Tag Archives: weneeddiversebooks

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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Dear Ellen Oh, You Are Not Me!

I was going to challenge Ellen Oh’s use of “WE”  when I read the first paragraph of her blog post Dear White Writers because I had a knee-jerk reaction and found the use of this collective pronoun problematic. Indeed, I often find sweeping generalization of all kinds problematic.  And because I believe strongly that ANYONE CAN write about ANY topic and create ANY character they are passionate about as long as they have done diligent preparation, her proclamation of “Yes We Need Diverse Books. But that doesn’t always mean that we want YOU to write them” made me feel that I was not included in that general “We.”  My thoughts went immediately to these queries: What did she mean by “We”?  Who are the “We”?  Did she include me, a Chinese American librarian, when she used “We”?  Or did she mean only the people who are officially involved with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks organization?  (By the way, when I submitted my volunteer form through the site, I was informed that too many people were interested in being involved so that my request was denied.)  Or did she mean just the Korean American writers, like herself?   Or all the Asian American writers?  Or anyone that is not White?  Or simply all those who agree with her?  You see — the use of We is too imprecise and too absolute at the same time to not make me think of all the possibilities in one shot!

But I went on and read the entire post and found that I actually agree with most of her points, except perhaps this following accusatory sentiment.  She wrote,

Don’t do it because “you believe in diversity and want to help the cause.” Don’t do it because you think you are helping us. Because you’re not. The truth is, you’re only doing it for yourself. Because you think it is going to help you get published.

I think it is GREAT if all writers believe in diversity and want to help the cause — regardless of their skin colors.  Actually, I think many of such efforts could be very helpful.  In any kind of social movement, ally-ship between the insiders and the outsiders is crucial in its success.  So, I say, please do include diverse characters and address many topics in your books: whether you are white or a person of color and whether you are writing from an insider or an outsider lens.  Just be very aware of which lens you are using and do not presume that you know it all.  You just may be helpful.  I also feel very uncomfortable seeing a universal condemnation to an entire group (white writers, in this case) and accusing them all for wanting something (to be published) that is simply a natural desire for anyone in the field (children’s and YA lit world.)

Aside from this strong disagreement, I want to specifically endorse these following points.

Ellen wrote in her blog post:

We don’t want publishers to say, “Well, we already published a book about that,” and then find that it was a book that did not speak the truth about us but rather told someone on the outside’s idea of who we are.

And I cannot agree more!  “That” refers to topics or characters existing to fill a “diversity quota.”  There should not be a quota.  The publishers of children’s books must start examining their own output and ensure the widest possible diversity in character representations, subject matters, and book creators.  Diversity should not be something that needs policing and reminding.  It should be so natural that no publishing teams would think twice about offering all kinds of books and about all kinds of characters and experiences.  In fact, the publishers themselves should be the frontline champions of diverse books!

Ellen also wrote this paragraph that a white author who has been worrying about whether they are “allowed” to write POC stories should take to heart:

So here’s the truth that needs to be repeated again and again. Don’t write a POC’s story unless you need to tell it with such a burning desire that it will eat you alive and so you will come into our houses and walk in our shoes to get it right, and that way it isn’t written ONLY from a white lens. Don’t do it unless you are willing to invest in a whole lot of time and commitment and get into some heavy conversation about what it is like to live our lives, deal with racism and micro-aggressions and fear and hate. Don’t do it because you think it is a hot trend. Don’t do it because you think it will help you get published. Don’t do it because you just love Kpop and Kdramas and oh wouldn’t it be cool to bring it to an American audience? Don’t do it because your mama is 1/32nd Native American and somehow that gives you a pass to write about the culture (it doesn’t). Don’t do it because it is exotic, mystical, spiritual, etc.

Thank you, Ellen Oh, for proposing these sensible and achievable goals for your fellow writers.  Even though you are not me, WE (two) definitely share a lot of common expectations and aspiration.

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In the Ring: White Mediocrity vs Non-White Mediocrity

It seems that, within the boxing ring of White Mediocrity vs Non-White Mediocrity, Non-White Mediocrity does not stand a chance. It has always been, and will continue to be, if we don’t keep challenging the status-quo, complete Knock-Outs, round after round.  Hey, sometimes, White Mediocrity even wins against Non-White Excellence. There are even White Lousiness knocking out Non-White Mediocrity at Round ZERO.  (Think of all the unpublished manuscripts by “mediocre” non-white authors vs all the published not-so-good ones by white authors.)

This Boxing Ring imagery popped into my head this morning when I started following the recent facebook/twitter/blogsphere face-offs between YA author, Meg Rosoff, and many others, and especially after reading the words from Camryn Garrett on her blog.  The relevant quoted words are at the end of this post, but I want to first go back and track my own journey from being a harsh harsh critic of “diversity books” to one who considers them very differently on this day in October, 2015.

Recently, in Beijing, I encountered so many outstanding Chinese children’s books and I couldn’t help but ponder: why don’t American children have the opportunities to see these books? Why aren’t these books (many of them short picture books) translated and are made readily available in the United States?

Manager Li, who invited me to review the children’s book output in China, said to me one day, “Our best children’s books are as good as the best American books.” And he is right!  But, there is simply not room for these books on the American market.

Why aren’t there more foreign books available in English to American Children?

To answer this bluntly: because much of the U.S. Children’s Book Market exists to support the livelihood of Proper American Authors. Which is completely reasonable and understandable. American Children’s publishers are American. They should take care of their/our own first.  They should definitely put priority on publishing American authors: outstanding, mediocre, or even not that good.

Scouring major children’s book review publications, one can easily see how many children’s books are considered “unworthy” by critics, but are nevertheless published and promoted by the American Children’s Publishers.  (As to what effects this “taking care of our own talents” has on the worldview of the young readers, that’s a totally different, full length blog post coming your way soon!)

But who are the Proper American Authors and Illustrators?

Whom do American Publishers believe deserving priority and support?  Whom do I believe deserving my priority and support — as a reader, as a reviewer, and as an educator?

I have been a harsh judge of books written by non-white authors, especially Asian American authors. Perhaps because I am Chinese and want to feel, oh, so proud of my Chinese & Asian heritage, that I see mediocrity (or pretty much anything below stellar) as a personal disappointment.  I often point out the issues of in-authenticity or pedestrian literary quality of an OK (or more than OK) book that is actually a much needed addition to the diversity pool.  I absolutely believed that diversity topics needed to be packaged within outstanding, excellent books, otherwise, hmm…they kind of reek of hidden or overt agenda and to me, that was a no-no.

This harsh critic mentality is akin to the wisdom passed down from black parents to their black sons and daughters to “behave 200% more politely, talk 200% more eloquently, and dress 200% better” just to have a chance to be treated equally as their white counterparts.  I wanted every single book by Asian American authors to have not only solid character development, not only well-crafted passages, and not only a great plotline: I NEEDED them to be stellar in every possible way and all aspects! Because, how else could we convince the world of our worth?

Recently, I began to wonder, to doubt my former convictions.

I have noticed that any flaw belonging to an underrepresented group is often enlarged ten folds and is seen as evidence of the shortcomings of the entire group; while the flaws found among the protective multiplicity of the dominant/majority group are often made less significant and almost never viewed as the weaknesses of the entire group.  Perhaps this was why I thought that it’s totally all right for the many pedestrian, mediocre, and sometimes even downright bad “majority books” to take up precious space of the marketplace?

But not any more.  And especially not after reading these words from Camryn Garrett on her blog: For All the Girls Who Are Half Monster:

White mediocrity: This is more of a concept, but I’m happy to explain. While there are white authors who are amazing and fantastic and produce great works, there are also white authors who…are just okay. Or even bad. But they’re celebrated and given awards and praise for being mediocre.

Meanwhile, people of color are held to actual standards (that sounds rude, but whatever.) They have to work to be good, and sometimes that isn’t enough. Basically, white authors can get on the NYT Bestseller List for being “okay.” A Hispanic author has to be “fantastic” to get the same thing. White authors have to be “fantastic” to win a National Book Award. Black authors have to be “outstanding” to be considered.

I didn’t want to start any fight – not in the Boxing Ring, literal or metaphorical.  But, at the same time, things must be said, and concepts must be challenged. Let the conversation continue!

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Chew (Series) by John Layman & Rob Guillory

Taster's Choice (Chew, Vol. 1)

Chew by John Layman, artwork by Rob Guillory

Not for the faint of heart or queasy of tummy. There are laugh-out-loud scenes and almost-puke-my-guts-out scenes. Definitely cannot read this and have a meal at the same time.

Since 2009, the series creative duo, Layman & Guillory, have brought us 50 installments and 10 collective volumes (August 2015) of this bizarre tale of a Chinese American FDA detective Tony Chu with a superhuman ability: Tony can bite into any once living organism and have vivid “recollection” of the scenes in that living organism’s life, including the circumstances surrounding its death.  So, when he arrived on a murder scene, he is required to take a bite out of the corpse…   But, wait, others also have strange abilities like, a food critic able to write reviews that make the readers actually “taste” the meal (including the terrible ones), a chocolate sculptor who can recreate any landmark in 100% accurate details, etc.

And then you have the U.S. Government’s top secret weapon, Poyo, a rooster with nuclear weapon power, other political conspiracies involving NASA and the aliens they deal with, and enough family and love drama to satisfy any soap opera aficionado. Yup.  A crazy smorgasbord of gross but hilarious scenarios.  I absolutely adore this series and can’t wait to read the rest of the collected volumes (planned 12, by mid-2016.)

One of the main reasons that I love Chew is my fondness of Guillory’s artistic style.  And now I think of it, the series definitely fits #weneeddiversebooks movement very well — for older teens.

Meet the artist, Rob Guillory:

robguilloryphoto

And Meet Tony Chu:

meettonyAnd see some of the unusual scenes for yourself:

chewspecial chewcovers chewweirdwedding

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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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