A Commitment to Social Justices and Compassion

“When the going gets tough, the tough gets going!” This is the time when all of us working with children, children’s books, and education must toughen up and keep on going!

It is heartening to see that hundreds of signatures by children’s book creators have been collected at The Brown Book Shelf for A Declaration in Support of Children, and that a live version of this document that allows for more signatures and support can be found on their Facebook page.

Today, I publicly echo my support for all the sentiments expressed in this document, adding here my continuing commitment as an educator, a school librarian, and a children’s literature advocate that:

I will read widely works created by a diverse group of writers and illustrators that both reflect authentic lived experiences of today’s children and offer genuine opportunities to understand and empathize with experiences unfamiliar to their own.

I will constantly highlight and promote these titles directly to my students and their families and also on social media in an effort to strengthen the innate capability of hope, courage, and compassion to bring about true social justices via the power of literature.

I will create curricula and take advantage of teachable moments both in the classroom, during casual interactions, and on social media to combat the ever-growing threat of Untruth-Telling in the digital and mass media sphere.

I will model my commitment to social justices and compassion by addressing injustices intentionally, openly, and truthfully in the classroom, during casual interactions, and on social media.

Fellow librarians, educators, and children’s literature champions, join me in our work together for a better and brighter future!

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Doctor Strange, Whitewashing, and Missed Opportunities

Whitewashing has been understood to mean film/tv producers casting white actors to portray minority characters — especially Asian American roles.

Doctor Strange, a highly entertaining and well reviewed new movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, stirred up heated discussion earlier this year over its casting of Tilda Swinton, a white actress to play The Ancient One, an “Asian” character from the comic books series.  Given the exaggerated, stereotypical, and exoticized portrayal of the original The Ancient One, it is important that the character undergoes modification and updating to reflect more contemporary and progressed mindset.

However, Marvel definitely did not hit the mark this time.

doctorstrangeposterThe Marvel Studio, a superpower in the entertainment business these days, could have easily corrected the issues from the original comics (like they did with Wong’s character) to create a respectable, mysterious, powerful, and also flawed character.  The Stuio would have then become a strong leader in providing Asian American actors better opportunities. Instead, they went with a casting choice that, after viewing the movie, I found completely unnecessary.  The Ancient One stands mostly still to deliver lines in slightly archaic language and manners.  I do believe that most working actors would have been able to give a solid performance given the script.  Having one line stating, “Oh, she’s Celtic” and yet still set most of the movie in Asia (Kathmandu and Hong Kong) with much of the “training” in some composite Asian Martial Arts style is completely inadequate in their attempts to combat the original stereotypical rendition (as a statement defending the casting choice from the movie’s creative team) of The Ancient One.

I believe that most of the people (I imagined a mix of White and no-White folks) working on this movie did not mean to actively marginalize Asian American actors with any sort of ill intent. However, in their decision (casual or deliberate) to not cast an Asian American actor or actress in this role, they perpetuate the systemic oppressive practice of taking away opportunities from working Asian/Asian American actors and thus effectively further the marginalization of such group.

What a shame! What a missed opportunity!

Here are some other articles circulating online that just came out after the movie’s release:

‘Doctor Strange’ is a really fun, whitewashed ride! by Gene Park, from The Washington Post.

Doctor Strange ‘whitewashing’ row resurfaces with new criticism of Swinton casting by Alan Evans, from The Guardian.

‘Doctor Strange’ Director Owns Up to Whitewashing Controversy by Jen Yamato, from The Daily Beast. 

 

 

 

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16th Day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

This post, meant to be published on May 16th, never got posted on the 16th Day of APA Heritage Month.  I have since read (listened to) the book and edited slightly my responses to Shliesman’s review.  Since this is a book eligible for Odyssey Award and I am currently serving on the committee, I am not going to discuss the quality of the writing, nor the technical merits/flaws, etc. of the recording.

This post is about a bigger issue, with the review as a springboard.

tyranny of petticoatsMegan Schliesman, in her Reviewing While White: A Tyranny of Petticoats, points out that there are fifteen stories in this short story collection and eight of the stories feature characters of color and one of them is about a Chinese American.

The more than a dozen contributors include four women of color: three of them are of Asian Pacific heritage. Marie Lu wrote a story about an Inuit girl in Alaska. Caroline Tung Richmond and Y.S. Lee both wrote stories about white protagonists and the one story about a Chinese American girl is written by a white author.

This is not surprising since Asian American children’s and YA authors have not been known to write only about Asian American experiences. Marie Lu’s Legend and the Young Elites trilogies all feature predominantly non-Asian characters. And both Y.S. Lee and Caroline Tung Richmond write about European girls.

Schliesman also pointed out that the one story featuring a Chinese American character portrays a girl who can see ghosts and commune with spirits.  (And several other stories featuring POC characters also include ghosts or spirits.)  She wrote,

Surely there are plenty of “badass girls” who can be imagined throughout and across U.S. history and authentically grounded in a variety of cultures without resorting to the fantastic. What am I to make of these stories? Are they grounded in any authentic cultural beliefs, or simply spun from their authors’ imaginations?

I’d like to think that this is a true question and that perhaps either the authors or cultural experts might be able to offer a satisfactory answer.  However, this could also be an accusation: perhaps Schliesman already decided that the authors have not grounded their stories in authentic cultural beliefs and by “resorting to the fantastic,” they have either exoticized the cultures or rendered them “backwards.”

The only thing I can offer here is based on my own singular experience as a Chinese girl growing up in Taiwan.  And from there, perhaps readers of A Tyranny of Petticoats can make up their own minds about whether this Chinese American story’s allusion to ghosts/spirits seems authentic.

Re-reading part of Maxine Hong Kingston’s wonderful memoir The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, I was reminded how my own girlhood in Taiwan was tightly woven with the beliefs in the spiritual world: my mother had lucid dreams and could tell us about immediate future events with quite a bit of accuracy; my father’s soul was raised to Heaven by 49 days of continuous Buddhist monks’ chanting in our house; fortune-tellers are consulted by most people to find the best day to open a business, to have a wedding, and the best match for one’s daughter or son; the many offerings at various temples from parents to secure their children’s high marks on the college entrance exam… these are things we routinely did (and most likely still do.)  As recently as just a couple of years ago, after a really frightening nightmare when we stayed in a hotel in central Taiwan, I asked my older sister, who sometimes serves as an exorcist to “clean houses (eject ghosts)” for her friends and clients, to perform a ritual involving clean water and a bowl of beans.  I slept soundly after that ritual. I definitely have a strong sense of pre-destined fate and still clench my fists in a particular pattern to ward off evil elements when passing a cemetery or encountering a funeral procession.  (Actually, an upcoming book written by a debut Taiwanese American author will explore Taiwan “ghost culture” deeply, and authentically.)

Will I take offense if someone out of my culture takes these elements and insert them clumsily and stridently into a tale without truly understanding where all these beliefs and sensibilities came from? Probably.  I imagine that it is not easy for an “outsider” to grasp or present accurately my strong fear of ghosts or my sense of comfort when smelling incense – both have roots in my own self and also my connection to the tradition passed down through many thousands of years.  This probably explains my inability to finish a well received book such as The Walled City by Ryan Graudin — I simply couldn’t get past her descriptions of the Chinese Constellations and how they are used in her tale and found her supposedly in-depth research, from afar without actually living through or experiencing the culture, lacking. This is also perhaps why I have yet to be able to read past the first segment of The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks — when the location in this Graphic Novel is so glaringly a superficial copy of a Chinese traditional city.

That said, is including ghosts/spirits in a story about a Chinese American girl automatically the mark of “exoticism” or “keeping the culture in the backwater days”?  I’d say no — not automatically at all.  It all depends on how the tale is told and the world is built and whether there is a true understanding of from where such elements came.  Just because I, a 50 something Chinese/Taiwanese woman feels a certain way about a text featuring “my culture” does not mean that mine is THE way or THE ONLY way that such text would be or should be viewed by other Chinese/Taiwanese or Chinese/Taiwanese American readers.

I hope that we can all accept that, since People are complex and Cultures and Histories are complex, Books about People and Cultures the Discussions about such Books are also unavoidably complex. We do have to keep digging and thinking and sometimes even changing our minds.

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Salla Simukka, Finnish Author

At a small event hosted by the Consul General from Finland, introducing best-selling author Salla Simukka from Finland, I learned a little about Nordic Noir and Finnish Weird.

Simukka’s takes the lines from Snow White as the three titles of the trilogy: As Red as Blood, As White as Snow, and As Black as Ebony, but this is not a fairytale retelling or fantasy.  Rather they are gritty, dark, and intense crime novels for teens.

I also learned that in Finnish, the third person pronoun has no gender differentiation, so a reader of the Finnish original would have little clue as to the gender of the love interest of the main character.  (And in book 2, the full identity is revealed and it is probably going to be a surprise for most readers!)

These books’ English editions have been available in the States since 2013 but now are getting a re-release (probably some editorial revision as well) starting January 2017 by Random House/Crown Books for Young Readers.

Salla had a conversation with her U.S. editor Phoebe Yeh (WNDB) discussing her writing style and views. She’s eloquent and full of energy.

Hopefully we will see more and more translated contemporary work from other countries to enrich young people’s understanding of the world and empower them to be true global citizens.

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Make Not The Past Rosy, Nor The Present Bleak

On September 30th, I had the honor to present, with my fellow judges Joanna Rudge Long and Besty Bird, the 2016 Boston-Globe Horn Book Awards to children’s book creators. Unlike many other awards, we were not given a set of criteria to base our reading and evaluation on.   It was simply, look for excellent books in Picture Books, Fiction and Poetry, and Nonfiction category.

One award title for each category and up to two honored titles.  The author and illustrator both receive the award in cases of an illustrated title.  This year’s titles were announced in late May.  You can see the program description and watch the May announcement on the Horn Book site.

On October 1st, I attended the Horn Book Colloquium at Simmons College focusing on a theme inspired by the titles we chose, with talks and panel discussions based by the winning creators.  This year’s theme was Out of the Box — because, boy, did we have a hard time figuring out where to place some of our favorite books of the year!

So, the picture book winner, Jazz Day, is also poetry, and can arguably be Nonfiction, and one of the Nonfiction honored titles, Voice of Freedom, is a picture book of verses, too.   There are also other out of the box endeavors by the creators.

As part of the program for the day, I had the honor to interview Ekua Holmes and Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrator and author, of Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement.

We discussed many topics about the book and about their craft and when I asked both of them what they would like to see published more for children, these are their answers – and I paraphrase grossly here:

Weatherford: I’d like to see more lesser known people of color movers and shakers profiled for children.  We probably don’t need one more book on Martin Luther King Junior or Harriet Tubman; but we definitely need to tell stories of others who paved the roads and blazed the trails for us through extremely difficult times and against all odds.

Holmes: I’d like to see more books about just the daily miracles of any child of color — their lived experiences and they can be quite bright and fulfilling, full of art, music, beauty, and happiness.  We need to tell these stories!

I agree with both of them.  Let’s have a fuller exploration of the past; don’t make it rosy, and don’t hide the ugly spots.  But let’s also fully represent the present.  There are definitely struggles and dark moments, but we must also celebrate and acknowledge the love and support that many children experience in their own families and communities.

And let’s make sure that multiple and differed perspectives and voices from the seemingly homogeneous marginalized communities are heard and honored.  There is room for the representation from the entire spectrum of experiences and values.

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My DKDK (Don’t Know Don’t Know) Moments – Or What I Learned From My Online Discussion Mistakes

On July 17th, I posted “A Tribe of Kind Souls: a closer look at a double spread in Lane Smith’s There Is a TRIBE of KIDS,” offering my views on a particular spread of illustration after a couple of days engaging on Reading While White, and other online interaction places (email listservs and twitter.)

During those days and ever since, I have not stopped thinking about the many different reactions I received both publicly and privately (via emails and in person.)  I also have not stopped thinking about Debbie Reese’s public declaration of how, for a couple of decades, her impression of me has been that I am on the opposing side of her convictions — which is, simply put, to have accurate, and dignified, representation of American Indian content, and a lot more of it, in Children’s Literature.

This revelation both shocked me and saddened me.  It is also a prime example of how I did not follow my own advice — to acknowledge that this could have been a case of I “Don’t Know That I Don’t Know” and to spend more time listening and considering others’ views than defending my own.  I don’t mean that I should not have expressed my views, but I think I could have done better in the “listening” and “considering” department, and less on the “defending” my views department.

So, here are some things I have been thinking about for the last ten days:

I Failed at Being A Visible and Vocal Ally

First and foremost, I realized that I have not been a vocal enough ally to Debbie.  When I agree with her views and her tireless work as an advocate, I usually sit back and agree in silence.  I pretty much only speak up when I have questions about how she interprets something, and wants her to either defend further or clarify more.  I also want her to see how I come to have my opposing views.  (An example was over The Hired Girl on Heavy Medal blog.)  These disagreements occupy a very small percentage of how I normally react to Debbie’s views: I fundamentally agree with everything she stands for and have always benefited much from her sharing of her thoughts and feelings (yes, Debbie can be very emotional when she writes about the hurt and injustices she sees in books for children).  I have based my collection development for my library on many of her recommendations.  However, since I have not been actively and visibly expressing my support, it is of course impossible for Debbie to know.

This has been a wake-up call for me to be a better ally and supporter – not just to Debbie Reese, but to others who have been taking up the banner for a better, more equitable, and authentic children’s publishing world.

Online Discourse Is Real Life, Too!

A second thing that I learned is how even when I started off trying to simply parse out a thorny issue intellectually, social media and online engagement could easily bring in emotional responses, mostly due to the quick turn around back-and-forth and the misinterpretations of tones due to the lack of physical and tonal cues.

I need to adhere to the Real Life practices that have served me well:

1. Take time to cool off and consider the others’ views and feelings before shooting off an email to express dismay or outrage.

2. Go directly to the person who I feel that has “wronged me” and find out the reasons behind any public (or private) outburst, in a way that is genuinely to solve the issue and not to express my own displeasure.

3. Do not engage emotional discourses between publicly: especially between friends and friendly colleagues.

What Should Drive Children’s Publishing?

The DESIRE to Do It Right and not the FEAR of Doing it Wrong!

A third thing that I have been considering has more to do with an aspiration for my publishing colleagues and it will be in a separate post.  Just to forecast here: I yearn for the day when the driving force of publishers, editors, authors, and illustrators to create powerful and accurate books that are accepted readily and praised by outsiders and insiders alike is a strong and genuine desire to DO IT RIGHT after lots of soul searching and professional training, and not the fear of DOING IT WRONG and being called out after the fact!

 

 

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Absence Heightens Presence

Walking down Seattle night streets, I came upon these trees adorned with Christmas lights.  My aesthetic mind created an instant division: I loved the moving lights up in the branches and had next to no emotional reaction to the static lights on the tree trunks.  What made the moving lights so much more appealing?

Could it be that each absence of light makes the presence of it more vibrant, more intense.

Could this same revelation be applied to my reading aesthetics?

Is this why I find books filled with figurative language page after page less appealing than books that only feature effective and well developed figurative language when absolutely necessary?

Like the static lights on the tree trunks, the too frequent presence of metaphors, similes, and analogies reduces my appreciation of an author’s artistry.  I need the appropriate absence of figurative speeches to fully feel the impact of their presence.

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