Thursday, January 28, 2010

About the "POC Challenge"

In the land of the mostly-white-world of children's lit, bloggers who review books are joining the POC Challenge.  whose motto is "Read Brown."  The goal of that challenge is to read books by authors of color. (Note, Friday, January 29th: The people who started the POC Challenge do not have a motto. As I started searching blogs to figure out what this challenge is about, one of the top bloggers said the goal is "Read brown." My apologies to the people who initiated the challenge.)

I know everyone involved means well. Good intentions and this attention WILL make a difference in what is bought, what is read, etc.  Still, it unsettles me, and I'm mulling over WHY it unsettles me.

I think it bothers me because I wish we were further than that, as a society. Obviously, even though we went through the 60s, and diversity and multiculturalism are big buzz words, we've got a long way to go. And so, it is a good thing for influential people in the field to be making it a point to read books by writers of color.

The challenge is evidence, I suppose, that all the influential people who pushed this literature in the 60s and 70s and 80s and 90s were largely unsuccessful.

So! I appreciate the effort and I understand the intent.

But! One aspect of the POC Challenge that I really don't like is that prizes are now being added. There are levels in the challenge regarding how many books any given participant will read in a specific time period. All in good fun, I know, but by adding prizes, it replicates incentive programs for kids that many of us find problematic.

And, it smacks, somehow that I can't quite put into words. You get prizes for hanging with us people of color (via our books). It turns a serious issue into a game.

Now, I know that this post will get some hackles up. You're only trying to help. I know. I get it. But I hope you'll think about what I'm saying. Mull it over.

I took a look at the list of books being generated.  I'm glad to see Louise Erdrich on the list, but where are her children's books? The books on the list are books she wrote for adult readers. Sherman Alexie isn't on the list. Neither is Joseph Bruchac. Lot of Native writers could be added to that list.

And! Some people should be taken off that list. The one I'm thinking of is Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. He is not a Native writer.

This may come off as self-serving, but I'll toss it out there anyway.

When I look at the blog rolls of major bloggers, they list blogs they read. Do their blog rolls list critics of color?  I'm uncomfortable asking the question because it can come off as defensive, but, where's my blog in those lists? On some of those blogs, things I write are taken up as conversation, and that's a good thing, but why not include a link to my blog in the blog roll?

That, I suppose, is my challenge to the people taking the POC Challenge. Read criticism by people of color.

I followed up with "Second Post: The POC Challenge"


Sarah Park said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the situation, Debbie. Good intentions, but intent does not always equal impact.

If these are adults reading ethnic literature by people of color, then they should also read criticism about those books - about ethnic lit in general.

"Read Brown"?! Ugh. I also dislike that it's called a "challenge," as if it's something that isn't easy. Not that reading ethnic lit should be taken lightly, but calling it a "challenge" posits it in a certain way that makes it something to be overcome.

I'm also bothered by the button on the website. What's with the brown muddiness of the two people reading? Are they statues? Or mudbathing?

MissA said...

You raise some good points and I have to dash off but I'll be back to comment more in dpeth.

I just wanted to let you know that we are still working on the recommendations and believe me YA will be there, I loved The absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, March Toward The thunder, Who will Tell My brother and CodeTalker to name a few so they will be up there.

The challenge has just started so it's a WIP. And the prizes are POC books. I want to get books about POc into the hands of those where's harder to get them (I'm thinking small towns with little diversity).

Wendy said...

Well, I haven't joined the challenge partly because I never join challenges, and partly because I'm trying to make an actual shift in my reading life, rather than a temporary or goal-oriented one (and I'm not saying some of the participants aren't trying to make that shift too, but for me, it doesn't feel relevant).

Some of the things you mention are just tropes of the "challenge" culture in book-blogging--the numbers, the prizes, the name "challenge" itself. I can see how that might seem trivializing--I basically agree--but accept that that's just part and parcel of having a challenge.

When you feel discouraged about whether the people who have been working since the 60s have made any progress at all, look at the Newbery winners. There's definitely been a shift there, and many more authors of color have been honored since the 60s. Still no Native winners, but it's good to see that list.

As for blog rolls... I think blog rolls are getting kind of old-school, and I haven't looked at mine in ages. But I'm guessing I'm one of those offenders that references you (and links you) but doesn't have you in the blog roll, and I'll add you now. I do read other critics of color, too.

Zetta said...

Hey, Debbie. This is a conversation we haven't really had yet, so thanks for bringing it up and having the courage to speak out. On the matter of prizes, I don't think anyone's really participating in the challenge just to win a book; I do think, however, that it is a sad fact that many people DO need some kind of incentive to step outside their comfort zone. I don't like that fact, but I'm old enough now to know that you can't force people to change their ways. So we try multiple strategies--sometimes we curse, sometimes we cajole. We should NOT have to engage in this way, but as the response to the whitewashing controversy showed us, many white readers/bloggers *resent* being told which side of the debate they should be on. I'm ok with giving people options, and this challenge is just one option to aid in the promotion of books about PoC. Now, you've done a LOT of work to raise awareness around issues related to Native American literature, and EVERYONE should have your blog in their blogroll. Ari tried very hard to get it right when she blogged about Native American lit last fall, and I'm sure she'll do all she can to follow the suggestions you've made here. I think I feel about "heritage months" the way you feel about these challenges...but at least we can opt out, we can make our critiques, and we can contribute in our own way. I always resented being asked to lead events for Black History Month at my predominantly white college--I teach Black Studies ALL year round! Why can't people in OTHER fields do their part? We blog about PoC books all the time, so this challenge isn't for us...

Neesha Meminger said...

I think your author and title suggestions are important and should be added to the reading list, along with plenty of others. I also think this challenge is important, particularly now--when the blogosphere seems to be lit up with white-washing scandals, debates, and dialogue. Also, please keep in mind that the challenge was started by a teen blogger. I applaud her for her initiative and courage in taking such a bold (and potentially risky) stance. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Though I am one hundred percent certain that she is open to suggestions and feedback :).

As for progress...SIGH. Something I have to remind myself all the time (and that you obviously know, as well) is this: baby steps. There is movement, but it is s-l-o-w. Real, lasting change only comes from tireless, relentless struggle. It's a marathon, not a sprint, clearly, and challenges like these are just a small part of that larger struggle. Even from the 80s/90s to now, I'm seeing certain fights we fought being replicated YET AGAIN. And I wonder the same thing: wait--didn't we already go through this?

@sarah park: The button looks to me like a statue. I see it as a mother/daughter, grandmother, older woman/younger woman depiction -- one reading to the other. I actually found it quite lovely.

Heather said...

I like your article as well as those comments of your visitors. i chose my books based on content rather than colour. For the past year I have been making a point of reading books by First Nations authors mainly because I had read very few. I have to admit that I don't regret reading a single one of them. Many contained difficult content that I find was well handled. I will continue reading my choice of books and visiting your blog and learning more. Thanks for sharing with your readers.

MissA said...

I agree with the points raised here. But I don't know if my fellow adminstrators knew about your site. To be honest, if not for W.A.R. I may not have found it and that's wrong. But I did find it and I try to review books about Native Americans but they are hard to find (and I do check out Oyate but there aren't many YA/MG books on there).

It's a challenge that will hopefully get the ball rolling and inspire people to keep reading and reviewing books about POC. It's purpose is to force people outside their comfort zone and to get them to realize that they can connect with books about POC and they should more actively search for them.

It does sadden me that we have to have this challenge, but hopefully in a few years it won't be necessary and publishing companies will publish more books about POC.

Again for prizes, they're fun and I make no apologizes for them. For example, a blogger I know has told me that her local bookstore doesn't have Shine, Coconut Moon. Well if she wins that book in the contest, now she will get to read and review a book about a POC (well she aldready does but still)! furthermore, the topic of race is very serious and people aren't comfortable talking about and many bloggers don't feel they should have to think about when they read. Which I disagree with, but they will say that no one should tell them what to blog about. And as a teenager I like participating in fun things as a part of a group.

To reiterate: No one has any excuse for not finding books about POC if they win one. And the challenge helps build a community.

Pam said...

Hi! I started the PoC challenge. I am reading all of what you say here but I asked specifically for people to send me their ideas of great books we SHOULD be reading. I would love to read more Native American lit. so if you care to take some time to show me relevant links and relevant books I would love to add them. The site has been up a week, it is no where near completion. These are mostly adults reading and this was made to be an alternative to boycotting publishers who white wash the covers they sell. I would love to add children's titles but I do not have infinite knowledge of everything ergo me asking for people to supply me with books they thing are relevant and I put those authors and blogs and books on the lists. Please feel free to email me your concerns or book and blog lists. info(at)bookalicio(dot)us

Reading 'challenges' are supposed to be fun and there are always prizes, not for how much you read its random number generated.

Katy said...

First, I'm sorry this comment will be so long, and I hope it doesn't sound defensive because I don't mean it to be. :) I volunteered to help Pam with the challenge shortly after she launched it.

The book list is basically built on suggestions made by people joining the challenge or helping the challenge get off of the ground (btw, Sherman Alexie is on the list, and has been since the list was created). I'm sorry that the reading suggestions list doesn't have enough native authors on it but it's a work in progress. I'll add the author suggestions you've made here to the list this weekend. I haven't added many children's books because not very many have been suggested, but I'm happy to add suggestions when I have a chance. We’re also looking for guest bloggers to post about different groups of PoC authors and PoC authors in different genres to try and help break down the giant (and somewhat intimidating) list that’s being generated.

There are non-ethnic writers on the list because the challenge includes books both by PoC authors and books about PoC.

Haven’t seen anything on the PoC Challenge site that says “Read Brown,” so not really sure what to make of that.

Regarding the prizes, it's not that uncommon to see prizes offered in reading challenges. I think most of us are doing the challenge to diversify our reading, not to win prizes.

I would hope that a challenge like this will motivate people to go out and pick up books by and about PoC—books they might not have picked up in the past for whatever reason—and find that they’ve been missing out. Unfortunately, there really are people out there who resist picking up books by or about PoC because they think they won’t identify with the author or the characters and thus won’t enjoy the book. It has also been documented that books written by PoC are often not publicized as widely as non-PoC authors. Maybe it’s silly to think that a reading challenge can help change that. But maybe using a challenge to read in a more focused manner will bring more attention to books and authors that might not be normally featured on participating blogs. And I know for myself, I need a kick in the pants like a challenge to actually go out and purchase (and read) books that I’ve been meaning to read, but just haven’t gotten around to. Challenges help motivate me to broaden my reading horizons.

I guess the key thing is that Zetta has a good point. This reading challenge is mainly beneficial for people who haven’t been reading books by or about PoC all along. But it can always use the input of those who are more widely read.

Debbie Reese said...

I quickly scanned the author surnames on the list and saw "Alexei." I didn't know that was your entry for Alexie. You're right---Alexie is on the list, but his name is misspelled.

A work in progress? Ok.

Yes, Zetta, good observation. This challenge is a lot like "Heritage Months." Instead of teaching about people of color and reading their books as a matter-of-course, we have "Heritage Months" and now, this challenge.

Readers have GOT to be more critical, and they've got to be more engaged in their day to day actions if we're ever to see meaningful change.

Pam---You commented here, so, look through the rest of my site. Top right there is a list of recommended books.

Anonymous said...

Interesting points. :)

I have another take on prizes: not everyone can afford to buy books, especially the readers who are also students. I do not see the prize as rewarding them "for" reading such and such book, but rather as providing the reader with a book who might have never picked (for not knowing about it), because of lack of funds for some. :)

I think there are several ways to look at and appreciate the challenge. I do not enter it for the prizes, but for the opportunity to read and share that joy "with" other people.

Authors get exposure too. I would think it is another good thing...

Neesha Meminger said...

I don't see it as the same as heritage months at all. Most "heritage months," with the exception of Black History Month were top-down ideas and decisions. Asian history month was started as a bill in congress. Black History Month, however, was started by Carter G. Woodson as Negro History Week. It was an endeavour much like these challenges--a labour of love from someone whose heart was in the right place, who wanted to give his people their deserved due--which is what we all are trying to do, isn't it? What the concept of heritage months has been twisted into is another matter.

These bloggers aren't throwing a PoC challenge out there for just a month. They are committed to raising awareness around books for, by, and about PoC/under-represented/marginalized folks 365 days a year (there is also a LGBTQ challenge, a South Asian challenge and, I believe, a Social Justice challenge?--not sure about that last one). If you read the rest of the posts on their blogs (Ari's, Susan's, Doret's, Edi's, Ah Yuan's, Tarie's, for example), you'll see how ardently they are all working toward these goals of equal and accurate representation. I know for a solid fact that books like mine (which is NOT a lead title and does not enjoy the full weight of marketing and publicity support that other titles do), and A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT -- originally a self-published title -- would not have gotten the legs they did in the early days of their releases if it weren't for the tireless efforts of bloggers like these. Cynthia Leitich Smith is another children's book author and bookblogger who is committed to the same issues. In fact, she makes it a point to inform publishers that she does not want them to send their lead titles to her for review--those titles get plenty of exposure through the publisher's efforts.

As a South Asian author who has seen books by fellow authors of colour cast to the sidelines, or under-promoted and left to wither, I *completely* throw my support behind the efforts of these bloggers (including their challenges), and add my suggestions/feedback as they go along.

The matter of including Native American authors to the list is one hundred and ten percent valid. And your blog is an important and critical voice in the discourse around race and racism, and so it SHOULD be included on all blog rolls. But beyond that, I guess I just don't know what I'm missing...

If there is something offensive about the challenge or about the "Read Brown" tagline, I am totally open to hearing about it. But at this point, I'm honestly a bit baffled.

The larger question..., Kapila said...

...was unwittingly brought up a few comments ago by Katy @ a few more pages. I believe we must look at this closely if we are to further a deeper understanding of what lies at the heart of these issues of whitewashing covers, poc reading challenges. In her post, she says: "There are non-ethnic writers on the list..."

So what interests me more in this debate is this commonly held belief amongst both whites and non-whites that those who consider themselves to be "white" are also somehow a-cultural; that everyone else has culture but them. Furthermore, being "white" is rather immutable, when in fact, who is and who isn't white has always been in flux (let's remember the time when Irish folks and Italian folks, amongst others, were certainly NOT considered white...).

The irony with this white-poc language, and all ensuing discussions about literature based on this dichotomy, is that it *still* operates on the basis that White is fundamental, regular, normal, and POC folks are exotic, the new kids on the block, the illegal immigrants, as it were, always on the periphery, and trying to fit into a system of structures that were built with the intention of keeping them out.

None of us are compelled to look at things this way. America has always been a multi-racial land.

As for all the pale-faced folks out there (and I'm married to one), if the only reason that "Whiteness" exists is to separate you from all other "people of color," then why ally yourself with that idea of being White? Why not be the real white-mulato that most whitefolks are? My person-of-color challenge to you folks would be to figure out what alternative identity for yourselves you can come up with. Everyone has culture.

The books we read follow rather logically from the sort of history and politics we choose to ally ourselves with. And in that world, there would never need to be any such thing as the POC challenge.

It seems that true and lasting change only comes from collective organizing, and building something new - something that is not simply and only a reaction to the racism we experience everyday.

Katy said...

"Non-ethnic" was a stupid way for me to say what I meant--white. But I was also struggling with just how to word it that would also encompass PoC authors who write books about white characters or characters of ethnicities different than their own, which would arguably also be encompassed under this challenge. And "non-ethnic" does not meet that challenge either. My vocab skills are slipping, and I apologize. I don't really think that whites are "non-ethnic" or a-cultural.

I'll fix the Alexie typo this weekend--sorry for the confusion.

Thomas Crisp said...


First, I want to thank Debbie for bringing this blog and the companion "challenge" on GLBT literature to my attention. As someone who works in the field of LGBTQ children's and young adult literature, I explored the "GLBT Reading: The Blog That Dare Not Speak Its Name..." with interest. Also, like Debbie, I found it to be problematic and am struggling to articulate what I find particularly troubling. There seem to be lots of little pieces that all add up to a more substantive problem. I appreciate that the sponsors of this challenge (I, too, think of things like a “weight loss challenge”) are interested in increasing awareness of LGBTQ authors and literature. However, I am bothered that participants get to choose their level of commitment (named, "Lambda Level," "Pink Triangle Level," and "Rainbow Level") based on how many books they decide to read. The idea that "winners" in the challenge get to pick from a prize bucket is particularly outrageous. It feels very much that, in an effort to do something "fun," the seriousness with which this literature deserves to be treated is being disregarded. Just because something is “fun” doesn’t mean it is right. Nowhere do the sponsors provide any critical tools by which to evaluate the texts that are read. There is no consideration given to what scholars/bloggers/insiders said about these various representations. In the “About the Blog” section of the “GLBT Challenge,” one sponsor, Jen, states that GLBT identities are an "issue near and dear to me" and later on, it is stated that, "this is a very sensitive and divisive issue right now." As David Levithan argued in 2004, being LGBTQ is not an issue -- it is an identity. It isn't something about which people can choose to either agree or disagree. As he writes, "It is a fact, and must be defended and represented as a fact." Add to this, the very title of the blog -- "The Blog That Dare Not Speak Its Name." And subsections, like the “Challenge” tab which reads, “The Challenge that Dare Not Speak its Name…” Although the creator of this title is undoubtedly trying to be clever with this allusion to "the love that dare not speak its name," for me, it reads as dismissive, minimizing -- not funny or quippy or smart.

In addition, I define "LGBTQ literature" as books that are by and about LGBTQ people. In this challenge, readers can choose to read books with queer content -- or simply books by queer authors without any queer content. This strikes me as a rather superficial way to appear "progressive" (i.e., "I'm reading a book by an author who self-identifies as a lesbian") without really having to confront anything that may challenge readers (mis-)conceptions about what it means and looks like to self-identify as LGBTQ.

Thomas Crisp said...


Debbie raised a number of questions on her blog about the "challenge" regarding representations of people of color and the response from the sponsors is, in part, "Why not reach out to us here and ask to be added and provide some titles of the books you want us to read?" I think this is outrageous -- putting the work to be done back in Debbie's court and seemingly relieving themselves of any responsibility. But, isn't it the responsibility of those sponsoring this type of event to seek out information on accurate representations and "authentic" literature? It should not be Debbie's job -- or anyone else's -- to have to educate these folks. People have done the work – it’s your job to find it and know it…not the job of the bloggers/scholars/critics/insiders to give you a master class. If this is an event/organization truly devoted to increasing awareness through the reading of literature, how can they not take on this work themselves? Why should they expect that others will do it for them?

Again, on one level, I appreciate what these folks are trying to do, but, as Sarah points out above, we all know what is said about "best intentions." I am hopeful that the sponsors of these "challenges" will do some work by exploring insider/scholarly/critical perspectives about the populations for which they seek to increase representations in literature. There is a lot of work to be done – and I’m pleased there are people attempting to undertake that work – but it is work that needs to be done with thought, care, and a critical perspective.

nonnymouse said...

There's been a PoC book challenge community on livejournal since 2007:

They review books and make lists as well as reading.

Anonymous said...

"Nowhere do the sponsors provide any critical tools by which to evaluate the texts that are read. "

Thank you Thomas Crisp and also Debbie, thank you for reminding us that texts by marginalized people should be read critically, using critical tools that have been created by years of study, and never just for fun. They are much too important to be treated as entertainment, or to be read only for a reason as superficial as enjoyment. And that, I think, is what the POC challenge is really trying to promote-- the idea that people would "enjoy" these books, if they ever started reading them. Indeed, much better to approach these texts with as much background study as possible and if that limits their audience, then the goal should be to educate the audience first and then encourage them to read.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Thanks so much to Neesha for the cheer.

Just to clarify, I am open to featuring lead titles (just as an example, I did a big feature on Libba Bray's GOING BOVINE). However, I have been known to say, "Hey, everybody's highlighting X. Why not send me Y?"

And I have an ongoing commitment to new voices and diverse books--not only with regard to the creators and characters but also in terms of age markets, genres, formats, etc.

That said, in hopes of identifying a wide variety of authors to highlight, including Native authors, bloggers are certainly welcome to surf over to Cynsations.

Just today's resource round-up should point enthusiasts to tons of interesting books, including those on the 2010 Rainbow Books List, the upcoming 28 Days Later Campaign from the Brown Bookshelf, Rukhsana Khan's list of recommended books with Muslim characters/themes.... Lots of nifty stuff.

Anonymous said...

I see a lot of these issues as a direct result of our segregated curriculum--you know, the one that relegates writers of color or less-privileged background to "special" courses (like "Intro to Native American Lit") instead of including them in the mainstream. This is a topic I am tackling for my dissertation, and the reason I teach my children at home--because as a young student, I was mistakenly lead to believe that only privileged white people (think Salinger, Fitzgerald, and the privately-schooled Cather) could contribute to the high school curriculum!

MissA said...

@Thomas-I'm particpating in the gLBT challenge and I think it's a great idea. Why? Because I know far too many people who are homophobes and think that GLBT people are weird and 'not like them.' This challenge should help people get out of their comfort zone and look at their own prejudices as they realize that we are all the same. That we all fall in love, we all struggle with family issues and most of us will sturggle aganist some kind of prejudice in our life.

Furthermore, I'm helping to organize the challenge and I think it's great that people who are particpating in the challenge realized that their reading habits are limited and they want to imporve that. The challenge helps by giving them recommendations and I personally go and comment on as many reviews as I can to show people that books about POC do get reviewed and receive interest. And yes we should be looking for books to recommend and as I've mentoned, the challenge is about a week old! There are millions of books out there, it will take time to get them all up there! I do my research, I know titles but as a sutdent I don't have time to update my list of titles every single day. I'll be wroking on it with Katy and Pam this weekend. I used to think that we shouldn't have to point out why reading about POC is important, people should know. But the fact is, that white people don't think about. It doesn't bother many of them that they only read about white people and I now know that is my job to help gently and respectfull remind them as to why this is so wrong. And most people get it after you point it out, you rarely need to argue about it.

And Neesha makes an excellent point. Heritage Months have a good purpose, they've just become something annoying that onyl gets talked about once a month instead of the 365 days a year it should be. Hopefully, by reading books about POC, people will start questinng this and other issues and come to be more tolerant and appreciative of other cultures.

Vintage Children's Books My Kid Loves said...

I have a site where I review vintage children's books and often come across books with questionable dated references regarding race and culture, and I use them as a spring board for talking to my son about history and the rights and wrongs of the past... a reader pointed me to this site after i posted on a cowboy and indians book today, and it sure has made me think... will return to get your important point of view often. this voice is needed out there.