Books: Keep or Toss (Vol 4)

I use the term Booktoss as a way to communicate to the Literary Gatekeepers that we need to be willing to see the problems with books and toss some of them aside.


Decelerate Blue by Adam Rapp and Mike Cavallaro

There are a few consistencies in my life. Truisms about myself that I take for granted.  I have always looked White and been Latinx. I’ve always been really strong and fat. I have been gay since before I knew what it meant to be a lesbian. I grew up expecting NOT to see my stories, but always in the lookout. I swooned when the Bionic man kissed the Bionic Woman – not because I wanted to BE him, but I sure as hell wanted to kiss her.

Constantly searching for signs of LGBTQ life, characters, and yes, even romance was a constant. Discovering #ownstories published by small presses and sold out of lesbian bookstores that smelled of candles, hemp, and essential oil, sold non-ironic macramé, and specialized in the production of purple clothing was a rite of passage. It was rare to see any representation of LGBTQ folks existing in media and when we did make it to the page or the screen there were a few, consistent tropes: we were single and funny, a murderer, crazy and destined for some institution, or dead (sometimes combos). And, overwhelmingly White.

So, yeah, I came of age when the bar for LGBTQ representation is pretty low.

We are all products of a homophobic, racist, and misogynistic society so these tropes are hard to recognize and even harder to de-colonize from our minds. If you are looking for a graphic novel that breaks from these expected tropes don’t bother with Decelerate Blue.

ToD Blue Cover be honest, it looks promising. The cover is a study of blues. There is what looks like a human heart in the center, with two young women facing each other, touching foreheads, in an embrace. The young women are flanked by much more violent images that make up a slightly recessed background and are colored in a darker blue. On the left, three people are holding long knives and looking determined, above their heads are hands grasping something between thumb and for-finger. On the other side, there are people in riot gear, attack dogs, and a young man getting arrested.

For those who have read Jane Yolen’s Foiled! and Curses! Foiled, Again!! you might recognize Mike Cavallaro’s illustrations. Angela, the 15-year-old protagonist, looks similar to Aliera from Foiled.

Angela lives in a future that values speed above all else. Movies last 15 minutes and are positively reviewed as hyper! Quick isn’t good enough, things have to be fastest! Literature is reduced to “brief lit”. This hyper existence is punctuated by short bursts of dialogue with each speaker signaling the end of an idea with “GO!”. This active and distracted life results in less time spent digesting what they consume – both mentally and physically. Heart rates are monitored, sleep is modified to keep everyone sped up, hyped up, and distracted.

Angela is a rebel and, as rebels often do, she finds herself in a literal underground community that values slowing down and is attempting to disrupt the hyper-commercialism, speed driven society. They practice meditation, eat farm to table, and crave a slower pace. Angela finds Gladys and romance blooms – in three days they are ready to declare their love, spend all their time together, and plan art projects. Seems pretty on par with most lesbian relationships.

SPOILER!!!

At some point things get creepy – and not in a good way. The underground rebels decide to take an experimental drug – Decelerate Blue – that quickens the slowing of their physiology – including their heart rate. Get it? They can’t wait to slow down, so they have to take a drug to make the process of slowing down go faster. When the three leaders tell the entire community to take this drug – which no one has ever heard of – they all comply. The followers are willing to take a drug, en mass, because their leaders tell them to. This was too much like the People Temple mass suicide/murder overseen by Jim Jones in 1978. The image of a bunch of young people ingesting a drug on the say-so of their leaders is only one of the serious issues I have with this graphic novel.

Just after feeding each other the pill and laying down to wait for the effects to take hold the underground compound is attacked by security forces in riot gear wielding batons and dogs. The attack is vicious, and to no lesbian’s surprise, Angela and Gladys are separated. Angela sees Gladys taken down by a dog, her hand outstretched, her eyes fading. Angela is saved, the underground caves are filled in with ultra-quick drying cement thus sealing the fate of the entire community. After that, Angela is told her parents have arranged for her to be institutionalized to help her get over her behavior. She escapes, heads back to the entrance of the underground compound, and overdoses on the remaining Decelerate Blue.

Yeah. So that happened.

We, as adults, need to demand better from the books that represent mis- and under-represented communities. We need to insist on more substance than this tired collection of damaging tropes. Lesbians deserve to live. Period. We deserve books that show our lives are worthy and worthwhile. This is not that book.

Books: Keep or Toss (Vol 3)

I use the term Booktoss as a way to communicate to the Literary Gatekeepers (read that as adults with money to spend on books) that we need to be willing to see the problems with books and toss some of them aside. There are always books I want to keep, and hold, and reread, and share. Those are the ones I pass along to parents, teachers, librarians, and most importantly children. Books that provide authentic views of lives and people and events. Books that are complex, complicated, heartfelt and heartening. Because there are authors who don’t find it necessary to tear down, dehumanize, objectify, or rely on tired stereotypes about mis- or under-communities for their books.


As a child, growing up in Southern California in the 70s, I saw no books that featured Chicano, Mexican, or Latinx characters. None … zero. When my own kids came along in 2002 and 2005 I looked for picturebooks with latinx  characters, but ended up settling for books with non-white characters. There still wasn’t much.

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The official news from 2015 still isn’t good. There aren’t a lot of picturebooks that feature Latinx characters. In fact, you are more likely to see a talking rabbit than a Chicano kid in a book. Even given the scarcity exemplified in the CCBC infographic above the quality of the characters are also a HUGE question mark.

And, if the words … “But, what about SkippyJon Jones?” are about to come out of your mouth, just stop. SkippyJon isn’t Latinx. There is no connection between Latinx culture and a talking Siamese cat that goes into the closet, dons an outfit, and then hangs out with a gaggle of imaginary dogs. There just isn’t. If you want to read about the problematic nature of the inauthentic representation in the books, read these blogs:

Skippyjon Jones: Transforming a Racist Stereotype into an Industry

The problema with Skippyjon Jones

Speaking “Mexican” and the use of “Mock Spanish” in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones)

So, what should you be reading? You may ask? I’ll show you ….

Princesa and the Pea CoverLa Princesa and the Pea written by Susan Middleton Elyr and illustrated by Juana Matinez-Neal.

It is a retelling of a popular tale – the princess and the pea – set in a Peruvian village. The authors use mostly English with some Spanish throughout the book. The queen is la Reina (Spanish for the Queen) and she’s got some serious control issues around her son, el Príncipe  (the Prince).

The story aligns with the familiar time worn tale. Elyr uses a simple and effective rhyme scheme to move the story along.  She seamlessly includes  Spanish words into the rhymes and, perhaps most importantly, the words are not translate them on the page. Instead, they are red and there is a glossary at the end of the book, if you need it. I would not go as far to say this is a bilingual book, but I would say it is a book that appreciate the Spanish language.

What elevates this book, for me, is Juana Matinez-Neal’s illustrations. They are gorgeous, intricate, and funny. I mean, really, laugh out loud, funny.

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First there is la Reina, she is not pleased. She wears a red llicila (shawl) with a repeated pattern of little people on it, and a deep red montera (hat) that often hosts her cat, who is equally unimpressed. No woman is ever going to be good enough for her son, and she seems always on the verge of pinching or throwing a shoe (although, I may be giving her some of my own abuela’s attributions).

Juana Matinez-Neal has lovingly given us a book that reflects her culture. She includes a vast array of woven patterns, deep reds and oranges throughout. But, most importantly, she provides people who represent a spectrum of Peruvian-ness.

laPrincesaandthePea_04

Some of the characters wear chullos (hats with ear flaps) while some women are wearing montera (wide brimmed hats that form a sort of bowl). The peoples skin tones are all different shades which shows the reader diversity even within a single ethnicity. Oh, and the chickens, roosters, and guinea pigs that are in constant motion provide yet another reason to come back to this book over and over again.

So, if, and when you are willing to ditch SkippyJon Jones in favor of actual latinx representations, start with La Princesa and the Pea.


After reading La Princesa, you’ll be ready for even more authentic Latinx kid literature! Among my favorite is Yuyi Morales’s Niño Wrestles the World, and the followup Rudas: Niño’s Horrendous hermanitas! 

I found a YouTube video of the author reading her book and it is wonderful.

This, again, is not strictly a bi-lingual book but Morales uses Spanish throughout the book, and again without translations. In addition, she uses iconic Mexican characters, like Cabeza Olmec which looks like the huge Olmec heads found in Veracruz, Mexico. I love the energy, silliness, and wordplay combined with authentic cultural icons – not fake cats and mock accents.

Yuyi Morales is one of those authors who’s books I go back to over and over again. Her books are great for young readers … and anyone else who needs a laugh.

Books: Keep or Toss (Vol 2)

I use the term Booktoss as a way to communicate to the Literary Gatekeepers (read that as adults with money to spend on books) that we need to be willing to see the problems with books and toss some of them aside. There are always books I want to keep, and hold, and reread, and share. Those are the ones I pass along to parents, teachers, librarians, and most importantly children. Books that provide authentic views of lives and people and events. Books that are complex, complicated, heartfelt and heartening. Because there are authors who don’t find it necessary to tear down, dehumanize, objectify, or rely on tired stereotypes about mis- or under-communities for their books.


NotYourPrincess_Cover#NotYourPrincess:
Voices of Native American Women

Edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, published by Annick Press

This book is a collection of poetry, essays, and interviews, as well as visuals that include photos, paintings, and collages. Each page or two brings another voice, another  face, another story to the reader.

This is marketed as a YA collection and I think that makes sense for the content. Authors take on many facets of being Indigenous women with an unflinching gaze at the rest of society. At times the images and stories were hard to read, some were funny, some showed a wariness, while others illuminated a way of being and seeing the world. The essays and poetry were fairly easy to read which makes this a great collection to give to older struggling readers and ESL readers.

I did look up the Lexile rating for the book and was surprised to see it set at 910, which loosely translates, to a sixth grade reading level. Remember, reading levels have NOTHING to do with the content, nor with images. They only measure word, sentence and paragraph length, punctuation, and familiarity of words used. My own estimate would have put this collection around a 3rd or 4th grade level, so I was surprised by Lexile’s measure. One reason may be the formatting and grammar in the poetry might be skewing the measure. Another reason may be the use of tribal names such as “Dane Zaa/Cree” (p. 43), and “Haudenosaunee” (p. 65), and even the use of indigenous languages.

Should that affect the reading level? I am not sure. I must admit that as a reader who is unfamiliar with many of the Nations and languages in the collection I had to make a choice – to take the words as they came and assign little meaning to them, or to take the time to look them up, make note, try to understand the regions, tribes, nations and history. I choose the latter and I believe the reading experience was better for it.

This is truly a multimodel text. The images are integral to this collection. They are not separate from the words. Instead, both interact in familiar ways and I found myself using the same kinds of strategies and skills I use to read graphic novels. Many of the photos feature Indigenous women looking directly at the reader, along with narratives that directly address the reader, thus breaking the 4th wall. This is a powerful choice to make, to draw the reader in and now allow the comfort of detachment.

The book can be found here, at Annick Press. I plan on using it in my children’s literature class to show the kinds of poetry that abounds today and to help my students learn the skills they need to read across cultures.

Buy #NotYourPrinces. Support #OwnVoices.

Books: Keep or Toss (Vol 1)

Booktoss means we, the Literary Gatekeepers, need to be willing to see the problems with books and simply toss them aside. Then there are the books I want to keep, and hold, and pass on to kids and teachers. Books that provide authentic views of lives and people and events. Books that are complex, complicated, heartfelt and heartening. Because there are great authors that don’t need to tear down, dehumanize and objectify one community in order to make a point.

For this first iteration Books: Keep or Toss I will be looking at two graphic novels set in China; The Only Child by Guojing and The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff. There will be spoilers, so … gird your loins.

Only Child Cover

Book to Keep:
The Only Child by Guojing

Some will argue this is a wordless picturebook. I don’t care. I am claiming it as a graphic novel, in the same way I openly claimed Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. Some might say, “But Laura. I thought you said graphic novels are book length narratives written in the comics medium and comics utilize images AND language to deliver a unique story.”
At this point I’d have to shush you, and open the book because it is gorgeous, and magical, and sad, and heartbreaking, and beautiful. So, stop quoting me at me and look at the book!

The Only Child begins with a short author’s note Guojing describes the isolation she “experienced growing up in the 1980s under the one-child policy in China”. The book reads as if it is an expression of that isolation, but at the very same time it communicates love for family, a respect for a child’s imagination, and the possibilities of magic.

The story centers around a little girl in an industrial city who’s parents leave for work in the morning, and she is left to entertain herself in their apartment. Her only companion is a small, toy elk that she takes with her throughout the book.

interior Only Child

The entire book is drawn with very fine lines – pencil or charcoal – that give a depth to the objects and spaces. The paper is thick, almost luscious and gives the book a physical heft it deserves. Guojing’s paneling is and image placement is deft, and provided me with a clear idea of what was real and present in the girls life, and what was not. Take a look at the series of panels on the left page … the little girl is actively engaged in keeping herself entertained. But, each time she engages in play she ends up with a sense of time simply passing.

Now, look at the facing page (right side). The girl has settled in and is looking at a photo album. Her small hand signals a change in point of view for the reader. We are no longer looking at her play in the apartment. Rather, we are now oriented, as we hold the book, as a co-reader as she holds the photo album.

The book progresses. Things happen. Tension builds as she leaves the apartment, gets on a bus to see her grandmother, and gets lost in the woods. I’m not going to give any further details of the story but I will share the exchange I had with my 12 year old son after he read The Only Child.

“What’d you think?” I asked when he returned the book to me.
“Yeah. Good.” He said in typical 12 year old fashion as he headed to the fridge.
“Can I get more words?” I pushed.
“Great drawings. The clouds were amazing. The kid was cute.”
“Did you laugh? Cry? Anything?”
He looked at me, rolling his eyes and sighing, “Well, yeah. All of that. What do you think I am, some kind of monster?” The implied dumb-ass was clear. Of course he had all the feelings. How could he not?

I highly, insistently, and obnoxiously recommend this wordless graphic novel for a microcosm level look at the ways the Chinese one-child policy affected a generation.

UndertakingBook to Toss:
The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

This graphic novel also begins with an authors note. But, instead of a note from the actual author, it is an excerpt from The Economist (July 26, 2007about a cultural practice in China called “corpse brides” wherein brides are procured for unmarried dead men.

According to Amazon Undertaking is about “Deshi, a hapless young man living in northern China, is suddenly expelled from ordinary life when his brother dies in an accident. Holding Deshi responsible for his brother’s death, his parents send him on a mission to acquire a corpse bride to accompany his brother into the afterlife, in accordance with an ancient Chinese tradition that has many modern adherents” (https://www.amazon.com/Undertaking-Lily-Chen-Danica-Novgorodoff/dp/1596435860).

Yeah. Many.

The salacious nature of the term “corpse bride” set off a warning flag. The term predisposes the reader towards a “Isn’t China just so weird and different”? stance that I have seen far too many times. Anytime I see cultural practices used as plot devices I’m skeptical.

bad-guys.jpgNovgorodoff’s characters are drawn as caricatures of people but even given this more abstract and absurdist style she relies on some tried and true racist and sexist tropes.

Deshi meets up with a bride merchant (pictured) who is actually has a “fu manchu” mustache which, if you have ever seen any evil Asian characters immediately signals he is up to no good. In fact, he convinces Deshi that to be a real man and a good son he must find a kill a young woman to be his brother’s corpse bride.

lilychen_1.jpg

Eventually, Lily is introduced into the story. Deshi decides Lily is the girl for his brother and convinces her he’ll help her escape marriage her father has arranged. She is drawn with ridiculously thin arms and legs and a huge bobble head. In one scene she sits on a riverbank in supplication before she catches a fish with her bare hands to cook for Deshi. She is looks physically delicate and yet she can catch a fish with her bare hands, gut it and cook it over a campfire, all before Deshi has figured out how to kill her.

Much of the book is spent with Deshi trying and failing to kill Lily while they travel the countryside to “escape” her life on the farm. One night, by the light of a campfire, he climbs on top of her and starts strangling her. She wakes, touches his face tenderly, and they have sex. The whole thing is bizarre.

The combination of racist and misogynist tropes, the exoticism of China, along with the rape and forgiveness storyline make this a graphic novel one to toss. Toss it and move on with your reading life.

 

An open letter to the world, 2017 Edition

On  June 14, 2016, two days after the Pulse Shooting, where 49 members of my LGBTQ community were murdered, I uploaded “An open letter to the world on June 14, 2016“.
Our country is struggling. Make no mistake, marginalized people are asking for an awakening from you.
I reread the letter, edited a bit, but I think it still stands. I’m sending it out there, again asking you to be brave. 

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I usually write about graphic novels. Today I am writing about living in this world as a cis-gendered, Latina-lesbian, with two sons and a wonderful, patient wife who keeps marrying me because the laws change but our commitment does not.

Last weekend I attended the Children’s Literature Association’s (ChLA) annual conference in Columbus, Ohio. I presented research, talked about graphic novels, heard important ideas about books and reading. I also took part in a panel organized by Dr. Katharine Slater, supported by the ChLA board and the ChLA Diversity committee, and focused on the needs of minority scholars.

I did not want to be part of the panel. Sitting in front of a room mostly filled, with so many women of color, with so few White allies. My reluctance to participate was born from a lifetime of being called out, threatened, and assaulted for existing – for being a person in the world.

Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen began the panel by addressing the fact that we, as women of color, were taking a chance by representing ourselves, as ourselves, to the academy. I sat next to Dr. Marilisa Jimenez Garcia, and Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and heard their stories, and shared my own. Unfortunately, our stories are not unique. The women in the audience spoke of regularly being ostracized, criticized and summarily dismissed, both personally and professionally. I left the room feeling drained. Later that afternoon I heard Dr. Park say the words I know to be true, “We are not the problem. Racism is the problem.”

More Than Racism Alone

That night I enjoyed the company of friends at the ChLA awards ceremony filled with congratulations, hotel conference food, and laughter. Later we had what can only be described as the first annual ChLA Prom Night. In one corner of the room I danced with gay men, lesbians, and straight allies I had come to know and appreciate. We clustered together and celebrated the end of a long day with silliness and joy. At one point a gay male colleague confided, “I used to go dancing all the time. I miss it.” And I knew what he meant.

The next day, Sunday June 13, 2016, I stood at an airport charging station with my phone before I got on an airplane to return home. I looked up and saw the news. I knew what it meant, even when the news anchors didn’t say it; Mass shooting … Pride week … a nightclub called The Pulse … Orlando, FL. We were, once again, hunted for living in the world.

It was not a coincidence that a coward (whom I will not name) with an assault riffle killed and wounded more than 100 LGBTQ people on Latin Dance Night in Orlando during Pride week. It was a planned attack by a rage-fueled man with a million excuses and the tacit approval of a nation. Make no mistake about the importance of the everyday aggressions against my communities; racism, homophobia, and misogyny work hand in hand to destroy the person I am in the world. They signal an open pathway to hate turned to action. As we danced and laughed and drank on that very same Saturday night, we were part of the same LGBTQ community who takes refuge in music, community, and joy, who celebrate ourselves and each other in the world.

More than One Man

I returned home on Sunday feeling wounded. On Monday I picked up my 13 year-old son from middle school. He got in the car and asked if I knew about what happened in Orlando.

“I do. What do you think about it?” I asked.

“Maybe Trump is right. Maybe we do need to keep them out.” He said, quietly, as we drove down sun dappled New England streets. I found myself defending Muslims and trying to tell him it was a single man who destroyed that night. I ran through the list of non-Muslims who had bombed buildings, and opened fire in public places, killing and wounding so many out of hate. I explained it had more to do with guns and hate, rather than faith. As we drove, I defended a religion with a long and lively history of damning, imprisoning, and killing LGBTQ people to my son because I want him to be better than that.

But if I was honest with him I would say I know religion is a problem. The Catholic Church, along with the vast majority of organized Protestant religions, damns me to hell for the person I am in the world. The Church of Latter Day Saints goes one step further, damning me and my children, for the person I am in the world. The majority of Muslim countries have laws against me, and a history of condoning killing me in horrific ways, for the person I am in the world. So, it was one man, but he was not alone.

Be Brave Enough

White, cis-gendered, straight people (any combination, really) often ask, “But what can I do?” They ask me in private, in classes, in conversation, and they asked at the ChLA panel. My answer is the same.
You can be brave.
Brave enough to say, “That is not ok” out loud and in public. When faculty members say, “but she sounds so white” after meeting an African American job candidate, you can respond, “that is not appropriate”. You can refrain from putting the burden of racism on the one non-White student in your class. You can be brave enough to defend my right to marry, to raise children and have all the rights you have had for so long. You can be brave enough to shut down the “all lives matter” defense of racism. Call out the “what about men?” misogyny. Shut down the “she was drunk and wearing that” rape culture. You can listen, without excuse or argument, when we say that words matter, actions hurt, we are mistreated and misjudged everyday single day for being ourselves in the world.

You can stop using intention as an excuse. For yourself and for others.

And let me be clear, you will need to be brave to stand with us because you will be uncomfortable. Your actions will cause tension, you will not be appreciated by aggressors for  standing up and speaking out. You might shake, feel queasy, or doubt your decision to step out of your privileged, safe space. There will most likely be pushback, accusations and suspicion. It will never be easy, just as living in a world designed for you is never easy for me.

And, you should do all of this without expecting a letter, a gold star of appreciation, or a special high five. You should do all this without claiming special status. Without claiming any more than you already have. You should do this because it is the right thing to do.

I am tired.

I am haunted.

I am hunted.

You can choose to be brave enough to defend who you are not.

Sincerely,

Laura Maria Jiménez, a person in the world, every day.

 

Photos of 2016 Victims

Names of Orlando Pulse Victims, in Alphabetical order

Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old

Amanda L. Alvear, 25 years old

Oscar A. Aracena Montero, 26 years old Rodolfo Ayala Ayala, 33 years old
Antonio Davon Brown, 29 years old Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 years old
Angel Candelario-Padro, 28 years old Juan Chavez Martinez, 25 years old
Luis Daniel Conde, 39 years old Cory James Connell, 21 years old
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25 years old Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32 years old
Simón Adrian Carrillo Fernández, 31 years old Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 years old
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26 years old Peter Ommy Gonzalez Cruz, 22 years old
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 years old Paul Terrell Henry, 41 years old
Frank Hernandez, 27 years old Miguel Angel Honorato, 30 years old
Javier Jorge Reyes, 40 years old Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 years old
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 years old Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25 years old
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 years old Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 years old
Gilberto R. Silva Menendez, 25 years old Brenda Marquez McCool, 49 years old
Akyra Monet Murray, 18 years old Kimberly Jean Morris, 37 years old
Geraldo A. Ortiz Jimenez, 25 years old Luis Omar Ocasio Capo, 20 years old
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32 years old Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 years old
Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25 years old Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 years old
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano-Rosado, 35 years old Jean Carlos Nieves Rodríguez, 27 years old
Yilmary Rodríguez Solivan, 24 years old Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 years old
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33 years old Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 years old
Jonathan A. Camuy Vega, 24 years old Martin Benitez Torres, 33 years old
Luis Sergio Vielma, 22 years old Juan Pablo Rivera Velázquez, 37 years old
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37 years old Franky Jimmy DeJesus Velázquez, 50 years old
  Jerald Arthur Wright, 31 years old

Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld

Here is a book that just sort of arrived on my doorstep … ok, well not my doorstep as much as the pile o’ books that gathers in the area under

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Image by G. Struble

the mailboxes near my office at Boston university School of Education, waiting for me to come and collect them. I enjoy the sight and allowing the books to pile up because it feels like christmas when I do rip into them.

Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland, colors by Hilary Sycamore was one of the books in my latest stack. I can’t tell you if I ordered it or if it was sent to me by the fine people at FirstSecond publishing but in any case, I’m happy it made it’s way to me.

The cover (seen here) is oddly creepy-ish and tough. I want to stay with this idea of creepy-ish and toughness existing simultaneously. Creepy elements include the red-eyed wolf with it’s open maw hovering behind the girl, as if it will chase her at any moment. The malevolent intent of the wolf seems clear and barely contained. The small but highly saturated areas of red – the wolf’s eyes, mouth, as well as what appears to be the spill in the bottom quarter of the cover – frame the image of the girl on the motocross bike.

If you want to read a complete and mind-blowing treatise of how illustrators can use these kinds of colors, hues, and shapes to effect readers’ meaning making, pick up Molly Bang’s Picture This (1991, Chronicle Books).

Back to the cover. The other creepy element is the doll on the back of the bike. For an instant, I thought it was a child riding without a helmet, or possible without a neck. But after looking at it for a while (horror mixed with curiosity) the visible pupil-less eye, tiny nose, and disheveled hair reminded me of a Raggedy Ann doll. Which was sort of still weird.

Then there is the girl, or more exactly, the young woman. She’s sitting astride a motocross motorcycle wearing full crash pads, holding a camera and looking right at me. Daring me. Daring me to what, I am not sure. But, this is a woman who does not suffer fools.

Let’s get some important stuff clear. This books is about a young woman, Addison, who is raising her younger sister, Lexa, alone. They are survivors of some sort of horrendous toxic spill or alien invasion, or opening of a portal into an unwelcome world. The Zone is off limits with the National Guard manning barricades to keep people out and the things that exist in the Zone in. Lexa no longer speaks as a result of the spill and so Addison ventures into the Zone to take pictures of what is left. She sells the pictures to take care of herself and Lexa.

The Zone is alive and weird. Deeply off. Familiar objects made strange by a distortion, ill suited colors, and Addison’s wary, warning narrative. She’s seen all this before. She hates it. She’s drawn to it. She is captured by it and repulsed by her own fascination.

The book passes the Bechdel Test … lots of female characters talking to each other about many things not related to men. As a matter of fact women drive the plot by breathing life into the structure of the book and acting to move the story forward. Westerfeld, a noted White male, does what many White male writers attempt and fail. He creates a strong female protagonist and allows her to be a wholly complex, imperfect, active agent in her life and the life of those around her. In addition, he creates minor characters who gave me the sense that they existed before these pages and will continue to exist after I closed the book. There are Whites, Blacks, Asians, men and women all living in a fragile and suspect world.

The end of Spill Zone is frustrating to me, as a reader. Like many dystopia novels it is part of a series. The end of this first book is a cliff hanger that leaves me wondering and worried for Lexa and Addison, And possibly, the world.

The book should come with the following directions – Pick it up, read it. Put it down, walk away. Return and repeat.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

Best Cover I don’t think of myself as a sentimental reader although there is a good chance that I am. I am always more clear about other people’s motives than I am about my own. I can clearly see when my friend is making a HUGE mistake or when my kids are being so prideful that it is going to come back and bite them in the butt. That kind of clarity is nearly impossible for me to glean from my own psyche.

That sense of veiled motived, self delusion, and search for clarity is what this book brings with a gentle beauty that I found … almost painful to read.

Thi Bui, according to the book jacket, was a child when she and her family immigrated from Vietnam to America. She now teaches and lives in Berkley, CA with her husband, son and her mother. In between those two lines of text lay a story of immigration that spans continents, wars, and generations.

Before talking directly about The Best We Could Do I want to take a moment and talk about the graphic novel as a form. There are some in my field of study who don’t like the term. Some consider the term an unnecessary separator that takes away from the legitimacy of comics. Like using the work film instead of movie in order to show how sophisticated you are. The term may have started that way. It may have been meant as a way to distance authors from comic books. I don’t doubt any of that, but for me a graphic novels is a long form comic narrative that stands alone and apart – whole unto itself.  With publishers discovering the marketplace, and readership growing I worry that graphic novels are being overtaken in the by comic book arcs and series. But, then, I see books like this and I don’t have to worry much anymore. As long as there are memoirs to be told, graphic novels will continue to be written and read.

The Best We Could Do opens with Thi Bui in labor in New York. There is a bravery to this opening that I cannot overstate – think about it. The first time I meet the protagonist she is grunting, afraid, and vulnerable.  She is being told what to do and how to do it by the hospital staff and trying to hold onto her adulthood, she wants to be in control of what happens to her body and to her baby. This is the perfect metaphor for the rest of the book – people trying desperately to be controlling agents in their own lives – even as fate, family, and politics pushes them in a different and often violent directions.

Like many families, there is a hidden history to this immigration story. Thi Bui uses a charcoal or heavy pencil to create the paneling throughout the book. This provides an uneven edge that signals a fragility or messiness of the world she is inviting me to witness. In addition, she uses text boxes to offset her internal narrative. This design choice (seen here on pp. 36-37) provides me with the expository text I need to better understand a story that is incredibly foreign to me. I am not any sort of Asian and although I grew up in Long Beach during the 70s and 80s and knew my fair share of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai kids, I learned nothing about the history of the region.

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The watercolor wash – a dark orange that reminds me of the stucco houses in Los Angeles – provides an important depth to the images. Sometimes, as seen on page 36, in the larger panel, Thi Bui uses brushwork to echo and highlight an image. Sometimes color is used as an independent and layered image that illustrates a memory (p. 37, pn. 1). And there are times when the color distinguishes background objects like buildings, and creates a white space to focus attention on characters (p. 37, pn. 2). The depth of hue achieved with a single color is astonishing.

Thi Bui’s light pen work (perhaps done with a brush?) on the characters faces is deceptively simplistic. There isn’t much detail and yet emotions and personalities are clear. Her father’s cloudy disposition, her mother’s emotional reticence, and Thi Bui’s own openness is clear. According to Scott McCloud (see Understanding Comics) the lack of highly defined details on character faces may be what allows me to connect with the characters.

This is a journey book covering some of the historical background that lead to the Vietnam War, and the aftermath for one family. It is at times violet, scary, and merciless in showing the history of this family. From starvation to war to the escape and assimilation this is not an easy story to read and experience but it is worthwhile. I would place this in the hands of any high school student or adult. It is, simply put, a sublime example of a graphic novel memoir. The Best We Could Do uses one family’s story to provide a glimpse into a history sorely absent from the American narrative.

Best

Twitter, Critique and Children’s Literature … Oh, My.

There are plenty of people telling me I am too harsh on children’s books. I’m too quick to call out the overwhelming Whiteness of authors, illustrators, editors, and critics. I get pushback for directing criticism to our children’s literature organizations, literacy associations, critics and bloggers.

There are times when someone takes me to task and I wonder – have I gone too far? Am I part of the PC internet-Twitter-mob? (Is that even a thing?) Am I looking for racism, sexism, ablism, and homophobia where it isn’t?

Then I look to other critics who are, by in large, NOT straight, White, able or male and I see the same reactions, the echoes, the same plea for respect.

Recently Edi Campbell tweeted out a book cover and asked a small number of critics (including me) if we sawbadmood “the problem”.

I’ll admit I didn’t see what the issue was at first. I barely looked at the girl, noticed the book was written by Lemony Snicket (AKA Daniel Handler) and thought …. “What am I not seeing here? God, is there another watermelon joke?” I trusted my colleagues and I knew that if I wasn’t seeing the problem it did not mean there was not a problem. It meant I was not seeing the problem. 
So, I asked.
And, the answers were awful.  Sarah Hannah Gomez copy

First, Sarah HANNAH Gomez (tweeted out the book cover, accompanied by the racist image of a golliwog. Although usually found in the UK, the golliwog is yet another blackface image we could do without.

Then, Allie Jane Bruce provided another kind of image. AllieJaneBruce copyThere it was. The awful truths. That “mood” was a call-back to a racist visual trope aimed right at Black and African American kids who would see it and feel it, even if I did not Once I saw it I could not unsee it. Read Edi Campbell’s blog post about the book here CrazyQuilts blog.

We have to decide, as a community of book lovers … do picturebooks matter? Do they help kids see the world? Do they help kids build themselves? If reading and books matter than we have to come to the realization that images within books matter, too. We cannot believe that books are important but that representation isn’t. We, as a community of educators, cannot have it both ways.

It matters that this book confirms the age old visual trope of black = bad, and curly = unruly and must be tamed! (see the stick). If picturebooks matter than the messages contained within the words and images matter even if we, as adults, do not initially see those messages. LB Kids

After emailing and tweeting the author and the publisher for a few days, there was a response – an actual apology. Not a “sorry YOU took offense” but an actual “oops” and promise to do better.

Books matter. Those of us who’s identity was built in part by the books we read know this to be true. Books save lives, they open doors, they allow us to escape into worlds and possibilities beyond what we see. But, the flip side of this is that books can damage and degrade readers who see themselves represented as the problem, the issue to be solved, the condition to be cured.

That is what many critics, book bloggers, and awards committees do not want to admit. The lists and honors matter to teachers and parents because they rely on experts. But, who is the expert on non-White, non-heterosexual, disabled representations? badmood

Again, I did not see the problem even when it was, literally, staring me in the face.

The Eisner award nominations came out about a week ago and Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts was on the list. She appropriated Latinx culture, and completely erased Native American history in her graphic novel (link to my critique, link to Debbie Reese’s critique). I’m not surprised but I am disappointed by the nomination.

White authors using culture and identities as cheap plot devices and lazy tropes – including books like Telgemeier’s Ghosts – isn’t new. The overwhelming, overrepresentation of White, straight, able males in children’s books isn’t new.

What is new is our voices on social media. We will not be silenced by a call for niceness. Instead, we will raise our voices to be heard above the din of fragility. We echo each other. We seek out allies who recognize the beauty of diversity, and the strength of hearing stories in told in #ownvoices, like Gene Yang’s Reading Without Walls Challenge. If all your book lists, including that stack of books you have ready for summer reading, feature people who look and sound like you, make an effort to read beyond yourself.

Start with 2017 We’re The People book list.
Read blogs like Latinxs in Kidlit, The Brown Bookshelf, Disability in Kid Lit, CrazyQuilt, The Dark Fantastic, and American Indians in Children’s Literature.

 

Octavia E. Butler’s KINDRED

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

It is Martin Luther King Jr. day here in America.

Over the weekend the prez elect* has called out Senator John Lewis for being a do-nothing-talk-without-action kind of guy. The accusation is astonishing and ridiculous. (Please read March: Books 1-3 if you want to know what action looks like.)

coverI wanted to draw attention to work other than March on this MLK day. So, I want to highlight and call attention to the graphic novel adaptation of Kindred by Octavia E. Butler.

If you’ve never read Butler’s work, you have missed out on some mind bending sci fi work. I’m not a big fan of the genre but I have read the Lilith lyapo series (Dawn, Imago, Lilith’s Brood, and Adulthood Rites) series. Butler is not a great Black sci fi author. She is a great author who writes sci fi and is Black.

What’s the difference you might ask? Isn’t that just semantics?

And I would answer, NO! Her storytelling is tightly constructed, her characters are whole people I had a hard time letting go, and they are diverse. The characters are good and bad – often at the same time – Black, White and alien (with tentacles and everything!). She deftly crafts settings that are unknown and familiar.

But, for all this love I must confess I never read Kindred. It didn’t sound interesting … I am not a historical novel kind of gal and when I saw the book was about a contemporary (it was written in the 80s) Black woman being summoned through time to to save a White boy in the Antebellum south, I was out. Not interested in the least. Hard pass.

But, now Damian Duffy and John Jennings have written a graphic novel adaptation … so, I had to read it. I downloaded a review copy while ago, before Christmas at least, but put off reading it. I continued to be not interested.

Turns out, I’m an idiot.

kindred_p1From the first page with the startling image of a Black woman in a hospital bed and the first line of text, “I lost my arm on my last trip home” I was hooked. This book captured my attention and held on for dear life. I have read it several times, and still think about it. There is something artfully painful about the struggle, both historical, and fantastical that this graphic novel captures.

Set in the summer of 1976, Dana, a contemporary Black woman, married to a White man, living the life of a struggling writer is wrenched out of her time deposited in the Antebellum south. She arrives just in time to save a young White boy, Rufus, from drowning. But, there is no explanation of how or why she transported through time and space. And, perhaps more importantly, no clear way for her to get back.

I was less intrigued than I was scared crapless by the set up. Did I mention Dana is BLACK, and not some high-yellow Black with straight hair and light eyes that could pass. Nope. Dana is dark skinned with a tight afro, large lips, and broad nose. There is no hiding her Blackness and I think that is an especially important aspect to this adaptation. The protagonists, the heroine, is a woman who is illustrated to be unmistakably and unabashedly Black.

Dana discovers that she can and does return to her life when she is in a life threatening situation. Right after she saves the boy, some unseen person draws a gun on her and aims it at her head. She returns to her home, to the shock of her husband who saw her blink out of existence and then reappear a few seconds later, wet and muddy and in a panic. The second time Dana lands on the plantation, she has more time to discover what is going in, but honestly, it still doesn’t make sense! Instead, I was worried about her getting caught and killed or worse. I mean … HELLO!! Black Woman on a freaking PLANTATION!!!

As the book continues, Dana keeps going back and forth and each time she is in more and more danger. Each time the violence she must endure is worse. As she gets more accustomed to the level of violence and pure hatred she experiences as a Black woman on the plantation, the violence required to return her to 1976 increases as well. In other words, the more time she spends surrounded by systematic, socially accepted, violent racism the more inured she becomes.

Sound familiar?

The novel is challenging to read. The illustrators are brutal in their depiction of the violence against Black bodies. It also passes the Bechdel Test many times over. I’m glad I took the time to read outside my comfort zone. You should, too.

 

 

*I will never add his name into the social media sphere because it feeds the beast.

 

Raise Up #OWNVOICES

The year has begun. We will have a new president in two weeks. The Southern Poverty Law Center is gathering data that shows an initial increase in hate crimes and hate speech, followed by a slow down.

Twitter is … well … Twitter but more so these days.

I still haven’t figured out Instagram or Tumblr. They make me feel old.

And so, 6 days into 2017 and people are wondering what can be done to make things better, more civil and less frightening. Well, I am all about DOING. So, I have a small project I think you can help with. I might be biased, but I think we should be doing more reading. Reading outside ourselves. Reading good, authentic representations of people, places, and histories that have NOTHING to do with us or our lived lives. And so thanks to a bunch of people who contributed (link if you want to add to the list) I have a pretty good start on a list of books written by authors that come from marginalized communities.

These marginalized authors are writing books – good books and great books – that are not getting enough attention.

I want readers to amplify the voices of these authors who are members of marginalized communities because books are being written by actual marginalized people with great characters, authentic settings, and solid story telling.

How can I help? What can you do?

Well, I am glad you asked.

As a member of Reading America you can do two things.

A) Read these books.
Get the book from the library. If they are not in your libraries holdings, ask for them.
Or purchase the books, direct from the publisher or a local bookseller.

B) After reading, write a review and add your voice to amplify these authors. You can help create buzz and excitement around their works. You can change the direction of publishing (maybe) and prove that White, straight, able America can read and enjoy literature that does not center White, straight, able America. Give it a shot.

How do I do that?

Again, thanks for asking.

  1. Read a book that is on this list (it is a vetted list that is growing)
  2. Write a positive review (don’t panic, I’ll help with this bit)
  3. Upload your review up on Goodreads or Amazon or both.
  4. Repeat

But, how can I write a review? I’ve never done that? It makes me nervous and I avoid things that make me nervous. 

Don’t panic Reading America! I’ve got a book review starter kit here for you. You can copy and paste this (fill in the blanks) and then BA-BAM! Review written!

I read — BOOK TITLE — by — AUTHOR — and absolutely loved it. << Write something specific that you loved about the book: Characters, Voice, Plot line, Setting work here>> This is the first book by this author that I have read, and I am glad I stepped out of my usual comfort zone! I highly recommend this book for — NAME SOME SORT OF HUMAN BEING WHO MIGHT ALSO LIKE THE BOOK — and plan on reading — TITLE — next!

Here is what I wrote for March, Book 1, on Goodreads using this template.

I read March, Book 1 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell and absolutely loved it. I was completely blown away by the powerful black and white illustrations and the intricate ways the text and illustrations work together. This is the book first in this series that I have read, and I am glad I stepped out of my usual comfort zone! I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about the beginnings of the civil rights movement in America and plan on reading March, Book 2 next!

Thats it. Read, write a little, post it and read some more.