“Harshly” Judging Islamophobia

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

Judging a Book by It’s Cover

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

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

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

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

Letter from the Asian Author Alliance

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

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

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

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

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

On Piling On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Might 2019 Bring?

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

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

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

Stories matter.

 

Trans People Aren’t Mythical Creatures

In research we often provide what is referred to as a positionality statement. It helps our readers understand who we are, how our experiences and identities effect our understandings of the subject we are writing about. Positionality statements help avoid the fiction that research is neutral. In the age of #OwnVoices I have come to realize, or maybe I have come to admit to the realization, that I believe an author’s identity, community, and experiences informs the work they produce.

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Librarian Angie Manfredi (@misskubelik ), Tweeted out about a book she wasn’t crazy about. Here is a link to the entire thread. “Our library copy of JULIAN IS A MERMAID has finally arrived and it is adorable but I NEED everyone in to acknowledge it would NOT be getting this amount of love and attention if it were written by a gender non-conforming queer IPOC – it might not even have been published.” The book was written and illustrated by Jessica Love, a White, cis, woman.

For a long time I hesitated to write about Julián, a picturebook is about a boy who dreams of being a mermaid, transforms himself, and his abuela who upon seeing him dressed in a headpiece and flowing train, takes him to what I can only describe as a drag parade (the mermaid parade in Coney Island *1). The book and the author are being talked about, and will most likely win many book awards.

I did what I usually do when I’m wresting with a book that features identities or communities or content that I am unfamiliar with. I asked people I trust. I shared my thinking with them, and I listened. In many ways this essay is more about the conversations I had and continue to have while trying to come to terms, rather than some sort of clean conclusion. *I will be adding footnoted changes to this post as they happen. 

When I first read the book I thought it was beautifully drawn. Full of soft colors, and gentle edges. Like fine pastels rubbed into expensive paper. There is a lushness to the images. When reading it I saw the care of the illustrator for her art, but I also so her Whiteness, her straightness, her cis-ness. I felt it in my bones and I could not shake the fact that I did not like the book. It was like eating a big meringue – sweet, technically beautiful, but it left a cloying, unpleasant taste. I wanted to name the taste, to objectify it, to explain it, to defend my dislike. I didn’t want to simply say “It isn’t an #OwnVoices book”. That was a convenient reason but not a complete one.

Literacy is a social act, and I find that my reading of the world is better when done in collaboration with others who do not share my view of the world, my history, or my identity. So, I talked to teachers who are Dominican, to librarians, and finally, to a trans girl named Indigo.

Stacey (not a pseudonym) is a teacher and she’s Dominican. I asked her about the book because I knew I needed to get handle on the language used. There are differences in the ways Latinxs speak and act within our communities and I didn’t want my Mexican-ness to over-ride the Dominican-ness that the White author was trying to capture. Stacey’s response was helpful. At first I asked about the physical features of the women, their dress, the ways they moved, and the shoes they wore. “I found that the story depicted Afro-Carribean culture pretty well. From the shape of the abuelita, her head scarfs and dress, to the figures of the other characters, I didn’t see anything problematic.” 

Stacey was generous, and she shared an unprompted idea with me.

I may of completely misinterpreted the theme, but I don’t know how likely it is for a Caribbean grandma to to take her grandson to a drag show and give him pearls after catching him in drag the first time. I think this story minimizes the real struggle LBGTQ members face in Caribbean culture where many of them are not accepted by society as they are in America. 

The ease in which Julián’s abuela accepts and encourages him to show his whole self might be something the author put into the book as a wish or hope. But, by creating this almost immediate acceptance, Jessica Love negated the real struggle so many Latinx LGBTQ people must go through. Is that is the message the author is trying to send? Probably. But, it lands flat to me. For me, this comes from a place of privilege that would rather a mermaid trope carry the message and ignore the very real issues at work.

Which lead me to a completely different Stacy and her colleague who helped me think about the whole mermaid deal. Stacy Collins (@darkliterata), who can be found over on the blog Medal on My Mind. I had lots of questions about the book.

Was this some sort of Trans Tail (Get it? Tale … like a story? and Tail like a mermaid? Sorry, I had no choice, the pun had to be written. I don’t make the rules). I get that there is a transformative narrative to mermaids, but if we are looking at a picturebook about a trans girl, or a gender fluid child, then why is Julián gendered on the very first page as male? Public librarian and friend Kazia Berkley-Cramer (@cateyekazia) pointed out the gendering thing and the fact that it continues throughout the book, even when he puts on a fancy headpiece, tablecloth tail, and big bauble-pearls his abuela hands over to complete his ensemble. She also wanted me to know that families are finding this book helpful and that isn’t nothing. But, for me, I keep looking at this book and I don’t think it is about a trans girl, or a gender fluid kid. It is really about a boy dressing up as a mermaid. Stacy Collins very aptly pointed out, “A fish tail is not inherently feminine, unless Julián wants it to be.”

It is important to point out (which I neglected to the first time this was posted) that Kazia was, overall, an advocate for the book. Her reasons were simple and compelling – her patrons. In her library she keeps the book in the “myself” section and Julián is a Mermaid provides her patrons with a character that they can watch come into being as without being chastised. In the first posting of this piece I neglected to give Kazia’s point a view much air. Probably because it departs from my own, but the fact is, there is a scarcity of books that show any kind of gender fluidity or flexibility with gender roles without punishment. That is a huge concern and, in that case, this book can do good things. (*4)

And, that is an issue I keep running into with this book. It isn’t clear what, if anything, Julián wants to express because this isn’t really Julián’s story. It is Jessica Love’s story, a story of a young Dominican boy, playing dress up or constructing himslelf, as imagined by a White, cis woman who brings her identity to the work, and with her identity comes her outsider’s gaze.

And, I think that is what bothers me the most. It isn’t JUST that Jessica Love isn’t a trans person of color. It is that there is no where in the book where I am not aware that this is another book about looking AT a trans body. The transformation of the body is a huge fixation, almost a fetish, for cis folks. We just can’t seem to get that it isn’t only about changing the body. Being trans is too complicated to reduce to a single idea or experience – not matter how hard we try as cis folks to make it just about the ONE THING (*2). The intrusive gaze on Julián’s private transformation wasn’t obvious to me. Instead, a young woman pointed it out to me and in that moment I knew the truth of it.

Indigo, a 16 year old trans girl (ugh, when do teens stop being boys and girls? I still call my sons’ friends boys and they are 15 and 16, so I’m going to stick with girl) who tweeted out under the Children of the Glades twitter handle dropped a truth bomb that continues to stick with me. They are a group of teens that identify as “Florida Seminole & Miccosukee” who are reading children’s and YA literature and giving scholars, teachers, librarians and other literary gatekeepers some enormous things to think about.

Indigo 2Indigo looked at the objectification of yet another “brown femme” body and felt danger there. Do I think that is what the author meant? No. But, it is more important to listen to what Indigo saw and felt as she read. I’d love to ask Indigo about the way she was reading this image – what gave her the creeps? Was it the heavy lidded eyes, so often associated with “bedroom eyes”? The fact that Julián is nearly naked in his tighty whities? Maybe the blush on his cheeks? When I start reading, seriously reading this image with this and some of the other commentary Indigo put out on Twitter, I began to get an inkling. I suspect the issue is the intimacy we, as outsiders, read and bear witness to seeing Julián build his gender representation from the world of his grandmother’s house.

I had a lot of things I wanted to ask Indigo. She was generous in her critique, to let it out into the Twitter-verse for all to see and I feel especially lucky that I saw it, read it, reached out to her and the other Glade teens.

I have a lot of things I still want to ask Indigo about, a lot of books I want to know what she thinks of, like Alex Gino’s new You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P. , and Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning. She was excited to find out that my main interest is in comics and graphic novels, so there was a whole world that was open to us to talk about … especially the new Captain Marvel movie!

But I can’t.

I can’t because she’s gone. Because, like too many queer teens and too many Native teens, and too many two spirit teens, she saw no way to survive, to move forward (Twitter announcement) . As Alexis:18 writes, “Indigo made a split-second decision that stopped her transitioning life. I know she wanted other Native 2SQ [two spirit] teens to get there.”

And so, selfishly, I mourn (*1) Indigo’s death for what I lost. Mourning for her, a teen so close to my own son’s age, feels too large and hard for me to do all at once. For her friends and family, I cannot begin to know how they feel. If I am affected by the loss of her potential, they are living with the gravity of the loss in ways I cannot know.

So, yes, Jessica Love wrote and illustrated a book that may or may not be about a young, gender fluid child, trying to find their way in the world. But, I can’t shake the feeling that this is simply not her story to write, and in the act of writing the book, she once again laid claim to what was not hers.

Rest in peace and power Indigo.


Footnotes of changes

  1. Updated: September 24, 2018 7:48 pm
    — Added Coney Island Mermaid parade
    — Tried to better explain grief.
  2. Updated: September 24, 2018 8:08 pm
    — Not surprising, I misrepresented trans experience in paragraph 5.
  3. Updated: 9/24/18 9:57 pm — many typos.
  4. Updated: 9/25/18 1:38 pm — added more information about positive librarian views

#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.

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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.

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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).

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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. 

Picture1

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.

bestwecoulddo_p036-037_bd2582e92a0bf41e7efe11ef289009f8.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

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.