Monday, April 13, 2009

Race, My Library, and More!

Inspired by the SLJ article by Mitali Perkins, my own review of A la Carte by Tanita Davis, and my experiences at my library that relate to race, I started to tell you about some experiences I've had at my library in a footnote in the last post. It turned out to be a bit long... and warranted it's own post. So, here we go:

The other day I had a gaming program at the library. We had some time to kill before the program started, and I had three boys just hanging out with me, setting stuff up and chatting. All three are multi-cultural, two half black, half white (I've met both parents), the third at least half white (I've met mom), but clearly has something else going on there (1/2 or 1/4 black, I suspect - but do not know). Great boys, I heart them dearly, and I haven't at all talked about race with them. To fill up time, and because they are regulars, I had them make their own Mii's on our shiny new branch Wii. It was FASCINATING to watch them choose the skin color on their avatars. The lightest skinned (and youngest) of them chose the darkest coloring - far darker than he actually is. One paged through all the options and stuck with Caucasian coloring - far lighter than he is. The third (and oldest) seemed pretty unhappy with the Nintendo-offered shades (as well he should have been - they suck) and kept going back and forth between the options.

I'm not raising this to talk about my interpretation of the psychology of their choices (so not qualified for that), or even suggest that there is some interpretation beyond my neophyte observations, but nevertheless, it was truly interesting. I know it's just a video game, but in light of the discussion I had with Mitali & the Seattle-based readergirlz when Mitali was in Seattle and writing the article appearing in this month's SLJ, as well as the study she referenced within it, I can't help but think of the entire event in a different light. Not that it wouldn't have been fascinating without that conversation.

When all the kids showed up for that epic Mario Kart tournament? I was the only white person. Fifteen kids, and not one of them solely Caucasian. Most of those kids? Not readers. "Reading is boring." "I don't read." "Reading is for school." Why is that? I would say, and this is a gross estimation, most, though not all, of the teens who come to my programs don't read. It's like there are two different clans - the kids who come to the library for programs, and the kids who come to the library to get books recommendations from me. Guess where more of the white kids are? And rarely shall the twain meet.

In a completely separate instance of race and teen literature, I was working with Lorie Ann Grover to find compelling teen novels featuring Native American girls. I will never be able to convey in words what an incredibly frustrating experience that was. Readergirlz is committed to featuring non-white heroines. Being in the world I am, and doing what I do, I'm quite aware of how critical the Native American community is of books depicting them. Who wouldn't want their culture to be portrayed accurately? At the same time, it was incredibly disheartening to think I've found a good, compelling book, then research it more, only to find an essay eviscerating it for inaccurate portrayals. How much of that is no different than the standard inaccuracies of historical fiction? Why aren't there more teen books that have the Native American seal of approval? I sincerely hope that those who are most critical of these books are writing their own. Otherwise, I'm not sure how it will get better.

It may have nothing whatsoever to do with reading habits or the relative availability of books featuring kids that look like them, it may simply be how comfortable they are looking to me for advice. I don't know. But either way, the fact that I find a solid, well-written book like Tanita's more remarkable because it features middle class black people, coupled with scarce YA novels accurately portraying Native Americans... Well, whatever the connection there, I'd like to see more books like Tanita's, for all races. I actually hate to think that whether they read or not has anything to do with race. Kyle wants to believe that it's more class than race (and that very well could be true - there aren't that many books featuring poor happy people either in YA lit).

I'm not writing this in an attempt to solve anything, or come up with some pat answer, I'm more interested in sharing and hearing your experiences along this vein. I'm truly interested in what you have to say, so please comment or email me!

(and I'm cool if you also want to suggest more books like Tanita's or, actually, especially, if you have some accurate Native American YA lit)


Jill said...

This is a great post Jackie. Thanks for sharing. I'm really looking forward to reading this book!

I don't have any answers. I'm just happy that there are more folks out there interested both in writing new and highlighting existing YA books featuring kids of color (kids of all kinds for that matter). My daughter while only a toddler now, is half Asian and half Caucasian and I'd like to think that someday she'll find lots of books with characters that she can relate to - whether it's the white kids, Asian kids, or bi-racial/multiracial kids.

Sarah Miller said...

Have you read THE DEAR ONE, by Jacqueline Woodson? It's about a middle class black family who takes in a pregnant [black] teen.

tanita✿davis said...

Jac, I've forwarded your post to Cynthia Leitich Smith -- just so she can give you a bit more support on the Native persons front.

It feels weird to have written a somewhat exceptional book just because it has middle class African Americans in it! There must be others; it's just a matter of finding these books, and embracing them...

I think Kyle might be right on the class thing -- we were certainly not rich, but our family had delusions of classiness ;) and reading was a way up. I think you're doing a good thing to just get the nonreaders in the door... just finding that the library is a safe thing and has good people in it will allow them to utilize its services at a later time.

There are tons of things to think about in this post! I shall go and think sone more...

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

First, thank you for your caring. It is appreciated.

I offer recommendations on my website related to Native lit:
and link to more quality resources.

That said, I'm heartened and, I must admit, a little surprised by the 'net-wide uptick in interest in diversity in youth literature.

When I've sponsored Native lit giveaways for teachers/librarians on Cynsations, those consistently have been the ones with the lowest response rates.

This isn't to say that there aren't people out there who're supportive. There are! But with the rise of standardized testing, we've seen a decline in the use of literary trade books in the classroom, which has hit multicultural literature especially hard.

Furthermore, (I think) because (a) publishers are putting books out of print more quickly and (b) support for multicultural titles usually builds over time through word of mouth, we've seen less interest from the national market in terms of connecting manuscripts in the first place.

As successful as it's been, I don't honestly know that I could've sold Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) today.

That said, this display of interest and enthusiasm is inspirational.

Thanks again!

Little Willow said...

Last night, I read Amy Hodgepodge #1: All Mixed Up! by Kim Wayans and Kevin Knotts, illustrated by Soo Jeong. It's juvenile fiction, and it's totally going in my book bag at readergirlz this week. The main character is a 4th grader who is entering public school after being homeschooled her entire life. She is part Caucasian, part African American, and part Asian. Her dad's parents are African American and white. Her mom's parents are Japanese and Korean. After the mean popular girls giggle and question what she is, her new group of friends talk about their own heritages. That in itself was VERY cool. The book has cute illustrations of everyone, too. Amy likes to archive pictures in her scrapbook.

Lorie Ann Grover said...

Great post, Jackie.

I can share she was VERY frustrated through our two hour search for approved Native American Lit. But we were successful in the end! Thankfully.

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