So as you probably noticed, I haven't written squat since May. However I'm back with a new series of posts about bigotry and unintentional bias in children & teen's literature. And lo, it shall be, and I shall call it "Books Are Not For Hurting!"
"Why?" you might be saying to yourself, "Why oh why should I care about Curious George and The Bernstein Bears when over 400 women have been murdered along the US/Mexico border?" Heads up, the messages we send kids when they're young -- be it through picture books, movies, tv, etc -- impact how our society changes (or doesn't) to address issues of social injustice like the inattention to what's going on in Juarez. Society starts early with messages that non-white bodies don't count when it fails to provide a noticeable body of literature featuring kids of color. Obviously, this also affects women, queer people, differently-abled folks, and so on. So as a background to why kids books aren't a utoptian playground of egality and justice, let's review! (Major h/t to Packaging Girlhood)
I'm a children's book buyer, so I see pretty much all the books that are published by major publishing houses each year. Most publishers send a box of samples of the picture books they are putting out for the season, along with a selection of uncorrected proofs of the novels, and of course a catalogue. I haven't had time to do any intensive counting and statistical-ness, but I'd estimate that 90% of the books that are published feature white children as the main protagonists. A growing number of picture books are featuring children of color as well as white protags, but most of these have kids of color in the background -- they are rarely the main protag of the book. Those books that feature children of color rarely have a child of color on the cover, and are frequently about serious subjects such as racism, slavery, the civil rights movement, etc. It is very rarely that I see a book with a main protag of color in which that child's race is not somehow related to the main problem of the novel/picture book. I'm often left thinking, Gosh, wouldn't it be nice if Fancy Nancy was black? or Wouldn't it be great if I'll Love You Forever featured latino kids? or Goddamnit I wish I could find a happy story about a black kid that isn't about racism!" Additionally, lots of books that have a main character of color end up with a white kid on the cover, à la the to-do about Justine Larbalestier's Liar which, despite being about a black girl, originally featured a white girl on the cover until there was major outcry.
And that's just the tip of the problem in regards to race. Think about how many picture books designate the "girl" animals with a hair bow, pink, skirts, or heavy eyelashes, whereas the normal animal is left to be read as the boy -- the boy as the default, the girl as altered, inauthentic & performative, if we're going to get academic about it (h/t Julia Serano). If a parent is featured, it is almost always a mother, particularly in any books featuring daily activities like washing, eating, cooking, hugging, etc -- you know, because dads don't care about their kids, that's the mom's job.
Which moves us on into relationships (what up Twilight?) Ah yes, the ever-popular fetishization of violence, most notably in the soon to be published Stolen by Lucy Christopher which apparently (according to the packaging, I haven't read it yet) describes a young woman's quest not to fall in love with her abductor and potential rapist. Admittedly it could be that Stolen is actually a well written book, and that it's just packaged badly, but it's indicative of what the publishing industry thinks is appropriate romance lit for teen girls: power imbalance, threats of violence, stalking, etc. (FYI, I'll actually be reading Stolen and posting a review later, so stay tuned). Then there's also all the heteronormativity (the always awesome Renee touches on this), not to mention the internalized homophobia in the coming-out books.
Oh I could go on forever (and do, on my goodreads feed). Trust me, the kiddie lit scene is fucked up. But the point is, we need to be talking about this more. The messages that kids get when they're young from picture books and novels are not neutral. Pictures are not neutral. We tend to think about books as being so much better for children than TV, magazines, the internet, and so on, but picture books and kids novels are subject to the same bias and bigotry that's present in the rest of our society. In fact kids books are probably a stronger hold out for conservative "values" since we have to Protect The Children and The Quality Of The Written Word and all. So! Welcome to my new series on kid's lit! I'll be getting together a list of questions to use as a tool when thinking about kid's literature, and I'll be using them to review stuff. And it won't all be negative either -- I'll also be posting profiles of authors, illustrators, books and publishers that are doing an awesome job. Hooray!
(Note Martha, dressed in a pink skirt with a flower on her head, while George isn't even wearing pants).