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 Mainstream

In doing some research for a paper I’d been writing about selecting good multicultural literature for children, I came across this quote in an essay entitled “Literature About Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People and Their Families” by Linda Leonard Lamme:

“The ultimate goal for any marginalized group is to fit into the mainstream.”

Something about that sentence irks me. It re-frames the issue of marginalization in ways that I think are dangerous and counter-productive. It sounds like the “melting pot” view of multiculturalism all over again. It suggests that achieving social justice is a matter of assimilation. That marginalized people just need to make a big enough effort to “fit in,” that their difference from the mainstream is just something that needs to be overcome. It ignores their very real oppression–the whole reason they’re “marginalized” in the first place.

In terms of multiculturalism, that’s smack in the face as big as overt racism and ethnocentrism. As someone in the “mainstream” racially, ethnically, and “culturally,” even I can tell you that people don’t want to be melted down. Marginalized ethnic, racial, and cultural groups may want to have their cultures validated and accepted by the mainstream, perhaps. They don’t want to “fit into” it. Doing so would erase what made them marginalized in the first place, which indeed erases the marginalization. But it also erases part of who they are.

Even if we just look at the theme of the article (even though the claim was explicitly made for “any marginalized group”), it still doesn’t work. The mainstream is cisgendered and heteronormative. The queer community automatically doesn’t “fit in” and simply cannot. Our goal isn’t to “fit in”–it’s to expand the mainstream so that queer identities are (again) accepted and validated.

Marginalization occurs because groups of people gain relative societal power and prescribe their identities for everyone else. “We’re White (or male or straight or able-bodied or yada yada yada…and, therefore, you should be, too.” They normalize their experiences and identities. When people can’t measure up because they’re different from that, well…that’s when marginalization occurs.

So, no, Linda. That is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is this: For there not to be a “mainstream” at all. For all kinds of sexualities and gender expressions and abilities and cultures and faiths and skin colors and identities to be allowed to be “normative.” For people not to have to apologize for not being “normal.”

Normal is just a setting on my washing machine. It doesn’t describe people very well.

Complexity defines us.

This morning, I had a great conversation via Facebook chat with my friend Andrea. She’s in Austria. She’s also Latina, and recognizes what that means to her here in the United States. We talked a lot about what it means to her to be Latina in the United States, and how the rules change now that she’s in Austria. One of the most frustrating things for her has been struggling with the question, “Where are you from?” She talks about it in a blog post.

There’s not an easy answer to that question for her. Her parents are from Mexico, but she was born in the US. She has spent a lot of time in Mexico, though. Does she say she’s American? (Which to the Austrians, means a lot of things that aren’t true of her, particularly that she’s White.) Does she say she’s Mexican? (That’s not really entirely true either.) There’s not an easy answer.

People are incredibly complex. When you start trying to define someone, we can start by identifying the social identities and categories they fall into…male or female (or trans or genderqueer), gay or straight (or bi or pan or queer), White or Black (or Asian or Latin@ or Native or something else entirely), Christian or Jew (or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or one of scads of other religious affiliations). Which is hard enough. But then, as I was starting to hint at even with those lists, those labels don’t fit real people very well. Reality always resists simplification. What does it mean if I’m male? Or if I’m gay? Or if I’m Black? Or if I’m Hindu?

The answer can only be really expressed if you find out what it means to me that I claim that identity. Labels are convenient. They give us clear-cut ways of how we’re supposed to think about other people. But that’s dehumanizing.

People have experiences and stories that shape what it means to be their identity. It’s a lived process. A lived pedagogy. Our complexities are what define us, not our simplicities.

But these simplicities do matter. Because they form the systems of privilege and oppression that we are forced to live in everyday. Andrea talked about how she knows what the rules are in the US but not in Austria. She’s playing a different identity game over there. We’re all playing an identity game, whether we want to or not. The things about us that we can’t change (and even those that we can) shape how people treat us, how well we see ourselves reflected in the media, and the opportunities we have.

Where do we draw the line between accepting simple categories and getting to the heart of complex people? It’s not easy. We see simple categories and we want to leave them at that. But real conversation and real growth occurs when we move past those.

I recently read a book that’s quickly become one of my favorite books of all time. It’s called The Girl with the Brown Crayon by Vivian Gussin Paley. She’s a teacher who spent a year with her class reading and responding to the books of Leo Lionni. One girl, Reeny, resonated with many of Mr. Lionni’s stories, particularly the story of Tico, a wingless blackbird. A wishbird grants Tico a wish: a pair of golden wings. Tico is able to soar far and wide. But the other blackbirds shun Tico because of his difference, his beautiful golden wings. The story ends with Tico tearing out his golden feathers, which are replaced by black ones, and giving them away.

Reeny dreams of a different ending to that story. She says, as Tico, “I just don’t want to give up my wings because I like them, because they look pretty. I’m not saying I look prettier than you. But I’m thinking, why don’t you stay and we’ll talk about it. Don’t fly away. See, we can keep talking about it, okay?”

Can we keep talking about it, okay? Race and gender and class and sexual orientation and religion and citizenship?

After all, in reality, there is no them. There are only facets of us. (-John Green)

Some Interesting Stuff that Relates to Other Interesting Stuff I’ve Been Thinking About

Playing around on teh Internets this afternoon led me to a couple of things that seem relevant to other things I’ve been considering.

Firstly: how to use social media well. Here‘s an example of someone who’s doing it, I think. It’s a videobook about YouTube…on YouTube. It’s actually an interesting concept that shows the power of social media to spread good information. (And it’s reflexive, which is always cool.) I found this via the UGL Facebook page, and they’ve asked whether this is the future of the book. My answer: I hope not. I love the ways this technology is being used. But I don’t think it can replace the book. Here’s my criteria:
1. Books are easily browsable. I can flip through pages of a book, pick a place at random, and look for what I’m looking for, or see if I’ll like it, or whatever. This videobook adds features I never knew were possible to make this closer to a reality, but it’s still limited. Browsability is among the most important aspects of books and libraries to me, and I think to knowledge and information in general.
2. Books offer depth of knowledge. Although this videobook makes a complete argument from beginning to finish, compressing all of the content of a monograph into video would take far too long. Trying to squeeze one content area into another medium can compress a full thesis into sound bytes. There’s value in gaining deep understanding that, so far, comes strongly from text. And usually page-based text.

Secondly: identities are incredibly complex. This video from one of my favorite sets of vloggers also talks about using information technology well (They’ve launched Your Pants! I’ve spent some time exploring in Your Pants. You might want to find Your Pants. The stuff in Your Pants is pretty exciting.) But it also, at the end, discusses how identities, both those that we choose and those that choose us, resist simplicity. Those of us who claim certain identities, whether we’d like to claim them or not, have to live them as well. And that’s what gives them their meaning. When I claim an identity as a male, or white, or as a Nerdfighter, I don’t just fit into that box. I work with others who claim that identity, and those who claim opposing identities, to create what that means. Sometimes it means things I don’t want it to mean–that I’ve got privilege in society that excludes others, for example. But it always resists a simple definition. And that’s what makes life so exciting.

EOL 199

So, I’ve started another class for the semester, EOL 199: Paraprofessional Staff Training. The class is basically an introduction to social identity, social justice and diversity, particularly from the perspective of a residence hall community.

The class kicked off this past Sunday with an all-day retreat, where I met the rest of my class and our facilitators. ‘Cause we’re ResLife and cool like that, we played a bunch of icebreakers and got to know each other pretty well. A majority of the day, however, was spent with Dr. Maura Cullen, a social justice educator. Her talk and our subsequent discussion in class this week have been bouncing around in my head for a bit.

So often, who we are puts us “in” or “out.” It’s kind of frightening how pervasive these things are. We did an activity that really played around with how although we may feel the desire to be more inclusive or open, “groupthink” can trap us in dangerous ideologies.

As a middle-class, temporarily able-bodied, white male from a Christian background, I’m often (though not always) in the majority, or at least the privileged, group when considering social identity. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in college, it’s how desperately I need to look beyond my “clumps” of people and set aside my privilege for the sake of a more equitable society.

I’m excited to see where this class goes. I’ve struggled in the past with learning to value all aspects of my social identity. I’m also excited to continue to validate and understand others’ identities better.