Friday, February 20, 2015

Some context for "Are we doing it white" at Read Roger

I participated in the "Are we doing it white?" conversation at Read Roger (Roger Sutton's blog at Horn Book; Sutton is the executive editor at Horn Book; The Horn Book is highly regarded in children's literature). His 'we' is white people and the 'it' is reviewing. He references a conversation he had with librarian Nina Lindsay in which she asked if it is time to "shake up our standards" in reviewing.

At one point in the 'Are we doing it white' conversation, Roger said he would love to have more reviewers at Horn Book that aren't white, and that he is "intensely devoted" to "getting out information about cultural diversity--who's out there, what's out there, and what's NOT out there" (see his comment at 12:28).  I reviewed for Horn Book in the 1990s.

I responded (at 1:56) with this:
Question for Roger:
Remember when you decided it was inappropriate for me to use the word stereotype to characterize a kid playing Indian? You decided to give the review to someone else. Later, in a review of a nonfiction book about California missions, I said the author was ignoring new research on the missions, and that review got reassigned, too.
Those were terse moments for me. I was furious. All the power was yours, and it dictated what I could or could not say as a HB reviewer. Because of those two experiences, it was not hard for me to decide to move on and focus on my dissertation. I think if you hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have left.
Would it be different if I submitted those reviews today?

His reply (at 2:29):

Debbie, how could I forget? ;-) Actually, i *do* forget what happened with the book about the missions but remember the playing-Indian question very well. In this book, THE BIRTHDAY BEAR, two contemporary white children and their grandfather, among other activities, put on fake headdresses and pretend to be Indians.
In regard to your review of this book, nothing would be different today. You criticized it not for inaccuracy or stereotyping but because the characters in the book engaged in an activity you found objectionable. We can’t knock a book because we morally disapprove of its fictional characters’ actions. What I said then I’ll say now: I take the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights very seriously, and I believe “materials should not be proscribed because of doctrinal or partisan disapproval” with all my heart.

I haven't been able to find the review I submitted it I've added it below, along with the one Horn Book published (it was written and submitted in the 1990s). I'll keep looking. Perhaps there is one in Horn Book's files. I probably gave it a 6 in my overall rating, which is "unacceptable in style, content, and/or illustration."

I wrote an article based on the rejection of that review. It includes some of the emails that were exchanged by me and Roger.

If you'd like to get a more in-depth look, I'm sharing the article as a pdf: Contesting Ideology in Children's Book Reviewing. It was published in 2000 in a Studies in American Indian Literatures, the journal of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures.

As readers of AICL know, I don't recommend books where kids are playing Indian. They invariably do that in a stereotypical way. During the time I was reviewing for Horn Book, they were sending me books with Native content because they believed I had the expertise to review those books. In the case of The Birthday Bear, Roger also felt that it should not have been sent to me because the kids playing Indian was "peripheral" to the story. It may have been to him, but it wasn't peripheral to me.

As the article and the on-going discussion at Read Roger show, neither Roger or myself have shifted in our views on this particular incident.

Roger titled his post "Are we doing it white?"

My answer to Roger?

Yes, you are. Indeed, you do it with glee, as evident in your reply to Sarah Park Dahlen (see his comment at 3:37) where you say that you "happily recommended" a book in which kids are playing Indian.

Please read the conversation at Are we doing it white. I appreciate the personal notes of support I've received, and I especially appreciate the work we're all doing to push back on the power structures that use that power to affirm the status quo. We're all doing it for young people who read. What they read matters.

Updated, 10:42 AM, Feb 20 2015 with my review and Feb 24 2015 with Horn Book's review:

I found an old computer that has the emails from 1997 and 1998. Here is the review I submitted. I entered it in the on-going Read Roger discussion, too:

(5) Illustrated by Uli Waas. Translated from Dutch by J. Alison James. (1996) First published in Switzerland, this story (set in the United States) is about David and his sister Sally and a visit to their grandparents home in the country where they celebrate David’s seventh birthday. His penchant for Indian adventure stories figures prominently spurring the children to do feathered headdresses and play Indian. Although grandfather says “Now most Indians dress just like you and me.” (p. 20), the dominant text and illustrations of the play Indian theme fit the objectionable stereotype of the aggressive savage Indian. DR.

Here's the review that Horn Book Guide published:

“Visiting their grandparents in the country, David and Sally play outdoors and have an adventure when a bear comes out of the woods and eats David’s birthday cake. This European import set in North America seems oddly old-fashioned: David and Sally (and Grandpa) don feathered headdresses and pretend to be war-whooping Indians; the encounter with the bear is predictable; and the artwork is sentimentally idyllic.”

I said "objectionable stereotype of the aggressive savage Indian" and Horn Book said "pretend to be war-whooping Indians."

When he posted the Horn Book review, Roger said "Any reader of that review who had issues with 'playing Indian' could not say that we didn't tell them." An obvious question is 'what about the reader who doesn't know that playing Indian is usually done in a stereotypical way? Later in the discussion, Roger said that he thinks stereotype is the wrong word for what is going on when kids play Indian. He thinks that it is "bad behavior" that is "unmediated by authorial comment or correction."

Today--Feb 24, 2015 (one week later)--the conversation at Are We Doing It White is still on-going. There is a lot to read and think about there, so again--please read it.

1 comment:

Robin Willis said...

I wonder how Roger would respond to a book where children cover themselves in shoe polish and 'play slave?'