Tuesday, September 1, 2015

More on "Race Neutral" characters

Don't miss Linda Sue Park's thought-provoking response to the notion of a "race neutral" character.

This issue first came up for us at the CCBC back in July of 2001 when we discussed Virginia Euwer Wolff's Make Lemonade and True Believer on CCBC-Net. We hosted quite a lively discussion about the race of the main characters -- it's never specified in the books but many readers assumed that LaVaughn was African-American, and argued the point quite assertively.

But then, ten days into our discussion, Linda Sue Park responded with a most perceptive and personal comment:
I was 'fortunate' in a way not to have read Make Lemonade until recently and so read the two books back to back. I couldn't put either of them down, and I am certain that ML has earned a place on my list of books that come back to haunt me years after I have read them. (Going somewhat against what I see as the grain, I preferred the first book for its more unusual plot line.)

That first graph of this post was easy to write. Now for the difficult bit. (deep breath) The least satisfying part of both books to me was the race question. I am not black, but as a nonwhite I can attest that my race is an everyday issue. For Asians such as myself, it has negative ramifications far less often than for blacks in daily U.S. life, but not a day passes that I do not confront the question in some form. This is perhaps the single most difficult aspect for those of the majority complexion to understand: There may be moments or even hours when my Asianness is not at the surface of my thoughts, but NEVER a whole day, much less weeks or months. I am struck by the number of readers who said that the question of race 'didn't matter to them' and would be very curious to know if readers across the racial spectrum felt that way.

Therefore, as the first book unfolded and race was never mentioned, what it meant to me was that LaVaughn could only be white. Yet in the choice of her name and other story details, I perceived that the author's intent may have been to allow the reader to 'decide' her race, which for me indicates confusion or misunderstanding as to the importance of race in the life of nonwhites. What I am trying to say, and perhaps saying badly, is that a white girl and a black girl (or a white girl and an Asian girl) can have similar experiences and do have emotional responses in common, but in this day and place cannot be one and the same person.

When the Horn Book interview confirmed that the source of my discomfort had been an actual authorial strategy I was deeply dismayed. It seemed to me not so much a granting of power to the reader as an unwillingness to confront the question. I can 'salvage' my response on this level only by seeing the strategy as an attempt to concentrate on the humanity we all share (as others have commented), and still I find it upsetting to completely ignore the question of race if LaVaughn is to be 'read' as black. There are many fine examples of books about nonwhites in which race is not the central issue, and these titles could certainly have that potential.

I have been very glad to read of the reactions of others to these books in this forum. While the books are flawed for me for the above reason, I understand that others may see the flaw as a strength, and I will forever admire the powerful use of language and the portrayal of much of LaVaughn's interior life.
I think back to her comment often, whenever I am confronted with the notion of a "race neutral" character or "casual diversity."  Thanks to Linda Sue Park, I have come to recognize this as one more idea I need to unpack from my invisible backpack of white privilege.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Book of the Week: X

X: A Novel

by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon
Published by Candlewick Press, 2015
348 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7636-6967-6
Age 14 and older

A novelized account of Malcolm X’s early life is full of both a young man’s promise and the pain of racism and struggle of being Black in America. Growing up in 1930s Lansing, Michigan, Malcolm stands out as exceptional in a family that nurtured education and achievement. His outspoken father is killed when Malcolm is six. Seven years later, his mother, struggling to keep her family together and live by her values, is institutionalized. Malcolm leaves Lansing for Boston after a white teacher makes clear he thinks college out of Malcolm’s reach. Malcolm feels betrayed by his father’s promises. “You’re meant for great things. You have nothing and no one to fear, for God is with you…He told me these things about myself and about the world like they were true. But they were only his hopes.” In Boston and later New York, disillusioned Malcolm, whose intelligence shines from every page of this first-person narrative—in how he expresses himself and the way he thinks deeply—opts for good times. Eventually arrested for theft, he sits in prison filled with anger and thinks, “They want to write a story about me that ends behind bars. They’ll say I was no good, that I always belonged here….Papa would tell a different story.” His father’s lessons still live inside him, and they are nourished by the teachings of the Nation of Islam. Structurally complex, with a timeline that moves between the 30s and 40s, the strong narrative thread makes this fearless, penetrating work cohesive and accessible, while its themes are both timeless and all too timely. End matter includes a commentary from Ilyasah Shabazz (Malcolm’s daughter), a timeline, and notes on historical figures and events.  © Cooperative Children's Book Center

Monday, August 24, 2015

Book of the Week

Sona and the Wedding Game

by Kashmira Sheth
Illustrated by Yoshiko Jaeggi

Peachtree, 2015
32 pages
ISBN: 978-1561457359
Ages 4-8

Sona’s sister is getting married and her know-it-all cousin Vishal has come with her grandparents from India to attend. He can’t believe how little Sona knows about Hindu weddings, including the fact that it’s Sona’s responsibility as a younger sibling of the bride to steal the groom’s shoes during the ceremony and then bargain with him for their return. Nervous but determined, Sona comes up with a plan, and she’s even willing to involve Vishal in carrying it out. An engaging story draws readers right into Sona’s experience, with details about the wedding preparations and ceremony seamlessly incorporated as Sona describes being part of traditions that are new to her yet steeped in family and culture. And when the time comes, there’s just the right amount of tension leading to great delight as Sona successfully steals the shoes and bargains for the perfect exchange. An author’s note provides additional information about Hindu weddings, including the fact that the details may vary widely from family to family and place to place.  © Cooperative Children's Book Center

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Book of the Week

Blackbird Fly

by Erin Entrada Kelly
Greenwillow / HarperCollins, 2015
296 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-223861-0
10-13 years

When Analyn “Apple” Yengko gets put on the dog log—a list of the ugliest girls at her southern Louisiana middle school—she finds solace in music. It’s always been a connection to her late father, who died before she and her mother came to the United States from the Philippines. Against her mom’s wishes Apple secretly takes up guitar, and she proves to be a gifted student. She also connects with new kid Evan, the first friend she’s had genuinely interested in rather than dismissive of the Filipino culture that Apple can’t escape but has always found an embarrassment. The mean kids are sadly believable in Erin Entrada Kelly’s debut novel, as is the limited ability of adults in the school to change those kids’ behavior. That matters less and less to Apple as she immerses herself in learning the songs on the Beatles tape he father left behind, and as her friendship with Evan helps her understand that she isn’t the only outsider and she, too, can reach out. Music and friendship transform Apple’s relationship with her mother, too, who finally lets Apple see the depth of her grief while revealing the surprising source of Apple’s musical talent. This satisfying novel traverses an arc from sadness, pain, and isolation to hope and connection.  © Cooperative Children's Book Center

Monday, August 10, 2015

Book of the Week: Knit Together

Knit Together

by Angela Dominguez
Dial, 2015
32 pages
ISBN: 9780803740990
Ages 3-7

A little girl who loves to draw wishes she could also knit, like her mom. Her mother tries to teach her, but it turns out to be harder than it looks. When the girl gets discouraged, her mom points out that the little girl’s drawings have inspired many of her knitting projects and suggests that they collaborate. After a day at the beach the little girl puts crayons to paper. “We talk about our project. And then we work to make something we could never have made alone.” The result is functional art: a blanket featuring a beach-inspired design originally drawn by the girl. The bond of this dynamic mother-daughter duo is obvious in a warm, engaging picture book that also offers insight into creativity and collaboration. Both the fairly spare narrative and the illustrations are full of personality, warmth and charm. (It’s particularly fun to notice the ways the mother’s knitting reflects many of her daughter’s drawings even prior to their partnership.)  © 2015 Cooperative Children's Book Center

Monday, August 3, 2015

Book of the Week: George


by Alex Gino
Published by Scholastic Press, 2015
240 pages
ISBN: 9780545812542
Ages 8-11

A girl born into a boy’s body, ten-year-old George hasn’t yet confided this truth to anyone. Then she decides to try out for the part of Charlotte in the fourth grade’s dramatization of Charlotte’s Web. George thinks the play will be a vehicle to let her mom know that she’s really a girl, not a boy. But Charlotte is also the part that she wants because she loves the character. George finally tells her friend Kelly the truth, and after Kelly is cast as Charlotte, she and George conspire to have George play Charlotte in the second performance. By then George has told both her mom and her older brother. Both of them had assumed George was gay, and while George’s brother looks at George as if she finally makes sense to him, George’s mom is struggling. Alex Gino’s warm debut novel is a pitch-perfect story for younger middle grade. Substantial without a hint of heaviness, the almost lighthearted tone offers a matter-of-fact presentation of George’s identity, leaving room for the delightful development of characters and the plot around Kelly and George’s plan. The support Georges receives from Kelly, from her brother, and from the school principal, as well as the range of responses of others, are all realistic. But all of the characters are more than their responses, just as George is more than her gender. She’s George, a girl with many interests delighting in chances to outwardly express an elemental aspect of her identity.  © Cooperative Children's Book Center

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Overboard? Overthinking? Making Choices

Here at the CCBC we are constantly reading and evaluating the new books that arrive on a daily basis. We discuss some of the books face-to-face in a monthly discussion group open to anyone who wants to attend. But there are many, many more books that we discuss just among the four of us as we consider books that we will eventually select for our annual publication, CCBC Choices

Much as we all wish we could just sit at our desks and read all day, there's not enough time for that, so we do the bulk of our reading at home, in the evenings and on weekends. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, we are able to discuss these books as we read them via a running Google Doc, where we indicate our yes, no and maybe votes for inclusion in CCBC Choices. Unless we have four yes votes or four no votes, we also discuss all these books again face-to-face in order to make our final decisions. There are always some books, such as Under a Pig Tree by Margie Palatini, where we decide we need outside opinions, either from our monthly discussion group or from a content expert.

Although our Google Doc discussions are in-house and not intended for public consumption, we thought it would be helpful to get some opinions on this book from our blog readers, so we've decided to share it here. We all really liked the book a lot and admired the humor of the the running joke ("fig" is mistaken for "pig"), and the way it plays out in the artwork. But there were two illustrations that raised questions, one serious and one not. Here are the two pictures that prompted in-house discussion. The discussion itself has been cut and pasted from the Google Doc immediately below the two pictures.


Palatini, Margie. Under a Pig Tree: A History of the Noble Fruit. Ill by Chuck Groenik. Abrams
MS: Yes. Hysterical!
MVL:  Yes.   I must be missing the joke on the page that reads “Some pigs are very popular and quite famous, such as Blanche, Celeste, Len, and Tena. Of course, everyone knows Judy.”  Blanche, Celeste, and Tena all appear to be types of figs.  But Len and Judy?  I’m thinking there’s some wordplay there that’s zooming over my head.
KT: Maybe. I love this but was taken aback by the pig wearing a hijab, since pigs are forbidden in Islamic cultures.  Maybe I’m going overboard but I thought that was culturally insensitive on the part of the illustrator. In terms of the celebrity pigs I don’t get Len either, but the Judy is the Garland fig (and that was my favorite picture of all. It made me laugh out loud.)
MS: Thanks for pointing that out, KT. I did notice the priest pig, which I thought some would find offensive on principle, but the Muslim pig slipped by me.  And the point is different and I think important to think about. It’s a representation issue that violates a belief in Islam that pigs are haraam---they are truly considered filthy and so to represent a Muslim that way--yikes!  (It would be the same to see a Hasidic Jew represented as such). I do love the humor in this book, but I think that is an unintentional and unfortunate oversight.
Later:  Ok. I looked again.  I think that the hijab isn’t a hijab but is meant to represent Cleopatra (her hair) for “Egyptian fig.”  (That whole page spread gave me pause re. cultural representation on my initial read-- all of it is stereotypical/tongue in cheek.  But I took Cleo for Cleo and not a hijab which is why I didn’t remember a hijab. But the fact that KT and I disagree on this interpretation makes it still potentially problematic as I can clearly be taken as a hijab.)  Re. types of figs: Len and Judy are also types of figs. I’m not sure who each is supposed by be as represented beyond “Judy Garland” as KT noted. Is Blanche Blanche DuBois? Celeste looks like Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s--?. “Len” and “Tena”--?  (Way overthinking this page.)
We'd love to know what you all think.  Cleopatra or hijab? And who is Len?