.

There are too many people in children’s literature who excel at what they do to begin naming names, too many people who have shared wisdom or advice with me and who inspire me.

What advice do you have for others looking to do equity work in the world of libraries and youth literature?
I’d say if you’re interested in doing equity work in libraries and/or children’s literature, you should be clear about why you want to do this work. If it’s about what you want to get and not what you want to give, you may want to spend your efforts on something else.

I’d say understand that you’re joining a network of people who are and have been entrenched in this work; build upon their knowledge. Know that we’re reaching a point in time where those who are LGBT+, disabled, Native American or people of color know who we are and what we want. We’re not looking for missionaries to represent our interest. We need workers who honor the past while creating a new future. I’d say forget patience, we’ve been patient too long. Look back and fly forward.

- Elisa Gall

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Introducing Our RWW Interviews Series

We are pleased to introduce our newest series, where we will feature key players from the children’s literature world in conversation with a core member of Reading While White (RWW). The topics will vary, but all will be pertinent to our thrust of racial diversity and inclusion in books for children and teens. We are grateful to Edi Campbell, who gave us the idea for this series; appropriately enough, Elisa Gall’s interview with Edi is due up first (check back tomorrow morning).

Our interviewees will be mostly women of color and First/Native Nations. Why? Because we want to reflect the reality of who has been doing the work in this field. Of course there are men among the “Diversity Jedi,” but let’s be honest: when we men do anything in children’s literature (or any other field, for that matter) we get heaped with more praise than we deserve, or at least more praise than a women would get in the same situation.

We look forward to these conversations and hope you will tune in to our first interview post tomorrow.

- Sam Bloom

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Spotlight On #OwnVoices: When We Were Alone

Robertson, David A. When We Were Alone. Illus. by Julie Flett. Highwater Press, 2016. 24 pages. ISBN 978-1-55379-673-2.

An inquisitive young girl, working in the garden with her kókom, asks a series of questions.  "Nókom, why do you wear so many colours?" "Nókom, why do you wear your hair so long?" "Nókom,why do you speak in Cree?"

Nókom's answers come in three parts: What life was like at home, in her community; what life was like at the school she went to, which was far away from home; and what life was like when she and her classmates managed to escape from the watchful eyes of their captors for a few minutes at a time, during which they remembered, and briefly re-lived, happy times.

Robertson's straightforward yet poetic text (" the school I went to, far away from home, they cut off all our hair. Our strands of hair mixed together on the ground like blades of dead grass") makes this deceptively simple book accessible to roughly first grade and up, and Flett's delicate collages encapsulate the mood of every page turn.  Descriptions of the enforced bleakness of life at boarding school, as children were dressed mono-chromatically, punished for speaking their own languages, and prevented from seeing their family members, are reflected with appropriately bleak renderings; in the rare moments children can snatch alone, splashes of color and vibrancy emerge.

Perhaps most noteworthy about When We Were Alone is how it elegantly balances three separate narratives: life at home, in the community; life at a dehumanizing "school"; and, brief snatches of humanity and happiness in the face of that colonial force.  As important as it is to teach children the truth about race and colonialism in history, there is a danger of instilling in them a narrative in which Native peoples are necessarily victims.  When We Were Alone honestly presents a history that attempted to victimize Cree children--and then counters it with a narrative of survival, humanity, and community.  A first purchase for every children's collection.

Reviewed by Allie Jane Bruce.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Bring It Back: The Secret Stars

Slate, Joseph. The Secret Stars. Illus. by Felipe Dávalos. Marshall Cavendish, 1998,  32 pages ISBN 0-7614-5027-0 op
On the Night of the Three Kings, Sila and Pepe think excitedly about the toys that might appear the next morning, and they worry that the frigid weather might make locating their New Mexico home next to impossible. Their grandmother, cuddled with her grandchildren under a cozy quilt, assures them that the Three Kings will find a way to navigate by stars even with clouds in the sky. (“There are stars behind clouds / and in many secret places.”) As they sleep in bed, she takes them on a dream where they find stars shining everywhere: in the twinkle of the freezing flowers, a spider’s icy egg sac, and even in the chicken coop. The children wake on the day of the Three Kings to notice beautiful stars in the veins on their grandmother’s face, presents waiting for them in the barn, and three frozen and glistening pine trees:
“Look-ee, look-ee there, Sila,” cries Pepe.
“The pines have become the Three Kings!”
“And their crowns and capes,” says Sila,
“they are filled with stars.”

Through their dialogue, the family’s faith and love shines as brightly as the glittering pieces of nature they discover together. The Three Kings, each with a different skin tone, are shown on the title page and later as figures on the mantle, but the mysteries of their gifts are left for readers to interpret. The text is engaging, full of metaphor (“She is the warm hearth on this cold night. / She is the nestling log.”) and descriptions, such as the “Rat-a-tat-tat” of the freezing rain on the rooftop. The illustrations combine spot art with paintings within frames, reflecting the Southwestern setting. A darker palette allows for shining objects to pop, reinforcing the mood of discovery and feel of light amid the shadows of winter. 

While this is about a specific holiday, the family’s warmth and the children’s enthusiasm and anticipation will have universal appeal. It’s no surprise to me that the Pura Belpré Award Committee recognized Dávalos with an honor for illustration in 2000. Let’s get it back in print so that more families can snuggle up like grandmother, Sila, and Pepe and create new memories reading and sharing this story together.
 -Elisa Gall

The #OwnVoices tag in this case applies only to the illustrator. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Bring It Back!

I'm sure we've all had the experience of setting out to buy a favorite book as a gift for a child or a teen -- or replacing a worn library copy of a popular item -- only to find out that the book is out of print and no longer available.

This seems to happen with even greater frequency with books by and about people of color and First Native/Nations. Joseph Bruchac's memoir Bowman's Store: A Journey to Myself was published by Dial in 1997 and went out of print so fast it never had time to find its audience or work its way into the secondary curriculum -- and this in a time when teachers were crying out for authentic books about First Native/Nations for their classrooms. Luckily, Lee & Low managed to bring it back into print just four years after its original publication, and it's been in print and available from them since 2001.

Just this fall Lee & Low has brought back into print another great book, Mama and Papa Have a Store by Amelia Lau Carling (as well as the Spanish language version La tienda de mamá y papá, with the translation by Carling as well).  This exceptional picture book recounts part of the author/illustrator's early childhood in Guatemala as a member of a second generation Chinese immigrant family. It was originally published by Dial in 1998 and it won the Américas Award, as well  a Pura Belpré Honor for illustration in 2000. In the early years of the award, there were so few Latinx books that the Belpré Award was given every two years so there would be a large enough pool from which to choose. And there were times when one of the awardees would already be out of print by the time the award was announced.

But Lee & Low can't bring every great book back into print.

I always want to buy John Steptoe's brilliant picture book Baby Says (Harper, 1988) as a gift for every new baby I know. But I can't because it's been out of print for years and I can't afford the $47.50 used book dealers are asking for for it on Amazon. It's a shame Harper never had the foresight to issue it as a board book. They wouldn't even need to change the trim size or truncate the text. How can we let publishers know that we want these books when we can no longer buy them to demonstrate that?  Diverse books need to stay in print longer than they currently do, and they need to be available in paperback and board book editions, too.

With this in mind, we're launching a new series on Reading While White called "Bring It Back!" We hope to call attention to the great  #OwnVoices books we have on our library shelves which have all too quickly disappeared from the stores and warehouses. Because it's not just that #WeNeedDiverseBooks.  #WeNeedDiverseBooksToStayInPrint.

--KT Horning

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Freedom Over Me

Bryan, Ashley. Freedom over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life. A Caitlyn Dlouhy Book / Atheneum. 52 pages. ISBN 978-1-4814-569-6

Peggy, John, Charlotte and child, Stephen, Mulvina, Jane, Athelia, Qush, Bacus, Betty. It is with little more than these names that this book began. 

Ashley Bryan explains in his author's note that he acquired a collection of slave-related documents and found among them an 1828 estate appraisal for the Fairchilds: “Eleven slaves are listed for sale with the cows, hogs, cotton; only the names and prices of the slaves are noted (no age is indicated).”

From those names, Bryan imagines lives into being. 

Each of the eleven African and African Americansmen, women, one teenager, one childis introduced with a portrait and first-person narrative poem. The portraits show somber faces alive with fine lines, set against backdrops comprised of scraps of historical documents relating to slavery. On each portrait, the individual’s name and age appears at the bottom in a light, lovely script: “Peggy, age 48.”

Next to the name and age, in heavy type, is the purchase price. For Peggy: “$150.” 

In a book that emphasizes the full humanity of these individuals, that speaks the imagined truths of their lives but also gives weight and breath to their imagined hopes and dreams, the atrocity of slavery is represented first and foremost by that purchase price accompanying every portrait. These are human beings who are owned, who are “appraised” and assigned a dollar value like cotton or cattle.

The first-person narrative for each individual provides some of the details of her or his life as Bryan imagines it. Peggy is a cook in the Big House. She remembers her village being raided, her father being killed, being captured along with her mother and surviving the journey to America that many others did not. She is not only a cook, but a healer, and wanders the estate gathering herbs.

For each subject Bryan offers a second poem, a dream poem, and an accompanying painting that breaks free of all formality and sobriety in a vibrant, joyful scene. In “Peggy dreams,” Peggy reflects on her given name. She was Mariama before she came to America, which means “Gift of God.” She finds joy in relieving the suffering of her fellow slaves. “Mrs. Fairchilds's dinner guests / praise my cooking. / The praise, however, / that touches my heart / is to hear the slaves / call me Herb Doctor.”

“Bacus, age 34” ($250) is a blacksmith. He’s married to “Charlotte, age 30,” a basketmaker, and they have a daughter, “Dora, age 8,” with whom Charlotte is being sold ($400). Bacus knows of slave insurrections, has studied the stars and thought about running, wondering if all three of them can make it to safety. But he’s worried now about being sold and separated from his family. Charlotte learned how to weave as a child in Africa. Now the owners profit from her skill. She knows she and Bacus could earn enough to live in freedom if they can escape. Their daughter is “Dora” to the owners, but Charlotte and Bacus call her “Akua, Sweet Messenger.” When Charlotte is busy weaving, others in their community help care for Dora.

In “Bacus dreams,” the blacksmith tells how every strike of his hammer against hot metal is an outlet for his anger, a blow for justice. In “Charlotte dreams,” she speaks of her artistry as a means of self-discovery. In both dream poems the speakers note the distance and difference between how their owners see them, and who they are.

Enslavement weighs heavily on these individuals as Bryan imagines them—of course it does. The psychic brutality of slavery is at the foundation of this work. But what rises from its pages are eleven vibrant lives: people with history and hopes, dreams and drive, talent and tenderness. So, too, does a glimpse at the connections and community that help sustain them. 

The institution of slavery sought to erase the humanity of those who were enslaved. Ashley Bryan brings that humanity into full relief here, because while there is no way of knowing what these individuals truly hoped and dreamed or who and what they loved, hoping and dreaming and loving is simply and profoundly part of what it means to be human. 

Reviewed by Megan Schliesman