Trying something new here

Because I’m also really interested in illustrated children’s books, illustration in general, and children’s librarian stuff:

-I just discovered Clementine Bouvais’ blog, thanks to Betsy Bird, and I am grateful. Dr. Bouvais is a French lady living in England writing academic critiques of children’s literature. And she has recently started an academic study of “cultural and literary representations of child precocity.” I love this. Also she has pretty hair.

I’m a nerd for the ALA Youth Media Awards, and my reasons are twofold: 1) without fail, they showcase writing and art that is outstanding; and 2) they speak to the conservatism and limited perspectives that are common in librarianship. This last one is for better or for worse, and I do not count myself outside of that limited perspective. I am a white lady from a middle class background who possesses an advanced degree and works in a professional classification; I do not have lived experience as a person of color, a person who struggles with poverty, or a person of an underrepresented race or social class. I deeply appreciate when I get called out on views that I have that exclude or disrespect people not of my background.

I like LOCOMOTIVE, the 2014 Caldecott winner. It’s lovely, and I don’t necessarily dispute its choice as the most distinguished picture book for children of this year. However, I did notice while reading it that it’s a white, white book. It’s about a white family who travels across the country on the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. Picture books about white people make up the vast majority of picture books (well, the ones not about animals, anyway); what is noteworthy about this one is that the family’s voyage takes place through American Indian lands, and the latter half of the railroad was built by Chinese immigrants. Both of these groups make small appearances in the book, but ya know… not much. 

Debbie Reese took Brian Floca to task over this… and he responded. And then she responded. The whole discussion should be required reading. It’s great stuff. And now Debbie Reese is my hero.
Again, I don’t dispute the selection of this book for the Caldecott–I DO think the conversation between Debbie Reese and Brian Floca should be spread far and wide and included in lesson plans that spring up around the book. It’s part of the context of the book now (the most interesting part of any book, imho). 

-At the Mock Newbery I attended this year, we had a discussion around the book ERUPTION: VOLCANOES AND THE SCIENCE OF SAVING LIVES. Several of us perceived a negative bias on the part of the author toward the people living in communities affected by the volcanoes. But we had a hard time nailing down why. The one that jumped out at me was on page 22, in the caption under a photo of people evacuating a village; it reads “Aeta tribespeople threatened by Mount Pinatubo flee their village with their meager belongings.” Why choose to describe the belongings as “meager?” Most of the people in the picture are carrying one bag; one small child is carrying a puppy and another what might be a chicken. Do the people in the photo consider their possessions “meager?” The word “meager” implies pathetic to me, deserving of sympathy or pity. If the author’s intent was to highlight how few possessions the people had, a word like “minimal” could have conveyed that with less negativity…. but why couldn’t she just say “with their belongings?” (Side question–does the author usually write the captions for a book’s photos? Or does the photographer? I can’t find any indication in this book.)

Someone else in the room stated an objection to the author’s use of the word “villagers” to describe the people living in volcano-impacted communities, and this was echoed by a commenter on Heavy Medal (scroll down). I scanned the book again and noted that the author seems to use the word “villagers” interchangeably with “locals” (as on p. 45) and “citizens” (as on p. 25). She describes the communities in which they live as “villages,” which seems accurate, and therefore “villagers” seems to be an accurate description. However, most often she uses the word “people.” And other similar words, like “woman,” “man,” “children,” etc. Which I find pretty downright respectful, actually.
What was it, then, that made some of us feel the word was loaded? And that made some of us uncomfortable with the book’s presentation of the people living around the volcanoes?

What I’ve come up with, after much thought, is that the book as a whole lacks the voice of the people who live in the communities affected by the volcanoes… in kind of the same way that LOCOMOTIVE lacks the voice of the American Indians impacted by the transcontinental railroad. And in both books, you could make the counter argument “the book wasn’t about that.” And that’s true. LOCOMOTIVE is, in Brian Floca’s own words, “a book about what it was like to operate and travel behind a steam locomotive in 1869.” ERUPTION is a book about scientists working on a problem related to their field of science. It told the story of an international communitiy of volcanologists working to save lives by predicting volcanic eruptions, and it did a great job at that. LOCOMOTIVE tells the story of a family riding the brand new transcontinental railroad in 1869 exceptionally well. Do those books HAVE to tell the stories of the people who were impacted by the volcanic eruptions, or had their lives and cultures ruined as a result of the TR? (And I should note that I do not equate volcanic eruptions and American colonialism! eek.) 

No, they don’t HAVE to. But, they could. And the fact that they don’t means that once again, someone’s voice has been left out of the conversation. Guess whose? (Give you a hint: it’s not the dominant class.)

Of course we evaluate a book for what it is and not what it isn’t…. but as a children’s librarian, I really value books that include the perspectives of those who are usually excluded: people in poverty, people of color, people of minority races, etc. Like, REALLY value them. It makes me genuinely sad to encounter books that are ripe with opportunity for the inclusion of minority voices, and they just.. don’t do it. It sucks. It feels like a great opportunity passed up.

I don’t think that missed opportunity makes a book not good, or not valuable… but geez, it’s a bummer that it wasn’t even MORE good and valuable, when it had the opportunity to be so.  For example, the Aeta people mentioned in ERUPTION. The name “Aeta” only appears twice in the text of the book, and it’s not in the glossary or the index. So I googled. There’s a Wikipedia article (don’t hate, I love Wikipedia) that describes the Aeta people as nomadic, with an average life expectancy at birth of 16 years. The references at the end of the article point to other sources, some of which can’t be accessed online, but they could surely be gotten by somebody researching a book. I found an article in one of my library’s databases that talks about how the Aeta’s way of life changed enormously after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo–the eruption that takes up about three chapters of ERUPTION. A sidebar about the Aeta people would have been a fascinating inclusion. Why isn’t there one? Is it necessary in a book about volcanologists? Possibly not. But I wonder about the kid with the puppy. What’s her life like? From my minimal research, I know that the western clothing she wears is a relatively new thing for her community, and that if she is lucky and healthy and survives the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, she may reach her tribe’s upper life expectancy of 27 years. I would love to know more. I would love to have learned this from ERUPTION.

-Switching gears. I ILLed the book LITTLE BOY BROWN and promptly forgot why. It sat on my desk for about two weeks while I tried to remember. Finally, I googled the title and remembered the Brain Pickings article that highlighted its re-issue by Enchanted Lion. (It also made Brain Pickings’ list of Best Children’s Illustrated Books of 2013.) Maria Popova describes it as “a magnificent ode to childhood and loneliness, easily the greatest ode to childhood and loneliness ever written.” Well, I can get behind that. The drawings are lovely too.


2 thoughts on “Trying something new here

  1. This is great! I want to check all of these books out and delve in deeper, but this is all I have for now:My only thoughts as a non-librarian and person of color is perhaps the reason these voices are left out of these stories is because the persons behind them are not them. Trying to write about the experiences of, say, the Chinese immigrants when you yourself are not one is a daunting, if not ill-advised task. This isn't to say that it's impossible, but it does take a lot more do so respectfully without ruffling feathers or plain getting it wrong when you're trying to represent a people that you aren't directly connected to. It's a delicate dance for sure.This is such a tough topic, because while I agree 1000% that more voices need to be represented in children's literature, it's just so incredibly hard to decide which ones (out of ones that already exist) should be more inclusive with their stories, or which ones can just be accepted as telling the stories they're telling without necessarily meaning to exclude anyone. It would be easy to say that people should write the stories and the voices they want to see represented, but how many people who are a part of a minority of some sort are writing? Are they not getting noticed, or is it not happening? I would not expect a white writer from a small town in the mid-west to write an accurate or compelling story about a black kid growing up in the inner-city. How can it be done without seeming patronizing?

  2. Rhonda- yes! You nailed a couple things: Brian Floca said exactly what you did about why he didn't include more Native perspective. He's not of that group, and he was afraid of getting it wrong– "I knew any images would be looked at critically, and I didn’t want to include them if I wasn’t sure I could get them right." Debbie Reese's response: "I imagine you feel damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't when considering how you might illustrate anything to do with Native people. Myself and many others are deeply invested in those images being right, and you're right to be wary." She describes some ways to find good source material about Native people, then says "This isn't easy–I know–and though it'd be easier just NOT to depict Native people… we've got to try!"…But then you have to talk about an author like Rachel Isadora, who is white but writes all her books about African/African-American people, and has made kind of a brand around plopping European fairy tales into African settings. She did live in Africa, but she is not black or of African descent. My colleague who is a children's librarian and a person of color HATES Rachel Isadora. Won't buy any of her books. Because she thinks she's capitalizing on the fact that there aren't many picture books with black characters, and not making those books because it's authentic to her own experience. I hear that and it's made me more critical of Isadora's books. So yeah–what is it that makes one artist's efforts a representation of a culture, and another's an appropriation? (I've never heard anyone say this about Ezra Jack Keats (The Snowy Day etc), for example.And totally this:"but how many people who are a part of a minority of some sort are writing? Are they not getting noticed, or is it not happening? "Great questions. There are way less books published by people of color than by white authors–why? There are lots of people talking about this–here's one recent article.

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