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.

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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.

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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. 

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.

Image result for graciela iturbide graphic novel

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.

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.

Graphic Novels to Share: Bingo Love

Comics are the medium or form – images and words working together, bounded by panel, to communicate. Any story can be told using the comics form, just as any story can be told in paintings, film, poetry, or traditional print-text novels. I study graphic novels, but lately I am not sure that term means what I think it means.

When I say graphic novels I mean long-form comics that are not Manga or comic books (sometimes known as floppies). But, the problem of defining a form that is constantly changing and evolving, like graphic novels, is that it is like trying to determine a toddler’s shoe size while chasing them around Disneyland. There is so much movement, excitement, fear, and joy that the point of the event (defining, this gaining clarity) is sometimes lost on the need to impose a structure.

AMERICA_cover

The issue I am butting up against this week is what about trades? Trades are usually comic book story arcs that are originally  published as a set of floppies and then is published – without all the ads and previews – in a “graphic novel edition”. Examples are DC Comic’s Batwoman: Elegy (Rucka, Williams, & Jones, 2010), and more recently Marvel’s AMERICA: The Life and Times of America Chavez (Rivera et al., 2017). In other words, the big two (Marvel and DC) are putting out trades by the truckload (all the while canceling comic book series that feature people of color – but that is for a later post).

Trades are also being published by smaller presses and independent comic artists with the help of crowdsourced funding. One such project is Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge’s graphic novel Bingo Love  (published by Image Comics).

BingoLove_Cover

There is a lot to love about this graphic novel (I’m writing this post, so I’m calling it a graphic novel). The book opens with a large panel showing a young woman crying and being comforted by an older woman. The scene takes place in “Jenkins Home for Seniors in 2038”. The young woman has been kicked out of her home for “liking girls”. I have to admit that this opening had me worried. But, the older woman, Hazel, begins talking about when she first met the love of her life, Mari in 1963 at church bingo.

BL

The story is told from Hazel’s point of view and so we see her attraction burst forth beginning with the first time she sees Mari. Although they are in middle school, it is clear to Hazel that she doesn’t simply like Mari as a friend. Instead she realizes pretty quickly that she’d like to marry Mari and live happily ever after.

The pacing of the book is the only thing that keeps it from being great. There are quick jumps in time that are accomplished by collages that show the progression. These quick jumps in the emotional narrative are a bit jarring and I wish Franklin took more time and space to develop the characters, including the minor characters, and the setting.

The girls grow up as best friends, but their friendship does’t change until they are older, perhaps seniors in high school. One day they have their first kiss, they confess their mutual love for each other, and get in trouble for that love. Both girls are told they cannot see the other. Hazel is ready to run away with Mari and make a life. Mari hesitates and all is lost.

BL2

We see Hazel get married to James, and by the time she was 38 she had three kids, was miserable and still dreaming of Mari. We see Hazel and James’s kids grow, have kids, and then, one Mother’s Day she goes to bingo with her daughter and then BAM … Mari enters the story again. The two women who shared a first kiss almost 50 years ago are reunited. But, not everyone is happy about the reunification of lost love … especially Hazel’s daughter, Marian.

This time Mari is ready to commit. The next section of the book is amazing. Love blossoms but it isn’t without complication. Hazel deals with her feelings, goes to therapy (which is something we rarely see PoC do in any sort of media!). Hazel begins to move away from the life without Mari and begins building a new life that includes love and her family.

The narrative focuses on women’s lives and their humanity. One woman is shown breastfeeding, another as her water breaks as well as just after she gives birth (there is even an umbilical cord!). Perhaps most importantly Hazel and Mari are shown as fully realized people with desires, humor, hunger, and even stinky feet.

One panel brings tears to my eyes every time. I want to spend some time on it here to explain why this book is important – important to bring into the classroom.Wedding_BL.jpg

Look at all these women. Look carefully. What do you see? I see a multitude of shades, body types, ages, and sexual identities in one space enjoying life and celebrating love. This graphic novel celebrates the loving relationship of two older, black lesbians.

Books: Keep or Toss (Vol 2)

I use the term Booktoss as a way to communicate to the Literary Gatekeepers (read that as adults with money to spend on books) that we need to be willing to see the problems with books and toss some of them aside. There are always books I want to keep, and hold, and reread, and share. Those are the ones I pass along to parents, teachers, librarians, and most importantly children. Books that provide authentic views of lives and people and events. Books that are complex, complicated, heartfelt and heartening. Because there are authors who don’t find it necessary to tear down, dehumanize, objectify, or rely on tired stereotypes about mis- or under-communities for their books.


NotYourPrincess_Cover#NotYourPrincess:
Voices of Native American Women

Edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, published by Annick Press

This book is a collection of poetry, essays, and interviews, as well as visuals that include photos, paintings, and collages. Each page or two brings another voice, another  face, another story to the reader.

This is marketed as a YA collection and I think that makes sense for the content. Authors take on many facets of being Indigenous women with an unflinching gaze at the rest of society. At times the images and stories were hard to read, some were funny, some showed a wariness, while others illuminated a way of being and seeing the world. The essays and poetry were fairly easy to read which makes this a great collection to give to older struggling readers and ESL readers.

I did look up the Lexile rating for the book and was surprised to see it set at 910, which loosely translates, to a sixth grade reading level. Remember, reading levels have NOTHING to do with the content, nor with images. They only measure word, sentence and paragraph length, punctuation, and familiarity of words used. My own estimate would have put this collection around a 3rd or 4th grade level, so I was surprised by Lexile’s measure. One reason may be the formatting and grammar in the poetry might be skewing the measure. Another reason may be the use of tribal names such as “Dane Zaa/Cree” (p. 43), and “Haudenosaunee” (p. 65), and even the use of indigenous languages.

Should that affect the reading level? I am not sure. I must admit that as a reader who is unfamiliar with many of the Nations and languages in the collection I had to make a choice – to take the words as they came and assign little meaning to them, or to take the time to look them up, make note, try to understand the regions, tribes, nations and history. I choose the latter and I believe the reading experience was better for it.

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.

The book can be found here, at Annick Press. I plan on using it in my children’s literature class to show the kinds of poetry that abounds today and to help my students learn the skills they need to read across cultures.

Buy #NotYourPrinces. Support #OwnVoices.

Books: Keep or Toss (Vol 1)

Booktoss means we, the Literary Gatekeepers, need to be willing to see the problems with books and simply toss them aside. Then there are the books I want to keep, and hold, and pass on to kids and teachers. Books that provide authentic views of lives and people and events. Books that are complex, complicated, heartfelt and heartening. Because there are great authors that don’t need to tear down, dehumanize and objectify one community in order to make a point.

For this first iteration Books: Keep or Toss I will be looking at two graphic novels set in China; The Only Child by Guojing and The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff. There will be spoilers, so … gird your loins.

Only Child Cover

Book to Keep:
The Only Child by Guojing

Some will argue this is a wordless picturebook. I don’t care. I am claiming it as a graphic novel, in the same way I openly claimed Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. Some might say, “But Laura. I thought you said graphic novels are book length narratives written in the comics medium and comics utilize images AND language to deliver a unique story.”
At this point I’d have to shush you, and open the book because it is gorgeous, and magical, and sad, and heartbreaking, and beautiful. So, stop quoting me at me and look at the book!

The Only Child begins with a short author’s note Guojing describes the isolation she “experienced growing up in the 1980s under the one-child policy in China”. The book reads as if it is an expression of that isolation, but at the very same time it communicates love for family, a respect for a child’s imagination, and the possibilities of magic.

The story centers around a little girl in an industrial city who’s parents leave for work in the morning, and she is left to entertain herself in their apartment. Her only companion is a small, toy elk that she takes with her throughout the book.

interior Only Child

The entire book is drawn with very fine lines – pencil or charcoal – that give a depth to the objects and spaces. The paper is thick, almost luscious and gives the book a physical heft it deserves. Guojing’s paneling is and image placement is deft, and provided me with a clear idea of what was real and present in the girls life, and what was not. Take a look at the series of panels on the left page … the little girl is actively engaged in keeping herself entertained. But, each time she engages in play she ends up with a sense of time simply passing.

Now, look at the facing page (right side). The girl has settled in and is looking at a photo album. Her small hand signals a change in point of view for the reader. We are no longer looking at her play in the apartment. Rather, we are now oriented, as we hold the book, as a co-reader as she holds the photo album.

The book progresses. Things happen. Tension builds as she leaves the apartment, gets on a bus to see her grandmother, and gets lost in the woods. I’m not going to give any further details of the story but I will share the exchange I had with my 12 year old son after he read The Only Child.

“What’d you think?” I asked when he returned the book to me.
“Yeah. Good.” He said in typical 12 year old fashion as he headed to the fridge.
“Can I get more words?” I pushed.
“Great drawings. The clouds were amazing. The kid was cute.”
“Did you laugh? Cry? Anything?”
He looked at me, rolling his eyes and sighing, “Well, yeah. All of that. What do you think I am, some kind of monster?” The implied dumb-ass was clear. Of course he had all the feelings. How could he not?

I highly, insistently, and obnoxiously recommend this wordless graphic novel for a microcosm level look at the ways the Chinese one-child policy affected a generation.

UndertakingBook to Toss:
The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

This graphic novel also begins with an authors note. But, instead of a note from the actual author, it is an excerpt from The Economist (July 26, 2007about a cultural practice in China called “corpse brides” wherein brides are procured for unmarried dead men.

According to Amazon Undertaking is about “Deshi, a hapless young man living in northern China, is suddenly expelled from ordinary life when his brother dies in an accident. Holding Deshi responsible for his brother’s death, his parents send him on a mission to acquire a corpse bride to accompany his brother into the afterlife, in accordance with an ancient Chinese tradition that has many modern adherents” (https://www.amazon.com/Undertaking-Lily-Chen-Danica-Novgorodoff/dp/1596435860).

Yeah. Many.

The salacious nature of the term “corpse bride” set off a warning flag. The term predisposes the reader towards a “Isn’t China just so weird and different”? stance that I have seen far too many times. Anytime I see cultural practices used as plot devices I’m skeptical.

bad-guys.jpgNovgorodoff’s characters are drawn as caricatures of people but even given this more abstract and absurdist style she relies on some tried and true racist and sexist tropes.

Deshi meets up with a bride merchant (pictured) who is actually has a “fu manchu” mustache which, if you have ever seen any evil Asian characters immediately signals he is up to no good. In fact, he convinces Deshi that to be a real man and a good son he must find a kill a young woman to be his brother’s corpse bride.

lilychen_1.jpg

Eventually, Lily is introduced into the story. Deshi decides Lily is the girl for his brother and convinces her he’ll help her escape marriage her father has arranged. She is drawn with ridiculously thin arms and legs and a huge bobble head. In one scene she sits on a riverbank in supplication before she catches a fish with her bare hands to cook for Deshi. She is looks physically delicate and yet she can catch a fish with her bare hands, gut it and cook it over a campfire, all before Deshi has figured out how to kill her.

Much of the book is spent with Deshi trying and failing to kill Lily while they travel the countryside to “escape” her life on the farm. One night, by the light of a campfire, he climbs on top of her and starts strangling her. She wakes, touches his face tenderly, and they have sex. The whole thing is bizarre.

The combination of racist and misogynist tropes, the exoticism of China, along with the rape and forgiveness storyline make this a graphic novel one to toss. Toss it and move on with your reading life.

 

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.