“The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” – Faulkner, William. Requiem for a Nun. New York: Random House, 1951.
The following two paragraphs were added two hours after the initial publication of this post. Turns out I wasn’t quite done yet.
I’m not saying there’s only one way to depict slavery in children’s books, but I’m starting to wonder: has slavery become the new normal? It’s like the first paint you apply on a canvas, which becomes the background, and then you paint a happy portrait on it, one that is supposed to make the viewer smile and deeply reflect at the same time. How does that work? I’m still trying to figure it out.
New normal: because of last year’s big picture book controversy, will writers, and illustrators, and even editors working on a kid’s book depicting slavery (even just in the background), now explain their creative choices in every book they publish and on social media? Is it supposed to help me understand the book, impact my reading experience, will that change how a book ultimately makes me feel? I welcome the dialogue on all accounts. I think a dialogue still is needed, and maybe when we find a balance, or maybe when what appears to be morphing into a “new normal” stabilizes, will all these questions become obsolete. For now what I’m left with is the struggle to navigate the waves of joy and sorrow such books bring, not just in me but also in the sea of emotions of the young reader.
On the controversy of the smiling slave in children’s books: did Black slaves ever smile?
Is that question really up for debate? The real problem with the picture of a smiling slave, in a children’s book, has more to do with the truth and atmosphere the story and illustrations convey – especially if slavery is only part of the background of the story and not the central element, and how the aforementioned may impact a kid. Images and words are not neutral. Again, the problem is not the smile. And the problem is not whether a Black or White person wrote the story, whether a Black or White person illustrated it, or whether a Black or White editor curated it.
The topic of slavery in picture books will remain a sensitive one as long as parents will fear for their children’s safety, every time they step outside of the house, and as long as children themselves will refrain from smiling or get nervous simply because they have spotted a police officer. It might stop being a sensitive topic (to the level it has reached today, I mean; the past has happened already, and we can’t changed it, and yes it was ugly) – when we’re able to sustain a conversation about racism that doesn’t stop at “Us vs. Them,” but takes us further and keeps opening spaces that will bridge history with present, and fear and pain of the other with healing and cross-cultural respect. Books either denouncing or simply showing a human being who is not equal to another one, or not free, are published in an era where young and old, whether they want it or not, are aware of videos about kids being arrested, handcuffed in the classroom or in the streets, or shot dead. The kid doesn’t even need to have a Facebook or Twitter account to be exposed to that information. A conversation among classmates during recess is enough to do the damage.
On the “Us vs. Them” atmosphere.
I challenge every Facebook user who hasn’t already done so, to not just post a video about police brutality against a person of color, fuel the anger and stop there. Ask the questions. Create a dialogue that stirs us up toward looking for a solution. I ask the journalist who hasn’t already done so to not just report or write about acts of racism and stop there, leaving us to explode when every where we turn we’re already saturated by viral contents on the same violent topic. Do your research about grassroots (literary) efforts in the same area, and please mention them in your article.
Though usually labelled “for 4 to 8 years old” and marketed as such, a fundamental difference between picture books as a category, and middle grade and Young adult novels, is the wide age range of the readers. Picture books uniquely bring the family together. Grand-parents and parents read the stories to the kids; sometimes the precocious kid reads the book to his or her parents; the older siblings also get involved, and read them aloud to the younger ones. If something is not accurately addressed in a picture book that has historical elements in it, it can impact a whole family, not just the child. It will make a parent uncomfortable, confuse a kid, and further extend a racial stereotype, to put it mildly.
Why did I feel the urge to write this post?
After writing about the cultural and ethnic background of the writer (Ramin Ganeshram), the illustrator (Vanessa Brantley-Newton) and the editor of A Birthday Cake for George Washington (Andrea Davis Pinkney, VP and executive editor at Scholastic Trade Publishing), in an article titled Smiling Slaves in a Post-A Fine Dessert World, Kirkus Children and Teen Editor Vicki Smith asked: “Had A Birthday Cake for George Washington come out a year ago, concurrent with A Fine Dessert, how would it have been received? It’s impossible to know, but I think one thing’s for sure: the conversation would have been a whole lot different.”
I doubt it. Again, given the climate in which any book depicting slavery is published, including textbooks, I don’t think the conversation is that much different. Anytime “slavery” will be brought up in children’s book, the following will happen: it will generate a conversation, likely lively, because slavery remains a sensitive topic. Whether relating to a food recipe or not, slavery is not an easy topic to cover with children, not even with adults, and this especially if the general feeling is that the book has missed the mark at some point. Though the wound of slavery has been treated through its official abolition, it’s still in the healing process. Its scarifications remain visible through the examples of racism our world is still fighting today, and this is observed through the socio-economic dynamic and inter-cultural relationships within and outside of a country, and not just in the United States.
For Further Reading – edited on January 09 2016 to add a few more links.
o I recommend Vicki Smith’s original article, Smiling Slaves in a Post-A Fine Dessert World, as well as Andrea Davis Pinkney Guest Post on Scholastic, A Proud Slice of History.
o From UK based online children’s books magazine Books for Keeps, here is an article written by Brycchan Carey: The Depiction of the Slave Trade in Children’s Books.
o Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas once asked: “How can we inspire young people from all backgrounds while being honest about the pain and the hope of the African American story?” She answers in this Los Angeles article titled Four children’s books introduce African American experiences.
o Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom: ALA Notable Children’s Book by Virginia Hamilton, Leo Dillon & Diane Dillon. Knopf, 1993.
o The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book: Containing a Few Words about American Slave Children and Stories of Slave-Life, by Julia Colman & Matilda G. Thompson.
o From Debbie Reese, of American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL): “These set of links are blog posts that are primarily on what-to-do about (…) broadly speaking, diversity in children’s/young adult literature.” From her blog post Not Recommended: A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall.
o Slavery in American Children’s Literature, 1790-2010, by Paula T. Connolly. 1st ed. U of Iowa, 2013.
Addendum: I did read A Birthday Cake for George Washington.
The book review will be posted separately.
01/17/2016: Scholastic has Pulled A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON off the shelves and is accepting returns of the book. Read the publisher’s full statement here: http://oomscholasticblog.com/post/new-statement-about-picture-book-birthday-cake-george-washington