I think my book reviews have consumed more of my energy than any of my other types of posts. I don’t mean that in the sense that they are the most time consuming (which they are) but because they’re the posts I work hardest to get right. I think when I first began writing them, I was hesitant to give any kind of an opinion about what I’ve read. I simply saw reviews as necessary way to promote books. Still, I wanted there to be some polish to my thoughts. I read a few books and articles about how to construct a review, even followed a few reviewers outside children’s literature as sources of inspiration. But, I still came back to reviews as promotional tools. I know from time to time I mention whether I want to recommend a book or not. I’m always uncomfortable with doing that. Only recently, I’ve realized that I prefer to comment on books in ways that highlight what I’ve found in a book. I’ve come to rely on using critical literacy tools to analyze power and privilege within the text and I think that lens lends a greater degree of skill to my work. I think readers respect reviewers that move beyond their own personal experiences and biases when talking about books otherwise, why read the reviews?
I haven’t always used any sort of framework for my reviews. Initially, I was doing those based in literary critiquing, talking about character development, plot and setting. I don’t spend much time discussing that any more. I reviewed Into White by Randi Pink almost 3 years ago. At that time, I was just moving into critical reviewing. The book is about a young Black girl named Toya who is done with being Black. She’s tired of the humiliation she feels at her predominantly White school and she prays to Jesus to change her skin. And, he does. My review was less than flattering. I’d read the book twice, uncovered flaws I saw in the book while trying to write a balanced review.
Let’s top this off with being on a panel with the young, debut author of said book, Randi Pink, about a month after I posted this. She was charming, excited, eager and outspoken. She had heard from young people who needed her book and she was quite proud of it. Why shouldn’t she be?
Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of re-reading Into White four more times because I’ve included it in my work on black girl economics. Essentially, I’ve distilled concepts from feminist economic theory into a set of questions that determine whether a given demographic has value in young adult literature written. In my work, I was working to determind if black girls have value in young adult literature written by black female authors. Feminist economic theory shifts the determinants of value from one’s involvement in production and consumerism to finding worth in non-market unpaid work and in relationships with others. Unpaid non-market work such as cooking, cleaning, washing and caring for children when performed in the home has traditionally been the work of women and it is work that is necessary to maintain life. To look at how these black girls are valued, I considered the work they do to have and maintain relationships and the ways they contribute to their homes and communities. Most important, I considered whether the girls were ultimately able to obtain maximum utility from situations that involve choice.
Using this new lens brought quite a different understanding to the story. My change in disposition to the book occurred during the first re-reading, not after the third or fourth reading; the book didn’t just grow on me.
In Into White, Pink explores the race and gender tax that society places on young people. Toya, the protagonist in Into White is a black, female high school student with marginal academic performance and no plans for her future. One of the few things she does for her family is to watch TV with her dad.
Toya bumps into Deonte, one of her few black classmates, and accidentally scuffs his shoes in the process. She bends down to clean his shoe. In doing so, she publicly displays her internalized lack of self-worth only to have Deonte amplify it by telling her that’s something no Black girl should ever do. She goes home to a house that is a façade: her parents cannot afford that mansion! From the living room to the refrigerator, it’s an empty shell. That night, she asks Jesus to make her White, to end all her problems by changing her skin. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We’ve wished we were darker, lighter, thinner, older, younger, richer, taller… so that we could be happier. Jesus immediately grants Toya her wish.
Bringing in the element of faith makes the story so much more personal by amplifying the depth of Toya’s despair. I missed this before. Her underlying relationship with Jesus (remember the value of relationships in feminist economic theory) is a critical component of the book. In fact, a crucial situation that calls on Toya to make a choice is when Jesus asks her to trust him. (p. 176)
Toya has internalized the stereotypes, self-hatred and sense of not belonging that emanates from being a Black girl in this White environment and she turns to her faith in Jesus for reprieve. Toya’s life reflects the ways bias and prejudice can destroy us on an individual level and of the redeeming power of faith. For Toya, it was Jesus. I don’t think the story is overly Christian, I think the name ‘Jesus’ can be a placeholder here for whoever one calls upon to be the source of their belief. Note though that Toya’s relationship with Jesus was just as important as her relationship with herself. This book offers an ultimate expression of the value we obtain through relationships.
Jesus tells Toya that he allowed her this request because he knew the depth of her pain and in doing so, he was empowering her to find her own self-worth. While wearing White skin, she has to lie to everyone because she’s still really Black Toya; her skin has changed but, she’s still the same person. The continually complex lies and deceits she has to carry out lead Toya to realize that being White isn’t as liberating as she thought it would be. Being White has doesn’t relieve life’s problems. She’s losing the relationships that she values the most. She’s so miserable that she doesn’t feel that the tasks she performs are really adding any value to her home or community even though she’s doing more and more for others in her community. Eventually, she takes the time to fully evaluate several decisions facing her and she begins to find the agency she has over her own life. Her relationship with herself brings her value, and she herself is a Black. As a Black girl, she has value.
When I originally read the book, I didn’t base my reading in any analytical framework. While I think my comments in the review were valid, I believe that using this framework based in feminist economic theory gives me a much better way to understand this story. No doubt, young people for whom this book is really meant are not going to work to analyze this or any other book unless assigned. However, I do think they will pick up many of the story’s lessons on their own. I know I’ve learned a lot from this book!
Pink, Randi. (2016) Into White. Feiwel and Friend/sMacMillan