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21 November 2008 @ 03:17 am
 
I'd been waiting eagerly for Norton Juster and Chris Raschka's Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie to come out, and now I've finally gotten it from the library. It's the sequel to The Hello, Goodbye Window. My eagerness was partly because I love Raschka's art, and partly because I love how The Hello, Goodbye Window portrays an interracial family as just a plain old normal family. It's not an "issue" book -- no one comes along in the middle and says hey hey why does your family have different colors. Happily, unlike the many early same sex parents books, the characters can just be who they are.

Granted, decades have passed since those early same sex parent books (Heather must be done with college by now, yah?). And granted the two types of books have followed different paths. There's no attack-and-defend motif included in Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie, and I'm glad. We still need tons more picture books about interracial families, and we need some of them not to include any questioning of interracial families.

Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie succeeds at this. Raschka's paintings have wild, chaotic colors and frenetic lines, but the characters can be seen, and Poppy is white, and Nanna is brown, and the child protagonist (either Sourpuss or Sweetie Pie depending on her mood) is interracial. No one comes along to question that; the family doesn't need to defend or explain themselves to anyone.

I have concerns about one line in the book. Pleasure/cooperativeness and anger/belligerence make the girl shift from Sourpuss to Sweetie Pie and back again. In the bathtub, Sweetie Pie says "Oh, that feels good. Will you do my hair, Nanna? You make it so nice." Then a quick mood-shift and Sourpuss says "You pull it and you twist it and it hurts. Anyway, I don't like curly dark hair. I want long yellow hair." That's the line I have questions about. The book frames it as simply one among many things making her grumpy at that exact moment -- we know that because it's instantly followed by "There's soap in my eyes." It's framed as simply one among many tiny and fleeting details that makes this girl's visit good and bad (and good and bad).

It's hard for me to see that line about wanting long yellow hair as fleeting and tiny. The cultural pressure on a young light brown girl with curly dark hair to have "long yellow hair" is broad and deep. To me, it sticks out amongst the other things that bother her that day. I'm not saying that a kid herself couldn't experience annoyances that way -- "bad car trip, bad shampoo, hey I wish my hair were yellow, oh look a cupcake" -- that seems perfectly reasonable as her flow of thoughts. But to me, as an adult reader, I'm concerned about placing the wish for long yellow hair in that context of daily annoyances that will pass and don't really need discussion. I can't see it as "grass is always greener" or "kids always want new things" issue. A wish for long yellow hair, by a light brown girl with dark curly hair, shows a specific form of racism being inflicted on this character (by her society), and it deserves more serious treatment.

First it made me cringe because it undermined the model of an interracial family NOT being bombarded by the racist forces of the world. I feel strongly that we need books confronting racism directly AND we need books that simply show POC including interracial POC just plain old living life. I thought this book was going to be the latter, but it's the former. But it's not really the former either, and this makes me cringe too -- her wish never gets discussed or addressed, she just says it and moves on and it never comes up again.

Where does that leave her wish? Does the text, by including this wish but never addressing it, support it? Lend it any power, infuse it with any bit of validity? Can there be political neutrality on a wish like this? (I think not.) What does it mean to place her wish for long yellow hair in the context of a wish for a bath and a wish to play some music? What do you think?
 
 
 
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Hand built by robots.onceupon on November 21st, 2008 12:51 pm (UTC)
I wonder if it is an effort to...defuse the politics of the situation somehow. Most little girls at some point wish for long yellow princess hair, regardless of race, but the wish is generally so much more layered with meaning when it is made by kids of color. Maybe this is an effort to tell kids of color that it is okay to have that wish, that the wish doesn't make them bad people, that oh look this little girl has that wish too when she is grumpy but is happy with her hair and loves herself the rest of the time - modeling that the little girl in the story doesn't make a big deal over it.... I have found that when kids are presented with something as normal, they embrace it as normal. If it is normal to sometimes have the kind of grumpy thought, maybe they can find a way to internalize it less as a social message about their own worth.

I am totally theorizing.
Rebecca Rabinowitzdiceytillerman on November 21st, 2008 06:03 pm (UTC)
That's a good thought. Part of me wishes there were, then, something later in the book about her liking her hair, rather than the issue never being mentioned again. It follows the book's pattern -- the annoyances come and then then go without mention.

I wonder if there are lots of kids out there (I'd say the audience is 2-6) who feel bad about wishing for long yellow hair? If so, then you're totally right and it's great for them to hear the wish mirrored and acknowledged but portrayed as minimal and casual. Maybe that's the point -- that all her annoyances are fleeting, including this one, and that she's going to be fine and happy no matter what. Like you say, defusing.

I wish I didn't feel that at the same time, it also becomes another one of the myriad cultural messages that long yellow hair is something to wish for.
Hand built by robots.onceupon on November 21st, 2008 06:26 pm (UTC)
I wish I didn't feel that at the same time, it also becomes another one of the myriad cultural messages that long yellow hair is something to wish for.

But, on some level, we have to acknowledge that, currently, long yellow hair is something to wish for and something for which kids and adults alike actively wish. I think if they'd dwelled on it, it would have seemed more like a legitimized wish. Now it's just one of many many many (I get the impression) minor annoyances.
Rebecca Rabinowitzdiceytillerman on November 21st, 2008 07:53 pm (UTC)
But, on some level, we have to acknowledge that, currently, long yellow hair is something to wish for and something for which kids and adults alike actively wish.

Oh, absolutely. It's frustrating and damaging, like all the mainstream "beauty ideals," but it's sure currently true. Which is why I feel we need some books that deal with it head-on or acknowledge it, but equally, some books that don't echo it. I was really surprised that this particular book didn't turn out to be in that latter category.
themovingcastle.blogspot.com on November 29th, 2008 02:47 pm (UTC)
yellow hair
I haven't read the book, so I don't know for sure, but I wonder if the wish is expressed as it is because of the perspective? I mean - a kid who wishes for long yellow hair is maybe (?) not thinking about, or totally aware of, the cultural pressures for long yellow hair? that maybe it's more of a "cinderella has long yellow hair; i love cinderella; i want long yellow hair."

Then again, as a child with thick curly hair myself, when it was brushed or combed or tortured and it hurt, i wished for any other kind of hair than what I had. Of course, the problems of race don't attach to my own hair-changing wishes, but I wonder if the impulse to complain, and wish for change, is similar?

but i do see where you're coming from, and i agree: this is troubling. but how does an author deal with this without turning a book into an Issue Book? when everything is *already* always complicated? (and by everything i mean race, gender, sexuality, beauty, weight, religion, etc etc).

~Kerry
Rebecca Rabinowitzdiceytillerman on November 29th, 2008 06:28 pm (UTC)
Re: yellow hair
a kid who wishes for long yellow hair is maybe (?) not thinking about, or totally aware of, the cultural pressures for long yellow hair? that maybe it's more of a "cinderella has long yellow hair; i love cinderella; i want long yellow hair."

It's not a question of whether the character, or even a particular reader, is aware of the cultural pressures; it's a question of whether the text, in its method of presenting the yellow hair, is reinscribing those cultural pressures or not. Is it acknowledging and challenging the pressures? Or is it adding to them?
Blackcatjennyblackcatjenny on December 6th, 2008 04:16 am (UTC)
Re: yellow hair
I totally don't think you're overreacting. I haven't seen the book, but what you've said about the line would push all the same buttons for me that it pushed for you. And I get what you mean about having books that don't always represent the interracial thing as a cause of tension, and yeah, if you're going to go that way, go the whole way. I really don't buy the "it's fleeting which means it's 'normal' to have these thoughts and it doesn't mean you don't still love yourself" argument--because I really don't think the internalization issue is whether or not it's "normal" to have those thoughts but whether or not it's "normal" to be non-white or non-blonde--and if this book is going to hint that it's not and then not revise that message, then that immediately raises questions for me. I also agree that it's not the child's consciousness of the racial-loadedness that makes this message racially loaded, and I also disagree that effectively dealing with this issue would make this an "issue book." The only people whose books and life stories are not "issue books and life stories" are people who don't have "issues," i.e., people who are not experiencing oppression. It may seem like "issues" to people who are not experiencing oppression, but for people who are experiencing oppression, it's life. I can understand not wanting a children's story to be _didactic_, but that's a totally different question from whether it effectively deals with the issues it raises. And if, given space constraints of a story, the only way to deal with an issue is to be didactic, then I would agree, don't go there in the first place (although I also think that those constraints don't usually exist in those terms). Now, maybe there are other good reasons to include the line in the story that I haven't thought of--but I don't think any of the justifications that have been made so far resolve these concerns.
Rebecca Rabinowitz: Orphea Prouddiceytillerman on December 6th, 2008 05:08 am (UTC)
Re: yellow hair
Thank you -- your comment is helping me articulate a lot of things. I'm with you on everything you say. The issue isn't what that child character is thinking about cultural pressures (although a book COULD be about that; this one just doesn't happen to be), the issue is what the book is saying.

I really appreciate your challenging of the "issue book" thing. The term is tossed around a lot (note: Kerry, I don't mean you!), and I think it's not unproblematic or quite as simple as all that. Firstly, as you say, whether a book is an "issue book" often rests on whether the person making the judgment feels the relevant "issue" to be an integral part of life, or something offset or experienced only by a few people. For example, a picture book with same-sex parents would often be labeled an issue book, whereas a picture book about, say, a kid not wanting to eat vegetables might not be -- but that's technically an "issue" too, and it says a whole lot that the veggie book might not be considered an "issue" book because that issue might be considered universal. I don't think that veggie issue IS universal, but it might be considered so.

Secondly, there's a question about content vs. art. The labels "issue book" and "problem novel" are often used to describe books that lack subtlety and complexity, or that are almost interchangeable with each other because the "issue" is so centralized and dry (and the characters so stock). But some of those are about artistic and literary quality, not ideology. Does artistic/literary mediocrity make the difference between an issue book and a book that doesn't receive that damning label? That seems fine, because art and content aren't extricable; but shouldn't we have an awareness that a certain "issue" book written by a better writer wouldn't be called an issue book even if it were equally ideological? (No need to answer; I always end up asking questions when I'm pondering. :))

Hey, your LJ name reminds me of this. :)
Blackcatjennyblackcatjenny on December 6th, 2008 05:28 am (UTC)
Re: yellow hair
Haha, right on about the origin of my lj name. I should have known a children's book reviewer would pick up on that one ;-) We got a black cat when I was in high school, and even though my parents are big on giving their pets names from ancient mythology and history, somehow the name "Jenny", inspired by The Cat Club, managed to squeak past the elitism filter (promoted by my mom and slightly scoffed at by my dad, if I remember correctly--which is not actually necessarily a sign of which one of them holds the elitism monopoly). And then she was subsequently immortalized by my online name. Anyway, that was probably more than you needed to know about that.

shouldn't we have an awareness that a certain "issue" book written by a better writer wouldn't be called an issue book even if it were equally ideological?

Good question. I would actually frame it in a converse (or contrapositive or obverse or whatever the heck the right term is) way: "Shouldn't we have an awareness that a certain 'issue' book wouldn't be called an issue book even if it were written by an equally bad writer, if he/she/ze had or was writing about a more privileged identity?"
Rebecca Rabinowitz: Hotter Than a Hot Dogdiceytillerman on December 6th, 2008 07:41 am (UTC)
Re: yellow hair
"Shouldn't we have an awareness that a certain 'issue' book wouldn't be called an issue book even if it were written by an equally bad writer, if he/she/ze had or was writing about a more privileged identity?"

This is a fascinating question. I have lots to say about it, but this conversation dovetails nicely, I think, with a post that's sitting here on my desktop half-written, so I'm inclined not to leave a tome-length comment here but rather to get that new post up sometime within the next week and encourage you come back for it. Your comments are excellent and thought-provoking.
Blackcatjennyblackcatjenny on December 6th, 2008 02:43 pm (UTC)
Re: yellow hair
Thanks. I enjoyed reading your blog (found you on the fatstudies listserv, which I just joined this week) and will definitely come back for more :-)
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