Share a story: Opening our worlds to the gift

originally published at Rub-a-Dub-Tub

Long-time followers of Scrub-a-Dub-Tub know that Mitali Perkins had me with “mirrors and windows.” For those of you who weren’t around then, first, let me welcome you! We’re glad you’re here and hope you jump into the discussion.

OK. In her presentation at the Children’s Authors Breakfast at last year’s BookExpo America, Mitali talked about literature being windows and mirrors and drew on her own experiences as a reader of color to show how it has influenced her as an author of color. “Windows and mirrors” was a new-to-me expression. It suggests books are a way introduce worlds and characters beyond ourselves, and yet reflections of our own experiences. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote:

Mitali added another dimension to the way I view stories and books. This is how her gift worked just last week.

Her gift … see how nicely it ties in? Last June as Mitali was talking, I was thinking about books like Burn My Heart and Web of Lies (both by South African author Beverley Naidoo) and how much I learned from them. The former is about the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya; the latter about Nigerian refugees forced to flee to London.

Put bluntly, I want to have a better understanding of literacy across cultures and find ways to engage new readers by celebrating their cultural heritage and also to continue enlightening mine. It is a conscious effort on my part, and as I recently found out, it’s not going to be easy. I went to a big-box bookstore to buy some books my daughter could give a classmate at his birthday party. The Children’s Books rep asked if she could help, and I said I was looking for books for an African American boy. He likes sports, and I wanted to find characters of color in books appropriate for a nine-year-old. Her response?

We repeatedly have asked publishers to give us books that are more reflective of society … there are more girls of color than boys, particularly when you want to go beyond Civil War / slavery / urban references. The 8 to 10 group is particularly difficult.

So I found out. I am hopeful, though … and so are my guests: Tanita Davis, of Fiction Instead of Lies and Finding Wonderland; Hannah Ehrlich of Lee & Low Books; and Mitali Perkins, who writes at Mitali’s Fire Escape. So without further ado …

Terry: First, THANK YOU all for joining us for Share a Story! I am so excited about having the chance to hear your ideas about … well lets just see where the journey takes us. My first question is a fill in the blank. Those are easy, right?;-) Okay …

Reading widely is important for kids because ________.

Tanita, can you start us off?

Tanita: Sure. I would say “because reading widely shows the reader the commonality of the human experience.”

Mitali: Mine would be “the pen is mightier than the sword. The gift of literacy is power.”

Hannah: Wow, so many reasons! Reading widely is important for kids because it’s the greatest way to get people to understand from a young age that we are all more alike than we are different. Reading is such an amazing exercise in empathy, and reading widely helps children step outside the confines of their own experiences, sometimes for the first time, to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Books about different places, times, or people help children appreciate different perspectives and train them to find common ground with even those whose lives, from the outside, may look very different. Of course reading widely also gives children a wider base of knowledge about the world and helps them to expand the range of what they can imagine, and that’s always valuable. But I’ve always thought that the biggest benefit of reading widely, for kids and adults, is that it teaches us to identify with others and understand them, and that makes us kinder people.

Tanita: Oh! Can I add another one? Recent reading has prompted another spate of thought! I would add this quote from Ursula K. LeGuin:

We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark, and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night.

Somewhere away on the other side of the sleeping globe are people whose language and culture and stories we haven’t yet discovered, and yet books can transcend that gap, and speak a language creates a bridge.

Terry: Wow. There is so much to savor in that quote. Thanks for creating such a great segue to my next question … Over the past few years, the term “multicultural books” has been growing as a point of interest for children’s, YA authors, and readers. I guess this is a two-part question.

What makes a book “multicultural” for you … or is there a better term? Do you see this as an authentic shift or is it morphing into a buzzword? Mitali, could you start this strand?

Mitali: I don’t like that label. I don’t like any labels. On the other hand, how do we signal to gatekeepers that when it comes to race, a particular story will be a window book for the majority and a mirror for a few along the margins? On the third hand — you need three hands to write books for kids — given cover art, jacket flap copy, and all the information booksellers and libraries provide, is it even necessary to send that signal with such a label?

Tanita: That third point is a good one; I’m not convinced that we need the word either – but on the other hand, I’ve always thought such labels were a convenience for the booksellers, and for those who work for them to be able to simply shelve things without too much thought… thus you get “sections” for books in bookstores.

Which, now that I think of it, isn’t that hot an idea… except, on the third nonexistent hand, there are people who are earnestly trying to expand their reading horizons, and having a go-to section makes it easier for them. I’m not sure convenience is always a gift, but that’s the excuse, I believe, behind all of this, even if it’s not a great reason.

Hannah: Oh, this is a good question. For me a true “multicultural book” is one with a diverse cast of characters, all of whom are fully developed and go beyond stereotypes. I don’t know that we have quite figured out the perfect vocabulary for talking about race in books (and beyond). At LEE & LOW, we’ve been moving over to the term “diverse” as opposed to “multicultural,” actually.

To me the word diverse is just a little more inclusive: it encompasses race, culture, religion, class, etc. And I think it has a less academic tinge to it. Sometimes I see the word multicultural turning people off because the word implies that a book is an issues book, or that it should be used during Black History Month or something instead of when you’re just curled up on the couch reading for fun. I don’t want people to pick up “multicultural” books just out of a sense of obligation, and I definitely don’t want them reading LEE & LOW titles one month out of the year. But, just as Mitali and Tanita have pointed out, with those issues, it’s about more than terminology,

The term “multicultural” can be problematic because most of the time when it’s used, instead of meaning “multiple cultures” it essentially means “not white.” I remember hearing Mitali say in a presentation that white can be included in the word multicultural too, because everybody has a culture. So there’s the question of why a book with white characters is just a book, but a book about anyone else is “multicultural.” The labeling can be a little problematic because any book with characters of color is set aside as different right from the getgo, and then “multicultural” becomes something that the book is in some sense about (or expected to be about), whether it’s really about high school crushes, fluffy bunnies, or the zombie apocalypse.

I’d like to get to a point one day when ALL books are multicultural and the term becomes obsolete, because I think that’s where America is already at in terms of the makeup of our country — at this point, the term multicultural applies to just about everyone. But since the majority of published books don’t yet reflect that, I don’t think we can throw the term out just yet.

Tanita: I really LIKE the word “diverse,” because it has nothing hanging onto it that sounds like a school assignment. I agree it can also be interpreted to address class and gender, as well as color and ethnicity. The idea of “culture” in multicultural is just such a jam-packed concept; diverse takes all of that intention and information and spreads it out so it’s accessible. Excellent.

Terry: Thanks y’all for so eloquently pointing out all that goes into creating awareness and building audience. Clearly, it is far more complex than “just” adding a label. Each of you are accomplished women … Were you always readers as a child? Is there someone (real or imagined) who inspired you to take this path?

Tanita: I started telling myself stories — I’d always done it — and I read everything I could get my hands on. I read Readers’ Digest while babysitting, skimmed the pulp fiction shelved in the line at the supermarket, and later picked through the novel collections of all the girls in the dorm at my boarding school. I read to my heart’s desire, and I realized that a lot of what I was reading was pretty craptastic. I hated realizing my parents were right about a lot of books!

Wanting to write fiction which my parents might have, with a fair amount of cajoling, let me read, I started scribbling stories in earnest. So, all of this is just to prove my parents wrong. :)

Mitali: I started reading fluently when I was three, I think, because my older sisters were reading so voraciously. My Dad has a passion for words, poetry, and stories, and he always encouraged me to connect with books. He made me memorize poems and drove me hither and yon to find books when we lived in Cameroon, Ghana, and Mexico.

Terry: Can you tell us what reading was like in your house when you were a child – did anyone / everyone read? Was it something that your family saw as important? Would you change anything about that “environment” for your own family/kids?

Hannah: If my dad hadn’t insisted on reading to/with me every night before bed for my entire childhood, I probably wouldn’t have ended up working in publishing. Reading with your kids is important — it could be their future career!

Tanita: I learned to read before I started school, and having two older sisters made Kindergarten unnecessary for learning new skills. I wanted to read constantly, but my parents set limits on my reading time and made rules — no fiction, no fairy tales, no wild flights of fantasy. They wanted me grounded in the truth — in facts.

They had good reason – they wanted me to be able to believe what I read, and what they told me. They never introduced me to Santa or the Easter Bunny, only to say, “Just kidding, he’s made up,” so that I’d believe in God, implicitly, and understand that was a truth which would never be retracted. I now understand their intentions … but am glad to find that there are truths in fiction as well, and to be able to share that with the readers and writers in my sphere of influence.

Mitali: In my family, everyone loved words and stories. My parents both loved the poetry and songs of Rabindranath Tagore, a poet from Bengal who won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1913) and had memorized reams of verses. Also, they both told stories well. However, like most immigrants, we didn’t have extra cash to buy books so we found and used libraries wherever we lived.

Terry: Given your experiences living overseas, Mitali, can you share with us what you’ve seen about how how teaching kids to read is viewed in other cultures?

Mitali: Literacy is esteemed in West Bengal, India. It’s prestigious to be good at “Lekha-Po-rah,” which literally means “writing-reading.” But it’s an economic issue—when I was doing literacy research in Kolkata’s urban neighborhoods, I interviewed mothers whose kids spent all day scavenging for bent nails, straightening them, and selling them to provide food for their family. They looked up to me because of my “lekha-po-rah,” but couldn’t see any payoff for their own kids to spend precious time learning to read.

Terry: I guess all of that leads to this question: Is it important for kids to have books where they see themselves? If so, why?

Mitali: As a kid who is “non-white” or a “person of color,” you spend a lot of energy becoming fluent in the majority culture of North America. A book featuring someone who is of your culture feels like a haven. It’s downright empowering to be represented in literature — and now we’re back where we started: to power, which is what words, books, and stories can either take away or endow.

Tanita: When I was a child, the number of books depicting persons of color as someone other than a) goodhearted and earnest slaves/slave escapees; b) poverty-stricken but goodhearted unfortunates; or c) thugs of some stripe, in trouble, were vanishingly few. I saw only one way to be from those books – either good and downtrodden or bad and in jail. The whole of the human experience, which is so freely described for persons of other ancestry, should be – has to be – MUST – be shown widely and well for everyone, for readers of every culture.

Recently I read Neesha Meminger’s guest post An Equal Place at the Table at the Young Adult (YA) librarian blog The YA YA YAs, where she discusses the fact that play and romance and the trivialities that form everyone’s life have to be written about by YA authors, otherwise we fall prey to that “single story” trap, as if minorities and immigrants have only one facet, and only one experience to offer.

Hannah: It’s important for kids to have books where they see themselves so they don’t feel invisible. This is especially true for the kids who don’t see themselves anywhere else: on TV, in movies, etc. If no one like them appears in any of these places, they will begin to wonder why society doesn’t notice them, and that’s really damaging. In addition to hurting a child’s self-esteem, it can also make kids feel like the media that’s produced is not made for them. In terms of books, children who consistently cannot find books that reflect their reality may become lifelong nonreaders, and that’s bad for them and for the rest of society, too.

Books that are “mirrors” give young readers characters to identify with and look up to, and let them know that they are not invisible and are not alone, even when they’re going through something difficult and feel like no one understands. I think we’ve all felt the joy of finding a book that seems to completely understand us…that’s something that EVERY child should be able to find if they look for it.

Terry: What a wonderful way to round out our discussion, Hannah!

Thank you all so much for sharing your personal stories. Your experiences not only give us something to think about, but also open the door to more discussions about reading, broadening our expectations, and maybe inspiring others to share their stories for young audiences, too.

Now, readers,  it’s your turn to join the conversation. Do you have any suggestions? any good resources?

Photo Credit: Passive Income Dream.com

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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