Blackall’s Bland as Blah …

I do not want to spend my Sunday writing about another problematic picture book or graphic novel. I want authors and illustrators to learn the very basics is Critical Race Theory and visual literacy and put those two things to work … together.

disappointed fifth element GIF

But, this is 2020 and CLEARLY I am not going to get what I want. That is the overwhelming message of this year. Not getting what we want is also the theme of much of mainstream children’s publishing.

So, here we are. Sunday night, 8:00 pm, middle of September and I am writing a response to the people – teachers, parents and past students – who have asked me about Sophie Blackall’s close to be released book If You Come To Earth. Publishers Weekly has given it a starred review (read their review here, I’ll wait) …. and there is lots of “oh, it’s so wonderful to see such diversity …”

The whole thing makes me want to hold my head.

Look.

People.

I cannot say this any clearer. Literally.

We, as a society, are marinating in oppressive views of the world that uphold a warped view of what is normal and anyone who exists outside that normed standard is marginalized.

Because we are marinating in this oppressive, warped view of normal, it means we all need to push and struggle against the assumed norm. That’s it. That is the The Work.

So, when I took a look at Blackall’s book, that is what I was looking for – affirmation of the assumed norm is good and everything else is bad or suspect or less. That is how I read everything! And, in this case, I look carefully at the images and what messages the images convey about marginalized people and communities.

I am going to take you through one image from Blackall’s book. This is from the middle … a double page spread of families at a park. At first glance it seems that lots of folks are represented.

But let’s look at the WAY they are represented …. and for this you have to dog into the parts of our cultural views of marginalized communities that we don’t want to admit to in polite society – but these are the messages that go unrecognized, and therefore, unchallenged.

In the upper left corner there is an African American woman … she is pregnant and has 4 kids around here. Now, remember the page is about families, and in the US, that most often means a nuclear family.

What do you notice? She is Black, has lots of kids, she’s pregnant, and no partner is anywhere in sight.

What is the common and racist stereotype about Black women in America?

yup.

Let’s look at this woman in a head covering and her daughter. Again, no partner. But, she’s not Black. I read her as some random Muslim of no particular region, race, or ethnicity. But, the anti-Islamic stereotype in American is that all Islamic men are terrorists and at war. So, where is her partner?

And, please note there is one other large family at the lower right corner. Probably Jewish orthodox of some sort. The girls are quietly drawing while the boys are actively playing.

I can’t.

I’m tired. I don’t want to address the reification of so many visual stereotypes on one page.

And before you at me – yeah. There are a couple of gay men with kids (again a 2 parent household). There is an intergenerational family, and a childless couple. My issue is with the unchallenged stereotypes that Black women have big families without stable male partners. My issue is with the missing Muslim dad. My issue is with the Jewish orthodox boys that are physically active and sedate girls.

Puppy Gifofdogs GIF by Rover.com - Find & Share on GIPHY

So, here I am, 10:30pm on a Sunday night, in what is probably the worst year in history of years, reading a picture book that reminds me of the “multicultural melting pot” books of the 80s. It reminds me that unchallenged stereotypes set expectations for young readers. It reminds me that I’m tired and I want publishing to get better at seeing this crap before they send a book to press. I’m tired of reviewers ignoring or not seeing these oppressive tropes.

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. 

kim tran | Tumblr

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. 

inside

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.


show-me-a-sign-1

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.

Erasure by Any Other Name …

flagJune in Pride Month and I’m a long-time Latinx lesbian and we’ve got some history to cover. I’ve been out for the majority of my life. I’m out to friends, family, acquaintances, neighbors, colleagues, students, my sons’ friends and families, the checkout people at the grocery store, all the contractors I try and get to come back to the house to actually do the work that we’d like to pay them for, and our dog. I’m even out to the Subaru dealership guys – although that not a shock to anyone.

In fact, I’m about as out as I can be and this is a focused, calculated act of defiance and activism. We are enmeshed in a homophobic, racist, sexist, ablest, classist society that is staunchly in favor of and designed to support and affirm a White, male, able, middle-class, Christian, straight ideal.

What is sometimes most distressing is how people who are privilege adjacent align themselves with the dominant group instead of lifting up communities that are oppressed and minoritized. I define privilege adjacent as someone who is one degree removed from the idealized White, male, able, middle class, Christian, straight idealized identity. When I address identity I am referring to the ways Dr. Beverly Tatum talks about it in The complexity of identity: Who am I in which she specifies “race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, and physical or mental ability”.

This kind of privilege adjacent behavior is seen in the racism enacted by White feminists  when they uphold and protect Whiteness. It is seen in the ways Latinx men vote for White male candidates thus upholding maleness. And, it is seen in the LGBTQIA community’s racism, sexism, and transphobia. The White LGBTQIA community often actively erases, omits, disregards and generally tosses under the bus BIPOC people across the spectrum, including but not limited to bi- and pan-sexual people, as well as gender outlaws (Kate Bornstein, 1994/2010/2016) which include trans, gender fluid and everyone else not accounted for on the imagined and idealized gender binary.

Stonewall PBThe LGBTQIA community has a lot to learn and repair. I was hoping some of that education and repair work would be seen in Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution by Rob Sanders and Jamey Christoph (Random House, 2019).

But, no. This isn’t the book to do that work. Instead, it is yet another fiction that provides a gay, White, cis, straight appealing, male community a pat on the back. Instead of lifting- up the trans women of color, and the butch women and femme men who were at the forefront of the riots, this book presents a more palatable image.

The author and illustrator decided to enter into the story of the Stonewall riots using the buildings as the narrators. The personified buildings provide a brief history of Greenwich Village from the 1840s when the area was used to board horses, through an unknown time of immigration, taking a dip into the 1930s with artists, and finally landing on “gays and lesbians. They were men who loved men, and women who loved women” in the 1960s (p.11). This is the first, but certainly not the last opportunity that the authors take to enforce a strict gender binary. The men are masculine appealing in a sort of Abercrombie & Fitch metro-sexual way, whereas the women remind me of Marlo Thomas from That Girl!

SW11 and 12

 

 

 

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On the next page (p. 13-14) there might be a Black trans woman or maybe a drag queen embraced by a young White man. She is centered and surrounded by a sea of Whiteness. Again, the authors choose to use “gay” as an all encompassing word.

On page 19-20 the issue of unjust laws begins, and the text states that the police “stormed through our doors, lining up the men and women inside, demanding IDs, detaining some, arresting others.” The text doesn’t hint at, allude to, show or address the beatings, bribes, or all the other corruption and violence that the police perpetuated during that time (and continue today).

Finally, on pages 21 and 22, the text reads ” ‘Why don’t you do something?’ yelled one woman as she was forced into a police car.” The illustration is a short, thin, wasp waisted woman with brown hair wearing a v-neck t-shirt, in handcuffs, getting into a police car.

Not a lot of folks have a clear understanding or recollection of what happened that night in 1969. They were busy making history. I know this, when I lived in San Francisco during the late 80s I heard about Stonewall from LGBTQIA elders who were there (or claimed to be) while I stuffed envelopes, folded quilts, and sat around bars having brunch. I always heard about two Black women … Stormé DeLarverie and Marsha P. Johnson as the grandmothers of the gay rights movement. (Full disclosure, I never knew Stormé’s last name until I started researching for this review).

Storme Daniels

Stormé DeLarverie was a bi-racial stone butch from Louisiana. She performed in nightclubs and worked as a bouncer. She was not petite or slight, and she sure as hell wasn’t wasp waisted and cooperative. According to Julia Robertson’s HuffPost article “She was androgynous, tall, dark, handsome and legally armed.” She got tired of taking punches, so she literally fought back that night.

group

Marsha P. Johnson a “trans activist” according to Julia Jacobs’ NY Times article. Marsha and Sylvia Rivera (HOW DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT HER!?!?!?) have also been credited with throwing the first bricks of the riot. Again, both of these women are women of color and both are missing from this book. (That isn’t exactly true. There is one photograph included in the back matter that shows these two powerful trans women of color sharing an umbrella during a protest.)

After the police car pages where the book either erases or misrepresents Stormé, and blithely moves on to capture a very #AllGaysMatter sort of vibe. But, according to many articles, as well as the folks I talked to way back in the 80s, that wasn’t the case. The people leading the fight were lesbians, especially butch lesbians, drag queens, and trans men and women. Many, not all, were BIPOC. These were the people who were there to protect, to rise up, and to start the revolution that lead the way for me to live as an out Latinx lesbian with a life partner, two kids, a dog and a literal picket fence.

History is White-, straight-, and male-washed in the country. Even LGBTQIA history is written to actively erase the contributions of people of color, trans, bi, butch and femme in favor of a more palatable White, heteronormative mimicry. Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution by Rob Sanders and Jamey Christoph (Random House, 2019) falls into that same trap.

This is the beginning of PRIDE. Learn some history. Think about the voices you hear over and over and who is missing. Stormé, Marsha, and Sylvia deserve to be known and celebrated for being the truly badass women they were. I hope they get the picturebook they deserve, but this is not that book.


An author’s response

  Rob Sanders replied using the comment option :

As the author of the first picture book on the subject of the Stonewall Uprising, I was careful not to tell any one story from the Uprising–and there are as many stories as there are people who were present, each true and authentic. Rather, I chose to tell the story of the buildings that came to be known as the Stonewall Inn so children for the first time ever could hear and read about the history of the Uprising. The book was vetted by eight diverse members of the LGBTQ community. The illustrations of the book show a cross-section of the LGBTQ community who were present at the Stonewall Inn and who took place in the Uprising. The back matter is careful to point out with words and photos that trans women of color had an important role in the Uprising. One book never can represent all the aspects of a historic event, nor can one author. It was my sincere hope when I wrote this book and today that this is the first of many books on the subject of the Stonewall Uprising and that people who can tell the stories of individuals who were present at the Uprising will tell those stories with their strong, authentic voices.

 


My Response, June 8, 2019 11:41 pM

I needed to delay my response to the authors comments for a few reasons, including but not limited to the fact that I have other work, family, dog, and BBQ obligations. I was frustrated by the Mr. Sanders response. Frustrated, but not surprised.

Mr. Sanders writes that he was “careful not to tell any one story” but that is exactly what this book does. By omitting and avoiding “any one person” he and the illustrator have, once again, erased the actual women responsible for raising their voices and sparking the riots.

The author says “The book was vetted by eight diverse members of the LGBTQ community.” And that may be true, but I have questions about this vetting process. Were these people friends and family? Were these readers children’s literature scholars that focus on representation of mis- and under-represented communities?  Were the paid sensitivity readers? Were the recommendations given in a transparent manner, such as, “This erases Black and Latinx trans women as main actors in the movement.” Were the recommendations given to the illustrator? Were the recommendations followed or put aside as too troublesome or unimportant?

Mr. Sanders is both proud that this is the first picturebook and defensive that not every book can be everything. I’m not asking for it to be everything. I am critiquing the active erasure of BOIPOC women. This defense that not all books can be everything is all too familiar. Black/Indigenous/People of Color are always told to wait. We are unwilling to wait any longer. The erasure of names and identities in the LGBTQIA community in favor of a White hetero-palatable, woman is an action.

These creative choices continue a long standing tradition of erasure of BIPOC people from history. It continues the erasure of trans and butch women from LGBTQIA history. White is not neutral. Hetero-normative is not neutral. None of the choices made by the author, illustrator, editor, and publisher are neutral.


References

Bornstein, K., & Bergman, S. B. (2010). Gender outlaws: The next generation. Seal Press.

Jacobs, J. (2019). Two Transgender Activists Are Getting a Monument in New York. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/arts/transgender-monument-stonewall.html

Robertson, J. D., & ContributorAuthor. (2017, June 4). Remembering Stormé – The Woman Of Color Who Incited The Stonewall Revolution. HuffPost. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/remembering-stormé-the-woman-who-incited-the-stonewall_b_5933c061e4b062a6ac0ad09e

Tatum, B. D. (2000). The complexity of identity: Who am I. Readings for diversity and social justice2, 5-8.


I welcome your comments.
Please know I will not publish or respond to anonymous comments. 

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.

Image result for speak graphic novel

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.

 

PHOTOGRAPHIC: The Life of Graciela Iturbide

“It was like coming home… only to no home I’d ever known…”
Sam Baldwin, Sleepless in Seattle

I talk about existing in the liminal spaces of identity. I am Latinx, and I am White. I have, as Albert Memmi called it, the face of the colonizer and the colonized.

Liminal space, if you are not familiar with the concept, is the space between. It is the space that is not easily defined. If you stand in a doorway between the kitchen and the living room, you are in neither room, and in both, and in a wholly new and unique space. Liminal spaces are often portals from one dimension to another and can feel unsettled and unsettling.

The idea of liminal space in Western thought and literature is often portrayed as portals, pathways, or doorways that separate different realities – look at Grimm Tales, Mother Goose, Hans Christian Anderson, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and L. Frank Baum to name a few. But, in Western literature the realities are kept separate by the power of  liminal space.

But, in many Latinx narratives, liminal space doesn’t separate Oz and Kansas. Instead, realities exist, cross-over, intermix and influence each other in  constant dance. Think of La Llorona, or almost all of Isabel Allende’s books. These are the stories where familiar realities co-mingle with magic and become more than either one is capable of alone.  But, only a few can see, recognize and live within these spaces.

Isabel Quintero (author of Gabi, Girl in Pieces) and Zeke Peña explore one such artist in their graphic novel biography about photographer Graciela Iturbide. The book is written in sparse, detailed prose, using black and white images that call to and emerge from Iturbide’s photos. They also selected a few of her photos.

This is a biography of art, but not of the artist. There are few details of her youth, and personal life. Instead Quintero and Peña provide an open space for Iturbide’s photos to be studied and seen and felt.

I’d seen some of her photos in museums or art books, both in Los Angeles and in Sonora. I remember feeling confused about the work – it is beautiful and stark and rich all at the same time. She captured the Sonora desert, a place I was too young to remember but that I can sense in the back of my mind. My father admired her aesthetic voice, but was never sure her work was feminine enough. Her photos show the unrelenting beauty and majesty of the desert but she also showed people.

Image result for graciela iturbide graphic novelShe has a series that focuses on an area of East LA and photographed Cholas being proud and poor, trapped by the dream of the United Stated, and standing powerfully together.

Her photos were full of people, animals, nature and sky, objects and space. Iturbide’s most famous photo is called Mujer Ángel. I clearly remember seeing the image and feeling the warm wind, the grit in my shoes, the sweat running down my neck. I was transported to the Sonora desert, behind a woman in a flowing white dress, with a black, lace mantilla, walking through the rocky desert carrying an enormous boom-box. While describing the photo Quintero quotes Iturbide, “It’s like this: when I look at a subject, the subject must always look back. Must always agree with the shot … That is the only way I will take a photograph. It is complicity.” Peña uses parts of the image, reimagining aspects and angles of the photo to recreate, or perhaps to create for the first time, the moments just before Iturbide’s shutter clicked and an image was transported from that place to the page.

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I grew up in Southern California and spent time in and around Nogales (both sides of the border) and in the Sonora desert when I was a kid. When I read PHOTOGRAPHIC: The Life of Graciela Iturbide, I feel that world again. Her photography exists in that space between, and within multiple realities. Reading this graphic novel gave me back glimpses I have forgotten and allowed me to see parts of me that are often hidden but always felt.

Trans People Aren’t Mythical Creatures

In research we often provide what is referred to as a positionality statement. It helps our readers understand who we are, how our experiences and identities effect our understandings of the subject we are writing about. Positionality statements help avoid the fiction that research is neutral. In the age of #OwnVoices I have come to realize, or maybe I have come to admit to the realization, that I believe an author’s identity, community, and experiences informs the work they produce.

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Librarian Angie Manfredi (@misskubelik ), Tweeted out about a book she wasn’t crazy about. Here is a link to the entire thread. “Our library copy of JULIAN IS A MERMAID has finally arrived and it is adorable but I NEED everyone in to acknowledge it would NOT be getting this amount of love and attention if it were written by a gender non-conforming queer IPOC – it might not even have been published.” The book was written and illustrated by Jessica Love, a White, cis, woman.

For a long time I hesitated to write about Julián, a picturebook is about a boy who dreams of being a mermaid, transforms himself, and his abuela who upon seeing him dressed in a headpiece and flowing train, takes him to what I can only describe as a drag parade (the mermaid parade in Coney Island *1). The book and the author are being talked about, and will most likely win many book awards.

I did what I usually do when I’m wresting with a book that features identities or communities or content that I am unfamiliar with. I asked people I trust. I shared my thinking with them, and I listened. In many ways this essay is more about the conversations I had and continue to have while trying to come to terms, rather than some sort of clean conclusion. *I will be adding footnoted changes to this post as they happen. 

When I first read the book I thought it was beautifully drawn. Full of soft colors, and gentle edges. Like fine pastels rubbed into expensive paper. There is a lushness to the images. When reading it I saw the care of the illustrator for her art, but I also so her Whiteness, her straightness, her cis-ness. I felt it in my bones and I could not shake the fact that I did not like the book. It was like eating a big meringue – sweet, technically beautiful, but it left a cloying, unpleasant taste. I wanted to name the taste, to objectify it, to explain it, to defend my dislike. I didn’t want to simply say “It isn’t an #OwnVoices book”. That was a convenient reason but not a complete one.

Literacy is a social act, and I find that my reading of the world is better when done in collaboration with others who do not share my view of the world, my history, or my identity. So, I talked to teachers who are Dominican, to librarians, and finally, to a trans girl named Indigo.

Stacey (not a pseudonym) is a teacher and she’s Dominican. I asked her about the book because I knew I needed to get handle on the language used. There are differences in the ways Latinxs speak and act within our communities and I didn’t want my Mexican-ness to over-ride the Dominican-ness that the White author was trying to capture. Stacey’s response was helpful. At first I asked about the physical features of the women, their dress, the ways they moved, and the shoes they wore. “I found that the story depicted Afro-Carribean culture pretty well. From the shape of the abuelita, her head scarfs and dress, to the figures of the other characters, I didn’t see anything problematic.” 

Stacey was generous, and she shared an unprompted idea with me.

I may of completely misinterpreted the theme, but I don’t know how likely it is for a Caribbean grandma to to take her grandson to a drag show and give him pearls after catching him in drag the first time. I think this story minimizes the real struggle LBGTQ members face in Caribbean culture where many of them are not accepted by society as they are in America. 

The ease in which Julián’s abuela accepts and encourages him to show his whole self might be something the author put into the book as a wish or hope. But, by creating this almost immediate acceptance, Jessica Love negated the real struggle so many Latinx LGBTQ people must go through. Is that is the message the author is trying to send? Probably. But, it lands flat to me. For me, this comes from a place of privilege that would rather a mermaid trope carry the message and ignore the very real issues at work.

Which lead me to a completely different Stacy and her colleague who helped me think about the whole mermaid deal. Stacy Collins (@darkliterata), who can be found over on the blog Medal on My Mind. I had lots of questions about the book.

Was this some sort of Trans Tail (Get it? Tale … like a story? and Tail like a mermaid? Sorry, I had no choice, the pun had to be written. I don’t make the rules). I get that there is a transformative narrative to mermaids, but if we are looking at a picturebook about a trans girl, or a gender fluid child, then why is Julián gendered on the very first page as male? Public librarian and friend Kazia Berkley-Cramer (@cateyekazia) pointed out the gendering thing and the fact that it continues throughout the book, even when he puts on a fancy headpiece, tablecloth tail, and big bauble-pearls his abuela hands over to complete his ensemble. She also wanted me to know that families are finding this book helpful and that isn’t nothing. But, for me, I keep looking at this book and I don’t think it is about a trans girl, or a gender fluid kid. It is really about a boy dressing up as a mermaid. Stacy Collins very aptly pointed out, “A fish tail is not inherently feminine, unless Julián wants it to be.”

It is important to point out (which I neglected to the first time this was posted) that Kazia was, overall, an advocate for the book. Her reasons were simple and compelling – her patrons. In her library she keeps the book in the “myself” section and Julián is a Mermaid provides her patrons with a character that they can watch come into being as without being chastised. In the first posting of this piece I neglected to give Kazia’s point a view much air. Probably because it departs from my own, but the fact is, there is a scarcity of books that show any kind of gender fluidity or flexibility with gender roles without punishment. That is a huge concern and, in that case, this book can do good things. (*4)

And, that is an issue I keep running into with this book. It isn’t clear what, if anything, Julián wants to express because this isn’t really Julián’s story. It is Jessica Love’s story, a story of a young Dominican boy, playing dress up or constructing himslelf, as imagined by a White, cis woman who brings her identity to the work, and with her identity comes her outsider’s gaze.

And, I think that is what bothers me the most. It isn’t JUST that Jessica Love isn’t a trans person of color. It is that there is no where in the book where I am not aware that this is another book about looking AT a trans body. The transformation of the body is a huge fixation, almost a fetish, for cis folks. We just can’t seem to get that it isn’t only about changing the body. Being trans is too complicated to reduce to a single idea or experience – not matter how hard we try as cis folks to make it just about the ONE THING (*2). The intrusive gaze on Julián’s private transformation wasn’t obvious to me. Instead, a young woman pointed it out to me and in that moment I knew the truth of it.

Indigo, a 16 year old trans girl (ugh, when do teens stop being boys and girls? I still call my sons’ friends boys and they are 15 and 16, so I’m going to stick with girl) who tweeted out under the Children of the Glades twitter handle dropped a truth bomb that continues to stick with me. They are a group of teens that identify as “Florida Seminole & Miccosukee” who are reading children’s and YA literature and giving scholars, teachers, librarians and other literary gatekeepers some enormous things to think about.

Indigo 2Indigo looked at the objectification of yet another “brown femme” body and felt danger there. Do I think that is what the author meant? No. But, it is more important to listen to what Indigo saw and felt as she read. I’d love to ask Indigo about the way she was reading this image – what gave her the creeps? Was it the heavy lidded eyes, so often associated with “bedroom eyes”? The fact that Julián is nearly naked in his tighty whities? Maybe the blush on his cheeks? When I start reading, seriously reading this image with this and some of the other commentary Indigo put out on Twitter, I began to get an inkling. I suspect the issue is the intimacy we, as outsiders, read and bear witness to seeing Julián build his gender representation from the world of his grandmother’s house.

I had a lot of things I wanted to ask Indigo. She was generous in her critique, to let it out into the Twitter-verse for all to see and I feel especially lucky that I saw it, read it, reached out to her and the other Glade teens.

I have a lot of things I still want to ask Indigo about, a lot of books I want to know what she thinks of, like Alex Gino’s new You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P. , and Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning. She was excited to find out that my main interest is in comics and graphic novels, so there was a whole world that was open to us to talk about … especially the new Captain Marvel movie!

But I can’t.

I can’t because she’s gone. Because, like too many queer teens and too many Native teens, and too many two spirit teens, she saw no way to survive, to move forward (Twitter announcement) . As Alexis:18 writes, “Indigo made a split-second decision that stopped her transitioning life. I know she wanted other Native 2SQ [two spirit] teens to get there.”

And so, selfishly, I mourn (*1) Indigo’s death for what I lost. Mourning for her, a teen so close to my own son’s age, feels too large and hard for me to do all at once. For her friends and family, I cannot begin to know how they feel. If I am affected by the loss of her potential, they are living with the gravity of the loss in ways I cannot know.

So, yes, Jessica Love wrote and illustrated a book that may or may not be about a young, gender fluid child, trying to find their way in the world. But, I can’t shake the feeling that this is simply not her story to write, and in the act of writing the book, she once again laid claim to what was not hers.

Rest in peace and power Indigo.


Footnotes of changes

  1. Updated: September 24, 2018 7:48 pm
    — Added Coney Island Mermaid parade
    — Tried to better explain grief.
  2. Updated: September 24, 2018 8:08 pm
    — Not surprising, I misrepresented trans experience in paragraph 5.
  3. Updated: 9/24/18 9:57 pm — many typos.
  4. Updated: 9/25/18 1:38 pm — added more information about positive librarian views

#KidLitWomen: An Open Letter to Well-Meaning White Women

 Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

-Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
16 April, 1963

 

In King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail he called out the what he referred to as “white moderates”. He held nothing back when he called out white moderate BS, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.” Sound familiar?Today, in Children’s literature and other spaces, we deal with what I like to call  Well Meaning White Folks (WMWF) who deal with social justice issues by gaslighting, tone policing, and outright hypocrisy. These are the WMWF who support change as long as that change in no way calls for self reflection or action.

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No, We Won’t “Calm Down” by Robot Hugs.

I can always tell when I am dealing  with WMWF by their rallying cry “be nice” or “choose kindness”, as if the act of calling out racism, misogyny, ableism and homophobia is the problem and not the act of racism, misogyny, ableism and homophobia. King was on to this BS when he wrote, “Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” [emphasis added].

As a proud Latina lesbian and member of today’s Call Out Culture I gain solace by reading King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Lately, some horrible truths have come out, specifically, Anne Ursu’s article highlighting the prevalence of #MeToo moments in professional #kidlit spaces. The resulting fallout and backlash has been hard to watch for many reasons including the defensive reactions of  WMWF who don’t want to air out, talk about, reflect on, believe, or change the engrained male* dominated power structures.

Unchecked Entitlement, Privilege, and Power

Recently a White male author, Marc Tyler Nobleman was called out on social media for participating in an all-White, all-male panel at a Children’s literature conference in 2018. He was so hurt by the public discussion of his actions that he decided to write a blog post about it. Let me be clear, Marc Tyler Nobleman, like many WMWF, claims to be an ally. So, when he was called out, his immediate response was to pull bucket after bucket from the seemingly endless well of defensive phrases that WMWF have at their disposal. He began by defending his choice of participating in an all-male, all-White panel with the ultimate in weak-tea excuses, “I did not think to ask who else was presenting.”

He pulls suggestions right out of the Protect the White Male Status Quo! handbook, “Rather than start with public shaming or snark, instead contact the event organizer and participants directly and privately to express the concern civilly.” Let’s be clear Well Meaning White Folks are more invested in protecting their uncontested vantage point of privilege than in changing a system that keeps them there.

To be sure, the status quo in Children’s literature is that White, male, straight, and able are the norms and should be left unquestioned and unchallenged. Look at any professional Children’s literature space – from conferences to classrooms – who are the vast majority of people in those spaces? Well Meaning White Women (WMWW). And who is pretty damn quick to come to the defense of men called out in these #MeToo moments? WMWW. Perhaps White women in Children’s literature are invested in protecting the status quo because they enjoy the privilege of being adjacent to the unchecked entitlement of men.

No one is unaffected by the colonizing social structures that are in place and protected by the status quo. All of us are responsible for upholding White male dominance at one point or another in our lives. What many of us are asking for now is for WMWF to have the hard conversations, look at their own actions, and believe us when we tell you, “that is not ok and here are all the reasons why”.

Honestly, this #MeToo in Children’s lit is missing an important conversation that I suspect has been happening on a separate and parallel whisper network. I have been part of conversations about the discomfort of unchecked entitled behavior of White women, specifically towards Black male authors. I have seen White women^ (and yes, it has always been White women^) approach Black male authors and

– Stroke biceps
– Press boobs against arms and/or shoulders while taking selfies
– Touch his hair (including braids, dreads, afros, and facial hair)
– Stroke his bald head (seriously? WTF is that about?)
– Sidle up as he’s talking to a small group of people, and move a hand across his lower back/upper butt region
– Touch his butt

4016555559_0cb50599b3_z1.jpgAll of this was done silently and without consent. (There is also some really weird lesbian fetishizing but Malinda Lo covered that over on Twitter). And, before the pearl clutching begins, I know this is NOT the same as the #MeToo incidents in Anne Ursu’s piece, or the ones in the comment section of the School Library Journal piece. The reason this is important for our professional community to think about is that Black men live with the very real memory of Emmet Till and the White woman who’s statements got him killed. They live with the fetishizing of Black bodies by White people. This is another, different, way unchecked entitlement makes us all lesser.

Actions We All Need to Take

I am not going to ask you to sign a petition, or put on a pin or buy a ribbon. Instead, I am going to provide some helpful and actionable items for all of us.

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First, if you think someone is on the receiving side of unwelcome attention and fetishizing you can open a safe space for them. Here is a helpful comic by Maeril. It is specific to Islamophobia but I think it works in pretty much every situation when people are behaving with unchecked entitlement.
– Make eye contact with the person BEING intruded upon
– stand next to or near the person BEING intruded upon
– Engage the person BEING intruded upon in conversation

And what should you do if you find yourself wanted to subject someone else with unasked for physical attention? You should ask for consent. This seems like a good plan for everyone in professional spaces … or any space, really. Ask before handling anyone, even if the handling is under the guise of flirting, humor, or as a result of that heady mix of alcohol and hotel keys.

And just in case you are confused, consent means saying the words that specify what you want to do and waiting until you get enthusiastic, verbal agreement. It would look something like this;
– “May I stroke your bicep?”
– “Ok if I put my arm around you and rest my hand on your ass?”
– “Can I rub your bald head?”
– “Is it ok if I press my breasts up against you?”

If you, Well Meaning White Women, feel embarrassed by asking a Black man for consent at a public book signing or other professional space thus putting your desire for physical contact with him into the of “light of human conscience and the air of national opinion” then you should not be doing it at all.


*I know not all men. And, I also know some women. Don’t start with that.
^I know not all White women. Don’t start with that, either.

 

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.

NotYourPrincess_Cover

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.