How I did on my 2015 We Need Diverse Books resolution

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From August through December, I read 23 diverse children’s books, bringing my year-end total to 68.

That means I surpassed my We Need Diverse Books resolution of 50 diverse books even without counting adult books!

My grand total for children’s books this year is 151. Diverse books being 45 percent of that is a number I feel good about. But it didn’t happen by chance. I’ve found titles by following the Cooperative Children’s Book Center blog, reading recommendations in Rethinking Schools magazine, keeping up with the We Need Diverse Books newsletters and Twitter account, and participating a variety of other social media conversations. And also, of course, paying attention to the new children’s book shelves at my local library.

I plan to keep up those efforts in 2016 and will decide on my new We Need Diverse Books resolution next week. In the meantime, below are the diverse kids’ titles I read in August through December. To see the rest of my 2015 list, visit these posts: JanuaryFebruary, March, April through July.

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Row 1: (All related to civil rights) “Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer” by Carole Boston Weatherford, “Voices from the March on Washington” by George Ella Lyon and J. Patrick Lewis, “Lillian’s Right to Vote” by Jonah Winter, “Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama” by Hester Bass

Row 2: (All fictional picture books) “One Word from Sophia” by Jim Averbeck, “Last Stop on Market Street” by Matt de la Peña, “Lion Lion” by Miriam Busch, “Mango, Abuela, and Me” by Meg Medina

Row 3: (All middle grade or YA; 1st three deal with LGBT themes) “Honor Girl” by Maggie Thrash, “George” by Alex Gino, “Lies We Tell Ourselves” by Robin Talley, “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio

Row 4: (All picture books; 1st two are nonfiction) “Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table” by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, “One Plastic Bag” by Miranda Paul, “The Big Box” by Toni and Slade Morrison, “Please, Louise,” by Toni and Slade Morrison

Row 5: “A Storm Called Katrina” by Myron Uhlberg, “Mama’s Nightingale” by Edwidge Danticat, “Minna’s Patchwork Coast” by Lauren A. Mills, “The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade” by Justin Roberts

Row 6: (All fictional picture books) “The First Day in Grapes” by L. King Pérez, “Little Kunoichi: The Ninja Girl” by Sanae Ishida, “Langston’s Train Ride” by Robert Burleigh

Last-minute holiday gift ideas for activist families

Innosanto Nagara, the author of “A is for Activist” and “Counting on Community” — both of which I wrote about in September — recently posted a “2015 Holiday Gift Guide for Activisty Families.” If you’re still trying to check off all the rad kids and parents on your giving list, go check his suggestions first. It’s mostly awesome children’s books, but there are a few other ideas, too.

On blind spots and “A Fine Dessert”

Is a blind spot still a blind spot if you can see it?

I had an experience of seeing one last month. It came after a flurry of Internet debate surrounding the picture book “A Fine Dessert,” written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

The book depicts four families making and enjoying one dessert in different centuries. In the first section, which set in the 1700s, an English girl and her mother pick wild blackberries, milk the cow, beat cream using a whisk made of twigs, draw water from a well, and strain the berries through muslin to make blackberry fool. In each subsequent section, the characters use newer technology but the same amount of love to create the confection. Each section ends with the characters licking the mixing bowl or spoon.

The book garnered praised from School Library Journal, The New York Times, and others, but in late October, I heard there was a backlash brewing, so I got a library copy.

The part of the book that drew controversy is the second section, set in South Carolina in 1810. In it, an enslaved mother and daughter make blackberry fool and serve it to their master’s family. Then they hide in a closet and lick the bowl clean together.

After reading this NPR article about the issue, I wasn’t sure how to react. Critics said that the 1810 scenes perpetuated imagery of smiling, happy slaves, while Jenkin’s author’s note and Blackall’s comments to NPR indicated that their intention was to show “people finding joy in craftsmanship and dessert even within lives of great hardship and injustice.”

From my own experiences of the world, I know that portraying oppressed people as only miserable is reductive and inaccurate. (The phenomenon of #theafricathemedianevershowsyou trend this summer spoke to that.) But did the scenes of an enslaved mother and daughter hiding in the closet effectively celebrate the strength of the human spirit in the worst of circumstances? I wasn’t sure. And I also knew that I don’t hear enough of the voices of people of color on topics of race and also on children’s literature.

So I kept reading.

Eventually, I came to this Goodreads review. In it, Jessica, a Michigan-based youth services librarian, lays out a number of strong critiques of Jenkins and Blackall’s decisions. Here’s the one that really hit me:

If I went back in time with my future child or explore sections of my portrayed history, I am showing to them that after making the dessert, we get to hide and lick the bowl. Awww, isn’t that sweet.

And there it is: my blind spot. Because I can dissect these scenes in “A Fine Dessert” a million different ways, but I never have to read it thinking “that’s what I’d have to do if I lived during slavery.”

Does seeing this mean my blind spot is gone? No. But hopefully it’s like the ones on the sides of my car: I know where they are, so I can be diligent about checking them.

Hopefully Emily Jenkins (a.k.a. E. Lockhart, the author of “We Were Liars”) and Sophie Blackall will do the same. On Nov. 1, Jenkins told the “Reading While White” blog that she had come to understand her book as racially insensitive and consequently donated her income from it to We Need Diverse Books.