Monday, November 02, 2015

On Ways Authors Respond: A Look at Meg Rosoff, Emily Jenkins, and Sarah McCarry

On October 31, 2015, at 12:06 PM, author Meg Rosoff posted a comment to Roger Sutton's Facebook wall (he is the editor at Horn Book) that said "Debbie Reese is at it again." I wondered what "at it" meant and asked her, there, what she meant. (She didn't reply.)

Roger's post at Facebook is, essentially, a link to his editorial at the Horn Book website. Because the editorial is about diversity and meaningful inclusion of characters who are from marginalized populations, I assumed Rosoff's "at it again" was a reference to my question about her use of the word "squaw" in her book Picture Me Gone, and a reference to more recent critiques I've done of The Hired Girl and A Fine Dessert. (She subsequently wrote about critiques of those two books.)

Rosoff did not reply to my question. She did continue to participate in the ensuing discussion, however. I don't know if she didn't see that I was in it, too, asking her a question, or if she was deliberately ignoring me. In her next comment she said, in part
Doesn't anyone find it odd that so many of the books Debby Reese and her followers attack for "micro and macro aggressions" are on the prize lists for best books of the year? [...] Funny how much time we YA writers spend in schools talking to kids about the corrosive effects of bullying, and then to discover the worst bullies of all in our own community. The strongest backlash, by the way, is coming from editors. Who tell me they are backing away from publishing books featuring diversity characters/stories in order to avoid attacks for "micro and macro aggression." That's a result, then.
A short while later, Roger wrote that he was not "joining in the debate" because he counts me and Rosoff as professional friends and valued colleagues. She replied to him:
Your professional friend and valued colleague has accused me repeatedly in public of being a racist and an enemy of diversity. I can wait very patiently for an apology on that score.
I was surprised by her comment. I have not accused her of being a racist. Nor have I called her an enemy of diversity. I was curious, however, to know why she thinks I did.

As that thread continued, I began to see her commenting elsewhere. I was surprised to see her referencing me so much saying things like "I know all about Debbie. She loves calling people racist" and "There are some very toxic so-called diversity advocates out there." I saw that she coined a phrase using my name: "The Debbie Reese Crimes Against Diversity stormtroopers." (Note: I was intrigued by what she was doing, and glad she was using my name, because it would lead people to my work. See, too, my post on her use of "stormtroopers.")

And then I saw this:
The extraordinary woman was the one who proved I was a racist by the use of the word 'squaw' in one of my books -- by an 11 year old English child. I had to look it up to realise it is sometimes (not always) considered insulting -- particularly if you're mainly reading to be insulted. I've written 600,000 or so words in my career and that's what she's taken out of it. Impressive.
Obviously, I am that extraordinary woman. Rosoff doesn't know, however, that when I picked up her book, Picture Me Gone, it was to read for pleasure. I primarily read books that are specific to my area of scholarship and expertise (depictions of Native people) but I read for pleasure, too, and usually seek out books that have done well. That's why I was reading Picture Me Gone. I was into it, too, but then, I got to this part:
A painting in a big gold frame of an Indian squaw kneeling by a fire needs dusting.
I stopped reading. The enjoyment, for me, was over. I set the book aside. I didn't blog or tweet about her use of "squaw." I just stopped reading it.

When she jumped onto Edi Campbell's Facebook page on October 10th, I remembered her book. What she said on Edi's page prompted a lot of people to write to her on Facebook and on Twitter. In response, she wrote:
God, twitter makes me laugh. Book I'm finishing now for Mal Peet is about a black kid in love w/a native American woman 15 years his senior.
I was angry at her for what she said on Edi's page, especially because Edi's post was about Large Fears by Myles E. Johnson and Kendrick Daye, a book that is about a queer black boy. Edi Campbell, Myles E. Johnson, and Kendrick Daye are three people trying to do some good in the world, shining bright lights on populations that are misrepresented and underrepresented in children's literature.

And there was Meg, like a ton of bricks, out of the blue. From that angry space, I replied to her tweet by asking her if she was going to use "squaw" to refer to that "native American woman." Here's a screen cap:

She didn't reply, but as her comment above indicates, she did not know the word is "sometimes (not always) considered insulting." As she said, she's written 600,000 words in her career, and she's impressed that out of all those words, I'm choosing to focus on one of those 600,000 words.

She is right. I am focusing on that one word as symbolic of the ongoing misrepresentation of Native peoples in children's and young adult literature. But I did not call her racist there, or anywhere.

My focus is on Meg Rosoff's response to being questioned. Her response about the word admits that she didn't know it is problematic. There is a way to respond to ones ignorance that can move children's literature forward in its depictions of those who have been omitted and misrepresented for hundreds of years, but Rosoff's dismissal and subsequent comments disparaging me are not the way to move forward.

Her response stands in sharp contrast to the response Emily Jenkins posted yesterday, in response to criticisms about the depictions of slavery in A Fine Dessert, and it stands in sharp contrast to Sarah McCarry's response to my question about her use of "totem pole" in All Our Pretty Songs. 

Some people are rising to defend Rosoff. Some are defending Jenkins and Blackall, too. Some of them know Rosoff, Jenkins, and Blackall personally, and feel--as they should--empathy for people who they feel fondly towards.


Teachers and librarians are forgetting that their primary responsibility as educators is not to an author or illustrator they like, but to the children in their classrooms. As parents, we trust you to do right by our children and what they learn from you. What you give them is something they will carry with them as they grow up.

The larger point of what I'm saying is that people of marginalized populations are using social media to ask questions. We are using social media to shine lights on problems that our children grandchildren are confronted with everyday, in and out of the classroom.

The country is growing more diverse with each minute. What you do in the classroom matters to the future of our country. That cliched bumper sticker that teachers touch the future is more than a cliche. It is a fact. Expand how you think about that future. We're all here, talking to you, and hoping you'll pick up the lights we shine, too, and do right by the children you teach.


Anonymous said...

Ms Reese, I am asking this in all seriousness and not trolling - why did you reply to Rosoff's tweet? Many people would objectively look at your response as baiting her and nothing more. I empathize with your plight, but occasionally it seems to me like you are being incendiary for no particular reason. But overall, this is just a minor thing. Please, keep up the good fight.

Martha Brockenbrough said...

Wonderful post.

B Sanders said...

Debbie's choice to tweet Meg Rosoff is her own, but I think it was relevant. That this particular author who has already shown insensitivity toward Native people in her writing was working on a book with a Native character bore a response.

Kaethe said...

And again, I am reminded that no one can live in a racist culture without picking stuff up. The difference between a racist and a non-racist is not what they've assimilated, it is how they respond when someone points up the problem. I'll start reading McCarry and continue reading Jenkins.

rebecca said...

Not from the book world, but Kerry Washington recently did it right: was ignorant of something, got called out for it, learned, apologized, and said thank you.

Kara Stewart said...

We (Natives) need you. We need you to keep doing what you are doing - critically analyzing children's literature for anti-Indian bias and pointing it out to authors, agents and publishers. We very much need for you to continue this good work. You are not militant or oppositional. You say what needs to be said on behalf of us, on behalf of Native kids, on behalf of non-Native kids who get their ideas of what Native people are from those books. Those non-Native kids will grow up to write the next generations of books. With you educating ALL people about Native people - how to accurately research, what is stereotypical, what is offensive, you raise us up to be on equal footing with books about/by white people. Do not let the current debate distract you from the much appreciated purpose you serve us with. I am sorry you are taking the heat for helping us. Keep on keeping on, and thank you.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

"Teachers and librarians are forgetting that their primary responsibility as educators is not to an author or illustrator they like, but to the children in their classrooms."

This is an important observation that bears repeating. And there's another dimension to that: Teachers and librarians responsibility to the children in their classroom extends to opening their minds up to authors and illustrators they don't like or don't know. Not all of us are charm school standouts, but that doesn't mean we have nothing to offer. And in professions that are predominantly white, gatekeepers need to go beyond their "club" of people just like them and seek out the work of authors and illustrators of color, authors and illustrators who don't live in the United States, authors and illustrators with disabilities, openly LGBTQIA authors, those who self-publish like Myles Johnson, and those who publish with small presses. There's too much focus in the industry on what's hip and "in" and it does a disservice to our diversity of young people.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, Meg Rosoff showed up on Edi Campbell's Facebook page in order to kick dirt all over a conversation and was hostile when called on her behavior, but Debbie needs to explain her tweet? Rosoff had opened hostilities. Why should everybody else have to behave pleasantly?


Debbie Reese said...

Absolutely right, Lyn! Thank you for pointing out the disservice done to kids when we give them what is "hip" and "in." So few of us were part of the in group in school... so many are left out when that is the way things get done in publishing. It leaves many readers on the outside when the goal is to entertain the cool kids.

Carole Lindstrom said...

Everything Kara Stewart said. Thank you, Debbie. We need you!!!

LibraryCat said...

In the early stages of this debate, I would have liked to give Rosoff the benefit of the doubt that what she was saying (clumsily and in the wrong place) is what many diversity campaigners say – that what an author writes must come from the heart and simply pinning ‘diversity’ on because of an agenda leads to bad books.

Since then, I have been appalled by the level of vitriol Rosoff has brought this debate. Yes, some of the language in response to her original post was intemperate (though never from Debbie). But as McCarry and Jenkins have shown, if Rosoff’s first reaction had been to recognise that she chose a totally inappropriate place to express those thoughts, to apologise and perhaps to do something positive to support the book she had appeared to be denigrating, things could have turned out very differently. Instead she has done nothing but pour scorn on her detractors.

The generous reaction I have seen so far to Jenkins’ apology should demonstrate that what is going on here is not cyberbullying. Would I like to see more on all sides of ‘a kind word turneth away wrath’? Perhaps. But a recent post on the Reading While White blog pointed out what a privilege it is to be able to approach these things unemotionally, because they do not really touch me.

Sara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Librarian said...

This is even more interesting in light of bringing aboriginal/native women's abuse to the light in Canada. I have to go shake the nastiness off of me.

Debra Johnson said...

Ms. Reese, Thank you for continuing this discussion. There are so many layers to this issue no one discussion can unpack them all.

As a POC, what I want today goes beyond inclusion. I want more traditionally published books by authors from underrepresented groups.

However, as long as the primary source of representation comes through cultural appropriation, every book's representation of "other" should be vetted. And yes, authors do have a responsibility to understand how their personal perspective, bias, backgrounds, preferences, and life experiences, influence positively and negatively their portrayal of "Other". They do have a responsibility beyond story and craft. They have a responsibility to their readers. All of their readers. And no, they cannot continue to pretend that only white people read books.

As Ellen Oh said in a similar discussion, no rep is preferable to bad rep. We've had enough poor representation to last a life time.

PragmaticMom said...

I think it is ok to say, "I didn't know that word is construed with meaning that is demeaning. Now that I know that, I will be more congnizant of how I use it." I don't expect everyone to understand layers of meaning for every race so I do find it valuable to have it pointed out as a learning opportunity and I do the same when it comes to terms that I have personal experience with to education my point of view as an Asian American.

I think Meg Rosoff is not willing to say that I used the word "squaw" in ignorance of its shades of meaning. When you, Debbie Reese, pointed it out, I was embarrassed to find out it was true. Luckily, there are shades of meaning and some of it is not all negative. Instead of admitting my ignorance around racism towards Native Americans, I'd rather focus on firing back at you because I do not consider myself a racist person.

We've all made mistakes with regard to racism, and the subtlely miscontrued stories that perpetuate shades of stereotypes or worse. It's ok to say that we are all learning and trying to be aware. That's all we can ask, right?

And if you study U.S. history, it's clear that Native Americans were robbed of their land and their way of life. Even worse, they were forced to repudiate their their culture by being put into boarding schools that punished them for speaking their own language. And I can see some sensitivity about white people now telling their stories ... I mean, how much else can you steal? You took their land, their homes, their way of life. You forced them onto concentration camps -- how is this different from Internment camps in WWII except WWII actually ended? And now you want to tell their stories. And incorrectly?!

I would be peeved too.

Out of all people of color, have you noticed how Native Americans struggle the most with socio-economic success? In publishing, most Native Americans authors are not widely published or distributed. Even ones who are notable authors like Joseph Bruchac. He's wonderfully talented. Tim Tingle and others. But they are not getting the commercial success of other writers of color. And I think it's because they are pigeon-holed with "marketing analysis" that says their market is mostly Native American readers so that's a small market and it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I would love to see a Native American author reach the financial success of a Rick Riordan or JK Rowling some day. Why not?

Kristin said...

When Meg Rosoff said, "Debbie Reese is at it again," she should have followed it with, "Saying important things we need to hear." I've learned a lot from you over the years; thank you. Your voice is needed and appreciated.

Sandie said...

I find the discussion here and on other blogs like RWW thoughtful and thought-provoking, but on Tiwtter, I tend to stay away. I'm uncomfortable with the vitriol, because it does nothing to further the discussion and tends to bring out the worst. Thank you for your posts, and for being thorough in how you cover everything you write about on a regular basis.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog and I find it very helpful and informative. I'm shocked by Rosoff's nastiness (also, her ignorance - I already knew squaw was a slur, but literally one minute of googling showed me the dictionary categrizes it as offensive and writers have been regarding it as a terrible slur for well over 100 years so IDK how she could miss that). As for her comments on diversity, I think Mikki Kendall said it best when she said, "Bad representation is not better than no representation." Anyway, I'm sorry you have to put up with writers like her when all you're doing is trying to help writers and readers make/find better portrayals. Thank you for all your work. Sincerely, Leah.