Jeremy Lin is a Taiwanese-American, Los Angeles born, Harvard educated, undrafted NBA point guard who rose to unexpected stardom on the New York Knicks (he’s now a member of the Houston Rockets). A little over a year ago, in February 2012, Lin had a moment in history that transcended sports and race and became a worldwide phenomenon affectionately referred to as “Linsanity.” This meteoric rise is best encapsulated in the CBS “60 Minutes” special that recently aired. In a nutshell: Lin went from bench-warming obscurity to international sensation as he led the New York Knicks on a winning streak that defied all odds. In his 12 starts before the All-Star break, Lin averaged 22.5 points and 8.7 assists, and New York had a 9–3 record. Jeremy Lin is one of the few Asian Americans in NBA history, and the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA.
So What Does Linsanity Have to do with Children’s Books?
Happiness, anger, love, jealousy, peace, and worry. Everyone has experienced these feelings, especially as a thirteen-year-old, and these are all the emotions Erica “Chia” Montenegro is feeling the summer before eighth grade.
In Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel (coming out this June) Diana Lopez, author of Confetti Girl and Choke, introduces us to Chia, whose life is turned upside down when she learns her mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer and must undergo a mastectomy and radiation treatments. She finds herself juggling the responsibilities of family, school, and friendship, all while keeping up the façade that she can handle it all without help. This story captivated me in its honesty, heart, and humor; the protagonist is funny without forcing it, and the emotions, which as indicated by the title, swing from excitement and anticipation to dread and sadness, are authentic. Chia is a character any reader can connect with. And it doesn’t matter that she also happens to be Latina.
When Charlesbridge decided to host a diversity panel during this week’s Children’s Book Week, the onset of planning felt a lot like editing: asking the right questions was key. Who will speak well and honestly to this sensitive subject?Will the CBC partner with us? (Yes!) How will the panel contribute to this valuable, ongoing dialogue? Who will be in charge of buying the cheese? The crackers?!
I soon became preoccupied with one question that we think will come up during the panel discussion.
Can authors or illustrators write about or illustrate cultures and races different from their own?
This question brought me back to a children’s literature graduate course I took about five years ago. We were examining Sold, a contemporary middle-grade novel about child prostitution in Nepal. We contemplated whether the author, Patricia McCormick (a white American woman), had the right to tell this story—one that falls outside her own experience and culture. As far as I could tell, no one else had written such a narrative for the middle-grade readership; I felt it needed to be told. Patricia had visited India and interviewed women and girls who had been sold to brothels, preparing herself to authentically tell this story as best she could. I felt confident that she had done her due diligence. I valued her choice to write about this subject matter and hoped her book would affect a diverse readership—a testament to the idea that the human condition—both good and bad—similarly touches all cultures, in all parts of the world. Maybe some of those diverse readers would be even closer to the book’s reality than Patricia was able to get through her research. Maybe they’d be inspired to tell their own stories.
In children’s books, fatness often symbolizes negativity. One common trope is the fat bully. Think of Dudley Dursley. Think of Dana, the fat bully in Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot. Think of Nazir Mohammad, the fat bully in Suzanne Fisher Staples’ Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind. Also common are fat victims. Think of Miranda in Cynthia Voigt’s When She Hollers – a fat girl who was terribly abused for years and has just committed suicide as the book opens. Miranda exists specifically to show Tish, the similarly-abused protagonist, what path not to take. Think of Dell in K.M. Walton’s Empty – a fat protagonist who’s raped, bullied, abandoned, and (like Voigt’s Miranda) driven to suicide. And think of Jake in Rebecca Fjelland Davis’s Jake Riley: Irreparably Damaged – Jake’s a fat bully and a fat victim. The tropes of fat bully and fat victim occur far too often to be random. Lest we think that any particular example might be random, textual evidence often specifically links the actual fatness with the negative trait, cementing the conflation. About Hoot’s fat bully: “This time Dana hit him with the other hand, equally fat and damp” . About When She Hollers’ fat victim: “Tish had watched the fat girl lumbering out the doors and down the sidewalk to where the car waited. Waddle, waddle – her buns rolling up against one another – like a girl going down the hallway to the electric chair every day” . Fatness is mapped onto negative characteristics as if it were some sort of profound literary symbol, and as if such mapping were harmless to people in the real world.
I’d like to use this blog post to do three things:
State the obvious
Preach to the choir while dancing on my soapbox
Host a love fest
The issue is book covers. Some will argue that I am “beating a dead horse.” But this horse is still very much alive – and pulling a lot of weight. So here goes…
STATING THE OBVIOUS
It’s a cliché, but true – people do judge books by their covers. This is especially true of young people who, in the age of Instagram and Facebook, are very image-focused. We all know book covers are our greatest sales tool. I believe book jackets are the single greatest determining factor of whether a kid will, or won’t, pick up a book. And when it comes to books featuring diversity characters and content, I believe a jacket’s power is doubly important in a book’s impact on readers – and in a book’s sales success.