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I’d really like to ban the term “self-censorship” from discourse, given that we already have a spectrum of words–from “prudence” to “cowardice”–that say more precisely what we mean, and because it causes us to be confused about what censorship actually is.
As Megan Schliesman at Reading While White posted last week, the discussion about A Birthday Cake for George Washington is not about censorship. People talking about what’s wrong with the book are not censors; people saying it will damage children are not censors; Scholastic deciding to cease the book’s distribution is not censorship. Hell, somebody buying a copy of the book only in order to consign it to a bonfire is not censorship. (I think I told you guys I did this once, with a Sidney Sheldon book whose utter disregard for logical plot construction and consistent characterization caused me to pitch it into the fireplace by which I was reading. It felt naughty.)
Censorship happens when the government–and this includes public libraries–gets into the business of restricting access to information. As far as A Birthday Cake for George Washington is concerned, it would be censorship if a library that held a copy decided to restrict readership to adults, for example, or removed it from the collection on the basis of its being “offensive” or “harmful to children.” It is also censorship if a public library decided not to purchase the book on the grounds that it is offensive or harmful, or if the library thinks it will get into trouble with those who find it so. This is of course very tricky–libraries don’t purchase more books than they do, and it’s rarely one criterion that guides that decision. Here is where we have to trust in the librarian’s integrity and the library’s book selection policy and adherence to ALA’s Library Bill of Rights. I know I’ve told the story here before about the librarian I knew who didn’t purchase a sex ed book for children on the grounds that it didn’t have an index. Yes, it did not have an index–but that wasn’t the reason she didn’t buy it.
I bring all this up because of an interesting exchange I had on Twitter last week with YA novelist Daniel José Older. Reacting in a subtweet to my post about A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake, Older wrote “Ah here’s the Horn/Sutton tut tutting on why Scholastic should’ve let kids read that book,” with a screenshot of part of the post. I replied–or barged in, depending on your views about subtweeting–that I and the Horn believe kids should be allowed to read any book they wish. Then he asked me if I was cool with kids reading Little Black Sambo, Mein Kampf and The Story of O. (I think he dated us both with that last example.) Although I’m aware that this was intended as a sort of gotcha rhetorical question, it made me realize that Mr. Older is probably not familiar with the way librarians think. I said I was perfectly fine with kids reading any or all of those three books.
A bias toward believing that people, kids included, should be able to read whatever they want is so ingrained in librarianship that we can forget that it seems like a radical stance to civilians. And as discussions about children’s books have moved, via social media, beyond the usual suspects of teachers, librarians, and publishers, it would be good for all concerned to remember that our assumptions are not necessarily shared.
The post Whips AND chains appeared first on The Horn Book.
One of those stupid Facebook quizzes told me that I “tend to share thoughts that are not fully developed, using others as a sounding board for ideas and theories in a debate against themselves rather than as actual conversation partners.” RUDE. But also, true.
So for now I am going to refrain from comment about a new blog, because the last time I tried out some thoughts here about white (and male) privilege it didn’t go so well. But Reading While White is staffed by some of the people I respect most in this business and you should have a look.
The post MORE #stuffwhitepeoplelike appeared first on The Horn Book.
Nina Lindsay has a terrific article up at SLJ about this year’s ALA Award winners and What It All Might Mean. And in my latest editorial, I write about the need to value art from outsiders as well as insiders. Can we have both? Can we HAVE IT ALL?
The post Inside and out appeared first on The Horn Book.
While putting my thoughts back in to fully bake–just kidding, I’ve ditched that recipe–I wanted to share some of the valuable links people provided in the comments to my last post and on Facebook. And let me say again how grateful I am for your bearing with me. I think a lot about what it means to be a man in children’s books (why, for example, do so many of us talk about book awards like they are sports?) but my post of last Friday was not only half-baked, it was clueless as to what was happening in the kitchen and the nation.
So here’s some reality. Jackie Woodson has issued a statement in which she is definitely taking the high road:
“I’d rather continue to move the dialogue forward in a positive light rather than a negative one. This is a moment when our country can grow and learn and better understand each other. It would be nice to put the energy back where it should be — on the books and what the books are saying and doing – Redeployment is an astounding novel, Glück is nothing short of an amazing poet. I don’t know Osnos’ book yet but I plan to read it. Brown Girl Dreaming is about writing and about the history of this country. But more than that, it’s about what this conversation should be — a coming to understanding across lines of race.”
Here is a link to Nikky Finney’s “Choking on a Watermelon.” And David Perry’s post, which was one of the first critiques I saw. Laura Ruby shared this beautiful post from Ashley Ford; and Sarah Hamburg provided some historical context with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ thoughts on Forest Whittaker’s encounter with racism in an UWS deli. And I am very grateful to have found a comparison-gainer, thanks to Kate Messner, in a Princeton freshman who has “checked his privilege and apologizes for nothing.”
Please also see relevant Horn Book resources, which Elissa and Katie began curating after we published Christopher Myers’s “Young Dreamers,” one of the most important essays I’ve seen come through this office and for which I will be forever grateful to Christopher for sending it our way.
That’s it for today–I am now off to engage in the annual bloody battle also known as the Fanfare discussion.
The post Some people smarter than I appeared first on The Horn Book.
Ooh, who remembers this one? In 1982, the library systems of Chicago, Milwaukee, and San Francisco banned Margot Zemach’s Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven from their collections (Chicago, from where I followed the whole story avidly, did include it in its two regional research libraries). Unlike the headlines, still popular today, that too-loosely use the term “censorship” to describe any effort to remove a book from a library (it ain’t censorship unless the effort succeeds), this was the real thing: local governments, through their libraries, actively refusing to stock a book because of “partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” This was the book that made me realize that librarians could be their own worst enemies: I recall one librarian interviewed in an NPR story about the flap who actually said, “when WE do it, it’s selection, not censorship.” That is exactly backwards.
The post Moving moment No. 6 appeared first on The Horn Book.
Due to popular demand, we're posting Lelac Almagor's And Stay Out of Trouble: Narratives for Black Urban Children from the September/October special issue on Trouble. And to further, er, trouble the waters, we have a response to the article from writer Sharon G. Flake. I'd be interested to hear any comments in the comments.
As previously mentioned, I am going to California to see our boys, their wives and the new grandson. Kitty and Lolly will be here to keep you all in line and I'll be back next week. Au reservoir!
Pirate Pete asked my thoughts on the Almagor/Flake debate. I was unable to post while it was at its height and did not want to stomp in at the end, but I felt like they were both right, a situation made possible because they weren't talking about the same thing.
It's the same dilemma we see presented by the Coretta Scott King Awards. Why is there not more overlap between the CSK Awards and the Newbery and Caldecott? While some have speculated, evidence be damned, that the Newbery and Caldecott committees sometimes pass over books by African Americans because they figure the CSK committee will fill in the blanks, I think it is because the committees have radically different criteria for their choices.
Where the terms for both the Newbery and Caldecott specifically say that those awards "[are] not for didactic intent," here is the CSK explicitly endorsing didacticism: "Given to African American authors and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions, the Coretta Scott King Book Award titles promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples and their contribution to the realization of the American dream of a pluralistic society."
The current dominant mode of children's-book evaluation at least nominally disdains "didacticism," by which it means preachiness or sermonizing. But the provision of explicitly uplifting messages (and, in picture books, the explicitly sermon-structured text) is a prevailing, if by no means absolute, characteristic of contemporary African American literature for young people. Whether this is because of the CSK criteria or whether the criteria and the literature spring from the same aesthetic, I don't know, but I think that the arguments on the Debating Black Books thread demonstrated more than anything an underlying disagreement of terms.
Over at SLJ's excellent Heavy Medal, Nina Lindsay and the Horn Book's own Jonathan Hunt are playing Siskel and Ebert with A Season of Gifts, a debate I predicted (or precipitated--my working theory about FlashForward) a couple of weeks ago.
So, what does it mean--if anything--that Phillip Hoose's National Book Award winning Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice is ineligible for the Coretta Scott King Award (because Hoose is white) and Jerry Pinkney's Lion & the Mouse is in the same position because it isn't about black people? Does it not matter, or have the CSK awards painted themselves into a corner?
People all over the Internet are making of fun of Jennifer Lopez for the remarks reproduced below, but to me she sounds like just about every author or illustrator of children's books I know. Especially this week.
I feel like I had that [Oscar worthy role] in El Cantante, but I don’t even think the academy members saw it. I feel like it’s their responsibility to do that, to see everything that’s out there, everything that could be great. Well, it is a little bit frustrating. It was funny; when the Oscars were on, I had just given birth on the 22nd, and the Oscars, I think, were a day or two later. I was sitting there with my twins—I couldn’t have been happier—but I was like, ‘How dope would it have been if I would’ve won the Oscar and been here in my hospital bed accepting the award?’ ‘Thank you so much! I just want to thank the academy!’ But we joked about it. It’s all good. Things will happen when they’re supposed to happen. I have the utmost faith and no doubt that it will one day, when and if it’s supposed to. You can’t get all crazy twisted over it.
Responding to the drama about Bloomsbury twice whitewashing a character on a book jacket, Mitali Perkins has a poll going on about how young readers react to covers with non-white characters. Go on over and cast your vote.
One thing and one thing only I want to say about the Bloomsbury covers and the call to boycott the publisher: Doesn't anyone think it's great that Bloomsbury is actually publishing books about kids of color where the color is not exactly the main thing? Okay, two more things: would Liar and Magic Under Glass have been published if their authors were not white, and would the covers have been the same?
Whom? I never get that right.
In either case, J. L. Bell has posted one of the smartest things I've yet read about color and reading. Much of the current blogging discussion about the "whitewashing" of covers, etc., assumes that if evil publishers and ignorant librarians would only change their ways and open their eyes they would see a world of unprejudiced young readers eager to devour books regardless of the color of skin on the cover or on the main character. But as Bell asks, do we know this to be true or do we simply want to believe it?
I've been working on an essay about the last ten years in children's book publishing (note to ALA: yes, it's coming, already) and while I can be as self-righteous as anyone about the cynicism of publishing, I can also see that the school and library forces that, in the past, informed a moral code in children's books have an increasingly small impact upon an increasingly small piece of the business. The gatekeepers didn't "make" Harry Potter or Twilight, they followed along.
On a related note, I laughed when I read a reader's comment about the Times report on the Oscar nominations: "'Urban drama' means there are black people in it, in case anyone was wondering. Come ON, New York Times!"
And why does everyone think we all understand football? Last week I finally saw The Blind Side, whose climax involves a football game and a kid learning how to change from being a crap football player to a great footballer player. I couldn't tell the difference between what he was doing wrong and what he was doing right, despite the p r o l o n g e d football footage.
Now I'm reading Louis Sachar's new book The Cardturner, which revolves perhaps obsessively around the game of bridge. But what does Sachar, via his narrator Alton, evoke to explain it? Yup:
"I realize that reading about a bridge game isn't exactly thrilling. No one's going to make a movie out of it. Bridge is like chess. A great chess player moves his pawn up one square, and for the .0001 percent of the population who understand what just happened, it was the football equivalent of intercepting a pass and running it back for a touchdown."
Now I'm two
times deeper in the dark.
By: Roger Sutton
Blog: Read Roger - The Horn Book editor's rants and raves
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When I was a child, growing up in the various parts of India to which my father’s job took us, books were my friends, and I liked them funny. I discovered my grandfather’s P. G. Wodehouse collection at the age of eleven and was at once enchanted by the amiable lunacy of fictional worlds like the Drones Club and Blandings Castle. Lovable and ludicrous, they allowed me to claim an understanding of characters very different from me. I was at that age when laughter comes easily and convoluted story lines feel newly accessible. Plum’s immortal farces were a gift.
But funny isn’t something we’re taught to respect. That could be why, when writers embark on the serious business of crossing cultural boundaries in their work, they don’t often start out with humor. In 2004, Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith spoke at the Reading the World conference about the dearth of funny books with cultural resonance. Why, they asked, are multicultural books so very serious?
It was a valid question then. What’s surprising is the degree to which it remains valid today, especially in books for middle-grade readers. Books set in foreign countries are still largely about oppression, while those in hyphenated-American communities are about the challenges of finding oneself and becoming American. While many have humorous moments, they are not, by and large, funny books.
It seems especially necessary that children’s books, in the balance, convey more than a one-dimensional image of “the other,” yet the identity tale of oppressed people continues to dominate those books dubbed “multicultural.” Perhaps the problem is that the very notion of a culturally grounded story is perceived as worthy and important, not concepts we associate with laughter. But the truth is that you can’t see people as fully human if all you can feel for them is pity. Funny books with cultural contexts are capable of subverting and questioning issues of identity and belonging. By upsetting worthy apple carts, they offer new and necessary views of characters with cultural connections beyond the mainstream.
The pioneer in mixing humor with matters of race, culture, and, yes, oppression is undoubtedly Christopher Paul Curtis. The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 was published in 1995. The scene in which Byron’s lips get stuck to the family car’s side-view mirror is the one most readers call to mind, but there are others, many of them much more pointed than that one, as when the boys are faced with the prospect of going to the bathroom in the woods. Byron says, sardonically, “Snakes? I ain’t scared of no damn snake, it’s the people I’m worried about.” He means white people, of course, on the family’s journey south. The humor slams the reader with the grimness of the circumstances, even while it gives the characters a means of coping.
Humor in The Watsons is a mechanism Curtis uses to lead readers to an understanding of the insidiousness of racism and discrimination. It allows us to align clearly with one group of people and against another, in a deliberate stance that counters the prejudices of the period. If you’re with Kenny and his family, you can’t condone the racism they have to endure. Inequity, discrimination, and injustice give thematic impetus to the characters’ journeys. Because we can laugh, we can bear to navigate those obstacles along with them.
Since 1995, other writers of multicultural books have ventured into humorous terrain. In Julia Alvarez’s How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay, the unorthodox use of a strikeout in the title places a tongue-in-cheek tonal stamp on the work before the reader has turned a single page. It’s plain that this relative is about to change young Miguel’s life forever. He can’t hold out against this woman who is practically a force of nature, and neither can the reader. Her character, larger than life and twice as real, creates a playfulness that runs through the book and it
As we (WE?, the staff snarks) pack up the offices for our move at the end of this month, it’s just one madeleine after another as old toys and treasure unveil themselves from the shadowed recesses, bringing with them the little joies and horreurs of années passées.
Martha uncovered this copy of Magid Fasts for Ramadan, a pleasant little chapter book we reviewed back in 1996. This was my first object lesson in the necessity of careful proofreading, as it was not until the final pass through the July issue blues that we saw that somewhere along the line the title in the review had been changed to “Magid FEASTS for Ramadan.” So much for cultural sensitivity!
The post Moving moments No. 1 appeared first on The Horn Book.
Here's a link to that Bloomberg article we were discussing in yesterday's post.
PW has announced its (casually) bookseller-chosen Cuffie Awards, with Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury's Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes as the picture book pick. It is a big favorite here, too, getting a starred review and a spot on our Fanfare 2009 list. Every parent I know loves it, and the text and design beg for story hour sharing.
But I have a nagging problem with it. The whole point of the book is that everyone has ten fingers and ten toes, and that while we celebrate each baby's uniqueness, isn't it great that they (and, by extension, we) have this particular array of anatomy in common? "And both of these babies, / as everyone knows, / had ten little fingers / and ten little toes."
Except, of course, when babies don't. Not everybody does--some are born with fewer (or lose them due to disease or accident), some come with an extra one or two, some people don't even have two hands, for God's sake. I know that these people are relatively rare, but there is something that bothers me when a book so determinedly inclusive manages to be so clueless about what it's actually saying. If this book had a mouth, it would be cramming all ten toes into it right now. You would never (knowingly) read this book to a child who didn't have ten fingers and toes, would you? And shouldn't that give us pause about sharing it with the ones who do?
I don't usually have much patience for debates about "sensitivity" and have no idea why this book bugs me as much as it does.
Esme Codell takes Marc Aronson's part in this perpetual debate. One historical point--Esme cites Ouida Sebestyen's Words By Heart as one book that "makes an outstandingly inspirational and educational contribution to an African-American audience and to everyone else as well," thus making the Coretta Scott King Awards suffer for its ineligibility. But I remember the intensity with which the Council on Interracial Books for Children tore into that book for what they saw as its obliviously blinkered whiteness, which is just what the CSK Awards are trying to avoid. But the main argument, as made by Andrea Davis Pinkney and others in our pages, is that the point of those awards is to bring black writers and illustrators into the field and reward them for uplifting books. Ten years on from that debate, I have more problems with the second half of that equation than the first. Good messages do not always a good book make and frequently are the cause of its shortcomings.
The Horn Book has a snow day today but our latest issue is out and, partly, up. We've posted an intelligently bristling argument from Farah Mendlesohn what's wrong with contemporary YA SF as well as veteran Joanna Rudge Long's thoughts on what to look for in a "Three Little Pigs." The print Magazine also includes Susan Fletcher's moving account of her epistolary friendship with Elvand, an Iranian writer and translator and we solicited stories of similar friendships from a handful of other authors for children. Catherine Murdock weighs in on the absence of mothers in children's books--it's A Good Thing--and Elizabeth Wein looks back in time. In better bookstores, bathrooms, and libraries now (or soon).
From Work with Children in Public Libraries by Effie L. Power (ALA, 1943):
"Nationality and race influence mode and type of reading and therefore library selection. Jewish boys and girls are inclined to read serious books on mature subjects, and Italian children who live most naturally out-of-doors under sunny skies read reluctantly but enjoy picture books, poetry, and fairy tales. German American children make wide use of books on handicrafts which Jewish children largely ignore and from which Italian children choose few except those related to arts, such as wood carving, metal designing, and painting. The Czech children read history and biography. Probably the greatest readers of fiction are found among native American children."
I do like this:
"Girls, like boys, are seeking life, but in a different way. They need some so-called boys' books with moving plots and an adventurous hero to take them out of themselves and to keep them from becoming too introspective; for the opposite reason boys need some of the so-called girls' books, for their suggestions of self-analysis and wholesome sentiment."
The most arcane thing I've found thus far is a small LP from 1963 called "A Message from Lois Lenski: The Making of a Picture Book." Who's got a record player?
The May/June issue is out, bedecked with a pastelly portrait of Frances the badger digging into her bread and jam. Along with the articles you can read online--an interview with Sarah Dessen, Jack Gantos on booze and books, Janet Hamilton on science books--the print edition includes an essay by Linda Sue Park about food, glorious food in children's books with associated anecdotes by Lynne Rae Perkins and Peter Sis and a heartbreaking poem by Arnold Adoff; Lizza Aiken writing about her mother Joan; and writer Debby Dahl Edwardson on what raising children in the Arctic taught her about the who-can-write-what-about-whom debates. Caldecott Honor winner (and once co-conspirator with me in creating the perfect birthday present for Elizabeth) Melissa Sweet contributes the Cadenza, "4 p.m." Subscribe, already.
Eric Carle and Walter Dean Myers are USBBY's nominees for next year's Hans Christian Andersen Awards. The complete list of nominees is here.
The disproportionate number of men, worldwide, nominated for this award this year reminds me to link to Editorial Anonymous's current discussion of the CSK Who-Can-Win-What question. My thoughts on that have already been documented*; let me also remind you that the Horn Book will this July be publishing the speeches by the winners of the CSK Author and Illustrator Awards along with those by the usual Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder crowd.
*But let me just add: after a year in which two of the biggest buzzed books, Kingdom on the Waves and Chains, were by white people writing in the voice of African Americans, let me just say that EA is NUTS to think white writers are excluded from publishing about blacks by virtue of their exclusion from the CSK.
Back from ALA but barely. Returned to Boston Tuesday evening then spent Wednesday on the phone for a Horn Book board meeting; faced today with two hundred pages of Guide editing and my Simmons class coming over to talk about reviewing in situ. It was a great conference--the author interviews went very well despite some problems with the sound system and Katrina was a selling demonette. Saw lots of old friends (including one I hadn't seen in thirty years, only at ALA via her library-architect girlfriend) and made plenty of new ones, too. Nikki Grimes's Horn Book article started kicking up a fuss on Monday when we published the new issue, and I hope the conversation continues. More later, with photos.
Wow, what a great movie. I'd gone in expecting another Spirited Away, which I found gorgeous but rambling and portentous and adult, but Ponyo is a true kids' movie. That's not to say I didn't have a fine time playing spot-the-allusion--forget "The Little Mermaid," Ponyo has The Magic Flute all over it--but the heroes seem like true five-year-olds. I also loved the way the human boy, Sosuke, interacted with his mother Liz Lemon--needing her, disregarding her, helping her--and always from the point of view of a kid, not from an adult's idea of how a kid should view things. It's great, too, in a world of airbrushed Pixar animation, to see moving pictures again--when was the last time a cartoon showed what looked like a hand-drawn line? And, best of all, I never once heard a joke or saw a scene that seemed intended as a sop or wink to the adults in the audience, something even the best Pixar movies do regularly. I love the fact that even nine-year-olds might feel too old for this film.
I think Sendak would adore this movie--it was preceded by a preview of Where the Wild Things Are and, truth be told, I felt a little worried by the wooden dialogue. But let's wait for the whole thing.
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Zetta Elliott makes some great points re people of color in books and as authors.
Without in any way diminishing the very real problem of the white worldview of children's book publishing, I am struck by how often and widely charges of non-representation ("why aren't there more _____ in children's books?" "where are the books for ____ children?") are made of children's and YA literature. Books for and about boys. Books that show children in non-traditional families. Books that show children in traditional families, attending church. Middle-class black people. Girls who don't like pink.
The thinking goes that if there were more books about and for _____, more kids who are the same _____ would read. I wonder. Although I do believe that readers, at least in part, read for "the shock of recognition" Richard Peck talks about, I'm not sure that translates to wanting to read books "about people like me." It's more about being able to see yourself in circumstances unlike your own. To take the argument to its absurd conclusion, the belief that books should reflect their readers' circumstances means we could all give up reading and just look in the mirror.
But the concern here isn't so much with readers but with nonreaders. Do you remember the scandal of a few years ago with those Freakonomics guys, claiming that an enjoyment of reading was genetic? That kids didn't read because their parents read to them twenty minutes a day, they did so because their parents, as readers, were more likely to read to them twenty minutes a day? This is a little too mechanistic for me but I don't discount it completely. The pursuit of a more varied literary universe is an unalloyed wonderful thing--for readers. But I don't know that it will swell the ranks.