The Borderlands of Self in brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

browngirldreaming.jpgJacqueline Woodson’s brown girl dreaming is a memoir. It unfolds slowly and surely in the present tense, told in the voice of one of the finest writers of our time. It is also history and family, music and language, and above all it taps the liminal quality of youth. Woodson draws the people in her life with tenderness, even while she filters them through memory, sees them with her younger eyes. Life events are served up as vignettes in poetry.

The family’s past and the children’s present are loaded with American history itself, the country’s terrible injustices embodied and mirrored in the lives of children and grownups, contained in family memories. Injustice, but also resistance, sometimes delivered up with humor and the hiss of spray paint.

Form and content are perfectly aligned. The verse narrative form itself allows the borders between past and present to be made permeable, so the reader can at once be on a sequential journey and flying forward on young Jackie’s wings of longing.

Because always in the book that interior self seems present. The emerging writing self, at once tentative and determined, filled with unexpected intuition, making connections beyond the obvious.

Maybe, I am thinking, there is something hidden
like this in all of us. A small gift from the universe
waiting to be discovered.

And emerge she does, within these pages. In the first haiku, in homage to Langston Hughes, in a series of delicate, numbered poems, each titled “how to listen.” In  the delicious realization that words on a page can make a person cry.

…on paper, things can live forever.
On paper, a butterfly
never dies.

Ah, Jackie Woodson. Your story matters, to be sung on an “orange afternoon” for all the brown girls who still need permission to dream in this crazy world.

Oh No! It’s the Bright Orange Beastie

trumpWhat is a Trump anyway? Who in the last century would have imagined that we’d be pondering that troubling question in 2016, or that this brave new century would morph into The Age of Perpetual War?

As we head into the ominous storm of the first ever Reality TV Presidential Campaign (Oh no! Libba Bray, say it ain’t going to be a Reality TV Presidency!) here’s a humorist’s take on The Trump–in picture book form. Written by Michael Ian Black and illustrated by Marc Rosenthal.

Not for children, necessarily, or for the faint of heart.

“Still A Worst Problem,” or More on the Diversity Baseline Survey

diversity102-logo-e1426107884357From the Lee & Low Blog:

Since its release, the Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS) has become the most visited blog post we have ever produced. The DBS has been widely read and written about, and has opened up a renewed interest in how to improve staff diversity in the publishing industry.

If surveys and statistics aren’t your thing, maybe this post on the We Read Diverse Books site will make more sense. An eight-year old reader writes:

Furthermore it’s still a worst problem because in the Scholastic catalog, we found out that there was 100 books and there was seven diverse books and ninety-three books of white characters!

There. What a voice that is! I hope someone’s listening.

Connecting Books and Young Readers: An Open Book Foundation

Gaithersburg_201420140520_102123When I was in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC recently to attend the Gaithersburg Book Festival, I stopped by Strawberry Knolls Elementary School. Strawberry Knolls lives up to its lovely name. Students and staff were generous and welcoming, and everyone was appreciative of my books, my time, my presence in the school, and the foundation that made my visit possible. Look at this lovely post by 1st grade teacher Laura Ado.

anopenbooklogoAn Open Book Foundation is a DC area nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring authors and illustrators to schools in the Nation’s Capital. Not only do they arrange the visits and host the visiting authors and illustrators, but they also purchase or arrange for donations of books so that every child leaves at the end of the day with a book. Sometimes these are the first books these children have ever owned. That should not be the case, certainly not in communities in and around Washington, DC. But that’s the way it is.

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I came home with a stash of thank you notes. No one can do rainbows like a six year-old. One child took four elements of the book jacket of my picture book,  Out of the Way! Out of the Way! and integrated them into his own jaunty image. Wow. This is why I write for kids!

Article 17 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically calls for states who are party to the convention to “encourage the production and dissemination of children’s books.” The United States at this time is a signatory to the convention, but has yet to ratify it.

Common Errors in American children’s books with South Asian content

This isn’t about the right to write. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying a writer of one race or culture should never write of people from another.  That would mean I couldn’t, for example, write about protagonists who might be of European or alien or bunny ancestry. Me, I’m not about to give up those possibilities!  But the truth is that we’re inheritors of our common history, and we’d be fooling ourselves if we pretended that the past didn’t involve the stealing and appropriation of story, as well as land. Further, in the children’s market, we’re writing for “readers-in-progress,” so to speak, since young readers are still developing their knowledge and sense of the world.  Don’t we need to make sure we give them material that is accurate?  Here are some common errors that can be found in books with South Asian characters, background, or setting.  All examples cited below are from actual books, published by major American publishers within the last 15 years.

  • Factual errors: errors in historical dates, or omission of significant material.  A nonfiction book about Pakistan refers to the pre-1947 region as Pakistan.  Excuse me.  Did we imagine the entire saga of Partition?
  • Errors of cultural representation: names specific to one religion or geographical area are given to characters from another, such as a Hindu kid called Karim; the misnaming of things, e.g., a rural Indian character uses the anglicized term “Ganges” to refer to the river instead of the more natural Sanskrit and vernacular “Ganga.”  Or people from one area behave in ways consistent with the cultural practices of another.  E.g., a well-known YA novel has southern upper-caste Hindu women covering their heads when men enter the room.  That might happen in some circles in northern India, but in southern Hindu traditions it’s mostly considered inauspicious for a girl or married woman to cover her head. Minor quibbles? For those who know their geography, these things could make the difference between a convincing story and a disappointing one. Ignoring them definitely conveys the message that people from the region concerned don’t count.
  • Errors of spelling in transliteration of names (e.g., Daskin for Daksin, Kirshna for Krishna).
  • Layout and captioning errors: e.g., a stunningly beautiful nonfiction book about one part of Bengal includes a page about the Bengali language. The author has obviously done her homework.  But the image of a bit of wall graffiti in Bengali is–upside down!  A book about Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala has a picture of a page with Hindi lettering, but the caption tells us this is the Tibetan language.

Turning a cultural tradition or social problem into the raison d’etre of a plot in a work of fiction is another problematic common practice.  I read books like that and think, Hmm, where’s the story?

  • Finally, that elusive thing, voice.  It just doesn’t work to set a story in Afghanistan or Tibet, and then make the protagonist think and react the way an American child would.  Surely such “geographical fiction” ought to be approached with the same meticulous research and steeping in attitudes and norms that we are told we must bring to the creation of historical fiction.

If you’re a reviewer, please don’t get swept away by a lush locale or a sorry social context. Give the story the same critical look you would give to one set in a more familiar place and time. Don’t accept the need for narrative to step back and deliver social commentary, any more than you would accept that from a book set in New York City. And ask yourself if the story is doing justice to the place it purports to represent. If you’re not sure, it’s not too hard to find an informed reader to offer additional opinions for you to consider. I was recently sent a review copy of a nonfiction book on Sikhism. I’m not Sikh, so I got a friend who is to read the book and give me his comments. He found a few errors I might have missed, yet confirmed that the author had, all in all, approached the subject with care and respect.

If you’re an author or an editor working on a book set in South Asia, and you are personally unfamiliar with imagery, cultural and social nuance, or other contextual material, please consider using a consultant familiar with the region.  Keep in mind that all parts of South Asia are not alike, so if your story is set in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, for example, it will not do to get readers whose knowledge is of Tamilnadu or Bangladesh!  In this age of instant comunication, in which every overseas consulate in the continental United States has fax, e-mail, and a Cultural Attache, viewpoints and opinions can be traded and shared with greater ease than ever before.