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.
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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.

In the words of the late poet and activist Audre Lorde, who wrote so clearly and fiercely about both the barriers that difference creates and the possibility of transcending those differences: ‘I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears.’

The moments when I have gotten close to touching that terror are both frightening and exhilarating. They wash me clean and, at the same time, leave permanent scars. I sometimes rush toward those moments and other times do not have the strength to get too close. I am afraid of failing, of being seen and seen-through. I remain terrified, and yet I continue to seek out that terror as often as I can bear it, for one simple reason: Those are the moments in my life when I come closest to tasting real freedom.

-Robert Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege

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.