Monday, May 12, 2014

Book of the Week

Hope Is a Ferris Wheel

by Robin Herrera

Published by Abrams, 2014
272 pages
ISBN: 978-1419710391
Ages 9-12

Ten-year-old Star is starting a new school in northern California after moving with her mom and teenage sister, Winter, from Oregon. Star starts a Trailer Park Club hoping to make friends, but only a girl named Genny willingly joins. Then Star discovers the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the club gets a new name and focus, and two more members: Eddie, intensely interested in poetry, and his best friend Langston, who prefers drawing bras. Then Winter, at odds with their mom over school, tells Star she wants to visit their long-estranged father back in Oregon. Star has a vague memory of him and imagines all the things she might tell him about herself if she had the chance. After she and Winter make the trip, Star returns home worried about her sister, who has revealed she is pregnant, and furious at their mom, who never told her that she and Winter have different fathers, or anything about her own dad. Robin Herrera’s impressive debut novel has a smart, thoughtful, stubborn girl delving deep into her heart, and trying to understand the hearts and minds of those around her. Star is socially naïve yet deeply perceptive, qualities revealed with both sensitivity and humor. The sentences Star writes for her spelling word assignments, and her ongoing refusal to turn them in, are among the wonderful ways Herrera reveals dimensions of Star’s character and life. Star’s family is living on the economic edge, a reality that is seamlessly woven into a story about the ways we hurt, and the ways we hope. (MS) ©2014 Cooperative Children’s Book Center

Monday, May 5, 2014

Book of the Week

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out

by Susan Kuklin

Published by Candlewick Press, 2014
182 pages ISBN: 978-0-7636-5611-9
Age 12 and older

“My subjects’ willingness to brave bullying and condemnation in order to reveal their individual selves makes it impossible to be nothing less than awestruck.” (Susan Kuklin, from the Introduction) Six transgender teens share their journeys to coming out into the open as their true selves in this gathering of voices in which each offers insight into being transgender as part of their broader identities, and in the context of their families, their communities, and a society not always ready to accept, let alone embrace, the truth about this aspect of who they are. The profile of Christina includes a discussion with her mother, who initially struggled but now celebrates her daughter’s strength and courage. Cameron is full of idealism and looks for ways to challenge perceptions of gender every day. Mariah says, “Transition? Everyone goes through one kind of transition or another….Except mine is maybe a little more extreme.” Nat has battled severe depression but is hopeful about his future. Jessy notes, “I’m embracing my in-between-ness. I’m embracing this whole mix that I have inside myself … So forget the category. Just talk to me. Get to know me.” In the profile of Luke, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, Kuklin shows the important role community and adult mentorship can play as he talks about his work in a local LGBTQ theater company and its impact on his self-understanding: “Portraying a trans person came really, really easily….because I was acting the role of a trans man, I could explore being trans deeper than I could by just thinking about it.” Most of the profiles include wonderful photographs taken by Kuklin of the teens. A glossary, extensive resources, and an interview with the clinical director of a program providing outreach to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens rounds out this groundbreaking, inspired, essential work. (MS) ©2014 Cooperative Children’s Book Center

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Kids Choose Diversity

We don't normally have groups of first graders at the CCBC (most of our student groups are in college) but this week we made an exception for thirty children from Sugar Creek Elementary School in Verona, Wisconsin. They were on campus to participate in a film their teacher has been making called "If You Want to Be a Reader." He wanted to get footage of his students reading on the University of Wisconsin campus.

They came to the CCBC in two groups of fifteen, ready to read. In preparation, I had set out a few dozen picture books and easy readers. Most of them were selected from CCBC Choices 2014 and from past winners of the Charlotte Zolotow Award.

We do this all the time when we host groups of college students, teachers, and librarians. We surround our visitors with good books, face out, that reflect the diversity we see in the world. It's always interesting to see what books people gravitate toward.

I asked the Sugar Creek first graders to take a look around. Did they see any books they recognized?  "Each Kindness," one girl said. "Our teacher read it to us." Any others? They took a good look around, taking their job seriously. Lots of head shaking.  "No." "I don't think so."

"Do you see any books you want to read?"  Lots of nodding. A few excited children jumped up to point at the books they wanted me to read. Here's what they chose by consensus:

What Can You Do with a Paleta? by Carmen Tafolla.

Mi familia calaca / My Skeleton Family by Cynthia Weill (both groups chose it)

The Dark by Lemony Snicket (both groups chose it)

Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales (both groups chose it)

Take Me Out to the Yakyu by Aaron Meshon

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson ("We already know we like it," explained one boy.)

On this day that saw the launch of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, I saw first hand, in not one group but two, that given choices, young children themselves will choose diversity. And they all find underwear really, really funny, no matter who is wearing it.

Culturally Generic/Neutral?

Several years ago, a Korean American colleague of ours was in the CCBC reading the latest picture book by Yumi Heo. She was laughing aloud with nearly every page turn.  "Oh, these pictures!" she said. "They're so Korean and so funny!" We loved the book ourselves but hadn't found the illustrations to be particularly funny. Or, for that matter, particularly Korean.

And that's the point. We're not Korean so we couldn't see it.

So that's why I find it a bit unsettling that School Library Journal's diversity issue includes Culturally Diverse Books Selected by SLJ’s Review Editors as a list that's divided into two sections: Culturally Specific and Culturally Generic/Neutral. The latter is defined by them as  "... books ... in which the main character(s) 'just happen' to be a member of a non-white, non-mainstream cultural group. These stories, rather than informing readers about individual cultures, emphasize cultural common ground."

Culturally Generic?
My first response was to ask: whose cultural common ground are we standing on?  Would a Japanese-American reader of Cynthia Kadohata's novel The Thing about Luck likely see something in the book that a non-Japanese-American reader would miss, just as I missed the Korean humor in Yumi Heo's illustrations?  Did Meg Medina's Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass have a cultural resonance for the members of the Pura Belpré Award Committee that led them to choose it as a book that " portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience" rather than as a culturally generic/neutral novel selected by SLJ's review team? 

My second response is to wonder why the books in the Culturally  Generic/Neutral category need to be separated from the Culturally Specific category, which is defined as books featuring  "...authentic and positive portrayals of people from diverse ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds, as well as characters who identify as LGBTQ or are from underrepresented socioeconomic groups." Really? Then why is Matt De La Peña's The Living in the Generic/Neutral category? It's been a while since I read it, but what I remember most about it is that the main character was a working class Chicano kid, and his class, gender, and cultural identity played an important part in how he interacted with other people and how they interacted with him. Oh, and there was that tsunami.

In fact, it's interesting that ten of the thirteen books in the Generic/Neutral category were actually written by people who belong to the culture about which they are writing, while only seven of the thirteen Culturally Specific books were. The only book on the list with Native American characters was written by a white author.  It was classed as "Culturally Specific." It makes me wonder how If I Ever Get out of Here by Eric Gansworth would have been classified if it had been included on the list. Would it have landed on the Generic side because the main character likes The Beatles?

Even more interesting is to look at how the stars fall on this list. Of the twenty-six books included, eleven are starred -- eight in the Culturally Specific category. Of these eight, five are written by white authors, outsiders to the cultures about which they are writing.

Culturally Generic?
Perhaps this suggests that Culturally Specific is really defined here as Otherness, and that this sense of Otherness is best depicted by those who are outsiders to the culture. But when Kwame Alexander or Varian Johnson write about African American boys, their characters are viewed as Culturally Generic.  That may be because they are writing their characters from the inside, more Us than Other.  They have invited readers to stand on their own bit of cultural common ground for a while. For African-American readers, that may be a familiar, comfortable place, and for those readers who are not African-American themselves, they will find that it's a common ground after all. And when it comes to cultural diversity, that will likely be more illuminating than finding out what exotic thing the character ate for breakfast.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Same Old Story: The Stats on Multicultural Literature

It seems every 3-5 years, someone in the press discovers the statistics the CCBC keeps on multicultural literature, and publishes an article about it. This first happened back in 1989 when USA Today did a story on how difficult it was for African-American parents to find books for their children with characters who looked like them. It was accompanied by a nifty little graph that showed the first four years of our statistics, numbers we started documenting in 1985.

USA Today, 1989

This year on March 15 there were two terrific op ed pieces in the New York Times, one by Walter Dean Myers and one by his son, Christopher Myers, about the sad state of African-American children's literature, and the CCBC stats were again quoted.  This has led to a whole new cycle of reporting. Even Entertainment Weekly did a two-page spread called Kid's Lit Primary Color: White. Their accompanying graphic even looks a bit like the original 1989 illustration from USA Today. Not surprising since the story is essentially the same one.

Entertainment Weekly, 2014

These stories always generate a lot of passionate discussion for a month or so. Then things die down and nothing changes. New books flow into the CCBC every day, and we continue to count and document the books by and about people of color. The numbers have stagnated for the past couple of decades -- we update the statistics on our web site every year. Many people know to look for them there. Others will stumble across them for the very first time and, in a few years, there will be another story. Maybe next time, it will be a different one.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book of the Week

How I Discovered Poetry

by Marilyn Nelson

Illustrated by Hadley Hooper
Published by Dial, 2014
103 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8037-3304-6
Age 12 and older

“Mama’s rented a colonial house / a block from the ocean, in a village / where we’re the First Negroes of everything.” Poet Marilyn Nelson combines her own memories with “research and imagination” in this collection of unrhymed sonnets based on her experiences growing up in the 1950s. The daughter of a military officer father and schoolteacher mother, Nelson moved often: Texas, Kansas, New Jersey, Maine, England, California, Oklahoma. There was the tension of the Cold War—bomb drills and Sputnik. There was Amos ‘n’ Andy and The Lone Ranger and his sidekick, Tonto, images unquestioned by a young child. And there was the burgeoning mid-twentieth- century Civil Rights Movement, with talk of segregation and integration swirling around her, and to which she attached greater meaning as she matured. Almost all of her peers were white; sometimes that mattered, sometimes it didn’t, but having a Black friend was like coming home for a girl who understood home as comfort more than place. Her poems paint a vivid picture of family and the times, and capture a girl’s growing awareness of identity—being Black, being female—and the power of words. The stirring, stinging title poem is a masterful account of the ways that power can transport (“It was like soul-kissing, the way the words / filled my mouth … / Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne / by a breeze off Mount Parnassus…”) and crush (“…I stood and opened my mouth to banjo-playing / darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished / my classmates stared at the floor.”) An author’s note provides readers with intriguing glimpses into her approach to telling this story, while occasional spot illustrations and photographs grace the pages. (MS) ©2014 Cooperative Children’s Book Center