“I think that if we can’t go back, then we should try even harder to go forward”

I am stunned at the news that Walter Dean Myers has passed.

Walter Dean Myers changed the shape of young adult literature. He was the first winner of the Printz Award and won the Coretta Scott King Medal five times.

Walter Dean Myers changed the shape of Black children’s and young adult literature. His work was groundbreaking in so many ways, giving young people portraits that reflected their lives.

As a friend on Twitter said, “We are all better librarians because we have the pleasure and honor of being able to hand Walter Dean Myers books to our patrons.”

There are kids whose lives will be affected that we will not get to see the 15 or so books Myers thought he still had in him when I met him last year. There are kids whose lives will be affected by the fact that they will not hear Myers—someone who looks like them and who has lived a life like theirs—say that “reading is not optional.” That is an incomparable loss.

Mr. Myers was one of the most gracious men I have ever met. One of the most widely known names in YA literature had nothing but kind words when I picked him up from the local high school, walked him across the street to my apartment building, and shuttled him across town in my old Honda Civic to the Juvenile Detention Center. To know that his kind of graciousness is not in the world is an inconceivable blow.

As Phil Bildner has pointed out, there is a cruel irony in the fact that Mr. Myers passed on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act’s passage.

Mr. Myers charged us not long before his passing with work to be done. Let us do that work.

Rest in power, Mr. Myers.

Queer Library Alliance at Children’s Literature Hawai‘i

You may remember a post from the time my friend Rae-Anne Montague—professor of library and information science at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa—and I presented on developing queer/library alliances at the American Association of School Librarians National Conference in November. On June 6, Rae and I again spoke on some of the same topics at the Children’s Literature Hawai‘i Seventeenth Biennial Conference at Chaminade University in Honolulu during a session called “A Queer Library Alliance for Young People: Using Books with LGBTQ content.” We wanted to provide information about that state of queer issues and materials—especially in libraries and especially with regards to local concerns in Hawai‘i—and how libraries, community organizations, teachers, and parents can select materials and work with community partnerships to improve the lives of young people whose lives are impacted by discrimination of LGBTQ folks.

The conference was absolutely fantastic. We attended other sessions at the conference, including a paper presentation about the ways that picture book adaptations of mo‘olelo from the 1970s both subvert and reinforce settler colonial lenses, a talk introducing works that blend elements of Japanese manga and Native Hawaiian culture, and a workshop on teaching peace and social justice to kids using books. CLH does some pretty amazing work, and we were happy to join them.

Here’s the abstract from our talk:

This session includes three sections. Firstly, we review options for selecting materials with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (GLBTQ) content to support personal and community goals. Secondly, we look at challenges to providing access to queer materials. Finally, we consider possibilities to develop collections and programming with GLBTQ content aligned with emerging needs of children and young adults. Presenters will offer ideas and incorporate examples to encourage participants to share knowledge and engage in open discussion throughout the session.

Slides from our talk (PowerPoint and PDF), as well as a nonfiction bibliography handout generously provided by Christine Jenkins and Michael Cart, are available for sharing! I think our talk was useful for several people who attended the conference, and we hope that you find the slides useful, too. We’ve also got a photo of us from our session, sharing books that we’d particularly wanted to recommend.

Our session

Rae and I at our session

A hui hou kākou!

Queer Library Alliance Goes to School

On November 15, I had the opportunity to present alongside Rae-Anne Montague, currently assistant dean for student affairs at GSLIS University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign/soon to be assistant professor at the LIS program at University of Hawaii Manoa, at the American Association of School Librarians 16th National Conference. Our session examined incorporating materials and programming with LGBTQ content into school libraries. Here’s the abstract from our presentation:

This session includes three sections. Firstly, we review options for selecting materials with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (GLBTQ) content to support curricular and personal goals. Secondly, we look at challenges to providing access to resources. Finally, we consider possibilities to develop collections and programming with GLBTQ content aligned with community needs. We will offer ideas and incorporate examples to encourage participants to share knowledge and engage in open discussion throughout the session.

You can check out slides from our presentation in both PowerPoint and PDF format. We also provided a handout of YA nonfiction with LGBTQ content generously provided from a work-in-progress by the wonderful Christine Jenkins and Michael Cart. Our presentation also was written up in School Library Journal, if you’re interested in audience reception.

Rae and I had a lot of fun at the conference, and I believe our session went well. Here’s a picture of us spooked by some not recommended materials.

Rae and I spooked by Not Recommended materials

the frightening nonrecommendations

Let’s Have a Wiki

God, I’ve wanted to make that joke for so long¹.

I know it’s been ages since I’ve written anything on here, and I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t really have all that much to say. But…

There is a Youth Services Librarianship Best Practices Wiki! And I am a contributor!

It’s really not that exciting because it’s just an ongoing class project, but there really is a lot of potentially valuable information for people who are interested in libraries, or young people, or any of those sorts of fun things. I thought I would share it with you.

If you are interested, I contributed content to pages on non-native speakers of English, LGBTQ youth, and multicultural literature for youth. But there are also super-rad pages with tons of information about youth services from an international standpoint, reference services for youth, and most anything else you can think of that has to do with young people and library services for them.

In other wiki news, the CU Wiki (for Champaign-Urbana) has launched, and it’s also a pretty nifty resource. Intended as a community informatics project to promote local knowledge and collaborative work with users across CU, it’s chock-full of interesting, locally created content. There’s information about my places of work, for example, as well as local businesses, and even local hauntings. The local wiki movement is, I think, an interesting one, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this one in particular pans out, since I’m here. Also, if they reach 120 users by December 6, they’ll be able to win free site hosting for a year. So, maybe you could help them out and create an account?

Wikis, man. They’re great.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

1. Also: “Forget the kiki, let’s have a bouba.” #undulycomplexgaylinguistjokes

Identification in Children’s Literature

Earlier this week, I was listening in on (well, really more of watching) several people far smarter than I am on the Child_Lit listserv out of Rutgers discuss the possibility of children’s (or young adult/YA) literature not being “about” a child or teen. Books like Marcus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger and Richard and Florence Atwater’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins were offered as potential examples, but, as with many of the discussions on the list, no formal conclusions were drawn.

I was reminded of the observation that, unlike many types of literature, when we talk about children’s literature, we talk about literature being written for a group of people the author does not identify with. When we say “African-American literature,” we generally are talking about literature written by and about Black people in America. Similarly, “gay fiction” is usually written by and about gay people. It’s very puzzling to think, then, about a “children’s literature” that is “for” and (usually) “about” a generally well-defined, socially-sanctioned (and -constructed) group of people that the author fundamentally no longer identifies with. This idea is, in some ways, the departure point for Perry Nodelman‘s The Hidden Adult, as well as several other extended meditations on children’s literature, so I don’t wish to pretend that this ground hasn’t been trod.

What I have been thinking about is the way these distinctions get blurred funnily when the two are combined: How do we define “Native American children’s literature”? Or “gay children’s fiction”? The answers, clearly, are not going to be hard and fast. Usually, we won’t be finding Native American children’s literature being written by Native children. Strangely, though, we find that often books we call “Native American children’s literature” isn’t written by a Native adult, either.* Similarly, some of the biggest hits in “LGBT children’s literature,” at least until recently, have been written by cis- and straight-identified folks. (I’m looking at you Ellen Wittlinger, Robin Reardon, and Francesca Lia Block; although I’ll qualify that with a note that Nancy Farmer and David Levithan (and others!) have had a huge impact on the development an LGBT children’s canon.)

This is really just more of an observation more than anything else, really. I’m definitely not going to say that I find this as unequivocally a problem–just a curiosity, more than anything. I refuse to suggest that it’s not possible for someone to write a story about someone unlike them, or even to suggest that it’s not possible for them to do it really, really well. (I love Block’s Weetzie Bat series a whole, whole lot.)

In doing some hypothesizing about the phenomenon, I just wondered whether it’s possible that there’s a link here. Is the fact that a children’s author is already written for an audience unlike them/writing characters unlike them make them more likely to wish to take the “unlike-ness” a step further and explore other identities? Is the dismissal of children’s literature as “serious” playing a role? (“It’s okay for me to go out on a limb and try something different–it’s just a kid’s book. No one’s going to care if I get it wrong.”)

*Admittedly, I am blurring some lines. Often, we more properly refer to “Native American children’s literature” as that which is written by a Native person or at least someone with deep, authentic connections to what it means to be Indigenous, and talk about “children’s books with Native content” for the overarching idea of books with, well, Native content, whether it’s written by someone qualified to represent Indigenous people or not.

E99.P85, Or: The Case of Pocahontas in the Library

The library where I work has recently been working on a large project converting from the Dewey Decimal system of classification to the Library of Congress. It’s been taking us a while, but we’ve finally moved on to the last phase: our large collection of media, including DVDs, video games, audiobooks, etc.

It’s understandable that with such a large undertaking, mistakes will be made. I would hardly expect every single item to be correctly catalogued during the conversion process. And I’ve been proven right, from minor technical errors (the misplacement of a decimal point) to major categorization flubs (‘Why is The Flintstones filed under “Celtic languages”?’), I’ve come across a number of labels that have had to be changed. It’s not a difficult process–if something doesn’t seem right, I just hand it off to our local staff person who works in cataloguing (we have a separate cataloguing branch as well; they assigned the call numbers in the first place), she looks it up and decides whether it needs to be changed. The other day, I was shelving a batch of DVDs, and came across a call number mistake that wasn’t just odd–it made me angry.

Disney’s Pocahontas was assigned a main entry of E99.P85. For those who don’t have LoC call numbers memorized (which I’m assuming is most people), E is the broad heading for American History. Numbers in the range around E90 are specifically American Indian History, and E99 is for History of Tribal Groups. The P85 specifies further the tribe the book is about.

Pocahontas was being classified as a historically accurate documentary.

I’d like to think this was some sort of mistake. But according to OCLC Classify, there are 1242 holdings of this film classified under this call number in libraries that submit data to OCLC. Pocahontas was deliberately assigned a call number such that it could pose as Native history.

I doubt I need to convince you that this film does not accurately represent the history of the woman who was Matoaka, but just in case, here’s a statement from the Powhatan Renape Nation, as well as information from multiple other sources. What I’m concerned about is the carelessness that librarians have taken in curating information about people.

I would argue that librarians have a social responsibility to the public they are trying to serve. Part of that responsibility is to make sure that information about people is not only available and readily accessible (via good classification schemes) but also that such information is curated in intellectually honest (and, I would suggest, socially just) ways.

Native peoples have had not only their lands and their lives, but also their histories taken away from them and misrepresented for hundreds of years. The colonialist imaginary has justified what is essentially genocide by taking indigenous stories and twisting them to fit a destructive mold that permits the violence of colonialism. Pocahontas is one of those stories. Kids who grow up knowing Pocahontas as their story about American Indians grow up knowing lies about who American Indians are and the history surrounding the colonization of America, and very specifically, grow up learning lies about the Powhatan tribe, John Smith, and the founding of Jamestown. I was trained in the academic study of children’s literature by Debbie Reese, who documents extensively the dangers of the misrepresentation of American Indian lives and cultures in her wonderful, wonderful blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature. (I specifically use the plural, because there is no one “Indian culture.” That is another colonial myth.) I will leave the more in-depth discussion about representation specifically to her and others like her, more qualified than I to discuss such matters.

What I am concerned about here is the fact that fiction posing as truth is allowed by the field of library science to continue to do so. Even if you are quick to dismiss my rant on Pocahontas as left-leaning polemics (an accusation I’d be proud to bear), you must admit that it is intellectually dishonest to call an animated film with talking trees “history.” Debbie has written elsewhere about The Education of Little Tree, which was passed off an an autobiography before being exposed as a fraud. Many libraries still have the book classified as a biography.

It is critical that if we wish, as information professionals, to right some of the wrongs that have been perpetrated in American history against marginalized groups, that we not allow such things to happen. Indeed, classification in this way only perpetuates this kind of misrepresentation and oppression.

I refused to put Pocahontas on the shelf as history, and I requested that we find another classification for it. It now resides alongside other feature-length, fictional films. But it is critical that we continue to ask ourselves the same kinds of questions. The ways libraries present information matters. I cannot help but think of a tribally enrolled member of the Powhatan nation coming into our library and seeing that film on the shelf, posing as their tribal history. How are cataloguers acting as the arbiters of saying what counts as authentic information? I think of the ways that books on Native religion are often classified as “folklore” instead of as genuine religion, or the ways in which films with a queer protagonist are automatically classified under “sexuality,” while heterosexual softcore porn with names like Pleasure Party masquerade as being about “relationships.”

When we recenter our analytics outside of the dominant (white, cis-masculinist, able-bodied, and heterosexual) viewpoint, what does our method of knowledge classification look like? This is a question I wish to continually ask myself as a librarian, and I want to make central to library science. Let’s not be dishonest about people’s lives.

The Stories That Tell Us Who We Are

One of the best classes I’ve ever taken was a literature class my senior year of high school with an amazing teacher and only one other student. The three of us read aloud, had deep and incredibly meaningful conversations, laughed a lot, cried a bit, and I even passed out once. (There was some conversation about vivisection, I’m pretty squeamish, you get the picture.)

One of the projects we did in that class was identifying the “stories that tell us who we are.” I’ve referenced this idea before, and it continues to haunt me. There’s something interesting about the idea of a story being able to read us into being. The quote that I published just before this suggests that giving people back their stories is ultimate the most humanizing thing we can do. I know that the stories we cherish and the stories we live are not one and the same. But they do matter, and I do believe that they have effects on each other.

Sara Ahmed, in The Promise of Happiness, has stated, “Every writer is first a reader, and what we read matters” (19).* I cannot agree more wholeheartedly. I have been thinking recently about the fact that I have many, many books in the room where I live and do much of my work. These are books that I have made a conscious effort to surround myself with, that I have decided to draw near to myself. Ahmed goes on to qualify her work by stating that she considers herself mostly a reader of queer, feminist, and antiracist books. I, too, choose to surround myself by books–stories–with these qualities (although some of my other work involves finding the ways in which some stories fail to make those claims in one way or another). I choose to make stories part of my politics.

Ahmed has also written elsewhere, in Queer Phenomenology about the ways that the objects we surround ourselves by, that we draw towards ourselves, help us orientate ourselves. I use the books, the (frequently queer, feminist, and antiracist) objects that I have chosen to draw near to myself, to orientate myself. In a way, the stories I choose to keep at hand tell me who I am. Particularly, they orientate me. They tell me who I am in relation to the spaces I find myself in. I keep stories of critical whiteness and queer failures around me, because they tell me how I can occupy the spaces I do. I reach out to “touch” these stories, so that I can also tell my own story and understand it. So I can, to use the words of Francesca Lia Block, be touched and touch others.

I think there’s something to be said here for considering reading in this way. How do “the stories that tell us who we are” orientate us? Why do we choose to draw some stories near to us (figuratively or literally)? Why do some stories affect us more than others? How do we “touch” stories and how do we then use stories to “touch”? Stories matter.

I want to keep asking and answering these questions. I’m thinking this might become a major project (…do I smell a thesis?…): considering reading (especially of children’s literature, but that’s just because that’s where I like to think) from the point of view of affect theory and phenomenology. But to begin with, I want to continue exploring the stories that tell me who I am. I’ve already told you about one: “The Owl and the Pussy-cat.” I want to tell you about nine more–ten total. As I choose to focus on children’s literature, and because I can honestly say that most of the “stories that tell me who I am” are books for young people, many of these will be children’s or YA books. But not entirely.

So, stay tuned for installments of the stories that tell me who I am. I want to tell you why I have gathered them toward me–why I am orientated toward them.

I also think this is a fascinating question for anyone. What are the stories that tell you who you are? What stories do you choose to keep at hand? I want to know.

*Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

The Owl and the Pussy-cat

I’ve had to spend more time than I usually care to spend justifying myself recently. Why do I care so deeply about literature for young people? Why do I believe that library science is where I belong? How do I reconcile them with my politics that could easily be construed as “radical”?

It’s something I’ve been struggling to articulate lately. I wasn’t sure how to explain how something as inconsequential as The Hunger Games or Winnie-the-Pooh could mean so much to me, especially without appealing to an elitist rhetoric of “cultivating young minds” or “understanding the implications of the text” (which the “common man” can’t do, right?) or even the “power of story” which only “cultured” people “get.” (Of course, those two texts in particular aren’t exactly inconsequential, given their commercial power. Also, I apologize for the use of scare quotes. I like them.)

Then, I finally took the time to revisit some of the things that I loved to read as a young(er) person; in particular, I pulled out a story-poem anthology that contained “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” by Edward Lear.

The owl and the pussy-cat are a perfect example of a queer couple–it’s hard to imagine one queerer. They’re entirely “illegible by dominant narratives” and all that jazz. (Don’t get me wrong. I love academic jargon probably more than the next guy. But I’m trying to link it to the sheer joy of reading a ridiculous poem.) For pete’s sake, they have to sail away “for a year and a day,/ To the land where the Bong-tree grows” in order to get married.

I love the power of this story. This one, beautiful, dangerous, silly, inconsequential story. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not supposed to make sense. And yet, we see people finding love, enjoying gustatory pleasures, dancing by the light of the moon, and imagining something different. The owl and the pussy-cat look around, see that the world isn’t as it should be, and they say, “Let’s build something different.”

One of my high school English teachers encouraged my literature class to create a list of the stories that “tell us who we are.” Until this moment, I don’t think I would have counted “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” as one of the stories that tell me who I am. But I don’t think I can ever forget what I have learned from it now. This is the reason I have chosen the path I am on. Because I see myself in the owl and the pussy-cat. I see myself getting caught up in love and life and making the world a better place. A place where it’s okay to be joyful and irreverent, even in the midst of a world that’s falling apart at the seams. They work  to make a world that isn’t falling apart. They build something new.

Children’s literature, more than any other cultural artifact, helps us imagine something new. Sometimes, in the case of the YA dystopia, they help us imagine something new that is the frightening result of the things we’re doing in the world now. Sometimes, they help us imagine new ways of being in the world that’s shattered and broken by racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and all of the other icky -isms that cause people to be cruel to each other, that create winners and losers.

“The Owl and the Pussy-cat” reminds me who I am. It reminds me to dine on mince and slices of quince with a runcible spoon. It reminds me that there is hope in a harum-scarum world to dance in the light of the moon with the people you love. It reminds me that though the Child (referencing, of course, Lee Edelman’s polarizing polemic No Future) terrorizes “deviants” and “radicals,” real children–young people with bodies, hopes, minds, and wills–do matter. It reminds me to imagine something irreverent, something beautiful, something different. And I think that’s the best lesson we can learn.

The Progressive Librarians Guild and Tuscon

The Progressive Librarians Guild has issued a statement on the Tuscon Unified School District’s actions regarding the banning of the Mexican American Studies program and the subsequent removal of books from classrooms. You can read it here.

What scares me most is the direct opposition to schools teaching youth to think critically about our nation’s history.

Speak loudly.

YA Saves

Teh Interwebs (or at least the sections of it that I inhabit) have lit up in the past few days in light of an article in the Wall Street Journal by Meghan Cox Gurdon that portrays contemporary teen fiction as “a hall of funhouse mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.”

Backlash against the article has been great. Multiple articles, like one from Salon and another from the Guardian , have expressed opposing viewpoints. The hashtag #yasaves hit incredibly high on the trends list of Twitter. Bloggers (like me) have been writing their opinions on the glory that is YA (young adult) literature.

I won’t deny the dark nature that permeates some YA literature today. I’ll give Gurdon the benefit of the doubt that YA lit is indeed darker in many ways than it was 20 years ago. (Although the idea that you can’t find joy or beauty in today’s YA fiction is absolute bullshit. Gurdon handpicks some books that do indeed support her argument half-heartedly while conveniently ignoring teen bestsellers like those of YA-chick-lit goddess Sarah Dessen. And you read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and tell me that it’s not one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever read, in spite of its gritty honesty.)

I’m not going to pretend that I have some amazing story about my on-the-edge-of-destruction hopelessness and how some gritty, dark, scary YA novel helped me cope and “saved my life.” Some people do have those stories, and I champion them. I can however, tell you stories about the deep and meaningful things YA did for me. I can tell you the story of my heart breaking when I read the classic dystopia that is The Giver by Lois Lowry and fearing for the future of my generation if we continue to try to police the way people feel and act. That book awakened me as an activist. I can tell you the story of being awestruck at John Green’s perfect capture of my goddamned teen angst in An Abundance of Katherines or Looking for Alaska and his ability to simultaneously meet his readers in that angst and pull them out into a world filled with wonderful, amazing, beautiful, screwed-up, glorious other people. I can tell you the story of sneaking home David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy from the school library and reading it on edge, breathlessly, in one night, weeping at the end because I had finally found a book that made me feel okay with who I was and wanting so desperately to join Paul, the protagonist, in his world where people are just people.

But more than discrediting an entire portion of literature that I am dedicated to, and more than ignoring the fact that “this kind of reading…serves to remind us of our humanity and our need to reach out and understand the emotions of others” (Alleen Pace Nilsen and Kenneth L. Donelson, Literature for Today’s Young Adults, p. 214), Gurdon seems to celebrate some twisted view of literature for young people that I find patronizing, colonizing, and, frankly, dangerous: that YA fiction (and even children’s literature) should present a world that is happy, carefree, and all tidied up at the end.

This “escapist” view of children’s literature is an attempt made by adults ostensibly to “protect” young readers from the nasty realities of the “adult” world. But who are they really protecting? As has been pointed out by countless others, these books exist because they are the reality of some kids. Attempts to protect young people from reading about rape, incest, homophobia, drug abuse, violence, war, and other unfortunate realities seem to me to be attempts to shield our own visions of what childhood or adolescence ought to be, rather than the realities of what it is.

After all, isn’t the whole idea of YA literature that adults write novels for people who they already don’t identify with (with the exception of the rare teen author)? The system itself is set up to be patronizing–some theorists have called children’s literature a type of colonization of childhood by adults. More and more, I find this assessment to be valid. I’m not saying that we ought to scrap the system. It works, at least in part. But we’ve got to be careful that we don’t colonize to the point where young people’s experiences are invalidated. We’ve seen how that ends up (cf. every freakin’ colonization that ever happened and its results in oppression today).

Daniel Handler has written, “Certainly there are times when we want to escape to a trouble-free, imaginary world. But when the real world is so searing that it cannot be glossed over, we can find value in stories that admit the world is tumultuous, instead of reassuring us that it is not.” This is why YA Saves.

Look, teens read teen angst because they get it. I know, I was there quite recently. I still read it, because I eat it up.

This world is a harum-scarum place. I got through it with the help of my YA novels. I still get through it because of my YA novels. They do more for me sometimes than almost anything else. They still challenge me. They still resonate for me.  From despair, from self-absorption, from closed-mindedness, from depression, and from unbridled enthusiasm, they still save me.

YA Saves.

Update 6/9/2011:

Here’s a couple more links to reactions that I found fabulous:

A response by Sherman Alexie himself.

A parody of the article written about adult fiction.