Friday, October 16, 2015

Meg Rosoff: Challenging Diversity in Children's Books

Large Fears by Myles E Johnson

So let's address this Meg Rosoff nonsense she posted on Edith Campbell’s Facebook Page,  where she was so very outraged at the idea that a children’s book with a POC and LGBT protagonist was important. She seems to think books with cishet, white, able bodied protagonists are universal and completely dismisses the value of an LGBT POC protag in a kid's book. She also seems to think marginalised kids have "Zillions" of mirrors and don’t need representation.
Can we even begin to address the idea that we don't need marginalised characters in books for kids because "all books are for all kids". Because "all books are for all kids" means "enjoy your straight, cis, white, able bodied characters" which are supposed to be the stand in for all people - because only the most privileged are REAL people, only their stories are worth telling and anything else is “missing the point of books” and, of course, is due to a terrible “agenda.”
When you are a member of the dominant class, it’s very easy to assume that your frame reference and your feelings are universal. When you turn on the television, you can see people who look like you engaged in various activities. Some are good and some are bad but what they represent is an astounding array of choices open to you. They also present a guide as you form your identity and figure out how the world works. Everything affirms that you have value but even more importantly, that you belong to a world much larger than yourself.  It may even seem naturally occuring because this is the way it has been since the moment you were born but it’s a construction. A construction with the blood, sweat and tears of marginalized people as the foundation.  

When I see privileged people suggest that things have advanced enough that we (read: marginalised people) don’t need to be included it reaffirms that our lives and our feelings don’t matter. In the case of Meg Rosoff, I am sure she believes that the exclusion of marginalised children is no big deal but the problem is this attitude is pervasive and not limited to one person. You pick the sphere and there’s a bigot or a pseudo liberal ready to defend their privilege and ensure that marginalised people stay in a secondary position.  

It’s insidious because one one hand, you didn’t set up the system and it might seem unfair that you are being held accountable but the truth of the matter is that with every breath you take, regardless of how hard you work, you can count on the advantage of your privilege to benefit you. Even as it is benefitting you, it is marginalising me and people like me. You cannot imagine what it is to go to school and learn nothing about people like you. You cannot imagine what it is to be erased. You cannot imagine what it is to have people look at you in fear or simply recoil from you because your body has been criminalised or framed as deviant somehow. You cannot imagine how every conversation, and every interaction is fraught because of how dominant groups understand your body. You cannot understand what it is to sit in an empty room, with no television, computer, radio, books or magazines and breathe deeply because in this moment, you are safe.  

Far too many people think that bigotry is about epic displays like the KKK or the Westboro Baptist church but the fact is, these groups are outliers simply because of their audaciousness. The bigotry that kills and maims comes in everyday interactions, odd stares, and exclusion from public spheres. And it comes when you are told that there’s no room for you in a kids book. It’s the kind of bigotry that kills hopes and dreams. Sure, you’re not wearing your white sheet in public or declaring like Rand Paul that it should be okay to fire gay people but really you’re not any better.You don’t need to scream epithets to be a bigot, you simply need not care about our humanity.

As marginalised people, both of us have strong memories of what growing up with few examples of ourselves in books meant to us  

Renee: When I was growing up, I read a lot of Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, Katherine Paterson, and Francine Pascal. I have the fondest memories of these stories. I remember laughing and staying up late because I just had to know what adventure Jesse and Leslie got up to in Terabithia. They are an indelible part of my childhood. When I think back on them as an adult however, my innocence long gone, I know that they played a large role in the way I understood myself as a marginalized person. You see, despite how wonderful these stories are, they are erased.  When I got lost in books, inevitably I got lost in a world in which I didn’t exist. Similarly because my peers were reading these same books, even as my humanity and identity was being denied, theirs was being affirmed. The media’s erasure of people like me combined with social acceptance of passive racism made it okay for them to treat me as ‘other” and led to lots of tears and frustration. It made it easy to believe all of the negative social constructions about Black women and for many years, I struggled with my self esteem

We were just developing and just beginning to venture out into the world and the first thing we learned as a group is that marginalized people simply don’t matter - that there’s no room for us in the imagination and consequently no room for us in the world.  Books could have been a sanctuary for me from the realities of being a little Black girl growing up in a White supremacist world but because all they did was mirror the dominant ideology, they only reinforced the idea that I was meant to be silent. It wasn’t until I discovered Mildred D. Taylor, that I finally found a character I could identify with. Cassie Logan became my friend in a way that Judy Blume’s Margaret never could be. Today, Mildred D. Taylor still has a place on my bookshelf and I have shared her work with my children because I want them to know that our history, our struggle and our humanity matters. I have read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry countless times and it will always be one of my favourite books because it gave me a gift that no other author even thought of  - it gave me a place to belong.  

Years later, married with two children, Taylor would appear again. My husband is white and when his nephews were assigned this book in school, they called me to talk about it. It was shocking to them that Jim Crow was so brutal and that remnants of it still remain today.  Sure I don’t have to drink out of the coloured fountain but racism is just as insitutionalized. What gave me comfort as a child, served to educate them about history and their privilege.  This phone call has stayed with me throughout the years for the simple fact that it proves that including marginalized people helps everyone.  We are all better off when we acknowledge the diversity of our world.  Difference doesn’t have to separate us; it can in fact bring us together

Sparky: When I was a kid growing up, I had one - ONE - book series that had characters like me, a gay man - Anne "tentpeg" McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern.
That was it - my one SINGLE representation of gay people I had ever read until I was 18 was a stereotyped mess of homophobic tropes. I cannot begin to describe how my ideas of how I should act and behave were shaped by that - as well as the idea that I was somehow doing “gay” wrong - that not only was I this pathetic, laughable creature but that I couldn’t even do it right!
And it was ALL I had. That was my mirror. That was my representation. that was my only guide for how to be me or what me was. Or even whether "me" existed elsewhere. I didn't know any other gay people! There were no gay people on TV (beyond innuendo laden sitcoms like Allo Allo and Have You Been Served?). All I had were those awful awful Green Riders. That was my mirror.
I was a kid who read literally hundreds of books - and that one terrible example of me was all I ever had and I looked, ye gods I looked. But among kids climbing Faraway trees and having adventures through wardrobes and people living on a disc supported by elephants and a turtle to an endless number of knights and wizards stabbing each other I found nothing.
I did not have "zillions of mirrors" I had no sources for people like me, not newspapers or books or TV. I didn’t even know any gay people in real life, none of my family was gay. I was alone. "Any book is for any child" is bullshit. Don't tell me that I, as a gay kid, did not need to see characters -someone - like myself. I honestly spent a huge amount of my childhood not realising that anyone else like me actually existed and when I did finally learn that I wasn’t alone it was to learn I was something disgusting, ridiculous and, at best, comic to be mocked and taunted.
And it hasn't massively changed, not nearly as much as it needs to.. Out of the 100 shows we've followed on Fangs only one mini-series has a protagonist like me. Out of the 1000+ books we've reviewed, a tiny fraction have a marginalised protagonist.

So, does this mean that every book has to be diverse?

Well no - though that is a wonderful strawmen so many people raise: honestly if you ever feel the need to say “X marginalised group is FORCING ME to do Y!” then please stop - stop right there. Marginalised people rarely, if ever, have the power to force you to do anything, this is inevitably another whine from privileged people that marginalised people have dared to criticise them. Criticism and disagreement and telling the problems we face in our lives is not oppressing privileged people nor is it forcing things on them. This is a blatant and oft repeated silencing technique and it needs to die yesterday

So no-one is stopping you writing your book full of nothing but all straight, white, cis, able-bodied people. No-one. But we do have a problem with a lack of diversity in every genre of literature and especially in children’s books. This is harmful to marginalised children as we and so many others have pointed out, to grow up without their stories or experiences or even existence acknowledged. Every erased book adds to that problem. It doesn’t matter what your intention is, what you muse demands or whatever convoluted reasons you’ve managed to cook up for why you simply must have the homogenous world of Privilegia - your book adds to the problem and there is nothing you can do to stop it adding to the problem

And it will continue to be a problem until we can go into a book-store or a library and go to any shelf in any section of any genre, reach out a hand and grab a book at random and know there is a 70% chance of a well represented marginalised character being in those pages (and that includes of several axis, not just one or two). Until we can find ourselves in books - in every kind of book - without having to search or hunt or go to a “specialist niche” section then this will continue to be a problem.

Meg Rosoff’s words not only show a complete dismissal of this problem (and what that means to marginalised people) and not even a willingness to continue it - but also were an active attempt to fight against us solving it

No-one went to Ms. Rosoff’s page and called her on the carpet for lack of diversity or not writing diverse books - no-one rattled her cage at all. Large Fears by Myles E Johnson was not aimed at her, nor (as the author has pointed out) was it written for her. The discussion about it, it’s importance, it’s value - none of that was addressed to her or involved her. But here were people talking about the importance of a book representing marginalised children and she swooped in to drag down the book and the whole concept of marginalised children (and adults) seeing themselves in fiction. Ms. Rosoff didn’t have to do anything, she could have kept silent and continued to write whatever it is she wants to write - but that wasn’t sufficient, she had to weigh in on the entire idea that marginalised people deserve to see themselves in books.

This was not about Ms. Rosoff. This was not about what Ms. Rosoff should or should not write. This was a book about, as the author describes it, a Queer Black Boy from an author who was the same. This was a book about a marginalised character written by a marginalised person and like so many others, Ms. Rosoff decided to speak out against the “agenda” of POC and LGBT people telling their own stories

POC need their stories. LGBT people need their stories. All marginalised people need their stories and deserve to have their stories told. Erased books are not the only path to expanding the mind - quite the opposite, for how can the mind be expanded when you are told, yet again, that you have no worth, no power and no place even in a fictional world - let alone the real one?

Others have also spoken well on this:

Reading While White: Spouting off While White