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!

Taking Action to Make Children’s Literature Better for People of Color

For the month of February, CCBC-Net, a listserv operated by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted a conversation about diversity and multiculturalism in children’s literature, with particular emphasis on discussions on new—and fabulous—books by Native authors: How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle and If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth (both of which I had the pleasure of reviewing for the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books). This conversation is, of course, a well-trod discussion that often seems to move in circles. The conversation did, as expected, get somewhat tense; however, I do feel that we did have some remarkably insightful posts generated, and the rich and varied experiences of many of the people on CCBC-Net brought some wonderful points to the forefront.

I primarily sat and watched this discussion play out, although some private conversations both gave me opportunity to vent and the chance to consider more deeply the fundamental truth that “buying a book is a political act,” as list moderator K.T. Horning often reminds us, using the words of Alexis DeVeaux. As the conversation came to a close, new list member Sarah Hamburg, with great foresight and clarity, condensed our talking points and offered suggestions for activism in this arena. With her blessing—she says that “it comes from a joint discussion and belongs to everyone”—I share her words with you. I want to draw your attention to personal and professional choices that I hope to—and hope that you might consider, too—make in order to make children’s literature a better space for people of color.

  • Many of the ideas focused on personal activism: actively buying books representing a diverse range of voices; committing to ongoing challenges (Crystal Brunelle mentioned The Birthday Book Challenge, Diversity on the Shelf Challenge, and Latino/as in Kids’ Lit. Challenge); recommending and promoting diverse books to others when and wherever possible; asking for them at bookstores, schools and libraries; using social media in those efforts and to draw attention to issues of representation; writing reviews on Amazon, B&N and Goodreads; and stepping out of personal comfort zones to make connections and advocate on these issues.
  • For writers and illustrators, people also suggested personal activism would include: stepping out of artistic comfort zones; consciously considering questions of representation, audience and perspective in one’s work (including whether the perspectives and voices of people of color tend to be explored/presented in a heavy context); soliciting and listening to feedback from members of the communities one is writing about when going outside one’s own culture; and also considering questions of cultural bias and representation while conducting research and evaluating sources.
  • The same considerations hold true for those publishing, buying and using books with children, promoting books to parents and teachers, creating library and bookstore displays… etc. including whether those books receive the same quality and quantity of promotion, and whether they are somehow held apart from other books.
  • Many came back to the importance of smaller presses in making space for new voices. This included Tim Tingle’s publishers Cinco Puntos Press and RoadRunner Press, and Lee & Low Books. (Would it be helpful to create a list to share here of independent publishers who are actively publishing “multicultural” books?) Lyn Miller-Lachmann talked about visiting smaller presses at conventions to order books and create buzz. Jason Low talked about “liking” Lee & Low on Facebook and using social media to promote them and their titles, and purchasing their books through independent bookstores. Are there other ways people can actively support small presses, or that smaller children’s publishers can perhaps share resources to further cross-promote with one another? (Some consortium, such as an umbrella website?)
  • People also mentioned the importance of writers’ events and conferences, such as the Native American Literature Symposium, VONA Voices, the Lambda Literary Foundation, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the Muslim Voices Conference, the Comadres and Compadres Writers’ Conference, and the Carl Brandon Society. (Would it be helpful to compile a list of similar conferences/organizations?) Is there a way to facilitate more outreach to events such as these, and also encourage more inclusion/ promotion of writing for children at those events?
  • Along with such conferences, people talked about the possibility for individual outreach to writers/ artists who are working in other areas, but who seem like they might be suited to the children’s book field (like Debbie Reese introducing Eric Gansworth to Cheryl Klein.)
  • It’s exciting to see new businesses forming, like Cake Literary and the Quill Shift Literary Agency (where you can sign up to be a reader.) Are there other ways people could help promote them?
  • People have also started an amazing array of blogs, websites and tumblrs that focus on aspects of diversity in children’s books. These include Diversity in YA [Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo], Rich in Color, American Indians in Children’s Literature [Debbie Reese], The Dark Fantastic [Ebony Elizabeth Thomas], CBC Diversity, Lee & Low’s blog, Cynsations [Cynthia Leitich Smith]… (I know I’m leaving many out! Please add them– would a list of these be helpful, too?) Would it also be helpful to create some sort of consortium here as well– like the Niblings umbrella?
  • In addition, people asked that “diversity” be an inclusive idea, and not limited to one group or set of groups.

Along with these existing or already mentioned avenues for activism, I had a few other possible ideas based on issues people have raised. Some may well already exist in some form, and if so please excuse my ignorance! I also don’t know if some may feel segregating rather than inclusive, or otherwise problematic– but here they are:

(All initiatives mentioned below would include leadership in design and implementation by people from the communities in question.)

  • School Library Journal/ Horn Book…etc. might create a regular column, written by a Native, PoC, and/or LGBT, and/or Muslim, and/or disabled contributor, which might discuss issues regarding children and books in different communities, or highlight reviews of recent books by people from those communities, or discuss collection development/ classroom use issues related to problematic books, or be published in a bilingual format, or simply be a space always kept open for additional voices from less-represented communities.
  • Development of a course within the Massachusetts 5-college area, in conjunction with the Carle Museum, for Native college students/ students of color to study illustration and writing for children.
  • Outreach to a group like 826, with centrally-organized workshops about writing/illustrating led by people in the children’s book community.
  • A group within SCBWI for Native artists/ people of color to meet and speak about issues in the field specific to their communities, and provide resources and networking opportunities.
  • A subsidized (with some form of community grant?) internship at one of the children’s publishing divisions or literary agencies for a person of color or Native person.
  • Some form of organized mentorship program for aspiring authors/ illustrators.
  • A bilingual division of something like Net Galley, featuring bilingual books, and other books by Latin@ writers and illustrators.
  • A group made up of members of publishers’ marketing departments, convened to study marketing strategies and approaches, with leadership that includes, outreach to, and input from members of different communities.
  • Some e-publishing/ print-on-demand initiative or business, focused on bringing back out-of-print titles by people of color.
  • Also, something like the New York Review of Books Classics, which would bring back into print/ reissue/ highlight classic children’s books by people of color– including international titles. (Or, actively petitioning the NYRoB children’s collection to include more such titles– do they currently have *any* books by people of color on their list? I couldn’t find them.)
  • Concerted outreach at events like Bologna to find and acquire titles by international authors of color/ indigenous authors for publication in the US.
  • Something like the PEN New England Discovery Award (which recognizes the work of unpublished children’s writers, and provides an opportunity to have that work read by an editor at a publishing house) that would be national, and would recognize work by unpublished Native/PoC writers. It could include a specific category for nonfiction.
  • Inclusion of Toni Morrison’s book Playing in the Dark (and Zeta Elliott’s article “Decolonizing the Imagination”) on the reading list at MFA Programs focused on writing for children, with a curriculum that includes more lectures/ discussions about race, writing and the imagination– not just in the context of discussion about writing outside one’s own culture.
  • Focused outreach as part of recruitment initiatives for MFA in writing for children programs (perhaps writers’ conferences like those listed above would be one good place?) and promotion of existing opportunities like the Angela Johnson scholarship at VCFA.
  • A centralized resource for parents/ teachers that would look at still-read classics and more contemporary books, and examine different responses/ perspectives on those books related to representation. This might include strategies and perspectives on classroom use. (A sort of “critical engagement” resource, with different perspectives- like that of Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature.)
  • More inclusion of issues related to representation/ cultural bias in reviews of current nonfiction and fiction titles.
  • Some central website to publish/ promote lists of recommended titles (such as the Top 100 Books by Indigenous Writers, Recommended Books regarding the Middle East, Lee & Low’s Pinterest pages, and the many other lists of recommended books shared here…) There might also be the possibility of compiling and promoting new lists, based on the needs and interests of those who work with children. Maybe individual titles from the lists could be highlighted on a rotating basis as well.
  • Lobbying and activism on related issues, such as funding for public schools and libraries, and support of those institutions (as well as businesses like independent bookstores) on the local level.

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

Animated Things, Agency, and the Brave Little Toaster

I’d been anxiously awaiting, for some time now, the publication of Mel Y. Chen’s book Animacies, the newest addition to the Perverse Modernities series from Duke University Press. In the book, Chen discusses the idea of “animacy” as it relates to race, dis/ability, queerness, the human/animal divide, and a whole host of other topics, and manages to come up with some pretty wonderful stuff in terms of theory. In becoming excited about the book, I was thinking through some of the reasons why the topic of animacy seems so exciting to me and my work (other than, well, animacy is, in some ways, excitement itself).

A very common plot device in children’s literature is less-than-animated things becoming animated. You know the drill: “really useful” engines, self-aware appliances, talking animals. Even the idea of the dead becoming re-animated comes from folklore and fairy tales we, in the current moment, often associate with youth. The granddaddy of all children’s literature animacies, though, is toys coming to life.

As I’m trying to wrap up a project on gendered racializations and deviance in a couple of LGBTQ teen novels, I’ve begun thinking how I might put Chen’s work in conversation with the wealth of children’s texts that feature toys “coming to life” as well as other work on similar themes. (I’m thinking of Ngai’s racialized affect of “animatedness” in Ugly Feelings, Halberstam’s work on “Pixarvolt” films, and the question of “what it’s like to be a thing” that Bogost asks in Alien Phenomenology.) I’m particularly interested in the idea of toys becoming animated (as opposed to being always-already animated, and being really good at hiding it, à la Toy Story). What are the implications of that process? Especially since that process usually involves a great deal of control from a human (child) actor?

Toys are also fun to think about in children’s literature, because they often allow for more free expressions of the divisions we think of as so natural in humans, gender in particular. Toys are for playing with; when we tell stories about toys, we are also allowed to play with our notions of gender, race, and class in ways we often can’t in stories about people. (Of course, it’s hard to think about a pile of alphabet blocks as having a race, gender, or sexuality.) Take for example, the familiar Mrs. Nesbitt scene from Toy Story. Even among such profoundly gendered toys as Buzz and Woody, Buzz is naturally able to take up the post of Mrs. Nesbitt under the care of Andy’s sister. Buzz in drag is able to believably become Mrs. Nesbitt at his tea party in a way that a human child would never be able to. Even though Woody polices Buzz back into his “real” gender, Buzz, for a time, becomes Mrs. Nesbitt so much that he refuses to re-become Buzz.

I…am Mrs. Nesbitt!

Although they’re not actually toys, we find the same sorts of things going on in one of my childhood favorites: the film for The Brave Little Toaster. (Did you know that the title character is gendered as female?) Based on a novella by Thomas Disch, the film traces the attempts of five household appliances–a lamp, a vacuum, a radio, an electric blanket, and, of course, a toaster oven–as they leave the summer cabin where they’ve been abandoned to find “the Master.” The implications of their animation are, I think, interesting, so bear with me as I hash out a few ideas.

Even though the toaster and her friends are “animated,” it’s difficult to say whether they have anything that we could call “agency.” As a fan of Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety, the concept of agency itself is to me a little questionable, or at least blurry. But the appliances definitely operate within a framework in which their “lives” are bound up in the idea of serving the “Master”–their whole harrowing adventure is a quest to get back to where they belong: operating the functions they were intended to serve for the Master. There’s all sorts of Marxist and/or theological implications there, which I won’t explore in depth. I’ll just point them out and suggest that we see the same things happening when toys become animated. Toys are sometimes particularly manipulated by the people who own them, even in their animation–their ability to become animated is bound up in the will of the human agent. I’ll just insert the caution of presuming to know “what’s best” for the toys and the appliances–in the same way that Mahmood cautions against placing our own ideas of agency on others.

Toaster is not amused at your presumption that she has absolutely no agency.

I think, too, there are ways we can read Ngai’s concept of animatedness into The Brave Little Toaster. According to Ngai:

On one hand, animatedness points to restrictions placed on spontaneous movement and activity; in Modern Times [Charlie Chaplin film], for example, it emerges from the exclusion of all bodily motion apart from the one assigned to the assembly-line worker. On the other hand, the affect can also be read as highlighting the elasticity of the body being animated…*

Using this framework, I think we can point to the ways in which these appliances can usurp their “intended” functions and do something different. For example, Blanky is intended to be a warm covering for the Master’s body. Her “spontaneous movement and activity” is  particularly limited by the way she’s allowed to function when in the presence of the Master: When people are around, her animacy completely disappears (at least in theory). However, when the appliances are trekking through the woods, Blanky’s body is able to become something else—a tent for her friends. This kind of purposeful rescrambling reminds me of José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of “disidentification,” taking a dominant ideology and rearranging it to suit one’s own needs.

Ngai also points to the ways in which animatedness is racialized–ethnic and racial difference is often read through an exaggeration of emotive expression. I don’t think I’d be going too far out on a limb to say that the radio is racialized in the film–he “sings” Tutti Frutti at the beginning of the film, for example. For a while, one of the top-rated comments on the Youtube clip of “It’s a B-Movie” was something to the effect of “lol the radio is so gangster at 2:19.” Even more fascinating, in the context of Ngai’s work, then, is the fact that the radio has no face. His animatedness is pushed only through his vocal inflection. I wonder what we can say about the ways his animatedness is fixed. He is certainly unable to use his body in particularly expressive ways.

Anyway, this is the direction I’m starting to look at and think about–the ways that animacy and, particularly, the process of becoming animated, functions for toys in children’s books. I’m interested in looking at the ways that these things affect our conceptions of race, gender, sexuality, class, and power in general. I may or may not be placing some of my thoughts on these things here, but I just thought I’d share the things that have been bouncing around in my head for the past month or so.

*Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambrige: Harvard University Press, 2004), 100.

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.

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.

Think about the word destroy…Do you know what it is? Destory. Destroy. Destory. You see. And restore. That’s re-story. Do you know that only two things have been proven to help survivors of the Holocaust? Massage is one. Telling their story is another. Being touched and touching. Telling your story is touching. It sets you free.

-Francesca Lia Block, Baby Be-Bop