Subscribe to The Horn Book

Freeing writers AND readers


Mrs. Trimmer

I agree with Allie Jane Bruce that “kids say this stuff” is a piss-poor reason for racist language in books for children. It’s a piss-poor reason generally, as the point of fiction has never been to mimic reality, which rarely makes nearly as much sense as even the most hackneyed novel. Fiction is always selecting: as Miss Binney explained to Ramona, it didn’t really matter how Mike Mulligan (or for that matter, Jack Bauer) went to the bathroom because it was not important to the story. Verisimilitude is an effect, not an excuse.

Buuuuut. I can’t agree with Allie’s assertion that books “must name problematic content as such.” Any writer for children who used, say, a racial expletive in a novel would argue that he or she did name problematic content as such (at least, I can’t think of an example otherwise), and we would all debate until the cows went home about whether that naming was enough, as we did in the discussions re A Fine Dessert, etc. So I don’t think Allie’s “must” has much muscle behind it: while she and I might disagree about the exact offense of the Indian imagery in Amazing Grace, it would have been hard for the author and illustrator to name it as such because they didn’t see it as such. As my boss reminded me today, quoting John Cheever, “[you] can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss–you can’t do it alone,” and we can’t ask writers to do both jobs.

I am more worried, though, about asking things from children’s books that we don’t ask from those for adults. We would not think of calling an adult novelist on the carpet for insufficently correcting a character for reprehensible behavior or speech. This is not to say that writers for grownups are or should be immune to charges of racism or sexism, only that we understand that a character is not necessarily a mouthpiece for the author, and that readers can be trusted to draw their own inferences from what they read. Certainly it is true that a writer for young people needs to understand that his or her audience is still learning how to do this–and surely our expectations are different for a picture book and a YA novel–but a belief that literature for youth must ultimately model commendable thought and behavior is good for neither books nor young readers. They both deserve freedom.

We are in a time when criticism of children’s books for “harmfulness” has become, to my mind, both over-extended and under-defended. We worry that readers seeing an allegedly racist or sexist image in a book will somehow imbibe that image and themselves become harmed or will go on to harm others on the basis of the offending depiction. Do we also worry about this with adults? Sure, we rightfully castigate Gone With the Wind for its racism but no one demands it be recalled or banned or read only with guidance or through a particular lens. Do we make such demands of books for children simply because we can? I know my critics will say, “no, we make such demands because we should, because children are unformed and vulnerable,” but we didn’t buy that from Mrs. Trimmer or Mrs. Gore. Why are we buying it now? The idea of protecting children from books should be the last thing in a librarian’s head.


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.



  1. I mean. As a proud Simmons CHL grad, I know to say “to hell with the children; the book is the book and it exists in a vacuum!” But I’m also an LIS grad and have nieces and hope to have children, so the gatekeeper instinct is strong. It’s a cognitive dissonance for any of us, I think, because we’ve all been kids, and most of us have been marginalized, so we know what it feels like to be misrepresented or emotionally assaulted by an insensitive, crappy book.

    And yeah, as a black person, I think Gone with the Wind is an awful piece of culture, but I also think Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most well crafted characters in fiction (though I admit I’ve read the book only once and seen the movie 100 times). That said, when you say “Do we make such demands of books for children simply because we can?” I would argue that YES, but you seem to imply that since we don’t do it for adult books, we shouldn’t for children, and I see it as the other way. Why *don’t* we do it more often with books for adults?

    Yes, verisimilitude includes the ugliness of human nature and culture. But also yes, some things are too egregious and have been proven to be mishandled far more than they’ve been utilized to teach a lesson or create a better, less racist (or less homophobic or less ableist or whatever) populace.

    I wonder how much of it is that in the internet age, at least as far as I’ve checked, social book culture is far more vibrant on the kidlit/YA spectrum than it is for adults. There definitely IS adult book culture, but it doesn’t seem to be so widespread – from what I’ve seen, it’s generally more insular, genre-specific, and fan-based, not author-fan-critic-librarian-editor-agent intermingled the way our community is. So maybe we demand more accountability because we know who people are, know what people are capable of, etc?

    Frankly, readers of adult fiction seem to be lemmings who only like to read very specific things (I find that anathema to liking reading – how do you only want to read the same thing over and over again?), and they don’t seem to learn or react to books like Gone With the Wind with any sort of nuanced understanding of problematic bits, so I’d be more than happy to take up arms for some deeply problematic adult books (and there certainly have been instances like that, such as that Nazi romance debacle). But I think because of that lack of intermingled community, publishers feel less accountability, so even if people mount an effort, publishers don’t feel compelled to listen.

    I have absolutely zero regrets about lumping all readers of adult books together into one homogenous entity with no taste or brains, because they do that to readers and writers of kidlit or YA all the time.

  2. This has already come up in other threads about contextualizing bigotry in books for children, but I still believe most of these conversations come back to the distinction you make regarding Amazing Grace: the author/illustrator does not name (or contextualize) bigotry because they do not recognize it as such. Or, the way they name and contextualize it reveals biases of which they’re unaware, or to which they’ve had to conform. Of course this also extends to editors, reviewers, teachers, librarians, members of award committees…etc.

    Regarding the sense that people are drawing lines related to childhood and protecting children specifically: I appreciate Hannah’s thoughts above, and agree!! Also, what’s wrong with treating children differently? If there were no difference, I don’t think we’d have something called “children’s books” in the first place. (Though I guess some would just see that as a marketing distinction.) Certainly it’s possible to criticize how exactly adults imagine children and childhood, but I wonder at the idea that there’s *no* difference, or that audience shouldn’t matter. And in fact, I think what’s often being pushed against *are* implicit ideas about childhood. Namely, the dominant idea that child readers are by default white, straight, cis, able-bodied… or that they’re “innocent” of knowledge about bigotry or historical and personal traumas. You point to a protective impulse toward children that’s inherent in critiques, but I think there’s also a protective impulse in the desire to contextualize bigotry in ways that consistently show it as not that bad, or as safely in the past, or as just personal misunderstandings between individuals rather than as systems of power. The difference is in whose children people want to protect.

  3. A few years ago an acclaimed book used the word “quadroon” (might have been “octoroon”, I don’t remember) in a completely neutral context, as if it was any other vocabulary word. Now, I generally bristle at the idea of protecting children from books, despite remembering how much of Gone with the Wind I swallowed when I first read it as a kid and the years I spent unlearning that. But it bothers me that a kid would come across a word like “quadroon” for the first time, in the thoughts of a positive, progressive, white protagonist, and have no reason to think it’s not just a word like any other word. And that’s assuming a white reader for the book. I wouldn’t really try to protect a kid from the book now, though I might not be able to resist getting in an “ugh, that’s an awful word there in the first chapter”–normally I give side-eye to the earnest suggestion that the answer is to read problematic books WITH kids. (To me that’s a blatant coverup for “tell your kids what they’re supposed to think about it”.) But I still think using that word was a poor choice on the part of author and editor. That children are “still learning how to do this” is key.

  4. Safelibraries will be so pleased to have an ally in Ms Bruce.

  5. Kids, people do unspeakable things to one another – from stealing each others’ hats on up to murder, read about it here in this carefully curated selection of recent books! – but they never say anything mean, ignorant, or ill-considered. It’s just not done. Sticks and stones break your bones, but only words will ever really hurt you.
    And one other thing, you may not watch violent movies if the people in them are shown smoking cigarettes.

  6. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Hannah, thanks for bringing up FOR SUCH A TIME, the Holocaust Christian romance novel, I’d forgotten it (tried to read it but could not get very far). It’s not that we don’t criticize adult books for the same things we do books for children, but that we make the argument on different grounds, where “yeesh, this Evangelical tripe about converting WWII Jews in the name of true love is horrible racist stuff” becomes “children will become traumatized/hurt/racist if they read this book.” That’s the protectionism I’m talking about. We don’t generally worry for adult readers (although the antipornography ordinances of the 1980s are an interesting exception), assuming them as equals with the right to read what they want, however terrible we might think their taste or judgment.

    Sarah, I agree with you that there are certain protections in place for books that reflect a dominant white viewpoint, but I don’t think the answer to that is to restrict what or how children read. I look to Hannah and Allie’s WNDB and its allies (I would include the HB there) to widen what viewpoints are available. As far as the difference between books for children and adults go, that’s a huge topic–in his Written for Children, John Rowe Townsend threw up his hands and put it down to a marketing distinction. But i think here I am talking more about the way we treat child readers more than how we evaluate the books intended (in one way or another) for them.

    You know, Wendy, that such a warning will only cause a reader to scrutinize the chapter for Just Which Word You Meant and then probably use it with glee! There’s a discussion about name calling attached to Allie’s post, and it reminded me of when one of our sons was in high school and he (Jewish) and his best friend (African American) would call each other every ethnically derogatory name they could think of. Just to piss us off.

    Hope, Dan Kleinman is an idiot and megalomaniac. Allie is neither. They wouldn’t get along!

  7. Well, I didn’t mean the conversation would end there, because yes, any kid would search for the mysterious bad word. I think there’s a big difference between purposely using racial slurs as in the story you tell (kids do all kinds of things) and using them naively because you had no idea they were racial slurs. Why would anyone believe that “playing Indian” is offensive when it’s validated over and over in books and illustrations? I’ve never actually seen modern kids playing a game of “cowboys and Indians”, but I see it as part of the same attitude that doesn’t get why cartoonish American Indian illustrations are offensive.

  8. Thank you for these thoughts. I tire from reading preachy, moralistic messages in children’s books. When the right way to feel and think is labeled as such, it dumbs the message down and the reader checks out. This is because oftentimes the story is then thinned (and everyone wants to get back to the good part!) One of my favorite examples of negative stereotypes properly undressed is, The Little Bit Scary People by Emily Jenkins.

  9. Mrs. Trimmer says:

    Dear Mr. Sutton,

    I notice you have flipped my picture so that I appear to be facing left instead of right.

    I understand that this improves the aesthetics of your website, but I now appear to be looking towards Satan.

    Please rectify this so that I face towards God and away from your words, which are clearly the Devil’s work.

    Mrs. Trimmer

  10. You tried to read it? I thought I was a class-A masochist, taking-one-for-the-team kind of girl, but you take the cake, Roger.

    I don’t want to “think of the children!” and wring my hands too much, just a little. And I would argue that the people calling for protest and recall and apology from the publisher of FOR SUCH A TIME *were* doing so for the same reason we do it for children – because we don’t want people thinking there was something likable about Nazi commandants. It’s very much “we worry about the people reading this book who will see it as a reason to be anti-Semitic and deny the Holocaust,” and that’s pretty much the same thing that we’re arguing here re: teaching kids that slavery was funsies, right?

  11. …but seriously folks.

    I’m not trying to protect children from books, I’m trying to name problematic content as problematic. The conversation about these things is what I’m interested in; I’m trying to give people language and tools to have those conversations. For example, here: I discuss how a hairstyling book is white centric. I’m not calling for a ban on it, or jumping in front of kids to protect them from the deadly ponytail book. I’m starting a conversation on how this book others Black people. I would neither ban nor recommend it; I would talk with kids about it.

    You can also check here: to see some of the conversations I’ve had with kids about identity, bias, and racism. You can see that nowhere do we advocate for censorship (in fact, we oppose it here:; what I’m interested in is naming problems for what they are. Otherwise, we’re living in a world in which racism exists but nobody talks about it, in which people are Othered but mainstream culture will never admit that they’re Othered.

    I also totally agree with what Hannah and Sarah said above. And Roger, I agree that it’s not right to make an assertion that children will DEFINITELY become hurt by any particular book (although I disagree with you if you think that books never hurt people). That’s why I try to keep my language grounded in “what messages does this send” and “in this book, who is norm and who is Other”? I use the same language when I’m talking with kids and when I’m talking with adults about this subject.

  12. Or, to put it more succinctly (I thought of this zinger AFTER I posted my prior comment): When I say a book “must name problematic content as such…”, I don’t mean “…or I will burn it.” I mean, “If you don’t name your problematic content as such, don’t be surprised when I (and tons of other people) do.”

  13. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Sure, but what do you mean by “problematic” beyond “people will have problems with it”? I think where we disagree is in your readiness (as I see it) to link “problematic” content with an assumption that it will have particular harmful effects on readers (or society) that must be mitigated in some way. I guess I tend to see “problematic” content (say, racism) as evidence of a problem, not cause.

    I’ve never believed books can’t harm readers, only that we can’t draw an a-to-b relationship between content and effect.

    And facing either way, Mrs. Trimmer, I think you look lovely.

  14. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Hannah, have you ever read M.E. Kerr’s Gentlehands? REALLY interesting exploration pf a boy’s discovery that the grandfather he worships is hiding from a past as a sadistic concentration camp guard.

  15. If this is really *about* children — as a former child, on the couch reading my “problematic” book (pretty sure they were all problematic, apparently, texts being practically infinitely divisible so that the “naming” may furnish employment and dissertations until, I guess, the namers are comfortable with their power, or books die the natural death to which they were headed anyway) – I think, candidly, I’d rather you take it out of my hands and burn it, then set me down for a good old naming session.
    Really, just take it. My interest in it has just plummeted.

  16. I’m just going to throw this match in the can of gasoline and run out of the room: a case study on protecting children from books.

  17. I also agree that there’s no way to draw an a-to-b correlation reliably and every time (although I have seen instances in which it happens, in my own life). We can disagree about whether the problems (by which I do mean racism or other -isms/-ias being perpetuated) are the reflection (symptom) or the cause; I see them as both.

    But I gotta wonder why I keep seeing myself described as wanting to protect children from books, when that’s really not what I do. I start conversations with kids about books (conversations, Named, that the kids LOVE having) and then watch as kids devour book after book and come back to me simply brimming with thoughts and opinions and ideas and desperate for MORE recommendations and MORE books and MORE conversations. Why are y’all so eager to “protect” kids from these conversations?

  18. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I’m all for librarian-kid conversations, although I think they need to be led more by the kid than the librarian. (This could very well be my public-library bias showing.) When you said about the hairdos book that you would “talk with kids about it” what would you talk about? I don’t mean in a classroom setting, where you might choose the book as an example of blinkered privilege, but in a one-on-one with a kid who showed interest in the book. A conversation starting “which hairstyle do you like best?” is different from one that begins “don’t you think there are an awful lot of white girls in this book?” I’m not trying to be snarky here, I’m just not sure what you mean by “talk about.”

  19. The questions are, “Whose problematic?” And, “Can we honor and support the fact that what is offensive to a particular part of the population may not be offensive to a different part, while that different will have its own standards of offensiveness?”

    One example. The consistently excellent Chris Crutcher has used the N-word in many of his novels, always associating it with bigoted characters. There’s a reason he does it. Some find it offensive on the grounds that despite his best intentions, it can still lead children to use it in a bad way. Others will have zero issue with the N-word but hate that there’s teen sex in a book, because it crosses their traditional values. It doesn’t matter the author’s intent. What matters is the fact that might lead to behavior seen as “bad,” in their opinion.

    We need to be careful what we wish for. Initiating “conversations” with children and parents about problematic portions of books may mean that we will learn that they find different things to be problematic from what we might expect. In psychological terms, can we control our counter-transference?

  20. I’ve not read any M.E. Kerr! I should. Will check my library…

    To go on with Allie’s point, I would also say that not having conversations where you lead into the questions a bit (especially with younger readers, since the job of a teacher or librarian is to teach kids HOW to formulate questions around literature) can lead to disenfranchisement and disempowerment of the kids the problematic content is going to harm the most. I know that having grown up outside of the African American community, even though I’m black, and having gone to both public and private schools that generally privileged white-centric texts, I lacked language to describe oppression or explain how I was microaggressed or how I felt unsafe in many spaces. It wasn’t until college that I learned how to name my experiences, and it made high school especially a frustrating time, where I was hit with deep depression, was an incredibly angry person, and was entirely disengaged with academics (which took years of college to rectify) because I hadn’t learned how to NAME oppressive or aggressively racist experiences.

    Me me me, I know, but I’m sure I’m not the only person who suffered not just from lack of mirror books but from lack of unpacking of non-mirror books that were mirrors for my classmates of the non-oppressed (at least racially and socioeconomically, given that I went to private school) class.

  21. Definitely agree with Hannah that these conversations about harm are happening in the “adult” world too. Not a book, but to give one example: SB Nation published a “humanizing” profile of Daniel Holtzclaw this week, and later retracted it after protest from readers. One of the arguments there (which I agree with) was that the piece harms survivors, and contributes to a culture in which it’s difficult for women like those he victimized to come forward. Though for myself, as with books, I think the issue is less about a retraction and more about how an article like that gets published in the first place. In any case, the same counter-arguments about free speech and overprotectiveness are being made there, too. And, not to raise the specter of one of my least favorite topics, but discussions around “trigger warnings” often come back to many of the same points you’re making, Roger, and in that case the readers are college students. I guess in the case of both women criticizing the article and students advocating for content warnings, there are those who’d argue they’re asking to be treated like children.

    There’s still an aspect of the discussion about books for kids in particular, though, that’s weird to me. I understand and fully support the underlying principle that children have an equal right to full intellectual freedom (I think everyone here agrees with that principle.) But, in the pendulum swing against didacticism in the children’s book world, there seems to be a commensurate denial of the fact that didacticism and a desire to protect, and an attempt to control what children see and know, still very much exist already. While people might recognize that someone like Rush Limbaugh, for example, wants to use children’s books as a way to pass on a political ideology to kids, the field seems less willing to recognize those impulses in children’s books more generally. Do authors write picture books celebrating the wonders of the transcontinental railroad simply because they love trains and want to share that love with whomever picks up the book? I mean, I guess. Certainly I don’t think authors sit down and say, “Now I’m going to write something that will preserve the myth of Manifest Destiny for the next generation.” But it seems strange that so many adults in this field fight tooth and claw to preserve their power to control which stories are written for children and who writes them, and then simultaneously deny that there’s any deeper significance to stories adults write for children. Somehow, as with Allie’s example above, it’s as if naming and trying to counter the dominant messages in children’s books is where the didacticism and protective impulse begins.

  22. Sorry, Hannah– missed your last comment. YES, and thank you for bringing it back to kids’ experiences.

  23. Re the “conversations the kids LOVE having”: if children are as malleable and suggestible as the namers suppose, in the direction they disapprove, then they must be equally impressionable and eager to please and attention-seeking in the opposite, sanctioned direction. I readily concede I would have loved as a kid having conversations with someone like Allie Jane Bruce. Our beautiful librarian spoke to me on a single occasion about a book I might like and it is one of only half-a-dozen moments I recall from grade school.

    Sanctioned is the keyword: Anonymous is absolutely right. There is the public morality of the moment, which may merely be the “fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger”; and there is the heterodox private morality of individuals. It is not clear in a pluralist society why the public, institutionally-sanctioned morality should be privileged over the private, in terms of its interests being guarded in literature for young people.

  24. It’s a good question you ask, Roger, about my talking to kids and I’ll do my best to answer while knowing I can’t get into great detail in this medium. The public/school library distinction is a big one, and I do often write my blog posts with other teachers in mind (although I’d argue that all librarians are educators, by virtue of being gatekeepers, whether they like it or not). This is my 4th year at the same school, and it’s a small private school, so I have strong relationships with many of the kids, not to mention some of their families. Additionally, Bank Street has a very strong Racial Justice and Advocacy curriculum (read more about it here: So it’s not like I bring this up out of the blue, with kids I’ve never met before, who have never had conversations about race before. This year I’ve already talked to the 3rd, 4th, and 6th grades about the diversity gap in children’s literature; I printed copies of the Lee & Low infographic: and we had a conversation that tied into what they’re learning about the Civil Rights Movement in Social Studies. I had consulted with their Social Studies teachers and Bank Street’s Director of Diversity beforehand, and everyone was on the same page, so teachers also knew how to handle questions if they came up in the classroom, outside of the library. That’s just a small snapshot into how I have these conversations — look into my Loudness in the Library posts (which I linked to in a comment above) if you want more.

    As to that friggin ponytail book, I could envision a couple of different scenarios, but in most cases, I’d probably start by just flipping through it with a kid and say “I’m noticing that most of these pictures are of white people with straight or wavy hair. Did you notice that? What do you think?” After that, it’s more of a listening-to-the-kid, play-by-ear, meet-’em-where-they’re-at thing (and it’s NOT always easy). It wouldn’t be unusual, especially if the kid were a Black girl, for her to respond with “ohmygod yeah, it is so wrong.” I might follow that with “do you want to try to find something better?” Once, in a similar situation (but with a different book), the kid ended up writing a letter. If the kid were white, she could very well respond “I didn’t notice that”. And then, though, I find 99 times out of a 100, they flip through the book again and say “hey, that’s really wrong.” Then I might connect it to the diversity gap we studied, with reflections on how white-centric our world in general is, and then the conversation continues the next time I see them too. I don’t think it would be unfeasible for a public librarian to start a conversation with , “I’m noticing that most of those pictures are of white girls”, even though I recognize that will be more thorny if you don’t have an inkling who the kid/family is, and the continuing conversation would be more difficult to maintain.

    Thing is, though I know that people are concerned that I’m planting ideas in kids’ heads, I think that NOT having a conversation also plants ideas in kids heads. Ideas like “we do not talk about race or racism” which are a huge part of the problem. But now I’m just repeating what Hannah and Sarah said, so I’ll stop. Go read them, though!!

  25. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Yeah, I could never do that in a public library, partly because of the nature of the job and partly because of my personal temperament. For ME to bring up something problematic about a book a kid has chosen to browse or read is, I think, an invasion of reading privacy. This isn’t a strict rule–as you point out, when you have a relationship with a kid it opens things up–but I wouldn’t want to put a child in the position of defending his or her interest in a book to me. I would definitely make sure the child knew we had other hairdo books, too–and would have made sure we did so, thanks to your tip!

    “Hairdo.” I think I’m dating myself.

  26. I have to admit I’m dying to know if Megan talks about this in her Whole Book Approach book!

  27. It would be difficult to bring it up out of the blue, with a random kid, in a public library scenario. But I think public libraries could definitely do an info session/conversation on race, whiteness, and racism, and include (or focus on) the way books like that one center whiteness. Libraries host events all the time. Or a book club! A book club could read something like, say, WHISTLING VIVALDI by Claude M. Steele or WAKING UP WHITE by Debby Irving, and in 1 session talk about how white centricity shows up in our world, including children’s literature and ponytail books.

  28. Hair More Coarse than Smooth, with a Little Body says:

    I assume most children would put the book back, guiltily – but woe betide the wavy-haired girl who takes the book out anyway and returns with an eye-catching ponytail. What sort of conversation would ensue then? Does it stop with the book, or does it become a conversation about her?
    Respectfully, when you set such a very low bar for sin – interested in hair styles but insensible or indifferent to who populates a book! – you set a very low bar for virtue as well. It will necessarily remind some people of Puritanism, or at least what we tend to think the Puritans were like.

  29. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I think that’s a fine idea, Allie, and I’ve heard about library reading groups devoted to controversial books, which is also great. But i (personally) would not be comfortable with leading a discussion devoted, on my part, to proving a particular point of view. Because then it’s not really a discussion, it’s a lesson. You teachers. 😉

  30. Allie, your interventions and “conversations” with your students are totally appropriate for one of the most liberal and expensive private schools in New York City. Now, if you saw the hairdo (love that!) book differently, as an example of Ayn Randian capitalism and market segmentation, just as the African American-themed kid hair books are an example of the same thing (and have very few white faces!), I doubt your school would want you to present that. If you took a Randian position consistently at your school with kids, I bet you’d be gently told you’re maybe not the best fit for the institution.

    Public school librarians, and public librarians, serve a big public. I want them as guides to information, not teachers of one point of view of sanctioned pubilc political position. I’d wager a lot of the American public (there’s that word again) agrees with me.

  31. Kids are excellent BS detectors. When adults consider naming facts to be partisan (it’s a fact that that book only includes some people’s hair, just as the statistics about publishing are facts) they get the message loud and clear– whether adults are mature enough to admit what’s going on or not.

  32. By “this” do you mean does my Whole Book Approach book talk about addressing problematic content in shared readings? Not directly. My book is about using picture books (text, art, design) to invite children’s questions and responses and let them become central to shared reading. I’m working on some new writing that is more in line with what I think you’re asking about for a new site called

  33. Kate Barsotti says:

    This may not help, but I thought it was worth passing along.

    “The man that I named the Giver passed along to the boy knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth. Every time you place a book in the hands of a child, you do the same thing. It is very risky. But each time a child opens a book, he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom. Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things. ”
    — Lois Lowry (b.1937), Newbery Medal acceptance speech, 1994

  34. Nina Lindsay says:

    Roger, conversations in a school library will look different than in a public library, you know that. What is available on the shelf is itself a conversation, and if the vast majority of books in the hairdo section express straight hair as “ideal”, that is pushing a point of view.

  35. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Nina, I don’t think anyone here would disagree with you about either point. HairDO v. Hair STYLE, now thems fighting words.

  36. Kate Barsotti says:

    Here’s what I’ve been struggling with:

    I can recall times when I read something that confused or even hurt me, right to the core, and bothered me for a long time. A conversation with the right adult might have done wonders, especially since the pain came from emotional wounds that were already there. Many kids are in that situation.

    I also recall times when I figured something out and discovered my own connections within a story, or loved daydreaming on my own, and at those times, any adult involvement might have ruined reading in general for me or that book in particular. A conversation at that time would have been so intrusive, it would have been a different sort of damage, no matter how well intentioned.

  37. Nina Lindsay says:

    Roger, really? What is the reaction here then against naming problematic material as problematic? Are we reading this on different planets?

  38. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I think we must be, Nina. Allie and I have discussed the differences between school and public library settings, and the necessity of having hair care books of many kinds in both. I think it would be wrong to have a hair-care collection that said in toto that straight hair is ideal and I agree with you that said collection would be biased. If you remember my objections here to that Helen Oxenbury book about “everybody” having ten little fingers and ten little toes, you might understand why I’d give this hairdo book the side-eye as well.

    The main point of discussion here is when and how the librarian should volunteer the information that the book is biased, but I don’t see anyone claiming that it isn’t.

  39. Not sure if this will help, but Roger, maybe Nina’s has read comments comparing me to Puritans and to Ayn Rand and is questioning the “anyone here” portion of your comment?

    I don’t think everyone here actually agrees with you, Roger, that it’s necessary to have a balanced selection of hair-care books. I’m seeing multiple people here express the view that my initiating a conversation about this book is a problem. I think NOT having a conversation about this book is a problem (and I think Nina agrees with me). And while it’s always dangerous to try to sum up what others are thinking (and correct me if I’m wrong here), I think YOU’RE thinking that the librarian’s responsibility is to select a balanced collection of hair-related books, and then not have a conversation unless the kid initiates it. Those are actually 3 different views. Hence the different planets.

  40. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    That is indeed my, and my apparently lonely planet’s, position.

    Here is where I got exercised about the fingers:

  41. Nina Lindsay says:

    Roger, I hear the latest iteration of your and Allie’s conversation, and what others are saying, and I what I hear is the argument about naming problematic material in books getting shoved into a corner in which people imagine librarians are marching around saying “look, this is problematic content!” I was trying to point out that the “conversations” happen at many different levels and arenas, and if we try to shut down these conversations, or pretend they do not exist, THAT is where we actually do harm.

  42. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    No argument there from me, Nina.

  43. Thanks for the link to the Ten Little Fingers discussion, Roger, and I’m glad to discover that you are in fact from planet Universalist. After reading through those comments, I’m wondering: are your problems with Ten Little Fingers something that you would discuss in a review?

    I’m interested in the common thread that seems to be running through comments on this post (and through many previous debates, including ones Allie references in her original post) which is the argument that naming racism is inherently too polemical. Allie’s post was about the question of artists naming racist behavior and speech within a text and/or illustrations, and the counter-argument that says such naming is inherently too didactic, and that portraying racism simply “is realistic”. (In her post, Allie disntiguishes this from arguments about *how* authors and illustrators name and contextualize racism.)

    The blanket arguments here against adults naming exclusion, or other issues of representation, in their discussions about books with children seem to come back to the same point. Namely, that identifying the content of a book is what’s political, not the content itself. And Roger, though I don’t think you agree with the more sweeping comments here, I know in the past you’ve argued against (and actively rejected) reviews that name these kinds of problems– problems like the one you identify in Ten Little Fingers.

    If I can ask another question, too: would you use Ten Little Fingers in a library storytime? Would that change if you knew one of the children in the audience did not have ten fingers?

  44. Michael Grant says:

    As a writer who enjoys selling books, I want to endorse the idea that any potentially problematic content should be clearly labeled. When my GONE series came out in the UK they were clearly labeled “Warning! Contains scenes of cruelty and some violence.” And I sell way more books proportionally in the UK than in the US.

    I’m thinking my next contract should include a demand that all my books be labeled that way. I want my books labeled, “For the love of God don’t read this book!” Or, maybe, “Stop! Do not touch this book! A panel of self-appointed busy-bodies has determined that no one under the age of 25 should read this book! No! Noooo!”

    Maybe with some skulls and crossbones.

  45. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I think any review of TEN LITTLE FINGERS… could not get around discussing the conceit of the book (obviously) and I don’t think it would be out of line to raise an eyebrow about its alleged universalism. I might have done that. For me, it would be a bridge too far to within the review suggest that this was reason not to recommend the book, just as I do not think it would be fair (again, in a review) to criticize the choice of a white baby for the ultimate image, a point some of the commenters on that thread made. If by “in the past” you are referencing what seems now to be the legendary debate between Debbie and myself about THE BIRTHDAY BEAR, please remember that the conflict was not over mentioning the problematic content (which the published review did) but just how it could be mentioned.

    I would not use TEN LITTLE FINGERS… in a story hour. I daresay I WOULD have used it when I was still doing story hours, but that was thirty years ago, and it’s not like my social conscience has been in a COMPLETE black hole in the meantime. But librarians need to tell stories they are comfortable telling, and I would not be comfortable telling that one.

  46. Sheila Welch says:

    Roger, I wonder if you could help with a question asked on the Children’s Literature List.-serve. ( Someone is hoping to locate an editorial you apparently wrote sometime before 2005 in which you stated that children do not automatically assume the values expressed in books they read. I don’ t know if she read it in THE HORN BOOK or some other publication. Thank you for your help.

  47. In case it hasn’t been shared here before.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind