J.K. Rowling’s missteps with Native Americans and my We Need Diverse Books resolution for 2016

J.K. Rowling came under fire earlier this month for her portrayal of Native people and cultures in a series of online stories related to Harry Potter.

The collection focuses on the fictional history of North American magic as part of a larger project to expand the Harry Potter universe and its back stories. But the recent installment received fast criticism from Native Americans, who said Rowling treated them as magical creatures and a monolithic group.

The backlash speaks to the much bigger conversations to be had on how much and in what ways American Indians are represented in children’s literature. I touched on this subject briefly in my conversation with Pam Margolis, but I am by no means an expert. (But you know who is? Debbie Reese. Check out her blog.)

That’s why part of my 2016 We Need Diverse Books resolution is focused on books by or about Native people.

As I thought about my resolution back in January, I didn’t think upping the raw number of diverse books I read made that much sense, because I pretty much maxed out my reading time last year. But I did think about the breakdown of what I read last year and how I could mix it up. Continue reading

Listen up! Here’s a new podcast about diverse children’s books

thecutheaderI listen to podcasts every day, but the past two weeks have brought an extra infusion of podcast-y goodness to my life.

First I met Alex Laughlin, host of The Ladycast, during a journalism training. A few days later I interviewed Caroline Ervin and Cristen Conger, hosts of Stuff Mom Never Told You, for a freelance article.

And finally, I am featured in a new episode of a podcast all about diversity in children’s books, The Cut with Pam Margolis. I met Pam, a librarian and book reviewer, at KidLitCon last fall, when she was still conceptualizing her show. It launched this month, and I can’t wait for more episodes.

For the episode that I’m on, I talked with Pam about the dearth of picture books featuring Muslims, getting beyond sexuality as the main conflict in books featuring LGBTQ characters, and whether to label diverse books as such.

I also shared some of my favorite diverse children’s books. Those titles are below, along with my GoodReads ratings and comments on them.

Listen, SlowlyListen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

totally enchanting

Continue reading

In Carole Boston Weatherford’s latest picture book, she shows slaves’ joy and hope without ignoring injustice

Freedom in Congo Square1

Here’s an antidote to recent months of outcry over pictures books featuring smiling slaves. In “Freedom in Congo Square,” author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator R. Gregory Christie show us the humanity of slaves in the American South without ignoring or accepting the inhumanity of how their white owners treated them.

This nonfiction book – written in verse – takes up the topic of Congo Square, an open field in New Orleans where slaves and free blacks gathered to play music, dance and share news on Sunday afternoons in the 1800s. A Louisiana law at the time set Sunday aside as a day of rest, even for slaves, Weatherford explains in her author’s note. By spotlighting this little-known piece of history, she and Christie present a picture of the joy and hope people can find amidst harrowing circumstances.

That’s something Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall said they were trying to do in “A Fine Dessert,” which drew controversy last fall. In one part of the book, an enslaved mother and daughter hide in a closet to lick the bowl after serving blackberry fool to their masters. The difference between that scene and “Freedom in Congo Square” is that the context and open acknowledgment of injustice is not absent in the latter. Continue reading

Weekend Round-up: #WhereIsRey & other problems in children’s toys and media


I’ve been reading/listening to some interesting debates and discussions on social issues in children’s books and toys lately. Here are a few links worth checking out.

1. Missing in action figures

Without seeing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” I’ve heard enough about to know that the main protagonist, Rey, is female. So I was surprised to hear about her absence from most of the film’s merchandise. The Brood, a parenting podcast/radio show, dives into the details, reactions and corporate explanations.

2.  More smiling slaves making desserts, more controversy

You may have heard about the backlash a few months ago over the portrayal of slaves in “A Fine Dessert.” Now a new picture book, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” is receiving similar scrutiny.

3. ALA’s Youth Media awards are here, and so are some ugly reactions

The Caldecott, the Newbery and all the other annual Youth Media Awards from the American Library Association were announced Monday. I was happy to see many great books I read last year in the mix, including a good number with diverse characters and authors. Apparently not everyone was as pleased. The Reading While White blog rebuts some commenters’ claims that committees must have been kowtowing to PC-ness. The short post ends in a perfect way, by using the beautiful last line from Newbery winner “Last Stop on Market Street.”

How I did on my 2015 We Need Diverse Books resolution


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.

August through October mosaic.jpg

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

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.

Thinking critically about Columbus Day and American Indians in children’s books

As many kids across the U.S. enjoy a day off school for Columbus Day, I encourage you to visit and follow this blog: American Indians in Children’s Literature.

It is written by Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman from northern New Mexico. On the blog, Reese, who has been a school teacher and professor of children’s literature, critiques stereotyped portrayals of American Indians in kids’ books and offers better examples. It’s worth a read by any parent, teacher or librarian.

And if you are, indeed, a teacher, I also recommend you check out the Zinn Education Project for some different perspectives on Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day than we usually see in schools. Did you know that Seattle’s school board recently voted to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day each year? The city council followed up with a similar vote the next week.

“Rethinking Columbus” is a volume for teachers, published by Rethinking Schools magazine.

Happy book birthday to “George” by Alex Gino

George by Alex Gino

I just heard about “George,” a new middle grade novel featuring a transgender main character. It was released today by Scholastic The book is Alex Gino‘s debut, so congrats to Alex and happy book birthday!

Here’s the description of “George” from Alex’s website:

“When people look at George, they see a boy. But George knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part … because she’s a boy.

With the help of her best friend Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte – but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

GEORGE is a candid, genuine, and heartwarming middle grade about a transgender  girl who is, to use Charlotte’s word, R-A-D-I-A-N-T!”

Hopefully I can get my hands on this soon. If you read it first, let me know what you think.

For a picture book and young adult titles featuring transgender main characters, see this post from June.

P.S. I heard about “George” from the “All the Books” podcast, a weekly show about great new releases. Children’s books aren’t talked about much on the show, but it’s a great listen for avid adult readers.

Hurricane Katrina 10th anniversary: 5 children’s books about strength through the storm

Hurricane Katrina children's books

This month is the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. A number of children’s books related to Katrina have come out in the last ten years, ranging from nonfiction on the storm itself to fictional stories of how kids and their families were affected.

The five books below focus on survival and recovery after the storm, but news coverage of the 10th anniversary this month also has highlighted ongoing gentrification, education reform debates and other issues. I wonder what types of children’s stories about New Orleans we’ll see in the future as the rebuilding and reinvention of the city continues to play out. Continue reading

My diverse reading for April through July

From April through July I read 27 total children’s and YA books. Compare that to March alone, when I read 29. Yikes! I definitely lost some focus in recent months, though I did read many more adult books (9) than I had earlier in the year. Among those, more than half were by or about diverse people.

Of the children’s books I read from April through July, 37% were diverse. (It’s worth noting that books that don’t qualify aren’t necessarily un-diverse. Several featured animal characters, and some were about nonfiction topics.)

In sum, over the last four months, my reading was about 42% diverse, which is pretty good, especially when compared with the rates at which these types of books are published. Also, it puts me one book away from my year-long goal of 50 diverse books!
Here are the diverse books I read for this period. I’ll put asterisks next to my favorites.

April thru July mosaic

Row 1: (All children’s fiction) “Drum Dream Girl” by Margarita Engle, “Red Knit Cap Girl and the Reading Tree” by Naoko Stoop, “The Red Pencil” by Andrea Davis Pinkney (middle grade), “None of the Above” by I.W. Gregorio (young adult), “Firebird” by Misty Copeland

Row 2: (All children’s nonfiction) “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba, “The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families” by Susan Roth, “Wangari Maathai: The Woman who Planted Millions of Trees” by Franck Prévot, “Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America” by Carole Boston Weatherford, “14 Cows for America” by Carmen Agra Deedy

Row 3: (All books for adults) “Fun Home” and “Are You My Mother” by Alison Bechdel (both graphic novels), “The Tusk that Did the Damage” by Tania James, “Above Us Only Sky” by Michele Young-Stone, “Boy, Snow, Bird” by Helen Oyeyemi