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?


  1. I'm going to go with "hijab," because she's holding what appears to be a modern Egyptian flag.

  2. Thanks for sharing this behind-the-scenes document with us. Some of us are having a similar discussion about a scene from A FINE DESSERT. That discussion is on FB.

    As I studied that page of pigs my eye kept going to the priest because of our history with the Catholic church (with 'our' being Pueblo Indians). I enlarged the page and saw "California" and "Mission Fig" and paused. I looked around a bit and learned that those particular figs were grown at the missions. Missionary work is complex, but for us, those missions are one of the places intent on destroying Native cultures. As such, that Mission Fig/Pig makes me uneasy, especially since it is the one who can question the sanity of all the 'other' people on that page.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. It does look like a nun's habit. But it's intended to represent Egypt (note the Egyptian flag in her hand).

    2. I thought it was the French flag at quick glance. But now I've looked closer at the photo and see it isn't red, white, and blue and I think the stripes on french flag go the other way.

    3. It could be interpreted either way, by Egypt is specifically mentioned in the text, and France isn't. (I know you can't really read the text easily from the scan.)

  4. I think that if it were meant to be Cleopatra, the illustrator might have gone for the ancient Egyptian style. To me, as a Muslim woman, it reads as a hijaab and it is definitely upsetting for a pig - an animal we don't eat and consider forbidden in our religion - to be wearing what definitely comes across as Muslim attire due to the flag. If the flag wasn't there, it would look like a nun, and I'm not sure if that's any better as I am not Catholic.

    1. Thanks so much, Kaye. It's great to get the perspective of a Muslim woman. I really appreciate it.

  5. I am also troubled by this because it took some great leaps of logic for a group of intelligent professionals to get to the Cleopatra idea. I, as a person who knows nothing about figs, would NEVER have gotten that figured out. So, without that clever wordplay element that, say, 95% of kid readers are certainly not going to get it just looks like (as it did to me) a pig in a hjiab. Which considering that pigs are literally and often used against Muslims in hate crimes (people vandalize mosques this way world-wide) it's inappropriate.

  6. Angie, I was also thinking more about how hard I as an adult was working to make sense of this and the disconnect between that and a child audience. And when I think of a Muslim child, let alone any child, seeing this, whatever the illustrator's intent was becomes secondary to how it "reads" visually and the negative impact of that.

  7. Aisha Saeed asked me to post this on her behalf:

    Comment for the blog [apologies that it is long]:

    This post has stayed with me all day because I appreciate so much that people are taking the time to ensure a book does not depict any race or culture or faith in a problematic fashion. Growing up surrounded by harmful stereotypes about my humanity it's not something I take lightly. Regarding this photo, my first impression was this was a nun. Then, when I saw the name and the flag I presumed Cleopatra. I showed it to my husband and to another Muslim friend who both immediately guessed Cleopatra. That being said, that evening when I saw the context of the pig in the picture book and the language associated with it I could see why people thought the pig was in hijab since the words mentioned Egypt in passing without much focus for context on whether it was Cleopatra or not. For children, the audience of this book, it's likely the context of ancient Egypt will be lost and they will see a Muslim pig.
    It is my firm opinion given the tone of the book that the author/illustrator was not attempting to paint a harmful picture of Muslims because all the people depicted are pigs. It's a lighthearted fanciful picturebook with pigs. Ofcourse intentions don't mean that harm does/doesn't occur, and while some people may think that a pig who is depicted as Muslim is offensive--- I don't. Here's the thing. Muslims don't eat pigs. We don't hate them. We don't consider them to be evil. A lot of hate action towards Muslims in recent months has involved pig remains in mosques and pig drawings on mosque buildings. So the pig is being used to be offensive by those who hate, but innately we do not hate pigs, it's presumed we do and so people throw it at Muslims thinking it hurts our feelings or terrifies us to see a pig. It doesn't. ONLY when a pig is drawn on a mosque is it offensive to me, because that means the person intended to offend. They could have defaced with a sunflower and an alien picture and I'd be equally offended.
    So in conclusion my point is, even if the author did depict a pig in hijab, I do not find it offensive because within the context of the picture book it is not offensive. Let's say some characters were dogs, lambs, bunnies, and the Muslim was the only pig, there could be some implications, but here I don't see it. Believe me I have analyzed this left and right and when Islamaphobic images are real and present I speak out as best as I can, but in this case I am not concerned though I do understand the concerns some may have.

  8. Thank you for another thoughtful perspective, Aisha. I agree that the intent was good on the part of both author and illustrator. And this discussion itself underscores the fact that perception (and also offense, or lack of it) differs from one person to the next, which is something else we are always try to weigh and be mindful of.

  9. For me, I am disappointed by the shape of the eyes on the possible 'hijabi Egyptian pig'. Illustrators usually shape evil characters with angular, down-pointing eyes and good characters, in contrast, have circular features, especially the eyes (unless the eyes are angular-yet-round-cornered-and-up-pointing).
    I have seen this subtle, yet effective, insinuation of Muslims as 'evil others' within a world of good characters in children's literature before.
    In these illustrations, all the characters except the 'hijabi Egyptian' have round, friendly, 'good' eyes. There is also more shadowing on the 'hijabi Egyptian' than any of the other characters – another illustration technique that is used to identify a character as dark/evil.
    Rather than being opposed to a pig being anthropomorphised as a Muslim character, I am opposed to the subtle demonisation of Muslims through the illustration techniques.
    Thank you so much for your research, concerns, and invitation to have dialogue.