Erasure by Any Other Name …

flagJune in Pride Month and I’m a long-time Latinx lesbian and we’ve got some history to cover. I’ve been out for the majority of my life. I’m out to friends, family, acquaintances, neighbors, colleagues, students, my sons’ friends and families, the checkout people at the grocery store, all the contractors I try and get to come back to the house to actually do the work that we’d like to pay them for, and our dog. I’m even out to the Subaru dealership guys – although that not a shock to anyone.

In fact, I’m about as out as I can be and this is a focused, calculated act of defiance and activism. We are enmeshed in a homophobic, racist, sexist, ablest, classist society that is staunchly in favor of and designed to support and affirm a White, male, able, middle-class, Christian, straight ideal.

What is sometimes most distressing is how people who are privilege adjacent align themselves with the dominant group instead of lifting up communities that are oppressed and minoritized. I define privilege adjacent as someone who is one degree removed from the idealized White, male, able, middle class, Christian, straight idealized identity. When I address identity I am referring to the ways Dr. Beverly Tatum talks about it in The complexity of identity: Who am I in which she specifies “race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, and physical or mental ability”.

This kind of privilege adjacent behavior is seen in the racism enacted by White feminists  when they uphold and protect Whiteness. It is seen in the ways Latinx men vote for White male candidates thus upholding maleness. And, it is seen in the LGBTQIA community’s racism, sexism, and transphobia. The White LGBTQIA community often actively erases, omits, disregards and generally tosses under the bus BIPOC people across the spectrum, including but not limited to bi- and pan-sexual people, as well as gender outlaws (Kate Bornstein, 1994/2010/2016) which include trans, gender fluid and everyone else not accounted for on the imagined and idealized gender binary.

Stonewall PBThe LGBTQIA community has a lot to learn and repair. I was hoping some of that education and repair work would be seen in Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution by Rob Sanders and Jamey Christoph (Random House, 2019).

But, no. This isn’t the book to do that work. Instead, it is yet another fiction that provides a gay, White, cis, straight appealing, male community a pat on the back. Instead of lifting- up the trans women of color, and the butch women and femme men who were at the forefront of the riots, this book presents a more palatable image.

The author and illustrator decided to enter into the story of the Stonewall riots using the buildings as the narrators. The personified buildings provide a brief history of Greenwich Village from the 1840s when the area was used to board horses, through an unknown time of immigration, taking a dip into the 1930s with artists, and finally landing on “gays and lesbians. They were men who loved men, and women who loved women” in the 1960s (p.11). This is the first, but certainly not the last opportunity that the authors take to enforce a strict gender binary. The men are masculine appealing in a sort of Abercrombie & Fitch metro-sexual way, whereas the women remind me of Marlo Thomas from That Girl!

SW11 and 12

 

 

 

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On the next page (p. 13-14) there might be a Black trans woman or maybe a drag queen embraced by a young White man. She is centered and surrounded by a sea of Whiteness. Again, the authors choose to use “gay” as an all encompassing word.

On page 19-20 the issue of unjust laws begins, and the text states that the police “stormed through our doors, lining up the men and women inside, demanding IDs, detaining some, arresting others.” The text doesn’t hint at, allude to, show or address the beatings, bribes, or all the other corruption and violence that the police perpetuated during that time (and continue today).

Finally, on pages 21 and 22, the text reads ” ‘Why don’t you do something?’ yelled one woman as she was forced into a police car.” The illustration is a short, thin, wasp waisted woman with brown hair wearing a v-neck t-shirt, in handcuffs, getting into a police car.

Not a lot of folks have a clear understanding or recollection of what happened that night in 1969. They were busy making history. I know this, when I lived in San Francisco during the late 80s I heard about Stonewall from LGBTQIA elders who were there (or claimed to be) while I stuffed envelopes, folded quilts, and sat around bars having brunch. I always heard about two Black women … Stormé DeLarverie and Marsha P. Johnson as the grandmothers of the gay rights movement. (Full disclosure, I never knew Stormé’s last name until I started researching for this review).

Storme Daniels

Stormé DeLarverie was a bi-racial stone butch from Louisiana. She performed in nightclubs and worked as a bouncer. She was not petite or slight, and she sure as hell wasn’t wasp waisted and cooperative. According to Julia Robertson’s HuffPost article “She was androgynous, tall, dark, handsome and legally armed.” She got tired of taking punches, so she literally fought back that night.

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Marsha P. Johnson a “trans activist” according to Julia Jacobs’ NY Times article. Marsha and Sylvia Rivera (HOW DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT HER!?!?!?) have also been credited with throwing the first bricks of the riot. Again, both of these women are women of color and both are missing from this book. (That isn’t exactly true. There is one photograph included in the back matter that shows these two powerful trans women of color sharing an umbrella during a protest.)

After the police car pages where the book either erases or misrepresents Stormé, and blithely moves on to capture a very #AllGaysMatter sort of vibe. But, according to many articles, as well as the folks I talked to way back in the 80s, that wasn’t the case. The people leading the fight were lesbians, especially butch lesbians, drag queens, and trans men and women. Many, not all, were BIPOC. These were the people who were there to protect, to rise up, and to start the revolution that lead the way for me to live as an out Latinx lesbian with a life partner, two kids, a dog and a literal picket fence.

History is White-, straight-, and male-washed in the country. Even LGBTQIA history is written to actively erase the contributions of people of color, trans, bi, butch and femme in favor of a more palatable White, heteronormative mimicry. Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution by Rob Sanders and Jamey Christoph (Random House, 2019) falls into that same trap.

This is the beginning of PRIDE. Learn some history. Think about the voices you hear over and over and who is missing. Stormé, Marsha, and Sylvia deserve to be known and celebrated for being the truly badass women they were. I hope they get the picturebook they deserve, but this is not that book.


An author’s response

  Rob Sanders replied using the comment option :

As the author of the first picture book on the subject of the Stonewall Uprising, I was careful not to tell any one story from the Uprising–and there are as many stories as there are people who were present, each true and authentic. Rather, I chose to tell the story of the buildings that came to be known as the Stonewall Inn so children for the first time ever could hear and read about the history of the Uprising. The book was vetted by eight diverse members of the LGBTQ community. The illustrations of the book show a cross-section of the LGBTQ community who were present at the Stonewall Inn and who took place in the Uprising. The back matter is careful to point out with words and photos that trans women of color had an important role in the Uprising. One book never can represent all the aspects of a historic event, nor can one author. It was my sincere hope when I wrote this book and today that this is the first of many books on the subject of the Stonewall Uprising and that people who can tell the stories of individuals who were present at the Uprising will tell those stories with their strong, authentic voices.

 


My Response, June 8, 2019 11:41 pM

I needed to delay my response to the authors comments for a few reasons, including but not limited to the fact that I have other work, family, dog, and BBQ obligations. I was frustrated by the Mr. Sanders response. Frustrated, but not surprised.

Mr. Sanders writes that he was “careful not to tell any one story” but that is exactly what this book does. By omitting and avoiding “any one person” he and the illustrator have, once again, erased the actual women responsible for raising their voices and sparking the riots.

The author says “The book was vetted by eight diverse members of the LGBTQ community.” And that may be true, but I have questions about this vetting process. Were these people friends and family? Were these readers children’s literature scholars that focus on representation of mis- and under-represented communities?  Were the paid sensitivity readers? Were the recommendations given in a transparent manner, such as, “This erases Black and Latinx trans women as main actors in the movement.” Were the recommendations given to the illustrator? Were the recommendations followed or put aside as too troublesome or unimportant?

Mr. Sanders is both proud that this is the first picturebook and defensive that not every book can be everything. I’m not asking for it to be everything. I am critiquing the active erasure of BOIPOC women. This defense that not all books can be everything is all too familiar. Black/Indigenous/People of Color are always told to wait. We are unwilling to wait any longer. The erasure of names and identities in the LGBTQIA community in favor of a White hetero-palatable, woman is an action.

These creative choices continue a long standing tradition of erasure of BIPOC people from history. It continues the erasure of trans and butch women from LGBTQIA history. White is not neutral. Hetero-normative is not neutral. None of the choices made by the author, illustrator, editor, and publisher are neutral.


References

Bornstein, K., & Bergman, S. B. (2010). Gender outlaws: The next generation. Seal Press.

Jacobs, J. (2019). Two Transgender Activists Are Getting a Monument in New York. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/arts/transgender-monument-stonewall.html

Robertson, J. D., & ContributorAuthor. (2017, June 4). Remembering Stormé – The Woman Of Color Who Incited The Stonewall Revolution. HuffPost. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/remembering-stormé-the-woman-who-incited-the-stonewall_b_5933c061e4b062a6ac0ad09e

Tatum, B. D. (2000). The complexity of identity: Who am I. Readings for diversity and social justice2, 5-8.


I welcome your comments.
Please know I will not publish or respond to anonymous comments. 

PHOTOGRAPHIC: The Life of Graciela Iturbide

“It was like coming home… only to no home I’d ever known…”
Sam Baldwin, Sleepless in Seattle

I talk about existing in the liminal spaces of identity. I am Latinx, and I am White. I have, as Albert Memmi called it, the face of the colonizer and the colonized.

Liminal space, if you are not familiar with the concept, is the space between. It is the space that is not easily defined. If you stand in a doorway between the kitchen and the living room, you are in neither room, and in both, and in a wholly new and unique space. Liminal spaces are often portals from one dimension to another and can feel unsettled and unsettling.

The idea of liminal space in Western thought and literature is often portrayed as portals, pathways, or doorways that separate different realities – look at Grimm Tales, Mother Goose, Hans Christian Anderson, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and L. Frank Baum to name a few. But, in Western literature the realities are kept separate by the power of  liminal space.

But, in many Latinx narratives, liminal space doesn’t separate Oz and Kansas. Instead, realities exist, cross-over, intermix and influence each other in  constant dance. Think of La Llorona, or almost all of Isabel Allende’s books. These are the stories where familiar realities co-mingle with magic and become more than either one is capable of alone.  But, only a few can see, recognize and live within these spaces.

Isabel Quintero (author of Gabi, Girl in Pieces) and Zeke Peña explore one such artist in their graphic novel biography about photographer Graciela Iturbide. The book is written in sparse, detailed prose, using black and white images that call to and emerge from Iturbide’s photos. They also selected a few of her photos.

This is a biography of art, but not of the artist. There are few details of her youth, and personal life. Instead Quintero and Peña provide an open space for Iturbide’s photos to be studied and seen and felt.

I’d seen some of her photos in museums or art books, both in Los Angeles and in Sonora. I remember feeling confused about the work – it is beautiful and stark and rich all at the same time. She captured the Sonora desert, a place I was too young to remember but that I can sense in the back of my mind. My father admired her aesthetic voice, but was never sure her work was feminine enough. Her photos show the unrelenting beauty and majesty of the desert but she also showed people.

Image result for graciela iturbide graphic novelShe has a series that focuses on an area of East LA and photographed Cholas being proud and poor, trapped by the dream of the United Stated, and standing powerfully together.

Her photos were full of people, animals, nature and sky, objects and space. Iturbide’s most famous photo is called Mujer Ángel. I clearly remember seeing the image and feeling the warm wind, the grit in my shoes, the sweat running down my neck. I was transported to the Sonora desert, behind a woman in a flowing white dress, with a black, lace mantilla, walking through the rocky desert carrying an enormous boom-box. While describing the photo Quintero quotes Iturbide, “It’s like this: when I look at a subject, the subject must always look back. Must always agree with the shot … That is the only way I will take a photograph. It is complicity.” Peña uses parts of the image, reimagining aspects and angles of the photo to recreate, or perhaps to create for the first time, the moments just before Iturbide’s shutter clicked and an image was transported from that place to the page.

Image result for graciela iturbide graphic novel

I grew up in Southern California and spent time in and around Nogales (both sides of the border) and in the Sonora desert when I was a kid. When I read PHOTOGRAPHIC: The Life of Graciela Iturbide, I feel that world again. Her photography exists in that space between, and within multiple realities. Reading this graphic novel gave me back glimpses I have forgotten and allowed me to see parts of me that are often hidden but always felt.

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:

Trickster Cover

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.

Graphic Novels to Share: Bingo Love

Comics are the medium or form – images and words working together, bounded by panel, to communicate. Any story can be told using the comics form, just as any story can be told in paintings, film, poetry, or traditional print-text novels. I study graphic novels, but lately I am not sure that term means what I think it means.

When I say graphic novels I mean long-form comics that are not Manga or comic books (sometimes known as floppies). But, the problem of defining a form that is constantly changing and evolving, like graphic novels, is that it is like trying to determine a toddler’s shoe size while chasing them around Disneyland. There is so much movement, excitement, fear, and joy that the point of the event (defining, this gaining clarity) is sometimes lost on the need to impose a structure.

AMERICA_cover

The issue I am butting up against this week is what about trades? Trades are usually comic book story arcs that are originally  published as a set of floppies and then is published – without all the ads and previews – in a “graphic novel edition”. Examples are DC Comic’s Batwoman: Elegy (Rucka, Williams, & Jones, 2010), and more recently Marvel’s AMERICA: The Life and Times of America Chavez (Rivera et al., 2017). In other words, the big two (Marvel and DC) are putting out trades by the truckload (all the while canceling comic book series that feature people of color – but that is for a later post).

Trades are also being published by smaller presses and independent comic artists with the help of crowdsourced funding. One such project is Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge’s graphic novel Bingo Love  (published by Image Comics).

BingoLove_Cover

There is a lot to love about this graphic novel (I’m writing this post, so I’m calling it a graphic novel). The book opens with a large panel showing a young woman crying and being comforted by an older woman. The scene takes place in “Jenkins Home for Seniors in 2038”. The young woman has been kicked out of her home for “liking girls”. I have to admit that this opening had me worried. But, the older woman, Hazel, begins talking about when she first met the love of her life, Mari in 1963 at church bingo.

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The story is told from Hazel’s point of view and so we see her attraction burst forth beginning with the first time she sees Mari. Although they are in middle school, it is clear to Hazel that she doesn’t simply like Mari as a friend. Instead she realizes pretty quickly that she’d like to marry Mari and live happily ever after.

The pacing of the book is the only thing that keeps it from being great. There are quick jumps in time that are accomplished by collages that show the progression. These quick jumps in the emotional narrative are a bit jarring and I wish Franklin took more time and space to develop the characters, including the minor characters, and the setting.

The girls grow up as best friends, but their friendship does’t change until they are older, perhaps seniors in high school. One day they have their first kiss, they confess their mutual love for each other, and get in trouble for that love. Both girls are told they cannot see the other. Hazel is ready to run away with Mari and make a life. Mari hesitates and all is lost.

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We see Hazel get married to James, and by the time she was 38 she had three kids, was miserable and still dreaming of Mari. We see Hazel and James’s kids grow, have kids, and then, one Mother’s Day she goes to bingo with her daughter and then BAM … Mari enters the story again. The two women who shared a first kiss almost 50 years ago are reunited. But, not everyone is happy about the reunification of lost love … especially Hazel’s daughter, Marian.

This time Mari is ready to commit. The next section of the book is amazing. Love blossoms but it isn’t without complication. Hazel deals with her feelings, goes to therapy (which is something we rarely see PoC do in any sort of media!). Hazel begins to move away from the life without Mari and begins building a new life that includes love and her family.

The narrative focuses on women’s lives and their humanity. One woman is shown breastfeeding, another as her water breaks as well as just after she gives birth (there is even an umbilical cord!). Perhaps most importantly Hazel and Mari are shown as fully realized people with desires, humor, hunger, and even stinky feet.

One panel brings tears to my eyes every time. I want to spend some time on it here to explain why this book is important – important to bring into the classroom.Wedding_BL.jpg

Look at all these women. Look carefully. What do you see? I see a multitude of shades, body types, ages, and sexual identities in one space enjoying life and celebrating love. This graphic novel celebrates the loving relationship of two older, black lesbians.

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.

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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.

 

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

Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

A friend and colleague asked me to take a look at a new graphic novel, Indeh by Ethan Hawke and Greg Ruth. She is considering it as a text for her secondary history and social studies education class. At first glance it looked interesting, so I agreed to read it with a more critical eye.

The Book
Ethan Hawke, yes … Ethan Hawke the actor from Gattaca, Snow Falling On Cedars, and Boyhood … has been fascinated with Indians of the old west since he was a child. As an adult his fascination continued and he watched movies like Smoke Signals and read books by Sherman Alexie to get an authentic view of the Native American experience. According to Hawke’s author note Indeh was originally a screenplay that he had no luck getting it to the screen. Instead, Hawke connected with Greg Ruth and created a graphic novel based on Hawke’s study of history.

The Issue of Representationdiversityinchildrensbooks2015_f
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center found in their survey of 2015 children’s books there are painfully few representations of American Indians in books written for children. In addition to the sheer lack of books, the actual representations are warped most of the time.

My “Knowledge”
My scholarship focuses on representation of marginalized people in graphic novels. That is a big group of people and includes many communities I am not a part of, and have little knowledge about. When I read a graphic novel that centers a marginalized community I am not a part of I have to do some extra work and ask questions of myself as a reader. I usually begin by making a list of what I “know” about the community, and this “knowledge” includes my own biased views, stereotypes and family lore. For this books I wrote a list about Apaches;

  • Apache live in the southwest desert.
  • They live on both sides of the boarder.
  • According to my grandfather when the Anasazi abandoned their lands half when north and became Pueblo, Apache and Navajo indians. The other half went south and became Cora (my family) and Huichol.
  • My tio Jesus (HEY-sus) – who was actually my great uncle on my grandfathers side – was called el Apache or el indio by our family.
  • Apaches were great fighters and basically kicked our (Mexican) butts in 2 wars. First, in 1821, just after Mexico gained independence, and then again around 1880.
  • The 1880 war where Geronimo and Chato rose up and kicked Mexican butts.
  • Mexico has never had a great army.
  • The first Mexican battles against Chato and his Apache warriors – and I am never sure who the players were or what side my family members were on – took place in Chihuahua where my tia Theresa’s family originated.
  • Apaches are awesome fighters, can live on nothing but dust, and never forgive their enemy.
  • All of the stories I heard are about Apache men – never women.
  • Although I suspect there are different bands of Apache, I have no idea what those bands are or where they are located.

Reading the Words and Images
The inside cover is a two page black and white spread depicting a level of violence I would usually just skip over. Men with hand guns, rifles, bows and arrows killing and being killed. I spent some time on this image and came to realize that the White men – as signaled by their clothes and equipment – were dead or being killed whereas the Apache were the ones doing the killing. In one section an Apache seems to be turning from killing one White man who lays on the ground towards another who is struggling with two arrows in his back. The Apache has no shirt on, and there is blood spilling off the knife in his hand.

There is an extremely complimentary foreword written by Douglas Miles, owner of Apache Skateboards. Miles is a member of the Apache nation.

The beginning of the books is difficult to place in time. It seems to jump from “present” to “past” but there is no way for me, as a reader, to orient myself to the time period.
The book opens with Cochise telling two boys, Naiches (his son) and Goyahla, a creation story while standing in a stream. This fades into a first person narrative by one of the boys who states, “Many of our people had lost much in the massacre …  … but I had lost all”. This line is set beside the image of a person’s forehead and one open eye, their long, dark hair flowing across the panel from right to left, with blots of something that could be ink or blood.  (p.9, pn. 3).

The next page has a banner “Seventeen Years Later – Mexico” and a single panel makes up the entire page. A man sits close by a woman who appears dead and bloody. The story in the text is that of a man who had to bring 100 ponies to win permission to marry. The panels alternate between a light grey past filled with intimate closeup of the man and woman and his collecting the horses, and what seems to be the present violent death of a woman. There is no clear perpetrator. There is no other person aside from the man who seems to be the narrator. I was not sure if he had killed his wife or if his wife was killed by unseen forces.

As I read further, it became clear there was a mass killing and this man, Goyahla, had survived but his wife and daughter were killed. He sets a funeral pyre alight (p. 20) but on the next page it is not on fire and a hawk or eagle lands on the pyre and tell Goyahla that he will be impervious to guns (p. 22-24). He asks permission to lead a war party against the Mexicans who are, according to the text, responsible for the deaths of his family. For the next few pages Goyahla and Cochise raise an army from among the Bands of the Apache nation.

The next two-page spread (p. 34-35) is another bloody, violent scene full of smoke, running horses, and death. What struck me about this and many other pages within this book was the way the violence is portrayed, and by whom and upon whom the violence is being inflicted.

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What I want readers to see in this example is that the Apache are on the move, shooting and killing unarmed men, women, and children. Thus far they are the ONLY violent actors shown.

On page 39 Goyahla is shown in the act of scalping someone. On page 41 he rams a knife through a mans chin and into his skull. On page 42 and 43 Mexicans are seen as bleeding victims with arrows and spears protruding from their bodies. On the second panel of page 43 a dead baby is seen floating down a river. The image is tied in with the sequence of the Apache killing unarmed Mexicans.

The book continues in this manner. Neither White Americans nor Mexicans are seen as the actual perpetrators of any level of violence. The images in the book are almost always of the aftermath of massacres or killings by the army on the Apaches. The military are responsible for the hanging deaths of a groups of Apache on page 94-95, but the immediacy of the act is not shown, only the aftermath. Again and again White soldiers are depicted threatening violence and the American government makes and breaks promises and treaties, but the direct image of Whites perpetrating violence on Apache bodies is not seen, over and over again.
– On page 136 an army officer shoots a horse in the head to use it as a road block. On page 137 a bullet comes from outside the panel, from an unseen shooter, and goes through an Apache’s head.
– Pages 146-155 show the killing of Magas Coloradas, an Apache leader who was shot and beheaded by US army soldiers. Coloradas’ death is not shown. Instead, the panel (p. 151, pn. 4) shows Lieutenant Gatewood’s reaction to hearing the shot outside his tent.
– There are Apache heads on pikes (p. 163) but no image of them being beheaded.
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– During a series illustrating a battle at Skeleton Cave in Arizona (p. 174, pn 1-3) the US soldiers have rifles in panel 1, a bearded man says “Buck, see that fella up front?”. Panel 2 shows an Apache with a rifle being shot several times. Panel 3 shows 4 other Apache, one with a rifle, being shot. But, again, the perpetrators of the shooting are not depicted.
This separation of violence and perpetrator is ONLY afforded to the US and Mexican soldiers and not to the Apache. The Apache are seen, within panels, as the direct perpetrators of violence against friends and enemies alike.

This graphic novel is a problematic text. In my scant review of the literature under “further reading” (p. 231) and my research into the specific battles shown, this book shows an extremely biased history as told by White americans. The fact that ONLY the Apache are seen as direct perpetrators of violence against women, children, unarmed and armed men is a huge concern for me.

To answer my colleague who asked if Indeh is a good graphic novel to use in her secondary history and social studies education classes, I have to say no. It is yet another example of a distorted, overtly violent and damaging portrait of an angry and brutal Apache Nation. Don’t bother buying it. The authors don’t need to be rewarded.

EDIT – please see Debbie Reese’s excellent review which focuses on the historical accuracy of the book, American Indians in Children’s Literature.

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.