Pathologizing the Canary

Canary

A domestic canary of the type historically used to detect gas in coal mines. [Image source: Wikimedia Commons–no machine-readable author provided]

All of sixteen years ago, Lani Guanier and Gerald Torres wrote a book titled The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy. It pointed to race as the miner’s canary, an unfailing indicator of underlying problems in society that ultimately affect everyone, not just minorities. It suggested that winner-take-all hierarchies of power had failed. It called for building grass-roots, cross-racial coalitions to remake structures of power, to foster public participation in politics and reform the process of democracy. In a related AACU address in 2005, Guanier said:

 

…the experience of people of color in higher education is the experience of the canary in the mines. The problem with the way we have been thinking about that experience is that we have tended to pathologize the canary. That is, we see problems that come to our attention because they are associated with a visible and vulnerable group. And then we assume that those are the problems of the canary, rather than heeding the warning that those canaries are giving to us that it is actually the atmosphere in the mine that is toxic–not just for the canary but for the miners as well.

Edith Campbell brings the inquiring canary approach to her SLJ post,  “The Review is Critical,” Edith Campbell brings the inquiring canary approach to book reviews:

Traditional reviews limit themselves to how the story is presented by discussing characters, themes, plots, and setting. Critical book reviews go beyond this by focusing on how people and events are represented, whose voice is missing from the story, and the ways in which power is enacted. This reading strategy of the word and the world has implications across every form of literacy as it empowers readers to more fully realize the architecture of the information presented.

Campbell’s piece lists reviewers who examine the word and the world in ways that shine the light of re-envisioning upon our field. They’re a prolific, informed, opinionated bunch. It’s liberating to navigate those sites and hear all those voices taking part in a conversation of books. Because it’s easy to see story as consisting only of character, plot and setting. And reading the word is directly connected to reading the world. And since, let’s face it, we’re very far from an ideal world of peaceful coexistence, maybe it’s about time to start listening to the canaries.

Grace Lin on the Kidlitwomen Podcast

Grace Lin‘s books are gems, every one. Over the years, she has mined her own childhood for funny, upbeat stories that shed light on what it means to grow up Asian American.

   Artwork for Essay by Ellen WittlingerAnd now, with impeccably  rendered introductions charmingly bookended in kid voice, Grace has launched the Kidlitwomen Podcast. Here, via essays and interviews, she takes on ageism with Louise Hawes, librarian adoration of male writers with Kate Messner, intersectionality with Tracey Baptiste, editor gender bias with Ellen Wittlinger, women writers’ financial fears with Nancy Werlin, determining your own value with Emma Dryden, and more.

I’m looking forward to more. I am so grateful for these women who are speaking up about issues that matter in our field. Refusing invisibility–how much do I love that?

Thank you, Grace Lin!

Shapeshifting Facts

L1070098In Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, this year, I saw grey whales from so close that when one of them spouted, a great fountain of moist air and, shall we say nostril contents, showered over all the people in the boat. What astonishing life-forms they are! Their size puts us humans in our place. The pangas, fishing boats that work for the whale watching tour companies, take visitors out into the lagoon, then shut their engines off and wait. The whales appear. It’s a humbling experince.

baja grey whaleThis one came up under the boat and surfaced on the other side. If it had intended to tip us over, there is no doubt it could have. From the panga, we could see the barnacles encrusting the rubbery, marbled skin. We could even spot the tiny eye before a sudden dive rocked the boat and the whale, seeming to laugh at us, slapped its tail-fluke and was gone.

So I started thinking, how do we portray whales in books for young readers? It turns out that if you look at children’s nonfiction over the years, the public misinformation of generations shows up. This Hakai Magazine article plots the delivery of inaccurate science to kids. Excerpt:

In a 2016 article called, tellingly, “Cetacean Frustration,” four British scientists surveyed picture books that feature whales and other cetaceans. Of 116 books, 74 had errors. The rate was higher in fiction, but almost half of the nonfiction books also contained errors.

Part of the problem, of course, is that children’s books often hang around for generations. Parents tend to buy their kids the books that they themselves loved as children. But with nonfiction, those books get dated really fast. And in a world where these giants of the ocean are seriously endangered by our irresponsible behavior over the centuries, don’t we owe young readers the facts as best we know them, in all their beautiful complexity?

 

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan

bronzeanssunflower.jpgAs measured as the movement of the jet-eyed buffalo dear to the heart of the young boy Bronze, Cao Wenxuan‘s novel for young readers is a masterfully crafted work. Sunflower is the daughter of an artist who is sent to a Cadre school during the Cultural Revolution. When her father dies, she’s taken in by a family from the village of Damaidi across the water, where she finds love and belonging and community. The boy Bronze, who does not speak, becomes her brother.

And what a tale it is, of people who are loyal and loving and generous to one another against all odds! Each family member makes allowances, even sacrifices for the others, and they value Sunflower as if she were a precious jewel in their midst. Locusts, illness, natural calamity, aging, death—we see them all, and we see the children grow in spite of them, or perhaps because  of them. Even the casually brutal Gayu comes around in the end to help Bronze and Sunflower when they’re trying to hide from the city people. I could go on and on. There’s a brilliant scene in which the village leader manages a critical meeting, working the crowds, the family, and the officials with a dexterity that brings the lot of them alive in the mind. Those dreaded officials, too, have hearts. They, after all, come to take Sunflower back in order to make amends for having sent her father away in the first place. There’s a sure authorial hand here, nothing invisible about it and yet it never detracts from the story.

And the ending—I won’t give it away other than to say that its golden light suffuses the reading heart, and at the same time, it’s impossible to decide where it lands. It’s a study in ambiguity. Was it a mirage? And if not, where is the hope coming from that we feel so palpably on the page?

Finally, it’s hard to find poetry in a translated work and to feel in it the energy of the source language that it came from, but between Cao Wenxuang (winner of the 2016 Hans Christian Anderson award) and translator Helen Wang, that magic is conveyed across geographical and linguistic borders. Candlewick, 2017 (Walker Books UK, 2015).

Sayantani DasGupta on Identity, Resistance, and the Personal Rakkhosh

kiranmala-reveal-cvrHow do you create celebration out of despair? Someone whose work and thinking I’ve been privileged to follow over the years, physician, teacher, and now children’s writer Sayantani DasGupta explores these overlapping terrains in her article, Nothing About Us Without Us: Writing #OwnVoices Fantasy in The Age of Black Panther

Excerpt:

…when I was young, I rarely saw myself celebrated, or even portrayed at all, in books, media, or the wider culture. As the saying goes, “it’s hard to be what you cannot see,” and since I hardly saw myself at all, I almost became convinced that maybe I shouldn’t even be – in other words, that I should make myself small, quiet, and nearly invisible.

Small, quiet, and nearly invisible no more. Racism and intolerance are the demons in our world. Supernatural solutions are the tools of fantasy but the real stuff? For young Kiranmala as for all of us humans, that comes from within. From resistance and community and a refusal to be silent.

Congratulations, Sayantani, on your beautiful new book. May your voice ring many bells among young readers and the  people who care about them.

History from Within in Under a Painted Sky

paintedskyA different kind of western here, with two girls pretending to be boys, heading out to the great beyond, following the trail of hopeful Argonauts. Each is after her own escape. “Chinaman’s daughter” Sammy is fleeing from the law after she has fought off and accidentally killed a would-be-rapist. Andy, her black friend and companion and sister in outlawhood, is fleeing enslavement.

Stacey Lee handles all kinds of subtleties with great grace in this novel. Stereotypes get turned on their heads. Andy tells a story and everyone listens with rapt attention. Sammy can hardly wait to ask her, “Was that a story from your ancestors?” Sure, yes, the ready assumption. And then Andy shakes her head and laughs it off, saying, “Nah. I made it up.”

Stacey Lee Headshot.jpg

Photo courtesy of Stacey Lee

In all, what blew me away is how this book mixes darkness with humor, despair with hope. It takes a gritty part of history and gives us a fresh look at it. Humor, clever characterization, lively writing, and the clearly drawn female perspectives lift this book above the usual western staples of plot and adventure. Under a Painted Sky switches up perspective and tells an untold narrative of the west in the same way as do books like Vaunda Nelson’s Bad News For Outlaws or Susan Krawitz’s Viva, Rose!  In doing so it fills out and enriches the history, and gives young readers more complete look at the past than previous generations of books have done. And it works because the narrative stays clear and true to the main character’s vision of the world.

About the author: Stacey Lee is an award-winning author of historical and contemporary young adult fiction. A native of southern California and fourth-generation Chinese American, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall.  After practicing law in Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because, she says, “I wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain.”

“Water is another matter”

Pablo Neruda wrote, relative to the “bristling” earth:

Water is another matter,
has no direction but its own bright grace,
runs through all imaginable colors,
takes limpid lessons
from stone,

MonsoonI’m feeling drawn to thinking about water today. It’s the same sort of impulse that led me to write Monsoon, my very first picture book, which was published all of fourteen years ago. It seems more imperative now.

Maybe it’s just that in the time that’s passed, water has become ever more precious, an ever more fragile resource. Look at what they’re finding out about the delicate dance of ocean currents in maintaining the planet’s temperature.

Annapurna trek.JPGMaybe I’m missing the ice-cold waterfall I walked through, barefoot, three years ago in Nepal.

Whatever the reason, I find myself pulling this book down from my shelf: All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Katherine Tillotson.

Start with the jacket, with the small fish leaping in one corner, the tumultuous wash of blue and the swoop of the title and byline into the book’s interior.

all the waterThe title page takes this further. The fish have wings. The waves take on a purple hue.

IMG_2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still, it’s pretty straightforward. But turn the page and this is what you see:

IMG_2014

There it is.

All the water in the world is all the water in the world.

Simple. Elegant. And in the light of the slowing currents, deeply true. There’s more. I can’t quote the text without showing the images, and I don’t want to spoil the effect of the page turn. But between the art and the words, this book delivers its message with power and grace.

And now I think again about that waterfall. How I walked gasping through it. How it made me feel, for the next few hours, as if I were walking on clouds. How such things are gifts to us from the universe.

There are quite a few books for young readers now that address environmental issues including climate change, but it’s rare to find one that drives home the interconnectedness of living things with the systems and forces that keep the planet capable of sustaining life. Maybe we should be sending copies to policymakers in the United States.

The Legacy of a Newbery Winner from 1928

gayneckI’m grateful to Pooja Makhijani for including my comments in her terrific article in The Atlantic on 1928 Newbery winner Dhan Gopal Mukerji. It made me think about how politics, the laws of nations, and the upheavals of history can disrupt the narratives of people’s lives. We are restless beings, humans. Always have been, ever since the days we streamed out of Africa and ended up in the remotest corners of the planet.  Religion and politics, tyranny and dictatorships have tried to contain us, sometimes successfully. Sometimes we have managed to burst out from behind the restraints they’ve tried to impose. Sometimes only poets, artists, and novelists have the courage to speak the truth.

In 1928, when Dhan Gopal Mukerji went to receive his Newbery medal, he had to hide behind a stand of trees. The award had to be kept secret until the announcement. In a crowd of white librarians, his presence would have given away his status as the winner.

In our time, you’ll find a good number of brown-skinned attendees at the Newbery awards announcements. Yet surprisingly, few of the well-informed, highly educated people at those gatherings today will have even heard of Dhan Gopal Mukerji. Makhijani writes:

…90 years on, this once-celebrated book, which has remained in print since its publication, is rarely mentioned in discussions of racial and ethnic diversity in books for kids, as if Mukerji were some sort of aberration rather than an early chapter of what could have been.

Had the immigration laws not clamped down upon Asians after 1917, Pooja asks, what would books for children look like in the United States today? We may as well ask, what would society look like? Might it be kinder, more inclusive? The story of the bicultural Yuba City families, too, (of which my novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh is a fictional rendering), is largely forgotten. We seem to want to erase the complications of the past, instead of learning from them.

Children’s books constitute an important layer of self for every literate adult. The fuses they light burn long into the future. The rise of xenophobia in American society suggests that we desperately need the adults of tomorrow to be endowed with rich imaginations, empathy for others, and the will to overcome petty differences. Acknowledging and honoring the history of our own field can only help us give tomorrow’s adults the gifts that writers are uniquely able to offer–foresight, intuition, the long view, compassion.

Supriya Kelkar on Research and Family History in Ahimsa

new-visions-award-winner.pngWinner of the New Winner Award from Tu Books/Lee and Low, Supriya Kelkar‘s debut middle grade novel, Ahimsa, takes place in 1940s India, against the backdrop of a nation struggling to unite even as its people fight for independence from British rule. Ten-year-old Anjali is the protagonist, thrown into the reality of a swiftly changing world when her mother announces that she has quit her job to follow Mahatma Gandhi and become a freedom fighter. I corresponded with Supriya in anticipation of her novel’s release on October 2, which is, appropriately enough, Gandhi’s birth anniversary. 
[Uma] What came first for you with this story–the history, the character, an idea, an era, or something else? Talk about what led you to think about writing this book. 
 
IMG_6435 (2).JPG[Supriya] It started with the thought of my great-grandmother, Anasuyabai Kale, a Gandhian freedom fighter in India who was jailed for her role in the movement. I was fascinated by the idea of a strong, sometimes flawed female leader in the early 1900s. As a screenwriter, I thought the story would make a great biopic. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t figure out how to write it as an interesting screenplay. I then thought about making it a fictional story, where the character based on my great-grandmother was not the protagonist, but rather, the mother of the protagonist. But again, I struggled to make it work. Then I had the brilliant idea to write it as a novel to work out the story beats, and then go back and write a screenplay with the solutions I had discovered in the process. Clearly, I had no clue what I was doing because it turned out writing a novel was not a quick and easy task!
 
[Uma] What sources, personal and research, did you tap while you were writing Ahimsa? 
 

Gandhi's letter to Anasuyabai  Kale.jpg

Letter from Mahatma Gandhi to the writer’s great-grandmother. Used by permission of Supriya Kelkar

[Supriya] My great-grandfather had written a biography of my great-grandmother. That book was a great resource. It showed me how life was at the time. The freedom movement could be very small-scale at times, with individuals doing their part to make a difference for a few other people in their area through protests and letter writing campaigns. It also showed how those changes could inspire greater changes in the country. I also used Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, an academic website on Dr. Ambedkar, and old newspapers for research. For personal sources, I spoke to several family members and friends to make sure I was representing the time accurately, including my parents. Since my great-grandmother and grandparents had all passed away, I relied a lot on my great-aunt. She was able to fill in a lot of details about her mother’s story and the time period for me.

 
Ahimsa-cover-revised3 FINAL.jpg[Uma] I find as a writer that every book teaches me something. What did writing this book teach you? 
 
This book taught me the importance of patience and not giving up. I wrote the first draft of Ahimsa in 2003. There were many times over the years that I wanted to give up on the manuscript because it felt hopeless and things weren’t happening fast enough on it. I’m so glad I stuck with it!
  
[Uma] What tripped you up along the way, even after you’d begun to feel more in command of the work? 
 
[Supriya] Despite all the research through the years of writing Ahimsa, it wasn’t until I was working on the copyedit and double-checking my work that I realized a couple of the famous Gandhi quotes I had used in the book were probably things he had never said. It took a while but in the end, I was able to find words that were actually from one of his publications.
 
[Uma] Ahimsa is a concept that’s desperately needed in today’s contentious world. What do you want young readers—and their adult allies, too—to take away from this story?
 
The main thing I want readers of all ages to take away is the importance of empathy. Just because an issue doesn’t personally affect you, it does
not mean the problem does not exist. I hope young readers will be inspired by Anjali’s journey from a child of privilege to someone who is very aware of the wrongs in her world and is willing to do what she can to right them.
[Uma] Congratulations, Supriya Kelkar. Much luck with this book and others yet to come.

Just Get on a Slope

The lessons may have gotten off to a rare and beautiful start, but my (real-life, not fictional) bike-riding saga then proceeded to run into all kinds of setbacks this summer–travel, houseguests, plummeting self-confidence, dead household appliances, no time, questioning the sanity of the endeavor, and so on. The rest unraveled at the speed of a piece of writing coming apart at the seams. The bike sat in the garage, its presence only serving to lower my belief in the entire project.

Does this sound like writing to you?

Today I forced myself to put the helmet on, because once I have done that and wheeled the bike out into the cul-de-sac, there is no going back. It’s akin to turning the computer on and forcing myself to look at yesterday’s draft of the nonfiction work I’m in the thick of at the moment. Then I walked the bike down to the park. I confess I thought it best to get in the saddle a couple of blocks away from home, where I’d be making a fool of myself in the presence of strangers rather than neighbors.

I got on, and managed to navigate a more or less straight line to the end of the paved trail. Great, I thought. I’ll just ride back and repeat. But back was ever so slightly uphill and somehow my best efforts tanked. Several wobbles later, it was perfectly plain that things were not going well. Breathe. Handlebars. Focus. Brakes at the ready. Kick off. Nope-nope-nope. All I got for my pains was a lot of tipping and stalling.

Then the woman bagging her recycling in the house across the road called out, “It’ll be easier if you just get on a slope and ride down.”

Oh. It sounded logical. Why couldn’t I see that on my own? For the same reason, perhaps, that I can’t see the forest for the trees in my own writing.

“Let the bike roll down on its own,” she said. “Really.”

I did. It worked.

I walked the thing back to the other end. Piece of cake. Well, almost but almost was good enough. Walked up. Rode down. Again. And again. It wasn’t always perfect. Twice, I ended up on the grass. But I put in my half-hour. Ten repeats, and I felt halfway capable of doing it all over again tomorrow.

Getting back to the work in progress, I decided to apply the lessons of the day. I read my partial chapter from yesterday looking for a slope to ride down. I found the single paragraph that I knew instinctively would give me momentum. I began writing there, keeping that energy going, pedaling through while keeping my eyes on the horizon of the chapter’s vision. It worked. I made it to the end. It’s not perfect, but it’s moving along. And more to the point, rolling to the end in this way leaves me feeling capable of tackling the work again tomorrow.

It’s all in the mind, but when you harness the gravity of your own draft, you’re letting the words carry you along the natural slope of the work’s landscape. As with a swale that channels flowing water, downhill is sometimes the best way.