Sunday, October 01, 2017

Some thoughts on the "Diverse BookFinder" Project

I started getting email from people who wondered if I had seen the Diverse BookFinder website. And, I began to see people sharing it on social media, with comments that suggest it is a good place to find books about diverse groups of people:
"A resource for finding diverse books"
"Great resource!"
"Helps users find diverse picture books"
"Awesome book finder!"
"Wonderful site! I need to get my hands on these books!"
"Makes it easier to find diverse books..."
Lot of enthusiasm! So, I went to take a look and tweeted my observations as I looked through it. With this post I want to say a bit more than I said on Twitter.

First, some background: the country is in another of its many periods where people are working hard to promote books that accurately represent marginalized peoples. At some point, it will not be another period of this kind of work. It won't be necessary. Data shows, however, that we've got a long way to go to get to where the body of literature published/republished each year is not that "all white world" that Nancy Larrick pointed to in 1965.

The Diverse BookFinder project is one of many in the works right now. We Need Diverse Books launched its Our Story app a few weeks ago. I recommend it. I spent time going through it.

Even more recently, Kirkus partnered with Baker & Taylor to help librarians find books. I have not had a chance to look through that one.

And--I'm part of the See What We See project, and I'll also be working with the newly funded Diversity Deep Dive Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Cooperative Children's Book Center

That's the background. And now, some thoughts on Diverse BookFinder.

Their mission/vision statement says that they want to "diversify and balance bookshelves everywhere" and that they want to "move the diverse books discussion beyond a focus simply on the lack of numbers to also consider content and impact." They write that "improving cultural accuracy" is essential. I agree with all of that. But when I move beyond that page to other pages, I find problems. 

We can start with the Search page. I put "Native" in the search box. Returns are presented, ten per screen. As I paged through, I saw that a lot of the books have the "folklore" category. That's a problem. Some of those stories are creation stories. They aren't folktales and they ought not be considered within the same framework as Beauty and the Beast. Here's a screen cap of the Categories page at the Diverse BookFinder site. 

The first category is also a problem. It is "Any Child: Assimilation."

The "just kids" or "any child" idea -- I see that it has appeal but I also see it as deeply problematic. It erases so much of what Native and children of color carry within them, in an unseen way to most, that informs or shapes what they say and do, think and feel. It assumes that beneath the physical features of any given person, they are "the same" underneath. Linda Sue Park's blog post about "race neutral" is terrific. I urge you to read it. She said, in part:
If a story depicts someone who leaves their own home and interacts with others in public spaces (in other words, almost any novel ever written) but never or almost never has to consider their racial identity, THAT CHARACTER IS WHITE. This could even serve as a reasonable definition of ‘white privilege’: Only those of the dominant culture have that incredible luxury.
A POC can never go outside their own home or family circle without thinking about their racial identity in some way. The trigger is not always malicious or even negative, but it is inescapable. A POC’s racial identity IS NOT THEIR SOLE DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC–but in society, it is *always* a consideration.
I shared it, and KT Horning's "Culturally Generic/Neutral?", too, with Anne. She knew of KT's and said it really influenced their thinking, but I'm having a hard time understanding what that means. I'm not able to connect the dots.

Assimilation -- the word and what it represents -- is not positive. If you say that word to a Native person, they are likely recalling the many times the US government tried to make us into White people. That happened, overtly, in the boarding schools where the motto was to "kill the Indian" and to "save the man." There were other programs, too. Do the developers of the Diverse BookFinder need to keep that in mind as they create and use categories? I think so.

In the list of categories on the left margin (it is different from the Category Chart that has "Any Child: Assimilation" -- which also confuses me), is "Tribal-Nation." I was glad to see that, because I figured that's where I'd find books about Native peoples as peoples of sovereign nations. But when I clicked on it, I was puzzled. It isn't specific to Native peoples of the US. Most of the tabs under it are Native Nations of the US but some are not. Two that are not are Bhil, and Massai. My expectation was wrong. I was confused at first and still wonder if "Tribal-Nation" is going to work for users or not.

I saw two Pueblo nations in the list, but Elan, Son of Two Peoples is not about anyone from the Pueblo of Sandia.  Elan is from Acoma. It says so, in the book. And Whispers of the Wolf is under the tab for Pueblo of Santa Clara, but it isn't set there. That one doesn't have a setting other than an ambiguous before contact with Europeans. A note inside from someone who is from Santa Clara doesn't mean the story should be labeled as a Santa Clara story. It isn't by a Native writer. So--the team that categorized these two books made errors.

Creating a database that will be helpful to users means starting with words that will grab the books that should be scooped up in a particular search or category. In the Cherokee category, I see a book about a Chinese American film star and a book that is First Nations (Canada). The We Need Diverse Books app had some of those problems, too, but they asked me to look it over before they released it.

Bottom line: I'm confused over what the project means to do. It seems to me that it is supposed to be a study. A research study. Of a collection in a college library that will be adding books to it. But the Finder part... just confuses me. I'm trying to make sense of it. For now, I can't recommend it. I'll check in on it from time to time.

After my initial tweets, Anne Sibley O'Brien, one of its founders, replied:
"This is really helpful, Debbie, suggests that we need a very clear statement on the site that inclusion in the site =/= recommendation."
They added this statement to the top of the Search page:
Our intention is to acquire and make available ALL picture books featuring indigenous people and people of color published in the U.S. since 2002, including reprints. Inclusion of a title in the collection DOES NOT EQUAL recommendation. See our related readings page for suggested links for evaluating books.
I'm not sure that statement helps. It seems to say "here's a way to find all the books" and "it is on you" to figure out if they're any good. For most people, some things will be obvious. If, for example, Little Black Sambo was reprinted, they would include it in their database. Most people, I think, would know that book is racist and wouldn't get it to use with children. They might use it in with adults in college classes, but not with children. 


Anonymous said...

As a point of fact, Little Black Sambo has several versions in print today. The two most people will be familiar with are The Story of Little Baba-ji and Sam and the Tigers.

The first has changed nothing about the book except the unfortunate names and the illustrations, which are updated and set the book firmly back in India where it belongs. The second, which was done by Sam Pinkney (who noted Sambo as the only book he had during childhood that showed a main character who looked like him, caricature or not) has dramatically changed the text while keeping the main story intact. The humans there are clearly African or African-American.

Having read both those versions, plus the original, plus one other version which set the story in Minnesota, I can firmly say that the story itself isn't particularly racist. The name choices are unfortunate (but the author would not have known that they were slurs in America, living as she did in India) and the illustrations are awful (she didn't approve those either, she just wrote the text and various publishers put their own pictures to the words), but the story is just about a boy tricking bullies so he gets the better end of the deal.

Sam Jonson said...

Debbie, I think those guys should have picked "Any Child: Acculturation" rather than "Assimilation". It's a $@#% shame, McEuropeans thinking they can force Native people to adapt Western ways when they can't even imitate Native ways properly.