My Bio

My Bio
My name is Sharon Levin and I've been reviewing children's literature for 20 years. I founded and run the Bay Area Children's Literature List. My biggest passion (outside my family) is getting books into the hands of children and teens. My favorite thing is getting non-readers to realize that they're readers. I also LOVE t-shirts that have to do with books or literature. As soon as I figure out how to do it, I'll have a click through on the above picture so you can see my entire collection (and where to get them).

May 19, 2015

When we can't see past our own special interests

Recently I was at a FANTASTIC children's literature conference sponsored by the Arne Nixon Center at Fresno State University.  It was called, OUTLAWED:  The Naked Truth About Censored Literature for Young People.  It was informative, inspiring and often heartbreaking as many participants shared how painful it was for them not to see themselves in books.

One of the keynote speakers was Leslea Newman, the author of Heather Has Two Mommies.  Let's put this out there right away, the original version of Heather was a terribly written book.  It was pedantic, wordy, dull.  HOWEVER, as I always say in my book talks, since I always, ALWAYS include LGBTQ, books on my list, it needed to be written. Heather broke down walls, got people talking, and paved the way for better written, fully fleshed out LGBTQ literature (including Ms. Newman's own STUNNING October Mourning).  Ms. Newman faced angry crowds, banning, death threats and more, all because she dared to write a book about a lesbian couple and their daughter.

At the conference Ms. Newman read us the original Heather and then read us the 25th Anniversary edition that is being released this year.  In the first book, all the children are asked to draw pictures of their families (showing that families come in all shapes and sizes).  One of the pictures showed a boy in a wheelchair, the text underneath listed everyone in the picture including, "One boy was in a wheelchair." (okay this may not be an exact quote, I don't actually have the book in front of me). In the new edition, the boy has been erased from the text and the illustrations.  When I asked about this, Ms. Newman answered "They told me the book was too wordy and I needed to cut down the text."  Yes, I'm in complete agreement with that, the book WAS too wordy and it needed some serious editing (it was originally self-published), but why was this boy taken out of the illustrations and why didn't Ms. Newman protest (or her editor notice)?  In a book that was/is about embracing everyone, why was this child so easily deleted?

What would the reaction be if this book had been about a child with Cerebral Palsy or Muscular Dystrophy and one of that child's classmates had drawn a family picture with two moms or two dads, but that picture didn't make it into the newer edition of the book?

There is another book that came out years ago (and is thankfully out of print) called King and King and Family.  Now, I love, LOVE King and King and have been booktalking it since it came out (and, I'm happy to say the reaction to it has gotten less and less hostile over the years). King and King is about a prince who has a parade of eligible princesses brought in front of him and he finally falls in love with one of the princess's brothers.  Delightful! Thought provoking!  Yay!  THEN, these two go on a honeymoon to Africa, and to make a long story (well, not that long, it's a picture book) short, a little African girl stows away in their luggage and they become King and King and Family.  What a bunch of colonialistic BS!  It's written and illustrated by two Dutch women and I do understand the colonial mindset is still there.  I remember going to Efteling, an amusement park in the Netherlands and seeing a ride that was spinning 'cannibal pots' with a 'native' with big lips and a flattened bone pierced nose overlooking the ride, stirring the 'pots'.  This does NOT make it right, but it's harder to be aware of a bias when many in your country think the same way.

However, K&K&F was published by a California (liberal Bay Area even) publishing company.  Did the excitement about supporting a pro gay couple book overshadow the other issues?  As I said in an earlier post, I run into people who are liberal about race, but blindingly sexist.

Can people only consider one issue at a time?  Only support one specific group at a time? I like to think not.  Life, and literature, are more interesting when no one is excluded.



9 comments:

  1. This piece is perfectly timed for me for a reason I can't publicly state, but I can vouch for the fact that not only do colonialist attitudes persist in much of Europe but also shockingly stereotypical views of Native Americans. Remember the controversy over Amazing Grace?

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    1. Oooh, you've piqued my interest. I hope you can tell us at some point what is happening for you. I remember there were issues about Amazing Grace, but I don't remember specifics. Could you fil us in?

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  2. I didn't know what the word "pedantic" meant until we published a book and a good friend told us that he found it a bit pedantic. It is really important, as we look at titles to promote and especially ones to publish that an issue doesn't override quality and inclusion. One of my favorite picture books had an image of a little girl with only four fingers and I thought "Gee, was that a mistake?" Nope! Some little girls only have four fingers.

    Thanks Sharon for giving us something to think about and ALL the ways you promote excellence in literature. And.... for the many times you just help me smile and laugh a little.

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    1. Back atcha Craig! And now I need to know which picture book that was. :-)

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  3. I remember wondering about that when she read it, too. It's a shame that they got rid of that kid, though I can see how the zeitgeist says that then it would have been seen as "too much diversity" or "PC police." That's totally stupid, but maybe Candlewick just wanted the chance for kids with two moms and dads to see themselves without opening up such a can of worms? Not an excuse, but probably a reason.

    (Also, nice to see you yesterday at Chronicle!)

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    1. I hear you and I completely agree that too much can be clunky and pedantic. But, I have a board book called Good Night that I book talk when I'm talking to preschool parents. The reason I include this book (photos of children saying good night) is because there is a Down Syndrome child included. Not part of the plot, not made a big deal of, just another child. Which is how it is in life. I think leaving it out of the text was fine, but I think the picture should have remained. I do wonder what the thought process was

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  4. Now I may be biased about this, but taking the child in the wheelchair out of the story has good and bad implications. As you say, the character may have been removed so the child can focus more on the fact Heather has two mommies (aka, the premise of the text.) On the other hand, it plays right into my area of interest, where disability is omitted or glazed over in children's and young adult literature. On the one hand, the character's omission may very well be a gatekeeping tool the editors use to emphasize the theme of book and capitalize on the book's success. Then again, the omission also denies the child (and adult or young adult reader) exposure to characters who the reader may identify with, or want to learn more about. More things for us, as librarians, teachers, and children's lit scholars to investigate, I say!

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  5. Yes! "the omission also denies the child (and adult or young adult reader) exposure to characters who the reader may identify with, or want to learn more about." Also, I think that the boy in the wheelchair should just be there as a 'norm' in life. I think many (all?) of us have people in our lives who are in a wheelchair or differently abled in some way. Our texts should reflect that.

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  6. Hi, Sharon! Everything you said about everything! And. One of my favorite picture books of all time is KING FOR A DAY by Rukhsana Khan. Set in Pakistan during Basant, the protagonist is a boy who enters and wins a kite-making and -flying contest. It's a beautiful story. That the boy uses a wheelchair is not mentioned in the text or referred to in any way in the illustrations. It's just depicted as part of his gear.

    And re: KING AND KING AND FAMILY, I was in the room when the illustrations came in. I loved the story and hated the racism / colonialism, and said so. It would not have been difficult to omit this part of the story, but the person in charge told me that it was gonna stay because it was written by two Dutch women and that's the way it is. I couldn't believe it, but then again, I could.

    Keep on keeping on!

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