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Rebecca Rabinowitz
13 December 2015 @ 11:19 pm
I wasn't going to post about A Fine Dessert because many people have analyzed it better than I can. But I find that I need to.

The inclusion of an enslaved family in this book is inexcusable. The problem is not merely, as some defenders of the book have mis-characterized the criticism, about "the smiles." It can actually be profoundly humanizing to portray enslaved people as people who smile sometimes. But that must be in a context of showing slavery as the utter horror it was.

The problem here is not about the smiles. It's about the overall vibe. A Fine Dessert is mellow and pleasant cover to cover. The enslaved mother and daughter have a life that looks to be mellow and pleasant, with some mild inconvenience and limitation.

Being a slave, here, looks exactly like being a servant.

It's not that slavery should have been portrayed differently in this book. That would be a different book. This book is about dessert. It's that an enslaved family should not be in this book at all. The family could have been a free black family, or a non-black family.

Make no mistake: slavery, wars, holocausts, genocides, and the horrors of the world do belong in children's books. They belong in children's books that show the horror, at least to some degree. They don't belong in books that for whatever reason, including audience age or artistic reasons, don't deal with any of the horror.

The inclusion of an enslaved family in A Fine Dessert is unconscionable.
Rebecca Rabinowitz
02 October 2015 @ 12:03 am
Head over the American Indians in Children's Literature to read Debbie Reese's post about a big change in Mary Hoffman's Amazing Grace. (I'd been posting about that very issue just this summer.)
Rebecca Rabinowitz
17 July 2015 @ 03:28 pm
"I do not exist to be your tragedy. I do not exist for you to find special meaning in your life. I do not exist to teach people Lessons or to give people Feels." Over at Disability in Kidlit, S.L. Huang reviews John Green's The Fault in Our Stars.
Rebecca Rabinowitz
If you have or know young kids who have a loved one who is in prison, or if you have or know young kids who know other kids who do, or if you have young kids in your life who you want to know that some kids go through this, I'd like to recommend Jacqueline Woodson's picture book Visiting Day. James E. Ransome illustrates it in rich acrylic paintings. The cover looks like this. This book is warm, loving, serious, and layered. It has sweetness and it has mournfulness. Ransome does a lot of that, using visible brush strokes and stark value contrasts, and painting complex and nuanced emotions into his characters' faces and bodies.

In her author's note, Woodson mentions her beloved Uncle Robert, who went to prison when she was young. There's more about Uncle Robert in her 2014 verse novel Brown Girl Dreaming, which, if you haven't read yet, you should. It's a gorgeous middle-grade book that's also friendly to teens and adults. Get it. Get them both.
Rebecca Rabinowitz
03 July 2015 @ 02:21 am
There are so very many picture book versions. Over many years, I've been trying to look at as many as possible. I'm quite fond of this particular one: Little Red Riding Hood by Jerry Pinkney. Just look at this art: Cover. LRRH when the wolf is in bed. This blogger has scanned in many of the pages very large.
Rebecca Rabinowitz
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman is often cited, even outside our field, as a great book for empowering black kids, especially black girls. In an Everyday Feminism article from a year ago called 6 Things White Parents Can Do to Raise Racially Conscious Children, Bree Ervin says,

One of my favorite books for young children is Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, which invites the reader to reimagine Peter Pan as a Black girl! Try introducing the children in your life to a similarly diverse story. It can go a long way in helping them imagine people of color more complexly.

The problem is, in one scene, Grace "was Hiawatha, sitting by the shining Big-Sea-Water." I suppose this is not history's real person but rather Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Haiwatha; however, any argument that Grace is playing a fictional character rather than engaging in a simple and racist game of "playing Indian" would be disingenuous. Given the profound and profoundly damaging reduction and stereotyping of Indian people in children's lit (and media, and sports, and throughout our culture), a distinction between those two things is a derailing. Despite the mascots and costumes running rampant even in 2015, Indians are not characters you can "be." Letting Grace be Peter Pan isn't especially great either, as all versions of Peter Pan I've ever heard of feature Indians as fantasy characters. I have no issue with Grace being Peter Pan himself, but Peter Pan always comes in a story that has Indians. Mermaids, pirates, Indians, right? But mermaids are fantasy, and pirating is an action (though not a good action, not a decent action, and I've never understood its romanticization). Indians are people. Real people. They're not fantasy. They're not a job or a role or an action.

To see Grace playing Indian, see Debbie Reese's Timeline: Foul Among the Good at American Indians in Children's Literature. Look at Reese's images in that post. Look at the long, long bad company in which Hoffman places Grace.

There are myriad ways we can tell black girls they can be whatever they want. They just can't be Indians if they're not Indians. This book is unfair to the black girls it's trying to empower, and its unfair to the Indians it portrays as people whom anyone can "be." And think of the cognitive dissonance this book asks of readers who are both black and Indian.

This book obliterates Indians as real people, in the name of empowering a non-Indian. Don't use or recommend Amazing Grace.
Rebecca Rabinowitz
Jazz Jennings is a real person. She's been out as trans for years, appearing on USian network television newsmagazines, doing interviews and features. She's a teenager now. In this picture book, she's a much younger kid. Although the book says right on the cover that it's "by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings," making it nonfiction/autobiography, it has the feeling of a fiction picture book.

The most important thing about this book: it exists. And it's published by a mainstream publisher (Dial/Penguin). I think (please correct me if you know otherwise) that it's the first picture book explicitly about a trans child. This is a mammoth first step. Cheers, cheers, cheers and joy to Jazz and this book!

A few other thoughts, none of which matter as much as the above paragraph. Both prose and art (art is by Shelagh McNicholas) create a binary gender message, very gender essentialist. "As I got older, I hardly ever played with trucks or tools or superheroes. Only princesses and mermaid costumes." In the world of this book, the stuff traditionally assigned to girls makes up actual girlness. I wish the book included a less essentialist sentence too, something about how you can also be a girl if you don't prefer or don't exclusively prefer those trappings. It wouldn't have had to attach that possibility to Jazz herself in order to be included.

The core definition of transgender in this book is, "I have a girl brain but a boy body. This is called transgender. I was born this way!" On one hand, this definition lacks a lot of crucial nuance. If a person is a girl, they have a girl body by definition. "Born this way" is not every trans person's experience and sometimes sounds defensive, as if being born trans is necessary in order for transness to be considered fine. I would never be comfortable with this definition in a context for older readers. On another hand, this book is friendly to readers as young as two or three, who, developmentally, have not even finished learning the traditional sex categories. [ETA: I don't like my use of the word "traditional" there. Transness isn't new. "Cisnormative sex categories," I should have said.] So I'm not sure it's terrible to learn the definition this way first, and add/complicate later. I'd love to hear other thoughts on this.

The book also feels very white and very, hmm, nice and clean. I'm not sure what I mean by that. I emphatically don't mean that I wish it included any harrassment or bullying -- I'm extremely glad it doesn't. I'm not saying it needs more difficulty for Jazz to face. There's just something about the world it portrays that makes me say, yes, this is fantastic, now we needs tons more books about trans children immediately so this isn't the main/only picture. The art's style is part of this. And to be fair, demographics is also part of it. Trans kids are not all girls, not all white, not all from mom/dad families, etc.

But no book can be every book. This is Jazz's book, and I'm so glad it's here.
Rebecca Rabinowitz
A movie called Blackbird is out (in very limited release, as far I can tell) based on Larry Duplechan's novel Blackbird. I've read the book, but decades ago. I still have my copy and hope to read it again before seeing the movie.

Blackbird is about a black gay teen boy. I remember the moment of buying the book, because I remember not understanding why it was in the adult section of the bookstore rather than the YA section. In hindsight, it was published as adult, and I think the bookstore followed that in their shelving decision. Also in hindsight, I hadn't started children's lit grad school yet, and I bet I had no idea what constituted YA. Maybe it's not YA at all! Has anyone here read it?
Rebecca Rabinowitz
17 March 2015 @ 03:17 am
In Kirkus, my darling, my life and my bride, my friend Deborah explains some of the wonderful things she loves about our editor, Vicky Smith, and writing for the Kirkus children's section. Deborah, thank you for writing that. Cosign, cosign, cosign.