Muted but Not Silenced

The last piece I wrote for this blog – my blog – was titled “Harshly” Judging Islamophobia. In it I called out Jack Gantos’s graphic novel A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library for being racist and anti-Muslim.

My critique wasn’t unique. It was fairly standard fare as these days go. In fact, my reaction was echoed by many others – approximately 1092 others in fact! We all signed an open letter from the Asian Author Alliance addressed to the publisher, Abrams. I was one of the signatories to the letter and was relieved to see the resulting response from the publisher that they pulled the book. Abrams also did the usual “offense felt by” rhetorical move that put the blame on those who were offended and not on the offending parties. Again, nothing new; nothing out of the ordinary; nothing to break stride over.

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And then I was on to the next book, the next idea, the next article, the next class. I think I was finally going to get around to writing about Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll’s haunting, painful, beautiful graphic novel adaptation of Speak. It is a truly amazing and provides a new way for readers to connect with, bear witness, and see themselves through trauma and survival of sexual assault.

 

I love writing about books I think kids deserve. They might love a book because it holds surprises for them; or because it reflects them in ways that they have never seen before; provides them respite from their everyday lives; or shows them things they never knew or imagined. All of that was sorely lacking from my own literary history. And, again, I am not unique in this history. Marginalized communities do not have a body of children’s literature that reflects the varied experiences, histories, or imagined futures that privilege provides.

That is why I am a proud member of the #DiversityJedi, a close knit, loosely organized, geographically diffuse group of teachers, scholars, and librarians who engage in critical literary analysis of children’s and YA literature.  We support children’s and YA literature that disrupts the assumed supremacy of White, straight, able, cis, maleness.

And that brings me back to A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library, one of the most overtly racist graphic novels I’ve read in recent years. Lots of White folks celebrated, then defended the book (some without reading it, some after reading it). Many White folks defended the author, claiming that he was the real victim of yet another “Twitter mob”. Many left comments on my blog or on Twitter decrying CENSORSHIP!; WHAT’S NEXT? BOOK BURNING!; REVERSE RACISM!! and lots of THIS IS WHAT IS WRONG WITH SOCIAL MEDIA. Again, all this has become very run-of-the-mill for me and for the other #DiversityJedi.

And then I got a letter, and actual piece of snail mail, delivered to my university mail box. It was a normal day in academia – I was rushing from here to there and stopped to grab the catalogues, flyers, and announcements that had built up in my mailbox. I also grabbed that envelope that contained a hate filled death threat.

WARNING – references to sexual assault and violence
You can scroll down until you see a cat giving you a thumbs up

“Wait, what?” you might be saying. And, I don’t blame you, because that’s what I said as I stood on the sidewalk, backpack falling off my shoulder, a single piece of white paper dripping with violence directed squarely at me or at my online persona, Dr. Booktoss. The writer was angry and bitter and really, really violent. His grievance was that I had attacked a White author instead of going after the “murdering muslims” who deserve to be killed in horrible ways. He accused me of being an ISIS operative. He was angered by the fact that I was and had in my possession a “fucking dyke cunt” and I was a traitor to my country. He suggested I volunteer as a sex slave for ISIS, if they would even touch me, so they could fuck me in every hole until they were tired of me, and then they could cut off my tits and my head and post the video on YouTube. (The letter is worse.)

The letter stunned me. It stopped me cold as I stood on the street and for months since I have been stuck in that moment. My university has been great and taken many steps to make sure I am safe, but I do not feel safe. The fact that someone wants me to die in such horrible ways sticks with me, even as I write this. The chances that anything will happen are slim, but not none. There is a proliferation of hate, guns, and fear in this country that I cannot ignore.

I thought this was unique. But, it turns out it really isn’t. Many of us who do this work –  urging authors, editors and publishers to avoid lazy tropes that rely on racism, sexism ableism, and homophobia, as well as educate teachers and librarians to be critically conscious about the literature they provide to students – we receive hate mail and vilent threats. I had become used to the hate. After all, I’m an out Latinx lesbian who confronts and openly wants to disrupt the status quo of our society. I’ve gotten used to people disagreeing with me, defending themselves, accusing me of being a bully, or the real racist, or simply being too sensitive, rude and uncivilized.

So have many of the #DiversityJedi who are also women of color – Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern and so many more – who speak out against the assumed supremacy of unearned privilege. And, so many of us have been and continue to be threatened and harassed. We make jokes, we send each other memes and words of encouragement. Is it a surprise that this treatment has simply become part of our normal? Look at the society we are raised in! We are, literally, trained to take abuse in silence.

Not many of us talk about the hatred and harassment. One #DiversityJedi I talked to about the threats said, “you are like me. You only want them to see your strength”. We, as a group, don’t write about the public confrontations, emails, unposted comments, DMs, and letters that threaten our integrity, our jobs, and our lives. Instead, we stand, shoulders back and take it, trying not to show our fear, our anger, our vulnerability, and our exhaustion, and then we move on to the next.

END OF WARNING

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Recently, Carole Lindstrom spoke out via social media about an especially egregious confrontation she had at the Children’s Book Guild of Washington DC. Dr. Debbie Reese has an account of the events and continuing fall-out here on her blog, A Chronological Look at Events Launched by Harassment on April 11 at the Children’s Book Guild of Washington DC. Carole Lindstrom spoke out. She had the courage to say STOP, listen, this happened and it is unacceptable – she is my #DiversityJedi hero.

I am trying to get up, trying to find my way back to writing. I am trying to navigate the fear and anger and temptation to be silent and ashamed in my fear. There are a few things that are helping –

  • The support of my partner, my close friends and colleagues and my university.
  • The un-questioning support of the #DiversityJedi.
  • The students, all of them, that are affected by this work. The kids in classrooms and libraries who need to learn, to think, and to feel centered and seen instead of being told to shut up and take it. Especially, these bad-ass kids who are writing in honor of their friend, Indigo’s Bookshelf.
  • The teachers in the classes I teach. They are truly doing the work of finding the cracks in a system not built for humans, and making it humane.
  • Ice cream. Lots of really good ice cream.

And so, I’m going to follow in the footsteps of those who have been brave before me and I will continue to speak, continue to push, and continue to educate because nothing will ever change if we allow ourselves to be silent.


This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Dr. Liza Talusan (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).

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“Harshly” Judging Islamophobia

On November 23, 2018, AKA Black Friday, I was just sort of poodle-ing around FaceBook. You know, what I mean by poodle-ing, right? I was actively avoiding going anywhere near the malls by re-watching episodes of The Good Place for the 3rd time, and considering the wisdom of my pie to whipped cream ratio.

Judging a Book by It’s Cover

So, there I sat, looking at pictures of food and family gatherings, thinking about gifts, getting addresses for holiday cards, watching TV, cuddling my judgmental dog, and catching up on FaceBook posts. I have semi-left/am trying to ween myself from FaceBook and failing miserably so I end up reading lots of stuff all at once. 

During my binge FB reading I saw long time children’s book champion, Teri Lesesne’s (AKA Professor Nana) October 10, 2018 public post about a new graphic novel by Jack Gantos. What caught my eye was the sheer incongruity between the title, A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library, the cover image (provided), and the immediate praise for the book, “is a work of art.” I hoped I was misreading something – the dissonance was jarring.  And then I read further … “art of language accompanied by art of illustration. Combined in one spare tale, it will leave readers stunned, off kilter, maybe even a bit dizzy as they turn the page, the page that also turns them. Jack Gantos and Dave McKean have created a story of hate and redemption.

I found a few pages on the publisher’s website. I was struck by the abhorrent and racist representation of this unnamed, random “muslim”, young male protagonist. And, when I say unnamed I mean he is LITERALLY called “The suicide bomber” – like that’s his damn name. And, he’s supposed to be it a boy … and I use that term only because that is what the author claims … but he looks like a caricature of angry old man. The skin tones used in the book are pretty terrible – a sort of gray/tan/khaki color that is the same as the shirts and pants various characters wear.

Stories matter. If you are reading this, chances are you believe that. And if you believe that stories matter, you have got to begin to recognize that when a boy gets no identity except male, muslim, and terrorist, that it matters. 

Letter from the Asian Author Alliance

After receiving feedback from many in the #kidlit field, including an open letter from the Asian Author Alliance (read the letter here, and the followup here) Abrams pulled the book.  I’m not going to thank Abrams because HOW DID THIS THING GET PUBLISHED in the first place? 

It is clear that the author, Jack Gantos, has no idea what the problem is as he continues to not listen to anyone but himself. Benjamin Doxtdator wrote a brilliant post about his experience of Gantos visiting his class here – Fact-Checking Jack Gantos. I think it is telling, and all too common, that Gatos has publicly reacted in surprise, defense, and frustration.  Doxtdator writes, “Gantos said that he was “shouted down” by an “online mob”, and now that he has been told to “stay in his lane”, he would “retreat” to his “white boy dog house.” His words make it clear that either he not understand, does not recognize, or simply does not care that he has contributed to a frighteningly large pile of racist tropes that portrays Muslim males as nothing more than terrorists. 

The racist genesis of this book is important for me to point out. According to Gantos he was sitting in the Boston Public Library (BPL), a library I am intimately familiar with and love.  is always something happening; kids, teens, and adults constantly coming and going with books, using computers, having meetings, and meeting up. I work there a few times a month and consider it to be my library – I take ownership of the space when I am there and pay attention to the patrons and librarians. So, I can well imagine the scene Gantos describes in the author’s note;

Just then a boy’s cell phone went off. I turned and looked at him. He was wearing a red jacket. He was not holding a book. Instead, he reached into his pocked and pulled out a cell phone. He held it to his ear and did not speak. He nodded his head in agreement, then he stood up and quickly left the room through the doorway where overhead a paining of the Muse of Inspiration holds lightening bolts in his hands. One of these bolts struck me and I put my head down and wrote ‘A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library’.

So, there it is. A White, male, adult saw a kid, who he perceived was not White, take a call and walk out of the library. I have no doubt the scene took place exactly as Gantos remembers it. It is a scene I have witnessed innumerable times at that library. But, the inspiration was not the kid, or the painting. The inspiration was his own bigotry, fear, and xenophobia. 

On Piling On

Back on Facebook, I read Teri Lesesne’s public post, and the comments about the book pile up. Maybe not surprising, the comments were overwhelmingly positive and completely lacking in any critical pushback. The commenters were a children’s literature scholars, authors, teachers, and librarians.  

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I also checked Twitter, because in my experience Twitter is more likely to be the space where Critical Race Theory and other Social Justice oriented lenses are put into practice. So I searched #ASuicideBomberSitsintheLibrary and, yes, folks on facebook might have been celebrating the “captivating” story that was “amazing” them, but Twitter was having none of it. The first critical Tweet I read – and I am not saying it was THE first but it was the first one I saw, was from Heba Y. Amin (Twitter thread);

Two white guys write a book about a Middle-Eastern-ish suicide bomber CHILD?! in a non-descript Middle Eastern land?! in children’s book form?! masked as a lesson in reason and compassion?! I’m so dumbfounded by this.

She linked the preview from the publisher which clearly shows it is being published with children in mind. 

Back to FaceBook and I see Dr. Debbie Reese (@debreese) interrupted the cheer-fest that was occurring, “Don’t know if anyone in this thread gave a thought to how this book would land with others, but it is not going well at the moment (Nov 22, 2018).” I added a comment directing readers toward Twitter. Alyson Beecher (@alysonbeecher) stated, “I did see that thread and for that reason I have similar concerns.”

Sarah Hamburg (@sarahrhamburg) pointed directly to the damage these kinds of characters and stories do in the real world,  

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Debbie Reese posted more from the publisher. Jillian Heise (@heisereads) posted the letter from Asian Author Alliance. Melinda R. Cordell (@rosefiend ) and Melanie Hope Greenberg (I’m not sure if she is on Twitter) both voices concern for the effect on actual kids by this book.

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Then, in what I interpreted as a last ditch effort to save face for the author, Leslie Bermel (@Uryrwrds) asked, “You all do know the author is on this thread, right?” I asked how that changes the conversation and her response was “Doesn’t seem like a conversation anymore.” What surprised me was the “anymore“. Like, when it was accolades and flowers uncritically thrown at the feet of Jack Gantos, it was a conversation. But, when it changed to highlighting critical voices, then it was no longer a conversation. Why is that?

What Might 2019 Bring?

Again, the publisher pulled the book. Which is good. But, this is going to happen again and again and again unless we, as a community, learn to recognize characters and stories that are based in long held privilege and strive to erase those depictions. That’s one of the problems – these depictions are familiar to those privileged gatekeepers – like the first responders to the FactBook post. The initial look at that cover, the title, and the story was familiar and so it felt true, and interesting and amazing to those readers who were predominantly White and all non-muslim.

Publishing is a business. There is no reason for that business to change as long as  participating in familiar ways is rewarded. And publishers are rewarded by book people – librarians, teachers. scholars, and researchers – buying and recommending books.

That is the power of social media. There are more and more people becoming book people and letting publishers know we are here. We, those who are NOT represented by the imagined norm of White, straight, male, able, cis, middle class representation – are here. We are readers, we are teachers, we are librarians, we are scholars and we will continue to speak, even if when our voices shake. We will stand together and we will insist on a wider array of authentic representations from the literary world than the one we grew up with because we know stories matter. 

Stories matter.

 

The Single Story of “Part-Time Indian”

Everyone agrees with Chimamanda Adichie when she warns of the Danger of a Single Story in her oft cited, taught, and shared TED Talk. The talk was released in 2009 and took the progressive world by storm – which means lots of sharing on social media, thumbs upping, and echoes of “absolutely” across micro-breweries and small batch coffee shops alike. On this morning (March 7, 2018) there are 14,607,326 views on the TED Talk site  putting her at #24 of the top 25 most popular talks of all times.

Keep in mind, this list is not about the TED Talks that have been produced, instead it is what we, the viewers and sharers watch and show that we value. There are 10 women and 15 men – if your reaction is “great!” please think about the fact that this is still less than half, and none are gender non-conforming. In addition, the list is ridiculously White. Like, I laughed and then I got mad, and then I started to laugh again but not in a good why WHITE.  Adichie is the ONLY Black speaker on the list and the ONLY Woman of Color on the list, and one of only two people of color, along with Pranav Mistry. In other words, TED talk viewers love the single story of people of color.

I bring this up because of there is an extremely popular single story about THE Native American experience published in 2007. You know the one. The author, Sherman Alexie has been shown to be a repeat sexual harasser. If you want to read through the whole  bunch of ugly go to Debbie Reese’s open letter.  She has done an excellent job collecting and cataloging the big deal.

I want to address the wailing I have seen that come down to “Well, if I can’t teach that book what am I going to do?!?!?!”

First off, DON’T PANIC. There are other books by and about Native Americans. Historical fictions, memoir, realistic fiction … all of it. The fact that you do NOT know about anything besides Alexie’s books is your responsibility. You had one book and you stayed with it. It was your comfort zone or Zone of Proximal Comfort (ZPC) (yes, that is a Vygotsky riff^). It is time to break out of your own ZPC and by doing so you are going to be able to  begin (or continue) dismantling the single story about Native American and Indigenous communities that is comfortable.

Here are some books that you should read and bring into your classrooms:

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Trickster
Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection

I reviewed this book 5 years ago and I still use it (here is a link). In my original review I wrote,  “The individual stories are short, disruptive in the brevity of language and the wide array of artistic styles. The stories follow each other, bouncing from an almost creation story about Coyote disrupting the arrangement of  stars in the sky, to a tale of a mean crow kicking sea anemones,to a Choctaw tale about how rabbit got a tiny tail. And many other stories, all providing another tale, another style, another look at the world.” and that pretty much still stands. Buy it. Read it. Share it.

NotYourPrincess_Cover

Looking for something for older readers? Look no further than #NotYourPrincess edited by Lisa Charlieboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale (here is my review). In my original review I wrote, “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.

If I ever get out

How about a buddy book, set in the 70s, for middle schoolers? If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth is that book. It deserves so much love, as well as a second or third read. Gansworth weaves music like Queen, David Bowe, and Wings into the lives of two pretty normal, if not completely different, teen boys. It is a quite and elegant treatment of Native American reservation life as nuanced, loving, and complicated instead of simply violent and desperate. In addition, there is a military kid, dads and sons, lots of conflict and a fair amount of cooperation.
Best of all there is a sequel! Give Me Some Truth will be coming out in May, 2018! Here is your chance to pre-order.

NR logoI’m reading and will be reviewing two books by published by Native Realities Press. They have been on my “to read” pile and I am finally getting to them. The first one is Tales of the Might Code Talkers which I have read and I will be teaching this semester. The second is a wordless comic, The Wool of Jonesy by Jonathan Nelson which a few of my students have read and been moved by the complexity and heartbreak of it.

If you want to do some of your own exploration, I suggest you head over to Debbie Reese’s blog American Indians in Children’s Literature. There you will find what you have been missing because you have been resting, comfortably, in your single story.

 


^ Vygotsky was a psychologist who came up with a way of looking at learning with and without help. He called it the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which can be thought of as the difference between what a learner can do with no help and what they can do with help.

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.

Octavia E. Butler’s KINDRED

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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.

 

Amplifying #Own Voices

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I recently spoke to a group of graduate students at Boston University about representations of Native Americans in children’s and YA literature. I was once again reminded of the importance of this work because so many of these students had heard of only one book by a Native author (Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutly True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).

I highlighted this excellent graphic published by Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison (link here) and then spoke about Ghosts, a graphic novel we can all just skip.

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Although I began the evening by addressing some of the multiple problems in Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts (see Debbie Reese, Yuyi Morales and my blog post), I didn’t stop there. Instead, I took advantage of the time and promoted books and authors who, in my opinion, got it right.

I read from Tim Tingle’s How I Became a Ghost, and gushed over The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp, and talked about Sherman Alexie’s other books. As I talked and answered questions I noticed something important – people were on their screens. Ipads were out, cell phones were on, laptop screens were up and eyes were no longer directed towards me.

Now, usually academics HATE it when electronics take center stage while we are talking. It usually means we have lost the audience, their attention drawn to FaceBook, or shoe shopping or the latest poll numbers. But, as I walked them through what it means to be a mis- and under represented person, spoke about how to read for authenticity, and mentioned blogs to be checked, I didn’t mind seeing the distraction.

Because, I knew what they were doing.

They were ordering books.

They were putting their dollars where it matters.

After my a few people expressed concern and disappointment that they had never heard of the books I mentioned. In addition, they expressed worry that when they looked for books about non-White, straight, male or cis-gender, able people they were unsure whether or not the book was “good” or not. Some felt unsure about purchasing books when they might not recognize authentic representations vs familiar stereotypes and tropes. In other words, they WANT to read the good stuff but right now in their development they aren’t sure about what is the good stuff. Fair enough.

Introducing the 2016 Amazon-Hack-a-Thon for children’s and YA literature!

Here’s how it is going to work. People are going to suggest children’s and YA books that provide authentic representations – not stereotypes and tropes! No smiling slaves or lesbians getting shock treatment! People on the autism spectrum who are not freaky-math-geniuses. Mexicans who aren’t gardeners. Asian women who are not submissive. Non-White, straight, male, and able people who exist for themselves and not as simple props in the story, there save White people with wisdom!

Where was I? Oh … Right.

  • First step, books. Go here to suggest books.
  • Second step, read. Go HERE to see the list of suggested books. Read one (or more).
  • Third step, write. Return to the list of suggested books and follow the included Amazon link or find it on your own. At that point, if you feel like it, write a positive review. You can also cross-post your review on GoodReads if you are a member.
  • If you see another positive review that you agree with, click on the YES button next to “Was this review helpful to you?”

Your review doesn’t have to be long or intricate. Instead, write a paragraph about what the book made you think about, how it made your feel when you read, what it reminded you of, or what surprised you. Focus on what you liked, how the book challenged you or made you think. Then publish it to Amazon or Goodreads.

Repeat.

That’s it. Please share this post widely. Maybe we can catch the attention of other readers. Maybe we can help authors by getting the word out about their books. Maybe we can get publishers to notice when those books get more sales. Maybe we can amplify each other’s voices.

Diversity Happens

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The fallout from my review of Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier has been interesting to say the least (read Swing and a Hard Miss here). Many people have said they had the same kinds of issues about the ways Telgemeier elected to depict a culture and history not her own. Read Debbie Reese (read her review here), the folks at Reading While White (their review with lots of comments here), and De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children (the review can be read here ) for more details.

I’ll bet if you ask anyone who loves books why it is important to read literature you’ll get some sort of answer about learning to understanding the world. But, the hard part about this idea of learning about the world – the part that makes many people uncomfortable – is that the world isn’t made up of the one kind of people. Diversity happens and in my opinion books need to reflect the diversity of people in authentic ways, not simply the ways that have come to be expected.

One of my favorite authors, Joel Christian Gill (see his blog here) works very hard at showing authentic versions of the world. Gill’s first graphic novel Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History (2014) caught my attention because of the title, a reference to Billy Holliday’s song about lynchings in the South. It is a great collection of stories about African American heroes in American history. But, there was something noticeably missing from this collection of “uncelebrated” stories – Women. The irony that an author who wanted to shine a light on the fact that so much of American history ignores the contributions, both big and small, of African Americans, completely ignored the contributions of women was not lost on his audience. And, when readers pointed this out to Mr. Gill his response was shocking.

He listened. He thought about it. And he owned his actions. He has said his interpretation of the world is biased by his own male privilege.

He followed up Strange Fruit by introducing a series titled Tales of the Talented Tenth. The first book in the series covers Bass Reeves, a freed slave who became a US Marshal. The second in the series features the amazing story of Bessie Stringfield, “The motorcycle queen of Miami!”

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The graphic novel opens with an important forward by Dr. Sheena C. Howard who addresses intersectional nature of the book. It isn’t only about a woman, or an African American, or Jim Crow laws and society. It is about all of those things written in an authentic, respectful, fun and appealing manner.

The story opens with Bessie Stringfield meeting and talking with an unnamed and faceless interviewer. Using large panels, clear lines, and bold color schemes Gill walks the reader through Bessie’s early life – coming to American from Jamaica only to have her mother die and her father abandon her. Living in an orphanage where she was relatively happy and well cared for until she was adopted by a woman “doing her christian duty”. Bessie grew up with her “guardian angel” in Boston, MA. She had everything a young girl in the 1910s needed – a loving home, a good education, and eventually, a motorcycle.

Bessie’s adventures on the open road are nothing short of amazing. She was a young Black woman enjoying life on a Harley, criss-crossing the United States and parts of Canada without a care in the world. There is a double page map that shows Bessie’s routes across the US. I noticed that although she crossed the continental US 8 times (the first Black woman to accomplish that feat) she steadfastly avoidebessie-and-crowd the South.

The map is the perfect introduction to the Jim Crow South that Bessie (along with every other African American who lived, worked, and visited the region) experienced. One of her 6 husbands gave her a copy of “The Green Book”.

“The Green Book” was a guide for safe restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and other businesses that would serve African Americans. Gill uses man-sized crows to illustrate racist White southerners who direct Bessie towards a KKK rally. The clans men are depicted at white hooded crows, burning a cross. blackfaceOnce again, Gill uses his signature image of “black face”   as a way to depict the N-word. Just to be clear, this image is playful but not cute. It seems to cute the tension without loosing the power behind the message. Bessie is chased by a group of white hooded crows who have piled into a truck to pursue her. She gets away but it is clearly not the last time she encounters them.

The last chapter of the book covers her adult life – she joined an all Black motorcycle currier unit for the United States military. She was, of course, the only woman. She returned to school and got her nursing degree but she never stopped riding. Instead, she organized a motorcycle club for women and was eventually indicted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

Gill has given us another chapter of our American history. This graphic novel provides a glimpse into a brave and spirited woman’s life. This is a graphic novel that I strongly recommend across grade levels and content areas to teachers and librarians who want to make diversity the norm.

 

 

A GHOST Story by Another Name

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Steven Seagle, part of Man of Action team that brought Ben 10, Big Hero 6, and cartoonist Jason Katzenstein have written a terrific graphic novel for young readers. It has everything I look for during the Halloween season – evolving characters, creepy setting, plot twists, monsters and step-monsters.

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Skye’s parents are divorced and she is scheduled to spend another summer with her father and step-monster as her mother goes off on her own adventure. At first Skye is a typical skarky teen with lots of eye rolls and full throttle what-evers. It is clear that her mother is excited by her Doctors Without Boarders plans, her step-mother has no use for her, and her father has no idea how to keep the peace with all the women in his life. The solution? Send Skye to camp the moment her mother drops her off. Things get interesting when her dad and step-mother are so clueless that they put her on the wrong bus. She is headed for Camp Midnight, a camp where kids (don’t call them monsters!) can show their true selves.

On the bus we see Skye is well versed in being the odd-kid-out. She spends a lot of energy trying to convince the world she is a lone wolf. But, she’s not prepared for Mia who is so easily overlooked it seems like Skye is the only one who pays any attention to her. Together, they negotiate a friendship that gives them both what they need. Mia, who is a past Camp Midnight camper, provides much needed guidance. Skype is thespotlight-gal-campmidnight-04_300_400_90 backbone of the operation and has no problem getting on the wrong side of the cabin harpies (literal witches). There is romance, excitement, and intrigue as the summer moves on.

The illustrations are full of subtle and not so subtle call outs to loads of creepy and desperate artists and illustrators. The pallet is a mixture of dark colors, along with eye assaulting bright-neons. After a while I figured out the pallet reflected Skye’s emotional state. The effect is visually jarring in the best possible ways – inviting closer inspection of each page. Eventually, I found a set of subplots that only appear as background to the main story. This is the kind of complexity that graphic novels can provide for young readers.

Although Skye is the protagonist, Mia plays an important role throughout the book as both a guide, a sounding board, and a co-conspirator. At first she is  needy, insecure, and visibly afraid of everything and everyone. As the summer progresses, Mia helps Skye navigate a new culture, the possibility of romance, and she learns to trust Skye with tumblr_inline_o6qgzuvmyy1qa1eat_540her own secret – there is something worse than humans or the “big three”. Together Skye and Mia help each other get to know themselves better.

Other characters are fairly standard fair – the Queen Bee of the cabin and her two cronies, the kind but stern camp counselor, and Griffin who acts as Skye’s romantic interest. All add flavor and depth to Skye and Mia’s camp experience. Griffin explains the issues behind calling them “monsters”. The word merely seems to be a way to lump all the kids together and denies each of them their individuality. Sounds like a pretty good message for all readers.camp-midnight-04

What I find most interesting about Camp Midnight is the straight up silliness artfully combined with the important emotional journey of individual characters that are in pain and trying to find a place in the world. Skye isn’t perfect, but that is what makes her all the more authentic. She has a nasty streak, but it is obviously born from vulnerability. Mia wears her need for approval and acceptance like a lighthouse beacon, which chases others away.

The book deals with important issues such as divorce, bullying, prejudice, and trust. The combination of complex images and authentic characters makes Camp Midnight a great book for young readers. I don’t usually compare books but given the extreme cultural misappropriation that abounds in Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts I think it’s important to highlight a book that deals with hard, real life issues without the load of cultural appropriation.

 

Ghosts: Swing and a Hard Miss

Today I am writing about Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts. I got my copy last week. I was excited to read it, bring it to my children’s lit courses, talk it up on my blog and basically have a welcome party for another great Telgemeier graphic novel for young readers.

But I can’t. I can’t because, like many authors before her and, unfortunately, many authors to come, Telgemeier is dealing in cultural appropriation.

Cultural Appropriation

I define cultural appropriation as Privileged individuals using something from another culture without showing understanding of the culture or giving credit to that culture. Here are a few very good pieces on the subject …. Decoded; True Tea; Huffpost’s Black Voices.

The problem with cultural appropriation is that privileged individuals (usually White, sometimes straight, and often male) get rewarded for being edgy, cute, or exotic. These privileged individuals get credit for “discovering” and “giving us [read other White people] a look at a new culture [read as anyone not White].” But, and this is important, for the people who’s lives and histories have been taken and used for consumption, their culture is not exotic. They don’t need to be discovered because they are not lost, nor unknown. The argument that this White person (or straight person or male) is giving voice ignores the fact that people could learn about a culture by listening to the actual people of that culture.

But that isn’t what is happening. What is happening is peoples histories, stories, pain, and pride is being stripped away and reduced to the easiest object or image to be consumed by those who already have too much privilege and power.

 Being Latinx and Reading Ghosts

I grew up in Southern California thinking of myself as Chicano-American. My father’s family is from Mexico and my mother’s is from Minnesota by way of Ireland and Germany. I grew up on the Latinx side of the street which means when my White friends thought Little House on the Prairie was romantic, I saw it as a land grab. The first time I saw anything but a stereotyped Latinx in a book was Sandra Cisneros House on Mango Street, published in 1984 and almost immediately challenged and banned.

The cover of Ghosts doesn’t give much away. It has a girl standing with eyes wide, mouth agape, and hands clenched looking awe struck with a younger girl in front of her looking happy and relaxed. The title page looks like a Pinterest image of a Dia de los Muertos altar but, I was hopeful.

The story begins with a family (the two girls on the cover and their mom and dad) in a minivan moving from Southern California to “Bahía de la Luna” (moon bay). The town name is clearly seen on a freeway sign (I wondered when this book set because I don’t remember California freeway signs having accent marks). There is a resort in Oaxaca, Mexico called Bahía de la Luna, but this family was headed north to a town with lots of fog. Between the name and the description of the town I was reminded of Half Moon Bay, a small city on the Pacific coast, south of San Francisco.

While reading I learned that the younger girl, Maya, has cystic fibrosis, which is why the family is moving. On page 12, after running up a flight of stairs in her new house Maya is panting, a goofy sort of crossed eyed, open mouthed look on her face. Her older sister, Cat, tries  hard to be understanding but she is both annoyed by her sister and scared for her. After their parents tell them to go explore, an adventurous Maya leads a superstitious Cat down a path to the beach. In an old and abandoned arcade on the beach they meet a boy who talks of the cities reputation for ghosts. That evening Maya and her family head to a neighbor’s house for dinner which Cat does not want to attend. So far, a pretty straight forward Telgemeier book.

Then the name … The neighbors are the Calaverases. They are Mexican, and their name is Calaveras (skull) and they live in a town full of ghosts. That is the equivalent of a family named Advent Calendar living in town with a reputation for elves.

Of course, the kid from the beach is Carlos Calaveras who plays maracas with Maya while the adults talk and Cat sits and eat chips and guacamole. Turns out Maya and Cat’s mom, Leona, is a fully assimilated Mexican who rejected her heritage, married a White guy and basically has turned away from everything Mexican, even the food. This is an important detail since that is how Carlos temps Cat into joining him and Maya on a tour of the local mission.

Give a girl a concha (sweet pastry with a shell shaped sugar pattern) and she’ll be yours forever. So, the kids go to the local mission which Carlos insists is a doorway to the spirit world. He also says the ghosts prefer to speak Spanish because they were from Mexico.

Yeah, so this is the first thing that really makes no sense. The Catholic Mission system was a way for the Spanish to colonize California. Probably tens of thousands of Native Americans and Mexican Indians were killed and enslaved in these missions. The ghosts these kids find would most likely be Ohlone in that area of California, not Mexican. Even if they were Mexican, chances are they would be from some other tribe that was forced to speak Spanish. Why would these ghosts “prefer” to speak the language of their colonizers? Someone -Telgemeier, an editor, anyone with an internet connection – should have spent 10 minutes investigating Spanish missions.

Back to the book. Maya has an attack from playing with the ghosts and needs to be hospitalized. Family drama ensues.

September rolls around. Maya has to stay home while Cat goes to school. Cat meets Seo Young who talks about nail polish, froyo and going to the “midnight party on November 1st” (Dia de los Muertos) where she met a cute boy. Who is dead. Because that is what Dia de los Muertos is about. Ghostly hook-ups. Maya slowly gets better, although she needs a tank and breathing tube to deal with her ever weakening lungs.

As October approaches more Dia de los Muertos stuff appears and the book is the worse for it. For those who celebrate Dia de los Muertos the holiday is about honoring and remembering family and friends who have died. We make ofrendas (offerings) as a way to invite the dead back to visit and see that the family is alive and well and continuing. It is a 3000 year old celebration of birth, life, death and rebirth. It is not a “Mexican halloween” which is how Telgemeier treats it. Cat wears a la Catrina costume for halloween, which is pretty much the standard for cultural appropriation – right up there with black face, headdresses, and the sexy bandito costume.

In Telgemeier’s graphic novel the ghosts have a bit of an obsession with orange soda in a bottle. The dead basically want to party all night long, drink orange soda, and don’t seem to care if they are with family or just randos on the street. The end of the book is full of music, flying, an inexplicable dead light house attendant, and a black cat who delivers Mexican food.

If you are teaching kids about Dia de los Muertos, please look elsewhere.

Digger by Ursula Vernon


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My professional reading practices have changed in the last year. I am slowly working through a subset of all the graphic novels published in the last 10 years or so. I read, graphic novels with female protagonists that might show up in a k-12 classroom almost exclusively .

That means I’m reading within genres I’m usually not interested in and books that I wouldn’t usually open. Although it might not be exactly what Gene Luen Yang had in mind when he started Reading Without Walls but it has opened my eyes to lots of new authors. Besides that, it has changed the patience I have for books.  I tend to stick with them past the first 10 pages, even if I am NOT in luuuuvvvvv with the book.  

DiggerOne of the books I would never had picked up, if not for this project, is Digger: Volume One by Ursula Vernon, published way back in 2005. Originally a web comic Digger, a no nonsense wombat, ends up tunneling into Lord Ganesh’s temple and talks to the resident statue. The black and white graphic novel begins as a fairly traditional “stranger in a strange land” narrative. It takes a bit of time to get into this story and to appreciate the odd mix of a very stoic character dealing with fantastical elements in a non-nonsense manner.

The true strength of the book is in the characters. Digger is both kind and snarky, giving a genuine portrait of a hard working wombat who is trying to figure her way out of a very weird situation. There is also a hyena sort of thing (who Digger names Ed), ShadowChild who recently emerged from an abandoned egg, a slug who listens to the leaves, and a whole bunch of librarians and resident temple rats. 

Vernon provides us with a long list of interesting and individualistic characters that have a wonderful assortment of flaws and charms. The book, with all it’s charm, basically comes down to a representation of a hero’s tale. Digger works hard at understanding how her new world works and how she can get back home. Digger 2007-02-13-compassion

I have to admit, I didn’t love this graphic novel in the beginning. It was a difference in taste. I tend to prefer graphic novels that stretch the reader, creating lots of open space between the images and the words for me to figure out. In the beginning of this books there seemed to be too much that is both shown and stated. I think Vernon’s over reliance on Digger’s narration made it hard for me to get into the book. For instance, there is a terrific series of panels where Digger and ShadowChild are trying to retrace her steps back to Ganesh’s temple. The route is marked by a series of statues whose large and pointed tongues point (quite literally) the way to the temple. The images, along with her progress, made it clear, but Vernon chose to include dialogue that simply explained what was clear from the images. The explanation, for me, was unnecessary.

Because of my commitment to reading graphic novels with female protagonists I kept reading well past when I would usually let this book go. And, I am glad.

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The book passes the Bechdel test early and often with many named female characters talking to each other, almost exclusively about something other then a man. In fact this book shows a series of strong female, male and non-gendered characters moving through an interesting landscape, evolving and revealing more about themselves and the world they live in with each step. Once I became accustomed to the symmetry between the images and the words, I began to enjoy the story. There are many interactions between the characters that made me laugh, and then think, and then laugh again. Vernon takes on many philosophical and religious ideas without preaching.

Although this is a very female-centric book, there are issues with some of the characters as I reflect on the way race and ethnicity play out. Ed (the hyena character) speaks in an odd manner, mostly because he was shunned from his “tribe” and has spent so long alone. Yeah, honestly, a warning signal goes up when I read the word “tribe” and the character that comes from a “tribe” is shown to be … not as sophisticated. Ed wears a loincloth and a necklace of odd-shapes stones. He speaks English in an oddly formal and yet stilted  manner. In one scene, after Digger has slept for many hours in Ed’s cave, he offers Digger a warm cup of something,

“Is warrior herbs. Is make hunter’s water strong! Smell for miles! Digger-mousie marks territory now, all people know is fierce mousie, respect mark. Digger-mousie new, need respect to win territory”

2007-03-13-wombat41-cooperLater on in the book Digger is being hunted by Ed’s old pack-mates who have the same sort of stilted,awkward speech pattern. They wear loin clothes, carry spears, have painted faces and feathers. It is not clear to me what indigenous community is supposed to be represented here but it gives me pause.

I encourage people to pick this Hugo award winning series. I worry that in order to gain a strong, complex female protagonist the book provides am indigenous trope. It is worth a read, and a discussion.