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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Diversity Done Right: Dreams of Gods & Monsters

Full Disclosure: To avoid spoiling the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, this blog post will be vague in parts. Sorry. Go read the series!

I’m going to admit something a bit embarrassing, but all to real for readers of color. When I first read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I made the mistake of not clearly reading the physical descriptions of the character Akiva. I was enjoying the story, inhaling the gripping twists and turns that I did what many readers do – defaulted in my mental picture of Akiva (i.e. White guy). It wasn’t until I was reading the last book of the trilogy, Dreams of Gods & Monsters, that I realized my error. There was a description of him that brought me up short. I stopped, read the line again, and my mental picture changed. I grabbed the first book in the series and scanned looking for physical descriptions and bam, found my error. I had read the words, but did not truly take in what skin tone the descriptions meant.

I imagined this….

Because I'm a HP fan.

Because I’m a HP fan.

Now I picture this….

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While I can’t fault the author for my misinterpreting, I think if she had included a few more physical descriptions, I think I would have caught my mistake earlier. She clearly described the main female character, Karou, many times so the reader could create a full mental picture, but with Akiva, the descriptions are few and somewhat vague. It is really easy to see how in this instance, a reader could default. There have been many discussions about how much description a writer should use when writing a character of color; the debate being giving too much description or is it “othering” to only describe characters of color. I am in the camp of that a writer should be specific in their descriptions and to repeat a few times throughout the novel. Let us be aware of what the characters look like, otherwise we will default to the Eurocentric standards of beauty.

In Dreams of Gods & Monsters, Laini Taylor changed up her tactic and spent more time giving character descriptions, repeating them sometimes in beautiful ways to make sure the reader know that the characters that inhabit the world of her story are very diverse. The novel takes place in different places in our world and on an entirely different world, but all the people in both worlds are made of a variety of colors. By making sure both her worlds were reflective of the racial diversity of our world, the book felt more grounded in reality (as much as she can make it). This attention to detail in her character descriptions made the book extremely enjoyable to me. I liked knowing that in a major event in our world, all the people would be represented, and that even in a different world, the different colors are all represented as well.

Another aspect of the novel, a “Diversity Surprise” moment, was that Taylor also made one of the major characters a Black woman. I actually sat up and read the description twice because I was so happy to see this character included. I loved that a Black character was included in the ensemble and that the focus was not on her being Black, but other things which I can’t say because….

River-Song-Spoilers
But I will say that Taylor wrote her character to perfection as she was a real character where we learned more about her fears, her hopes, her dreams, instead of focusing just on her race. When authors ask “how do I write a character of color,” the aspects of the character’s personality is what they should focus on, not just a character’s race. A writer still should address it someone, after all, race does color how one views the world, but do so sparingly as dealing with racial issues is not something a POC worries about 24/7. For example, Taylor has Eliza describing her interactions with a hostile co-worker, she writes, “Eliza was used to being underestimated, because she was black, and because she was a woman, but no one had ever been quite so vile about it as Morgan”. Talk about your intersectionality laid out in one sentence! Taylor has lines like this peppered throughout out Eliza’s narrative, but it is not the focus of her story, it is just Eliza’s observations that she has from time to time. Those little moments, those small comments, will show that a writer has done his/her homework when creating a character of color and will make the character read like a real person instead of a stereotype.

I’m sad that Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series has come to an end because I really did love its epic story. I highly recommend this fantasy series to anyone who also loves plot twists that keep you reading well past your bed time, and characters that make morally gray decisions in order to survive. The story is gritty in it’s realness in regards to war and doesn’t hold back with the darkness just because it’s considered a YA novel. I fully respect authors who don’t insult the intelligence of the teen reader and my respect for Laini Taylor has grown three-fold with her creation of a truly diverse world.

Seriously, go buy this series.  You will not be disappointed.

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Why We Need Diverse Literature and How to Find It

Why do we need diverse literature?
First, we need to know and understand ourselves. People need literature that helps them see others like them – to know they are not alone. We need literature that reflects many ways of being and ways of living in our world so we all have a chance to see someone like us. Second, to interact respectfully with others in society, it’s helpful to realize that there are people in the world who have another perspective. We can explore our differences and similarities through literature. There is a quote on the Lee & Low website attributed to both Rudine Sims Bishop & Ginny Moore Kruse “A single book can be a mirror for some people and a window for others.” Those mirrors and windows help us understand and connect with people in the world around us, but we need more than just one story. We need a multitude of stories.

In the following TED Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about the “Danger of the Single Story.” Adichie explains that many individuals only know one story about a people and that may lead to stereotyping. When we know only one story about a culture, the risk is that we assign that story to all the people we believe are part of that group. Adichie provides an amazing and at times amusing presentation that speaks to the need for more stories about each other. This video is from 2009, but even if you have viewed it previously, it’s worth a second or even third look. Photographer Matika Wilbur also touches on this idea in her TED Talk. She’s concerned about the single picture that many people may have in their minds about Native Americans due to media exposure. Her current project is photographing individuals from 562 federally recognized Tribal Nations with a goal to “unveil the true essence of contemporary Native issues, the beauty of Native culture, the magnitude of tradition, and expose her vitality” (quoted from her blog). She is not only creating portraits, but is collecting their many and varied stories to share. This video is also well worth the few minutes it takes to watch.


Wondering where to find a multitude of stories?
It’s no secret that there is a serious lack of diversity in Young Adult and Children’s Literature. There have been a large number of blog posts and articles recently to that effect. But there are some diverse books being published. They are not in the numbers I would like to see, but they do exist. They can be hard to find, so we have some resources on our blog to help make it easier. In the tabs at the top of this page, we provide a release calendar that displays titles scheduled to be published in the coming months. In addition, we have a resource page with links to many excellent websites/blogs that review and share diverse literature along with links to publishers focusing on diverse materials. We created a Goodreads profile with a growing list of titles and there are also blogs in our blog roll on the right-hand side of the page that focus on diversity.

But how can we know which stories are accurate representations?
Matika Wilbur noted in her TED Talk that some Native American images and stories from the media have been damaging to Native people. As a school librarian, I want to provide many diverse stories for my students, but not all stories are helpful. Just look at some of the early Newbery Award winners. There were a few books with cultural diversity, but several fed into stereotypes (one I highlight below). As an educator, I have to evaluate the resources I am providing to our staff and students. I am clearly not an expert on every culture in the world, but here are a few questions* that help guide me in my selection process for school and also as a reader:

  • Who is the author and what experience or knowledge do they have as they write from this cultural perspective? (This helps me understand the lens the reader will be looking through)
  • If they are not a native of that culture, is it published by a publisher from that culture and/or has it been favorably reviewed by someone from that culture?
  • Are the characters distinct, fully developed and free of bias and/or stereotypes?
  • If there are illustrations, are they free of bias and/or stereotypes?
  • Is it a well developed and engaging story?

It can be helpful to know the lens of the author. In the case of Shen of the Sea: Chinese Stories for Children (1926 Newbery winner), the stories were filled with broken English, verbal caricatures and misinformation. I read Shen last year and was horrified. As I investigated his knowledge base of Chinese culture, I found a post from a blogger named Amanda. She pointed to the April 1, 1994 issue of School Library Journal. In it Margaret Chang wrote, “Chrisman had never been to China, did not read Chinese, and claimed to be aided by two Chinese speakers, but gave no sources for the stories in his book” (p 42). According to the book’s description Shen is comprised of “Sixteen stories reflecting the spirit of Chinese life and thought.” Chrisman appears to have taken what he knew about Chinese culture, consulted a Chinese shopkeeper or two in California about some of the details and proceeded to create original stories. He may have even been doing this in some way to “honor” Chinese culture, but this is not a book I will be purchasing or sharing with my students.

I tend to specifically seek out books that are written from an insider’s perspective like No Crystal StairYaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and Since You Asked, but there are also people born outside a culture who have provided authentic representation. Debby Dahl Edwardson is not Inupiaq (Eskimo) by birth, but she’s been a part of that culture for many years. She has written powerful stories with fully developed, realistic characters in her YA historical novels, My Name is Not Easy and Blessing’s Bead. My Name is Not Easy is a look into the effect of the residential schools on Native students and their families. She did not rely on stereotypes, but created complex and unique characters. On her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, Debbie Rees shared Beverly Slapin’s very favorable reviewI would recommend Edwardson’s books without hesitation and there are many other talented authors that learn about a culture and successfully represent it in their novels.

We may not have balanced representation in publishing yet, but there are some fabulous pieces of literature that can be our mirrors and windows. Let’s seek them out and share them.

Chang, M. A. (1994). Chinoiserie in American picture books: Excursions to Cathay. School Library Journal40(4), 42.

*Some of my questions were developed with influence from Full Circle’s Criteria for Authentic Native American Books & Oyate’s comprehensive evaluation criteria

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