What We Talk About When We Talk About Children’s Books
Well I can’t say that this hasn’t been an interesting season on Heavy Medal. Jonathan and I will be announcing our shortlist shortly, but I’m due a reflection on the last few weeks. Rather than loop back into the specifics of the HIRED GIRL discussion, or the similar one that is going on regarding A FINE DESSERT (both of them all over the blogosphere at this point), I would like to take a moment to talk about how and why we talk about cultural authenticity and stereotypes within a critical literary analysis and Newbery discussion.
To do that, I’m going to pull out two recent comments at the HIRED GIRL thread, to demonstrate two different ways people seem to be reacting against questioning racial stereotypes in a literary analysis:
Steven asks reasonbly:
The author made a literary choice. But some of the concerns here are focused on the possible effect of that literary choice on particular children. It can be useful and thought-provoking for us to consider those effects, but should the Committee be concerned at all? If they’re truly focusing on literary quality? I also wonder about the “not for didactic content” guideline. If the concern is that this book may teach harmful things, doesn’t that fall into those didactic elements? I think we usually think of that as a warning not to reward books for positive messages, but can we also view it as a reminder to stick to literary quality (which come from the author’s choices) rather than whether we like or dislike the messages (which comes from reader responses).
To which May December replies:
But Steven, if we were to look at the book for the Newbery criteria, we would have nothing to be outraged about. That would force some of the most vocal here to talk about the literary aspects of the book (good bad or otherwise), which doesn’t seem to be of much interest.
What is going on here?
First, I’d like to try to reply to Steven’s comment, which has been voiced by others. There seems to be a desire to put discussion of culture and race in a completely separate bucket from “literary quality,” as if the two have no connection. It is true that the Newbery award is “not for didactic content.” But this doesn’t mean we don’t examine what the message of a work is, who it is for, and how well it is delivered. Literary elements that involve race and culture can and should be examined critically, within an entire literary analysis of the book. I think the majority of the commenters at the HIRED GIRL thread, on all sides of the argument, have been doing so, in an illuminating way. As we look at that book, and any other, we are looking at what the writer wrote and asking questions like “How effectively does the writer portray this character?” “How accurate is this information?” “What does the writer ask of the reader here, and how does that affect the reading experience?” And ultimately “Does this work for a child reader of the intended age and interest (if any is intended)? How well does it work?” These questions are all squarely within any literary analysis of books for children and the Newbery criteria. And the portrayal of race and culture is a one of many aspects in most books: effectively rendered, or not. It something we have to talk about. The privilege of not talking about race (commonly afforded white people in the US), is not a privilege we have here, because our readers don’t all share in it. (If you missed Amy Koester’s post entirely in the din, now might be a good time to revisit it. )
So it concerns me when there are comments that typecast the bringing up of questions of cultural authenticity or portrayal of race within literary analysis as an aggressive and inappropriate act. Here are some selections from the HIRED GIRL thread, left anonymous:
“I am once again utterly astonished that the analysis of another book has been completely hijacked by one characteristic.”
“The affront of the young readers’ intelligence is not committed by the author but by the arbitrators here in the comments.”
“…how come this one sentence was picked up and used to destroy the whole worth of the book.”
And Roger Sutton at his blog, an oblique jab suggesting my line of questioning would necessarily lead to censorship:
“If the hurt is enough to keep The Hired Girl from winning the Newbery — as Nina Lindsay in a comment on Heavy Medal says it should — doesn’t it follow that the hurt is enough to keep it from library shelves altogether?”
These commenters are not responding, even though they may think they are, to what was being said in the thread, because none of what they are claiming was actually present in anyone’s argument. So then what exactly are they reacting against? Why do some people feel it is dangerous or destructive (as the language above suggests) to talk about race and culture in children’s books?
I am grateful for the many many of you who’ve taken on the challenge of looking at portrayals of culture and race and digging deep. It is hard, and it is not as fun as some of us may have thought we were getting into, with children’s books. We have and will hurt each other’s feelings, and feel defensive…and I’ve not always replied in comments in the way I wish I would have on later reflection. But for those of you who find yourself reacting against these questions being raised at all… I ask you to examine where that feeling is coming from. Questioning how well someone writes what they write is a part of literary analysis. Questioning how well a book works for child audience is a part of the Newbery criteria. This is what we talk about.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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