Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Do The Hard Work of Getting It Right

If you follow the children's literature blogosphere you'll know all about the recent debates on The Hired Girl and A Fine Dessert.

For those of you who don't, a quick recap: The Hired Girl, by Newbery medalist Laura Amy Schlitz, is the story of a young Catholic girl who becomes a servant in a Jewish household in Baltimore in 1910. It's primarily about the girl's growth and is notable for the way it addresses Catholicism and Judaism directly--something that's sadly rare in children's books. It also contains a few references to "Indians"--Native Americans. Joan, the protagonist, has limited and stereotypical views, quite in line with her background and education--and yet, the references are unnecessary to the story, which isn't about Native Americans at all. They're also unchallenged--Joan thinks and does stereotypical things and the stereotypes just sit there, to be read and absorbed by modern readers, including modern Native children.

It's a big lovely book, and the Indian language is a problem, and I'm betting Laura Amy Schlitz regrets it though I haven't seen any comments from her about it..

A Fine Dessert, text by Emily Jenkins and pictures by Sophie Blackwell, follows the making of blackberry fool through three centuries--four stories, set in 1710, 1810, 1910, and 2010. The utensils and circumstances change, but the sense of family and the glee over the fine dessert stay the same. Most White people look at this book and think it's lovely--but the 1810 part shows an enslaved mother and daughter making the dessert for their owners, then eating the scraps while hiding in a closet. A lot of people, myself included, wondered about this choice. Surely we could have had a free Black family? Or an 1810 family that didn't include slaves? The pictures and text are gentle--too gentle to be in an way truthful about slavery--and the slaves are smiling while they pick blackberries and whip cream.

I don't know what Sophie Blackwell thinks about the controversy. Emily Jenkins has publicly said that she tried to be inclusive, that she realizes she failed, she's sorry, and she'll do better next time. She's owning her words, which I think all of us appreciate.

I saw the musical Hamilton while I was in New York last week--more on that later. Then I read some online interviews with its brilliant creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. He talked about wanting to see Latino men, such as himself, in stories that didn't have to do with gang warfare, where everyone wasn't armed with knives.

In the same way, every historical story that features Blacks doesn't need to perpetuate the myth of Happy Slaves.

When I read the reviews of A Fine Dessert, I'm struck by how many White people love it, and how many Black people don't. In other words, White readers tend to be blind to the problems that are obvious, and painful, to Black readers.

One commentator, on all this controversy, said rather petulantly that the publishing industry can't have it both ways: you can't ask White people to include non-White populations and then jump all over them when they write stereotypical tropes. Well, that's not exactly what the commentator said. It's my interpretation. Because there's a third option: White writers pay very close attention to the privilege and nuance behind their words. White writers do their homework. White writers work harder than they're used to working and think thoughts they're not used to thinking, and consider how their words might look to children who are not White.

This is difficult, and necessary. I know how difficult it is, because I wrote Jefferson's Sons. It took me a very long time to get parts of that book right. I learned a great deal. If I can do it, so can everyone else. We are lucky to be able to write stories; it's on us to write good ones.