When Women Speak: Zetta Elliott

Posted on 12 November 2017 Sunday

Additional essays in this series:
Kelly Starlings Lyon: How Do Women Use Art As Resistance?
Traci Sorrell: Why Do You Speak Out?
Justina Ireland: There is A Minefield and You Will Become a Demolitions Expert
Ambelin Kwaymullina: On Being Loud and Hopeful
Cheryl Willis Hudson: Women Lead the Independent Publishing Movement
Laura Jiménez: Static Bodies in Motion: Representations of Girls in Graphic Novels
Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez: Don’t Call Me Strong
Maya Gonzalez: What Do I Speak Out? True Power Rises
Sujei Lugo: When Women Speak
Neesha Meminger: I Want to Talk About Power

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of presenting with Dr. Laura Jiménez and Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen at the Center for Teaching Through Children’s Books in Skokie, IL. I don’t believe there are recordings of the day’s events, didn’t take notes while on the panel but, I do remember a brief discussion about our ‘anger’, something to the effect of its appropriateness. Afterwards, one of us was even told that perhaps she might be heard if she weren’t quite so angry. I ascertain that even in this age of all things positive, anger still remains a necessary and human reaction to hurt, injustice, pain or fear. Anger is positive when it motivates us to action. While we’re given the stereotypical perception of screaming, out of control angry women, there are those who through their wisdom, knowledge, determination and indissoluble resolve are able to seethe in a manner that allows for nothing less than forward motion. They get it done and they never raise their voice. Zetta Elliott is one such person. For her, “Nice is Not Enough”.

Zetta continues upon the thoughts presented in a conversation on her own blog with author Laura Atkins. It can be found here.

“Nice Is Not Enough”

An older colleague once jokingly described the children’s literature community as “the bunny-eat-bunny world of kid lit.” That phrase stayed with me not because I found it amusing, but because replacing “dog” with “bunny” says so much about the way many in the kid lit community see themselves—not as fierce predators or ruthless competitors, but as harmless creatures operating with innocent intent.

I believe this kindly self-image partly explains the stunned and defensive reaction when accusations of racism arise within the children’s literature arena. The recent controversy over a mural at the Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, MA demonstrates the well-worn dynamic that plays out over and over again: concerns are raised (most often by people of color or Indigenous folks) and defenders of the problematic image/text/act (most often White) respond with shock, indignation, and counter-accusations of censorship made with a degree of hostility one wouldn’t expect from gentle “bunnies.”

That so many kid lit creators feel the need to cultivate and preserve this image is telling. Last summer an article in Publishers Weekly speculated on a world ruled by children’s authors. Deborah Underwood, a White female author, explained that she penned the “love letter” because “those in power seem to be missing some important qualities—qualities that children’s authors and illustrators have in abundance.” Underwood then listed thirteen complimentary traits that would make her peers better suited to lead the country. I almost stopped reading at #4: “We understand the importance of diversity.”

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I wanted to remind Ms. Underwood that 53% of White women voters helped to elect the current president. White women dominate the publishing industry in the US, as well as the fields of education and library science; they make up the majority of literary agents and booksellers. White authors and illustrators were responsible for 88% of the books produced for young readers last year despite making up 61% of the population. The bunny in this graphic commissioned by Prof. Sarah Park Dahlen with data supplied by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reminds us that in 2015, there were almost as many books about animals and inanimate objects as there were about kids of color and Native children. And, of course, the overwhelming majority of books featured White kids.


When I show this graphic to students during school visits, we don’t talk about how White supremacy ensures that one child is unfairly advantaged at the expense of the others. Instead I ask them to tell me what they see, and the students describe the room full of mirrors where the White child gets to envision himself in every possible heroic role. “Is that fair?” I ask them, and they always respond with a resounding “No!” If social justice isn’t at the center of the children’s literature community, why would anyone assume that kid lit creators would preside over a more just world?

You could only make that leap if you truly believed that simply acting nice makes you morally superior and fit to rule. But many of us know all too well that public displays of niceness often serve to camouflage or deflect attention away from actions and policies that are anything but kind. In a 2016 essay, Elle Dowd admits that “[Whites] say we value niceness, but what we really value is being in charge of what that looks like and when it’s appropriate, by our own standards.” As we’ve seen with the Black Lives Matter movement and NFL protestors, members of marginalized groups are expected to be civil, grateful, and not angry, never disrupting the comfort of the dominant group. Yet Dowd reminds us that niceness has a “dangerous relationship to power” and almost always “finds a way to center itself on white ideals, white experiences, white feelings.”

I am not known for being nice—and I’m okay with that. For close to a decade I’ve been advocating for greater equity and diversity within the children’s publishing industry. I’ve written countless essays and given public talks in the US and abroad—to no avail. I’ve been called a troublemaker since I was a child, and I can’t even remember how old I was the first time a White adult chastised me for having a “bad attitude.” Defiance is not tolerated in Black girls, and many of us reach womanhood knowing that intelligence coupled with assertiveness will almost always be read—and dismissed—as irrational rage. My particular Black feminist perspective isn’t much valued within the kid lit community partly because I refuse to “play nice.” My first picture book won a number of awards when it was published in 2008, but no editors or agents expressed interest in my thirty other manuscripts. When I used my scholarly training to investigate, I discovered the problem wasn’t personal but institutional; it wasn’t my “bad attitude,” it was racism. Left with no other options, I self-published over twenty books only to face the disdain or pity of those committed to a system that’s clearly rigged.

As an immigrant, I’m still expected to be thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given and I do feel lucky to live in a country where conversations about race are open and ongoing (if not always productive). I grew up in Canada and so I know the conceit of civility all too well. I learned early on to be soft-spoken and polite, to mind my manners and never litter. I skipped a grade and was eager to earn the approval of my White teachers, but by the time I reached high school, I was no longer willing to remain silent about the exclusion of Blacks from the curriculum. My maternal grandmother (who presented as White but identified as “Negro”) kept a framed excerpt of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” on the wall and regularly reminded me that our African American ancestors left Philadelphia in the 1830s seeking freedom in the Great White North. They soon discovered there was no way to be free and Black in Canada, however, and so they attempted to merge into Whiteness through intermarriage. My mother spoiled that plan by wedding an Afro-Caribbean man in 1967, and when my father gave up on Canada and moved to the US, I followed. He warned me not to attend rallies with my activist friends in Brooklyn, but I’d had a “safe” life in Canada. I was ready to fight for something more.

Moving to the US, starting graduate school at NYU, and living in a majority-Black neighborhood for the first time accelerated the process of decolonizing my imagination. I immersed myself in African American literature, and worked hard to silence the echo of Dickens I could hear in my own writing. I revisited the books I loved as a child and was saddened to find that most were racist, sexist, imperialist, and problematic in other ways. The authors I once revered—all White, mostly British—lost their shine but not their place on my bookshelf. Theodore Geisel’s racism is disappointing but not particularly surprising; Seuss scholar Phil Nel offers this useful analogy to which many of us can relate: “Seuss is the well-intentioned white activist who isn’t as ‘woke’ as [s]he thinks [s]he is.” The Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown was a favorite picture book of mine and currently helps me map my family’s migrations between archipelagoes. Yet it was disturbing to learn that Brown had insisted another one of her books be covered in real fur—a demand that resulted in the slaughter of thousands of rabbits. I did send my nieces a copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden despite its issues, but would never share Tintin comics with them. Both girls are obsessed with graphic novels and can read in French, so Marguerite Abouet’s Aya series is a better choice.

I can’t shield my nieces from the racism they’re likely to encounter in the world, but I can try to spare them the traumatic effects of consuming—as I did—a diet of books that erase or distort Black people. When I was just a few years older than they are now, I wrote a story populated with characters who looked nothing like me or my family. I’d never read any fantasy fiction with Black kids at the center, and so erased myself in order to reproduce the White heroines of my favorite novels. My nieces are growing up in the era of #BlackGirlMagic but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to images of smiling slaves and offensive stereotypes in books that nonetheless rack up starred reviews (not a surprise since almost 90% of reviewers are White women, according to the 2015 Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey,).

Elsewhere I have speculated upon what reparations might look like in the children’s literature community. How could the dominant group make amends for the harm they’ve caused by excluding or misrepresenting so many children for so long? Decades after their unjust incarceration during World War II, Japanese Americans received a formal apology and financial compensation from the US government. Thirty years later, curators at the Dr. Seuss Museum apparently had no qualms installing a mural with a racist caricature of an Asian man. Could the persistence of such painful imagery (coupled with whitewashing by Hollywood) explain why so many Asian Pacific American kid lit creators choose to write about Whites? If two-thirds of African American authors and illustrators were making books about White children only, our community would be outraged—and I, for one, would be naming names. But I suspect that for Asian Pacific Americans, this is much more complex than “selling out” for personal gain.

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It is difficult to measure the devastating legacy of living in a White supremacist society. Last month, while attending the launch of The Snowy Day stamp at the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, I found myself bristling at the celebratory mood of those around me. Ezra Jack Keats’ books were just about the only mirrors I had as a child in Canada, and I was thrilled to receive two pins—one for myself and one for my kindergarten teacher mother who introduced me to The Snowy Day when I was a student in her classroom forty years ago. Yet halfway through the ceremony I became acutely aware of the familiar silence around equity in children’s publishing. As Prof. Katharine Capshaw pointed out in her October 6 letter to the editor, the focus on Keats’ landmark book obscures the fact that “black writers and artists had been dreaming childhood in various incarnations, depicting the joys, pleasures and political investments of children since the Harlem Renaissance.” How much progress have we really made if fifty years after a White man wrote about a Black boy enjoying wintertime in Brooklyn, Black authors constitute just 3% of kid lit creators? The number of books about Blacks has skyrocketed over the past few years, but the number of books by Blacks has not. Power remains where it has always been in this country—in this industry—in this kid lit community: with Whites.

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So how do we challenge the “innocent and harmless” image of those who dominate the kid lit community? Barbara Applebaum reminds us that, “racism is often perpetuated through well-intentioned white people” who can “reproduce and maintain racist practices even when, and especially when, they believe themselves to be morally good.” I am aware that there will be penalties for casting White women in the role of victimizer when they are accustomed to being recognized only as victims (the ultimate victim, even). But the sad truth is that my Black feminist perspective from the margins isn’t likely to sway those who occupy the center—and feel entitled to remain there. I nonetheless agree with the mandate put forward by Prof. Robin Bernstein: “It’s time to create language that values justice over innocence.” A group of rabbits is called a colony, and one could argue that White women have colonized the children’s literature community. It’s time to begin the process of decolonization. As Nikole Hannah-Jones explains, when it comes to racial inequality, “We have to challenge how we got here and make sure people understand that there are people, right now, who can be held accountable for it.”

IMG_0108Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to the US in 1994 to pursue her PhD in American Studies at NYU. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington PostSchool Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. She is the author of over twenty-five books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book Bird. Her urban fantasy novel, Ship of Souls, was named a Booklist Top Ten Sci-fi/Fantasy Title for Youth; her latest YA novel, The Door at the Crossroads, was a finalist in the Speculative Fiction category of the 2017 Cybils Awards and her latest picture book, Melena’s Jubilee, won a 2017 Skipping Stone Award. Her own imprint, Rosetta Press, generates culturally relevant stories that center children who have been marginalized, misrepresented, and/or rendered invisible in traditional children’s literature. Elliott is an advocate for greater diversity and equity in publishing. She currently lives in Brooklyn. Learn more at zettaelliott.com.

Posted in: Me Being Me