Episode 7 - Mirrors and Windows - TRANSCRIPT
[HOOK] so something that looks wonderful to a white person can look completely the opposite to a native person.
This is The Beginning of Your Life Book Club a podcast celebrating the transformative power of children’s literature and the magic of picture books. I’m your host, Emily Akins.
Episode 7 Mirrors and Windows
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Have you seen the infographic called “Diversity in Children’s Literature” illustrated by David Huyck? It came out in 2016. I’m going to link to it in my show notes - and I want you to look at it if you haven’t seen it before. Actually, I want you to look at it again even if you HAVE seen it before. Because each time I look at it, I see again so clearly the “all white world of children’s books.” This is the phrase that Nancy Larrick used in her influential article of 1965 and certainly there has been some progress since then. But David Huyck’s illustration, which he developed with Sarah Park Dahlen and Molly Beth Griffin using 2015 data from the publishing industry, suggests that there’s still so far to go.
Here’s what you’ll see when you look at the 2015 Diversity in Children’s Literature infographic:
There are 5 children depicted. 5 children and a rabbit. The child on the right is a white boy with blond hair and blue eyes. He is completely surrounded by a multitude of mirrors of all shapes and sizes. In other words, his likeness is reflected all around him. In fact - his likeness may be the only thing he sees. He represents the 73.3% of books published in 2015 that depict white characters. Next to the boy is a rabbit smiling at its own reflection in a large full length mirror though the rabbit has just one mirror. This rabbit depicts the 12.5% of books published that depict animals, trucks, etc. Next is an African American child representing 7.6% of books that depict Africans or African Americans. His mirror is a small hand-held one. An Asian child has an even smaller mirror representing 3.3% of books that depict Asian Pacifics and Asian Pacific Americans. Next a boy with an even smaller mirror represents the 2.4% of books that depict Latinx children. And finally, on the left, a Native American child has a mirror so small you can hardly see it. And that represents the 0.9% of books depicting American Indians / First Nations.
I want to make sure you heard that number. 0.9%. Not even a whole percent. Compared to 73.3% of books that depict white characters.
Just as the powerful imagery of a picture book can really stick in your heart or mind, this infographic has stuck in mine.
These children and their mirrors - not to mention their expressive faces - make it so painfully obvious that nearly ¾ of the books published in 2015 do NOT depict indigenous people or people of color. That 73% majority is a huge number compared to the paltry percentages of every other demographic, and the Native American percentage is the paltriest.
So, let’s talk about those mirrors and windows that Dr Rudine Sims Bishop suggested. And let’s talk about what happens when a child has too many windows or too many mirrors. Or too few of either.
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In June of 2018, I attended the Children’s Literature Association conference and heard a thought-provoking keynote address delivered by Dr Debbie Reese, a noted scholar in children’s literature who is the editor of American Indians in Children’s Literature, a blog she began in 2006. A few months later Dr Reese and I spoke by phone and she shared with me how she began her work.
Dr Debbie Reese: “I'm from one of the Pueblo nations in what is currently called New Mexico. It is north of Santa Fe and um, I am currently living in the state of Illinois where I came to work on my graduate degree in education. At the time I was living on our reservation in New Mexico and was doing the family literacy program and wanted to study that in a more academic way. I was a former school teacher and I wanted to study this particular quote unquote transaction of what's going on when a parent and a child or an adult and a child are reading together. So that's what I set out to do. But uh, I got to Illinois and that changed very quickly because the university had a mascot that was very powerfully shaping the ways that people in Illinois were thinking about native people.
And so I'm still interested in studying children's books. I shifted my focus to wondering how are picture books shaping what these folks are thinking today when they defend a mascot. And I started looking at picture books and I saw that many of the classics and many of the department store kinds of books that are mass market things. So the, um, clifford the big red dog and books like that, that are easily available. I started looking at the images of native peoples in those books and I thought, well, there it is right there, this big feathered headdresses arms raised to the sky one hand up to say "how" all of those things are packed into mascots. And so I could see how the, that, that idea that we all have as people that work with children's literature, that um uh books shape who we are, they inspire us, are inspiring people to do embrace things they ought not embrace.”
In my conversation with Dr Reese, I recognized immediately the dark side of the magic or power of picture books that Megan Dowd Lambert had pointed out to me. It’s that ability of negative images to get stuck in people’s hearts and minds (just as effectively as positive ones).
With the statistic from the diversity infographic - that 0.9% of books depicting American Indians, and with the images I encounter as I have been exploring this topic I am seeing that there are two problems at work here. Too few books depicting Native Americans and misrepresentations in what few books there are. That pair of problems is significantly limiting the way that non-Native-Americans understand Native Americans. And is significantly, negatively impacting the Native American children of today who, every time they open up a book, see so little of themselves accurately represented.
Let’s recall what Dr Bishop wrote in her 1990 essay Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. She wrote, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part. Our classrooms need to be places where all the children from all the cultures that make up the salad bowl of American society can find their mirrors.”
It is a problem that people of color and indigenous people feel devalued. I would also add that it’s a problem for white children to be misguided because they have absorbed a distorted view of the world around them; because all they can see are reflections of themselves. As author and Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg said on Twitter in late 2018, “We need diverse representation not only so every kid can see themselves as the hero of the story, but so that every kid can understand that *other* kinds of kids are *also* the heroes of the story.”
These short-sighted stereotypes and the imbalanced representation that is so prominent in children’s literature create a self esteem imbalance too. According to Dr Reese, “Research shows that problematic stereotypical images depress the self esteem of Native American youth.” And “Stereotypical images increase the self esteem of non native youth.”
And those stereotypes lead to implicit bias, as Dr Reese explained when I asked her how reading picture books is different from reading other kinds of books.
Dr. Reese: Well, let's see. That's how are picture. How is reading picture books different as, as indicated, image carries a lot of weight has packed with ideas of the person who created the image and most of the time those people are white. And so they are usually bringing white perspective to the world. Their own trainings and teachings and learning is what comes out on the page of the illustrations that they're creating in their picture books. Um, so the, the transaction that happens there, and there's some scholars who write about this as a transaction that the child picks it up and looks at that and um, is interpreting it that-- reading what the picture book has in it there. So there's a lot of cognitive work that's going on, when kids are sitting with an adult or by themselves and looking at the pictures in a book. Um, so much of it is dependent on what they know and who they are. And so something that looks wonderful to a white person can look completely the opposite to a native person.
Implicit bias is … well … implicit. So it’s hard to see or to fight against. I asked Dr Reese if reading picture books as a young child is part of what embeds these problematic stereotypes so deeply.
Emily: “Do you think that because picture books are something that we read when we are so young, do you think that that contributes to some of these implicit biases because we absorb it at such an early stage that it just becomes foundational to our perceptions of the world?”
Dr Reese: Yes, indeed, and I think there is. There's a lot of brain research about that. An image and how. I can't tell you the research right now. I really need to have that handy so I can use it more, but I was talking with a professor in cognitive science at the University of Wisconsin probably 10 or 12 years ago, and she was working on a study about image and the rapidness with which image goes to the part of your brain where you keep information. Oh yeah. It was that a picture's worth a thousand words idea. But in a cognitive science framework. And she said that you can say all the words that you want. But once you have shown that picture, you can't unsee that picture. You're it's there in your brain.
Just like, as I mentioned in episode 6, how I struggled to unsee all the blues I’d seen my whole life when I was a kid reading the book Knots on a Counting Rope...it’s so hard to unsee the biases that are so deeply ingrained in us. Those pictures that have an affect on us whether we realize it or not - just like Molly Bang said.
Oh, but I promised you all I would tell you another story about Knots on a Counting Rope.
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I remember this book so vividly. It’s on my list of top 11 favorite picture books, as I mentioned before. I had to choose 11 because I couldn’t narrow it down to my TOP TEN Favorites.
So Knots on a Counting Rope. It has beautiful, sprawling watercolor illustrations as expansive as the sky … colors so crystal clear that they were seared into my memory. And that little blind boy who asks his grandfather “What is blue?” which, when I read it as a child, completely gobsmacked me with my own sighted privilege and challenged my basic assumptions about people’s experience of the world. I loved this book.
So … I gasped a little when I found Knots on a Counting Rope on a Books To Avoid List on American Indians in Children’s Literature. The boy and the grandfather in the story are Native American though there is no mention in the text of a specific tribe. I read more about this book in a review by Doris Seale which is linked to on Dr Reese’s site; it turns out that the depictions of native dress are inaccurate, the whole “counting rope” idea is specious, and even the blind boy describing his world as “dark” - when he in fact had never seen light - might not even be an accurate understanding of vision loss.
I was so disappointed.
So, I sat with this new knowledge. And processed. And cycled through the following thoughts: I don’t want this book to be bad. I love this book! I don’t want to give it up. It was a significant part of my childhood; I have important memories associated with it. What am I supposed to do now?
I asked Dr. Reese about it.
Dr Reese: And I understand that attachment and I had that attachment too. I don't know how much you've read on my blog, but I really used to like Five Chinese Brothers.
Emily: Yes. I remember you mentioned that in your interview with Matthew Winner.
Dr Reese: Yeah. That’s one of those books that you, you know, and this is the power of picture books and what
Dr Reese: they carry is that all I have to do about that book is think about it and I can see it and I can even smell the place where I read that book. These are the, all these memories that, that are in our bodies that get packed into the reading of a particular book. I let it go because obviously,
Emily: well as I was, as I was sitting with it, um, I thought I don't want to let it go because it had a deep impact on me and then I finally realized I have to let it go because it is capable of having a deep impact and I want to have a positive, deep impact on my children. Not a misrepresentation deep impact on my children. Almost like because it's so powerful, I have to let it go.
Dr Reese: Right. Right.
Dr Reese describes her whoosh of nostalgia and it reminds me of my own experiences of nostalgia. And I don’t want to add to my kids’ whoosh of nostalgia any unfair misrepresentations.
The imagery we present to our children will stick and it will inform their understanding of the world starting from a very tender age and if we show them depictions that are unfair then we are not paving the way for equality.
Sure I’m disappointed to see a favorite book fall from grace but ultimately I decided that this is NOT about me. And if I really am someone who believes in fair treatment for all people, someone who believes in empathizing with and understanding people who have a different lived experience than me … well then, I have to be intentional about the picture books we read.
So, what do I lose by letting Knots on a Counting Rope go? And what do I gain?
If I replace this book with books that are accurate in their representation of someone else’s lived experience, I won’t lose my warm fuzzy memories with my mom; nor does letting go of this book mean I can’t create warm fuzzy memories with my kids today. The truth is, Mom and I are still pretty tight and my kids and I are still pretty tight even if I stop reading this book to my kids. We are reading together and building those strong relationships anyway. And - hopefully - we’re establishing a strong foundation of empathy and understanding by being careful and deliberate with what we read and by not perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
And I guess it’s just as well that I had 11 books on my Top Ten list of favorite picture books. Now I can land at an even 10.
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I would be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge that in 2018, as I was working on this project, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Little House on the Prairie were in the news a lot. In June the American Library Association announced their decision to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder award. Twitter has been all atwitter about it. I haven’t joined the fray nor do I plan on expounding at length here on Wilder’s Little House series. Namely because (confession time) - I never read any of those books. Not a single one. So I have no deeply rooted personal associations with them. As for the award’s name change - I’m in favor of it. I firmly believe we are past the time when we can blithely plow ahead without stopping to acknowledge how imbalanced our windows and mirrors are. And furthermore, how important it is to make sure that the people and places depicted in the books we read are accurate and authentic.
Dr. Reese: If I can zip over to Little House on the Prairie that that's one of the most troubling books out there and is one of the conversations that I've had in the 25 years that I've been doing this work that is most troubling because in that book when a teacher is reading that book aloud and that's exactly how it's used in a lot of classrooms in the United States at third grade is when historical fiction starts to come into the curriculum. And so reading aloud for schools that are doing read aloud sessions, a teacher is likely to use that book and um, in it are three instances in which a person in the book says, the only good Indian is a dead Indian. Now I asked teachers this, this is my daughter. Just imagine my daughter is sitting right there in of you and you're reading that line. What is that doing to her? What is it doing to her when you're reading session is over? And then it's time for a spelling test or a high stakes standardized test. The rest of the kids in the classroom are likely going to just go from the read aloud session to the testing session
Emily: without missin’ a beat.
Dr Reese: Right. And the native child is thinking, Wow, my teacher just said the only good Indian is a dead indian.
If books are powerful then they also have the power to hurt instead of to help.
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Sergio: You haven’t mentioned these yet but you mentioned elephant - I really liked the Babar books
This was a late night chat that Sergio and I had with our friends Matthew and Charlotte as they discussed their own favorite books falling from grace.
Charlotte: I grew up with those too. I felt very fond of those. But they’re like terrible colonialist.
Matthew: It turns out like they’re pro-racist Nazi books for kids.
Charlotte: I actually got rid of ours
Charlotte: because I started reading about
Emily: See, nothing is sacred.
Charlotte: They’re just cartoonified versions of like belgians in the congo.
Sergio: Really!? Oh my gosh. I don’t remember that at all. I thought they were so cute.
Charlotte: … animalized, so.
Sergio: Well I gotta check those out again.
Charlotte: I grew up with those. They were very popular in Italy when I was a kid. I think I probably had them in Italian. Yeah, Babar
Emily: I’ve typed Babar r-a and
Charlotte: What came up?
Emily: Babar racism. “How to read a racist book to your kids.” Oh I’m bookmarking that for later.
I wish I could say that it’s just one book or just one part of one book that we have to learn how to deal with today. But there are a lot of older books being revisited. And, in fact, there are new books being written today that, unfortunately, do perpetuate harmful stereotypes. It would seem to me, though, that publishers are (in some cases) responding. Just in the six-month span of my work on this project there were two books (that I’m aware of) slated for publication in 2019 that were cancelled by publishers after members of the industry expressed concern about their racist content.
And there are many organizations working to help bridge those gaps in representation. Blogs like Multicultural Children’s Book Day, Here We Read, Biracial Bookworms - I’ll link to all of these in my show notes - and the very straightforwardly titled We Need Diverse Books.
WNDB is an organization that asks us to “Imagine a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.” I spoke with Nicole Johnson, Executive Director.
Nicole: Okay, so we need diverse books is a nonprofit and grassroots organization, um, and we advocate for essential changes in the publishing industry and our aim is to really help produce and promote literature that reflects and honor the lives of all young people.
Until Nicole became WNDB’s first executive director in June of 2018, the organization had been led by a passionate group of volunteers - a range of authors, illustrators, librarians and other industry professionals who, led by author Ellen Oh, started the movement in 2014 in response to an all-white, all-male panel of children’s books authors at a major convention. What started as a powerful grassroots social media campaign has become a prominent organization with programs directly impacting diverse authors.
Nicole: So we recognize all diverse experiences including but not limited to Lgbtqia, native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities and ethnic culture. And religions, religious diversity and for us, you know, we, we support diverse representation in children's literature and across the publishing industry because we acknowledged that while there are, um, the percentage of books with diverse characters be saying there has been growth in that the percentage of titles written by, uh, folks of color, folks with disabilities, that, that percentage isn't necessarily growing and changing. So we do, we put in place a number of programs to sort of support marginalized voices and making sure that they have access to the industry. Um, as I mentioned before, we have our mentorship program which mentors early artists and writers, they're kind of early in their career and giving them sort of in the work to kind of move through there, get critique and feedback on their work and then introduce them to other agents and editors so that their work can ultimately get published.
Um, we also recognize that marginalized artists are often faced with financial roadblocks that prevent them from being able to even create work. Um, so we initiated the Walter Dean Myers Grant, um, which is a way for us to provide funding resources to writers who have a project or working on a project. We just need that little extra resources, um, to get their work completed. And then lastly, the, you know, the, we really the other way that we show value for own voices and making sure that there is diverse representation in children's literature is we host. Um, and we created the Walter Dean Myers Award for outstanding children's literature, um, and it honors exemplary diverse books created by diverse artists. We created the Walter Dean Meyers award as a way to really make sure that we're broadening when we apply our full definition of diversity. So we, we want to make sure that we're sort of reviewing a whole range of titles and also that, um, these are works that were exemplary diverse books created by diverse artists.
It’s important to acknowledge the full range of diversity - a wide swath of diverse experiences. There’s also a need to share a wide range of stories within one group of people, so as to avoid the “danger” of just one story as Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche calls it. ChimaMANduh Ngozee Ahdicheh She describes her experience reading as a child in her TED talk in 2009 called “The danger of the single story.” (Shake it)
She said, “Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.”
She continues in her TED Talk, “What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.”
Chimamanda goes on to explain how having a single story of one type of people or of one place results in what she calls a default position or, perhaps, we might also suggest, implicit bias. This is why We Need Diverse Books.
Here’s Nicole again:
Nicole: Well I think books allow us to, to explore differences, right? Um, and I think for a long time, diversity, particularly racial and ethnic diversity, you know, the books were, and we still need these books. So I don't want you to say we don't know. We still need these books. The books were available though. We're heroes. Shero books, right? Or they were slavery and oppression. Titles, right? So how we overcame and how, you know. So again, we still need those books, right? So because we cannot, I think as an African American woman, I want my kids to know that there was slavery, that there was a whole experience that has led us to this point and is in a lot of ways that that level or degree of racism is still affecting our lives and still affecting the society that we live in. But I also want him to imagine a world where racism and oppression isn't, you know, the prevailing, um, you know, prevailing value that exists in our society, right? Like I want him to be able to imagine that and I wonder to be able to imagine that he is more than, you know, um, and he's more than, you know, police brutality that's happening, you know, he happens to hear on the radio or in the news. And so I, you know, I, I want him to understand that. But it again, it gives you, you are a whole person, right? We are whole people and um, there's a way in which we can yes continue to educate about the past and the history and the present, right? The struggles and the racism and the prejudice that we experienced today. But there's also so much more about who we are as people, what we will become, the opportunity that, that presents for us to create something new and create something different and to recognize the diversity of so many and intersectionality. Right? So race, gender or sexuality, right? Like I think there is, there is a complexity emerging, particularly in YA and young adult books. There's the diversity and complexity that's emerging in the narrative that is allowing people to really kind of represent this wholeness. Like I am not just, you know, the racism I experienced. I am not just the, the abuse I experienced, I am, we are far more than that. Yeah. We are more than that.
We love books because of the way they make us feel - we love kids books because we remember them so fondly from our own childhood. It is precisely BECAUSE books grab hold of us so tightly that I want to be respectful in the choices I make. And it is precisely because of that power that I feel some optimism and hope about the future … and that makes me want to hold tight to the books that make all of us better.
Nicole: There's something about books and literature and children's books in particular that I think can create, can shape this generation and how they think and how they see the world that I think then propels us. Like, um, even more so into this new world order, this new world view. If through books, through children's books and picture books and YA is if my kids can somehow be afforded a new narrative and they walk in the world with that narrative. I'm extremely hopeful.
The Beginning of Your Life Book Club is written and produced by me, Emily Akins with original music by Sergio Moreno.
This podcast is made possible by the creative division at Hallmark Cards, where we believe that when you care enough, you can change the world.
Special thanks today to Dr Debbie Reese, Nicole Johnson, Matthew Schmidt and Charlotte Anderholt.
And thanks to you, too, for listening.
Follow me on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and on my website - TheBeginningofYourLifeBookClub.com.
Kate: My name’s Kate and my age is 4. My favorite book is the busy busy book. And the dinosaur book.
Emily: That sounds great!
Kate: Dragons love tacos
Emily: Oh, I like that one too.
Bella: My name is bella and my age is 7 and my favorite book, one of my favorite books at the library is the very fluffy kitty.
Emily: I haven’t heard of that one. … And do you want to tell me your favorite thing about reading.
Bella: It’s that you get to learn and sound out new words that you never heard of.