Tag Archives: diversity

What Do Covers Say?

Working on making a poster in anticipation of Jacqueline Woodson’s visit to my school next week — and finding images of the book covers of middle grade and YA titles by her.  The fact that quite a few of the covers feature brown people without their faces shown feel uncomfortable to me.   Don’t know how others might feel… Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 8.13.42 AM

Of course, there are plenty of other books and different editions featuring prominently the characters’ faces.

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I did not get to read this article…

I did not get to read this article until today even though it was published last year — but What White Children Need to Know About Race should be a Must Read for anyone involved in the lives of our children — teachers, school administrators, librarians, and parents. Especially parents. Because, when it is all said and done, “professional” educators (like me, a middle school librarian) only have your kids in our hands part of the day, part of the week, and part of the year, and part of their lives while you (parents) influence your children all the time.

Actually, this article is also informative even for those who are NOT directly involved with educating children — it probably should just be called, What White PEOPLE Need to Know About Race (and how to engage in meaningful and courageous conversations!)

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April 14, 2015 · 10:15 pm

But I NEVER imagined him as being like me. In my head, he’s white.

With the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, many gatekeepers and practitioners of children’s literature have been publishing thoughtful articles and having deep conversations on the urgent need to publish and promote books featuring diverse characters.  To highlight how important this movement is and how decades of mostly “white” books have “trained” our young readers what to expect from books, I’d like to swing the spotlight directly on some young readers themselves:

The Setting

Time: A sunny Monday morning in winter.  3rd period.  Individual choice time.

Place: A comfortable School Library Reading Room, Upper East Side of Manhattan.  This is an independent school where 60% of students are white and the rest are made up of darker skinned students (if we also consider East Asian as “darker” skinned.)

Character List

F – The Librarian, Female, Asian American, 50-something

A – Student, 7th Grade.  Male. Half Black, Half Jewish
R – Student, 7th Grade.  Male. Twin of A.
W – Student, 7th Grade.  Male. African American.
J – Student, 7th Grade.  Male. Caribbean Black.
N – Student, 7th Grade.  Female. Jewish/White.

A, R, W, J, N are all devourers of books, especially action packed Science Fiction or Fantasy novels.

The Scene

The students sprawled on the comfy chairs and benches with their laptops, half participating in a discussion on books featuring African American characters and history as they had just finished a unit on African American Authors and Stories (Day of Tears, Carver, We Are the Ship, The Other Wes Moore, Brown Girl Dreaming, among others.)

Suddenly, A exclaimed, “Oh my god.  The main guy in the book I just finished is black! He’s super cool! But I NEVER imagined him as being like me.  In my head, he’s white.”

R, J, and W immediately jumped into the conversation and were all in agreement how they also never imagined a superhero with their own faces.  N, usually talkative, remained silent.  The kids and the librarian then started talking about how there are also so few black action heroes in movies except for perhaps Will Smith and Samuel L. Jackson.

The period ended.  Everyone picked up their new reads and left the Reading Room.

End Scene

The previous was based on a recent informal conversation I had with those five kids.  I didn’t detect any sense of outrage or dismay.  The boys simply accepted the lack of dark skinned heroes as the norm.  I, on the other hand, could not stop wondering about that one statement, “I NEVER imagined him as being like me.  In my head, he’s white.”

Is this a shared sentiment across the country by non-white young readers who seldom see themselves on book covers or between the covers?  When they do encounter people of color in books, most of these characters seem to always need some form of “saving” — from poverty, from political or racial injustice, or from other dire situations (human trafficking, child soldier, etc.)

Isn’t it high time for us all to change that default and reshape the landscape of American children’s books?

Let’s have non-white heroes and let their faces show on the covers.

interrogation ofmetalandwishes tankborn
2014, Candlewick Press
Australian Import
Vol. 1 in Tseries
2014,
Margaret K. McElderry
Vol. 1 in series
2011, Tu Books
Vol. 1 in trilogy

 

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Haven’t had a chance to read all the…

Haven’t had a chance to read all the abusive words thrown at Andrew Smith that caused him to shut down both his twitter and facebook accounts. I did have the chance to read the VICE interview and saw what he had said (as published by VICE) and simply couldn’t fathom how an honest, although tongue-in-cheek, and quite humble remark such as, “I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though” would have been the cause of so much personal attack and pain. I read couple of responses that more or less match what I think: Andrew Smith is a brilliant author who deals with issues in his books mostly through male perspectives: raw, honest, frequently biased or myopic (because it IS raw and honest) — and is obviously aware of the criticism that he’s not fleshing out his female characters as much as his readers would have liked. I’m trying to make sense of all this… I have not read Alex Crow — but I did read 100 Sideway Miles and found Julia to be independent, mature, and an incredibly strong and positive influence over Finn — an entirely different female character from Shann in Grasshopper Jungle. I need to do a lot more digging to figure out why the outcry and also whether I find it justifiable to condemn a human being and his character simply by the characters they put in books and also by some sentences in an interview that, to me, seem to be interpreted to carry very different meanings than intended.

Here are links to the original interview and some responses:

The original interview:
http://www.vice.com/read/failure-of-male-societies-869

An interpretation that states Andrew Smith, by saying (tongue-in-cheekly) that he’s ignorant of how women function, Andrew Smith is admitting that he considers women “LESS THAN HUMAN.” I can easily, by the same ignoring-all-logic-or-facts method used by Tessa Gratton here, claim that he is considering women “MORE THAN HUMAN” and thus harder to grasp and he’s trying to do a better job at learning how to WRITE THEM as characters. Sorry. Grrr…. :
http://tessagratton.tumblr.com/post/113355208098/andrew-smith-and-sexism

A well-argued essay in response to the twitter witch hunt and Gratton’s attack
https://thereadingzone.wordpress.com/2015/03/11/slice-of-life-11-criticism-is-key/#comment-12019

A long list of thoughts that present many ideas that I think about what Andrew Smith had said:
http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2015/03/12/what-i-think-about-andrew-smith-and-what-he-said/

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March 13, 2015 · 10:43 am

I am not happy with the WIWIK tag…

I am not happy with the WIWIK tag — I don’t think it expresses the correct sentiment. So bear with me as I change it to What I Wish We All Know. Either something that I know that I wish others do, too; or something that I have questions and wish to be informed: all of them should be something that is under each practitioner’s belt. So, perhaps, it should be WIWWAK: What I Wish We All Know! And it is still pronounceable.

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March 13, 2015 · 9:46 am

WIWIK – What I Wish I Knew

I have been thinking how I may contribute to the #weneeddiversebooks movement. One strong belief of mine is that we not only need diverse books but amazing and accurate diverse books. Two more blog posts in the Doing The Diversity Thing Diversely are forthcoming. More thoughts have been brewing. In the meantime, is there something I can do on an ongoing basis? And how do I gather all of these under one thread?

Last night, reading Wendy Mass’s The Candymaker and encountering this declaration: “alphabet is the foundation of every language” gave me an idea. This is an incredibly fun book, extremely popular with my students. I am thoroughly in love with the intriguing plot line and mesmerized by the candy factory! But reading that sentence, my instinctual reaction was, “um, no, the Chinese language is not built on a system of the alphabet. And there are more than a billion people who use this language daily!” I know that this is from Miles’ mind, a 12-year-old boy in a book. The author must have known that there are languages in the world that were not built on alphabets! She just made her character think this way. And yet, I wonder. Miles is a highly intelligent, book-loving, code-making, language-creating child. So it is also highly likely that he does know that “not every” language in the world is founded on a set of alphabets. A simple “almost” before “every” in this sentence would have been more accurate without sacrificing the authenticity of the character.

But, could it be possible that the author and the editor really did not know that there are non-alphabet based languages? If so, then perhaps I can contribute by questioning and discussing such matters for practitioners — authors, editors, librarians, teachers, etc.!

Thus a new TAG on Fairrosa Cyber Library was born. wiwik — What I Wish I Knew. With this tag, I can collect questions I have regarding cultural references in children’s books and give myself homework to research and find out accurate information. Others can join in to discuss and enlighten me, too! (I’m also adding this tag to some older posts and the link to the sidebar.

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Doing the Diversity Thing Diversely, Part 3: How Can We Know When We Don't Know What We Don't Know?

One form or another “matrix of knowledge” is often presented at educators workshops, especially when the discussion is about diversity.  These are the four quadrants of such matrix: 

KNOW
KNOW
DON’T KNOW
KNOW
KNOW
DON’T KNOW
DON’T KNOW
DON’T KNOW

When I read Malinda Lo’s blog post on YA novel reviewing, I realized that many of the problems cited in her article come from the lower-right quadrant.

We can look at these quadrants in light of book reviewing:

  • KK: One has a firm grasp of a particular knowledge and can readily access and utilize such knowledge.  Most reviews are done by reviewers familiar with the content or genre in order to accurately assess the quality of the book.
  • DKK: One sometimes is not consciously aware of possessing particular knowledge since such knowledge has become second nature.  Most reviewers will not have to put in extra effort to notice typos in a finished book.
     
  • KDK: One is consciously aware that one lacks particular knowledge or set of knowledge. In this case, research and inquiries are made and new knowledge is gained. Faced with a book where the main character has an unfamiliar medical condition will prompt any reviewer to do some research in order to assess the accuracy of the tale.
  • DKDK: One is unaware of one’s lack of knowledge in a particular area. More often than not, one also believes that he/she actually has solid knowledge about the matters at hand. This often makes it difficult for anyone to obtain actual knowledge.  In Lo’s “Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews,” most if not all of the examples cited in part 1 “Scarcely Plausible” and part 4 “Readers May Be Surprised” fit squarely into this  DKDK box.

I have no doubt that the reviewers in Lo’s examples believe that they KNOW about peer cultures or that they really KNOW how potential readers will react, and thus evaluate the books accordingly: all based on the self-trust in one’s knowledge and also on an urgent sense of mission to be the gatekeeper, warding off culturally insensitive materials.  But, as explained clearly by Malinda Lo, such heroic protection could result in damning certain books for committing crimes against cultural accuracy while in truth that the book might be indeed culturally accurate.  Such as the demand of having a glossary, since it has been standard practices and requirements on books with “exotic” and “unfamiliar” (read: non-white) words or expressions and that lack of such glossary signifies inferior quality. 

I myself have engaged in several discussions over the years on the portrayal of Chinese culture and characters in children’s and YA books.  I always do this with much trepidation: since there is no way that I can truly be the spokesperson for an entire (and extremely complex) culture, even if it is considered MINE.  (I am now even more aware of the differences between Chinese and Chinese American Cultures.) Take my post on Five Chinese Brothers for example.  This old picture book is often criticized as racially insensitive (or downright racist.) I addressed this controversy back in 2008, in Examining The Five Chinese Brothers, mostly defending the illustrations by Kurt Wiese. I pointed out that if one examines the pictures carefully and accurately, without being influenced by an overblown sense of social justice, one can easily see how many of these cartoon faces have different features: nose shapes, eyebrow angles, even ear shapes and sizes.  The well-intentioned critics usually claim that Wiese was being racially insensitive because he perpetuated the “oh, they all look the same; I can’t tell them apart” concept. These critics didn’t seem to realize that perhaps they themselves Don’t Know how to read cartoon/stylized lines of Chinese features.  To me, all five viewable faces in the two pictures below are distinctly different — are they?

 Photo-38-751016

Photo-43-785330

However, since posting about it 7 years ago, I have also come to realize how much I also DKDKed!  My insistence to support the use of yellow for the faces is based on my personal experiences: as a Chinese girl growing up in a homogeneous environment, proud to be a member of the “yellow race,” and never having to contend with my ethnic identity.  It is a highly biased stance (and I wanted to break the connection of Yellow=Undesirable, what an naive idea!)  I disregarded the real experiences of Chinese and Asian American child readers.  Just because I don’t find being labeled “yellow skinned” hurtful does not mean that there are not many who are indeed hurt.  In this case, I believe that their views are more valid than mine.

Yes, I have to update my own mindset, bringing myself from the DKDK quadrant to at least the KDK quadrant and striving to listen and learn from others. 

Since my pervious post in this series was about Africa Is My Home, I decided to look at reviews from 2 years ago when the book was first published.  I found this review from Kirkus and decided that a discussion about parts of the review fits nicely here.  

I have some disagreements with the review, but most can be chalked up to personal tastes and subjective views.  I would not have classified this book as a “text-heavy picture book” but a “heavily illustrated historical fiction.”  I don’t feel that Robert Byrd’s illustrations are “frequently cramped,” although there are definitely a few busy scenes: at the market place, in the court house, and on the Amistad.  I (and my students) also don’t find the text befuddling in any way.  

What made me wonder the most is this claim of one of the book’s several “flaws:”

“Its illustrations…offer minimal variety in the characters’ skin tones and facial features.”

The reviewer seems to say that it is quite problematic in depicting the people (adults and children) from Mende Land (Sierra Leone) with very similar skin tones: perhaps to the point that implies Robert Byrd’s lack of respect for the people depicted.  Most racially sensitive folks believe that “not all Africans have the same skin tones” and that “no one should lump all all Africans as being the same.”   We should treat them as individuals and as humans equal to everyone else.  This is all I hold true as well. However, the reason we see distinctly different shades of skin tones in the States (or other non-African continents) is the result of the long and vast history of African diaspora and racial mingling.  And in Africa Is My Home, the illustrator Robert Byrd shows his awareness of this in his illustration of  the market place scene set in Cuba:

IMG_20150227_092333

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(note the two women shopping for vegetables/fruits)

Byrd, using water color and non-realism style,) depicted Mende Land children and adults with very similar skin tones.  The variation, if any, is extremely subtle.

africaismyhomepageimage

There are also some very similar facial features, for sure: The shape of the nose, the large round eyes with the whites showing, etc.

Curious, I searched for recent photographs of Sierra Leone children and came across many group photos such like this one from the BBC News Magazine.

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And cannot quite bring myself to label Byrd’s choices as a flaw in the book.

If Byrd had made the skin tones and facial features a lot more varied for the Mende Land people, just like what he did for the Cuban market place scene, would the Kirkus reviewer then praise him for his cultural sensitivity, even if that might have been an even more inaccurate depiction?  From where I stand, this well-intended criticism, aimed to point out “cultural insensitivity,” seems to lack cultural understanding itself.

Like I said earlier, I’m always really fearful when I hold different opinions about books regarding cultural references: since perhaps I am so off base.  So, I’d love to hear from others who have better understanding of the topics addressed here and would love to be enlightened about anything that I Don’t Know that I Don’t Know!

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Doing the Diversity Thing Diversely, Part 2: The Importance of Fretting

africaismyhomecoverYesterday marked the paperback release of Africa Is My Home, by Monica Edinger, a dear friend and colleague.  I always think of Monica as a fellow journeyer in the fantastic and sometimes treacherous, but always rewarding, territory that is Children’s Literature.  Monica and I met online 20 years ago over the Child_lit listserv.  Our mutual admiration for Lewis Carroll and his creations (Wonderland, puzzles, games…) made us fast virtual friends.  Since 1997, I have worked with Monica on numerous projects both at Dalton where she teaches 4th grade and I am the middle school librarian and out of Dalton, co-teaching a Fairy Tales course online for Rutgers’ Youth Literature Certificate program and co-planning SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books for the past 7 years (with Jonathan Hunt and the good folks at SLJ,) among others.

I did not write a blog post for the book’s hardcover release two years ago, feeling self-conscious about how I probably could not really be objective in “reviewing” this book, being the first person who read Monica’s very first draft more than a decade ago.  However, to celebrate the release of the paperback edition and to contemplate how this book fits within the recent discussion on the various ways Diversity in children’s books can be achieved, I am compelled to write about it even more — even if I cannot extract my knowledge of the creative process of the book from how I view the final product.

I know intimately what Monica went through in writing and re-writing this book: switching narrative voices, changing from nonfiction to fiction to nonfiction to fiction several times, “shopping” it around to various publishers and working with various potential editors.  I also knew first hand how much she invested in making this (slim in size and yet hefty in subject matter) book: remembering what Sierra Leone was like when she spent two youthful years there, connecting and reconnecting with people from Sierra Leone to check and re-check facts, traveling to Connecticut (Amistad Museum) and Ohio (Oberlin) to immerse herself in primary materials about Sarah Margru, not to mention all the online researches she conducted through a decade.  I also listened to her fret, and fret, and fret.

Ah, the fretting.

Monica Edinger is a German Jew.  She is not of African descent.  She is white.  She lives in the 20th and 21st century.  Sierra Leone is not exactly the same as Mendeland those many years ago.  And this is NOT her own conjured-up story but the tale of a real person who lived and felt. It is also a story that has to work for a child reader when it’s told.  So many details to consider…and to fret over.

How would the world receive this book when it finally got published?  Would the book receive positive or negative reviews?  Would the people whose story she chose to tell understand how much respect and care she had in the making of the book?  Would the book and the story be dismissed?  So many questions and potential pitfalls to imagine…and to fret over.

All that fretting is what I think needs to go into writing any book, but perhaps especially into writing “diverse” books where cultural authenticity and respect are extremely important.

I believe that Monica’s relentless drive of writing this book as authentic as she could manage came from several places: her sincere passion to tell this less-known story, her perfectionist’s need to be meticulous and accurate, her true fondness of researching and verifying facts, her strong dose of a healthy fear of not getting it right, and her tremendous respect and caring of the welfare of the people and culture of Sierra Leone.  She did not write a book in the vein of what I have started thinking as a “third world tragedy story” told by a well-intentioned white person from a completely outsider viewpoint, often tinged with a sense of superiority and savior mentality.  She wrote a story (with assistance from historical documents, her editor Sarah Ketchersid, and the talented illustrator Robert Byrd) that brings a historical tale to life with a high degree of authenticity and no outsider judgment.  It enriches and will continue to enrich the reading and cultural experiences of young readers.

I’m so glad that Africa is My Home has received much praise and accolades: the result of the incessant fretting from all parties involved.

In the next post, I will discuss a particular review of Africa is My Home and when it first hit the market and ponder over similar questions of what Malinda Lo wrote on her blog post about reviewers’ perceptions when it comes to diversity topics in children’s and YA books.

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Doing the Diversity Thing Diversely, Part 1

The many discussions face to face and online about We Need Diverse Books in children’s and YA literature have informed me that there simply isn’t a cure-all solution when it comes to creating and promoting diverse books for young readers.

So, I plan to share some thoughts on this Diversity Thing from my vantage point, which is many folds and diverse and also in flux as I learn more from others.  Before putting up these blog entries, I’d like to first describe who I am in relation to children’s literature and where that background fits into the Diversity conversation, so readers may have a firm grip on where I come from when expressing my ideas, which, I guess, is something we all need to start doing — sharing of where we come from and why we feel certain ways and understanding where others have come from and why they feel certain ways.

I am a Taiwanese/Chinese American.  I was born in the 60s, attended a public elementary school, then went on to attend the Catholic Sacred Heart Girls’ middle and high school (boarding), and finally National Taiwan Normal University (teacher’s college.) My double degrees were BAs in Education and English Lit.  After graduating, I taught English (as required foreign language) in a public middle school from 1987 to 1989.

My parents were from Mainland China, part of Chiang Kai Shek’s (Jiang Zhong Zheng) army retreat to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s that resulted in the divide between the Communist China and the (more) Democratic Taiwan (Republic of China) regimes.  We still have a whole clan of the Xu family in Yunnan Province in China that I am attempting to re-establish relationship with.

  • Growing up in a largely homogeneous environment, being a member of the dominant class (my father was a member of the inner circle of both Chiang Kai Shek and his son, President Jiang Jing Guo,) and doing well in school in a climate that revered the intellect made it impossible for me to truly understand the feelings of being an underdog.  (Fortunately my near-sightedness, my short stature, and the fact I was not considered a beauty and was reminded of such fact by family and friends alike all through my youth balanced out that cockiness and allowed for some humility.) I also never had an ethnic identity crisis as many Asian Americans might have to struggle through since I was never a Minority!

As a young person, I was addicted to books and reading: my favorite stories came from Taiwan, China, Germany, France, Japan, Sweden, India, Italy, the US, Colombia, Russia, Greece, and many other countries. Most were classics but also plenty of contemporary (60s to 80s) writings.  All of my closest friends loved books.  However, reading novels was not considered the best way to spend one’s time.  Philosophical and personal essays were all the rage when I was growing up — all about how to better oneself, morally and worldly.

I came to the United States to study children’s literature in 1989 and received my MA from Simmons College in 1991.  In 1996, I received an MLS degree with a concentration on services to children.

  • One of my youthful aspirations was to win a Nobel Prize in literature.  I was a good writer, in those popular short essay forms.  I couldn’t and still can’t create fiction.  I revere the art form that is literature and since I’m so invested in literature for children, it is almost a sacred form to me.  This is why I am a very critical reader and get easily frustrated when I see something not done right that can be easily fixed.

I have been working since 1991 in New York City alone and have not lived elsewhere but NYC since 1991.  My string of jobs were all related to children’s book:

sales clerk for Eeyore’s bookstore for children (1991-1992)

subsidiary rights assistant to the department head at Macmillan Children’s Publishing (1992-1994)

children’s librarian at the New York Public Library (1994-1997)

middle school librarian at The Dalton School (1997-)

  • There are, in my head, inherent biases about racial compositions of peer groups by living only in New York City for 20+ years and working in a school where at least 40% of the students are not white. Immersed in such a diverse environment, it is hard for me to visualize, although I am cognizant to the fact, that in many States/Cities/Towns, young people do not meet “others” on a regular basis.
  • My continuous interaction with high achieving students who read regularly, have a passion for books, and can dissect literature aptly for the past 18 years greatly colors my view of what books are best for which age range and the kinds of books I promote at my workplace and on my blog.

I have been a member of the Association of Library Services to Children (ALSC) at ALA for almost 20 years and have served on two Newbery Committees, Notable Children’s Books Committee, and also recently Best Fiction for Young Adults for the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) — among other non-book related committees.  I have also been involved in co-planning and co-maintaining SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books site for the past 7 years.

  • This resulted in reading, thinking, and writing about children’s and YA literature on a regular basis and discussing books with thoughtful and experienced colleagues and practitioners such as Nina Lindsay, Monica Edinger, Vicky Smith, Kathy Odean, Phoebe Yeh, Junko Yokota, Jonathan Hunt, Adam Gidwitz, and many others.
  • Fairrosa Cyber Library (since 1994) is my site/blog devoted to children’s books that was one of the oldest online resources for children’s literature (and needs to be re-vamped, I know!)

A note on my reading habit: I still read English painfully slowly — having to sound out pretty much every word.  This is both a curse (I cannot read as many books as I’d like to) and a blessing (I am told often that I am a “careful” reader and that my slow-reading habit allows me to cite specific examples about style, tone, authenticity, etc.) 

A note on my reading preferences: I like unconventional and challenging literary forms and gravitate to fantasy and science fiction readily but can easily enjoy any genre, as long as I deem it “well written.”  Now, that’s another can of worms that I won’t open here.

A note on my attitude about this whole Diversity thing: The cliche is true: It is a long, hard, and never ending journey, and one cannot get anywhere without throwing something out there that might upset some folks, stir up the pot, generate passionate dissents, etc.  I am always willing to be made to see a different side of each matter and understand where others have come from, even if I might still disagree with them.  It is also of utter importance to me that during the discourse, others understand my efforts in upholding a professional mindset and stance, even when I appear to be extremely passionate and emotional (which I can be, often) about the matters at hand.  

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We Need Diverse, AND Amazing, AND Well Informed, AND Creative, AND Mind Stretching, Books

Last night, I rushed home to watch the Oscars live broadcast.

I was not following the news or discussion over the “All White Nominees” situation. So, it was a surprise to me that not a single person of color (brown, yellow, black, what have you) walked onto the stage to receive the golden statuette.

This morning, I woke up still pondering: hmm… what happened?  Was there not a single worthwhile movie featuring or made by people of color during the year 2014 that warranted some recognition?  If not, what happened?  Were there no creative or talented POC in the entertainment industry or were they not given the opportunities by the studios and the gatekeepers to showcase their talents?  If they never got to be SEEN, how could they have been nominated, or have won?   Then there’s the question of what happened with Selma and its actors, director, and writer?

The Youth Media awards press conference each year (where Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Printz, etc. awards are announced) has been dubbed, “The Academy Awards of Children’s Literature,” as if that’s high praise and what we children’s lit folks should strive to be.   At this point, I don’t want my beloved children’s literature field to be linked with the Academy Awards, especially after a strong showing of diverse topics, characters, and creators this year: a proud moment for many practitioners and champions of children’s lit.

And yet, the heated debate sparked by Malinda Lo’s and Roger Sutton’s recent blog posts (Lo’s Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews and Sutton’s Are We Doing It White?) reveals that even in the wake of a year of diverse winners, the children’s literature industry still has a long way to go in diversifying on all fronts, especially the gatekeepers (editors, publishers, reviewers, librarians, etc.) and their views.

I have been taking notes on others’ and my own thoughts and will post my reactions and observations in a few installments. Lots of soul searching and perspectives changing on-going in my head!

 

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Continue interesting discussion over on ccbc net re…

Continue interesting discussion over on ccbc-net re character ethnicities in children’s / YA books. And here’s a little rant I just posted there:

Also re Hunger Games — There’s always the discussion over Katniss’s ethnicity — she’s described as having “olive skin” and dark hair, eyes, etc. while her mother and Prim are fair haired and blue eyed. Does that indicate that she’s mix-raced? Does anyone know how Suzanne Collins envisioned her? What is Olive skin, anyway? Light or dark brown cured in a barrell? Green on the tree? Black in a can? Can we all just agree that this is a useless descriptor and toss it out of the window as of Feb. 2014?

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February 4, 2014 · 11:18 am

Counting by 7s

countingby7sby Holly Goldberg Sloan

My reactions to this book are quite mixed that I cannot sort them all out coherently.  So, here we go, a list of what I liked and what I had some issues with:

Starting with the positive aspects of the book:

  • I quite enjoyed the protagonist and her many interesting observations and thoughts.  Especially when she was less “normal” and more stubbornly herself the first part of the book.  I know that’s kind of the point of the book, that Willow “learned” how to interact with others and became more accepted and more accepting, but she definitely becomes less interesting a character as the story progresses.
  • I appreciated the author’s effort in pulling together a cast of diverse ethnicities, and featuring mix-raced kids and adults.
  • I definitely was curious and interested enough to know how things would pan out for Willow and the others, especially Dell.
  • I liked how at first one couldn’t quite tell the age and gender of Willow.
  • I thought that this is a thematically significant story.
  • I also thought it totally fine for the author to switch POVs — I’d rather this than having the author trying to keep it all in Willow’s head and thus making the book either too claustrophobic or Willow too wise and and unconvincing in her insights.

Now, onto the things that troubled me or did not satisfy me as much:

  • Vietnamese is presented as a language that one has to learn “verbal conjugations” for — when in reality, like many Asian languages, one uses only a few time stamps/phrases to indicate tenses while the original verbs remain the same.  I know that the author consulted Vietnamese speaking friends so it is even more curious that this oversight is in the book.  (I did read the online galley so don’t know exactly how the finished book handles this aspect exactly.)
  • I cannot wrap my head around how Pattie has SO much money that she could buy the entire building complex from the bank at the end of the book because of Willow and her predicament, and yet would subject her own children to live squalidly in the garage where her teenaged son who obviously is VERY troubled by the fact that their living condition is shameful (and he didn’t even have normal underwear) and was acting out and doing poorly at school.  Would an immigrant mother who suffered quite a bit of humiliation in her own youth, and who is presented as competent and caring for others, hide away all her wealth to this extend?  This just doesn’t compute for me.
  • There is quite a bit of rule and law breaking through the whole book, by almost every character, that I got slightly paranoid about recommending this to young readers.  Dell got by in his job without ever following protocols or performing the minimum requirements.  We hope that he has changed toward the end of the story… but that was not quite clear.  The whole “using Dell’s address” and faking that they’re all living in that apartment works quite well, but from the get go was a giant and elaborate lie, which became a wonderful truth at the end of the tale… seems too convenient and pat and is that what the author tries to convey?  As long as a lie comes from a good place, it will lead to a positive outcome?  Even Mai tells lies to the school in order to go to the custody hearing.  I am usually not one to worry about such things in children’s books, but for some reason, the accumulation of such behaviors as a way to make the story work got under my skin.

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Read this great article “Young Dreamers” by Christopher Myers it at Horn Book!

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August 6, 2013 · 5:19 pm

Bound

boundby Donna Jo Napoli

Reading this retelling of the “Chinese Cinderella” story was a painful experience for me. I could not even tell if it is well told, as stories go, because I was so distracted by all the inaccuracies in Napoli’s portrayal of Chinese cultures, customs, characters, and philosophies.

Here are some examples of my understanding that does not coincide with Napoli’s text. Granted, I need to do more research and see if maybe my understanding is not universally correct..

A second wife of a man is not the “Stepmother” of his children by the other wife. She is the “auntie-mom” or “second mother.” A stepmother is the wife of a second, separate marriage after the first wife is no longer around.

Napoli’s misunderstanding of Chinese words is glaringly annoying: A Carp (li 3rd tone) and the word Advantage (li the 4th tone) look and sound completely differently — yes, in English, you see them both sound as “Li” — but their tones are different, and thus a Chinese speaker will not confuse these two at all. There is no way that Xing Xing (the main character) can paint/carve one of these two words to set up a “pun” in the ceramics she made.  And would a Chinese native speaker say something like this, “‘Ming means ‘bright’ with a second tone. The word for ‘destiny’ sounds the same but with another tone.”????? If they are speaking Chinese (which they are supposed to be doing in the story,) there will be no need to point out the tonal differences because by SPEAKING them, the different tones are already apparent.

Also — homophones are the most common in Chinese language. All the following are of the same pronunciation (and it’s only 5 out of a possible 20 or so homophones): Ming = bright, Ming = name, Ming = bird call, Ming = remembrance, Ming = hell/world of the spirits. Yes, the Chinese do have word plays, and much of such plays relies on the confusion of homophones… but, the way Napoli wrote it, you can just tell that she does not really GET this language. This is the same throughout the book: reading it feels like reading a Chinese History 101 text, with pieces of a tale stuck uncomfortably on the margins.  A most painful experience…

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