Diversity

Diversity in MG Lit #13 A Look At the Numbers

I am so happy to be back at the Mixed Up Files after a hiatus of a few months. I wanted to kick off the new decade of my series Diversity in MG Lit with a look at the numbers. Many of you are familiar with this infographic from Reflection Press by Maya Gonzalez. I like this one because it shows both where we are and how far we need to go to achieve something that looks like equity.

The number of books published in a given year don’t tell the whole story. Here are some other statistics that give both a fuller and a more encouraging picture.
  1. The NY Public Library recently published its list of the 10 most checked out books in NYPL history. Obviously this structure gives great advantage to the oldest books. Even so the number one spot went to The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats first published in 1962.  Fifty-eight years ago it was the first picture boy to feature a black boy as a main character. It was popular immediately and has been ever since As a bookseller I listen to authors and illustrators a lot. Hundreds of them over the years and many of our most prominent POC writers and illustrators, black men in particular, have pointed to The Snowy Day as a seminal influence on their work and their belief that there was a place for them in the world of books.
  2. The Flying Start feature of Publishers Weekly is designed to highlight up and coming authors and illustrators. In 2019 the Spring Flying Start list featured  2 of 5 or 40% diverse writers including Tina Athaide for Orange for the Sunset and Carlos Hernandez for Sal & Gabi Break the Universe. The Fall Flying Starts included 4 of 6 or 66% diverse creators: Brittney Morris for Slay, Christine Day for I Can Make This Promise, Joowon Oh for Our Favorite Day, and Kwame Mbalia for Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky,
  3. Our newest National Ambassador for Young Peoples Literature is Jason Reynolds, a brilliant choice. Even better, his selection makes 4 of the 7 people (57%) to hold this position Persons of Color. The others are Walter Dean Myers, Gene Luen Yang, & Jacqueline Woodson. 
  4. The American Booksellers Association holds its Children’s Institute every spring. In 2019 five out of seven (71%) keynote or featured presenters were POC. Of the 67 authors and illstrators that publishers brought to the conference to meet independent children’s booksellers from all over the country, 38 or 57% were of diverse backgrounds. (including disabled and LGBT+)
  5. The National Council of Teachers of English was held in November of 2019. Seven of their 10 keynote speakers were diverse. If you looked at all 28 of their featured speakers, you’d find 57% of them were POC.
  6. And finally the 2020 midwinter American Library Association will meet in just a few weeks. This year all six of their featured speakers are diverse. 100%!
I find those data points encouraging. We still have a long way to go, but it is nice to see that teachers, librarians and booksellers are taking leadership in demanding a more diverse representation at our professional conferences. And if you are wondering what you can do—just one person—to make a difference I have three suggestions.
  • Buy diverse books from an independent bookstore. Big box and on line retailers are never going to care about the welfare of authors or readers of any demographic. Indie booksellers do care and they have consistently over decades proven the best venue for making best sellers of little known or debuting authors.
  • Take a moment on social media to call out the folks that are working hard to help diverse books find parity. I’ll start: Hey fellow Portlanders our 2020 Everybody Reads author is Tommy Orange who wrote There There. He is Cheyenne and Arapaho and lives the urban Indian experience in California. His book is amazing! I can’t wait to talk about it with my neighbors and friends.
  • If you don’t see a diverse book you love in your school or library or bookstore, ask for it. Ask regularly. Schools, libraries and bookstores are here to serve you, the public. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about what you want and what you need. Help us out! Change comes when we stand up and say something.

December Holiday Books for Middle-Grade Readers

The holidays are upon us, and reading about diverse December customs seems a great way to celebrate the season. Here are some middle-grade books you might want to check out for your vacation reading pleasure.

 

Winterfrost by Michelle Houts

An ordinary Danish Christmas turns extraordinary when a family overlooks an important folkloric tradition. Christmas has come, and with it a sparkling white winterfrost. When Bettina’s parents are called away unexpectedly, leaving her in charge of the house, the farm, and baby Pia, Bettina neglects to set out the traditional bowl of Christmas rice pudding for the tiny nisse.

No one besides her grandfather ever believed the nisse were real, so what harm could there be in forgetting this silly custom? But when baby Pia disappears, the magic of the nisse makes itself known. To find her sister and set things right, Bettina must venture into the miniature world of these usually helpful, but sometimes mischievous, folk.

 

Penina Levine is a Potato Pancake by Rebecca O’Connell, illus. by Majella Lue Sue

In this Hanukkah story, Penina finds that a glass of cold milk and a hot potato pancake go a long way. Penina Levine is the only member of her family who isn’t looking forward to Hanukkah. Not only is it another chance for her annoying sister to steal the spotlight, but her favorite teacher is taking a mysterious leave of absence, and her best friend is deserting her to go on a dream vacation to Aruba.

Then Penina discovers why Mrs. Brown must go away and hears that a snowstorm may ruin Zozo’s trip, and Penina knows she’s the one who must bring some holiday spirit to her friends. Readers of all backgrounds will relate to Penina as she turns a pile of problems into a Hanukkah to remember.

 

Holidays Around the World: Celebrate Kwanzaa by Carolyn B. Otto

Over the course of seven days, African Americans, families and friends, come together to light the candles that symbolize their past and future—and their unity. They gather as a community to make music and to dance; to feast on harvest foods and the good things of the earth; and to exchange simple, often homemade, gifts. Readers are introduced to the symbols of the holiday, such as the mkeka (a special placemat), kinara (candleholder), and kikombe cha umoja (unity cup). Important concepts, like the seven principles, are explained. In addition, a note from the book’s consultant, aimed at parents and teachers, puts the holiday in its full cultural and historical perspective.

 

Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale by G. Neri

Young Truman Capote thought life in New York City was going to be perfect, but things didn’t work out as planned.

In fact, Tru is downright miserable. So he decides to run away to Monroeville, Alabama, and the only friend he’s ever had, Nelle Harper Lee. But things don’t go well there, either.

Bad things seem to happen wherever he goes. The only explanation: he must be cursed. Christmas is coming, and Tru’s only wish is to be happy. But it’ll take a miracle for that to come true. Luckily, a special feast brings the miracle he’s hoping for. Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale is based on the real life friendship of Truman Capote and Harper Lee.

 

How I Saved Hanukkah by Amy Goldman Koss

Marla Feinstein, the only Jewish kid in her fourth-grade class, hates December.

While everyone else is decorating trees, she’ll be forgetting to light the candles and staring at a big plastic dreidel. The holidays couldn’t get much worse.

So Marla decides to find out what Hanukkah’s really about—and soon she and her family have made the Festival of Lights the biggest party in town!

 

 

Kiesha’s Kwanzaa by Jacqueline C. Grant

Kiesha doesn’t understand what is happening to her family. Papa hides behind the newspaper at dinner time. Her big brother Derrick is grumpy and gets into trouble all the time. And Mama just seems unhappy. If not for her precious library books, Kiesha would be unhappy too.

When she discovers a family celebration called Kwanzaa, Kiesha thinks she has found a way to help her family. She works hard to create a special family Kwanzaa celebration, but is it too late? Young readers will learn about how some families celebrate Kwanzaa, but Kiesha’s Kwanzaa is really about family and togetherness and the power of love.

 

Young Scrooge: A Very Scary Christmas by R.L. Stine

Rick Scroogeman hates Christmas. He can’t stand the carols and the pageants. He can’t stand the lights and the mistletoe.

But what he hates the most is having to watch the old movie A Christmas Carol every year at school.

Since his name is Scroogeman, all of his classmates start calling him Scrooge. And he hates being called Scrooge. But everything starts to change when three ghosts visit him. At first, he thinks it’s a dream. But then he realizes that it might be a nightmare. A nightmare that could become real.

 

 

Dreidels on the Brain by Joel ben Izzy

One lousy miracle.  Is that too much to ask? Evidently so for Joel, as he tries to survive Hannukah, 1971 in the suburbs of Los Angeles (or, as he calls it, “The Land of Shriveled Dreams”). That’s no small task when you’re a “seriously funny-looking” twelve-year-old magician who dreams of being his own superhero: Normalman. And Joel’s a long way from that as the only Jew at Bixby School, where his attempts to make himself disappear fail spectacularly. Home is no better, with a family that’s not just mortifyingly embarrassing but flat-out broke. That’s why Joel’s betting everything on these eight nights, to see whether it’s worth believing in God or miracles or anything at all. Armed with his favorite jokes, some choice Yiddish words, and a suitcase full of magic tricks, he’s scrambling to come to terms with the world he lives in—from hospitals to Houdini to the Holocaust—before the last of the candles burns out. No wonder his head is spinning: He’s got dreidels on the brain. And little does he know that what’s actually about to happen to him and his family this Hanukkah will be worse than he’d feared . . . And better than he could have imagined.

 

A Very Special Kwanzaa by Debbi Chocolate

Charlie’s school is holding a Kwanzaa Festival, and he doesn’t want any part of it. Last year, he was chosen to stand in front of the entire class wearing a dashiki, beads, and sandals- in the middle of winter!

When the class jerk decided to crack jokes about Charlie’s outfit, he became the clown of the third grade. This year he just wants things to be normal.

But Charlie soon learns that Kwanzaa is a celebration of creativity and caring.

 

 

The Return of Light: Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice by Carolyn McVickar Edwards

The winter solstice, the day the “sun stands still,” marks the longest night and the shortest day of the year, and it comes either on December 20th or 21st. Celebrations honoring the winter solstice as a moment of transition and renewal date back thousands of years and occur among many peoples on every continent. The Return of the Light makes an ideal companion for everyone who carries on this tradition, no matter what their faith. Storyteller Carolyn McVickar Edwards retells twelve traditional tales-from North America, China, Scandinavia, India, Africa, South America, Europe, and Polynesia-that honor this magical moment. These are stories that will renew our wonder of the miracle of rebirth and the power of transition from darkness into light.

 

 

Every Christmas in the small town of Pine River, a tree appears in the town square–the Angel Tree. Some people tie wishes to the tree, while others make those wishes come true. Nobody’s ever known where the tree comes from, but the mystery has always been part of the tradition’s charm.

This year, however, four kids who have been helped–Lucy, Joe, Max, and Cami–are determined to solve the mystery and find out the true identity of the town’s guardian angel, so that Pine River can finally thank the person who brought the Angel Tree to their town.

This is a heartwarming Christmas mystery, full of friendship, discovery, and loads of holiday cheer!

 

 

Nutcracked by Susan Adrian

Georgie has waited for this moment her whole life—to dance the part of Clara in The Nutcracker ballet. And when she finally gets the part, it’s like a dream come true . . . Literally.
Every time Georgie dances with the Nutcracker doll, she leaves the ballet studio and enters a world where everything around her—the old wooden furniture, the Christmas tree, the carefully wrapped presents—is larger than life. It’s so magical, Georgie can’t wait to return again and again. Then the Nutcracker’s magic seeps into the real world, putting Georgie’s friend in danger. Everything is falling apart, and it’s almost Christmas! Can Georgie save her friend, the Nutcracker, and most of all, herself?

Would your favorite childhood books get published today?

Writer friends often gripe that classic and modern classic children’s literature is rife with so many of the no-nos we are counseled to avoid. So much exposition! Too much description or flowery language! So episodic. Too much showing not telling. Not to mention the subtle or not so subtle references to dads reading Playboy magazine that I keep finding as I re-read some of my childhood favorites. (Although I’m sure they were all the kinds of dads who subscribed to the magazine because the articles were really good.)

As anyone who has been following my previous posts might guess, I have been caught up in the theme of old-fashioned vs modern and what still feels fresh no matter the decade or era. Continuing in this vein, this time the question I am asking is: would classics that are still in print and greatly enjoyed by young people today, actually get published today?

I posed the question to many different kinds of people in the children’s book publishing industry and in the writing community, both in the US and the UK, and have been having some really interesting conversations. Because my personal taste tends toward the character-driven quieter dramas of everyday life rather than the big action, adventure etc., and those are the kinds of books I want to write, I asked about mid-to-late-century books from authors like Beverly Cleary or Judy Blume, or older ones like Ballet Shoes and Anne of Green Gables, as well as ‘modern classic’ UK favorites like Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl.

I realized that this is a large question and might only be answerable on a case by case basis. And that one could think about it as both a philosophical exercise and as the basic question of ‘if x manuscript landed on an editor’s desk today would it be published?’ But I invited people to take the question in any direction that felt interesting to them and now I would like to share a few answers.

In Short: the answer is NO. And YES.

Kendra Levin, Editorial Director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, said: “Here’s the thing about this question, which is a good one: it’s very hard to imagine an alternate world where those classics you mentioned– Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, Judy Blume’s Fudge books, Roald Dahl, et al– weren’t already published in the past. …one reason I feel books like those don’t get published as much today is that these classics already exist, and are so enduring that anything similar will feel like an also-ran when compared with them.”

This answer both stopped me in my tracks and finally answered what has been bothering me enough to keep exploring it. It seems obvious now and perhaps I have been dense or obtuse because I so love some of these books of the past I was depressed that I couldn’t set out to write one myself. (Never mind personal talent or ability!) But Kendra’s answer reminded me of seeing Pulp Fiction when it first came out. I went to see it three times! I had never seen or experienced anything like it. But if it came out today it wouldn’t be so astounding and beloved because so many movies now look like it or have used its structure. It’s simply the difference between something being an original, done for the first time, and something being derivative. Indeed, we already have Judy Blume.

Wanted: More Mirrors

But Kendra added something that shifted the question and reframed it in an important way:

“What I think more and more people are recognizing is that, while we have many books that do live alongside Ramona, Fudge, and the Dahl catalog, the vast majority of those books continue to represent children who already have the privilege of seeing themselves and their lives reflected in many, many books. There are very few, if any, books about a black (or Latinx or indigenous or Asian-American or…or…or…) girl who does all the things Ramona does, in her own way that’s unique to her life and world– fight with her sister, worry about being creative enough, mishear song lyrics, get into trouble, and so on. Writers and publishers and booksellers have a responsibility to work together to present far more books reflecting the many experiences that have been held outside the gates of published literature, and those are the books that can become the classics of the next hundred years. And many writers and publishers and booksellers are working on this very project as we speak– and I predict that more will commit to it more deeply in the years to come.”

So Kendra thinks that on one hand, something exactly like Ramona or Fudge would not necessarily be published today, but on the other hand, a new Ramona or Fudge can–it just might not look like what some people may picture when they say “a book like Ramona” or “a book like Fudge.” To her, it’s about redefining what you consider a potential classic and expanding the way you create comparisons; resisting putting books into the same boxes they have been put into for the past decades. She said, “The books of Cleary and Blume and Dahl are often called ‘universal’ and we have to recognize that they are not truly universal– and also that a book about a character who is living a different experience than Ramona’s or Fudge’s or Matilda’s can be just as ‘universal’ as these characters are said to be.”

Clever…But Racist

Indeed, I hope the paths toward books published today that will be tomorrow’s classics are wide and infinite. Candy Gourlay, a British-Filipina author, whose Costa-shortlisted book BONE TALK has just been released in the US, and who often speaks about how growing up she didn’t know that characters who looked like her could also be in books, responded to my question like this:

“My books at home as a child were not very contemporary as my parents bought those ‘Children’s classics’ collections sold by door to door salesmen and only discovered Enid Blyton when I moved schools. Nevertheless I loved Tom Sawyer and Heidi and Black Beauty etc. Recently someone on Twitter called me out when I mentioned how much I loved Tom Sawyer on a blog. Why, she asked, do you recommend a racist book? First of all I was not recommending it … I was just stating that this was a book I loved … but I guess she was right in that, saying I loved it was a recommendation. I was stung and terrified that she was right. I re-read Tom Sawyer. It was every bit as clever and well written as I remembered it. But yes, it was racist. Not about black people but about Native Americans. I wrote a blog about it.”

Recently, Candy was tagged on Twitter by teachers discussing how Bone Talk would be a good companion to studying Robinson Crusoe. She said: “I realised they would be studying it on the basis of the primitivism of my heroes, which seems dangerous to me. So I created resources for my website that responded to these issues.”

I highly recommend reading Candy’s thought-provoking and soul-searching post as she grapples with the complicated legacy of the books she loved as a child, and also watching the video she includes of Grace Lin’s PBS video about what to do when your beloved books are racist. Also check out the classroom resources she created for teaching today’s children a classic story alongside her own novel.

Separating the Author from the Book

Then there are the problems with the authors themselves. In 2018 there were several news stories revealing that plans to commemorate Roald Dahl in the UK with a special edition coin a couple of years before had been scrapped over concerns about his anti-semitic views. But during his lifetime, in both the UK and the US, Roald Dahl’s anti-semitic views were known but unremarked on in a way that I cannot imagine an author getting away with today without having their career shattered. Or perhaps I am being naive. Either way, the Dahl books are still staples in libraries, bookstores and homes—including ours—and they are still adored by both old and new generations of readers.

Conclusion: La-di-da-di, We Likes to Party

Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick: their 1984 song La-di-da-di has been sampled over 500 times

Fashions and styles change, but enduring stories do not. Reading Anne of Green Gables today, I am tempted to skip large swathes of description that might bog down or bore (fairly or unfairly) a child of today. It is also largely episodic. Then there is the uncomfortable bit where the bad guy who sells Anne the hair dye that turns her hair green is a German Jewish peddler. But the story itself, about an orphan with spunk who loves beauty and tugs on everyone’s heartstrings—characters’ and readers’ alike—is evergreen. Beyond the classic book that is still in print after more than a century, the story keeps undergoing artistic iterations in the form of plays, movies, graphic novels and TV series, including the latest one on Netflix Anne with an E.

For me personally, Kendra’s answer finally made me see that I was on a path that was taking me in the wrong direction. But also that all is not lost for future Ramonas and Fudges—as well as Toms and Annes—whatever they might look like, whatever their names might be, whatever their small and large dramas, and whatever is unique to their particular world.

Recently I have been obsessed by a TED Talk on originality given by famed musician, DJ, and producer Mark Ronson. He explains that when sampling first started 30 years ago, artists didn’t do it to “cash in on the familiarity.” But rather because they heard something in that music that spoke to them and “they instantly wanted to inject themselves into the narrative of that music.” He shows how one song, La-di-da-di by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick has been sampled over 500 times, by musicians as various as the Notorious B.I.G. to Miley Cyrus. But it’s not derivative because each time it is reimagined and used in a different way. Each musician, or creator, takes an idea—a sample—but makes it their own. He gives the example of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black album, which captures a long-lost sound, but without the very 21st century personality and firebrand that was Amy Winehouse, the project would have risked being pastiche. Instead, she brought the ingredients that made it urgent and of the time. Mark Ronson’s take is that you can’t “hijack nostalgia wholesale” because it leaves the listener feeling sickly. You have to take an element of those things and bring something fresh and new to it.

I love this idea and would argue that this is a good metaphor for any art or artist. And in particular for children’s book writers. For me it is personally a productive way to think about the classics, and what we—any of us, from any background—might choose to create for the children of today, and the future. What do you think?