Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Reviewing While White: Undefeated

by Sam Bloom, KT Horning, and Megan Schliesman

Some of the football fans at Reading While White (Sam, KT, and Megan) have read Undefeated by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook, 2017) and are finding it extraordinarily discussable. If you are familiar with Sheinkin’s books you’ll be Unsurprised (hehe) to learn that it has garnered 4 starred reviews. We can’t imagine it won’t be discussed later in this year as a major award contender. Recently we had an email conversation wherein we weighed things we greatly appreciated against questions we still have. The conversation is below, with a few tweaks for the sake of coherency.

Sam: I loved so much of this book, but I think there is A LOT to talk about with the choices Sheinkin made.

KT:  If you were expecting the book to be about the Carlisle Indian School, you might be disappointed.It's actually about the Carlisle football team which was so influential in the development of modern football. Jim Thorpe is the central figure but he is just one of the many star players that Sheinkin writes about. Thorpe went to Carlisle specifically to play football because he wanted to play on the greatest team at the time – maybe of all time, once Thorpe was was added to the team. Anyway, the boys on the team were treated very differently from other students at Carlisle – they had their own dorm, got good food, etc., something that contrasted with the conditions for the others. So there was a really big incentive for the athletes to excel because they didn't want to be treated like one of the regular kids. But even so, they were really exploited (kind of like college players today) because they brought so much money into the school. I thought Sheinkin did a really good job of writing that part of the story. The parallels to modern football are fascinating.

Megan: I agree, KT.  I actually started this book and could not put it down.  The stories of the athletes are so compelling. And there are so many fascinating stories about how this team influenced the way football is played – including the forward pass! The game owes so much to the Carlisle Indian School team and individual athletes there.

Sam:  Speaking of the forward pass, Megan, that particular section is one of the most thrilling bits of writing I’ve seen in years. (It’s on pages 120-123, if you have the book and want to follow along.) Sheinkin recounts the way Carlisle fullback Pete Hauser’s “lordly throw, a hurl that went further than many a kick,” set the powerful Penn football team and fans back on their heels. This is one of countless times in Undefeated where Sheinkin writes about football in such a skillful way that fans of the game will certainly be in heaven, but football haters (I know there are more than a few of you out there!) will also be compelled to keep reading.

KT:  Yes! I loved the story when Thorpe kicked the football and then ran down the field to catch it himself. It was also interesting to learn about their coach, Pop Warner, who really helped to develop the Carlisle team but who wasn’t really the most admirable person. His ultimate betrayal of Thorpe was terrible. And there were just so many interesting personal stories of other teammates who were also great athletes and were so influential in the development of modern American football.  They were the first football players to figure out they could run around, rather than through, the other team, and they also practiced and practiced to increase the length of their field goals, kicking distances we take for granted today but that were unheard of in the early 20th century.

Megan:  At the same time, I came away from the book thinking that if I did not have prior knowledge that the Indian Boarding School System was brutalizing not only to students but their families, and that policies forced Native children to attend, I would not come away from this book understanding this. I think all but one of the Carlisle athletes he briefly profiles went to Carlisle if not willingly (and sometimes eagerly, at least as outlined here), then because their family wanted them too. That is so counter to the overall narrative of boarding schools with which I’m familiar. And at the least, I wanted an author’s note contextualizing the experience of these athletes at Carlisle in the larger story of Indian Boarding Schools, so that readers can understand that this was an experience forced on generations of Native children and had a profound impact on them and their families. It was psychically cruel, in addition to the physical cruelty that children often experienced.

Still, I thought Sheinkin did a good job of pointing out the elite athletes at Carlisle had preferential treatment—better food and conditions—compared to the grimmer reality for most.

KT: I agree, Megan. All those haunting before and after photographs of the students when they first got to Carlisle, and then afterwards when they had been forcibly assimilated speak volumes. But I also agree with Megan that an author’s note would have been helpful for readers who don’t know much about Indian Board Schools in general.

Sam:  There are moments when Sheinkin seems to remember the brutal facts (such as in the Epilogue, when he writes about the difference in experiences between athletes and non-athletes: “[I]t becomes clear that these schools inflicted enormous and lasting pain on entire generations of young people”). In the acknowledgements Sheinkin admits to struggling “to find some kind of balance between stories about this thrilling team… and the harsh realities behind the stories.” Personally, I don’t think he entirely succeeded. I’m not a fan of didacticism, but like Megan and KT, I wanted more of the “harsh realities” Sheinkin alludes to in the above quote. I think he owed that to young readers, and while he gave glimpses, they were too few.

(Plus, let’s be honest: Sheinkin is such a great writer, surely he could have included more analysis of this complex and painful part of history without it turning his audience off.)

Megan: In fact, I was struck by his choice to offer a brief mention of how racism is playing out today in terms of Native people and football when he brings up the controversy surrounding the Washington R**skins team name. It felt almost tacked on in the chapter it was part of, and yet I was glad he acknowledged it. (This topic, too, could have been further discussed in a Note.)

KT:  Even with its faults, I still think it’s a pretty great book overall. But, again, we’re all reading it as non-Native critics. I’ve given a copy to a colleague here at the UW-Madison School of Education who is Lakota. He’s a football fan, too, and he knows a lot about the Carlisle Indian School, in general, and the story of this team. He also recommended an adult book on the subject by Sally Jenkins called The Real All Americans. He’ll let me know what he thinks about the Sheinkin book once he’s read it.  I’m eager to see what he has to say and, with his permission, I’ll share his comments when they come in.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Why "Rock Star Librarian" is an Oxymoron

So, in a weird way, I think the Wall Street Journal kinda nailed it this time. If you read it right.

The article talks about a bunch of White men as "rock stars" of the children's literature world. I think that's one of the more accurate descriptors I've heard. Sure, they'll call themselves book "champions," but with cardboard cutouts, fancy titles, huge contests, highly publicized road trips, book deals, and more, who could blame the Wall Street Journal for terming them rock stars--or us, for thinking they doth protest a little much?

"Publishers can’t advertise in classrooms and marketers can’t reach kids who haven’t yet hit social media, but these experts enjoy a direct line to school gatekeepers." Just look at all the blurbs, the cover reveals, the cheerleading blog posts, the fervent tweets, the... um, the advertising, the marketing. And what a sweet deal for publishers! They don't even have to pay these rock stars the usual rates they pay those who work in their advertising departments--free books and some perks (fancy dinners, access to big names for interviews) will do just fine. Unless… until... they do... hire... them. Which makes me ask: Since when are the skill sets for librarian-ing and advertising so similar? And, can we fix that, please? Because they shouldn’t be. And neither publishers nor librarians should think that they are.

Here's the real kicker, as far as I'm concerned: What has the growth of the rock star done to the professional field of librarianship and other children’s literature professionals? Are we just here to function as de facto members of every publisher's advertising team? I know the "right" answer, but I'd believe it a little more if I'd ever seen one of these rock stars do something that might piss off a publisher even a little.

The ugly upshot is what happens to librarians (and other field professionals) who do actually (and thoughtfully) criticize books, book creators, and/or publishers. Especially the women of color and Native women who dare criticize. They're labeled as angry, combative, overly-sensitive, and generally unreasonable. Is it harder to get hired/published? Darn right it is. And perks? Fancy dinners? Forget it.

(A slight pause here to thank those publishing professionals who do, in fact, appreciate the hard work of these librarians, and who expect and encourage criticism and critical conversations. We see you.)

I understand why the article’s subjects aren’t happy with it (and are denouncing it on social media)... and I'd be really interested in what their conversations looked like with the Wall Street Journal.  Did you confront the WSJ about how they've belittled and dismissed calls for better representation in their previous (ha) reporting on children's literature?  Did you say “if you are taking the time to visit me at a work event, please do the same for a woman of color?”  Did you think about saying, perhaps, “I will give you a comment about inequities in the field, including yours, as well as a list of names of people to whom you can talk in order to right some of those inequities?”  I’m grateful to Donalyn Miller (whose voice and advice to include more diverse voices were excluded from the article, despite the fact that she co-founded the Nerdy Book Club), and to many others, for speaking up about this; see this thread by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas for one.  I wonder what other conversations took place before the fact.  Did anyone consult with friends and allies about whether doing this piece was a good idea in the first place?

And, what now? Will you take a look at some hard truths and use your power to advocate (not just advertise) for marginalized people? Or will you reap the best of both worlds--you get to be rock stars AND you get to be appreciated because you denounced the article?

What are our responsibilities, as children’s literature professionals living in a rock star world? A few thoughts (add more in the comments, please!):
-If you are in charge of selection/buying, actively seek out voices beyond these white men--for that matter, seek out voices beyond white women and the major review journals too.
-Deliberately incorporate the vital work of librarians and critics of color and First/Native Nations into your decision-making processes. Need somewhere to start? Check out our list of Kindred Spirits.
-If you are a rock star, acknowledge your privileges, and your limitations. Do you practice admitting that you do not know it all, or that you are still in the process of learning about structural racism and unconscious bias? Do you regularly guide people to voices beyond your own?
-Do not put anyone on a pedestal. The truth is, these guys are on pedestals that other white people (largely white women, like me) created. We crowned these rock stars; we can un-crown them too.

This brings me back to the article, which correctly did not include any women, people of color, or Native people under the descriptor "rock star." Because they're not. Partly because “rock star” denotes “white man” in the first place (at least, it does to the Wall Street Journal) but also because they’re so many other things. They're educators. They're critics, and critical thinkers. They're responsible budget-spenders. They’re tireless fighters. They're advocates. Who would have time to be a rock star, on top of all that?

-Allie Jane Bruce