Microaggressions: Those Small Acts that Pack a Big, Negative Punch
More and more, the word “microaggression” is cropping up in the world of children’s literature. A “microaggression” —a term coined by Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 — is a tiny act of bigotry. Examples include crossing the street when a dark-skinned stranger appears, giving a groan when the word “Feminism” comes up, or using “homo” as a synonym for “uncool” (Pierce used it to describe only race-related acts, but the word has evolved to encompass bigotry in general). Viewed individually, these acts are almost negligible; taken as a whole, they constitute an evolution of the very nature of bigotry, from overt, conscious and public bigotry to a more nebulous form that is hard to identify and even harder to acknowledge (Sue et al, 2007).
We who work in the field of children’s literature—librarians, teachers, booksellers, authors, illustrators, bloggers, publishers—must be aware of microaggressions. We constantly read aloud, recommend books, and do everything in our power to turn kids into bookworms. As fervently as we extoll the benefits of reading, we must also consider whether the books we love confirm kids’ dignity and worth as human beings, in ways small and large.
What one person perceives as a microaggression may be a non-entity to another. At what point does an incident become a microaggression? What responsibility do I, as a librarian and teacher, have to filter out potentially harmful books? Is it better not to read something hurtful—or to read it, and then discuss it? These were questions with which I wrestled after a read-aloud incident a few months ago.
For the purposes of this response, I propose that we define “diversity” in a more expansive way.
I suggest that “diversity” should mean more than issue based books by authors of color about protagonists of color. (While I believe that these books are still needed, the definition of diversity in the 21st century needs to be broader. I encourage all of you to read Christopher Myers’ excellent Horn Book piece for more on this subject.
Please consider the work of the debut novelists Korean American Ellen Oh and Asian Indian Soman Chainani. They are part of a growing number of authors of color who are breaking boundaries with regard to the diversity of book content and genre.
In Prophecy by Ellen Oh, our heroine is a girl soldier/demon slayer. Oh based her research on Genghis Khan and feudal Korea. Readers may pick up on the nods to Asian history and culture, or they can be content with reading an action packed adventure with a strong heroine.
Darius & Twig by Walter Dean Myers, is about the friendship of an aspiring writer, Darius and a runner, Twig, set against an urban landscape. Myers sets the standard for challenging himself as a writer and for giving voice to young people, their fears and frustrations, but also their hopes and dreams. But do not be fooled. These are not “just urban novels for urban teens.” Pay more careful attention, dear reader. Myers’ message is about universality.
In The School for Good and Evil, Chainani skillfully upturns our notions of the good, bad and ugly. Readers will find the travails of Sophie and Agatha uproariously funny but I also like to think that the novel offers another perspective, a broader perspective about identity that maybe, you may have taken for granted.
All three novels were acquired with the slightly subversive intention of pushing us along just a little bit farther as readers.
Finding Diversity and My Voice with a Flashlight and a Pen
Guest post by author Angela Cervantes
I am an original flashlight girl. You know the type. Hours after parents called for bedtime; I was still up under my bedcovers with a flashlight reading a favorite book. Many times, those books under the covers with me were the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby books. The fact that the heroines of these books were white and I was Mexican American didn’t stop me from enjoying these books and rereading them several times. However, the more I fell in love with reading the more I questioned why there weren’t books like these with Latino characters. At the time, I remember thinking of all the girls in my neighborhood who were just as funny, spunky and adventurous as Ramona, Lucy and Laura. Surely there were books about them out there, right?
Industry Q&A with Robin Smith, children's book reviewer
When you were a child or young adult, what book first opened your eyes to the diversity of the world?
I think the first book I remember really opening my eyes was The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou. I have no idea how well it holds up over time.
What is your favorite diverse book that you recently read?
Since I am currently serving on a committee which looks at books from all over the globe, I have many books with diverse characters from all countries. I couldn’t possible pick a “favorite,” but a new book I think everyone should read is I Have the Right to Be a Child which is an illustrated book about UN Convention on the rights of the child. It is stunning.
If you could participate in a story time with any children’s book author or illustrator (alive or dead) who would it be?
I would love to have met and heard John Steptoe–I would love to hear him tell and talk about Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, one of my favorite books of all time.
Over the past few weeks, I got to spend time with a diverse group of teenagers from the Leave Out Violence organization and Writopia Lab, and in doing so I realized how little I interact with teenagers on a regular basis. Yet, my job and career revolve around making books for them. How can I possibly be making the best books for today’s teenagers when I don’t even know them?
Well, this was my chance to get to know them and find out what they loved, hated, made them passionate, and totally turned them off about books. And what I learned really surprised me and made me re-think the way I imagine the readers for my books and YA novels in general.