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Amy Koester is the Youth & Family Program Coordinator at Skokie Public Library, where she selects fiction for youth birth through teens and oversees programming aimed at children through grade 5. She is the chair of the ALSC Public Awareness Committee, and she manages LittleeLit.com and is a Joint Chief of the Storytime Underground. Amy has shared her library programs, book reviews, and musings on librarianship on her blog The Show Me Librarian since early 2012.
There is a conversation happening on the Storytime Underground Facebook Group right now. It’s been going on for a few days, actually, and it seems to have started innocuously enough: with a question about folks’ thoughts on the Youth Media Award winners, asked by a person who expressed “major shock” and disappointment (via frown-y face emoticons) about one of the Caldecott honors. As I said; innocuously enough.
Some folks who added to the thread brought up the perennial gripe that not all the recognized titles seem to have much kid appeal; other voices jumped in to clarify that kid appeal is not part of the criteria for any of the major YMAs awarded by ALSC and YALSA. I find this argument annoying the same way I do a mosquito bite, because it pops up every year around the same time and is irritating but will disappear in a week. After all, there are awards that take kid appeal into account.
But. Then something ugly and uncomfortable popped up. People started talking about certain books not appealing to kids or their entire communities for one reason: because said certain books have diverse protagonists.
Things people have said*:
“Sometimes I pass on even well reviewed books because I know they just won’t circulate. There aren’t any Greek gods in it! I also have a difficult time getting uh, diverse books to circulate in my community. When I started my job and weeded the picture books a huge number of non circulating titles had POC on the cover. ‘Brown Girl Dreaming?’ That’s a hard sell.”
“You can have my copy then. Because it won’t circulate where I am.”
“I just know it’s going to be a hard sell.”
“We have a copy, but I can count the number of black patrons my library has in two weeks on one hand. It is rural, middle class, white West Michigan. The only black author that circulates…at all…is Christopher Paul Curtis and that’s because some teachers require it. It’s not just the race of the characters either. If our young patrons want sports fiction they are going to choose Mike Lupica or Tim Green. The crossover has not circulated even one time since we got it. It’s not like Kwame can’t write. Acoustic Rooster checks out frequently.”
After reading the full thread and seeing this build-up of negative dialogue specifically around diverse award-winning titles in collections, I responded:
“I find it extremely problematic to suggest that a library doesn’t need a book–award-winner or not–that features a minority protagonist on the basis that there aren’t many readers of that minority who use the library. To me, that suggests both a bias on the part of selectors as well as a lack of trust in the readers we serve. We know verifiably that young readers do not only want to read about characters whose lives are like their own, and keeping them from even having the option to try a book about a person who is different from them is bordering dangerously on censorship. If a particular child does not want to read a particular book, so be it; but, especially in a public library, children should have that option.”
I am going to expand on that a bit.
First, and frankly, I find the position “because we don’t have X readers in my library, we don’t need X books” to be racist. This position implies that we as selectors view diverse books as inherently less-than. If we argue that only black youth will want to read about black youth, we are really saying that the experiences of black youth have no relevance or meaning to youth of any other race. We are saying that the experiences of the youth in the books we do buy have broader relevance and resonance. That is the very definition of otherizing and making a particular perspective, experience, or group less-than.
The position that “because we don’t have X readers in my library, we don’t need X books” also denotes a fundamental lack of respect for the children we are supposed to be serving. It suggests that we think our young readers cannot handle, relate to, or be expected to understand an experience that does not mirror their own. Not collecting—and collecting but not promoting—titles with diverse protagonists projects the selector’s own bias onto the reader instead of letting readers freely encounter stories and information.
Also, I feel very strongly that if the excellent diverse books in your collection do not circulate, you are not doing your job of getting great books into the hands of readers. As librarians, we can sell any great book to the right reader. We can find the aspects of a title that will appeal to the range of readers we serve. Diverse books have the exact same appeal factors as the whitewashed majority of children’s publishing. So we can be professionals and make our readers’ advisory about appeal factors, or we can continue to always take kids interested in sports reads to Matt Christopher or Tim Green instead of to Kwame Alexander. But if we do the latter, we are part of the problem. If we omit diverse titles from our RA even though those exact same appeal factors are there, we are perpetuating a racist status quo.
I want to take a moment to step outside of what I have to say on this topic and share what some other professionals have said*:
“Good collection development policies should emphasize a variety of things, but one of them should most definitely be diversity. The goal of a public library is not just to serve as a mirror for our community, but to serve as an open door to the world, which includes giving our communities opportunities to walk in the shoes of characters very different from them. This, to me, is part of our education goals, to help our patrons gain a broad perspective of the world. If books don’t circulate there are things we can do to help promote circulation, including book displays, book talks, sharing book trailers and more. Yes, budgets are tight every where, but we should absolutely make sure that we actively are working to build diverse collections because it is an important part of helping us fulfill our primary mission to our local communities. And the idea that not one single person in our local communities wants or needs to read books that highlight diversity concerns me because it suggests that we don’t have enough faith in our kids to learn, grow and step outside of their comfort zones.”
“I think it is a PRIMARY JOB of librarians, specifically youth services librarians, to promote and encourage diversity in our collections, budgets be damned. After all, I spend way too much of my money on crap like Barbie and Disney princesses … which circulate like *gangbusters*. But if I went on just that, I’d have a very shallow collection.”
“The point: if the only way you know how to sell a book is ‘it’s got brown people’ then you might’ve missed the point of the story.”
“If you want to champion diversity in a place where people are resistant, sell the story, not the character’s color or orientation.”
“And I absolutely hate that people use the excuse ‘well, they just don’t circulate in my library.’ That speaks the the librarian’s failings.”
When it comes down to it, a major aspect of this topic is selection/collection development, and the fact that selection is a privilege. If you select materials for your readers, you are privileged to get to influence not only what children read, but what they have access to in the first place. And when I read arguments against including diverse titles, or questions about why we have to talk about this topic, it puts into sharp focus for me the fact that we have to recognize our privilege as selectors, and, more than likely, as white selectors for diverse readers.
If you find yourself thinking “I don’t need this title because we don’t really have many X readers here,” your privilege is showing. You have probably never had to open more than one or two books in a row in order to find a character who looks/speaks/lives like you do. That is privilege. And whether we intend it to or not, our privilege influences our thinking and our decisions. This is a problem because our decisions affect the capabilities of young readers to find books in which they can find themselves and in which they can meet new people.
Confronting our privilege is hard. It is uncomfortable. I am acutely aware that, because of my privilege as a white woman, I don’t have to write this post. No one would begrudge me for not speaking up on this topic publicly. In fact, it would probably be a lot easier, and I would seem a lot nicer, if I didn’t write this post.
But that course of action is no longer acceptable to me. I am no longer going to privately roll my eyes when professional colleagues make privileged statements about their exclusionary practices, or when reviewers ignore microaggressions in books for youth. I am going to say something, because ignoring it only lets it perpetuate. And when someone calls me out on something I say or causes me to think critically about my own practice, I am going to try really, really hard not to get defensive and to just listen and reflect and improve. It is hard. And I don’t need to do it.
Except that I do, because the ability of every child I serve to feel valuable and see themselves as a beautiful, complex individual is what hangs in the balance.
This is not about our comfort, or our personal convictions, or what we think we know definitively after doing this job a particular way for so many years.
It is about the children we serve. Every single one of them.
*Because these conversations have been happening in public forums (a public Facebook group and on Twitter), I feel that sharing direct quotations is not a breach of anyone’s privacy. I have made the decision to share these quotes without identifying the speakers, as my ultimate goal is constructive conversation about privilege in selection for youth libraries, not alienating or shaming members of the community.
Monday kicked off Random Acts of Kindness Week, a time when people are encouraged to step out of their comfort zones and do something nice for others. Our picture book, Lend a Hand: Poems About Givingis a collection of poems about different ways to help others. From planting trees to tutoring students, Lend a Hand shows that there are lots of small things you can do to make a big difference in someone’s life.
Here’s what reviewers are saying about Lend a Hand:
“At once familiar and slightly out of the box, these giving scenes gently suggest that even the smallest acts can inspire and achieve great ends.” –Kirkus Reviews
“In conjunction with home or classroom discussions about social responsibilities, waging peace, or bullying, these instances of individual and collective giving may serve as inspiring models.“–Booklist
“It would be easy for a book with this title to hit readers over the head with its message. Instead, this is a gentle book that will add value to any classroom or library collection.” –School Library Journal
In honor of Random Acts of Kindness Week, we’re offering a 25% off coupon which you can use through February 15. When you’re checking out, use the code KINDNESS. Purchase the book here.
Struggling to think of some ways to celebrate Random Acts of Kindness Week? Here are ten ways to lend a hand:
We’d love to hear what you’ve been doing for Random Acts of Kindness Week – let us know in the comments below!
It finally feels like autumn is here and if you don’t mind us saying, we’ve been “fall-ing” for all the diversity-related stories that have been in the news recently! Here are a few that we were especially excited to read:
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen who was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ rights to education, and Indian children’s right activist Kailash Satyarthi, both won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for their fight against the oppression of children and young people, and for the right of all children to education. In light of the recent violence that has broken out between India and Pakistan along the border of the disputed, mainly Muslim region of Kashmir, the Nobel Peace Prize committee said it was an “important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.”
In the entertainment industry, we’ve been seeing more positive changes when it comes to representation and diversity in television and movies. Shonda Rhimes, creator of the popular TV shows Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal, was featured on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter, where she talked about her success and what she’s learned from previous on-set controversies. Rhimes is also executive producer of the new TV show, How to Get Away with Murder, which just recently got a full season order from ABC along with Black-ish. Sullivan & Son, a TV show that is written by and stars Steve Byrne, is also renewed for its second season. Steven Byrne is an Irish-Korean American, one of a handful of writers of color that has found success in Hollywood. The fall television programming this year has been great for diverse representation, which is a breath of fresh air considering an infographic we did on the Emmy Awards.
There’s no denying the fact that computer science is a popular field to get into; however, Google recently looked over their annual diversity reports and found that 70% of their workforce is male, with 61% being white. In an effort to get more women to take an interest in coding, Google announced that they were launching a new program called Made with Code that “includes a mix of coding projects, partnerships with youth organizations, and $50 million in funding Google says will help get more females involved in the field of computer science.”
See any stories that we missed? Feel free to share them in the comments! Happy Friday everyone!
Paula Yoo is a children’s book writer, television writer, and freelance violinist living in Los Angeles. Her latest book, Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank, was released last month. Twenty-two Cents is about Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of Grameen Bank. He founded Grameen Bank so people could borrow small amounts of money to start a job, and then pay back the bank without exorbitant interest charges. Over the next few years, Muhammad’s compassion and determination changed the lives of millions of people by loaning the equivalent of more than ten billion US dollars in micro-credit. This has also served to advocate and empower the poor, especially women, who often have limited options. In this post, we asked her to share advice on what’s she’s learned about banking, loans, and managing finances while writing Twenty-two Cents.
What are some reasons why someone might want to take out a loan? Why wouldn’t banks loan money to poor people in Bangladesh?
PAULA: People will take out a loan when they do not have enough money in their bank account to pay for a major purchase, like a car or a house. Sometimes, they will take out a loan because they need the money to help set up a business they are starting. Other times, loans are also used to help pay for major expenses, like unexpected hospital bills for a family member who is sick or big repairs on a house or car. But asking for a loan is a very complicated process because a person has to prove they can pay the loan back in a reasonable amount of time. A person’s financial history can affect whether or not they are approved for a loan. For many people who live below the poverty line, they are at a disadvantage because their financial history is very spotty. Banks may not trust them to pay the loan back on time.
In addition, most loans are given to people who are requesting a lot of money for a very expensive purchase like a house or a car. But sometimes a person only needs a small amount of money – for example, a few hundred dollars. This type of loan does not really exist because most people can afford to pay a few hundred dollars. But if you live below the poverty line, a hundred dollars can seem like a million dollars. Professor Yunus realized this when he met Sufiya Begum, a poor woman who only needed 22 cents to keep her business of making stools and mats profitable in her rural village. No bank would loan a few hundred dollars, or even 22 cents, to a woman living in a mud hut. This is what inspired Professor Yunus to come up with the concept of “microcredit” (also known as microfinancing and micro banking).
In TWENTY-TWO CENTS, microcredit is described as a loan with a low interest rate. What is a low interest rate compared to a high interest rate?
PAULA: When you borrow money from a bank, you have to pay the loan back with an interest rate. The interest rate is an additional amount of money that you now owe the bank on top of the original amount of money you borrowed. There are many complex math formulas involved with calculating what a fair and appropriate interest rate could be for a loan. The interest rate is also affected by outside factors such as inflation and unemployment. Although it would seem that a lower interest rate would be preferable to the borrower, it can be risky to the general economy. A low interest rate can create a potential “economic bubble” which could burst in the future and cause an economic “depression.” Interest rates are adjusted to make sure these problems do not happen. Which means that sometimes there are times when the interest rates are higher for borrowers than other times.
What is a loan shark?
PAULA: A loan shark is someone who offers loans to poor people at extremely high interest rates. This is also known as “predatory lending.” It can be illegal in several cases, especially when the loan shark uses blackmail or threats of violence to make sure a person pays back the loan by a certain deadline. Often people in desperate financial situations will go to a loan shark to help them out of a financial problem, only to realize later that the loan shark has made the problem worse, not better.
Did your parents explain how a bank works to you when you were a child? Or did you learn about it in school?
PAULA: I remember learning about how a bank works from elementary school and through those “Schoolhouse Rocks!” educational cartoons they would show on Saturday mornings. But overall, I would say I learned about banking as a high school student when I got my first minimum wage job at age 16 as a cashier at the Marshall’s department store. I learned how banking worked through a job and real life experience.
TWENTY-TWO CENTS is a story about economic innovation. Could you explain why Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank was so innovative or revolutionary?
PAULA ANSWER: Muhammad Yunus’ theories on microcredit and microfinancing are revolutionary and innovative because they provided a practical solution on how banks can offer loans to poor people who do not have any financial security. By having women work together as a group to understand how the math behind the loan would work (along with other important concepts) and borrowing the loan as a group, Yunus’ unique idea gave banks the confidence to put their trust into these groups of women. The banks were able to loan the money with the full confidence in knowing that these women would be able to pay them back in a timely manner. The humanitarian aspect of Yunus’ economic theories were also quite revolutionary because it gave these poverty-stricken women a newfound sense of self-confidence. His theories worked to help break the cycle of poverty for these women as they were able to save money and finally become self-sufficient. The Nobel Committee praised Yunus’ microcredit theories for being one of the first steps towards eradicating poverty, stating, “Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty.”
Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank is a biography of 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, who founded Grameen Bank and revolutionized global antipoverty efforts by developing the innovative economic concept of micro-lending.
Though the weather outside has been dreary, some of this diversity news has been anything but!
This week, the We Need Diverse Books campaign announced that they’re naming an award in honor of the late, great Walter Dean Myers! They are currently raising money through their IndieGoGo campaign and the hashtag #SupportWNDB.
School Library Journal and #WNDB also announced their collaboration. The collaboration will include a diversity-themed event at the 2016 ALA Midwinter conference and support for the diversity-themed festival to be held in the Washington, D.C. area in 2016.
We’re also excited to see all of the diverse movies being released:
The Book of Life, the Mexican-themed fantasy-adventure was released last week! Manolo, an adventurer, travels through magical worlds to rescue his one true love and defend his village from death!
Dear White People, the comedy-satire that started as a Youtube concept trailer premieres today. Dear White People was the winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. This comedy is a clever satire of race relations in the age of Obama.
Disney’s next heroine will be Moana. The eponymous film will be about a teenaged explorer from Oceania who travels the ocean with a demigod named Maui in search of an island. It’s set to be released in 2016!
Have you seen any great news about diversity this week?
Happy Halloween everyone! We’ve got something even better than treats today: great news in diversity!
Apple CEO Tim Cook recently came out in an editorial published by Bloomberg Businessweek, saying that he is “proud to be gay,” and making him the first openly gay leader of a major U.S. company. This was the first time Cook addressed his orientation publicly, saying, “I don’t consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I’ve benefited from the sacrifice of others,” Cook wrote. “So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.” With more states and people accepting gay marriage and supporting LGBTQ rights, Cook’s move is inspirational and will hopefully lead to more acceptance within the workplace.
From left: Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther), and Chris Evans (Captain America) at a Marvel event in Hollywood
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ve rounded up ten of our books that feature some amazing women of color! From a baseball player to an American politician, these women have helped pave the way for many others.
7. Patsy Mink, How We Are Smart - an American politician from the U.S. state of Hawaii
8. Hiromi Suzuki, Hiromi’s Hands - one of a handful of women in the male-dominated world of sushi chefs
9. Rosa Parks, Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue with Today’s Youth - Mrs. Parks changed the course of history when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, sparking the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement
Former Miss Kentucky Djuan Trent. (Photo courtesy of Facebook/Kellie Carter Photography)
In the world of beauty pageants, an industry often accused of objectifying women and embracing outer beauty rather than inner beauty, it’s refreshing to see someone who is breaking down the barriers of what is “beautiful.” Trent struggled with whether she should come out or not, but ultimately, she decided it was something she needed to do, especially after a Kentucky federal judge overturned parts of Kentucky’s same-sex marriage ban in February and set an effective date for his ruling today.
Trent encourages others to follow her lead, saying, “People can’t know that their best friend, brother, sister, co-worker, neighbor, news anchor, favorite singer, or local coffee shop barista is being oppressed and denied the rights in which their heterosexual counterparts are so happily welcomed partake, unless you open your mouth and say it.”
Amy Cheney is a librarian and advocate who currently runs the Write to Read Juvenile Hall Literacy Program in Alameda County, CA. Shehas over 20 years experience with outreach, program design, and creation to serve the underserved, including middle school non-readers, adult literacy students, adult inmates in county and federal facilities, students in juvenile halls, non-traditional library users and people of color.
Cheney was named a Mover and Shaker by Library Journal, has won two National awards for her work, the I Love My Librarian award from the Carnegie Institution and New York Times, and was honored at the White House with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. Her six word memoir: Navigator of insanity, instigator of enlightenment. Her theme song is Short Skirt, Long Jacket by Cake.
Thank you for being with us, Amy! Let’s start with the basics: how would you describe your job, for someone who has no idea what you do?
Entrepreneur, innovator and relationship builder. But my overall job title would be Schlepper.
How did you become a librarian for incarcerated youth? Was it something you always knew you wanted to focus on, or did you begin your career with a different focus?
When I was a teen, a neighbor was friends with Maya Angelou, and they invited me to hear her speak in a church basement. I remember clearly not wanting to be there, and then as Maya Angelou spoke with such passion and intensity, I felt the hard armor around my heart begin to crack. I remember the struggle to hold onto what I thought was me, or at least my protection: the rage, indifference and sullenness. I recognized that if I was struggling with it, then I wasn’t a fundamentally hateful person. That was life changing for me. I felt such a deep connection with her as a result of this inner experience, I read every book she wrote as it was published.
It took me a long time to realize that this experience is the basis of my passion for bringing in speakers and activities to stimulate the minds and hearts of those incarcerated. From Shakespeare to Cupcake Brown to Ishmael Beah to MK Asante (wonderfully, one of Maya Angelou’s protege’s), I see kids feel encouraged, enthusiastic and interested in a place that tends to dampen all of that.
In the 80’s I was a part of the anti-nuclear protests – when my friends were released from jail I was horrified to hear there were no books where they had been housed. I immediately started a book drive for the jail and that ultimately led to employment at the library serving those incarcerated in Alameda County.
What does your average day look like? Do you even have an “average day”?
Almost every day involves advocacy. Today one of the staff told me that going to the library was like a field trip, all the kids love it. But, she said, the girls had not “earned” a visit, so they couldn’t come. This didn’t make sense to me. I am constantly trying to advocate and educate for the library to be a right, and not a privilege that can be taken away. I am advocating for youth to be able to come here, as well as in general, advocacy for the youth, library, etc.
What kind of relationship with books do your students have? What kind of role do books play in their lives?
I think initially, many of them have a negative relationship with books and reading, and others have a non-existent relationship with them. Some students do have a positive relationship with reading before they come here, but there is a huge percentage—probably the majority—that start reading here and get excited about it and read more than they ever have in their life.
Regardless of their relationship to books and reading the library is a desired destination and activity. They are fully respected and acknowledged here. And the atmosphere is remarkably different from the rest of the facility. There are plants in here! And windows! And outside the window you can see trees and clouds and birds and grass! Real furniture and comfortable chairs! We play a game (Taboo) and laugh almost every library visit.
The majority of the kids here ultimately develop a positive relationship with books and reading. Books are a de-stressor, they are a life saver. In fact, the staff that call me the most, that request that I come down and talk to a kid or bring a kid a book, are the therapeutic staff. They also advocate with me for kids on suicide watch, etc. to be able to have a book. Today I went out and talked to a kid that has been under a blanket for hours if not days. He actually sat up and showed some life when I brought him some books.
Are there any books that your students are scrambling for? What flies off your shelves?
The bottom line is a. anything with action, and b. something they can personally relate to. And c, it makes huge difference if the cover is dynamic. My job is to find those books that have the right combination of the above. It’s a constant part of my job. While there are a few authors whose books I can’t keep on the shelf no matter what (Sister Souljah, Cupcake Brown, Tookie Williams, Coe Booth, Alison Van Diepen, Alan Sitomer), there are others whose books I work hard to bring to light. Right now as I look around I don’t see any of MK Asante’s Buck, for example. That’s an accomplishment: a cover with only words and no visuals isn’t something that in general attracts them. He visited here and so his book has taken off. He also stimulated the youth to read about their history, the history of rap music and books about the educational system in the US. Yah Hoo!
What kinds of books are allowed in a juvenile detention center? What kinds of books are not allowed?
In general, what is NOT allowed is anything that’s graphically sexual or violent or that outlines how to make a weapon or alcohol—something that would be a direct threat to the security of the institution.
What is “allowed” is a huge issue, and is one reason that we wanted to create a listserve, web page Library Services for Youth in Custody, and now the In the Margins book award. My hope is that the book award will lend legitimacy to our titles and hopefully enable more facilities to carry them. I am working with a facility right now that says, “Books must be limited in violence, sexually explicit material, promotion of drug or alcohol abuse and vampire stories.” It’s just bizarre the things people come up with to exclude and how they word and interpret it.
In my facility, I’ve made the choice not to advocate for “street lit” mainly because I think that battle is too big to fight since I’m fighting for kids to get to the library. In addition, I spend a huge portion of my life finding books that I believe will work with both the authorities and the kids. Street Lit titles often do have a lot of violence and sex in them which is why I’ve chosen not to advocate for them – but it’s a hard choice every day, and one full of contradictions. There is definitely a group of kids – maybe 5% – I am unable to engage in reading due to my choice to not advocate for street lit.
What do you wish people knew or understood about incarcerated youth?
They are super resourceful. They are caught in a trap not of their own making—poverty—and are punished for many of the things that I, and honestly, most of us did when teenagers. I am constantly amazed the privilege afforded the white middle class and what people of color and/or those from the poverty and working classes have to work extra hard for.
A recent example: Kareem, who is a college educated African American wrote me an email and then recalled it because of the typos. Meanwhile I wrote an email to the head of a very lucrative organization. My email was typed in lower case, and even had the phrase, “gratitude for all you do, dude.” I mean, not exactly thoughtful. Would anyone question that I was college educated? I doubt it. Kareem, and his beautiful, eloquent email with a few typos—he felt the need to correct it in order to present himself in the best possible light. It’s exhausting to constantly have to do that. And that is a *minor* incident.
There is so much policing and criminalization of poor youth and youth of color, I don’t think the majority of white middle class people really understand the depths of the inequity and the daily assaults. The juvenile hall (criminal justice system) is the crucible of race and class inequity in America.
Being in a detention facility, what unique limitations are you working with that a public or traditional school librarian might not be dealing with?
You know the supposed foundation of our country, that we are all innocent until proven guilty? For the most part, that’s not in operation here. There are a lot of unspoken power dynamics and struggles. When I’m in the living units I’m on the staff’s terms to a certain extent. When they are in the library, it’s more on my terms, but they always have the power to override me. It is definitely a dance.
There is a completely different culture in a facility and if you don’t learn what the norms are you can’t be effective. There are unspoken rules and meanings. For example, kids walking down the hallway with their hands behind their backs are living there—on their way to court or medical. Kids walking with their hands by their sides are on their way out of the institution. There is a spoken language that is not used “on the outs” with phrases like, “the tone is high,” “live scan,” “pods,” “talking is dead,” and “prepare for transition.”
The biggest limitation is “security” issues. Those can run the gamut from restricted access to the internet or books on tape to candy, pencils, and envelopes, or even to students being prohibited from getting out of their chair on their own volition. Things that you would never imagine are security issues can be seen that way from a certain perspective (that I actually have come to understand on some level). These limitations force a creative response.
Are there any common misconceptions you’d like to correct about what you do?
I think the biggest misconception is that the kids are hard to work with. And I’m not saying they aren’t hard to work with. I’m also not saying we don’t have seriously disturbed and disturbing kids. But in actuality, it’s the entire toxic system of mass incarceration that’s hardest to work with. Finding your correct place in that toxicity is challenging, ever evolving, yet doable. The kids are the least of the problems.
Andrea Cheng is the author of several critically-acclaimed books for young readers. Her most recent novel, Etched in Clay, tells the story in verse of Dave the Potter, an enslaved man, poet, and master craftsperson whose jars (many of which are inscribed with his poetry and writings) are among the most sought-after pieces of Edgefield pottery. Etched in Clay recently won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award.
April is National Poetry Month, so we asked author Andrea Cheng to share one of her favorite poems from Etched in Clay:
Etched in Clay, p. 65
Dave, July 12, 1834
The summer’s so hot,
it’s like we’re living
in the furnace.
The clay doesn’t like it either,
getting hard on me
I better hurry now,
before the sun’s too low to see.
What words will I scrawl
across the shoulder
of this jar?
I hear Lydia’s voice in my head.
Be careful, Dave.
Those words in clay
can get you killed.
But I will die of silence
if I keep my words inside me
Doctor Landrum used to say
it’s best to write a poem a day,
for it calms the body
and the soul
to shape those words.
This jar is a beauty,
big and wide,
I know it will hold.
I have the words now,
and my stick is sharp.
put every bit all between
surely this jar will hold 14.
Andrea Cheng: There are three poems in Etched in Clay which speak directly about the act of writing. In the first one, “Tell the World,” (EIC p. 38) Dave writes in clay for the first time. Using a sharp stick, he carves the date, April 18, into a brick; he is announcing to the world that on this day, “a man started practicing/his letters.” In the poem called “Words and Verses,” (EIC p. 52) Dave thinks about writing down one of the poems that has been swirling around in his head as he works on the potter’s wheel. Finally, in “A Poem!” (EIC p. 67) Dave actually carves a couplet into one of his jars. His words are practical and ordinary; he simply comments on the size of the jar. But he is no longer silent.
Today is Mother’s Day, a time when we tend to think happy thoughts about our mothers or other maternal figures in our lives. We might buy them cards and presents, or take them out to eat. There’s no right way to celebrate it, but we each have our own special ways or traditions.
While most people think of Mother’s Day as a joyous day, the founder of the holiday, Anna Jarvis would probably think we’re celebrating it all wrong. Jarvis originally created Mother’s Day as a way to honor her own mother after she died. She worked to get several states to recognize it as a holiday. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson declared that the second Sunday of every May would be Mother’s Day. It was a day to honor your own mother, not mothers in general. Prior to this, Jarvis, who was a peace activist and cared for wounded soldiers during the Civil War, tried to create Mother’s Day to honor women who had lost sons during the Civil War. When Hallmark and other card companies latched onto the holiday, it became greatly commercialized, much to the chagrin of Jarvis.
Despite this, we still believe that Mother’s Day is a wonderful way to show your mothers and grandmothers that they hold a special place in your heart!
Here are five titles we’ve rounded up that celebrate mothers and grandmothers:
Abuela’sWeave: A girl in Guatemala learns about family tradition and trust from her grandmother.
Goldfish and Chrysanthemums: A Chinese American girl helps preserve her grandmother’s childhood memories of China by creating a special garden for her in America.
Love to Mamá: Thirteen Latino poets celebrate their bonds with their mothers and grandmothers.
Love Twelve Miles Long: Frederick’s mother walks twelve miles each way for a nighttime visit with her son, during which she recounts what each mile of the journey represents. Based on facts from the life of Frederick Douglass.
Raymond’s Perfect Present: A Chinese American boy receives a nice surprise of his own when he tries to surprise his mother with flowers that he grew.
Summer is coming to an end, but that doesn’t mean the fun stops! With cooler weather comes fun indoor activities, like catching a great jazz show. We asked Frank Morrison, illustrator of our new picture book biography, Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, to share some of his favorite jazz numbers with us. Many of the artists below played or arranged with Melba Doretta Liston; others inspired Frank while he created his illustrations. So sit back with your cup of apple cider and let the rhythm carry you away!
John Coltrane: “Out of This World,” plus Coltrane’s albums The Inch Worm, Big Nick, and Giant Steps
Thelonious Monk: “Well, You Needn’t,” “Ruby, My Dear,” “Off Minor,” and “Bemsha Swing”
Dizzy Gillespie: “52nd Street Theme” and “A Night in Tunisia”
Miles Davis: “Freddie Freeloader,” “Round Midnight,” “Airegin,” and “Blue in Green,” plus Davis’s album Kind of Blue
Chet Baker: “My Funny Valentine”
Art Blakey: “Dat Dere,” “Moanin’,” “Blues March,” “The Chess Players,” and “Señor Blues” (performed with Horace Silver)
Abbey Lincoln: “Afro Blue”
Clifford Brown: “Daahoud,” “The Blues Walk,” “Jordu,” and “Parisian Thoroughfare”
Duke Ellington: “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Take the ‘A’ Train”
Stan Getz: “Corcovado” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”
Louis Armstrong: “Summer Song,” “West End Blues,” and “I Got Rhythm”
Still can’t get enough jazz music? Here’s Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.”
Have your own favorite jazz tunes? Leave ‘em in the comments!
Amanda Boyarshinov is one of the creators of the blog, The Educators’ Spin On It, a site that makes everyday moments into teachable opportunities. She has a Master of Reading Education for grades K-12 and a B.A. in Elementary Education. Additionally, she has her English Speakers of Other Languages (E.S.O.L.) endorsement and has received her National Board Certification in Early Childhood Education. In this post, we’ve been given permission to share her steps on building a family theme Love Book Basket, as well as how to create an “I Love You” book.
HOW TO BUILD A FAMILY THEME LOVE BOOK BASKET
1. Choose a Book
Select themed literature that is appropriate for your child’s age. Younger children may enjoy shorter stories. Older children may like more detailed picture books. Consider both non-fiction and fiction text. Lee and Low Publishing Company sent me the 3 books to read with my children for this article. All thoughts and opinions are 100% my own.
Honoring Our Ancestors: Stories and Paintings by Fourteen Artists is a non-fiction picture book highlighting some AMAZING artists: Carl Angel, Enrique Chagoya, George Crespo, Mark Dukes, Maya Gonzalez, Caryl Henry, Nancy Hom, Hung Liu, Judith Lowery, Stephen Von Mason, Mira Reisberg, JoeSam, Patssi Valdez, and Helen Zughaib. Each short story and accompanying artwork gives the reader a snapshot into the importance of family to that artist. Geared for 8-10 year olds.
2. Gather the Supplies for the Selected Activity.
In this activity, children make an “I Love You,” book for a family member. This can be done with art materials around the house. Directions for each page below.
3. Arrange and Display.
Arrange the materials and books in a pleasing manor in a basket, bag or container. Then, leave it on a table or desk area as an invitation to explore. Snuggle in and read. Then make the activity!
You can find directions (and pictures) on how to make an “I Love You” book on The Educators’ Spin On It website.
Make your #LOVEdiverseBooks Basket today!
Next week, The Educators’ Spin On It will be highlighting author Andrea Cheng, author of Grandfather Counts. Here is a sneak peek…
In this guest post, Dr. Henrietta M. Smith, Professor Emerita and the first African-American professor at the University of South Florida, School of Information shares her memories of how the Coretta Scott King Award began:
The news of the damage sustained by the boardwalk in Atlantic City during Hurricane Sandy brought back memories of where the Coretta Scott King Award started. This writer’s mind went back to an earlier time, to an American Library Association annual meeting in Atlantic City. The year was 1969. Two librarians walking through the exhibit hall stopped by a booth where a poster of the late Martin Luther King Jr. was on display. This was the start of a genial conversation that evolved into the observation that never since the inception of the Newbery Medal in 1922 and the Caldecott Medal in 1938 had any award committee recognized the work of a person of color.
John Carroll, a publisher from a small company in New York, overheard the conversation. It was reported that he said, rather matter of factly, “Then why don’t you ladies establish your own award?” The seed was planted. Before the conference ended, in an informal meeting on the boardwalk in Atlantic City under the leadership of Glyndon Greer and Mabel McKissick, the idea of a award for African American authors was shared with a group of African American librarians, including Augusta Baker, Charlemae Rollins, Ella Mae Yates, and Virginia Lacy Jones, to name a few. At this seaside gathering, the struggle for recognition began.
The ALA questioned the need for another award. A majority of publishers informed the committee that they did not have enough children’s books by African Americans to provide for evaluation. And many librarians were skeptical of anything becoming of this fragile brainchild. Undaunted and unconvinced that this venture was fruitless, the committee moved on. In 1970, the first Coretta Scott King Awards breakfast was scheduled in a hotel that just “happened” not to be on the ALA list of official hotels. After a meager meal and short program, the first recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award was announced. A school librarian from New Jersey, Lillie Patterson, went down in history as the first winner of the award for her elementary level biography, Martin Luther King, Jr.: Man of Peace.
from Ray Charles
It was not until 1974 that the award breakfast was held in an ALA conference site, but even then, the CSK Award was not recognized as an official ALA award, nor was the award committee recognized as an official ALA body. But to the joy of all, publishers were now sending more quality books, and attendance at the 7:30 a.m. breakfast was steadily growing! Another change came in 1974 when the committee presented its first illustrator award. George Ford, who is still painting today, won for the illustrations he created for Sharon Bell Mathis’ biography Ray Charles.
In the years that followed, a major breakthrough came when E. J. Josey was elected president of the ALA. One of his first concerns was to bring the Coretta Scott King Committee into the official folds of the American Library Association. In 1980, the Coretta Scott King Committee became the Coretta Scott King Task Force, a viable part of Social Responsibilities Task Force (since 1993 a part of EMIERT), with founder Glyndon Greer as its first chair.
Growth and changes can be seen as the benchmark of this dynamic group of librarians. Artist Lev Mills designed the medal that is placed on each award-winning book. The symbols in the medal’s design each carry a special message; even the colors of the winner and honor book medals, and the more recent new talent award medal, have significance. The monetary prize for the winners was first given through the efforts of the late Basil O. Phillips of the Johnson Publishing Company, and today the encyclopedias from Britannica and World Book have moved from print into the digital age.
Following negotiations with the ALA parent body on Awards and Recognitions, and the late John Steptoe’s son, illustrator Javaka Steptoe, in 1995, the New Talent Award was established. It was named in honor of John Steptoe, whose first book, Stevie (1969), won national acclaim when the author/illustrator was only nineteen years of age.
With each meeting of the Coretta Scott King Task Force, new ideas for growth are on the docket. Among the newest is the Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, which goes to an African American author, illustrator, author/illustrator, or practitioner (such as a librarian) for his or her body of work or contributions to reading programs involving African American literature. Changes are constantly in the works too. New ideas for creating greater visibility and wider use of Coretta Scott King Award books and materials are a part of every Task Force meeting.
To think that all this started with a meeting on the boardwalk in Atlantic City! The very spot may not be there now, but surely the news reports about Hurricane Sandy conjured up many of these same memories for those who met on the boardwalk way back in 1969.
Dr. Henrietta M. Smith, native New Yorker, received her MLS degree from Columbia University and EdD from University of Miami, Florida. She teaches in the Materials for Youth in the School of Information (University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida). Longtime member of the ALA, Smith has served on Newbery Caldecott, Wilder (Chair), and Pura Belpré Award committees for ALSC and has chaired the Coretta Scott King Task Force and the CSK Award Committee. Smith received the ALSC Distinguished Service Award in 2008 and in 2011 was the first practitioner recipient of the Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement in Librarianship.
Last month we announced the finalists of our first New Visions Award, a new writing award for a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting these talented finalists on our blog as they answer questions about what inspires them, the writing process, and more. Perhaps among these five finalists you’ll find your next favorite author!
Q: What has been your experience writing from a different cultural background that may be unfamiliar to most young readers?
Ibi Zoboi, Haiti.
While most readers are familiar with Edwidge Danticat, there are, of course, other Haitian and non-Haitian writers telling stories about Haitian children. M. Sindy Felin’s Touching Snow was a National Book Award Finalist. The recent winner of the Printz Award is In Darkness, a story about a Haitian boy during the earthquake written by Nick Lake. One of my favorite Haitian YA books is Taste of Salt by the late Frances Temple.
Haiti has an amazing literary tradition and under a brutal dictatorship, writers either risked their lives or were sent into exile. So, for me, writing about Haiti is very political. Though, my stories are cloaked in a world of magic. What better way to convey Haiti’s complex history and mythology than in a young adult fantasy novel? This simply adds another layer of depth to what young readers already know about Haiti, or any given culture. They must know that culture is multi-dimensional and is not regulated to the superficial “facts” in the media. This is why mythology breathes life into everything I write. While the names and magical systems differ, there is an interconnecting power in world mythology that can resonate with any reader.
Ailynn Knox-Collins, Earth.
I’ve lived in six countries and been a citizen of three, so it’s hard to decide where my origins lie. I immersed myself into the language and culture of each of the lands that have housed me and made me feel welcome. Yet, I belong to none in particular. Many people live in a culture different from their ancestors or like me, have ancestors from all over. We learn to hang on to the crucial values and adapt to others within our environment.
As a child, for example, I learned to ‘chameleon’ my accent simply to fit in. I write to discover who I am and I believe I’m not alone in this journey. In my books, I place my characters in almost sterile environments just to see what happens, so what is truly important can bubble to the surface. It seems appropriate in my form of science fiction, where the story is set in space, and humanity must rebuild itself by deciding what to keep and what to leave behind. I pepper the stories with values and beliefs I’ve picked up on the way, hoping that many of these are universal, since in the end, we are all but citizens of this one tiny planet.
Valynne E. Maetani, Japan.
Though I am fourth-generation pure Japanese, there were many traditions that my family maintained. As a child, I removed my shoes before I entered the house, ate certain kinds of foods on holidays, and threw salt over my shoulder on New Year’s Day. But I had no idea why we did the things we did. For me, writing about the Japanese culture has been a way of sharing and understanding the meaning and purpose behind the traditions.
I like writing for young adults because it’s an age where kids no longer do things just because their parents tell them to. It’s an age where they begin to question why on a much deeper level. In order for traditions to be preserved, I think it’s important to first understand the why and the rich history behind those traditions and second, important to share that knowledge with others.
Rahul Kanakia, India.
There is a lot of literature about the Indian diasporic experience. And, when I was around fourteen years old, I went through a phase where I read a fair amount of it.
And I hated it.
The standard Indian immigrant narrative is about the angst and the pain of being trapped between worlds. It is about attempting to assimilate and finding that assimilation was impossible. It is about attempting to recover an Indian cultural identity and finding that to be impossible as well. It is, fundamentally, about always feeling alone in the world. Kind of a grim future to outline for a fourteen year old who just wants to, you know, experience the world and make friends and write books and be happy.
So I try to write stories where Indian protagonists aren’t oppressed by their heritage. I think part of the reason I like writing science fiction is that in an SF novel, there’s always something else going on. You might be struggling to fit in…but you’re also struggling to fight off the zombie hordes.
Akwaeke Emezi, Nigeria + Malaysia.
My cultural background is blended- I was born in Nigeria and lived there until I left for college, so I identify very strongly with being Igbo. I was also raised with my mother’s Malaysian culture, so although I can’t cook Nigerian food to save my life, I tie my own saris, wear jade, and ritually stockpile Baba’s Curry Powder. However, moving to the States brought my nationality to the foreground as an immigrant, and that was when I realized how much growing up in Nigeria impacted my identity.
I deliberately reached for what felt like home and birthright while I was writing Somadina. I was born where my father was born and his father before him, so I constructed a fantasy world around Igbo culture and traditional religion. Other than Nnedi Okorafor’s delightful work, I hadn’t seen my culture represented in speculative fiction, so I saturated this story in it.
I also write from different points of myself outside of my ethnicities, but elements of my cultures often seep through in a name/food/phrase. After all, where I come from shapes who I am now, with half a body in the otherworld, stories coming through my teeth, and all.
What brought our New Visions finalists to Tu Books and to the New Visions Award competition in particular?
Everyone knows Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., but there are many other African Americans who have contributed to the rich fabric of our country but whose names have fallen through the cracks of history.
We’ve asked some of our authors who chose to write biographies of these talented leaders why we should remember them. We’ll feature their answers throughout Black History Month.
Bill Traylor was an “outsider artist.” He learned to draw in much the same way that I learned to paint: by trial and error. He taught himself to draw. Somehow I felt an immediate kinship to Bill. In his day, Bill’s art sold for about 10- to 25-cents and was panned by art critics as “primitive.” Today Bill’s art is collected by top art connoisseurs, and is on display in museums all over the world, selling for thousands of dollars. I love these kinds of stories where the “outsider” gets the glory.
Bill had an inborn – I believe God-given – talent that came forth in time of great need. That spoke to me, too. It supported my belief that all people are born equipped with everything needed to overcome great obstacles in life and do great things.
I think it’s important for children to be exposed to a variety of historical figures. Black history is not limited to the one or two people that are so often written and published about. In addition to civil rights, African Americans have made great contributions to science and technology, arts and literature, sports and entertainment, education and business. Bill Traylor was an artist, but he was also a journalist, though he may not have realized it. And a historian, too.Through his art, he documented an important part of American history that will be appreciated for many hundreds of years to come.
In January we announced the finalists of our first New Visions Award, a new writing award for a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting these talented finalists on our blog as they answer questions about what inspires them, the writing process, and more. Perhaps among these five finalists you’ll find your next favorite author!
Q: What was your relationship to books and reading as a child or teenager? In what ways did you see yourself represented in books?
I was seven when I attended my first boarding school. Determined to hate the experience, I succeeded at being miserable. Over the next few years, I changed school six times. I was always the new kid, but I wasn’t the nice one. I got into fights, defied teachers and even started a gang to beat up boys (I didn’t actually beat up anyone). Adults whispered about me when they thought I wasn’t listening. I was the poor child whose parents were getting a divorce. Because of that, I got away with everything which just made me more miserable.
Then one day, a teacher introduced me to CS Lewis and his worlds brought a spark into my self-imposed misery. Books became my escape. I devoured every story, mostly fantasy at first. I began to write as well, putting myself in places where I could be somewhere or someone else. Meeting Austen, Hardy and the Bronte sisters began my love affair with classical English literature. Those were wonderful years. Finally, Asimov came along and that opened the world of science fiction to me. Life became hopeful even while aliens were invading and snatching bodies, because the heroes always triumphed. And that’s where I kept seeing myself, whether or not the characters looked like me or spoke like me. They came out on top at the end and in my darkest moments, that was what I needed the most.
I was one of those statistical kids who did not own books. My mother worked two jobs to send me to Catholic school and we lived in a part of Brooklyn where little girls did not skip to the library on their own. We did own encyclopedias, though, but not novels and picture books. This had more to do with culture rather than economics. For students in Haiti, reading was more for rote memorization of textbooks. That’s what my mother made me do with the encyclopedias.
I was dealing with some serious identity issues by the time I got to high school. We’d moved to suburban Queens and I went to a mostly white Catholic high school. I desperately wanted mirror stories but I’d settled on having some sort of movie star idol instead. Halle Berry was just starting out then and she had starred in the TV movie Alex Haley’s Queen. That’s what led me to reading the actual book. Then I read Alex Haley’s Roots and looked for other titles in that section of my high school’s library—slave narratives (which at some point led me to Octavia Butler’s Kindred). Then I got mad at the world and worked in a bookstore all throughout college and read everything I could afford on my employee discount (RIP Waldenbooks).
It all started with wanting to see an image of beauty and success that was real to me. Halle’s hair was short and she was black and she’d been a heroine. I don’t think I would’ve been so superficial if I’d seen some of those images in books as a child.
My mom gave me Isaac Asimov’s Foundation when I was around 10 years old. She’d first read it as a kid in Mumbai in the 1960s. I loved the book’s thought-provoking premise and epic scope and I knew that I wanted more of that. Until I went to college, I only read science fiction and fantasy novels: mostly hard science fiction, space operas, military SF, epic fantasy, and swords and sorcery.
All of these subgenres are largely comprised of adventure stories. They’re about heroes who triumph over tremendous obstacles. And, because I read hundreds and hundreds of these books, I wanted to grow up and become a hero. Many SF fans of color go through a period of disillusionment when they realize that the genre doesn’t care to represent them. That did not happen to me. For whatever reason, I had no trouble identifying with the square-jawed white protagonists.
My disillusionment arose when I realized that heroism is a bit of a sham. It doesn’t exist in real life. Or, at least, not in the way that they write about it in the stories. Of course, everyone realizes that eventually. And, after growing up, some people are still able to find value in the metaphor: the hero represents some spiritual transcendence or state of striving. But I was never able to get over my disappointment. To this day, I find it difficult to read a traditionally-structured SF novel.
Valynne E. Maetani
In the third grade, I skipped recess so that I could read a series of non-fiction books. Each detailed the life of someone famous in history. Only one of those books was about a woman: Marie Curie. Shewas smart and brave, and I wondered if I could ever be like her. Often, my father would surprise me with books. Each had strong female characters like those in Little Women or The Good Earth. In our Asian culture, where emotions are rarely exposed, this was his way of telling me that he believed I could be brave and strong like Madame Curie, the March women, or O-Lan.
At some point, I fell in love with mysteries, devouring Encyclopedia Brown and eventually books by Agatha Christie. Yet I realized there were rarely characters of color. So a few years ago I decided to write a book for my youngest sister’s eighteenth birthday. I had a vague idea of the storyline but knew it would be a mystery; the protagonist would be a strong young woman; and she and her family would be Japanese. What I wanted to share through my writing is that as much as we try to fit in with those around us, we will always be different. I realized, once I was older, that being different is the precise thing my friends loved about me and my family. At the heart of it, we are all humans at the mercy of human experiences, and our differences should be embraced and appreciated rather than dismissed.
My relationship to reading has always been a huge part of my life and luckily, both my parents were avid readers who happily loaded me up with books. I read everything I could find; my favorites were authors like Lewis Carroll, Kipling, James Herriot, Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, etc. I also read several classics as a child/teen simply because they were in my house and I needed things to read: Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, The Odyssey, A Tale of Two Cities, etc. I remember reading Flowers in the Attic before I was ten…that was quite an experience!
I was always reading at the dinner table, at school while on break, by candlelight because the power was always out, in the bathroom- I was insatiable and churned through books quickly. We had an outdoor book market at the Post Office in my town in Nigeria, where you could bring second hand books and swap them out for more, which was a great resource.
As a child/teen, I always felt there was a place for me in all the books I read because that’s what fantasy and fiction had taught me, that I could belong anywhere because everything was possible.
In January we announced the finalists of our first New Visions Award, a new writing award for a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Over the last few weeks, we’ve highlighted these talented finalists on our blog as they answer questions about what inspires them, the writing process, and more. Perhaps among these five finalists you’ll find your next favorite author!
In this last post, they share their final thoughts on diversity in genre fiction for middle grade and young adult readers:
I applaud the efforts that publishers like Tu Books are making to bring diversity into children’s lite rature. I am humbled and grateful to have been given a small part to play here. I may not ever be published but I will always be writing and will most certainly be a reader for the rest of my life. As a teacher of children from all over the world, I am excited to introduce them to a new stage of diversity in books, where they may find themselves reflected in the stories.
From where I stand, the future of children’s fiction is looking up. They will see more and more books where the covers feature people like them, of all races and creeds, beliefs and lifestyles. Everyone will have a chance to be a hero and every reader will find a place for themselves in the thrilling worlds of mystery, fantasy and science fiction. I can’t hide the huge smile on my face because the child in me is thrilled. I am so proud to be a part of this movement. I hope more writers of color will be encouraged to write from their cultural backgrounds and enrich the book world with new ideas. It wouldn’t surprise me that although the names and settings have been changed, in the end, we’ll discover that there is much that we share with each other; that we have more in common than we realize.
Valynne E. Maetani
Somewhere out there are children just like me. They use reading as a way to escape life’s obstacles. They enjoy being sucked into magical worlds that challenge their imaginations. Sometimes books help them realize their problems are not as bad as they seem. They realize through characters that difficulties are a part of the human experience, but there are others like them who feel and react the same way they do.
In other ways, those same children might be not like me. They are children who might know little about Japan and its foods or customs. They may not have any idea what’s it’s like to grow up Japanese-American or understand how deep-rooted our traditions are.
For all children, books are a way of making connections and allowing them to experience something new. Diversity in middle grade and young adult literature enriches the reading experience by increasing the breadth and depth of what our children have access to, and because of this, there is also an increased chance for children to connect and learn. Both characters and authors of color can provide an introduction to unique perspectives. I find that most intolerance stems from a lack of understanding, and books are one forum which can equip children with information. I’m not naïve enough to think diversity in genre fiction will change everything, but every time we connect with a child, we open doors, and that makes writing worth it.
In any discussion of diversity, the shadow constituency is white people. Obviously, it’s really nice for teens of color to see depictions of themselves in the media that they consume. But unless those depictions also appeal in some way to white people, then those depictions will not get the major play that they need in order to be published and widely distributed in a way that makes sure they get into the hands of people of color.
And, of course, we all know that it’s good for white people to see the diversity of the world. But that also doesn’t matter. People don’t consume media because it’s good for them. They consume it because they want to be entertained.
So the challenge is to create depictions of PoC that are also entertaining to white people. It’s hard. And it’s often a bit unsatisfying. Writing for an outsider audience means including explanations and “authentic” detail that insiders don’t necessarily need, or want, to see. And if you veer too much in that direction, then you alienate people of your own culture. And that alienation can often be good business, actually, because those people are actually just a tiny fraction of your audience and in terms of getting fame and book sales it makes a lot more sense to feed the preferences of a white audience that hungers for PoC characters who hang around in this tiny sweet spot where they’re alien enough to be picturesque but also relatable enough that they don’t pose a serious challenge to majority culture.
I’m curious about what effect it would have had on me as a child and young adult to have had access to more fiction with characters that looked like me, or that came from cultures that I could have related to with more ease. I’ll never know, but I believe that kids nowadays should definitely have access to all that material and I am grateful for all those who are working to make this happen.
Disclaimer- I’m not very immersed in the writer world so this conversation is somewhat new to me. However, it seems to me that diversity in genre fiction (or the lack thereof) is essentially a race issue- who is considered the default race and the limited range of cultures, descriptions, etc that spring forth from that. It’s just not representative of the real world and it does people and children of color a disservice. Stories help people relate to whatever they’re reading about- I had no problem as a child believing that pixies lived in my compound or imagining that the tree in our backyard was The Faraway Tree even though all Enid Blyton characters were white. All children (all people, actually) would benefit greatly from having access to diverse fiction and being exposed to different cultures and people.
I teach in New York City public schools as a writer-in-residence. So I have a pretty good idea of what inner city children and teens are dealing with in terms of literacy. These new Common Core Learning Standards are asking students to read broadly and deeply—more informational nonfiction texts. And part of my job entails listening to teachers complain how this is a huge leap for many of their students. They’re being asked to argue these complex ideas and think critically, yet they have very little sense of themselves, their world and their place in it.
When I teach fiction in places like Brooklyn and the Bronx, I’d get so many blue-eyed, blonde-haired characters in these stories you’d think we were in Norman Rockwell’s America. They’re emulating what they have to read. Reading the classics is a good thing. But culturally relevant stories will equip these students with the level of critical thinking skills the standards are asking of them. A great number of sci-fi classics can be paired with well-written YA dystopian novels, for example. And what if they can see themselves and their culture in these books? Orwell’s 1984 thenbecomes that much more relevant.
Underrepresented students who experience school closures, substandard housing, and violence need to be able to think critically about a genre MG or YA novel and how it relates to them. They need to see themselves taking center stage in heroic stories before they can begin to affect change in their own communities.
I had two Korean roommates in college. Ever since then, I’ve said, “Someday I will learn Korean and visit Hyun Mi in Korea.” Last year, when I made new Korean friends here in New York City, I decided that “someday” needed to finally be today. I started to learn Korean from a book and a podcast, got addicted to Korean dramas, and this May, finally made that trip to Korea I’ve been meaning to make for over a decade.
On my way to Korea, I had a 7-hour layover in London, another place I’ve never seen in person before. I got to meet Cat Girl’s Day Off author Kimberly Pauley, who showed me 221B Baker St. and the whole area around Parliament—Big Ben, the London Eye, and Westminster Cathedral, for example (the outside—no time for the inside), and then we finished off our whirlwind tour with a full English breakfast.
(center) Kimberly Pauley and Stacy Whitman at Paddington Station with Paddington Bear; other sights in London
A subway entrance in Busan, South Korea
I didn’t get to visit my old roommate, but I did visit my new friend from New York, who had moved back to Seoul. I stayed with her and her family in Mokdong, a suburb of Seoul, which I loved not only because I was visiting my friend, but also because I got to experience Korean culture from a closer point of view, not as a tourist in a hotel but as a guest. I got to do normal everyday things with my friend, like going to the grocery store and post office, to the bookstore and to the repair booth on the corner run by the ajussi who might know how to fix my purse (sadly, he didn’t have a good solution). I was greatly impressed with the public transportation system, which got me everywhere I needed to be, and often had malls in the stations!
I also met up with the Talk to Me in Korean crew (from whom I’m learning Korean), who happened to have a meetup when I was in Korea. Here I am with Hyunwoo Sun, the founder of Talk to Me in Korean, and his wife, Mi Kyung. A few of us went out for a kind of fusion chicken, the name of which I’ve forgotten, and then patbingsoo—sweet red beans over shaved ice—after the meetup of over a hundred TTMIK listeners.
Meet-up with Talk to Me in Korean teachers and students
I love Korean dramas, which are often historical, so of course I wanted to see places like National Treasure #1, the Namdaemung Gate (officially known as Sungnyemun), which burned down in 2008 and was just recently restored and reopened, and Gyeongbokgung Palace in the heart of Seoul. The folk museum was fascinating, letting me see Korean history in person—for example, they had a living replica of a Korean street that brought you forward in time from the Joseon era to the 1990s.
Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, South Korea
A tour guide at Gyeongbokgung Palace wearing a hanbok, a traditional Korean dress
Outside the National Children’s Library in Gangnam, Seoul, South Korea
I also went to the Namdaemun Market, across from the gate, and had my first real Korean market experience, and found a stylish purse. I rode a bike along the Han River (and saw cleverly disguised trash/recycling cans), discovered the national children’s library in Gangnam, watched the changing of the guards at Gyeongbokgung Palace, stopped off for a chocobanana smoothie at Starbucks for a quick wifi fix, wandered around in a park filled with fortune teller booths, got makeup samples in Myeongdong, and found bargains in an underground shopping mall at the subway entrance. What I didn’t do was stalk a Korean drama star, though that was tempting.
Cleverly disguised recycling
Cheonggyecheon River, Seoul, South Korea
Not too far from the palace was the Cheonggyecheon River, which is a reclaimed river that has been turned into a recreational area. It was my favorite area of Seoul—I loved to walk along it and returned three times while on my way to other places. The first time I discovered it (on the recommendation of Korean American library educator and friend Sarah Park Dahlen), it was decorated for Buddha’s Birthday, a national holiday in Korea. The next day, on Buddha’s Birthday, my Korean host and I went to the local Buddhist temple to discover how the holiday was celebrated among Buddhists, which neither of us are. That night, the Cheonggyecheon was all lit up in celebration.
Stacy Whitman at the Buddhist temple in Mokdong, South Korea
Schoolkids at Jeonjuhyanggyo Confucian School in Jeonju, South Korea
Truck full of garlic in Jeonju, South Korea
Then I rounded out the experience with my friend’s one-year-old’s birthday party in Seoul. (The first birthday is very important in Korean culture, a momentous occasion for which my friend and her husband rented hanbok to wear for family pictures, which I took for them.) However, I didn’t get to the top of 9 km-high Hallasan, the big mountain in Jeju (though I made it 7.5 km!), as I didn’t start early enough in the morning. I’ll just have to go back. Oh darn! (I did, however, get the rare opportunity to see a native deer.)
I ate loads of delicious Korean food, most of which was homemade by my host family, but I also discovered new foods like Jeju’s famous gogiguksu, a pork noodle dish very similar to good ramen. I also had the chance to try Koreans’ interpretation of Italian food, which is very popular—and was very tasty.
(clockwise from upper left) Korean street food in Busan, kimbap in Seoul, pizza in a cone & smoothie in Jeonju, Italian food in Jeonju
And I took a break from my vacation one day to work, because you can’t publish diverse books and travel halfway around the world and not take the opportunity to meet publishers in the country you’re so interested in. An agent at the Eric Yang Agency was happy to introduce me to several Korean publishers, who were happy to introduce me to their books and to learn about mine. Here’s a picture of the mural in their lobby, a testament to the love of reading in Korean culture and a great riff on the famous photo.
Lunch atop a Skyscraper, now with books!
It was interesting to see how similar and yet different the two country’s publishing styles were—often, we publish similar books, yet we market them completely differently because Korean parents/readers and American parents/readers are looking for different marketing messages in the books they buy. Young adult literature as a category is still relatively new in Korea, particularly in fantasy (though the age category’s storytelling is strong in dramas and manhwa, the Korean form of manga)—the emphasis in Korean children’s book sections of the bookstore is very much on educational supplements. I look forward to someday bringing Korean YA and middle grade voices to a US audience looking for diversity and new stories.
* And it was a bear trying to pare down my pictures. If you’d like to see more, follow me on Tumblr, where I will eventually be posting more pictures a few at a time.
As Fast As Words Could Fly tells the story of Mason, a teenager growing up in North Carolina who becomes one of the first black students to attend an all-white high school. In this guest post, we interview author Pamela M. Tuck’s father, Moses Teel Jr., whose experience during integration inspired the New Voices award-winning title.
Moses Teel Jr. around the same age as Mason in As Fast As Words Could Fly
Lee & Low: In the Author’s Note, it says that you used your “typing talent to defy the prejudices of people who considered [you] inferior.” Did you also participate in a typing contest similar to the one Mason was in? What was that experience like?
Moses Teel Jr.: Yes. In my typing class, we had five-minute timed typing exercises. Five strokes counted for one word and every error took one word away from your total word count. I participated in a lot of these classroom competitions and won. That’s what helped me qualify for the tournament. By the time I had to compete, I felt pretty confident in my skill and I stayed focused by telling myself, “I can do this.”
L&L: How did you handle the hardships you encountered while at Belvoir-Falkland High School? Was there a piece of advice that you were given that inspired you? What advice would you give others who experience some form of prejudice directed toward them?
MT: The encouragement from my family and other members of the civil rights group helped me handle the hardships I faced. My dad had sacrificed a lot during the Civil Rights Movement so as to make a difference. Integrating the schools was one of the most important parts of the Civil Rights Movement in Pitt County during that time. By the time I started Belvoir-Falkland High School, I knew I had to remain humble in order to stay there. I went there for a better education, so I could make a difference in my community.
I can remember one black custodian at the school who inspired me. He would catch me and some of the few other black students outside the school to tell us that he was so proud of us for coming to that school to knock down some barriers. He told us to keep our heads up and to do the best we could.
My advice to others is to realize that prejudice does exist and you’re going to have to deal with it one on one. Just remember to stay humble and treat people the way you would like to be treated. Then you will be able to work your way through it.
L&L: Mason’s story takes place in the mid 1960s, a decade that saw the historic March on Washington, the Birmingham campaign, and the Freedom Summer of 1964. As a teenager, how strong was your sense that you were part of a greater national movement for equality?
MT: I was well aware that we were part of a national event. During that time, we had gone to a meeting to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak, and in part of his speech he told us to go back to our communities and make a difference. By my family being the first to integrate the school system, we felt stronger knowing that we were taking part in an integration movement that was happening all over the country.
L&L: Who were your role models growing up? How did these individuals influence your actions?
MT: Two of my role models were Golden Frinks and Reginald Frazier. Golden Frinks was a field secretary for the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). I realized how powerful Mr. Frinks was when we visited places that wouldn’t serve blacks, but after mentioning his name, attitudes changed and we were served. Reginald Frazier was a powerful attorney during that time period and I remember when he represented a black family during a racial case. The family couldn’t afford a lawyer, so he took the case for $1 and won.
These two men showed me how their determination to fight for equality could make such a difference, and how justice was more important than money. It was people like them who made me believe that with the right education, I could obtain justice in society.
L&L: When you first began at Belvoir-Falkland High School, was there anyone who surprised you with his or her kindness? Were there other African Americans who you befriended at the school or were you the only one?
MT: I’m afraid I’ll have to say no, there wasn’t, other than the black custodian. I didn’t receive much kindness from the students or faculty at Belvoir-Falkland. There were other black families who also had their children integrating during the same time, and the few of us watched out for one another. We had to stay to ourselves during physical activities because during the pick-up games we were never chosen to play with the white students. In later years, as we remained at the school, we began to be included in more activities.
L&L:Although we now have our first African American president, we still live in a country plagued by many types of inequality. How far do you think our country has come since you were a teenager in the 1960s? Where do you hope we will be ten years from now?
MT: I feel that we have improved about 70% in correcting some inequalities, but there are still a lot of hidden prejudices that have to be dealt with. I hope that ten years from now I can say we have improved 90%.
Last month we brought together past New Voices Award winners to see what it was like to publish their first books. Today, in our final installment in the series, we ask these talented authors to share what they have been doing since entering the contest.
This year marks our 14th annual New Voices Award writing contest. Every year, LEE & LOW BOOKS gives the New Voices Award to a debut author of color for a picture book manuscript. The submission deadline this year is September 30, 2013, so get those manuscripts in!
Q: What have you been up to in the time since your book won the New Voices Award or Honor?
Winning the first New Voices Award for The Blue Roses gave me something I didn’t have before: confidence in myself as a writer. I had had a distinguished teaching career, but as a fledgling writer, it seemed I’d never get out of the slush pile. After the New Voices Award, my book also garnered the Paterson Prize and Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers Children’s Book of the Year. Buoyed by this incredible good luck, I wrote more and queried more. Though not represented by an agent at that time, I was lucky again and found a publishing home with the University of New Mexico Press for my next two picture books. The UNMP editor I worked with, W. Clark Whitehorn, convinced me to do my own illustrations for both Powwow’s Coming and Giveaways: An ABC Book of Loanwords from the Americas. Recently I’ve written and illustrated my fourth picture book, Boy and Poi Poi Puppy from Progressive Rising Phoenix Press and signed with Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary for my YA novel. I’ve been very lucky and thank Lee & Low Books for believing in me and for the wonderful jump-start!
I won the New Voices Award in 2003 for Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story. Since then, I have had the honor of having two more books with Lee & Low Books. My second book came out in 2009. Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story, illustrated by Lin Wang, was a biography about Chinese American Anna May Wong’s rags to riches life from a laundryman’s daughter to an international Hollywood film star. I also have a third book picture book biography coming out with Lee & Low soon, too. Stay tuned for more details! I also had a YA novel published in 2008 (Good Enough from HarperCollins) and I’ve worked on a bunch of TV shows as a TV writer/producer, most recently with SyFy’s EUREKA. But most exciting of all… ever since winning the New Voices Award, I adopted three cats. Hmmm… now how can I sneak my three cats into my next Lee & Low book?
Since I won the Award, I have retired from my “day job” as a teacher and school librarian. While working part-time, I have been able to spend a lot more time writing. I love it. I am also happy to say that, next year, Lee & Low will publish my second book about a very talented man with an unlikely dream who I discovered while researching Love Twelve Miles Long.
As a longtime children’s book illustrator, I have several new books out that I painted. But winning the New Voices Honor award launched my writing career. Winning the award boosted my confidence with words. Since then, I’ve written several more picture books. My next authored book will publish in 2015. I will also illustrate this book. I have another authored book under contract, and I can’t wait to share that news, too. I’m thankful that Lee & Low recognized and nurtured my writing talents.
Jennifer Torres, Finding the Music (2011 New Voices Winner)
The most significant thing I’ve done since my book won the New Voices Award was have a second daughter! Soledad Daisy was born in March of this year. She and her big sister, Alice, are truly delightful people and it is a joy to watch them grow.
I’ve also been working hard at editing and revising my book, Finding the Music. Though it can be challenging, this is honestly one of my favorite parts of the writing process. To hear a professional’s insights on what you’ve written is illuminating and so helpful. I’m really proud of the way the book is shaping up and of how far it has come since I submitted the manuscript.
Otherwise, I continue to write – I am finishing a book for middle-grade readers, and I contribute regularly to newspapers and magazines as a freelance journalist. I also work for University of the Pacific, helping to lead an early literacy campaign. This is exciting – and so important. We know that the ability to read proficiently by the end of third grade is a make-or-break benchmark in a child’s education. Kids who aren’t strong readers when they leave third grade tend to fall behind, and it can be very difficult to ever catch up. Unfortunately, in my community, only 34 percent of third graders can read at grade level. For children of color, and for kids whose first language isn’t English, that percentage is even smaller. That’s one of the reasons it’s such an honor for me to work with Lee & Low – it’s crucial for all of us to support the literacy of all children.
As February comes to an end, we round out Black History Month with a guest post by Pamela M.Tuck, author of As Fast As Words Could Fly. We asked her if there was one person she could choose to be as well-known or remembered as Rosa Parks, who would it be and why?
In a segregated all-black school, a young student was empowered by an African American motivational speaker from Washington, DC. It was 1960s North Carolina and this speaker, in the student’s mind, was famous. The young student was my mother, Pauline Teel, and the speaker was Cortez Peters.
Cortez Peters, Sr. taught himself to type, at the age of 11, on a used typewriter his father had received in a trade. His “hunt and peck” system later developed into a fast and accurate method that garnered him the title of World Typing Champion, with speeds over 100 words per minute. He was the founder of the Cortez W. Peters Business School, which debuted in 1934. It was one of the first vocational schools in Washington, DC to prepare African Americans for business and civil services. The opening of his school became a pivotal point in history for African Americans.
Cortez Peters, Jr. began typing at the age of 12. He eventually surpassed his father’s world record with a typing speed of 225 words per minute with no mistakes.
Both Peters Sr. and Peters Jr. made a career out of teaching their craft to others.
At that unforgettable school visit, Cortez Peters awed my mother and the other students with his rhythmic typing finesse. My mother remembers how his typing mimicked the tunes of many songs, and how he made artistic configurations on his paper. She stated, “He would use all A’s to form the letter A, and all B’s to form the letter B.” His phenomenal typing ability was an amazing entertainment for the students, but his accomplishments as an African American entrepreneur made him an empowering role model.
Cortez gave his formula of success to the students in 3 simple words: Determination, Inspiration, and Perspiration. Determined not to let anyone or anything stop them from reaching their dreams. Inspired to do whatever it takes to accomplish their dreams. And work hard (Perspiration) to make those dreams come true.
Cortez Peters’ formula for success became ingrained into my mother and was one of the driving forces that helped shape her into the successful woman she became. Enough so, that she passed the formula on to me and I have passed it on to my children.
With the impression Cortez Peters made on my mom, I guess it seems fitting that her high school sweetheart, my dad, turned out to be a local typing champion. Ironically, Cortez Peters and my dad unknowingly shared the same formula for success, and As Fast As their Words Could Fly, change was taking place, history was being made, and dreams were coming true.
The glitz, fashion, and the glamorous parties are over, but we at LEE & LOW BOOKS are still thinking about the 86th Annual Academy Awards. We were excited to see our infographic on the diversity gap in the Academy Awards shared in several places, including the New York Times Carpetbagger blog, MSNBC’s The Grio, and Colorlines. Even Ellen started off the night with a joke about diversity (“Possibility number one, 12 Years a Slavecould win. Possibility number two, you’re all racists. Now please welcome our first white presenter…”). But the highlight of this year’s ceremony was seeing some big wins in diversity:
2014 Oscar winners Lupita Nyong’o and Cate Blanchett
Lupita Nyong’o, Best Supporting Actress for “12 Years a Slave”: Lupita Nyong’o's touching acceptance speech reminded every aspiring actor and actress that “no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”
Cate Blanchett, Best Actress for “Blue Jasmine”: Cate Blanchett’s empowering speech was an inspiration for women everywhere, as she addressed the stereotype that “female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.”
Best Picture for “12 Years a Slave”: This film set in pre-Civil War America follows Solomon Northup, a free black man who is abducted and sold into slavery. This is the first time a film directed by a black filmmaker has won Best Picture. Director Steve McQueen dedicated the win to “all the people who have endured slavery. And the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”
Congratulations are also due to Robert Lopez, the first Filipino-American ever to win an Oscar for his song “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen,” and John Ridley for his Oscar for the “Twelve Years a Slave” screenplay, marking only the second time that a black screenwriter has won the award.
It was also a breath of fresh air to see new Academy Director Cheryl Boone Isaacs walk out onstage to introduce herself.
While the wins will certainly change the bleak numbers we reported last week, one year alone is not enough. Here’s hoping this year’s big wins mean more people of color in front of and behind the cameras in the future!