>Debating Black Books

>Due to popular demand, we’re posting Lelac Almagor’s And Stay Out of Trouble: Narratives for Black Urban Children from the September/October special issue on Trouble. And to further, er, trouble the waters, we have a response to the article from writer Sharon G. Flake. I’d be interested to hear any comments in the comments.

As previously mentioned, I am going to California to see our boys, their wives and the new grandson. Kitty and Lolly will be here to keep you all in line and I’ll be back next week. Au reservoir!

[Update: Lelac Almagor responds]
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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. sanctimommy says:

    >I have to say that Lelac totally lost me in the last paragraph.

    Being disappointed in a bunch of little kids (because, yes, 5th graders are still little kids at heart) because they want the bad guy to get their just desserts and the good guy to prosper seems pretty mean-spirited. Is real life that simple? Of course not. But wouldn't it be nice if it were? Wouldn't it be nice to escape to a universe where that's the case? Say, in a book that you curl up in under the covers after a hard day at school?

    I can't remember any of the titles, but the genre of white kids dealing with major life problems was certainly prolific enough when I was a kid. I personally didn't like them, but they were certainly hot and they certainly won all the major awards. I remember endless books showing up at the library about teen pregnancy (the older sister, as the protagonist would be younger), drug abuse and alcoholism, sexual molestation, severely broken families, homelessness, death. This would have been in the late 80's, and my understanding from my younger sister is that [white] children's literature got even more dire in the 90's. I think the past decade has seen a backlash to those uber-real books in all the fantasy books.

    So maybe the books she's talking about are just a decade behind the trend, but to claim that no such books exist with white protagonists is just bizarre! They might not be popular with her kids, or with the kids at the elite private school, but they do exist.

    I would bet almost anything that if Almagor pushes too hard in her direction, she's just going to teach her students that the only books worth reading are the really "thought provoking" ones, and if you're not going to read those and mull endlessly over nuance, then don't even bother reading anything.

    I guess I should mention that I haven't actually read any of the books being discussed, but it very interesting to read both sides of the debate here. Thank you for publishing both. And congratulations on the grandson!

  2. Literaticat says:

    >I recently rewatched all episodes of MAPP & LUCIA, and I vowed to start saying "au reservoir" in that weird fabulous Lucia-ish voice – but then I forgot. Thanks for reminding me!

  3. Color Online says:

    >First, I'm glad Almagor is not teaching my child. Second, I am sad that she is teaching somebody else's.

    I am thankful for Ms. Flake's response. She got it right. And apparently, my kids know she gets it, too, because her work is always disappearing from our library.

    Author, Neesha Meminger wrote recently that people of color know white people than we know ourselves because we are always bombarded with your perspectives, your images, your standards.
    Whites on the other hand assume they know us. Newsflash: You don't. And don't talk to me about your experiences because Ms. Alamgor's assessments prove that even with exposure you still get it wrong.

    If Almagor doesn't know where to find the diversity she thinks our children deserve, here's a suggestion: Ask a person of color. I could give her list that would take her more than a year to get through.

    As an African American parent who is a voracious reader I have lost patience with the complaint about the quality and availability of good literature featuring people of color. Ask us.

    If you want more options then start demanding that publishers stop pigeon-holing, rejecting and under-representing our writers. Start reading our literature and promoting it. And by the way, while I love the established writers she mentioned, we have more than a dozen, quality writers. Make a greater effort to find us. Of course, you could ask us and finding us would be easier then.

    As people of color, we know all your popular writers. We read many of them, too. We can't walk into a bookstore or read a blog without seeing you. When will you be able to say the same?

    I'm annoyed. We are not invisible. We are here just as plain as the nose on your face. The next time you decide to tell us about who we are, you might think to ask us first if you're on mark. Most times, you not even close to the target.

  4. Color Online says:

    >While I talked about quality and availability, I failed to address the teacher's specific complaint about the type of stories with POC characters. POC writers do write fantasy, sci-fi, adventure, romance and dystopia. The problem is most publishers insist that black writers can only write historical fiction, urban fiction that focuses on poverty or dysfunction and christian lit.

    Additionally, our writers don't always write about poor urban youth who come from broken homes. How can she mention Woodson and not acknowledge this writer creates characters who have stable families and different economic backgrounds? Johnson's, First Part Last is not the stereotypical ghetto drama. Both kids come from stable, middle-class families. And do check out Paula Chase Hyman. Her characters are well-adjusted teens going through the same drama as white teens.

  5. >There are many things in this article I could comment about but I will foucs on this,

    "About the most popular novel in this category is Sharon Flake’s The Skin I’m In, which won the CSK John Steptoe New Talent Award in 1999 and which sometimes makes the summer reading list even at majority-white schools such as the one at which I used to teach."

    Its the end that gets me, "sometimes makes the summer reading list even at majority white schools"

    Why such surprise? Sharon Flake is a well established award winning author. Her books have something to offer all students. As do the works of other authors of color.

    Should schools with a White majority only have books with White protagonist on their summer reading list?

    The next White person who wants to dissect Black children's authors please bring some new names to the table. I am tired of seeing the same authors being criticized or praised.

    And Coe Booth's abilites have been well established and documented. So if that's the first name that comes to mind, you need to think a little harder.

    How about –
    Traci L. Jones or Tonya C Hemgmin
    or G. Neri

  6. CloseReadingRocks says:

    >I'm a little confused as to why people are seeing Lelac's essay as an attack on modern black YA fiction. It seems more like she's found this interesting difference between YA books by white authors featuring white protagonists and YA books by black authors featuring black protagonists, and she's trying to explore that and guess about it. She's basically saying, "hey, I've noticed this thing about goodness and badness, and it's interesting, and I don't at all push my students away from these books, in fact, I buy them new copies every year, but I wonder what it is about these books that makes them reject morally ambiguous books like Make Lemonade and demand books like Skin I'm In." I don't see any criticism of modern black literature, I certainly don't see anywhere in the text where she's taking away books from children. In fact, she fondly and charmingly describes how her students love Skin I'm In, etc., so much that she buys them NEW HARDCOVER COPIES EVERY YEAR: "These are the books that get reread twice before they are relinquished; the books that never get checked in, only passed to the next child in line; the books I must buy new and in hardcover every quarter in order to keep up with backpack-related wear and tear."

    When she says "I do want to push them toward a richer matrix of options," I don't think she's saying "I want to stop them from reading this." Every good teacher sees a child reading one book and says, "oh, you like that one? you might like this one too!" Yet she also seeks to put herself in her students shoes and asks WHY they choose they didactic books: "But I believe that the purpose of story is to help us explain our lives to ourselves; and these are the stories they are choosing."

    The last line is especially telling: "Go ahead and call me a hopelessly unliterary child person: if this is what my children choose to read, I have to entertain the possibility that this is what they need to be reading." Here, Almagor reveals that it is not LITERARY QUALITY that is most important to her, but her students' love of books. She is saying, "I have to put myself in their shoes and understand why they love these books."

    Last point–I really don't think she is in ANY way saying that white YA lit is better than black YA lit. I think we can all agree that there are MORE books written by white YA authors, and, as such, there are more TYPES of white YA books–and one of those types is the individual child adventure novel where the child (perhaps unrealistically, perhaps not) saves the day and typically saves the antagonist to boot (or defeats the monster/dragon/witch/or at least recognizably non-human). She provides Harry Potter as an EXAMPLE–Harry is able to save himself, save the day, and even save Draco Malfoy. She certainly isn't saying HP is BETTER than popular black YA; she's saying it's different. What is wrong with recognizing difference?

    Almagor seems to me like the type of teacher who actually (a) considers and reflects upon why her students love to read certain books and reject others (b) encourages them to read and buys them new books (c) has a true love of children and combines that with her love for teaching reading. That's a heck of a lot better than a lot of teachers I can think of.

    Please don't get mired down in Flake's ad hominem attacks and misreading of Almagor's essay.

    Roger, back me up here. Does a CLOSE reading of Almagor's essay REALLY show that she "hates" black literature and is a "terrible" teacher as the commenters above suggest? I think not.

  7. Color Online says:

    >CloseReadingRock,

    Why is it we are always misreading whites?

    Where do we argue that she has said white literature is better? My problem is her limited knowledge of the breadth of black literature and therefore her skewered conclusions.

    No one has said or implied hate and I'm surprised you didn't accuse us of implying racism. Honestly, your response and her essay are so predictable it would be funny if it didn't have the negative impact it does.

    My issue with her essay is that it demonstrates a misreading of our work. And I am tired of white teachers, readers, publishers and bookstores harping on the same notes. Almagor's essay perpetuates narrow definitions of our experiences and the work written by black authors.

    Woodson for example. What a poor choice for her to use. If you know Woodson's work (22+ titles), you know that Woodson writes characters across social-economic class,traditional and nontraditional family units and varying themes. Woodson writes affirming work that while it tackles complex issues, does not paint poc characters as one dimensional, sympathetic characters. Almagor ignores this as reduces us to familiar, archetype. That is my problem with Almagor's essay.

    My problem is her comparing our work to white writers. Has she not read enough black literature to compare black writers with other black writers? Why is white the benchmark? The point isn't that there are more white writers rather the issue is that Almagor hasn't read enough to know black literature like black people are diverse. We are not monolithic. Stop assuming you know my experience. Stop implying that to be urban means poor and black and downtrodden. What white people don't live in cities and none are poor? Read Lena by Jacqueline Woodson.

    I run a library. We have fantasy and sci-fi. I keep up with trends and what moves. My kids don't read it. But I make it available. I'll say it again, my perspective is broad. I read multicultural literature. I introduce my kids to writers who look like them and whose experiences mirror their own. I also teach them the world is bigger than than what they know and in my library, people of color means inclusion. The world isn't black and white- it's colored.

  8. Color Online says:

    >CloseReadingRocks,

    When I speak, I don't hide and I have a name. Feel free to address me and Doret directly. I'm not 'some people.' We posted using our active, linked accounts. If I'm going to engage, I don't hide behind anonymity- another common behavior among readers who quickly jump in to defend.

    Have you considered that Doret, Flake and I make any valid points?

  9. CloseReadingRocks says:

    >Color Online,

    Thank you for your interesting reading of my comment–I had never thought someone could see it as racially-charged and motivated, but now I will be more cautious. (It was really just about the text.) And I am sorry for saying that commenters thought Almagor hated black literature and was a terrible teacher; I was exaggerating. What one commenter really said was that Almagor is "mean-spirited," and another said, "First, I'm glad Almagor is not teaching my child. Second, I am sad that she is teaching somebody else's." I think the second does IMPLY that the commenter thinks Almagor is a bad teacher, though I don't know if that means a terrible one. Not my call, so I shouldn't have said anything.

    As to why I don't post using an account and my real name, that's because I am still in school and choose not to splash my name across the internet until I am an adult. When I'm all grown like you, I'll make that decision.

    Thanks again for your time,

    CloseReadingRocks

  10. >What ClosingReading Rock said gave me a lot to think about and it helps me see how others may interrupt this article. So thank you for that.

    Things will change when we start understanding each other better.
    As much as I disagree with Almagor's article at least its getting people to talk.

    It also lead to Flake's wonderful response that should not be ignored.

    It's good that Almagor's and Flake's articles will forever be linked. They provide a good balance, which will hopefully encourage more disscussions.

  11. >Color Online asks, quite reasonably, why white literature is the benchmark. And it is a fair question – why.

    What does not seem to me fair is to ask whether it is the benchmark. To wit, and there are dozens of other ways to go about this: In 2009, there have been five films based on children's books released: Hotel for Dogs, Coraline, Race to Witch Mountain, Harry Potter, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Upcoming are Where the Wild Things Are, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

    Out of those seven, not a one features a black main character. And as far as I can tell, not one is by a black author.

    And I'm not endorsing that status quo. But it is the status quo, and I don't think that the status quo can be grappled with unless it's at least accepted as the status quo.

    And I, at least, am troubled by the idea – which Almagor seems to me to compellingly present – that the books featuring black characters deal more heavily with characters who are on the problem end of systemic social problems.

    Especially given that children are not stupid. They are well aware that the entire culture is put together in a way that screams at them that stories with white characters are the norm. And so when all of the books that feature characters that look like them are visibly different – and more troubled – than the "normal" books.

    Is this a problem? I can't see how one could seriously argue that it isn't. If the books about black kids are heavily – not even exclusively, but heavily – about trouble, and the books about white kids are adventure stories that get made into hit movies, that's a problem.

  12. >Ditto to what Phil says.

    Are the books flying off the shelves in the library – yes. Because they are assigned by teachers as class assignment or suggested by librarians. I went to the local library a few years ago and asked for books outside the stereotype and was given selections that still felt didactic, preachy, and message filled in a way that mainstream books are not. They feel more like lectures than stories my daughters can immerse in.

    I remember giving a book, written by a well-known author to my daughter. When it was time to return it to the library I found it buried in the laundry. She tried to BS her way through a synopsis to prove she read it until I finally said, "thats okay – I didn't like it either." I was at her dance rehearsal and a young man had the same book. I asked him how he liked it and his eyes lit up and he gave me a generic synopsis that told me right away he didn't read it but was trying to please me. I finally said, "I didn't think it was very interesting" and suddenly all of the children – mostly African American – chimed in on how much they hated the book and how boring it was. But I can't tell you how often I hear an adult say the "love" the book and flock to booksignings by the author.

    See – that's the problem. The "gatekeepers" decide what is an authentic voice and the adults revel in the cause – but no one – let me repeat NO ONE is really having an honest talk with the target audience which continues to hide the books, puts off reading them, and cries when we push them to finish the assignment(s) but is passing along Harry Potter and Twilight and Artemis Fowl to their friends. No one captured them in B&N pre-ordering the graphic novel version of Artemis Fowl.

    I will tell you – after about a hundred school visits in the last few years where I often substitute mainstream fantasies, and adventures for the didactic civil right or poverty filled works the school selects (I do read the school selection first) – the kids prefer my selection based on the expression and the questions asked and the request for other titles like those.

    That's not to say there aren't works outside the mainstream that are good and joyful and that children will read for pleasure outside of a school assignment. Elizabeth Bluemle is compiling a list of everything she can find (didactic or not) So far she is up to 500 titles. But if that 500 is out of a total of 25,000 trade books produced over the last five years – we have a lot of work to do.

    Richard Peck once said we write for children we never were. I'll add to that. We write for children we don't take the time to get to know then wonder why they enter High School with a third grade reading level.

    As a former adult literacy educator I worry that we are so busy shoving books down the throats of kids that we like, that we don't take the time to ask them – or excite them – by providing more of what they gravitate on their own.

    And there's the rub.

    One only needs to look at sales figures to realize there is a correlation. Which creates a catch-22. If ethnic books don't sell, don't take a risk on those that are outside the box. Only – that creates a death spiral for the "genre."

    As Phil said – my kids want Coraline and Harry Potter and Graveyard Shift and Twilight and . . . ( apparently so do the kids I interview for college).

    What children want is an adventure or a dramatic story in which their color is not the central theme and where adversity is about just being a kids – not being a "Black kid."

    Me – I'm going off to tutor my non-pregnant, non-ebonics speaking, debate team, tennis team, second chair flute kid who is working on her Latin and Geometry homework from her "deep in the inner city" public school. Something you won't find in a book because – according to gate keepers, kids like her and her classmates aren't "authentic."

  13. >Phil said … "Is this a problem? I can't see how one could seriously argue that it isn't. If the books about black kids are heavily – not even exclusively, but heavily – about trouble, and the books about white kids are adventure stories that get made into hit movies, that's a problem."

    Phil – my daughters are reading over my shoulder and send you a hug with two snaps up. Your message was right on time.

  14. >If we were discussing a literary world that harbored as many African American YA authors as there were white YA authors this conversation would be clear.

    If we were discussing an atmosphere where publishing houses actually put copious amounts of marketing money behind African American YA writers this discussion would be clearer still.

    And If we were discussing a true understanding of writer's creative processes and that black author's creativity shouldn't be dictated by a culture that has had centuries of writing books that would be considered the "norm" when mainstream African American children's literature is barely forty years old— this conversation would be more balanced.

    But for Christine to say that children just want books about adventure or just being a kid is an oversimplification of what children truly want.
    Not all children want adventure. And yes there are actually large numbers of black children who want to read books about people who look like them as there are many white kids who will read those same books and vice versa. And again– to oversimplify all the books mentioned ( and not mentioned) as preachy, stereotypical and filled with ebonics, is truly offensive. . . And ethnic books?! Is that how you see books written with black children in them?
    Sad. How about books with Hispanic or Asian children?

    I suppose we've dismissed the myriad of books written by white authors who write stories with teen pregnancy, rape, bulimia, drugs, broken homes, alcohol addiction and violence coursing through their pages. They don't seem to stand out because hundreds of books by white YA authors are written each year while there are only a handful of YA books written by black authors.

    Maybe when the scales are more evenly weighted (and I don't think that will be happening anytime soon) I could find my way to at least trying to understand Ms. Almagor's "unliterary"– and seemingly reluctant championing of those books that her students love to read.

  15. >Leota2, is anyone in this conversation suggesting anything other than that we would like to see more books written by black authors?

    That, I think, is the point we all agree on.

    I feel like we're talking past each other here – nobody, so far as I can tell, has accused Flake's writing of being "preachy, stereotypical, and filed with ebonics." I don't think anyone has even accused Flake's book of being bad as such.

    What has been criticized – and what I take Almagor to be criticizing when she says that she wants to "push them toward a richer matrix of options" that includes books that "complicate these very questions of goodness" is that she is frustrated by the degree to which a particular genre of book is largely (not exclusively, but largely) coincidental with black YA literature. She is frustrated that black YA literature can, to any extent, be characterized as a genre.

  16. >It’s not that African American writers only write certain stories it more a matter that the predominately white publishing industry will only publish what they want about us.

    I am African American writer of fantasy or speculative fiction whose first novel will be out in 2011. What I can tell you is that most publishers, editors and agents (the gatekeeper of traditional publishing) do insist that African American writers can only write historical fiction (slavery and civil right era only ), urban lit that focuses only on poverty or dysfunction, romance, erotica and Christian lit. Send out stories or novels where the black protagonist in either a present,future or an alternative world is a powerful hero on an authentic hero’s journey such as Harry Potter’s and you can’t believe how fast those manuscripts get kicked back in your face with all manner of insulting comments, from “black people don’t read fantasy to white people wouldn’t read book with black people as hero’s in them.” Writers of color and those white writers, who know the score, talk about this issue all the time but we’re not holding our breaths that traditional publishing is going to change anytime soon.

    Also I will challenge the statement that “What children want is an adventure or a dramatic story in which their color is not the central theme and where adversity is about just being a kids – not being a "Black kid.” If this is the case then we could just leave thing as they are now by slapping some color on a white character in a book and be good to go. However, as a writer this is what I know, the full range of the culture and history of characters has to come through in the writing or the story or novel becomes a wall that hems readers in, not a window where readers can see a bigger, wider world. Or worse yet, the story or novel becomes this dead thing that insults readers by adding to a growing pile of stinking stereotypes and lies.

    Most young people I have talked to, especially black young people interested in Harry Potter, Twilight and Artemis Fowl, are thirsting for adventure or dramatic stories that portrays young African American people and other people of color dealing with the issues in their lives (including the problems of racism and violence.) from the most powerful, positive and mystical aspects of their cultures. I and other writers of color are working very hard to write these kinds of stories, now if only the publishing industry would let more of us in.

    As Ms. Sharon G. Flake states:

    “ The world isn’t simply white or black, nor are the messages in black young adult literature. Like our white counterparts, our work is rich and diverse, complicated and funny, tragic and heartwarming. The boxes black authors sometimes find themselves in aren’t so much of our own making, but often put there by people who think they know us and like to tell us who they think we are. All authors worth their salt want to be analyzed, critiqued, and studied — it means people think your work has value. But we hope the critics get it right when they write about us and the children we create for the world. And we hope they let our readers — both black and white — fly, even if the route they take is not across the ages or on the wings of a dragon, or even if it is. If people will let us be free to be the storytellers that our readers know us to be, they will see we have no limits, nor place any on our characters.”

    Thanks

  17. >Leota2

    I didn't say those children ONLY wanted scifi and fantasy. That seems to be an excuse to dismiss the central message so eloquently reiterated by Phil and LaFreya – that ethnic children want what other children want. They want what other children have. But they don't want it wrapped in an environment that is constantly telling them they can't aspire to be part of that world.

    An "adventure" can occur in one's own backyard without fantastical elements. But what is happening is there is a mind-numbing sameness to the small percentage of literature featuring children of color (any color). And publishers seem more interested in catering to adults than the end user – the child who should be learning to read for pleasure (rather than to please a parent or teacher).

    Amazon suggested an interesting option when I was searching for a book mentioned above. It was "Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading . . . " by Kelly Gallagher.

    One of the comments posted cites excerpts similar to what many of us are trying to get across and could easily be applied to the choices – or lack thereof -provided by publishers:

    "….The flow I want my students to experience in their reading lives was first described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi describes the flow as 'the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for th sheer sake of doing it.' (1990, 4). The flow is where we want all our students to be when they read, the place Nancie Atwell, in The Reading Zone, describes as the place where young readers have to 'come up for air' (2007, 12)."

    Students, asserts Gallagher, should spend at least 50 percent of their school-based language arts time engaging with self-selected texts.

    …Action continues, however, by becoming unyielding advocates for reading. "When the decisions upstairs play a role in permanently damaging the literacy development of our children, " Gallagher writes, "it is time for us to take a stand…Make a stink. Make it happen. Of all the battles we face, this is the one worth falling on your sword for. If none of the above steps [to providing students with access to books] work, go teach somewhere else. No one should consciously be a part of a system that ensures that kids fail. That's unconscionable." (Gallagher, p. 46)

    Amen.

  18. >At the risk of turning on people who are mostly agreeing with me…

    I have made no claim that black students or any other sort of student (I prefer this to the term ethnic, since it seems like every student has some ethnicity) want, and I would be floored if it turned out that all black students want the same things.

    I have said that I think it unfortunate that the world of black YA literature is a more narrow than the world of mainstream YA literature, where mainstream, we have to be honest with ourselves, is largely a product of and for white middle class culture.

    Should Sharon Flake be tossed out of the library? God no. Clearly she's a sharp, moving writer who writes books that motivate kids to read. Are her books perfect? No. Are they good? Yes. Are they enough? No.

  19. >Christine, I wish you would tell us what the book is which "all of the children – mostly African American – chimed in on how much they hated the book and how boring it was. But I can't tell you how often I hear an adult say the "love" the book and flock to booksignings by the author." I'm guessing you don't want this discussion to be derailed into debating a particular book, but as a white school librarian (who works with many black students), I'm wondering if I'm one of those adults. I'll take your point and be sure to ask and listen to the kids about their own opinions.

  20. sanctimommy says:

    >Christine said what I meant to say so much better than I said it. I agree with her completely. (I'm also curious as to what the book was!)

  21. >Christine,

    "Mind numbing sameness." Wow. I suppose the writers should pack up their laptops and become welders. Sorry I'm so flip–not the forum for that.
    I guess I find some of your judgements pointed and a bit hostile. I don't need to be agreed with so I have no problem acknowledging that.

    I was not totally dismissing your basic premise about adventure and fantasy. But of course children are not cookie cutters and economic differences, social norms and peer pressure all come into play when children are choosing what they like to read. I believe adults give themselves too much credit for influencing children's likes and dislike–even in literature.

    I've done story times in the burbs where children thought animorphisized animal stories were wonderful–and so did I; but the same stories fell flat in the inner city. What does that say? Nothing much. Maybe kids in apartments have less dealings with pets and don't thrill over them as much as children who have yards. Maybe another group of kids on the next block would have loved the animal
    stories.

    I have been in classrooms for many years and I will agree that adults can project their worship of a certain author or book on children. But of course in MANY situations they are the only adults talking to these children at all about literature. And I think we need to admit through all this talk about reaching other environs— that not everyone goes home to bookshelves full of books. I deal with kids on a daily basis with not one book in their home.

    Ultimately, I am not worried that these kids can't get into Narnia. I just want them to open up a book and read it and want more. That in itself will change their life. A true reader will read and discover more. This is not supposed to be social engineering.

    Truly, I cannot believe that any of the books mentioned in Ms. Almagor's article deem to preempt African American children from joining
    –what world? Are their worlds lacking somehow?
    We are just talking about books here–right?

    I'm sorry, it seems that everything that you say hits me in all sorts of wrong places. But passion is passion–on both our parts.

    Namaste.

  22. Ebony Elizabeth says:

    >Roger, I am intrigued by this discussion, and hope that Sharon's thoughtful and passionate response will be included in a future issue of Horn Book.

    This debate reminds me of those in the 1980s about adult fiction by African American authors. At the time, the critique was that African American female authors were portraying African American men in a negative fashion. From my professors at Michigan, I gather that the debates were very intense indeed.

    My response to this debate about Black YA fiction is analogous to my response to that long-ago debate about gender in Black fiction that happened when I was a child: the very fact that we are having these debate shows that the range of publications featuring characters of color is still far too limited, almost 10 years into the 21st century.

    We ought to freely and readily acknowledge that YA fiction is not divorced from the context of a society where race matters, where Black people have been historically caricaturized in American life and letters, and where Black literacy was met with severe punishment during much of our nation's early history. It makes sense that the first century or so of Black publishing should have been concerned with this legacy, and that post-Civil Rights authors of Black fiction for children, teens, and adults tend to still deal with the real conditions of our circumstances. I absolutely love Sharon Flake's work because I KNOW people like that. Growing up in inner-city Detroit, I KNEW people like that. I can attest that my students in Detroit kept taking her books and not returning them. Her book, *Who Am I Without Him?*, may have saved the lives of girls who are in abusive relationships in a sociocultural milieu where they do not often receive affirmation in language and stories that they can related to. These middle and high school girls need not only books that will stimulate their imagination, but that will help to underscore the reality of their environments.

    As I read Lelac's article, I was reminded of one of the most famous Black characters in all of American literature – Bigger Thomas. For many years, I was angry at Richard Wright for creating such a monster. I agreed with James Baldwin's critiques of Wright's *Native Son*. Yet as I grew up and began to experience this extraordinary yet confounding country of ours a bit more, I understood that Bigger was less of a commentary on Black manhood than he was an indictment of the society who created him… Mary Shelley had the same impulses more than a century before. Perhaps we ought to read these characters in YA fiction whose badness seems inherent as part and parcel of our literary tradition.

    I am thankful for Black authors like Sharon Flake, Walter Dean Myers, and Angela Johnson. I'm also thankful for Tanita S. Davis, Sharon Draper, Martin Mordecai, Virginia Hamilton, and dozens of others who were not mentioned. May many others follow in their footsteps.

    –Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

  23. Color Online says:

    >Ms. Thomas,

    Thank you. I'm in Detroit. I wish you had an active account. I do. Please contact me.

  24. >Leota2,

    Passion is not a bad thing. It takes things from dead center and moves them towards the path of improvement.

    I once worked to help kids in our failing school district understand that they could aspire to go to colleges like Harvard or MIT. Until Obama became president they'd cluck their tongues and tell me those were white schools or "uppity" schools.

    I understood why they felt that way. I grew up in the same environment. I didn't know college – let alone Ivy League – was a possibility (or anything beyond the local community college). I certainly didn't see those options or choices in books featuring children like me. In many instances, I still don't.

    I've also worked with a class filled with 9th graders who were recalcitrant in their hardened and angry about life. They didn't expect to live beyond 21.

    We need to provide books that "live" where those kids "live". I get that. I wrote an essay for Girl Scouts called "Rehearsal for Life" about the importance of testing roles before adulthood.

    But – and it's a big one – there are not enough diversity in literature for kids that have moved past the point of needing realistic urban fiction or historical civil rights/slavery-based nonfiction. Those students are ready to see themselves in a broader context.

    What I'm advocating is balance in a field overweight on one side of the scale.

    Life – even for those of us who grew up "disadvantaged" is not a universal constant.
    That is why Almagor's following statement made my heart soar and I think she is a treasure to her students:

    "…….What I want, actually, is what I teach my kids: for all of us to read and think and wonder, to notice how the stories we encounter meet or extend or differ from our own view of the world we live in…."

    It took a lot of guts for Almagor to state her position and cite examples. But I extend the same kudos to you for providing your perspective as well. If you can stand a sci-fi greeting –may all our children "live long and prosper."

    Namaste to you to, my friend.

  25. >I think it is good for school to push kids into reading different type of books. It help with their comprehension. so I am not fond just letting kids read whatever interests them in school (in one post) because they need to understand what they are reading. This includes Black YA books . We need to understand their culture, background, etc and not rely on fairy tales too much.They need to understand ours. Children love to escape and go on in adventure. For some, it is Harry Potter . I, myself, is not really fond of SciFi/fantasy either.. and I'm deaf. My idea of escape was the mountains as I was from the mountains.

    I did read a very interesting book about an inner city, even though I can't really relate to it. It was about a chalk artist young boy who found an abandoned building and he just starting drawing in it. The teachers had no idea how talent he was because he usually drew way too big. It also mentioned about his trouble at home and school. I really liked it.

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