#KidLitWomen: An Open Letter to Well-Meaning White Women

 Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

-Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
16 April, 1963

 

In King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail he called out the what he referred to as “white moderates”. He held nothing back when he called out white moderate BS, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.” Sound familiar?Today, in Children’s literature and other spaces, we deal with what I like to call  Well Meaning White Folks (WMWF) who deal with social justice issues by gaslighting, tone policing, and outright hypocrisy. These are the WMWF who support change as long as that change in no way calls for self reflection or action.

TonePolice

No, We Won’t “Calm Down” by Robot Hugs.

I can always tell when I am dealing  with WMWF by their rallying cry “be nice” or “choose kindness”, as if the act of calling out racism, misogyny, ableism and homophobia is the problem and not the act of racism, misogyny, ableism and homophobia. King was on to this BS when he wrote, “Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” [emphasis added].

As a proud Latina lesbian and member of today’s Call Out Culture I gain solace by reading King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Lately, some horrible truths have come out, specifically, Anne Ursu’s article highlighting the prevalence of #MeToo moments in professional #kidlit spaces. The resulting fallout and backlash has been hard to watch for many reasons including the defensive reactions of  WMWF who don’t want to air out, talk about, reflect on, believe, or change the engrained male* dominated power structures.

Unchecked Entitlement, Privilege, and Power

Recently a White male author, Marc Tyler Nobleman was called out on social media for participating in an all-White, all-male panel at a Children’s literature conference in 2018. He was so hurt by the public discussion of his actions that he decided to write a blog post about it. Let me be clear, Marc Tyler Nobleman, like many WMWF, claims to be an ally. So, when he was called out, his immediate response was to pull bucket after bucket from the seemingly endless well of defensive phrases that WMWF have at their disposal. He began by defending his choice of participating in an all-male, all-White panel with the ultimate in weak-tea excuses, “I did not think to ask who else was presenting.”

He pulls suggestions right out of the Protect the White Male Status Quo! handbook, “Rather than start with public shaming or snark, instead contact the event organizer and participants directly and privately to express the concern civilly.” Let’s be clear Well Meaning White Folks are more invested in protecting their uncontested vantage point of privilege than in changing a system that keeps them there.

To be sure, the status quo in Children’s literature is that White, male, straight, and able are the norms and should be left unquestioned and unchallenged. Look at any professional Children’s literature space – from conferences to classrooms – who are the vast majority of people in those spaces? Well Meaning White Women (WMWW). And who is pretty damn quick to come to the defense of men called out in these #MeToo moments? WMWW. Perhaps White women in Children’s literature are invested in protecting the status quo because they enjoy the privilege of being adjacent to the unchecked entitlement of men.

No one is unaffected by the colonizing social structures that are in place and protected by the status quo. All of us are responsible for upholding White male dominance at one point or another in our lives. What many of us are asking for now is for WMWF to have the hard conversations, look at their own actions, and believe us when we tell you, “that is not ok and here are all the reasons why”.

Honestly, this #MeToo in Children’s lit is missing an important conversation that I suspect has been happening on a separate and parallel whisper network. I have been part of conversations about the discomfort of unchecked entitled behavior of White women, specifically towards Black male authors. I have seen White women^ (and yes, it has always been White women^) approach Black male authors and

– Stroke biceps
– Press boobs against arms and/or shoulders while taking selfies
– Touch his hair (including braids, dreads, afros, and facial hair)
– Stroke his bald head (seriously? WTF is that about?)
– Sidle up as he’s talking to a small group of people, and move a hand across his lower back/upper butt region
– Touch his butt

4016555559_0cb50599b3_z1.jpgAll of this was done silently and without consent. (There is also some really weird lesbian fetishizing but Malinda Lo covered that over on Twitter). And, before the pearl clutching begins, I know this is NOT the same as the #MeToo incidents in Anne Ursu’s piece, or the ones in the comment section of the School Library Journal piece. The reason this is important for our professional community to think about is that Black men live with the very real memory of Emmet Till and the White woman who’s statements got him killed. They live with the fetishizing of Black bodies by White people. This is another, different, way unchecked entitlement makes us all lesser.

Actions We All Need to Take

I am not going to ask you to sign a petition, or put on a pin or buy a ribbon. Instead, I am going to provide some helpful and actionable items for all of us.

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First, if you think someone is on the receiving side of unwelcome attention and fetishizing you can open a safe space for them. Here is a helpful comic by Maeril. It is specific to Islamophobia but I think it works in pretty much every situation when people are behaving with unchecked entitlement.
– Make eye contact with the person BEING intruded upon
– stand next to or near the person BEING intruded upon
– Engage the person BEING intruded upon in conversation

And what should you do if you find yourself wanted to subject someone else with unasked for physical attention? You should ask for consent. This seems like a good plan for everyone in professional spaces … or any space, really. Ask before handling anyone, even if the handling is under the guise of flirting, humor, or as a result of that heady mix of alcohol and hotel keys.

And just in case you are confused, consent means saying the words that specify what you want to do and waiting until you get enthusiastic, verbal agreement. It would look something like this;
– “May I stroke your bicep?”
– “Ok if I put my arm around you and rest my hand on your ass?”
– “Can I rub your bald head?”
– “Is it ok if I press my breasts up against you?”

If you, Well Meaning White Women, feel embarrassed by asking a Black man for consent at a public book signing or other professional space thus putting your desire for physical contact with him into the of “light of human conscience and the air of national opinion” then you should not be doing it at all.


*I know not all men. And, I also know some women. Don’t start with that.
^I know not all White women. Don’t start with that, either.

 

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 4)

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


Decelerate Blue by Adam Rapp and Mike Cavallaro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILER!!!

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

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

Yeah. So that happened.

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

Books: Keep or Toss (Vol 2)

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


NotYourPrincess_Cover#NotYourPrincess:
Voices of Native American Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy #NotYourPrinces. Support #OwnVoices.

Books: Keep or Toss (Vol 1)

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

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

Only Child Cover

Book to Keep:
The Only Child by Guojing

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

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

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

interior Only Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. Many.

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

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

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

lilychen_1.jpg

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

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

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

 

An open letter to the world, 2017 Edition

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

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

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

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

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

More Than Racism Alone

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

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

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

More than One Man

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

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

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

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

Be Brave Enough

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

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

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

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

I am tired.

I am haunted.

I am hunted.

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

Sincerely,

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

 

Photos of 2016 Victims

Names of Orlando Pulse Victims, in Alphabetical order

Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old

Amanda L. Alvear, 25 years old

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

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Octavia E. Butler’s KINDRED

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turns out, I’m an idiot.

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

 

 

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

 

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.