Sherman Alexie & #MeToo

Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianAs many teachers do, I teach Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  When confirmed reports of his sexual harassment and other abuses of power became public, I knew I had to talk to my class about it — I taught Absolutely True Diary in my on-line Multicultural Children’s Literature class earlier in the semester.  Thinking that our conversation might be of use to others who are confronting this issue, I’m sharing my initial question, my response to their conversation (which highlights recurring themes), and a quotation from one of the students (shared with her permission).  Because I have to prepare our on-line conversations several weeks in advance, this begins in early March but their responses were only due in late March — and my response followed.


6 March 2018

Because I’m preparing these discussions about three weeks in advance, this will appear as “due” after March Break. And that is in fact when it is due. I don’t feel I can add anything further to our current week. But I also don’t feel that I can ignore this. So I am making this visible now (March 6th) even though you’re not obliged to discuss it until March 27th.

For the past month, those of us in the children’s literature / young adult literature community have known that Sherman Alexie is among those accused of sexual harassment. Last week (Feb. 28), Alexie issued a denial/apology. Yesterday (Mar. 5), three of his accusers went public.

This raises an important question for us — as students, future teachers (some of you), or current teachers (me and some of you).  Should we continue to teach an author who has harmed others?  And that is the question I am posing to you right now.  Should work by Sherman Alexie be on future iterations of this syllabus?  Or ought we instead replace him with, say, a work by another indigenous writer — perhaps Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves —?

This is a hotly debated question, and — from our previous conversations — I know that you will express yourselves with care and consideration for divergent points of view.  Those who argue for often note that those who create great works of art may not lead exemplary Roxane Gay. Photo by Jay Grabiec.lives; their own personal failings are irrelevant to the greatness of their art. And, certainly, as a colleague of mine observed via email, in our English classes we teach many writers who, in their private lives, were horrible human beings.  Those who argue against might say that there is no legacy so important that we can look the other way. As Roxane Gay puts it, “I no longer struggle with artistic legacies. It is not difficult to dismiss the work of predators and angry men because agonizing over a predator’s legacy would mean there is some price I am willing to let victims pay for the sake of good art.” She suggests instead that we turn to artistic work created by those “capable of treating others with respect.”   If these are two opposing poles of the debate, there are of course many positions between them.  And there are other ways of exploring possible answers to this question.

As I say, it’s a difficult, messy question.

I have my own answer to it, which I will share after our conversation — and, indeed, which might be changed by our conversation.


Time passed — including March Break — and the students’ conversation unfolded on-line.  It was the most contentious conversation we’ve had this semester, but — to their great credit — they remained civil even when they strongly disagreed.  I then wrote my promised response, which I reproduce below.


30 March 2018

Hi, everyone. Sorry I’ve been a little quieter this week. Have been a bit under the weather. Indeed, your El Deafo discussion (two weeks from now) lacks my second planned video because my voice is still a bit wonky.

Anyway.  To this discussion!

Thanks, as ever, for wrestling with a difficult and painful subject. You may be interested to know that — here on campus — we held a discussion on this subject before March Break.  The English Department blog published a summary of that discussion on Tuesday of this week.

In your discussion, some liken the removal of a book from a course syllabus to censorship. I see the parallel being made, but — as the creator of many syllabi — I would argue that removing a book from a course syllabus is not the same as censorship. The book is not banned. It is still for sale, and still in the library. Also, since I regularly revise my syllabi, I am often taking books off and putting others on. I do this for many reasons, including the never-ending quest to improve the course, the need to stay current (new books keep getting published), and my own need to refresh the syllabus (if I teach the same works over and over, then I risk getting stale).

Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow ThievesAnother theme I notice in your discussion is the idea that removing this book would consequently remove Native American literature from our Multicultural Children’s Lit syllabus. It wouldn’t. We could read Erika Wurth’s Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Rain Is Not My Indian Name, or Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House.  Debbie Reese makes some Native YA Lit recommendations in this blog post. There are many Native children’s and YA books to choose from. Indeed, there should be more than one on this syllabus. There isn’t because the class strives to cover as wide a range of identities as it can, which (I realize) risks making this book the “single story” that Adichie warns against.

I would, however, agree with those who note that (and I’m paraphrasing here) monstrous people have made great art, important art, influential art. Faulkner’s “go slow, now” approach to ending Jim Crow was immoral and unjust, but if I were teaching a class on twentieth-century American literature, I would assign Faulkner. If I were teaching a class on twentieth-century Native American Literature, I think I would also assign Alexie — bringing in the full context, the women who have spoken on the record, the women who have spoken off the record, those who defend Alexie and those who accuse him. We could have a more developed version of the conversation we’ve had here.

But I don’t teach a Native American Literature course. I teach a Multicultural Children’s Literature course and I teach a Young Adult Literature course. Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary has been on both of those syllabi. It will not be on either syllabus in the future. There are many reasons why, but here are four.

  1. William Faulkner is dead. Sherman Alexie is alive. If I assign Alexie’s books (and thus mandate that my students buy his books), I am continuing to pay his salary. I would rather pay the salary of a person who has managed to create good art without harming others. Since there are plenty of such people, I will be assigning Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves next time.
  2. The books I assign in both classes go on to become books that future teachers assign: Secondary Education majors take Literature for Adolescents, and I know that this class has some Education majors in it, too. So, in assigning a book, I am in essence recommending that book for tomorrow’s teachers. I am making it part of the children’s literature / YA literature canon, enshrining it in the curricula of tomorrow.
  3. Sherman Alexie’s treatment of women is diametrically opposed to the goal of a class like Multicultural Children’s Literature. As I say in that opening video, the books we read are about increasing understanding, and respecting others. I cannot in good conscience promote the work of a man who does the opposite of what this class aspires to do.
  4. As his denial/apology indicates, Alexie does not understand why his behavior was wrong. If he understood, apologized, made efforts to make amends, well, there would at least be the possibility that I might assign him again in the future. But he doesn’t get it. He says “I genuinely apologize” but also “There are women telling the truth about my behavior and I have no recollection of verbally threatening anybody or their careers.” So, which behaviors are true, then? He says, “I have made poor decisions,” but declines to name what those decisions were, which makes it hard to believe that he is “working hard to become a healthier man who makes healthier decisions.” If he does not understand why his behavior was wrong, then he cannot learn from his past. You need to know why a mistake is a mistake in order to change.

Because, yes, as some of you have correctly noted, humans are flawed. We make mistakes. We have regrets. We do things we should not do. And we would be naïve to expect our artists, writers, actors, musicians, to be paragons of virtue. But, for me, a pattern of predatory behavior crosses a line.

Though my sense is that not all of you do, I believe the accusers. Why? Many reasons, the first of which (as I say) is that there is a pattern of behavior here. When there’s a pattern, we cannot say, “oh, it was just this one isolated incident.” Also, it’s really really hard to speak publicly about being sexually harassed or assaulted. Women who do get slut-shamed, called liars, blamed for seeking publicity, harassed further, and may face professional consequences. When a woman makes the decision to speak up, she is putting herself at risk. That’s why so many of those men named in the #MeToo movement have gone unnamed until now. Calling out the predatory behavior of powerful men (or women, but it’s usually men) is risky. It’s necessary to call them out, but it requires a level of bravery and emotional strength that not all people have — and nor should they be required to have. Surviving the traumas of harassment and assault takes a lot out of a person. (Big understatement.)

#MeToo

The emotions in this discussion have been more raw than they usually are — which is quite understandable, of course. I mention it here for several reasons, the first of which is that a couple of days have elapsed since the discussion and my response. I wish we could have had this conversation in person because then we could have addressed some of these questions in person. The asynchronous nature of this class means that we could not. But, since we could not, you should know that you all did far better than all of the on-line discussions I’ve seen on this subject. There have been much more contentious posts on recent School Library Journal articles, for example. This discussion never even approached that level of vitriol. Indeed, it was remarkably vitriol free.

That said, I recognize there may yet be some frayed nerves and lingering bad feelings. So. If anyone would like to talk with me about this, please let me know. I am willing to set up a Zoom chat for anyone who’d like it — or multiple Zoom chats. And, whether people seek those or not, I ask that you do your best to sustain the professionalism you’ve managed to sustain throughout the term. We do not have to agree with each other, but we do have to make an effort to understand and respect each other.

For the record, I respect the variety of opinions offered here. I’ve given you my response because I promised that I would. But, as I’ve said before, you do not need to agree with my assessment of a book or, in this case, whether to teach the work of a particular author.

For those who want to read more about this, Debbie Reese has a chronicle of the Alexie story as it unfolded (when you click on the link, scroll down).

Finally, if I may, I’d like to close with the wise words of your classmate Maria Vieyra, who (in this discussion) writes:

None of us are epitomes of perfect ethical behavior, morality, or wisdom, but I believe most of us can agree that there should be consequences for predatory sexual behavior because it does indeed hurt people. And monetary costs from boycotting a book are a small form of justice that we are all able to be a part of, and I do not think it is too heavy a price to pay for the sake of the victims and the future.

Well said.

To all of you: Thanks ever so much for taking the time to wrestle with this contentious and difficult issue. I hope that, though your own responses may differ, you all have arrived at a deeper understanding of what’s at stake in either retaining a book or removing it.


So… that was our class discussion. Also, I didn’t mention this in my response above, but most students thought I should continue to teach Alexie.  Five students — all of them women — argued against teaching his work. (18 students participated in the discussion.)

I would not claim to have the “right” answer to the question of whether to teach Alexie. This is just my answer.  I would say, though, that each syllabus is a political document that is built on moral choices.  What we include on a syllabi and what we omit from that syllabi are deeply enmeshed in morality and in politics — which, of course, makes the creation of any syllabus fraught, complicated, and on some level unsatisfying.  (Or, at least, that’s my experience: I am never 100% happy with any syllabus I’ve created.)

Art is always political.  So is teaching.  We cannot pretend otherwise.

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What to do with Dr. Seuss?

The objects of your nostalgic longing may disappoint you, if you are willing to look at them openly and honestly.  If you read, create, or write about children’s literature, today — the 114th birthday of Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) — would be a good time to admit this to yourself.  OK, the time for such admission is really long overdue, but do not be too hard on yourself. The power of cultural inertia is hard to resist.

That said, do resist. Make the attempt. As Seuss himself wrote in a different context, “face up to your problems / whatever they are.”

Read Across America: An NEA ProjectThis particular problem is one to tackle today because Seuss’s work contains both much to admire and much to oppose. Yet, because of his status, people are much more comfortable admiring than looking critically at his work. In the U.S., he is revered as a patron saint of children’s literacy, and children’s literature. In 1997, the National Education Association adopted his birthday as a day to celebrate “Read Across America Day.” It still uses his Cat in the Hat as its mascot, even though — starting this year — it’s shifting its focus to diverse books.

I am partly to blame for this shift.

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)In a report that helped inspire this change, Katie Ishizuka-Stephens cites the essay that became the title chapter of my Was the Cat in the Hat Black? As I point out, Seuss’s Cat is racially complicated. He’s partially inspired by blackface minstrelsy, African American elevator operator Annie Williams (who wore white gloves and a secret smile), and Krazy Kat (the black, ambiguously gendered creation of bi-racial cartoonist George Herriman).

I’m happy that Ishizuka-Stephens’s report has persuaded the NEA to shift their “Read Across America Day” focus to diverse books. Half of U.S. school-age children are nonwhite. But of children’s books published in 2016, only 22 percent of children’s books published featured nonwhite children, and only 13 percent were by nonwhite creators. Celebrating stories in which our multicultural young people can see themselves is a better choice than celebrating Seuss.

Which is not to say that Seuss must be thrown out of our classrooms — though that is of course an option. It is, rather, to suggest that we consider which Seuss we use, and how we use it.

At left: Dr. Seuss, from “Four Places Not to Hide While Growing Your Beard” (Life, 15 Nov. 1929). At right: Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957).

Racial caricature in Seuss’s work can help people understand how racism works. Seuss did both racist work and anti-racist work, often at the same time. In the 1940s, he created political cartoons, some of which dehumanized people of Japanese descent, and others of which were critical of both anti-Semitism and racism against African Americans. In the 1950s, Seuss published Horton Hears a Who!, hailed by one reviewer as “a rhymed lesson in protection of minorities and their rights”; wrote his first version of The Sneetches, an anti-racist fable; and published an essay that critiques racist humor. During that same period, he recycled racist caricature in his books.  In If I Ran the Zoo, protagonist Gerald McGrew travels to “the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant / With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant,” and to the “African Island of Yerka” where he meets two stereotypically rendered Black men.

That Seuss is doing both racist anti-racist work at the same time can be confusing because many of us see racism as an “either/or”: people are either racist or not racist. Indeed, that’s how Seuss himself understood racism. In a June 1942 cartoon titled “What This Country Needs is a Good Mental Insecticide,” he draws a long line of men waiting to get inoculated against the “racial prejudice bug.” The insecticide goes in one ear, and the racist bug tumbles out the other.  I wish we could fumigate racism from our minds, and applaud Seuss’s optimism. Unfortunately, racism is not a bug. It’s a feature. Racism is not aberrant. It’s ordinary. It’s embedded in institutions and in culture — such as the cartoons and books of Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss, "What This Country Needs Is a Good Mental Insecticide" (PM, 10 June 1942)

It’s upsetting to learn that a beloved children’s author used racist caricature. So, many people — especially White people — seek explanations and offer excuses. In response to recent criticism, his grand-nephew Ted Owens has said of Seuss: “I know one thing for sure — I never saw one ounce of racism in anything he said, or how he lived his life, or what his stories were about.” Mr. Owens’ claim relies on perception and intent. But racism does not require either. People can perpetuate racism without intending to. I don’t think Seuss intended to. Because he was unaware of the degree to which his visual imagination was steeped in caricature, he recycled racist stereotypes even as he was also writing anti-racist parables. Dr. Seuss was the “woke” White guy who isn’t as woke as he thinks he is.

Robin Bernstein, page 1 from "Signposts on the Road Less Taken: John Newton Hyde's Anti-Racist Illustrations of African-American Children"“Now, wait just a minute,” some may object. “Seuss was a man of his time. We should not impose contemporary standards on him or his work. People thought differently then.” But that is a gross oversimplification. All people in any given historical moment do not think about race in precisely the same way. As Robin Bernstein has shown in her work on nineteenth-century anti-racism, the range of available racial beliefs remains constant over time, but the distribution of those beliefs change. In the past and in the present, both extraordinary and perfectly ordinary people have opposed White supremacy. Similarly, both remarkable and unremarkable people have supported White supremacy. To claim that people 60 years ago were racist but people now are enlightened both naturalizes past racism as inevitable and implies that social change is a natural, ongoing march towards a brighter, fairer future. Yet, as we are reminded daily, our current president and his party are actively working against precisely such a future. Progress moves in fits and starts, makes gains and endures setbacks, and always requires people committed to making a positive difference.

Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! (1954)Seuss can be part of this positive difference. His more progressive books — The Lorax (1971) or The Butter Battle Book (1984), to name two examples — might teach children about the need to care for the environment or to oppose the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Horton Hears a Who! could teach them to stand up for those who are targeted by bigots: the Whos’ size is an arbitrary mark of difference that could represent any such visible sign of human variance. As for the books featuring racist caricature, one option is to remove them from the curriculum. Another is to read them critically. With the guidance of a thoughtful educator, Seuss’s racist caricature can help young people understand that racism is not anomalous. It permeates the culture. Seeing this caricature can also let them know that it’s OK to be angry at art — that anger can in fact be a healthy response to work that demeans you.

We might also follow Roxane Gay’s advice. As she writes, “There is no scarcity of creative genius, and that is the artistic work we can and should turn to instead.” Gay is writing in the context of the current #MeToo movement, suggesting that we discard work built on the dehumanization of others. We could follow her advice by pushing Seuss aside and instead celebrating diverse books — doing what the NEA is doing in its program even if it (curiously) retains the Cat in the Hat as its mascot.  Ishizuka-Stephens has assembled a great collection of  “21 Books for an Inclusive Read Across America Day.”  That’s an excellent place to start.

Wrapping yourself in an unreflective nostalgia for the art you grew up with may comfort you, but if that art denigrates women, or caricatures people of color, or otherwise harms minoritized communities, then you bear responsibility for the pain that this art inflicts. I realize this is a hard truth to face and that some who read this will — instead of facing themselves and acknowledging their responsibility — attack the messenger. Some may indulge in projection, locating in the messenger those faults that they refuse to admit in themselves. Others will find different strategies of denial, displacement, or dismissal. In so doing, they will continue to be part of the problem.

Boym, The Future of NostalgiaFor those who prefer to be part of the solution, know that you need not abandon nostalgia. It’s OK to be nostalgic, as long as that nostalgia is what Svetlana Boym called “reflective nostalgia.” It “dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt” (xviii).  As Boym wrote, reflective nostalgia reminds us that “longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, as affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgment or critical reflection” (The Future of  Nostalgia 49-50).

So. Reflect. Dwell on those ambivalences. Develop your capacity to reflect.  Activate your compassion.

And buy diverse books. Teach diverse books. Read diverse books.


Posts related to Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, including glimpses of the work in progress:


Some previous posts on Seuss

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Children’s Literature and Comics/Graphic Novels at MLA 2018

MLA 2018 (convention logo)It is time again to gather ’round

in fluorescent rooms, adjust the sound

(“can you hear me?”), smile, and present

to all four or fifty-seven

who found the right room, the right day.

Coffee! Insecurity! MLA!

January 3rd through 7th is the Modern Language Association’s annual conference, held this year (2018) in New York City. (The year’s Presidential Theme is “States of Insecurity.”)  As I do each year, I’m posting here all panels devoted to children’s literature, young adult literature, and comics/graphic novels. There will be many other panels of interest, I’m sure. So, do peruse the program for full details. And if I’ve omitted a panel on any of these subjects, please let me know and I will add it ASAP.


18: Calling Dumbledore’s Army: Activist Children’s Literature

Thursday, January 04, 2018, 12:00 PM – 01:15 PM. Hilton: Clinton

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34: Narrativizing Insecurity in Indian Comics

Thursday, January 04, 2018, 12:00 PM – 01:15 PM. Sheraton: Sutton Place

For Related Material: amadan@ksu.edu after 30 Nov.
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122: Strips of Modernity: Affect, Labor, and Identity in Early Comics

Thursday, January 04, 2018, 05:15 PM – 06:30 PM. Hilton: Nassau East

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173: Connecting the Dots: Museums and Comics

Thursday, January 04, 2018, 07:00 PM – 08:15 PM. Hilton: Sutton Center

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190: Radical Sisterhood in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Thursday, January 04, 2018, 07:00 PM – 08:15 PM. Sheraton: Sugar Hill

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298: 4H: History, Hamilton, and Hip-Hop in High School

Friday, January 05, 2018, 12:00 PM – 01:15 PM. Sheraton: Empire Ballroom West

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Children’s and Young Adult Literature Forum: Business Meeting

Friday, January 05, 2018, 01:45 PM – 03:00 PM. Sheraton New York Times Square: Madison 4

The open meeting will begin shortly after Session 298 is completed. The assigned room for the business meeting is snug, but we will try to accommodate everyone who attends. One of the orders of business will be the selection of sessions to be sponsored by the Forum for next year’s MLA Conference in Chicago. It would be helpful for individuals who would like to propose a session to provide a short handout to be distributed during the business meeting. The proposed sessions handouts should include: 1. A working title 2. A short (at least a paragraph) description and 3. The name of a current MLA members willing to chair the session.

Individuals unable to attend this year’s MLA conference, or unable to attend the Forum’s business meeting, can still submit topics for sessions for the 2019 MLA Conference in Chicago.  Those proposals should be in the same format as the handouts for proposed sessions. The requirements are noted above. Session proposals for those unable to attend the business meeting should be submitted by email to Jan Susina (jcsusina@ilstu.edu) by December 21.


354: Graphic Resistance: Comics and Social Protest

Friday, January 05, 2018, 01:45 PM – 03:00 PM. Sheraton: New York Ballroom West

Description

This session investigates how and why comics have served as sites of resistance and explores how this history informs how comics are used—or could be used—for protest in our current moment. Participants explore genealogies of social protest that comics create in and across local, national, and international communities. How will this conversation open different future trajectories for exploring comics as micropolitical sites of resistance?

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413: Narrating Vulnerability: Re-seeing Asian American Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Friday, January 05, 2018, 05:15 PM – 06:30 PM. Sheraton: Chelsea

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439: Teaching Global Arab Comics in the United States

Friday, January 05, 2018, 05:15 PM – 06:30 PM. Hilton: Concourse G

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543: The Rise of Latinx Literature for Youth

Saturday, January 06, 2018, 12:00 PM – 01:15 PM. Hilton: Hudson

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595: Graphic States of Insecurity

Saturday, January 06, 2018, 01:45 PM – 03:00 PM. Sheraton: Empire Ballroom East

For Related Material: joncn@bu.edu after 1 Dec.
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618: From Gotham to Camazotz: Madeleine L’Engle at One Hundred and New York City

Saturday, January 06, 2018, 01:45 PM – 03:00 PM. Sheraton: Bowery

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625: Queer Futurities in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Saturday, January 06, 2018, 03:30 PM – 04:45 PM. Sheraton: Central Park West

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650: Ignite Talk: Alison Bechdel on the Page, Onstage, and in Theory

Saturday, January 06, 2018. 03:30 PM – 04:45 PM. Hilton: Beekman

Description

Ten years after the conclusion of Dykes to Watch Out For, twelve years after the graphic memoir Fun Home, and five years after Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s theatrical adaptation of Fun Home, this ignite talk session offers a spectrum of voices, perspectives, and theoretical approaches to the works of Bechdel, demonstrating not just analysis of a single author across genres but the impact of such texts on wider fields of study.

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729: Comics and the Culture Wars

Sunday, January 07, 2018, 08:30 AM – 09:45 AM. Sheraton: Central Park West

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810: Framing New York City in Comics

Sunday, January 07, 2018. 12:00 PM – 01:15 PM. Sheraton: Madison Square

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Children’s Literature vs. Nationalism: IRSCL’s Statement of Principles

The International Research Society for Children’s Literature (IRSCL) — an organization of which I am a member — is today issuing a statement in support of academic freedom, and against the rising tide of nativism/nationalism that threatens to curtail it.  We’re issuing it in 20 different languages (with more to come) and you can see all of those on our YouTube channel: ArabicChinese, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Kazakh, KoreanLamnsoNorwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.  Coming soon (we hope): Japanese and others. 30 Nov. 2017: added Ukranian, updated link to Danish.

YouTube mosaic: IRSCL statement

I concede that our language may be a little too “academic,” but consider that we coordinated this across borders, languages, holiday calendars, and extremely busy schedules.  And it’s important to speak up for our shared humanity, for a scholarly community that transcend national borders, for free and open inquiry.


Press Release: Current Global Politics Limit Academic Freedom

IRSCL logoOn Universal Children’s Day, November 20, 2017, the International Research Society for Children’s Literature (IRSCL) issues a Statement of Principles, because it is worried about the ways in which contemporary geopolitics curtail academic freedom.

This summer, IRSCL convened its 23rd biennial congress in Canada. More than 20 percent of the scholars whose papers were accepted were unable to attend Congress 2017, not only because of radical economic disparities in the world but also because of current restrictive travel policies and the “chill” caused by them.

  • IRSCL finds the current xenophobic situation worrying as it curtails academic freedom. The free flow of people and ideas across borders has to be defended anew, says Elisabeth Wesseling, President of IRSCL.
    For this reason, IRSCL will issue a Statement of Principles, which explains why scholarship can flourish only in a world with open borders. The statement will be released as a collection of videos featuring IRSCL members reading the statement in their native language
  • the statement is issued on November 20, Universal Children’s Day, to emphasize not only the importance of our research, but also of children’s literature’s potential to foster empathy, nurture creativity, and imagine a better world, says Elisabeth Wesseling.

IRSCL is an international scholarly organization dedicated to children’s and young adult literature with 360 members from 47 different countries worldwide. Every second year the organization arranges IRSCL Congress, the world’s most international congress within the research field.

Professor Elisabeth Wesseling (Lies.Wesseling@Maastrichtuniversity.nl), President, IRSCL

IRSCL on Facebook


Videos of IRSCL members reading the statement in 18 languages

(These are also available en masse via our YouTube channel.)

Yes, that’s me reading it in English.  (I’m one of the statement’s many co-writers. )


Arabic


Chinese


Danish


Dutch


English


Estonian


Farsi


Finnish


French


German


Italian


Kazakh


Korean


Lamnso


Norwegian


Polish


Russian


Spanish


Swedish


Ukranian


In reading the statement (above) and writing this little blog post, I’m proud to stand with my friends and colleagues around the world.  And I’m especially delighted to see them speaking their native languages.  When we meet, we converse in English — because English is the “international” language of communication among scholars.  So, English-speakers like me have it easy: everyone else speaks my language.  But for everyone else, this is of course grossly unfair.  I am grateful to them for learning English so that we can share ideas, and participate in a global community.  And I thank them for tolerating my general inability to speak their languages.

Reading children’s books about all different people (all types of difference, though in this case, national difference) helps raise a younger generation to be less susceptible to the narrow nationalisms that pervade our political culture.  Diverse children’s books work because — as the research of Tali Sharot shows — emotion is more persuasive than reason. They work because, by expanding our emotional life, stories show us how we are connected — offering “a glimpse across the limits of our self,” as Hisham Matar puts it. And yes, yes, I know that white supremacy, xenophobia, and fascistic nationalism are resilient and adaptable — aided, as they are, by white fragility, white innocence, and colonial amnesia. And I know that children’s literature is but one front in a larger battle. But books for young people remain one of the best resources to oppose xenophobia and the structures that sustain it because children’s literature reaches selves still very much in the process of becoming; minds that have not yet been made up; future adults who can learn respect instead of suspicion, understanding instead of fear, and yes, even love.

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Crockett Johnson Tells the Story of Money

Today is the 111th birthday of Crockett Johnson (1906-1975). To celebrate, let’s take a deep dive in his oeuvre — looking at one of his lesser-known books, This Rich World.


The popular story is that Crockett Johnson began creating books for children when he illustrated Ruth Krauss’s The Carrot Seed (1945). This is a compelling narrative. Krauss was his wife, it was his first book for Harper (which would later publish his Harold books), and The Carrot Seed became a classic.

Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money, illustrated by Crockett Johnson (McBride, 1943): front cover

But the first book expressly for children that was illustrated by Crockett Johnson is Constance J. Foster’s This Rich World: The Story of Money (1943).  I say “book expressly for children” because, though his daily strip Barnaby included children among its readers, the comic — which yielded two books (in 1943 and 1944) — did not imagine young people as its primary audience. This Rich World: The Story of Money did.  As the dust jacket’s inside front flap says, “Into this unusual and delightful book have been packed all the things the young reader wants to know about money.”

As you might expect, some of the information in a book published three quarters of a century ago feels dated: This Rich World is too easy on colonialism and favors masculine pronouns (men earn money).


“all the things the young reader wants to know about money”

But there’s a lot in here that young people — and many of our elected representatives — could learn from today.  For instance, taxes are the price we pay for living in a civil society.

Crockett Johnson, "Taxless Town, part 1" from Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money (1943)

Crockett Johnson, "Taxless Town, part 2" from Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money (1943)

A flat tax (such as a sales tax) is unfair, because the wealthy and the working class pay the same tax, even though it costs the rich a far smaller percentage of their income.

Crockett Johnson, "You pay taxes, too!" from Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money (1943)

There’s interesting trivia, too, such as the derivation of the expression “worth his salt.” The word salary derives from the word for salt — a valuable commodity because the “ancient world had no refrigerators and so needed salt and spices to preserve its good” (35). So, “In early Roman times the soldiers received part of their wages in the form of salt. This was known as salarium, or salt money. We still say sometimes that a man isn’t ‘worth his salt’ when he is lazy or shirks his work” (36).

Crockett Johnson, "Are you worth your salt?" from Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money (1943)


Who was Constance J. Foster?

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)While writing the biography of Johnson and Krauss, I wondered: how did Johnson come to illustrate her book? Were they part of the same social circle? Might they have met? Biographical data on Constance J. Foster is scarce. So, I bought used copies of other books she wrote or co-wrote, hoping that the dust jackets might give me some clues. From her The Attractive Child (1941), we learn that she lives in Great Neck, NY, and that she consulted many experts — most of whom are from New York City.  She has a family (whom she thanks), and was likely then writing for Parents Magazine: one of her thanks goes to that publication’s editor. Fathers Are Parents Too (1951), co written with Dr. O. Suprgeon English, tells us that “Mrs. Constance J. Foster has been a free-lance writer since 1927 and her articles have appeared in Parents’ Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, etc.” Her pamphlet, Developing responsibility in children (1953), offers much about her philosophy of parenting, but nothing about the author.

Constance J. Foster, The Attractive Child (1941) O. Spurgeon English and Constance J. Foster, Fathers Are Parents Too (1951) Constance J. Foster, Developing Responsibility in Children (1953)

As it turns out, our best source is the back dust jacket of This Rich World itself.

Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money, illustrated by Crockett Johnson (McBride, 1943): back cover

My guess is that she may have met Johnson — if she knew him at all — via Johnson’s wife. Krauss was then studying Anthropology at Columbia, and two of Foster’s sources for The Attractive Child are affiliated with Columbia. More than that, Krauss’s and Foster’s shared interest in children’s development might have provided occasion for them to meet.


Share the wealth

Whatever Foster’s connection (if any) to Johnson might have been, the book’s message is one that the current occupant of the White House would do well to heed. Foster argues that we should share the wealth. She twice cites Adam Smith’s “golden rule of world trade”: “It is better for a nation if the other nations with whom it does business are rich, not poor” (71, 157).

Crockett Johnson, "Wars are wasteful," from Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money (McBride, 1943)

Her final chapter — “Wars Are Wasteful” — repeats that point. If Foster is at times too willing to affiliate free trade with freedom, she also very rightly stresses the need to work together:

Only human brotherhood and the equality of all men, of all colors and races, will work. In the past some people have had more clothes and food and houses than they could use, while others have not had nearly enough. Unless we can build a world in the future in which everybody has enough, then no peace will last long. (157-58)

Crockett Johnson, frontispiece Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money (McBride, 1943)

Crockett Johnson’s art tells that story, too — the story of money and of the need to distribute it fairly if we are to live in peace.


Crockett Johnson birthday posts from previous years

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Was the Cat in the Hat Black? (Talks at Google)

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)And now,… presenting a 45-minute illustrated lecture of my Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books.

Indeed, here are two versions, one in English and one in Spanish (which is also delivered via sign language).  Both versions were recorded in the past couple of months — the English-language one in Mountain View in July 2017, and the Spanish-language one in Santiago in August 2017.

The English-language version comes courtesy of Talks at Google.

Talks at GoogleThanks to (ex-Googler) Tyler Shores for making the Google connection, and to David Barry and everyone at Google for their hospitality!  I had a great visit to the Mountain View campus this past July.


La versión en español es cortesía de Chile’s Ministerio de Educación. Mi discurso comienza a los 34 minutos del video. Esta versión dura unos 10 minutos más: estoy hablando más lentamente para ayudar al traductor a mantener el ritmo.

Muchismas gracias a Mónica Bombal Molina por la invitación, y a Mónica, Andrea Casals, y Catalina Landerretche por su hospitalitad. ¡Me gustó mucho mi visita a Santiago!


Related posts (on this blog unless otherwise indicated), including glimpses of the work in progress:

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7 Questions We Should Ask About Children’s Literature (Oxford UP blog)

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)White nationalism is on the rise in the US and nativism is in the ascendant across the globe.  What role can literature for children play in teaching the next generation to be more empathetic, to respect difference, and to reject hatred?  How do we find children’s books that promote these values?  And what do we do with classics that offend?

Over on the Oxford University Press blog today, you’ll find “7 Questions We Should Ask About Children’s Literature,” including:

  1. What does this book present as normal? You might follow up with these more specific questions borrowed (and slightly modified) from Nathalie Wooldridge:
  • What or whose view of the world, or kinds of behavior does the book present as normal?
  • Why is the book written from this perspective? How else could it have been written?
  • What assumptions does the book make about age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture (including the age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture of the reader)?
  • Whose perspectives does the book present? Whose perspectives does the book silence or ignore?

… and 6 more questions.

Oxford University Press iconOxford UP asked me to write the post to help promote Was the Cat in the Hat Black?  My own aspiration was also to write something that could be useful in evaluating books for young readers.  Here’s hoping that the questions can be of some help to educators, parents, publishers, and all who are involved with children’s literature.


REMINDER: Goodreads Giveaway of Was the Cat in the Hat Black? Giveaway details via the link below (and via the links in this sentence).

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Was the Cat in the Hat Black? by Philip Nel

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

by Philip Nel

Giveaway ends October 01, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway


If you’d like to learn more, Oxford University Press has created three short videos (featuring me) addressing some of the subjects in the book.

1. What do children’s books tell us about society? (90 seconds)

2. Literary Activism with Children’s Books (2 minutes, 50 seconds)

3. The Responsibility of Authors Writing Children’s Literature (2 minutes)


Historical context from Rudine Sims Bishop (3 minutes, 30 seconds)

Rudine Sims Bishop’s work is foundational (I mention Professor Bishop in the second video, above). My book builds upon the work of lots of smart scholars, including Bishop, Michelle Martin, Robin BernsteinKate Capshaw, and many others.  Was the Cat in the Hat Black? wouldn’t be possible without their groundbreaking work.


Related posts on this blog, including glimpses of the work in progress:

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Free Book: Goodreads Giveaway of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)Greetings, people who read books!  Thanks to Oxford University Press, there is — this month — a Goodreads giveaway of my new bookWas the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books.  10 copies will be given away.

Important restriction: the books can only be sent to addresses in the US and Canada.  (Sorry!  The distribution isn’t something I have control over!)

Giveaway details via the link below (and via the links in this sentence).

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Was the Cat in the Hat Black? by Philip Nel

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

by Philip Nel

Giveaway ends October 01, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

If you’d like to learn more, here is Oxford University Press’ 90-second video (featuring me) on racism in children’s literature:


Related posts on this blog, including glimpses of the work in progress:

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Happy Birthday, Ruth Krauss!

Ruth Krauss quotation on Los Angeles Public Library: photo by Cam Smith Ostrin

quotation from Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig (1952), on the L.A. Public Library.

If she were alive today, you would be wishing Ruth Krauss a very happy 106th birthday.  And yet Krauss was actually born 116 years ago, not 106 years ago.

Ruth Krauss's birth certificate

Look at the date in the upper-right-hand side of the document: July 25 1901.  Here, let’s zoom in on that date so that you can see it a bit better.

Ruth Krauss's birth date

Nonetheless, today, were Ruth still with us, you would be wishing her a happy 106th birthday.  Indeed, many reference sources list her birth year as 1911, instead of 1901. Why the discrepancy?

When she turned seventy, Ruth became acutely aware that people would see her as old. She felt young. So, she changed her birth year. As she would later tell a female friend, “You’re only as old as other people think you are, so always lie about your age—and preferably in increments of ten, because it’s easier to keep track of it.”

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953)That’s good birthday advice. And it’s an appropriate outlook for a writer best known for her understanding of young people.  She had a knack for listening to children, capturing their idiosyncratic, practical locutions and then turning them into art — most famously, A Hole Is to Dig (1952), the book that launched Maurice Sendak‘s career and the first of eight children’s books they created together.  Their next, The Happy Day (1953), won Sendak his first Caldecott Honor.  If you’re new to her work, you might also read The Carrot Seed (1945, art by Crockett Johnson [her husband]), The Happy Day (1949, art by Marc Simont), Is This You? (1954, a collaboration with Johnson), I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954, art by Sendak).  There are many more, but these — with the exception of Is This You? — are all in print, and thus should be readily available.

Ruth Krauss: Harper advertisement, 1954

Back to the birth certificate. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed something curious about that document.  Did you?  Scroll back up and take a look.  See anything odd there?

No? Check again.  I’ll wait.

.

.

.

Right. It was filed February 14, 1933 — 31 years and 9 months after she was born.   Why wait so long to file a birth certificate?  My theory is that the Great Baltimore Fire incinerated the original document in February 1904.  (Ruth was born and grew up in Baltimore.)  Why file a new one 1933?  I’m not sure.  In 1934, she married her first husband Lionel White — a true-crime writer.  Perhaps the impending marriage motivated her to seek this document.

Another question you may have is: Why trust this document, given its late filing date? Several people who knew her very well confirm the 1901 date. Notably, Betty Hahn — married to Ruth’s favorite cousin Richard Hahn — said she was born in 1901. Ruth was 12 years older than Richard. She couldn’t hide her birth date from her family.

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)For more on Krauss and her husband Crockett Johnson, you might enjoy my double biography Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012).  Or you might not.  I don’t know you, and I suppose I shouldn’t venture to predict.

Anyway…

Happy 106th birthday, Ruth Krauss!


Image credits: Cam Smith Ostrin for the photo of the quotation from Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig (1952, illus. by Sendak) on the Los Angeles Public Library (thanks, Cam!); Chris Ware for the cover of the biography (I will forever be grateful, Chris!).  The other credits are either obvious (Sendak did the cover for A Very Special House) or scans provided by yours truly.

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We Need Diverse Scholars

The most powerful panel at last year’s Children’s Literature Association conference was “Needs of Minority Scholars,” featuring Sarah Park Dahlen, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Laura M. Jiménez, and Marilisa Jiménez García.

  • If you are at the Children’s Literature Association conference right now, I encourage you to attend the follow-up session, “Beyond Diversity and Inclusion: Changing the Culture and Practices of the ChLA.” It will be held tomorrow (Thursday, 22 June) at 3:30 pm in Palma Ceia 3.

Beyond Diversity and Inclusion: Changing the Culture and Practices of the ChLA

  • Wherever you are, I encourage you to read last year’s panel, published in the latest issue of The Lion and the Unicorn (January 2017).  The panel’s papers published there, instead of in the organization’s own Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, because — as Michelle Martin points out in her contribution to the issue — “because the editors [of ChLAQ] didn’t consider these pieces research.” That fact proves the necessity of that panel, of tomorrow’s panel, and of the ChLA’s need to walk the walk — and not just talk the talk. As Kate Slater (the panel’s chair and editor of the special section) asks, “What if every marginalized scholar felt welcomed within the field of children’s and young adult literature studies? What if our community listened—truly listened—to their experiences, words, and perspectives, even when that experience of listening requires us to look uncomfortably at ourselves? And, perhaps most importantly: what now? How will we act together to make these ‘what ifs’ a reality?”

The Lion and the Unicorn (January 2017)

If you have any interest in children’s literature or in making your scholarly/professional organization (whatever its subject) a truly diverse one, I encourage you to read these essays.  (Note: Ebony Thomas’s piece is not included, but [as you will have guessed already] a new piece by Michelle Martin is included.  And the other three panelists are there.)

Need a brief summary of why?  I’ll offer succinct (and thus incomplete) highlights of each essay here.  ALSO: please access these via your institution because doing so helps underwrite the cost of the scholarly journal.  BUT if you cannot get behind the paywall, email me and I will send you pdfs.  My address is at right, under “A note on mp3s.”


Sarah Park Dahlen, A Step from Heaven: On Being a Woman of Color in Children’s Literature Studies

  • on the need for mirrors: on the experience of reading An Na’s A Step from Heaven for the first time, Dahlen writes, “I wasn’t alone. I saw for the first time that these things happened to other people too, other people who looked like me. Whose parents looked like mine. Whose mother suffered as mine did. Whose father was absent as mine was.”
  • on being the visible embodiment of racial identity: “I do not leave my personal history or identity at the door when I enter a classroom. As Ebony Elizabeth Thomas said at the Children’s Literature Association 2016 conference’s Minority Scholars panel, students read our bodies before we even open our mouths. How they treat us is based, first and largely, on how they read our racial identities. My Korean body disrupts assumptions about who is an authority in teaching children’s literature.”
  • on point: “We who are racially Other are fatigued by repeated distortions and erasure, and by exposure to micro- and macroaggressions in our daily lives and in spaces that masquerade as safe but actually exist to uphold the status quo. Racial battle fatigue is real. White fragility is entirely different. White fragility maintains power.”

Michelle Martin, Brown Girl Dreaming of a New ChLA

  • on the insufficiency of good intentions. I (and many others) are fond of quoting the organizations unofficial mantra: “We don’t eat our young,” which past president Roberta Trites likes to say.  It’s true: ChLA is welcoming.  But it also isn’t equally welcoming to everyone, as Martin reminds us: “when scholars come through the doctoral pipeline whose educational experiences have been rife with racial and gender microaggressions from more seasoned scholars (even well-meaning ones) and peers and when they, like Marilisa Jiménez García, constantly struggle to have their work acknowledged as (1) scholarship and (2) relevant, ‘we don’t eat our young’ is little comfort. Some of us feel that we’ve been eaten our entire careers.”
  • on how structural power magnifies microagressions; or, how the powerful forget the harm they do, but the less powerful remember.  Martin recounts a story shared by Tiffany Martínez — a Suffolk University undergraduate, McNair Scholar, and aspiring academic — who used the word “Hence” in a paper. Her professor circled the word, opined “This is not your word,” and accused her of plagiarism.  As Martin notes, “Although this incident was seismic for her, Martínez suspects that the professor might have already forgotten it.”
  • on the need for scholars from outside of minoritized communities to do the research and write what she terms “crossover scholarship”: “writing crossover scholarship should not be undertaken casually but with a commitment to excellence, with humility, and with a teachable spirit.”

Laura M. Jiménez, My Gay Agenda: Embodying Intersectionality in Children’s Literature Scholarship

  • on the need for an intersectional agenda: “it is not uncommon for me to be accused of having a “gay agenda.” I’ve read the phrase on student evaluations, reviewers’ comments, and heard colleagues use it to dismiss my arguments, assertions, and even my life experiences. Let me be clear, I have an agenda, and it is an out and proud agenda, but it probably isn’t the one most people assume. My agenda isn’t simply gay. My agenda is a race-class-gender-and- all-kinds-of-identities-that-make-people-uncomfortable-and-unsure agenda. In short, my agenda is an intersectional agenda.”
  • on importance of teachers making their own intersectionality visible: “At the same time they read these texts I provide an authentic model of intersectionality. I say the words that my students fear. The words that need to be said out loud and often. The words Black, White, Asian, Japanese, African American, Arab, Persian, race, racism, Latinx, Chicano, women, men, Native American and First Nations, cis-gender, able, disabled, neurotypical, gay, queer . . . all the words need to be said out loud. The words that need to be talked about so these teachers get to know the feeling of these words on their tongues. I come out to my students as a complex person by addressing my intertwined identities. I am performing myself in ways that most of my students have never seen a teacher do, have never had to do themselves, and will come to recognize as one way to normalize diversity.”
    • If I may, I would like to add here that it is especially important that a cisgendered straight, White, male teacher — like myself — take categories that are typically invisible (and thus normalized via their invisibility) and make them visible.  We must also acknowledge how the invisibly privileged among us may fail to acknowledge or even see the ways in which we are implicated in systems of privilege and oppression (typically without our active consent).  As Jiménez says, “The disruption of admitting to differences, by naming those differences and directly addressing them in a classroom, can be transformative and in that transformation, change is possible.”
  • on the need to make majority communities uncomfortable: “teacher education provides opportunities for them to learn to recognize the stories they are not a part of, are not native to, are not privileged by and to hear the voices that are unfamiliar, and believe the narratives that run counter to their lived experiences. Piaget’s concept of learning has helped me understand how to challenge preservice and practicing teachers. For Piaget, learning takes place when a person experiences disequilibrium, attempts to assimilate the new information into their existing schema, and finally must change that schema to accommodate the new knowledge. But for this to happen, the learner must first recognize what is unknown, must be aware of the disequilibrium and want to change it. Disequilibrium is by definition uncomfortable; this discomfort is often caused by the mere fact that the new knowledge is in direct opposition to the learner’s existing schema”

Marilisa Jiménez García, Side-by-Side: At the Intersections of Latinx Studies and ChYALit

  • on the need to dwell on intersections and contradictions. Citing Monica Brown’s Side by Side / Lado a Lado (2010) as a metaphor for this need, García writes, “The picture celebrates the coming together of Chavez and Huerta, yet we see that English and Spanish are also placed side-by-side: two languages with a violent history facing each other, but separated by a division on the page. Chavez and Huerta’s hands bridge the divide, yet that division between cultures and languages running side-by-side remains. U.S. children’s literature evidences these splits, switches, breaks, and unlikely pairings—these parallel stories and traditions greet us with a history of delight, violence, and contradiction. My research has demanded that I negotiate divisions both in the field of Latinx studies and children’s literature in order to exist in academia, and to dwell on the parallels, the intersections and the contradictions.”
  • on the need to displace English’s centrality to the field (citing Emer O’Sullivan): “Emer O’Sullivan writes in the ‘Preface’ to her study, Comparative Children’s Literature (2005), that ‘[c]hildren’s literature studies in English is mainly a monolingual phenomenon, mostly dealing with the wealth of children’s literature in English-speaking countries and referring to critical material written in English. Researchers who do not write in that language generally remain internationally unnoticed’ (x). She suggests that limiting inquiry to predominately Anglo children’s materials ‘neglect[s] to adequately describe and explain the crossing of linguistic and cultural borders’ (1)”
  • on the need to address diversity from more than one field: “scholars in Latinx studies rarely consider the position of literature for youth and writers for young audiences in the study of historically oppressed peoples. That is, in ethnic and postcolonial studies, literature for youth remains, for the most part, marginalized.” As she notes, “As a field, are we engaging in scholarship that values diverse communities and stories? What story does our scholarship tell about the communities and knowledges we value? Or is our scholarship centralizing only certain kinds of knowledge? I have argued in my research that you cannot know the story of American children’s and youth literature and culture without knowing the story of the Puerto Rican community in the United States; the same applies in reverse.”

 

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