Saturday, July 13, 2019

Should biographies include an author's stereotypical thinking? Case in point: Barnett and Jacoby's THE IMPORTANT THING ABOUT MARGARET WISE BROWN

In May of 2019, Mac Barnett and Sarah Jacoby's picture book biography of Margaret Wise Brown came out from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins. Titled The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown, it is getting glowing reviews. I haven't seen it yet.

Many people have warm thoughts about Margaret Wise Brown's books. You probably remember Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. In their book, Barnett and Jacoby tell us that Brown wrote over 100 books.

On page four, they tell us that authors are people who do the things other people do, like falling in love, going to the supermarket, making jokes, and making mistakes. The last line on page four is this:
But which of these things is important? And to whom?
Provocative line, isn't it? It draws from Brown's The Important Book (I think it came out in 1949)When I get Barnett's biography of her, will I see a page about mistakes that Brown made? If yes, what will that page be about? Is it anything to do with the stereotypical content of some of Brown's books?

Here's some examples of that stereotypical content:

In 1954, she wrote a Little Golden Book, titled Little Indian. Richard Scarry did the illustrations. In it, she wrote "The big Indian lived in a big wigwam and the little Indian boy lived in a little wigwam. The big Indian had a big feather in his hair and the little Indian boy had a little feather in his hair."

In 1956, she wrote David's Little Indian. Remy Charlip did the illustrations for it. In it, David finds a real Indian--a little one--in the forest. Here's some words from it: "The boy and his Indian decided to become blood brothers, so they pricked their fingers and let their blood mingle together."

The Kirkus review of David's Little Indian says it is the last book she wrote. She died in 1952. I was, frankly, surprised to see that those two are among the last books she wrote. Her most famous book, Goodnight Moon, came out in 1947. Leonard Marcus wrote a biography of her in 1992. He called it Awakened By the Moon. I wonder if he says anything about those two books? Does Barnett say anything about them? When I get his book, I'll be back.

I titled this post, "Should biographies include an author's stereotypical thinking?" At the moment, I think the answer is yes. What do you think?


Ava Jarvis said...

I think that not only should biographies cover an author's prejudices, stereotypical thinking and all, but that they need to in order to actually qualify as biographies.

I know that some folks regard biographies as being works that should only celebrate the achievements of a human being, that "all humans make mistakes and therefore that isn't interesting to cover," to which I say: must be nice to live in a world where not knowing the truth doesn't hurt you.

And as someone who is marginalized, not knowing the truth about what an author thinks (or as close to it as we can ever get) has hurt me in the past. A lot. It's not even about feeling betrayed or ruined childhoods; it's about things like not running into work where the author portrays black people as demonic otherworld monsters who will destroy the universe---as Lovecraft wrote in his stories. He did it in full-out open text, not even as subtext you have to interpret, and is an extreme example of sorts; but for those whose racism is "subtle" (and Lovecraft lowers the bar for subtlety considerably in this aspect) their works can harm just as much, if not more.

After all, humans are subject to many influences we're not aware of. I grew up hating the fact I wasn't white, that I was Asian, because of the authors I read and my teachers who told me these were valuable authors whose words held truth. The words I read weren't obviously prejudiced, but they portrayed a world where Asian women couldn't be trusted, where we were all femme fatales, dragon ladies, who only knew how to utilize sexuality to gain false legitimacy. The constant drumbeat of this message gets to your head. If it got to me, fuck, think of people who aren't Asian women.

For a long time I couldn't even stand to see my face in the mirror. I didn't see myself as truly beautiful, as truly smart, or even as truly worthwhile as a human being. I actually felt most useful when I was helping white people, and I actively avoided other Asian people.

Internalized racism is a fucking head trip. Undoing all that harm of the books and media I grew up consuming has taken years.

I never want to see that happen to another person. Fuck that noise.

And I acknowledge that my teachers probably didn't mean to do this harm for the most part. If they didn't know about the prejudices of the authors they recommended or assigned as reading, how could they even filter in the first place?

ANYWAYS, back on topic, biographies should reflect everything possible about their subject, including their prejudiced thinking, because that benefits many people. It helps to prevent greater harms to readers, and to prevent greater harms done to students by teachers and assigned reading, and to prevent greater harms done to audiences by writers and media makers who take in large influences from said biographical subjects.

Anonymous said...

It would depend on what the focus of the biography is. Is it on all her books Or just the famous ones like goodnight moon? I couldn’t even find those two with Indian in the title for new... just resold on amazon for like $30. You can only put so much in a picture book biography. If the book focuses just on the famous books and then suddenly says “oh she also wrote these two other books that were filled with stereotypes... but you can’t find them easily anymore” then it would be out of place and wouldn’t make literary sense... especially if there’s no room to discuss it because the picture book biography is talking about the author or the more famous books.

Also, even if it could be placed in a way that made literary sense, who gets to decide what is offensive? Especially for writers who are long dead. Some cultures might find these books offensive not on the depictions Of American Indians, but on the very fact that they illustrate human faces... which is a strong taboo in many cultures. Would we mention this is every biography about picture book authors?

Also should we judge Prejudices and stereotypes based on present understanding or on the time period books are written. Would this have actually been considered prejudice during her time period? Or would it have been considered progressive? Were these some of the first books that didn’t portray American Indians as savages? If so would it have been a good way of moving people away from that view?

Propaganda (of any sort) is strong and shapes how people views things. It takes work to move people away from such thinking. Strong propaganda was used by the Nazis to induce hate. But America also used it against Germans during World War 2 to get support of the war. Both sides used negative imagery and prejudices. This is how the “savage Indian” stereotype came about, through propaganda and other images.

The “peaceful Indian” sort of replaced the “savage Indian”. Not saying any is good. But the “peaceful Indian” sort of moved people away from the “savage Indian” thinking which eventually lead to people sympathizing with American Indians. Which lead to people seeing past the “savage Indian” and realizing them as equal humans. They had to start somewhere to get representation of actual American Indians and it seems like, based on how people thought due to the propaganda, it worked to have the “good helpful Indian”... if just as a was to move people out of the ingrained public images.

Lastly, you wrote she died in 1952, but the books were published years after her death. How much of them did she actually write and how much was an editor? Did she really want these published? Who decided to publish them?

Anonymous said...

Every biographer, and especially picture book biographers for children, must make decisions about what to include and what to leave out, constrained by both word count and appropriateness. And yes, some of the decisions come from stereotypical thinking, or ideas about the sensitivities of young people. For example, Javaka Steptoe's RADIANT CHILD does not discuss Jean-Michel Basquiat's long and heavy drug use, or that he died of a heroin overdose, much as that could be helpful to many children in the midst of our opioid epidemic. Picture book biographies of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King do not discuss his serial infidelities, much as that could be helpful to children facing parental infidelity and looking to find ways to see a parent or parent as flawed but not irredeemably tainted. The same can be said for all picture book biographies, for no human is a saint. Picture book biographers make choices, and leaving out material deemed better handled in books for middle grade, high school, and adult non-fiction is one of these choices.

Erika said...

Just flipping through the copy I ordered for my library: it does not mention these two books. But it's almost more about the whole problem of biography itself, rather than about Brown, per se. It does mention Brown's bisexuality, her eccentricity, and how odd her more famous books are. But it spends a lot of time talking about how human lives just are strange, and flawed, and nonsensical, and what a weird project biography and deciding what's "important" about a person is to begin with.

I'm not much of a fan of Brown anyway, but I think a more thoroughgoing discussion of her whole body of work--including the fact that her notions of American Indians were unfortunately not "strange," for white authors in the 1950s--probably would work better in a longer format than a picture book. Not that picture-book biographies have to be hagiographies. It's just hard to think of how you'd write about this, or how you'd do it well and not just make a glancing reference, given how short a picture book is.