Saturday, January 30, 2010

Second Post: The POC Challenge

Near the end of my post About the POC Challenge, I wondered if people participating in the POC Challenge are reading critics of color. I posed the question because my research on children's books about American Indians shows that most reviewers do not have the expertise necessary to recognize flaws in the way that authors and illustrators portray American Indians.

This lack of knowledge means that some deeply flawed books get starred reviews, nominated for (and win) awards, and end up on "Best Books" lists. All of this praise means the book is purchased by more people, and the flaws are passed on to more and more readers. Hence, misconceptions and erroneous information flows into the child or young adult who reads the book, and they go on to select and read books whose images of Indians feels familiar to them.  It's a cyclical and burgeoning problem for all of us.

A handful of new and old books that have been discussed here on American Indians in Children's Literature demonstrate the depth and breadth of the problem. I note them below, but start looking around on this blog and you'll find many others.

Arrow to the Sun, by Gerald McDermott, won the Caldecott in 1978.

Bearstone, by Will Hobbs, a popular writer with many books about American Indians.  

Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, won the Newbery in 1995.

Take a look at the lists of books discussed on this site (lists are by title and by label). There, you'll find Touching Spirit Bear, Sign of the Beaver, Twilight, Little House on the Prairie...

I thought, at first, that the books eligible for the Challenge were books written by people of color, but I see now that any book with a character of color is eligible, and, based on the book list being generated, the "color" is not limited to the four groups in the United States commonly labeled as "underrepresented" (American Indian, African American, Asian American, Latino/a American). To gain insight to those four populations and books about them, read Teaching Multicultural Literature in Grades K-8 and Using Multiethnic Literature in the K-8 Classroom. Both are edited by Violet J. Harris.

To focus specifically on American Indians, participants can read my site, but they can also read A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin.

In comments to my first post about the POC Challenge, Thomas Crisp referenced the GLBT challenge. He referenced the work of David Levithan's work on this body of literature, but look for articles by Crisp, too. I like a word Cynthia Leitich Smith used in her comment: Commitment.  I hope the bloggers participating in the challenge become committed to reading criticism, and applying that criticism to their reviews.



Color Online said...


While I think reading criticism would be invaluable, I think it would be helpful to remember who the audience is. Most bloggers are leisure readers not academics and not professional critics. Everyone doesn't read literature and then consult criticism.

The book blogging world is largely made up book reviews who are not critics, academics or educators. There are a good number who are and I'm glad for it, but you post suggests that the average reader blogs critically.

Clearly, you want to educate and dismantle misrepresentations and I was glad to learn you were here thanks to the WAR series. Others, like myself are trying to gain greater exposure and support for good books by POC about POC. We need POC writers to be successful so we can get more writers published and read. Both aims are good but not all readers are interested in either. Some do just want a 'good' read and I don't want to discourage anyone from reading for enjoyment.

Is it fair or reasonable to ask all readers to commit to critique and analysis when they have just made a commitment to increasing their awareness?

I think those who are academics, professionals, advocates and activists who are knowledgeable are the ones who need to continue to raise awareness by writing and informing the larger audience about issues and writing analysis. Those who do know can help readers by pointing them in the direction of good texts, by writing the critiques and informed reviews.

Can we start with reading and learning and asking questions?

Sometimes we assume others are ignoring us or failing to learn because they are disinterested. I think sometimes we simply don't know where to begin. I'd like to give readers at Color Online an opportunity to learn more from you.

Please accept my invitation to guest blog. You are listed on both of my blog rolls. I'd love to provide another platform for you to inform us about issues that matter to you. They matter to a lot of us and I think many others would be receptive to you if they knew who and where you are.

Please join us.

Debbie Reese said...

I don't mean to suggest that the average blogger reads critically. As you note, they read for entertainment. But does that mean they should not read critically? That they should not be more informed readers?

I'd like you to think about "what people know" about American Indians, and then, think about where they got that "knowledge." Given that "knowledge," I really do NOT want people to read just for entertainment. The "just for entertainment" feeds a vicious cycle of romantic and negative stereotypes about American Indians. Because those stereotypes are taken as real, the cycle continues.

Entertainment educates. Or, informs. Or, miseducates and misinforms.

The POC Challenge provides the opportunity to do more than just read books about people of color.

Thank you for the invitation to guest blog at your site. I think I'd rather have you identify specific posts here that you want your readers to know about, and then, let me know which one it is. If its one of my posts, you can use it on your site. If it is by someone else, we'll see what we can work out.

Color Online said...


LaTonya here. I am not suggesting people read only for entertainment. I am acknowledging what many readers do because they have said as much.

"Entertainment educates. Or, informs. Or, miseducates and misinforms."

You're preaching to the choir so I hear you. I am suggesting there is more than one way to reach those who haven't heard you.

I have been told I need to lighten up and that makes me bristle and maybe in reading me that is how you're feeling. I won't assume to know.

I'm trying to say maybe some are reading you and feel you're asking them to run a marathon when they only just got off the couch.

The POC CHALLENGE provides an opportunity so I am asking that in addition to sharing what concerns you, include the resources that would make it better.

The folks who started the challenge admitted in the beginning they were not experts and they asked for help. Educate and inform. And criticize when necessary.

If you feel frustrated and tired with the lack of progress and misrepresentations out here, you are not alone.

There are bloggers like myself who are constantly creating lists, writing posts, reading books and reviewing them, engaging others in discussions voicing what needs to be said and repeating and repeating and repeating it. Ad we are tired but we keep doing it.

Please know each of us is doing what we can. If that isn't enough, then help us get to where we need to be. And that is why I asked you to guest blog. I am asking for your help.

Katy said...

Probably the most important aspect of your criticism earlier was given the least amount of time and wasn’t really explained for people who are basically newbies in the world of reading books about PoC. So, I’m glad you decided to expand on that in this post—it is very, very helpful.

The challenge originally emerged out of a controversy over the marketing of books that “whitewashed” covers to sell better (depicted white models on the cover of books featuring characters of color), and was partly motivated to show publishers that readers are willing to purchase and read books with PoC on the cover and books featuring PoC. I don’t think it actually reached a point of deciding to use this opportunity to also make a statement about the ways that PoC were being characterized in these books, so this is a helpful issue to bring up. There is no reason why participants can’t also take this issue on if they choose to, and read with a more critical eye to identify and criticize books that depict PoC characters stereotypically and present erroneous information about PoC. I really do appreciate you bringing this to our attention. Now that I have a better idea of what you were criticizing (admittedly, simply referencing “critics of color” was a bit perplexing to me since I’m not a professional in this area, so I wasn’t entirely clear on what you were asking us to do), I can make a more concerted effort to do this in my own reading and encourage other PoC challenge participants to do the same.

I really do applaud what you are doing here. Dialog and awareness about the ways Native Americans (and any PoC) are depicted in literature is extremely important. But I also am hesitant to tell adults not to read any books about PoC if they don’t have enough knowledge about the group to approach it critically enough. To a certain extent we have to allow people their freedom to choose without censorship, but that doesn't mean we cannot evalute and criticize the choices, and it doesn't mean that we will all indiscriminately praise all books about PoC just because they are about PoC.

I hope that the PoC Challenge community, in visiting each other’s reviews and discussing them, will be able to respectfully bring up these issues if one of us has missed it in a book we have read and suggest books to each other that will give a more realistic and authentic view of persons of color. I think this dialog is probably more likely in a community of readers like this than if each blogger were randomly reading books about PoC on their own without any input from others, especially now that it has been brought into the discussion. But keep in mind that this is an ongoing discussion and a learning process, one in which each person starts with different skills and existing expertise and hopefully develops a more educated position as they become more exposed to and comfortable with ideas and people they were not familiar with before.

Pam said...


It's me again, the one who started the PoC challenge (and I am 30 not a teen) I would again be glad to put these books on there and your blog. I am deeply sorry I didn't do that before, I didn't know you were here and we are still adding to the lists.

Criticism isn't my preferred reading field. I used to read a lot of criticism, then I had kids running around and banging on drums. You have to have some level of concentration. My favorite things to read are historical texts, I haven't read one in five years.

I think maybe you are expecting too much of the PoC challenge. It's designed to get book bloggers to read books with PoC characters or from PoC authors. It is designed to show that we will read these books in the fiction genre mostly. That having a PoC person on the cover isn't going to stop the masses from buying the book if it has a PoC person on the cover.

My Grandmother is Cherokee from North Carolina. Now that my grandpa is gone she is on the reservation. I am there a lot. There is an author there who writes the most gorgeous picture books with folk tales of the Cherokee (Like the girl Fallen Water), I spent my teen years getting libraries and book stores in our area to carry these. In no way would I ever have left out Native American lit.

I have a new baby (no excuse) my online time is limited which is why I asked for suggestions instead of searching deeply. I have to use my online time wisely. Everything that was suggested has been added.

Your site is a valuable resource and I appreciate if nothing else being led here.

I hope to read your guest Blog on LaTonya's site. I know it will be informative.


Mel said...

I don't know if this would be helpful to the conversation, but there are a couple communities on Livejournal, 50books_poc and queerlit50, dedicated to reading books by PoC and by queer authors, respectively. (The 50 is for the idea of reading 50 books in a year for those so inclined, but that's really not something most people seem to focus on--mostly they function as review/recommendation communities.)

I don't think "challenge" is necessarily a problem word--personally, I interpret it in this sort of context as a challenge for people to step outside their comfort zones, not a challenge in the sense of "reading books that aren't by white and/or straight readers is hard". People have different comfort zones, of course, so what that means on an individual level will vary (like, my personal comfort zone involves a lot of women writers, but for someone else, reading more women writers might involve making a conscious effort to look for women writing in their favorite genres).

But I think the crucial thing about these communities is that they do limit the focus to authors who fit the theme, not characters, and they're very clear about articulating why these are different things. Reading books about PoC is not the same as reading books about PoC by PoC (as is a huge theme in your blog, of course!), and that seems to be getting lost in this challenge.

Jennie said...


This is a comment on both of your posts about the POC challenge because I'm having a hard time separating out my thoughts.

I will say this most recent cover controversy and the conversations and arguments it has stirred up has definitely changed my reading habits.

When I became a children's librarian, I saw how few books were published that featured characters of color and how the kids I worked with (who are mostly of color) longed for characters who looked like them.

I made an effort to read more books that featured characters of color. Since the Liar cover, I've reiterated this goal to myself. I like the idea of the POC Challenge because it gives me more of a framework, something to check against to see how I'm doing. I work better with concrete goals I can work towards surpassing. For me, it's things like this that help me form life-long habits.

But, the big thing this discussion has changed in my habits is who is on my Google Reader. I noticed that I wasn't reading enough bloggers of color. I wasn't reading enough (informal blog) criticism of people who understood the cultural and historical issues surrounding books and characters of color in a much different way than I did.

And that's something I am most definitely working on.