Tomorrow is the big day!! The We’re the People Summer Reading list will be released tomorrow morning! I don’t know if you could tell from the interviews I posted, but the people who volunteer to work on this list are an extremely busy group of people. They are deeply dedicated to children’s literature, social justice and breaking down barriers. It was a tough year pulling it all together, but believe me we enjoyed every minute of the work. I hope you enjoy the list every bit as much.
Busy indeed! I think for me, the last 4 months of 2016 and the first 4 months of 2017 are studies in extremes. As 2016 was ending, I was on the road almost every other week making presentations. It didn’t take long for me to realize I’d let things get out of control by accepting every invitation that came my way and I rectified that in 2017 by remember that my focus here is promoting authors of color and Native/First Nation and their work. My research has focused on the presence of black girls in young adult literature by looking at the works of various authors and I’ve begun recently to look at the historical presence of marginalized groups in young adult literature.
With that focus, I was excited when School Library Journal promoted a webinar, “#Own Voices: SLJ in Conversation About Publishing Diverse Books” but my excited was quickly diluted when a couple of the publishers present presented books by White authors featuring marginalized characters. Is #OwnVoices being diluted as ‘diversity’ has been?
I am not opposing any author writing outside their experience if they’re going to write with integrity. I do not want to put the energy into policing books or defining when who can write what when I want to focus one authors of color and Native/First Nations authors. That’s my diversity issue.
I think this webinar disrupted me more because it spoke to my personal resolve. Even though I’ve been doing this work for years I continually become aware of authors I’ve not heard of before and I seek out opportunities to learn of more. This was a messed up opportunity for me and more importantly for authors of color who didn’t get promoted. I thought the #OwnVoices hashtag clearly stated that, but nothing, nothing has universal clarity.
Adding to this confusion, are the ways publishers represent race in picture books. I attended a rare presentation on children’s literature on my campus that featured Dr. Leslie Bow entitled “Race as Species: Animals and Other Asian Americans in Multicultural Children’s Literature”. Dr. Bow focused on the employment of animals to visual diversity in books that addressed race, particularly books on transnational adoption. She included the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s data on representation as well as many examples throughout children’s literature of animals such as panda bears being used to represent humans. Her thorough presentation ended with the opportunity for those present to discuss the impact of these books on young readers. I wish we could have come back the next day; sometimes it takes me a while.
Her presentation brought my mind the first time I’d seen animals used in this way at ALA Midwinter when a rep at the Little Brown Books booth shared Chee Kee A Panda in Bearland , a book about immigration, with me. It gave me an unsettled feeling. As I continued through the exhibit hall, I notice more and more picture books that addressed diversity issues with animals and I finally commented on it to one of the publisher’s reps. She told me that research indicates that using animals in this way makes it more comfortable for children.
Do you know that children as young as 3 see racial differences?
When I look at a panda bear representing Asian Americans I see a visual stereotype that conflates Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Burmese… cultures. If you’re with me here and especially if you’re not, read Dismantling Asian American Identity through Art by Pricilla Frank.
The books Dr. Bow presented each used animals around the topic of race. How often are animals used to approach disabilities? Gender identity or sexual orientation? I can’t help but think that using animals in this way prevents another generation from being able to openly discuss race or sex or disabilities while Whiteness continues to be normalized. And I can’t help but think #IAmNotYourAnimal’sSideKick”.
There’s work to do here. We know there are more books with animals that Native/First Nation children and children of color, but what are the dominant themes in these books? Are they books about social issues? Which animals represent which ethnic groups? Let’s uncover these visual stereotypes! Sally Rippin writes about cultural anthropomorphic stereotypes, wise owls and sly foxes and how she overcomes them in her work. Is she one of the few artists with this awareness, or is it generally know? What stereotypes, beyond racial, are perpetuated through the use of animals? This is necessary and important work if we wish to be critically literate, if we want to understand power structures embedded in children’s literature.
Again, I stray from promoting authors of color. Perhaps it’s neither possible nor reasonable to see increasing the number of marginalized authors as a single goal. AOC/Native/First Nation authors can write microaggressions, too! Representation matters. Unfortunately improving children’s books isn’t just a black and white issue: it’s not just about what happens on the page.