Combating Racism Through Literature Part 2

Reading-books+empathyIn my essay earlier this month, “Combating Racism Through Literature,” I described how reading diverse literature can actually make children (and adults) become more empathetic to others, hence literature could help bring an end to racism. It was a few days later, in a conversation with Debbie Reese of the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog that I realized I wasn’t quite finished with my essay. Writing an essay explaining how creating empathetic readers can help change our world in theoretical sense is good, but it is worthless without the back up of action. Hence, this second part of the essay.

Ms. Reese pointed out to me that while reading can help, we still laud classics such as Gone with the Wind, that has very racist depictions of characters. She also pointed out to me that in a number of contemporary novels, Gone with the Wind is revered by the characters and held as an epitome of classic literature, but is not critiqued by those characters for its troublesome elements. Ms. Reese is extremely correct in her assertion that while we cannot forget these horrible and racist literary depictions in our past, we do have the ability, nay responsibility, to critique them and point out to readers how harmful those depictions are.

While we not only have the responsibility of pointing out inaccurate representations, we each also have different responsibilities, things we can actually do to help combat racism through literature. And each of us, depending on how and what way we are involved in the literary world, have different responsibilities – tasks that we can start doing today. Because, like I said earlier, just talking about a problem, without doing action, never resolves anything.

1. Publishers/Agents/Editors: Hire more People of Color. One way to have more diverse books published is to have more people in positions of power be diverse themselves. I know through WNDB of the intern program, which is great and a step forward, but do better. Don’t rely on People of Color to come searching for a job, seek them out. Visit college campuses and create relationships with minority organizations to extend a hand. I guarantee you people of color want to work in the industry, and by hiring them, your company will only benefit. Also, sign contracts with more authors of color. We are out there, sending queries, pitching at conferences, etc. Come find us. And, once you do sign an author of color, promote the mess out of that author. Give them a big push like Hunger Games received, or other big name YA authors. Don’t regale them to the “______-American section”. Give them exposure and I guarantee the readers will be there. Which leads directly to Group #2

2. Parents: Specifically parents from the dominate culture – do not censor your children’s reading habits. Trust your child to make the right decisions, to know where their interest lies and choose books accordingly. I say this from experience as my mother did not censor my reading choices at all. When I was 10 years old I read Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”. My parents had taken my sister and I to see the movie, and shortly after I saw the novel in the store. I asked my mother if I could read it, and instead of saying “you’re too young,” she grabbed the book off the shelf and handed it to me. Listen parents, I was 10! Yes, I might have been too young to read the book, and some of it I really didn’t understand, but my mother trusted my judgement. Because of many instances where I asked for a book and my mother’s trust in me, I know that is the reason why I have such a diverse literary sense. I’ve read all genres, all types of novels, simply because my parents never said, “this book isn’t for you.” Parents, when you tell your children that and take a book that might have a person of color on the cover, you are telling them that that person’s story doesn’t matter and that you do not trust their own reading habits. Encourage your child to read widely and diversely. When you do that, you have a child who will become more empathetic and more in charge of their own mind.

3. Teachers: We are in charge of educating the future and helping them find their own minds and one of the ways we accomplish this is through literature. Now, I know the Common Core states that our curriculum should be 70% non-fiction and 30% fiction, which is the antithesis of creating thinking empathic students, but as I stated in my essay a few months back titled “Teachers! Choose Diverse Books,” there is a way to still have students read fiction and still read non-fiction texts. The key is to tie the fiction with the non-fiction, and you will expand the themes presented in the novels the students read. Second, DO NOT STICK TO THE WESTERN CANON! When you choose to share “classic” literature with students, you automatically exclude a number of voices and reinforce many troublesome depictions of people of color. An idea would be to create a balance of books, create your own canon, to provide both windows and mirrors for your students. You can also include numerous contemporary literary texts that will engage students on a personal level, as well as include classical translated texts from non-Western countries to give historical perspectives of life outside the United States.

4. Librarians: Keep doing what you’re doing. I was floored by the push for diversity at the MidWinter ALA meeting and the results of all the awards given to diverse books at the end of the meeting. If any advice I could give, would be to continue to promote diverse books, continue to order diverse books for all kids, and continue to give awards to diverse books.

Change doesn’t happen overnight and it sometimes is messy, and is always hard, however, if we don’t try, don’t fight, then change will never come. The same authors will continue to get published, the same stories told, and true equality for our world will not exist. I, for one, do not want to live in that world. I want a different world for my students, for my godson, for my niece and nephew. I want them to be able to have more books that are mirrors instead of windows into a world that must learn in order to survive in. I want their future to be one in which all people are seen as equal and that all stories are valid. Literature is one way we can achieve that world, if only we all do our part.

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Combating Racism Through Literature

Reading-books+empathyIf the month of June will be remembered for one thing (aside from marriage equality), it will be remembered as the month were race and racism were prime topics of discussions. It began with one woman deciding to “pass” as a black woman, a horrible tragedy of 9 lives lost, Trump’s crazy remarks about immigrants, specifically Mexicans, and ending with one courageous woman’s act to take down the Confederate flag. There were some productive discussions that were had, and there were also some folks who double downed on their ignorance. Through it all, I kept wanting to yell, “haven’t any of you ever read a book?”

Now, I understand how that response might seem odd, but that is because I kept thinking about a study released late last year that proved people who read fictional novels actually have more empathy. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that when reading a fictional story, the elements of the brain that you would use when watching someone move, lights up when you are reading too. The article, from Psychology Today, states that essentially, “When you are engaged in reading a fictional story your brain is literally living vicariously through the characters at a neurobiological level.” Let me repeat, you are living vicariously through the characters. That means that when we read a fictional story, we place ourselves as the characters and live, briefly, a different life other than our own.

The researchers also discovered that fictional reading helps what is called, “Theory of Mind.”  This concept is “the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.” Essentially, we can learn to understand the thoughts, feelings, beliefs of people different from us and come to understand their world view. We become empathetic. Psychologist Raymond Mar states, “that when you are engaged in reading a story that your brain automatically puts yourself in the character’s shoes. Throughout the process of reading narrative fiction, the reader learns life lessons from how he or she personally experiences the journey of the protagonist and other characters in the story.”

It is this reason why having both mirrors and windows for children in their literature is important. Children of color need to be able to see, think, believe they can be the hero, while their White counterparts also need to see how the lives of children of color differ from their own. In her article, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Rudine Sims Bishop explains how having both mirrors and windows in literature, children of all races will be able to understand and even celebrate the differences in each other. She even explains how the mirrors and windows could lead to ending racism in our country. She states that children from the dominant culture “need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans. In this country, where racism is still one of the major unresolved social problems, books may be one of the few places where children who are socially isolated and insulated from the larger world may meet people unlike themselves. If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world-a dangerous ethnocentrism.” I can’t help but think if the folks making headlines the past few weeks had read fictional stories about people from different races, cultures, countries, would they have done/said the acts they performed in June? How would their lives have been different, better if they had just read a book about a person of color?

I just happened to catch CSPAN’S BookTV’s replay of the WNDB panel at BEA in May last night. Both Linda Sue Park and Ellen Oh mentioned stories where folks from the dominant race felt that they didn’t need to read books about characters of color; felt like the books were not “for them”, and that is part of the problem. Books featuring characters of color are for everyone. I know what it is like to live the life of a Black woman in Los Angeles, but Sherman Alexie’s “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” gave me a glimpse of what life is like living on a reservation and the struggle to get a good education. That is just one book in the long list of books that have given me a greater world view and took me on adventures in different places. All children need to be able to have the same experiences – to see themselves as the hero while also learning what life is like for children from different parts of the city, their country and their world. I honestly feel that if more books by authors of color and/or books with characters of color were taught in the schools, folks would be more empathetic and open to the diversity of the world around them.

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Chinese in America, sort of

There was a panel at the Bay Area Book Festival last week called “Chinese in America,” which was a curious title, considering that each of the speakers was actually Chinese American. I guess “Chinese American Writers in America” just doesn’t roll off the tongue.  2015-06-07The panel host prefaced the discussion by noting that this was the first panel where he was sitting next to all women (Yiyun Li, Maxine Kingston, and Anchee Min). Every other panel so far had been mostly men. He then asked what it meant to be Chinese in America. Yiyun Li, a writer and professor at UC Davis, said it was like that joke — the only way to be Irish is to be Irish AT people. She didn’t wake up in the morning feeling Chinese. Instead, it happened when she pushed against her readers with her writing.

Maxine Kingston took this a step further. She called out the festival programme, which described the writers as “three spectacular China-born women.” Yet, on another page, you can see that her author bio lists her as born in California. After all her years of writing, this was still the narrative being ascribed to her.

I got the sense that for these authors, their Chinese identity couldn’t be divorced from their writing, for better or for worse. Everything that was said in the panel felt intensely personal. In contrast, the authors at the dystopian climate fiction panel earlier kept a safe distance between them and their writing. They talked of imagination and the future, but the Chinese American writers spoke of personal identity. I noticed a few Asian American YA and kid lit authors on the teen stage roster — Mike Jung and Jenny Han, among others. It would have been interesting to get them on a panel to talk about their writing, without the focus being on their Asian-ness.

Anchee Min told an anecdote about a child rejecting her daughter for being Chinese, citing this as the reason she wrote — so that people could come to know each other. She spoke of meeting two women in Iowa who identified with the Chinese grandmother in one of her first stories. And earlier in the panel, all three authors talked about their love for Gone With the Wind. One of them mentioned how, back in the day, every girl envisioned herself as Scarlett. Some stories are universal that way, or people have the capacity to identify across cultural boundaries. One or the other.

Maxine Kingston brought up African American authors as an influence on her writing. They paved the way, as the only minority writers on the scene when she first started out. She quoted James Baldwin on racism, that nobody gets to be innocent. In the same matter-of-fact tone, she told an audience member, “Anger is a great fuel for writing.” But by the end of writing, she added, the angry energy has to be transformed. It needs to be a sort of reconciliation and redemption.

Following that, Anchee Min said it was like having a broken arm in her sleeve. She wouldn’t hide that anger and pain. In contrast, Yiyun Li said that she wasn’t angry when she wrote, merely curious about other humans.

The panel ended on a heartwarming note, with Anchee Min thanking the panel host. (At least, I think it was him. Sitting so far back, I didn’t know half the time who was talking to whom.) When she was a new writer, it was this book critic who held her writing career in his hands. She was happy to have the chance to thank this reviewer for a good review, decades later. Everyone applauded.

It was a touching moment, sure, but… It reminded me of Malinda Lo’s series on diversity in book reviews, of how privileged identities still hold the most power in publishing, and how POC writers get pigeonholed into telling one story when really, there isn’t a single story that can sum up every experience. Even the language of welcoming diversity still situates marginalized groups as outsiders. So what I want to know is — when will we get to define our own identities, on our own terms?

Anyway, food for thought.

 

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Teachers! Choose Diverse Books!

Photograph: Frank Baron/Guardian

Photograph: Frank Baron/Guardian

In the past couple of weeks or so, there have been a couple of articles about the importance parents, librarians, and teachers have in exposing children and young adults to diverse voices. Matt de la Pena’s article, How We Talk (or Don’t Talk) About Diversity When We Read with Our Kids, focused on the little ones and how when we read with our children that instead of focusing on the “otherness” of the story, we focus on the actual story. Next, Lee and Low, in their blog post titled, Why Do We Need Diverse Books in Non-Diverse Schools?, went a step further discussing how diverse books need to be shared in a non-diverse classroom to help the children become more empathetic and open to other view points and ideas. Lastly, Sara Megibow of KT Literay, shared her experience of helping her son’s 4th grade teacher make the classroom library more diverse. In her blog post, Diverse Success Story, she shares her process of how she went about donating the books to the classroom. All of these three articles truly resonated with me as a teacher, and I thought I would add my voice to the discussion, sharing my experience how I go about choosing the books I use in my curriculum.

Last year, I had a conversation with the then 7th grade teacher about his reading list. His co-teacher happened to mention that they were reading books that had only one type of character; I’ll let you guess what type. I just happened to be sitting there and of course, I had to say something. His response, “Well, I wanted them to read the classics.” Argh! And then I let him have it. Okay, not really, just reminded him that our student population was 60% Hispanic/Latino and 40% African American and that it would be a good idea to include different voices into his reading list so the kids can see themselves reflected in the books they read. I reminded him that our goal is to not only teach, but to create life-long readers and when we force our kids to read the classics, we alienate them and turn them off reading. We also do not give them an opportunity to connect the literature to their lives, allowing them to become open-minded, well-rounded students. Needless to say, after that conversation, he changed up his reading list based on my recommendations. My point in sharing this story is that as teachers we MUST be mindful of the books we are presenting to our students. We cannot rest on sharing the “Western Literary Canon” anymore because the canon only represents one type of voice and excludes all others. Sure, you have Maya and Langston and Toni in there, but one would think that there were only great Black writers decades ago. Then again, the canon cannot include just Black and White writers. America is a plethora of diverse voices and our canon should represent all of those voices. That is why teachers should move away from reading straight from the “canon” and work to make a more inclusive reading list.

Group of Friends Smiling
So, about my process. I am lucky that I work in a school where I am able to create my own curriculum. I know many teachers do not have that freedom and are instead required to use a “pre-packaged” curriculum. However, in a Common Core workshop I went to a few years ago, we were informed that “pre-packaged” Common Core curriculum wouldn’t be ready until 2018, which leaves many teachers having to create their own curriculum for the first time. Freedom! I think this is a great opportunity for those teachers to show their creativity in the classroom and create some amazing, and enriching, learning experiences. One of the best ways to create these experiences and to open their students to different points of view is to use diverse books! This requires teachers to be thoughtful and strategic in their planning and perhaps conduct a bit of research. Let me assure you, however, that the results are worth it.

I’ve been teaching 8th grade now for about 8 years, so my curriculum is pretty much set, though I do change it up every year, adding books, changing books, changing units. Shoot, this year alone I changed one and added two books in the middle of the year! But, in deciding which books I want my students to read, I make sure that I have a variety of voices, both male and female lead characters, as well as find books that are different genres so students can find a genre they like to read and hopefully read similar books on their own. This year’s book list includes…

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (my Honors class read this)
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (Honors class again)
Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
Romiette & Julio by Sharon Draper
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Pregnancy Project by Gabi Rodriguez

Quite an impressive list, yes? You might be wondering how with Common Core pushing more non-fiction reading, how can I get away with basing my curriculum around novels. Well, I supplement the novels by using non-fiction that is related to the content of the novels in the classroom. By having my students read the novels and then reading non-fiction articles that deal with similar subjects in the classroom and using those to frame lessons, my students are able to truly learn about different lives, different places, different points of view, and therefore become more open-minded students. My students are able to connect with the literature in unique ways (my Honors students connected with Gatsby through their mutual hatred of Daisy, and Gatsby’s desire for the American Dream) and are always able to see mirrors as well as windows. Not all the students like every book (and that is okay), but they all at least find one book that they connect with and always, always, ask me for more books by that author. And honestly, love for reading is the takeaway I want my students.

Engaged students in our first annual Book Talk Day.

Engaged students in our first annual Book Talk Day.

If you are wondering where to begin, take a look at any award winners list, with the ALA being so diverse this year you can’t go wrong. Or, create a theme you’d like to focus on for the year and then search for books that have a similar theme. I usually begin 8th grade with units that focus on the self, and then second semester focus on issues that students are facing or will face (such as pregnancy). Lastly, since Common Core is encouraging cross-curriculum, why not try to tie books that fit another subject? When I taught 7th grade, I loosely tied my curriculum to the Social Studies curriculum. In CA the 7th grade Social Studies curriculum is World History, so I made sure that all of my books were either written by authors from around the world, or featured characters living in different countries. My students that year were exposed to Nnedi Okorafor and Thanhha Lai.

It takes a bit of research, work and planning to make sure you choose diverse books for your students, but as teachers, we are tasked with creating well-rounded, critical thinking, open-minded students. We have a stake in making our world more inclusive for everyone by showing diversity through the books we share with our students. We have the ability to allow our students to have the tough discussions about race, fairness, etc, by using novels. We have the “power” to help bring about change, we just have to be mindful with how we go about it. Making the decision to include diverse books is just one step.

PS. I will add that the topic of sponsoring a classroom and donating diverse books to students is a topic that came up at the Day of Diversity, so if that is something you are interested in, read Megibow’s blog and then get started on your own project. There are still 2 more months to the school year; it’s not too late!

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Day of Diversity: A Recap

Ever have one of those experiences where you’re surrounded by people whose work your admire, important publishing folks, and wonder what in the world you are doing in the same room with them? Well, that was me at the Day of Diversity program created by Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) at the ALA Midwinter meeting in Chicago. Do not get me wrong, I was (and still am) so honored to be invited to the conference and have the opportunity to represent Rich In Color, as well as being a voice for teachers. A week and half later, everything I learned, shared and discussed with so many people still has me thinking deeply and reflecting on the experience. There are random moments during the day when some memory, some interaction with a fellow like minded person, makes me smile and reminds me of the passion for change expressed at the conference. I returned from the conference full of new ideas for my classroom, my school and my community.

The conference consisted of a mix of speakers, panels, and small group breakout sessions to bring folks from a variety of publishing disciplines to discuss solutions and brainstorm action plans.  Since the conference was hosted by ALSC, there was a focus on what librarians could do help promote diversity in children’s & young adult literature, and because I’m a teacher, some of the topics were foreign to me, however I learned much about the book business from a librarian’s standpoint. As library consumer, I found speaking to librarians about what they do and how they promote literacy fascinating. The breakout sessions, especially, were inspiring to me to return to my school and community and work on the relationship with my school and our local library. I realized I could do more, while also actively creating fellowship with my students, their parents, and the larger community in which they live by exposing them to library programs, as well as helping many of my students understand and use the resources the library provides. I also realized that by creating a relationship with my school’s local library, I can help them create a diverse reading list for the community. I was also able to share with librarians the teacher’s perspective on literacy and gave suggestions to how librarians can help teachers out with this reading lists as well. The communion of ideas the conference allowed through the breakout sessions resulted in win-win scenarios all around.

When discussing the issue of diversity on such a large scale, there is always emotion involved and I found myself near to tears many times throughout the day. During our lunch, authors Sara Farizan, Ellen Oh, and Cynthia Letich Smith, as well as Penguin editor Namrata Tripathi gave lightening talks, which were about 10 min talks on a particular subject. All four speakers bared their hearts with their words, shared profound thoughts, and touched us all. I usually like to take notes during talks, but I found myself so enthralled and moved that I just let their words of beauty, words of pain wash over me and settle in my heart. In her talk about being a “multi-cultural editor’” and being a person of color in publishing, Namrata’s statement, “When we introduce ourselves, our personhood is communicated,” really impacted me. I fully understand how being proud of one’s name, when it reflects one’s cultural background (For reference, the K is my first initial and Imani is my middle name. My first name is Arabic.) can be an issue for others when one is pursing a career, or rather traversing this American culture. It made me think of the trials I’d gone through to accepting my name, and I thought of many of my students who face similar issues. It also reinforced the notion that children of all races need to be exposed to a variety of cultures (and names) so when I introduce myself, or anyone with a name that reflects his/her culture, the response won’t be negative.

During my last breakout session, the conversation ended with us reflecting on what we can do once we return home. What we can do in a month, in three months, six months and a year from now; because that is how change happens, one step at a time. It was a wonderful discussion and I ended up creating a “to-do” list for myself for the rest of the school year, as well as set some new writing goals. Then, back in the general session retired ALA Literacy & Outreach director Satia Orange gave us a passionate speech calling us, no demanding us, to decide what we were going to do the very next day to bring about change. Again, I was moved to tears, but also ready to take action.

And so I did! The very next day I purchased books from a small publisher, an Asian-American author, for both my niece and nephew. Since I’ve returned from the conference, with a renewed spirit to continue to push for diverse books for children/teens, I’ve focused my efforts on my students and my school, talking with my principal about putting in a Little Free Library, contacting the Scholastic Book Fair about their need for more diverse books, as well as encouraging my young writers so they can be the next generation of published authors. I do have more planned, but one step at a time. Because that is how change happens.

One of my fun highlights was sitting around chatting with the We Need Diverse Books team at the after conference reception, and just meeting a bunch of authors that I’ve admired for years. Check out the happy in the photos below.

I got to meet Sharon Draper!

I got to meet Sharon Draper!

With the fabulous Ellen Oh!

With the fabulous Ellen Oh!

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Finding Diverse Lit

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Diverse Lit is Out There

Last month, René Saldaña, Jr. wrote a guest post over at Latin@s in Kid Lit that sparked some excellent conversation around the availability and purchasing of diverse lit. If you missed it, the title does give a pretty good hint at the topic – “Forgive Me My Bluntness: I’m a Writer of Color and I’m Right Here In Front of You: I’m the One Sitting Alone at the Table.” He made some pretty clear statements and this stuck with me, “The books are there. All you have to do is look for them.” This wasn’t something entirely new either. Back in January of 2013, Shelley Diaz wrote “Librarians Sound Off: Not a Lack of Latino Lit for Kids, But a Lack of Awareness.”

I am all for the creation of a larger number of diverse books given the statistics that CCBC provides, but I would agree that librarians, teachers, readers, and others who make book purchases, may not be finding the diverse books that already exist.

Where to Find It

To help fulfill our mission to promote diverse young adult lit, we have a release calendar up in the menu bar along with our resource page and review archive. In addition, we post many book lists. Beyond the resources here at Rich in Color, there have also been some posts and lists published around the Internet in the past year that you can access for more titles:

Where Can I Find Great Diverse Children’s Books? (Lee & Low)

Embracing Diversity in YA Lit (Shelley Diaz – scroll down for the resources)

Resources Generated by CCBC-Net Discussion (Edi Campbell)

We Need Diverse Books Campaign – full of reading suggestions and resources

Reading Challenges – these challenges supply suggested titles and participants may provide reviews of the books they read

If we want a greater volume of diverse books in the market going forward, we need to buy and promote the ones that are already here. Many people are talking about the need for diverse literature. Talking about it is a step forward, but to make real change happen, we need to act.

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