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Rebecca Rabinowitz
16 August 2016 @ 05:34 pm
Can anyone recommend a good article, essay, or post about Jewish imagery and themes in In the Night Kitchen?

Come to think of it -- is there a whole book yet about Judaism and Jewishness in Sendak's work?
 
 
Rebecca Rabinowitz
If you know anyone considering buying a made-to-order children's book from the company called Lost My Name, tell them not to.

Their picture books The Little Boy Who Lost His Name and The Little Girl Who Lost Her Name are personalized to the recipient child's first name via a plot in which the protagonist meets a sequence of animals whose first letters spell out that child's name. If the child's name is Leo, the protagonist will meet a lion first, then something starting with E, then something starting with O.

If the child's name has an I, the protagonist meets an Inuit. An Inuit is a PERSON, but here is textually parallel to animals. This is yet another example in children's lit (though this is arguably more entrepreneurship than lit) where indigenous people are framed as less than human. Do not give this company money.
 
 
 
Rebecca Rabinowitz
I've seen a lot of praise for Julie Murphy's Dumplin' -- praise specifically lauding the fat acceptance aspect of it -- even extending beyond the field of children's literature. One such piece is "Five Pieces of Brilliant Plus Size Media" by (or edited by, I'm not sure) Bethany Rutter. I love that the piece mentions podcast "Bad Fat Broads," which is amazing -- fat positive, funny, snarky, intersectional, and sharp as a tack.

But this piece -- and other praises of Dumplin' that I've seen -- talk about the book as if it's entirely fat positive. It's not. The main character's dearly beloved late aunt died of fatness. Really, of fatness. She died of deathfat. Watching tv. Alone. The book doesn't imply that Aunt Lucy was unloveable, but it absolutely uses her to embody the equation of fatness with tragedy. If you're deathfat, you'll die, you'll die alone, you'll die watching tv, and your low income family won't be able to afford a coffin to fit you in. Plain tragedy.

In addition to Aunt Lucy, there's another secondary character, Millie, who waddles [4]:

“Millie is that girl, the one I am ashamed to admit that I’ve spent my whole life looking at and thinking, Things could be worse. I’m fat, but Millie’s the type of fat that requires elastic waist pants because they don’t make pants with buttons and zippers in her size. Her eyes are to close together and her nose pinches up at the end. She wears puppies and kittens and not in an ironic way” [5].

In Millie, fatness is pathetic. The phrase "Millie’s the type of fat that..." specifically calls her a "type." Stereotype, archetype, not a full human. Readers are expected to recognize the type. Millie's the icky "type" of fat, present for contrast, present so that Will, the protagonist, can be fat in a different way -- a way that readers can like or feel fine about.

Why do we need to throw some fat characters to the wolves in order to offer a loveable fat protagonist? Is it a plea to the wolves? Is it bargaining? If we offer Aunt Lucy and Millie as sacrifice, can we be allowed to love the fat protagonist?

For Will, the protagonist, Dumplin's message is mostly fat positive. But even for her, there's this sentence: “For the first time in my life, I feel tiny. I feel small. And not in the shrinking flower kind of way. This feeling: it empowers me” [68]. Why is power be symbolized as smallness? Why employ the equation of smallness with power? How does this not reinscribe hegemonic fatphobia?

Do pick up Dumplin'. Do read it. Do give it to teens. But this is a great chance to have analytical conversations about literary portrayal of fatness. Dissect it. We can praise and relish exciting aspects of fat positivity without ignoring hegemonic, fatphobic aspects from the same source. We must.
 
 
 
 
Rebecca Rabinowitz
Michael Twitty works at the very intersection of black history, slavery, and cooking. Here's his article about A Birthday Cake for George Washington. (The picture book title is wrong in the piece; I hope The Guardian corrects it.)
 
 
Rebecca Rabinowitz
18 January 2016 @ 01:58 pm
Thanks to steepholm, who linked me to Sophie Blackhall's blog post about A Fine Dessert, I have now read it. It doesn't change any of my feelings about the book.

I agree with Blackall on these points: that enough enslaved kids stayed with their enslaved mothers (for evil reasons) that showing one such family is okay -- although the threat of separation hung always overhead, which is absolutely key and not okay to ignore; that of course enslaved people had moments of tenderness in their lives; that not being allowed to eat the very dessert they made is portrayed (and understood by child readers) as unfair; and that sneaking off to eat it secretly is not shown as worry-free.

But those were never my concerns. I was never someone who focused in on the smile as the problem, or who criticized the book without having read it. My problem is that overall, the book is pleasant, and the unfairness shown in this section looks for all the world like everyday unfairness.

Children's books portray everyday unfairness all the time. Slavery is the farthest thing from everyday unfairness. In this book, it looks the same.

Blackall's right on one thing: the only way to avoid this pitfall would have been to not include an enslaved family. They could have included a free black family, an indigenous family, or any number of other families instead. Slavery belongs in a book only when the creators portray some amount of its horror.
 
 
Rebecca Rabinowitz
Is there a name for that literary phenomenon where the narration shows a character feeling insecure and inferior due to a trait that actually -- though this is not acknowledged by the text -- is a culturally elevated trait?

I'm thinking especially (though I'm interested in other examples too) of white, thin teen girl characters who feel insecure because they are too pale and/or too thin, usually in comparison to a set of nearby girls who are tan and muscular -- also white and also thin, but in slightly different ways. The text can't get away with positing non-thin and non-white as culturally privileged categories, so it doesn't use them as the contrasts or even include them; instead, the text sets up tan-but-still-white and/or muscular-but-still-thin as red herrings, in order to set up too-pale and too-thin as unprivileged categories. If we didn't live in a white supremacist and virulently fatphobic culture, who knows, those things could be legitimate sites of vulnerability; but given our particular hegemony, they can't. Readers are guided by the text to feel sorry for the supposedly too pale and/or too thin girl, which simply gives whiteness and thinness even more sympathy and boosting than usual.

It's not that no individual could feel insecure about being too thin or too pale, especially when the comparison is to muscular-but-still-thin and tan-but-still-white. Of course individual people can, and do. But I'm talking about characters -- authorial choices inside a text. When a text sets up this type of insecurity in the context of a racist, colorist, and fatphobic society, there's something deeply disingenuous going on. Whiteness and thinness are set up to be even more desired than otherwise, because that thin, white character feeling insecure about her thinness next to the thin-musculars and/or her paleness next to the tan-whites is the very character readers are meant to identify with and long to be.
 
 
Rebecca Rabinowitz
First para (there are three total):

Scholastic is announcing today that we are stopping the distribution of the book entitled A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and will accept all returns. While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.

Link to full statement.