The NEW KIDs We Need

I know 2020 is lasting way longer than seems humanly possible. It is somehow august when it should clearly be 2025 with flying cars, genetically modified cats that bark, and small batch sour dough on tap. But, no. We are still in 2020 with all the things that are going horrendously wrong every single day.

But …

CoverJerry Craft  won all the things for his graphic novel New Kid (https://jerrycraft.com/), including the 2020 Newbery Award. This is the first graphic novel to be awarded a Newbery, so now it the book can proudly wear a bright gold sticker declaring the book’s awesomeness. (I have mixed feelings about book awards so don’t expect me to figure the myriad of internal conflicts anytime soon.)

The book opens in a 2-page spread, with a boy free-falling through space, as he is being drawn into existence by an unseen hand. There is a set of text boxes that instantly break the 4th wall as the narrator, a 12 year old light skinned Black boy, who directly addresses the reader. We are told that he’s a comic book fan, he’s well educated, and he’s scared.  There is a sketchbook with “Chapter 1 THE WAR OF ART”, as well as a few sketches falling off the page. Craft provides an opening that acts as a visual overture with everything laid out for the careful reader. I have to admit, I missed 90% of it all and had to return over and over to pick things out. It became a “Where’s Waldo” for both characters and events.

New KidI can’t say enough positive things about this book. The story is a simple one – Black kid leaves his local school for a predominantly White, hugely privileged and pretty damn racist private school. He has to find his way, find his people, and learn how to navigate the physical space, the kids, and the teachers. The one thing he is never in doubt about is his own identity. I read New Kid a few months ago and loved it. Craft hits a balance between showing us a Black 12 year old and his world, and providing a greater commentary on race, class, expectations, exceptionalism and the ways we see and don’t see ourselves and each other.

Craft provides enough visual details that lend a real world feel to the school. The halls and classrooms are populated with different kids – some identifiable and some that blend into the background. The representation of girls is a bit sparse until the end of the book but his take on the classic White woman liberal teacher is brilliant. 

One thing I notices is that characters all LOOK different. This sometimes seems like such an obvious thing and small matter to a graphic novel. I mean, why would’t people look different? But, this is an aspect of #OwnVoice visual imagery that we do not pay enough attention to and this is an aspect that Craft comes back to over and over again. Black people of all shades, shapes, hair styles are abundant in the pages. But, perhaps it should bot be surprising, but there are also a number of Asian, Latinx and White people that are easily discernible across the book. 

This is a group of kids I wanted to spend more time with, to see how the connected and disconnected with each other. Also, there are some of the best liberal White teacher rhetoric I have ever seen in a book – truly cringe inducing.

Go get this book.

Or read the next review and get both!


Green Lantern: LegacyGreen Lantern: Legacy by Minh Lê and Andie Tong does not have a big, shiny gold sticker but that doesn’t mean it is not a totally kick-butt comic.

I’m not a huge fan of Super hero comics. I am trying to get better about reading them, but I have to admit I tend to find them … lacking. Often, they assume or require an enormous amount of detailed background knowledge in order to understand the story. That’s why I tend to read origin stories – they don’t hold the bright and shiny assumption that I know what happened to Enid when Clive drove off in that white Mustang with the Florida plates. Because I do not know. The ugly truth is, I am not a good comic book reader. 

I am also not a green lantern fan. I only know the basic outline …. ring + imagination = superpower to create anything. Fine.

But, I was excited to see this origin story BECAUSE I love Minh Le’s work (which you can find here) and you can get from your local library or any Black owned and independent book store. I shared Drawn Together with a class of second graders and it spawned lots of excitement and provided an important mentor text for their own inter-generational stories. 

Green Lantern Legacy is the story of Tai Pham, a 13 year old who loves to draw, hang out with his two best friends, and happens to be the grandson of Kim Tran. Kim Tran was a Vietnamese immigrant and Green lantern. 

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As her grandson, Tai is not only the youngest lantern but he is also a generational choice – which seems like a big deal that I do not fully understand (please see my “bad at comic books” confession).

Artwork] Tai Pham (Green Lantern: Legacy) pinup (by Andie Tong ...

I truly appreciated Kim Tran’s general bad-assery in this book. She’s a loving grandma, a protector, and she owns a store that is an important resource for the neighborhood. I also appreciate seeing a woman who has a fully lived life represented in a comic. We see her as a young woman full of power who is ready to fight for her people. We also see her as an old woman, still ready to fight but also realizing she is at the end of her time.

The importance of telling an inter-generational tale shouldn’t be overlooked. The idealized nuclear family is incredibly over represented in children’s and YA literature so this purposeful and culturally sensible departure is terrific. Don’t underestimate Tai’s family representation as an important part of not only his story, but also Kim Tran’s story.

There is a bad guy, training montage, family tension and secret identities at play in this great origin story. Please make this as popular as it deserves to be – which is wildly so.

Wonderful Young Women

Is it still 2020? I only ask because this year is lasting eons. I am beginning to think 2020 in the USA is an epoch (defined by Merriam Webster as “a time marked by an event that begins a new period or development”). Change is hard, so … there we are. 

I am working on a lot of things but I miss writing about books. Someone recently asked me “well, what WOULD you do if all the “racism” you claim just goes away? You’d be out of a job!” As if I wouldn’t have other things to do. It was one of the zingers from social media that the doesn’t land but makes you think. If I was not witness to the epoch were White folks are waking up and exclaiming “racism? How RUDE!” and starting all the books clubs … what would I do?

I’d read and I’d recommend books to put in the hands of kids who need those books to save their lives.


Cover WWFull disclosure. I have met Laurie Halse Anderson a handful of times in professional settings and we follow each other on Twitter. I have never shared a meal, so she is not a friend, but I also would’t ignore her if I saw her at an airport. So, a professional acquaintance. 
 

I waited a long time to read WONDER WOMAN: Tempest Tossed by Laurie Halse Anderson and Leila Del Duca. The only reason is that I am not a big Wonder Woman comics fan. Let me be clear – as a preteen and teen lesbian I had a HUGE thing for Linda Carter as WW but really, I think that was more about the boobs and the spinning. But, that’s the thing. Wonder Woman is the creation of a White, cis, straight man, and so she took form as an idealized woman in that context. In all her iterations she is reacting and reflecting that White, male, cis, straight gaze, and that simply doesn’t interest me. I know a lot of comics scholars write about what Wonder Woman meant to feminists but she was never my thing. 

What was intriguing to me was that the illustrator – perhaps for the first time – was a woman. I wondered how that would affect how her body was shown … was it going to be all ridiculous Hawkeye Initiative pose – “How to fix every Strong Female Character pose in superhero comics: replace the character with Hawkeye doing the same thing.” or was it going to show a variation of women who were not all the male “ideal”?Diana saving

The story is an origin story of how Diana ends up in America, but this time it’s a bit more complicated and involves a daring rescue at sea, Syrian refugees getting to Greece, and Diana not being able to get back to magical island of Thermas-culotta (or whatever the island that I will always think of as Lesbos but I know it isn’t), a refugees camp, and Steve Chang and his husband (I’m sorry what?) Trevor helping Diana get to America. 

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And that’s not even the BEST part of the book. I love what Del Duca has done with Diana. Laurie Halse Anderson wrote her like she’s 16 year old trying to figure out what that means on an island of women who were never children or teens! Del Duca handles Diana’s full range of emotions crashing together all at once deftly. The book deals with some important topics with a gentle hand. Diana ends up getting noticed because she is a polyglot; she can speak ALL the languages because … ok no reason is given, it is simply part of her. That’s how she ends up getting taken out of the refugee camp and to New York. But, the decision isn’t an easy one for Diana to make. She is fully aware that her status is changing because of her innate ability with language. In other words, she recognizes her privilege as nothing more than happenstance and nothing about it makes her better than the other refugees. She makes a vow to herself to use this opportunity to find a way to do good in the world.  

Once in America, she has a lot on her mind. The fact that she is forever separated from her family and culture, her own identity – after all, she is 16 – as well as homelessness, and food insecurity in New York. Through it all she tries to help. It doesn’t always work, but that doesn’t make her stop trying. She ends up learning a lot about herself by hanging around other teens. She is humble and confused, and makes loads of mistakes but she keeps trying. One trait I loved was that she listened to the kids who we usually ignore and by listening, and believing them she is able to put an end to an ongoing sex trafficking ring and the local government corruption that allows it to happen. 

Like I said, there is a lot, but it is done well, and in age appropriate ways. Del Duca and Halse Anderson give us a wide range of races, cultures, classes, genders, and sexual orientations that actually make sense in modern New York. This is a solid middle grade and YA graphic novel.


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Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LaZotte is one of the best books I have read in a long time. Period. 

Not “best book by a Deaf author about Deaf culture”. But, it is that.
Not “best elementary or middle grade historical fiction I have read about Deaf culture by a Deaf author”. Although, it it that too.
Not “best book with a boring cover that Scholastic really should have invested a lot more in the design because it freakin’ deserves it”. Again, this is also true.

But no. Show Me a Sign grabbed me by the face and sucked me in like a waterspout and didn’t let go until well after the last page.

Now, look. I am the WORST book selector for my own reading. I’m that kid who is all “I don’t know… whatever …. yeah … fine” and then WHAMMO – you can’t talk to me and when you do all I want to talk about is THIS BOOK. I am a literary omnivore. I read almost anything without regard to genre – although I’m not a big fan of historical fiction because it reminds me of news, which is stuff that happened that I can’t do anything about so WHY ARE WE EVEN TALKING ABOUT IT!?!!? I am also not a big “blah-blah-blah characters discovering themselves” and talking endlessly about how they feel all the feels all the time … a lot of YA can be hard on me. But, in general, I will read just about anything. 

So, I had this book for a while. I was underwhelmed by the cover – it is very monochromatic. I didn’t know what it was about, again, because I am a terrible book selector. Also, I didn’t read the jacket, any reviews, or the blurb. Hell, I thought it was an incredible show of maturity that I even read the prologue! But, I am incredibly glad I did. 

“If you are reading this, I suppose you want to know more about the terrible events of last year – which I almost didn’t survive – and the community where I live.” (p.1)

Wow, well, now that you mention it … I did want to know about all the things and the community, even though just minutes before I had no idea I needed to know what had happened. And, damn, how did she survive? And, hang on, was she a she? (I flipped to the cover… probably? Maybe? Who cares!) and away we go!

For the record? That should be counted among the best first lines EVER. Bar none.

The book is narrated by a young girl, Mary, and is set in 1805 in a small Deaf community on Martha’s Vineyard. Her harrowing tale is chock full of evil and tragedy and humor and love and some of the most interesting people I’ve come across in a while. I am sure if you want there is all sorts of historical blah-blah-blah about the island – I don’t care, get to the evil bits!

The characters are incredibly fresh and real, even the minor ones that only appear on the edges are fully fleshed out with lives and stories I’m interested in. No one is all good. No one all bad — ok, well except this one dude. He is THE worst and reminds me of Tucker Carlson. You know the type …. screamy and creepy? Most of the characters are people, trying to get by in a very hard reality of the 1800s. LeZotte doesn’t ignore the fact that the town is on stolen land and she places Wampanoag folks front and center. But the books isn’t focused on them, it is Mary’s tale. 

The thing I love is that Mary’s and the rest of the community’s Deaf identity is not THE thing. It is ONE thing but it is not all defining and consuming. Instead, being Deaf is part of an identity that each person enacts in different ways, just as we all enact our varied and common identities in a variety of ways. The evil that is front and center in this book is audism, which is discrimination, prejudice and oppression based on the belief that a hearing person is, by their very nature, superior in all ways to a Deaf person.

Basically, just freaking read it. Also, please understand, I have never wanted a harpoon to magically and stupidly appear in any book as I did in this one. That is yet another reason why I am not a writer. Go and buy this book or request it for curb-side pick-up.

Muted but Not Silenced

The last piece I wrote for this blog – my blog – was titled “Harshly” Judging Islamophobia. In it I called out Jack Gantos’s graphic novel A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library for being racist and anti-Muslim.

My critique wasn’t unique. It was fairly standard fare as these days go. In fact, my reaction was echoed by many others – approximately 1092 others in fact! We all signed an open letter from the Asian Author Alliance addressed to the publisher, Abrams. I was one of the signatories to the letter and was relieved to see the resulting response from the publisher that they pulled the book. Abrams also did the usual “offense felt by” rhetorical move that put the blame on those who were offended and not on the offending parties. Again, nothing new; nothing out of the ordinary; nothing to break stride over.

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And then I was on to the next book, the next idea, the next article, the next class. I think I was finally going to get around to writing about Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll’s haunting, painful, beautiful graphic novel adaptation of Speak. It is a truly amazing and provides a new way for readers to connect with, bear witness, and see themselves through trauma and survival of sexual assault.

 

I love writing about books I think kids deserve. They might love a book because it holds surprises for them; or because it reflects them in ways that they have never seen before; provides them respite from their everyday lives; or shows them things they never knew or imagined. All of that was sorely lacking from my own literary history. And, again, I am not unique in this history. Marginalized communities do not have a body of children’s literature that reflects the varied experiences, histories, or imagined futures that privilege provides.

That is why I am a proud member of the #DiversityJedi, a close knit, loosely organized, geographically diffuse group of teachers, scholars, and librarians who engage in critical literary analysis of children’s and YA literature.  We support children’s and YA literature that disrupts the assumed supremacy of White, straight, able, cis, maleness.

And that brings me back to A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library, one of the most overtly racist graphic novels I’ve read in recent years. Lots of White folks celebrated, then defended the book (some without reading it, some after reading it). Many White folks defended the author, claiming that he was the real victim of yet another “Twitter mob”. Many left comments on my blog or on Twitter decrying CENSORSHIP!; WHAT’S NEXT? BOOK BURNING!; REVERSE RACISM!! and lots of THIS IS WHAT IS WRONG WITH SOCIAL MEDIA. Again, all this has become very run-of-the-mill for me and for the other #DiversityJedi.

And then I got a letter, and actual piece of snail mail, delivered to my university mail box. It was a normal day in academia – I was rushing from here to there and stopped to grab the catalogues, flyers, and announcements that had built up in my mailbox. I also grabbed that envelope that contained a hate filled death threat.

WARNING – references to sexual assault and violence
You can scroll down until you see a cat giving you a thumbs up

“Wait, what?” you might be saying. And, I don’t blame you, because that’s what I said as I stood on the sidewalk, backpack falling off my shoulder, a single piece of white paper dripping with violence directed squarely at me or at my online persona, Dr. Booktoss. The writer was angry and bitter and really, really violent. His grievance was that I had attacked a White author instead of going after the “murdering muslims” who deserve to be killed in horrible ways. He accused me of being an ISIS operative. He was angered by the fact that I was and had in my possession a “fucking dyke cunt” and I was a traitor to my country. He suggested I volunteer as a sex slave for ISIS, if they would even touch me, so they could fuck me in every hole until they were tired of me, and then they could cut off my tits and my head and post the video on YouTube. (The letter is worse.)

The letter stunned me. It stopped me cold as I stood on the street and for months since I have been stuck in that moment. My university has been great and taken many steps to make sure I am safe, but I do not feel safe. The fact that someone wants me to die in such horrible ways sticks with me, even as I write this. The chances that anything will happen are slim, but not none. There is a proliferation of hate, guns, and fear in this country that I cannot ignore.

I thought this was unique. But, it turns out it really isn’t. Many of us who do this work –  urging authors, editors and publishers to avoid lazy tropes that rely on racism, sexism ableism, and homophobia, as well as educate teachers and librarians to be critically conscious about the literature they provide to students – we receive hate mail and vilent threats. I had become used to the hate. After all, I’m an out Latinx lesbian who confronts and openly wants to disrupt the status quo of our society. I’ve gotten used to people disagreeing with me, defending themselves, accusing me of being a bully, or the real racist, or simply being too sensitive, rude and uncivilized.

So have many of the #DiversityJedi who are also women of color – Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern and so many more – who speak out against the assumed supremacy of unearned privilege. And, so many of us have been and continue to be threatened and harassed. We make jokes, we send each other memes and words of encouragement. Is it a surprise that this treatment has simply become part of our normal? Look at the society we are raised in! We are, literally, trained to take abuse in silence.

Not many of us talk about the hatred and harassment. One #DiversityJedi I talked to about the threats said, “you are like me. You only want them to see your strength”. We, as a group, don’t write about the public confrontations, emails, unposted comments, DMs, and letters that threaten our integrity, our jobs, and our lives. Instead, we stand, shoulders back and take it, trying not to show our fear, our anger, our vulnerability, and our exhaustion, and then we move on to the next.

END OF WARNING

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Recently, Carole Lindstrom spoke out via social media about an especially egregious confrontation she had at the Children’s Book Guild of Washington DC. Dr. Debbie Reese has an account of the events and continuing fall-out here on her blog, A Chronological Look at Events Launched by Harassment on April 11 at the Children’s Book Guild of Washington DC. Carole Lindstrom spoke out. She had the courage to say STOP, listen, this happened and it is unacceptable – she is my #DiversityJedi hero.

I am trying to get up, trying to find my way back to writing. I am trying to navigate the fear and anger and temptation to be silent and ashamed in my fear. There are a few things that are helping –

  • The support of my partner, my close friends and colleagues and my university.
  • The un-questioning support of the #DiversityJedi.
  • The students, all of them, that are affected by this work. The kids in classrooms and libraries who need to learn, to think, and to feel centered and seen instead of being told to shut up and take it. Especially, these bad-ass kids who are writing in honor of their friend, Indigo’s Bookshelf.
  • The teachers in the classes I teach. They are truly doing the work of finding the cracks in a system not built for humans, and making it humane.
  • Ice cream. Lots of really good ice cream.

And so, I’m going to follow in the footsteps of those who have been brave before me and I will continue to speak, continue to push, and continue to educate because nothing will ever change if we allow ourselves to be silent.


This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Dr. Liza Talusan (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).

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“Harshly” Judging Islamophobia

On November 23, 2018, AKA Black Friday, I was just sort of poodle-ing around FaceBook. You know, what I mean by poodle-ing, right? I was actively avoiding going anywhere near the malls by re-watching episodes of The Good Place for the 3rd time, and considering the wisdom of my pie to whipped cream ratio.

Judging a Book by It’s Cover

So, there I sat, looking at pictures of food and family gatherings, thinking about gifts, getting addresses for holiday cards, watching TV, cuddling my judgmental dog, and catching up on FaceBook posts. I have semi-left/am trying to ween myself from FaceBook and failing miserably so I end up reading lots of stuff all at once. 

During my binge FB reading I saw long time children’s book champion, Teri Lesesne’s (AKA Professor Nana) October 10, 2018 public post about a new graphic novel by Jack Gantos. What caught my eye was the sheer incongruity between the title, A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library, the cover image (provided), and the immediate praise for the book, “is a work of art.” I hoped I was misreading something – the dissonance was jarring.  And then I read further … “art of language accompanied by art of illustration. Combined in one spare tale, it will leave readers stunned, off kilter, maybe even a bit dizzy as they turn the page, the page that also turns them. Jack Gantos and Dave McKean have created a story of hate and redemption.

I found a few pages on the publisher’s website. I was struck by the abhorrent and racist representation of this unnamed, random “muslim”, young male protagonist. And, when I say unnamed I mean he is LITERALLY called “The suicide bomber” – like that’s his damn name. And, he’s supposed to be it a boy … and I use that term only because that is what the author claims … but he looks like a caricature of angry old man. The skin tones used in the book are pretty terrible – a sort of gray/tan/khaki color that is the same as the shirts and pants various characters wear.

Stories matter. If you are reading this, chances are you believe that. And if you believe that stories matter, you have got to begin to recognize that when a boy gets no identity except male, muslim, and terrorist, that it matters. 

Letter from the Asian Author Alliance

After receiving feedback from many in the #kidlit field, including an open letter from the Asian Author Alliance (read the letter here, and the followup here) Abrams pulled the book.  I’m not going to thank Abrams because HOW DID THIS THING GET PUBLISHED in the first place? 

It is clear that the author, Jack Gantos, has no idea what the problem is as he continues to not listen to anyone but himself. Benjamin Doxtdator wrote a brilliant post about his experience of Gantos visiting his class here – Fact-Checking Jack Gantos. I think it is telling, and all too common, that Gatos has publicly reacted in surprise, defense, and frustration.  Doxtdator writes, “Gantos said that he was “shouted down” by an “online mob”, and now that he has been told to “stay in his lane”, he would “retreat” to his “white boy dog house.” His words make it clear that either he not understand, does not recognize, or simply does not care that he has contributed to a frighteningly large pile of racist tropes that portrays Muslim males as nothing more than terrorists. 

The racist genesis of this book is important for me to point out. According to Gantos he was sitting in the Boston Public Library (BPL), a library I am intimately familiar with and love.  is always something happening; kids, teens, and adults constantly coming and going with books, using computers, having meetings, and meeting up. I work there a few times a month and consider it to be my library – I take ownership of the space when I am there and pay attention to the patrons and librarians. So, I can well imagine the scene Gantos describes in the author’s note;

Just then a boy’s cell phone went off. I turned and looked at him. He was wearing a red jacket. He was not holding a book. Instead, he reached into his pocked and pulled out a cell phone. He held it to his ear and did not speak. He nodded his head in agreement, then he stood up and quickly left the room through the doorway where overhead a paining of the Muse of Inspiration holds lightening bolts in his hands. One of these bolts struck me and I put my head down and wrote ‘A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library’.

So, there it is. A White, male, adult saw a kid, who he perceived was not White, take a call and walk out of the library. I have no doubt the scene took place exactly as Gantos remembers it. It is a scene I have witnessed innumerable times at that library. But, the inspiration was not the kid, or the painting. The inspiration was his own bigotry, fear, and xenophobia. 

On Piling On

Back on Facebook, I read Teri Lesesne’s public post, and the comments about the book pile up. Maybe not surprising, the comments were overwhelmingly positive and completely lacking in any critical pushback. The commenters were a children’s literature scholars, authors, teachers, and librarians.  

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I also checked Twitter, because in my experience Twitter is more likely to be the space where Critical Race Theory and other Social Justice oriented lenses are put into practice. So I searched #ASuicideBomberSitsintheLibrary and, yes, folks on facebook might have been celebrating the “captivating” story that was “amazing” them, but Twitter was having none of it. The first critical Tweet I read – and I am not saying it was THE first but it was the first one I saw, was from Heba Y. Amin (Twitter thread);

Two white guys write a book about a Middle-Eastern-ish suicide bomber CHILD?! in a non-descript Middle Eastern land?! in children’s book form?! masked as a lesson in reason and compassion?! I’m so dumbfounded by this.

She linked the preview from the publisher which clearly shows it is being published with children in mind. 

Back to FaceBook and I see Dr. Debbie Reese (@debreese) interrupted the cheer-fest that was occurring, “Don’t know if anyone in this thread gave a thought to how this book would land with others, but it is not going well at the moment (Nov 22, 2018).” I added a comment directing readers toward Twitter. Alyson Beecher (@alysonbeecher) stated, “I did see that thread and for that reason I have similar concerns.”

Sarah Hamburg (@sarahrhamburg) pointed directly to the damage these kinds of characters and stories do in the real world,  

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Debbie Reese posted more from the publisher. Jillian Heise (@heisereads) posted the letter from Asian Author Alliance. Melinda R. Cordell (@rosefiend ) and Melanie Hope Greenberg (I’m not sure if she is on Twitter) both voices concern for the effect on actual kids by this book.

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Then, in what I interpreted as a last ditch effort to save face for the author, Leslie Bermel (@Uryrwrds) asked, “You all do know the author is on this thread, right?” I asked how that changes the conversation and her response was “Doesn’t seem like a conversation anymore.” What surprised me was the “anymore“. Like, when it was accolades and flowers uncritically thrown at the feet of Jack Gantos, it was a conversation. But, when it changed to highlighting critical voices, then it was no longer a conversation. Why is that?

What Might 2019 Bring?

Again, the publisher pulled the book. Which is good. But, this is going to happen again and again and again unless we, as a community, learn to recognize characters and stories that are based in long held privilege and strive to erase those depictions. That’s one of the problems – these depictions are familiar to those privileged gatekeepers – like the first responders to the FactBook post. The initial look at that cover, the title, and the story was familiar and so it felt true, and interesting and amazing to those readers who were predominantly White and all non-muslim.

Publishing is a business. There is no reason for that business to change as long as  participating in familiar ways is rewarded. And publishers are rewarded by book people – librarians, teachers. scholars, and researchers – buying and recommending books.

That is the power of social media. There are more and more people becoming book people and letting publishers know we are here. We, those who are NOT represented by the imagined norm of White, straight, male, able, cis, middle class representation – are here. We are readers, we are teachers, we are librarians, we are scholars and we will continue to speak, even if when our voices shake. We will stand together and we will insist on a wider array of authentic representations from the literary world than the one we grew up with because we know stories matter. 

Stories matter.

 

The Single Story of “Part-Time Indian”

Everyone agrees with Chimamanda Adichie when she warns of the Danger of a Single Story in her oft cited, taught, and shared TED Talk. The talk was released in 2009 and took the progressive world by storm – which means lots of sharing on social media, thumbs upping, and echoes of “absolutely” across micro-breweries and small batch coffee shops alike. On this morning (March 7, 2018) there are 14,607,326 views on the TED Talk site  putting her at #24 of the top 25 most popular talks of all times.

Keep in mind, this list is not about the TED Talks that have been produced, instead it is what we, the viewers and sharers watch and show that we value. There are 10 women and 15 men – if your reaction is “great!” please think about the fact that this is still less than half, and none are gender non-conforming. In addition, the list is ridiculously White. Like, I laughed and then I got mad, and then I started to laugh again but not in a good why WHITE.  Adichie is the ONLY Black speaker on the list and the ONLY Woman of Color on the list, and one of only two people of color, along with Pranav Mistry. In other words, TED talk viewers love the single story of people of color.

I bring this up because of there is an extremely popular single story about THE Native American experience published in 2007. You know the one. The author, Sherman Alexie has been shown to be a repeat sexual harasser. If you want to read through the whole  bunch of ugly go to Debbie Reese’s open letter.  She has done an excellent job collecting and cataloging the big deal.

I want to address the wailing I have seen that come down to “Well, if I can’t teach that book what am I going to do?!?!?!”

First off, DON’T PANIC. There are other books by and about Native Americans. Historical fictions, memoir, realistic fiction … all of it. The fact that you do NOT know about anything besides Alexie’s books is your responsibility. You had one book and you stayed with it. It was your comfort zone or Zone of Proximal Comfort (ZPC) (yes, that is a Vygotsky riff^). It is time to break out of your own ZPC and by doing so you are going to be able to  begin (or continue) dismantling the single story about Native American and Indigenous communities that is comfortable.

Here are some books that you should read and bring into your classrooms:

Trickster Cover

Trickster
Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection

I reviewed this book 5 years ago and I still use it (here is a link). In my original review I wrote,  “The individual stories are short, disruptive in the brevity of language and the wide array of artistic styles. The stories follow each other, bouncing from an almost creation story about Coyote disrupting the arrangement of  stars in the sky, to a tale of a mean crow kicking sea anemones,to a Choctaw tale about how rabbit got a tiny tail. And many other stories, all providing another tale, another style, another look at the world.” and that pretty much still stands. Buy it. Read it. Share it.

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Looking for something for older readers? Look no further than #NotYourPrincess edited by Lisa Charlieboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale (here is my review). In my original review I wrote, “This is truly a multimodel text. The images are integral to this collection. They are not separate from the words. Instead, both interact in familiar ways and I found myself using the same kinds of strategies and skills I use to read graphic novels. Many of the photos feature Indigenous women looking directly at the reader, along with narratives that directly address the reader, thus breaking the 4th wall. This is a powerful choice to make, to draw the reader in and now allow the comfort of detachment.

If I ever get out

How about a buddy book, set in the 70s, for middle schoolers? If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth is that book. It deserves so much love, as well as a second or third read. Gansworth weaves music like Queen, David Bowe, and Wings into the lives of two pretty normal, if not completely different, teen boys. It is a quite and elegant treatment of Native American reservation life as nuanced, loving, and complicated instead of simply violent and desperate. In addition, there is a military kid, dads and sons, lots of conflict and a fair amount of cooperation.
Best of all there is a sequel! Give Me Some Truth will be coming out in May, 2018! Here is your chance to pre-order.

NR logoI’m reading and will be reviewing two books by published by Native Realities Press. They have been on my “to read” pile and I am finally getting to them. The first one is Tales of the Might Code Talkers which I have read and I will be teaching this semester. The second is a wordless comic, The Wool of Jonesy by Jonathan Nelson which a few of my students have read and been moved by the complexity and heartbreak of it.

If you want to do some of your own exploration, I suggest you head over to Debbie Reese’s blog American Indians in Children’s Literature. There you will find what you have been missing because you have been resting, comfortably, in your single story.

 


^ Vygotsky was a psychologist who came up with a way of looking at learning with and without help. He called it the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which can be thought of as the difference between what a learner can do with no help and what they can do with help.

Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld

Here is a book that just sort of arrived on my doorstep … ok, well not my doorstep as much as the pile o’ books that gathers in the area under

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Image by G. Struble

the mailboxes near my office at Boston university School of Education, waiting for me to come and collect them. I enjoy the sight and allowing the books to pile up because it feels like christmas when I do rip into them.

Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland, colors by Hilary Sycamore was one of the books in my latest stack. I can’t tell you if I ordered it or if it was sent to me by the fine people at FirstSecond publishing but in any case, I’m happy it made it’s way to me.

The cover (seen here) is oddly creepy-ish and tough. I want to stay with this idea of creepy-ish and toughness existing simultaneously. Creepy elements include the red-eyed wolf with it’s open maw hovering behind the girl, as if it will chase her at any moment. The malevolent intent of the wolf seems clear and barely contained. The small but highly saturated areas of red – the wolf’s eyes, mouth, as well as what appears to be the spill in the bottom quarter of the cover – frame the image of the girl on the motocross bike.

If you want to read a complete and mind-blowing treatise of how illustrators can use these kinds of colors, hues, and shapes to effect readers’ meaning making, pick up Molly Bang’s Picture This (1991, Chronicle Books).

Back to the cover. The other creepy element is the doll on the back of the bike. For an instant, I thought it was a child riding without a helmet, or possible without a neck. But after looking at it for a while (horror mixed with curiosity) the visible pupil-less eye, tiny nose, and disheveled hair reminded me of a Raggedy Ann doll. Which was sort of still weird.

Then there is the girl, or more exactly, the young woman. She’s sitting astride a motocross motorcycle wearing full crash pads, holding a camera and looking right at me. Daring me. Daring me to what, I am not sure. But, this is a woman who does not suffer fools.

Let’s get some important stuff clear. This books is about a young woman, Addison, who is raising her younger sister, Lexa, alone. They are survivors of some sort of horrendous toxic spill or alien invasion, or opening of a portal into an unwelcome world. The Zone is off limits with the National Guard manning barricades to keep people out and the things that exist in the Zone in. Lexa no longer speaks as a result of the spill and so Addison ventures into the Zone to take pictures of what is left. She sells the pictures to take care of herself and Lexa.

The Zone is alive and weird. Deeply off. Familiar objects made strange by a distortion, ill suited colors, and Addison’s wary, warning narrative. She’s seen all this before. She hates it. She’s drawn to it. She is captured by it and repulsed by her own fascination.

The book passes the Bechdel Test … lots of female characters talking to each other about many things not related to men. As a matter of fact women drive the plot by breathing life into the structure of the book and acting to move the story forward. Westerfeld, a noted White male, does what many White male writers attempt and fail. He creates a strong female protagonist and allows her to be a wholly complex, imperfect, active agent in her life and the life of those around her. In addition, he creates minor characters who gave me the sense that they existed before these pages and will continue to exist after I closed the book. There are Whites, Blacks, Asians, men and women all living in a fragile and suspect world.

The end of Spill Zone is frustrating to me, as a reader. Like many dystopia novels it is part of a series. The end of this first book is a cliff hanger that leaves me wondering and worried for Lexa and Addison, And possibly, the world.

The book should come with the following directions – Pick it up, read it. Put it down, walk away. Return and repeat.

Octavia E. Butler’s KINDRED

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

It is Martin Luther King Jr. day here in America.

Over the weekend the prez elect* has called out Senator John Lewis for being a do-nothing-talk-without-action kind of guy. The accusation is astonishing and ridiculous. (Please read March: Books 1-3 if you want to know what action looks like.)

coverI wanted to draw attention to work other than March on this MLK day. So, I want to highlight and call attention to the graphic novel adaptation of Kindred by Octavia E. Butler.

If you’ve never read Butler’s work, you have missed out on some mind bending sci fi work. I’m not a big fan of the genre but I have read the Lilith lyapo series (Dawn, Imago, Lilith’s Brood, and Adulthood Rites) series. Butler is not a great Black sci fi author. She is a great author who writes sci fi and is Black.

What’s the difference you might ask? Isn’t that just semantics?

And I would answer, NO! Her storytelling is tightly constructed, her characters are whole people I had a hard time letting go, and they are diverse. The characters are good and bad – often at the same time – Black, White and alien (with tentacles and everything!). She deftly crafts settings that are unknown and familiar.

But, for all this love I must confess I never read Kindred. It didn’t sound interesting … I am not a historical novel kind of gal and when I saw the book was about a contemporary (it was written in the 80s) Black woman being summoned through time to to save a White boy in the Antebellum south, I was out. Not interested in the least. Hard pass.

But, now Damian Duffy and John Jennings have written a graphic novel adaptation … so, I had to read it. I downloaded a review copy while ago, before Christmas at least, but put off reading it. I continued to be not interested.

Turns out, I’m an idiot.

kindred_p1From the first page with the startling image of a Black woman in a hospital bed and the first line of text, “I lost my arm on my last trip home” I was hooked. This book captured my attention and held on for dear life. I have read it several times, and still think about it. There is something artfully painful about the struggle, both historical, and fantastical that this graphic novel captures.

Set in the summer of 1976, Dana, a contemporary Black woman, married to a White man, living the life of a struggling writer is wrenched out of her time deposited in the Antebellum south. She arrives just in time to save a young White boy, Rufus, from drowning. But, there is no explanation of how or why she transported through time and space. And, perhaps more importantly, no clear way for her to get back.

I was less intrigued than I was scared crapless by the set up. Did I mention Dana is BLACK, and not some high-yellow Black with straight hair and light eyes that could pass. Nope. Dana is dark skinned with a tight afro, large lips, and broad nose. There is no hiding her Blackness and I think that is an especially important aspect to this adaptation. The protagonists, the heroine, is a woman who is illustrated to be unmistakably and unabashedly Black.

Dana discovers that she can and does return to her life when she is in a life threatening situation. Right after she saves the boy, some unseen person draws a gun on her and aims it at her head. She returns to her home, to the shock of her husband who saw her blink out of existence and then reappear a few seconds later, wet and muddy and in a panic. The second time Dana lands on the plantation, she has more time to discover what is going in, but honestly, it still doesn’t make sense! Instead, I was worried about her getting caught and killed or worse. I mean … HELLO!! Black Woman on a freaking PLANTATION!!!

As the book continues, Dana keeps going back and forth and each time she is in more and more danger. Each time the violence she must endure is worse. As she gets more accustomed to the level of violence and pure hatred she experiences as a Black woman on the plantation, the violence required to return her to 1976 increases as well. In other words, the more time she spends surrounded by systematic, socially accepted, violent racism the more inured she becomes.

Sound familiar?

The novel is challenging to read. The illustrators are brutal in their depiction of the violence against Black bodies. It also passes the Bechdel Test many times over. I’m glad I took the time to read outside my comfort zone. You should, too.

 

 

*I will never add his name into the social media sphere because it feeds the beast.

 

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.

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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.

Diversity Happens

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The fallout from my review of Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier has been interesting to say the least (read Swing and a Hard Miss here). Many people have said they had the same kinds of issues about the ways Telgemeier elected to depict a culture and history not her own. Read Debbie Reese (read her review here), the folks at Reading While White (their review with lots of comments here), and De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children (the review can be read here ) for more details.

I’ll bet if you ask anyone who loves books why it is important to read literature you’ll get some sort of answer about learning to understanding the world. But, the hard part about this idea of learning about the world – the part that makes many people uncomfortable – is that the world isn’t made up of the one kind of people. Diversity happens and in my opinion books need to reflect the diversity of people in authentic ways, not simply the ways that have come to be expected.

One of my favorite authors, Joel Christian Gill (see his blog here) works very hard at showing authentic versions of the world. Gill’s first graphic novel Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History (2014) caught my attention because of the title, a reference to Billy Holliday’s song about lynchings in the South. It is a great collection of stories about African American heroes in American history. But, there was something noticeably missing from this collection of “uncelebrated” stories – Women. The irony that an author who wanted to shine a light on the fact that so much of American history ignores the contributions, both big and small, of African Americans, completely ignored the contributions of women was not lost on his audience. And, when readers pointed this out to Mr. Gill his response was shocking.

He listened. He thought about it. And he owned his actions. He has said his interpretation of the world is biased by his own male privilege.

He followed up Strange Fruit by introducing a series titled Tales of the Talented Tenth. The first book in the series covers Bass Reeves, a freed slave who became a US Marshal. The second in the series features the amazing story of Bessie Stringfield, “The motorcycle queen of Miami!”

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The graphic novel opens with an important forward by Dr. Sheena C. Howard who addresses intersectional nature of the book. It isn’t only about a woman, or an African American, or Jim Crow laws and society. It is about all of those things written in an authentic, respectful, fun and appealing manner.

The story opens with Bessie Stringfield meeting and talking with an unnamed and faceless interviewer. Using large panels, clear lines, and bold color schemes Gill walks the reader through Bessie’s early life – coming to American from Jamaica only to have her mother die and her father abandon her. Living in an orphanage where she was relatively happy and well cared for until she was adopted by a woman “doing her christian duty”. Bessie grew up with her “guardian angel” in Boston, MA. She had everything a young girl in the 1910s needed – a loving home, a good education, and eventually, a motorcycle.

Bessie’s adventures on the open road are nothing short of amazing. She was a young Black woman enjoying life on a Harley, criss-crossing the United States and parts of Canada without a care in the world. There is a double page map that shows Bessie’s routes across the US. I noticed that although she crossed the continental US 8 times (the first Black woman to accomplish that feat) she steadfastly avoidebessie-and-crowd the South.

The map is the perfect introduction to the Jim Crow South that Bessie (along with every other African American who lived, worked, and visited the region) experienced. One of her 6 husbands gave her a copy of “The Green Book”.

“The Green Book” was a guide for safe restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and other businesses that would serve African Americans. Gill uses man-sized crows to illustrate racist White southerners who direct Bessie towards a KKK rally. The clans men are depicted at white hooded crows, burning a cross. blackfaceOnce again, Gill uses his signature image of “black face”   as a way to depict the N-word. Just to be clear, this image is playful but not cute. It seems to cute the tension without loosing the power behind the message. Bessie is chased by a group of white hooded crows who have piled into a truck to pursue her. She gets away but it is clearly not the last time she encounters them.

The last chapter of the book covers her adult life – she joined an all Black motorcycle currier unit for the United States military. She was, of course, the only woman. She returned to school and got her nursing degree but she never stopped riding. Instead, she organized a motorcycle club for women and was eventually indicted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

Gill has given us another chapter of our American history. This graphic novel provides a glimpse into a brave and spirited woman’s life. This is a graphic novel that I strongly recommend across grade levels and content areas to teachers and librarians who want to make diversity the norm.

 

 

A GHOST Story by Another Name

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Steven Seagle, part of Man of Action team that brought Ben 10, Big Hero 6, and cartoonist Jason Katzenstein have written a terrific graphic novel for young readers. It has everything I look for during the Halloween season – evolving characters, creepy setting, plot twists, monsters and step-monsters.

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Skye’s parents are divorced and she is scheduled to spend another summer with her father and step-monster as her mother goes off on her own adventure. At first Skye is a typical skarky teen with lots of eye rolls and full throttle what-evers. It is clear that her mother is excited by her Doctors Without Boarders plans, her step-mother has no use for her, and her father has no idea how to keep the peace with all the women in his life. The solution? Send Skye to camp the moment her mother drops her off. Things get interesting when her dad and step-mother are so clueless that they put her on the wrong bus. She is headed for Camp Midnight, a camp where kids (don’t call them monsters!) can show their true selves.

On the bus we see Skye is well versed in being the odd-kid-out. She spends a lot of energy trying to convince the world she is a lone wolf. But, she’s not prepared for Mia who is so easily overlooked it seems like Skye is the only one who pays any attention to her. Together, they negotiate a friendship that gives them both what they need. Mia, who is a past Camp Midnight camper, provides much needed guidance. Skype is thespotlight-gal-campmidnight-04_300_400_90 backbone of the operation and has no problem getting on the wrong side of the cabin harpies (literal witches). There is romance, excitement, and intrigue as the summer moves on.

The illustrations are full of subtle and not so subtle call outs to loads of creepy and desperate artists and illustrators. The pallet is a mixture of dark colors, along with eye assaulting bright-neons. After a while I figured out the pallet reflected Skye’s emotional state. The effect is visually jarring in the best possible ways – inviting closer inspection of each page. Eventually, I found a set of subplots that only appear as background to the main story. This is the kind of complexity that graphic novels can provide for young readers.

Although Skye is the protagonist, Mia plays an important role throughout the book as both a guide, a sounding board, and a co-conspirator. At first she is  needy, insecure, and visibly afraid of everything and everyone. As the summer progresses, Mia helps Skye navigate a new culture, the possibility of romance, and she learns to trust Skye with tumblr_inline_o6qgzuvmyy1qa1eat_540her own secret – there is something worse than humans or the “big three”. Together Skye and Mia help each other get to know themselves better.

Other characters are fairly standard fair – the Queen Bee of the cabin and her two cronies, the kind but stern camp counselor, and Griffin who acts as Skye’s romantic interest. All add flavor and depth to Skye and Mia’s camp experience. Griffin explains the issues behind calling them “monsters”. The word merely seems to be a way to lump all the kids together and denies each of them their individuality. Sounds like a pretty good message for all readers.camp-midnight-04

What I find most interesting about Camp Midnight is the straight up silliness artfully combined with the important emotional journey of individual characters that are in pain and trying to find a place in the world. Skye isn’t perfect, but that is what makes her all the more authentic. She has a nasty streak, but it is obviously born from vulnerability. Mia wears her need for approval and acceptance like a lighthouse beacon, which chases others away.

The book deals with important issues such as divorce, bullying, prejudice, and trust. The combination of complex images and authentic characters makes Camp Midnight a great book for young readers. I don’t usually compare books but given the extreme cultural misappropriation that abounds in Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts I think it’s important to highlight a book that deals with hard, real life issues without the load of cultural appropriation.