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.


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"

Monday, January 25, 2010

A conversation about book covers and race

Of late in the children's lit world---especially in blogland---there's been a lot of discussion about book covers.

The discussion is centered on this question: "Do books sell better if the character on the cover is white?" Mitali Perkins is asking librarians and booksellers to vote on the question. Head over to Brown Faces Don't Sell Books? to vote if you're a librarian or bookseller.

I wonder how readers or buyers respond to one of my favorite book covers (and books)? I'm thinking of the cover for Rain is Not My Indian Name, shown here.

It is a terrific cover. In it, I see a lot that others might not see. American Indians have been photographed so much, with and WITHOUT our permission. Many of us have signs on our reservations now, telling visitors that they may not take photographs.  It is astounding that people will read the signs and STILL take the pictures.

 Mitali's question and the discussion remind me of an episode of This American Life. In that episode, a clerk at FAO Schwartz talked about working in the "adoption" area of the store, where shoppers could adopt a baby doll. That area was set up just like a nursery. (I thought it was kind of creepy.) What was very troubling about it, was that the first dolls to sell out were the white ones. And then the Latino and Asian dolls. But the African American dolls? No takers. You can listen to the episode here. If you missed that episode, listen to it.