Saturday, October 31, 2015

Oh, Kelly.


I spent a lot of time this week following a rather bizarre and screwed up situation in the land of children's picture books.

Want to read some crazy shit? Buckle in. And in order to get the full story, you'll have to read all these links.

My friend Elisa is a librarian and she blogged about this children's book called A Fine Dessert here. The book itself has a cute premise: follow the making of the same dessert over 4 centuries of American history, starting in 1710 and ending in 2010. However, Elisa points out the real problems with the 1810 section, which is set on a plantation and features a slave mother and her daughter preparing the food for their masters and then hiding in a closet in order to lick the bowl clean.

Honestly, the whole thing is so fucked up, I can hardly believe it got published. In particular, there's an insistence from the illustrator that she did all this research about the cooking implements, the plantation, etc. But there's almost no thought to the child of today who might be reading it. I mean, the words "beat beat beat" appear over each child as they whip the cream, but when it's over the head of a child slave? And then she smiles, and the illustrator says it's to show pride in her work---and I'm just thinking to myself: does no one understand that "pride in your work" is an incredibly fucking problematic way to frame slavery? I mean, come on! You've heard me go on before about how hard it is to find books with black kids in them. This happy slave shit really makes me angry. Not to mention the somewhat obvious fact that the only black people in America in 400 years weren't slaves. CLUE PHONE: NOT EVEN ALL THE BLACK FOLKS AROUND IN 1810 WERE SLAVES.

We've talked about this before---kids know almost nothing about slavery, but they know all the things about the Holocaust. We know a lot about how to teach kids hard things, but when it comes to's just like, "oh no! too upsetting!"

This book is seen as a serious contender for the Caldecott Award, which is best picture book of the year. The Horn Book site collects reviews and commentary about the books here. Go ahead and read the comments. You'll see me there. make a long story short, this story really blew up this week and there was a ton of discussion about this book on twitter, starting with this tweet from a woman I follow named FanGirlJeanne. You can read lots of the comments, replies, and subtweets. NPR's Code Switch blog posted an article about it, too.

In a way, I guess it all comes full circle. Remember I started out the year talking about how we suppress women's writing? Turns out the same tricks can be used to devalue the voices of readers that are people of color. You would not believe---maybe you would--the invective leveled at people who don't think this is just a delightful little story about a dessert.

Almost always, it's the same rhetorical moves. I'm *SURE* that any person of color could rattle off what I'm listing below with no problem since they're on the receiving end of them all the time. Maybe it's best thought of as a list for white people: Hey, if you find yourself using these moves when you are in a conversation with someone? STOP IT.

1) You didn't read it closely or thoughtfully enough, so you don't understand. (Flat out stating that POC are too stupid to read a fucking 40 page picture book. However, if white folks admit that they didn't read it, no one says boo about it.)

2) Why would all these publishers and reviewers give it all this press and good reviews? (Completely ignoring the fact that the publishing world is completely dominated by white people at every level.) Related to this is another thing I keep seeing, which is: You can't blame one book for not including everything. While this is true, it also completely ignores the monolith of publishing that primarily produces books about white kids.

3) Kids are too sensitive to read books about the real way slavery worked! We have to work our way up to it. You wouldn't talk to a child about such complicated things!

4) The opposite of #3 is also used, which is kids are smart enough to just *figure out* for themselves the way it works. And you as an adult are overthinking it!

5) But what about the feelings of the poor illustrator! I mean, she's *crushed*. She worked so hard! (Conveniently forgetting that the child as reader is who we ought to be worried about.)

6) Some POC don't think it's a problem, and therefore it isn't a problem. Or, why bother asking because they'll never agree.  (Because POC are a fucking monolith?)

7) I don't think it's a problem, and therefore the voices of many POC who find it offensive must be wrong. I tried my hardest, so what's the problem? (plain, old-fashioned white privilege.)

8) Tone policing: the way your opinions were stated was *rude* and you used swear words, so I don't have to listen. (This is actual reason the illustrator used to *delete* comments from readers on her blog. Real live people came and commented, and she claimed that she only deleted the comments with swear words. Since I saw the comments before she deleted them, I'll tell you right now, that's not true.) And this is so pernicious, and, of course, as women we're familiar with this kind of business.

9) What's wrong with portraying moments of happiness in oppressed people? Surely you don't want to just show people whipped and bleeding? This is another one that just kills me. First of all (and as I said in one of my comments somewhere), can we imagine for a hot second that someone would show smiling people in a concentration camp? Of course not! It's inconceivable. Even though we realize there must have been moments of tenderness or togetherness, to show only those moments is to lie about what must have been the overwhelming state of despair. So why are we so quick to accept or embrace this narrative about American slaves? Who is made to feel better when we focus on this? (As an aside, the thing that is most important to teach children about oppressed people is not that they had moments of happiness, but that they had moments of resistance.)

10) Making gross jokes and puns about the subject, which reduces those who object to being the butt of your joke. I mean, why is everyone taking this so seriously?

11) Flat out ridiculous and hyperbolic interpretations of any objections. So now you're not defending what you actually said, you're defending what you didn't say or even imply.

12) Changing the subject from the thing you're talking about to some other problem. After all, your concerns are not legitimate if you aren't also worried about/angry about/tweeting about/yelling about this other injustice.

13) Any adult critiquing a kid's book has a secret agenda, and they are using this as a soap box to just make themselves heard, to advance their own careers. or to further their own reputations.

14 ) Any critique of a book is a "challenge" or is "ripping it to shreds." Any critique of the book must also be a call for the book to be censored or removed from shelves. (I've seen a lot of people say they wouldn't read this or buy it for their kids, but no one that I've seen has suggested it be pulled from the shelves or banned.)

15) White people shouldn't talk about race. (And this is a tricky one. We should listen more than we say, but if we don't speak out when we see something that's wrong, aren't we part of the problem. As my co-worker Brandon says, "Own your own bias with the kids.")

This one comment manages to do pretty much EVERY ONE on this list at once! Wow!

One thing I've noticed that is fascinating is the difference in responses between the author and the illustrator. The illustrator, who openly blogged about how important it was to find the right plantation and get the trees right, has completely doubled down, while the author has pledged the fee she got for writing it to the We Need Diverse Books campaign. (I'm really fucking grateful this is true, because it turns out the author Emily Jenkins is also E. Lockhart, author of YA books I really love and recommend to my students all the time.)

Honestly, it's been a disheartening thing to watch. And then this happened yesterday, the editor of Horn Books published this little screed, which makes me wonder why the hell he's in this job anyway. I mean, GOD FORBID kids want to see themselves in the books they read? (This came to my attention when an editor from Book Riot that I follow on twitter posted a tweet calling it a garbage fire. Seriously.) Although honestly, even I'm forced to admit he makes some good points, but they're buried in the snark.

Luckily, I've discovered some amazing new voices this week. This woman, Debbie Reese, is basically a social justice warrior who blogs about how Native American kids are portrayed (or not) in fiction. Lots of folks called out the bullshit and kept insisting that their voices be heard.

And then today, a guy on Twitter wrote a bunch starting here about the fact that we should want kids to read and think critically!

Mostly, fellow white people of the world, I wonder why it's so hard for us to just LISTEN to experiences that are different than our own? Why must we insist that we are right, that it's just being "PC", that people can't read, don't get it, and are just being bullies when what we should do is just stop and fucking LISTEN and absorb the fact that perhaps the dominant cultural narrative we are always selling might be harmful, offensive, or ill-conceived?

Sheesh. As Mike Jung said: "How can anyone seriously propose the idea that certain questions should be off-limits to kids who read? Fuck that. The HELL with that."

Sort of disgusted by all this. We're supposed to be doing better.

PS. A lot of conversations sparked my list above, so I can't claim noticing them all on my own.
PPS. I was really on the fence about these screenshots, but everything above was posted openly on social media.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Kelly's Book 8.15: The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller

Dear Jenny,

This is a joint preview/in-progress post.

First, the preview part...

I cannot remember when or where I got this book, but the cover is great. The copyright is 1954 and that's pretty clear from this design. Also...  35¢!

Of course, the content was actually written in the late 19th century, so this was a "super modern" treatment when it was published.

I think this was probably passed on to me by someone who said, "You've never read Henry James?! How can that be?! You were a lit major!" Which, as a general sentiment, bugs me. Because we were lit majors, we're supposed to have ready every single major author in the world? Whatever.

But these stories seemed genuinely interesting to me -- at  least a the time I was given the book. The Turn of the Screw is supposed to be spooky. I really don't know anything about Daisy Miller except for the back-of-the-book description. (But I do have some concerns about how things are going to end for Daisy, given the time period.)

Now, the in-progress part...

Oh my GOD I am struggling to get through The Turn of the Screw! I want to bail except that I need to keep to my schedule and the book is short. But the writing is... impenetrable. Seriously difficult to get through. I am 50 pages in and things just got a bit easier (dialog -- yay!) but OOF this thing is a rough one. I keep wondering, "Is it faster to read this 200 page book slowly or just switch to the 525 page book that I cut in my last post?" Time will tell.

It was written at the same time as Tess and my struggles now remind me of my struggles then... but... in the end, I was genuinely glad that I struggled through that one -- the story of Tess has really stuck with me. So I kind of have hope that this one will also be worth it...? (fingers crossed)

It was also written at the same time as The Sea-Wolf and I have often thought that I could not have gotten through that book except that I listened to the aBook and the narrator was fantastic... wait a minute... a-ha!... while I was writing this post, I went over to Audible, listened to a few samples and boom! Found a narrator that is making this book manageable. (That was some legit live-blogging action right there.)

Also, while writing this post, I have Gilmore Girls on and the current episode is... "Say Goodbye to Daisy Miller" -- Weird, right? (Is that a message?!) (It's the episode where Rory impulsively leaves for Europe with her grandma after doing the deed with Dean, so that's the Daisy Miller reference -- that she gets "shipped off to Europe when she's been 'bad.'")

All right. Tomorrow, I will begin listening to The Turn of the Screw on my morning walk. I'll let you know how it goes.


PS -- I did finish my 6.15 -- the Roald Dahl book -- but I didn't have it in me tonight to write it up. Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

It's October. Time to count pages. (AKA Kelly's Status Report)

Dear Jenny,

After a strong start this year... I fell behind. In fact, I'm shocked to realize that my last real post was in May! (It was the preview post for book #6 -- Roald Dahl -- I was still on track then!) This week, I finally posted the Night Manager for my #7 (even though it almost killered me.) (Ha.)

I finished reading the Dahl awhile back (need to write it up) (if I can remember it -- thank goodness I took a few notes!) and I've begun Turn of the Screw/Daisy Miller.

So, as I have done every year after our first year of this blog, I will now drop the two longest books left in my pile, count the pages left in the rest, and math out my page-per-day push for the rest of the year. Here's what's left (excluding the Henry James, as that's already underway):
That puts me at a little over 15 pages/day to complete by the end of the year. Except... you and I are reading the DFW together in December. So I really should finish the other books before Dec 1.

Re-math bumps me up to almost 18p/day through the end of November. Still doable. Just need to... get on it.

(I have been reading. Just not my TBR books. Heh.)

For kicks and giggles (and to procrastinate on getting my 18 pages of Henry James in today -- but I'll save that problem for a separate dedicated post), I looked to see what I had posted previously with my "final countdown" posts:
  • 2012 : I started worrying in late September.  (Click that link -- I had a really giant intimating stack!) At that point, I had 20pp/day to read. 
  • 2013 : Late October and the stack was far more manageable looking. And it was: only 17pp/day to get to my goal. 
  • 2014 : Early October (What? No picture of the stack?!) and my big issue was not number of pages per day to get through (a paltry 15) but the fact that I had not written up most of my books (at that point, I had only posted about *3* of them!)
Sooo... I'm doing better than most years, I guess. 18/day + behind by only one write up. Of course, the rest of the year will speed by and I predict I will be scrambling during those final few weeks to get everything written up. Maybe not. But... probably. (Who am I kidding?)

Up next: the Dahl re-cap and the James preview.


Monday, October 5, 2015

Completed: The Night Manager

Dear Jenny,

In previous rounds of these "joint readings" (Sandman 1-20 and On Beauty), we have gone back and forth with our book chatter here as we read the book. But I think I speak for both of us when I say... we are done talking about this book. [In fact, we were truly done last month two THREE months ago! when we finished the book and I started this post!]

This time around, we divided the book in quarters and met via Facetime every Friday for 3 weeks (which was super fun!) and then our final "discussion" was in person (I put that in quotes because it was more like us rolling around on your couch saying, "So glad that's done -- this book was not for usssss.")

But! I did take a few notes during our chats, so if we ever want to come back here and say, "Wait... what did we say about that book?" we'll have it. 

[Ok -- I was going to include more from our notes/conversations here, but I've stalled out at the two THREE month mark and hey... we didn't really like this flipping book anyway. So here are some random jottings... feel free to add more if you're so inclined...]

The plot was overly convoluted. As we stumbled through this book, we kept saying, "Oh, this will all become clear as the book goes on," but... it didn't.

Too many f*cking characters. I don't read spy novels and you do -- you said this is common in spy novels but sheesh... it was really hard to keep up with everyone (in fact, we did not!)

The actual *writing* was quite good [which, you observed, is unusual for a spy novel] and there was quite a bit of comedy. We especially enjoyed the personal asides of the main character, Jonathan Pine. Here's one -- in the heat of a moment, he grabs a knife to defend himself, which is maybe not the best weapon:
Why the knife? He wondered as he ran. Why the knife? Who am I going to slice up with a knife? But he didn't throw it away. He was glad he had the knife, because a man with a weapon; any weapon, is twice the man he is without one: read the manual. [185] 
"Read the manual." Hee hee.

And there was the dude in the hotel who was super-committed to his wig (I'm not even going to look up more details about that. We'll see if that story stands the test of time and we remember it later...)

But basically, the book was only really interesting when we were reading about Pine.

Theories we had along the way about why we struggled:
  • Main character does not know his own motivation.
  • Published in 1991, so there isn't a "clear" bad guy in a post-Cold War world.
  • Like the TV shows X-files and Alias... the underground/spy story is the boring part. And that was a lot of this book. 
Perhaps, in the end, the book was just not written "for us" (this is part of a larger discussion about audience, which you are welcome to pick up below but I am dying to hit "Publish" on this bad boy.)
And here are some other random observations we had along the way:
  • The henchmen were named "Frisky" and "Tabby," which is hilarious.
  • Tess of the d'Urbervilles made an appearance! (Oh, Tess.)
  • Why was this called The Night Manager? Seems like such a small part of the novel. Perhaps that was intentional? To throw us off the larger plot? 
In conclusion, I just killered this book review.