Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Messages We Receive and the Voices We Hear

About a week ago, I learned through Alia Jones that Simon & Schuster re-released Popcorn by Frank Asch as a board book. If you’re unfamiliar with the book, it’s about a bear named Sam who hosts a B.Y.O.P. (Bring Your Own Popcorn) house party when his parents are away. The kids pop so much popcorn that it fills the home (and the book’s pages) before the partiers eat their way out of the mess. When Sam’s parents return home (with a surprise popcorn treat for him) he has learned a lesson that is as big as his stomach ache—but it’s not about cultural misappropriation. You might be wondering what costume Sam chooses for his wild-and-crazy Halloween party. Or maybe you already have predicted it:
An illustration from Popcorn where Sam dons generic "Native" clothing and looks at his reflection in the mirror.
The cover of Popcorn by Frank Asch shows Sam with a feather atop his head.

Critical conversations about this book are not new. Discussions about the effects that costumes and other inauthentic First/Native Nations imagery and actions have on youth are not new. In “White America needs to stop assuming Native American culture belongs to them tooauthors Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz explain that historically “playing Indian at its core reflected an inherent hatred of Indians, not love or affinity. From the Boston Tea Party forward, US Americans obsessed on vanishing Indians in a multitude of ways that translated into trying to become them, or at least using them to project new images of themselves as they settled into North America and left Europe behind.”

Around the same time I learned about the Popcorn re-release, I picked up Always, Abigail, a contemporary middle grade book by Nancy J. Cavanaugh. Less than 40 pages in I encountered a passage where characters pretend to do a "Native American sister ritual" complete with a made-up chant:
A photograph of pages 34-35 of Always, Abigail.

A few days later I was making my way through my library's board books section and I came upon this title:
The cover of Spot: My Toys by Eric Hill.
A page from Spot: My Toys which shows a teddy bear and a tipi labeled as a tent.
Double oof.

This was all happening while USBBY was responding to feedback about its “Indigenous Experience in Children’s Books” panel for the upcoming October 2017 conference in Seattle. (If you are unfamiliar with that situation you can read a summary and letters to USBBY leadership from Debbie Reese, Naomi Bishop, Naomi Caldwell, and Christy Jordan-Fenton at AICL.) USBBY conference organizers have adjusted the schedule since questions were raised, but it remains that there will be no American Native Tribal representation on the panel. Oof doesn’t seem to cut it.

This was all in about a week’s time - a week where I also saw a play based on Moby Dick which used the words “savage” and “cannibal” to describe characters from Queequeg’s fictional indigenous homeland, and where through Netflix I watched a contestant on the Great British Baking Show be commended for a “Wild West” themed cookie sculpture. I might not see it at every moment, but this disregard for First/Native Nations people is happening constantly. It is all around us, and all of uskids and grown-ups alikeare soaking in the normalcy of it. Babies who grow up reading Spot end up being kids who read Popcorn, tweens who read Always, Abigail, and adults who fail to interrogate media which reflects cultures as costumes and fodder for play. This is not about good people and bad peoplewe all receive messages that influence how we see the world. But which messages will we notice? Which will we ignore? Which will we reject?

The cover of Fall in Line, Holden! by Daniel W. Vandever.
This week I ALSO found out about Fall in Line, Holden! by author-illustrator Daniel W. Vandever (Navajo). You can buy it here for your home or your library. I ordered a copy and I am excited to receive it in the mail, especially after watching this author interview in which Vandever discusses the importance of a contemporary story that also does not forget history. How many books like Always, Abigail and Popcorn are there in the world for every Fall in Line, Holden!? Too many. It’s not because of a lack of First/Native Nation creators and leaders. Those who are there need to be listened to and supported. They need to be given space on panels about their experiences and identities, and space on panels about other topics too. Imagine if there were twenty books like Fall in Line, Holden! or Hungry Johnny for every Spot book. Thirty Indian Shoes and In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse for every Always, Abigail. Instead of Popcorn getting re-released, imagine if publishers were investing in more books like I Am Not a Number, My Heart Fills With Happiness, We Sang You Home, Sky Sisters, Mission to Space, The Birchbark House, and more. These books might not always be available through your regular vendors or on Amazon, but they can be bought, placed face out on displays, given as gifts, added to reading lists, and read with children. Native books exist. Native voices exist. Do we see them? Do we make space for them? Do we listen to them?

I am reminded of a talk I heard journalist Jacqueline Keeler (Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux) give this spring. She asked the audience a question on which I continue to reflect, and I invite fellow non-Native folks to reflect on it too:

“If you realize you are a colonist, then what are you going to do about it?

Elisa Gall

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reviewing While White: Medical Mayhem by Stephanie Bearce & Eliza Bolli

By Elisa Gall
Cover image of Medical Mayhem from:

In Twisted True Tales from Science: Medical Mayhem, Bearce’s casual writing style describes facts about medicine and medicinal history for a middle grade audience. Bolli’s black and white sketches mix with photographs and colorful cartoon-like art to give the pages a humorous, accessible feel. But that comical tone will end for many readers (as it did for me) when they come upon back-to-back sections introduced with two large images.
Image 1 - from "Try Tobacco"
The first image is part of a section called “Try Tobacco,” which details how First/Native Nations peoples in the 15th century used tobacco as a toothpaste and also to relieve earaches, toothaches, and itches or sores from snake and bug bites. The author mentions how figures like Columbus and his crew “certainly weren’t the first” on North and South American land and that the continents had “thriving populations who had established trade routes, governments, and medicines.” The Spanish’s believed superiority over the First/Native Nations people is referenced, but rather than explain how those beliefs resulted in harmful actions and genocide, the author writes that the “Spanish missed out on the opportunity to learn...about healing plants and medicines from the Native Americans.” No specific tribes are named nor are there any references to modern-day (or present tense) First/Native Nations peoples. The image of a smiling, cigar-smoking man with braided hair, a nose and face striped with blue paint, and three feathers above his head overpowers the section; it is a recognizable stereotype of a First/Native Nations person. Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, a member of the Tulalip Tribes and an Associate Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, found in a study the negative effects that stereotypes like this can have on First/Native Nations children and their self-esteem.

Image 2 - from "On Pins and Needles"

The next section, titled “On Pins and Needles,” focuses on traditional Chinese medicine, specifically acupuncture. The author explains how many people still use the practice today, and writes, “It seems that the ancient Chinese physicians may have had the right cure after all.” The illustration accompanying this section features another stereotype; it is a character with big teeth and slanted eyes that is reminiscent of Cousin Chin-kee (an amalgam of notorious Asian stereotypes) in Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. In an interview about American Born Chinese, Yang speaks about that character and the emotional impact that visual stereotypes can have on readers. With Yang’s book, the stereotypes are confronted and interrogated. In Medical Mayhem, both images sit unchallenged underneath their respective chapter headings. Regardless of the artist’s intent, these pictures communicate messages to readers about First/Native Nations and Asian people; they dehumanize them and mark them as “other,” reinforcing White superiority. While some readers might claim that the book contains several caricatures of different types of people and identities represented, White people have the luxury of seeing caricatures of them as comical and benign. It can't be ignored that caricatures and other grotesque distortions have been used historically (and still function today) to perpetuate stereotypes; these stereotypes influence actions and behaviors which can harm members of minoritized groups in very real ways.

This book and some of the conversations I’ve had around it remind me of this image Dr. Grace Yia-Hei Kao recently linked to on the blog affiliated with the Women’s Studies and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University:

A triangle-shaped visual representing examples of overt and covert white supremacy

There are some elements of racism and the White supremacy embedded into our culture that seem “obvious.” Then there are those that are more subtle, that are hidden or masqueraded as socially acceptable. While discussing this book with colleagues and friends, the issues with this book’s images seem more out in the open, above the line. I can’t assume that every reader will look at these images and see “obvious” stereotypes, but many readers I’ve spoken with are also troubled by the illustrations. This leads me to remember that some creators and editors didn’t see it. It wasn’t obvious to them (either that or they chose to ignore it).

In Is Everyone Really Equal?, Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo explain the dynamics of White racial superiority and the indirect messages White people receive about superiority.  They write, “...[the messages] come at us collectively and so relentlessly that resistance is virtually impossible. While we may explicitly reject the notion that we are inherently better than people of Color, we cannot avoid internalizing the message of White superiority below the surface of our consciousness because it is ubiquitous in mainstream culture.”

To me, that’s important to remember too, because even as I am aware of problematic books and work to review these texts critically, they are affecting me and the readers with whom I share and discuss them. They are reflecting and perpetuating cycles of oppression and dominance, as symptoms of current injustices but also as media influencing how the next generation is socialized. That pushes me to question what I don’t yet know or see, and to keep working to move that line down, lower and lower, until no norms of White supremacy (whether overt or covert...explicit or that triangle graphic or books, within myself, or elsewhere) are ever deemed acceptable or excusable.

Update 7/23/17: The publisher of the book, Prufrock Press, responded and announced that they would be making changes to the book after Dr. Debbie Reese contacted them on Twitter. Dr. Reese is sharing that exchange and more information on the American Indians in Children's Literature blog.


Friday, July 7, 2017

The White Canon of Schools

The work of making books for children and teens more diverse and inclusive is ongoing.  How do I know?  MANY People of Color offered specific examples throughout the American Library Association conference in Chicago. One area of work that needs attention is the continued Whiteness of the literary canon, especially in our K-12 schools.  
During his 2017 CSK Honor speech Jason Reynolds (video) recalled a discussion with his college English professor.  Their debate was focused on Reynolds’ interest in writing a thesis about the expansion of the traditional canon to acknowledge the contributions of the wide diversity of U.S. authors.  His White professor would not accept this idea.  This White gatekeeper of culture said a work must “shape and shift the face of literature” to be considered canonical.  Reynolds offered some remarkable examples (Nikki Giovanni, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Phillis Wheatley to name a few). The professor denied all of these possibilities. Will you do the same?
Let’s talk about the work to be done in our high schools. If you work in or liaison with secondary schools what are the titles students are required to read (i.e. the canon)?  Steven Wolk reported the results of a national survey he conducted to answer this question.  The top ten titles (with a three way tie for 10th) identified in his article What Should Students Read? (Kappan Magazine V91 N7 2010) were:

The Great Gatsby
To Kill a Mockingbird
Catcher in the Rye
Lord of the Flies
Romeo and Juliet
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Animal Farm
Of Mice and Men
Hamlet, 1984, The Things They Carried

According to this survey the White canon maintains a firm grasp on the reading lives and imaginations of all secondary students. Wolk said of his findings “When looking at what students are required to read in school in 2010, it might as well be 1960.” These books are required reading. Think about the dynamic of a system that continues to force a diverse student body to read mostly White male authors.  Compulsory reading of the White literary canon is one way White supremacy is expressed and sustained in schools. Are the required books in schools near you overwhelmingly White?  Can you use your power to make change? What will be the pushback?  How do we redefine classic?  The first Printz award winning book, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, shaped and shifted the face of literature - right?! United States schools were legally segregated until the 1960s.   Would it be reasonable to establish sometime after Brown vs. Board of Education as a timeframe to select our readings?  
Reynolds presented the need to make the expansion of the canon a reality in our K-12 schools. This is part of the work. I don’t have the answers to all of these questions.  But, I do know we need to get to answering them without delay.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

What We Celebrate

With ALA’s Annual Conference in the books, I’ve had opportunities to learn about the experiences of people of color at this year’s conference, and to reflect on my own experiences and the role I play as a White person in majority White spaces such as library conferences. (If you haven’t read the posts by April Hathcock, Edi Campbell, Sarah Park Dahlen, or Fobazi Ettarh, you’ll want to leave this site and do that now.)

I had an opportunity to invite a White educator friend to the Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder banquet this year. If one thinks of the banquet as representative of mainstream American children’s literature, it’s no surprise that the celebration ends up being a majority White space. My friend, it being her first ALA experience, noticed and named this. I was not surprised by her noticing, but it was a moment of learning for me in that it made me realize how comfortable I have become in that room. My friend’s acknowledgement pressed me to remember that while the whiteness in that room is not surprising, I can’t let myself “get used to it.” It needs to be at the forefront of my mind. I get to choose every day whether institutional racism in my world and in my field bothers me or not...whether to notice or think about it or not...when for others that whiteness is poking at them day in and day out, causing pain and planting weights I won’t ever have to carry.

As much as conferences exhaust me, I love connecting with people and learning ways to improve in my practice. I get energized and often have a feeling of being part of something bigger than myself. This too, is complicated. While there is work being done to dismantle racism in the field (and it is worth noting that much work is being done and led by people of color and First/Native Nations folks), youth librarianship still has so far to go. That I feel energized is partly dependent upon others feeling exhausted...that I feel seen and understood and welcomed is the other side of the coin which makes others feel excluded. I can’t forget this.

I was at a session for ALSC (an ALA division to which I am a member) when the organization was described by a White woman as “welcoming” and “inclusive.” For many people, it is those things, but one White woman’s experience can’t be taken as universalto accept that would be to ignore and undervalue Hathcock’s, Campbell’s, Ettarh's, and Dahlen’s experiences and shared perspectives. I can’t ignore how whiteness in my organization affects who does and does not see it as “welcoming” and whose voices have been heard and ignored historicallyand are heard and ignored today. (Alec Chunn’s recent ALSC Blog post “And the Work Continues” speaks to some of these challenges.) Racism is embedded into our profession (and world) and just saying an organization is welcoming and inclusive doesn’t make it so.

This conference I also found myself reflecting on Megan Dowd Lambert’s “alongside, not despite.” I am celebrating the ALA Youth Media Awards alongside the history of the awards Javaka Steptoe spoke to in his Caldecott acceptance speech. I am listening and viewing recordings of honorees and library leaders sharing their favorite award-winning books alongside being disappointed when they laud problematic books such as Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, and The Little House series. I am psyched about this year’s award winners and honorees alongside being aware that we have awards named after Theodor Seuss Geisel and Laura Ingalls Wilder, creators with complex legacies worth interrogation.

The Geisel Award website says that Geisel was “always respectful of children.” The Wilder Award website shares that Wilder “wrote...primarily to entertain. She was interested in providing her young readers with information on how life was lived by their ancestors. Wilder’s books were not about the country’s leaders; they were about the country’s people.” I don’t believe these statements are wholly true. Geisel’s propaganda dehumanized people of Japanese ancestry and from other marginalized racial and ethnic groupsthat work wasn’t respectful. Wilder’s books include characters saying “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” To me, this represents a limited and biased view of who is included when we say Wilder’s books represent “the country’s people.”

Without recognizing these creators’ whole legacies, what do having a Wilder Medal and a Geisel Award say about whatand whothe profession values? What do those stickers on books communicate to children? What feelings of inferiority do they generate, or what feelings of dominance do they support? Of course, these awards (monuments to Wilder and Geisel) aren’t the only instances in librarianship, the country, or the world where we have pieces of our unjust past and present made visiblein America we have money, textbooks, the National Anthem, and 4th of July celebrations, just to name a few. But when we celebrate an award honoring someone’s life’s work, and part of that work is in opposition to the core values of the association, we are being selective in what we are remembering. Sometimes we are consciously selective. Other times we are getting “used to it,” becoming comfortable. I need to step away from that comfort and remember that it is NOT okay. To me, this is all worth noticing, naming, and changing.

Elisa Gall

Friday, June 30, 2017

Roundup of Links, post-ALA Edition

Well, another ALA (American Library Association) Annual Conference has come and gone. And while we are tired – like, really tired, friends – it’s worth noting that there are different levels of “tired.” Check out these amazing post-ALA reflections from women of color to find out more about this:

  • Edi Campbell discusses her conference experience in characteristically perceptive language here; at one point she references...
  • ...this post from April Hathcock, wherein Hathcock discusses the exhaustion that comes from being a person of color in an overwhelmingly White space; and finally,
  • Sarah Park Dahlen talks about her ALA here, finishing with a call to young librarians of color: “We see you,” writes Dahlen. “We’re here for you. We do the work for you, and the young people we all serve.”
  • This one isn’t from a woman of color, but it’s another excellent wrap-up from the conference. ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children, a division of ALA) blogger Alec Chunn, who refers to himself as a white man in his post, talks about his takeaways from Annual, including a thoughtful discussion of a diversity panel in which the speakers of color experienced microaggressions at the hands of the White facilitator.
Moving on from post-conference thoughts:

Here’s to a restful and restorative weekend for all of you.