when I'm not reading, I notice that it's fall

I started taking pictures on trips and of special events, as people do, but then awhile back noticed that I could create desktop art for myself from my walks and adventures.  Here's some of what I found outside yesterday at my house, just me and my camera:

The one of pine needles shows where the squirrels are stashing stuff for winter.  It takes a lot to get through winter, and it's certainly a perennial midwestern metaphor.

national book award

Loving the diversity of this honored group of authors!


I've just requested Inside Out and Back Again by Lai, the young people's winner, from the library.  That plus a few recent YA novel to come.

a handful of young adult novels

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler 

It's 1996, and when Emma gets a computer, something weird happens.  Within her AOL account she finds a strange place called Facebook.  In it, there's a page showing that she is fifteen years older and in trouble.  So, along with her neighbor and lifelong friend Josh, she starts to change the future, to write a better ending for herself. And things really begin to change.  She and Josh have been estranged ever since he tried to kiss her a few months back, and of course that changes dramatically.  Josh is perfectly happy with his future, but when Emma changes hers it impacts his as well and causes renewed tensions in their relationship.  Somehow, Asher and Mackler manage to stay on the relatively light side of how decisions today impact one's fate tomorrow, and it makes for a fun and engaging read.

Although marketed to young adults, this is a book best suited for my generation, for people who came of age in the 90s or so and and are in their 30s now-ish, who will get the AOL and scrunchie jokes.  (I got this one as a galley, so it may not be released yet.)

Fire by Kristin Cashore

I thought Graceling was a feminist novel, but Fire takes it to the next level, engaging directly with the female experience of being looked at and insatiably hungered for without regard to one's inner being.  Fire is the name of the only human monster known in a world where there are monsters of every species.  Monsters are visibly different from others of their kind.  Fire is marked by the radiantly bright colors of her hair, which she must keep covered to keep from being devoured by other monster creatures, who crave monster flesh like nothing else.  As a human, however, other humans are quick to spot her even if her hair is covered, and since she's the only daughter of Cansrel who was notorious for debauchery and cruelty, she is exposed almost everywhere she goes.  In addition to mesmerizing physical beauty, monsters also have the ability to control minds, and although Fire shies away from this ability after seeing her own father exploit others endlessly, she is treated with suspicion everywhere she goes.  And she goes many places, after a mysterious archer attempts to kill her, and the attempt to solve this mystery sweeps her into kingdom-wide politics.  Recommended without reservations, even if you don't get the feminist metaphors.  It's a fantastic fantasy story and quite adult.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Lai just won the children's national book award with this free-verse novel about life in Vietnam, fleeing from the Vietnam civil war, and landing in Alabama where she is teased, ostracized, and feels "stupid." She's not, though, and she fights her way through learning English with all its absurdities.  The most poignant part (spoiler) is when her family finally lets go of the hope that her father, missing these 9 years in war, will come back to them alive.  This is a brief but beautiful book detailing the life of a Vietnamese family who is displaced suddenly through the eyes of sensitive protagonist Ha.

Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

This starts as realistic fiction, but then becomes a dystopian novel.  When as asteroid of unprecedented size hits the moon, the immediate effects are dramatic:  part of the moon is knocked off, the moon is closer to earth, and the tides are out of whack.  Miranda lives in rural Pennsylvania, so she is emotionally rather than physically affected by the loss of huge chunks of both the east and west coasts.  Masses of people are dying, and Miranda is slow to understand how it impacts her.  At first, summer goes on as usual.  But then the infrastructure of power breaks down.  As it gets colder, heat breaks down, although fortunately they have a woodstove.  Miranda's mother thought to stock up on food, but even that becomes scarce.  This is a well-told what-if story that would be eye-opening to young Americans who have never stopped to think about how fortunate, protected, and deeply vulnerable they really are.

explicit instruction in the culture of power

Professor Emeritus Chip Bruce wrote/compilled the following graduate student survival guide awhile back, in 2008, but it's relevant again thanks to another engaging discussion at the Reading Around Race group today (Thanks to Sharon Irish for pointing Chip's blog post out to me!):


The discussion centered around two articles that I selected as early works of two major scholars on race and education, Lisa Delpit and Beverly Daniels Tatum.  Delpit in particular pointed out in her 1988 article in the Harvard Educational Review that there's a real need for direct instruction in how to engage with academic institutions as a student and attain the highest levels of success.  As she put it:  "If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier."  When issues of race are at hand, it's worth remembering that students deserve direct instruction in how to gain power.      

Delpit, Lisa.  "The Silenced Dialogue:  Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children."  Harvard Educational Review 53:3, August 1988.

The other article dealt explicitly with how to deal with varying levels of fluency with or development in talking about and/or dealing respectfully with race as a concept.  Being able to speak respectfully came up as key for all of us who are instructors, for ourselves and perhaps even moreso for our students.  Our students of color have been silenced over and over again.  But just wanting one's classroom not to be a place where that happens again is simply not enough.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel.  "Talking About Race, Learning About Racism:  The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom."  Harvard Educational Review 62:1, Spring 1992.  

My favorite Tatum quote was from the last paragraph:

     "It has become painfully clear on many college campuses across the United States that we cannot have successfully multiracial campuses without talking about race and learning about racism.  Providing a forum where this discussion can take place safely over a semester, a time period that allows personal and group development to unfold in ways that day-long or weekend programs do not, may be among the most proactive learning opportunities an institution can provide."

That was back in 1992.  I was in college then, trying to figure out why my study of feminist theory had to be an independent study and why so few women of color were represented in any of our assigned readings.  Looking back, I wondered at the time why, in my philosophy of science class, the one woman that we read--and whose critical work made immediate sense to me, unlike the rest of our readings--was the subject of critique by the professor.  Now, here in 2011 (almost 2012!) it is perhaps as hard as ever, or maybe hard, to talk about race, gender, and class.  As one of our reading group participants pointed out, the retreat from multiculturalism at the K-12 level in favor of standardized testing means that some of our students are coming up to graduate level education without having had any meaningful conversations about race.

So.  We start where we are, and dig in.

The First R

The First R:  How Children Learn Race and Racism by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin

Ausdale and Feagin together do a nuanced job of analyzing interactions among young children related to racial identity, showing that children as young as three years old see how racism operates in their worlds.  They show how these children learn to avoid the topic of race around adults, just as adult avoid the topic around them.  And yet young children are willing and able to engage in discussions of race among themselves, as long as they are outside of the earshot of adult authorities.  They find that white children will be insistent about regulating how black children define themselves, looking at an example of an African-American girl who chose to represent her skin color with both brown and pink paint, which was met with vocal protest from several White girls.  The African-American girl, however, was painting an image of both sides of her hands, and so defied the typical self-representation system of skin color by taking a more detailed approach to representing herself (pgs 58-62).    That is just a snippet of this book that will be of great interest to anyone hoping to theorize preschool social behavior.  

Two recent blog posts from Coloring Between the Lines related to this:


CCB Brownbag Recap: Fantasy and Race

On Thursday 11/3, I gave a Brown Bag presentation on Fantasy and Race.  This interest stems from at least two directions.  One of those is the relative lack of authors of color writing fantasy literature for youth as well as character of color represented as more than tokens in fantasy and sci fi.  A big shout-out is in order here to the ways that former students have called that syllabus out for these big gaps.

So I used the word "represented" above, and it the idea of "representation" that was key to my talk yesterday.  I take it as a given that youth advocates, librarians among them, want youth to know that they belong in all things literature, literacy, and library-related.  One way to assure this is to be sure that racially and ethnically diverse authors and characters are represented in library collections and if you're reading my blog at all you probably ascribe this notion as a fundamentally good idea in library services.  Of course there are limits of the publishing world as well as of what authors write in the first place.

But, when we're talking about fantasy, the idea of representing race takes on two intersecting dimensions.  The first is, as discussed above, representing real people in fantasy books, racial and ethnic groups that constitute lived identities, whether chosen or foisted upon us.  Renowned authors writing this type of representation of African American people are Octavia Butler (for adults), Virginia Hamilton (for children and young adults) and some works by Julius Lester (mostly for children).

The other kind of representation of race is the representation of imagined races that may or may not correlate to any lived human identities.  So good old J. R. Tolkein comes to mind, representing hobbits, dwarves, elves, and humans working together.  Although orcs and trolls are another story.  At any rate, in that kind of case, and there are many examples in children's literature of animal fantasies that work this way, race operates as an imagined aspect of a world.  Part of the narrator's world-building work is to make it clear what is going on between and among groups of people defined by characteristics that, basically, add up to various fantasy versions of what operates in our society as "race."  (Though that, too is a kind of fantasy, but one backed up by the U. S. Census, among other things).

At my talk yesterday, I tried to give some sense of the books I was presenting in terms of how they represent.  The two categories are not entirely distinct, and in some cases they overlap in ways that trouble the distinction itself.  That's okay with me, but just a heads up to readers that I know this isn't an iron clad binary.  But I do think it gets at some of what is complex about thinking about fantasy and race in the first place.  So now you enter the book-talk-like part of this blog entry, although I can't really recreate the face-to-face booktalking without making this waaaay too long.  So I'm going to be brief, and just give the salient aspects of each title in relation to representations of real or imaginary racial identities.

Books Representing Real People in Imagined Situations

  • Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac
  • The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton
  • Time's Memory by Julius Lester
  • The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
  • Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier

That's the quick list.  Now I'll do a little title-by-title description of who is represented and how...

Akata Witch:  Perhaps the most inventive of the real people representations.  Set in Nigeria, the four children who come together to learn magic and fight evil are, respectively: Orlu, an African boy; Chichi, an African girl; central protagonist Sunny, an Albino African girl who has lived in the United States until recently; and Sasha, an African-American boy who has been sent over to Nigeria to clean up his act.  Sunny's emotional journey is central here, and part of that journey is her frustration over how she is treated because of her lack of pigmentation.  She knows she is African, but she is constantly teased by other kids for being "white."  This is probably the most complex representation of race as a lived experience and as a range of social constructs that I've yet seen in a book of fantasy or science fiction for young people.

Skeleton Man:  The main character is a contemporary Native American girl, whose father comes from the Mohawk Reserve of Akwesasne, and the story of the "skeleton monster" features heavily in the themes of the book.  Spooky events ensue.

The House of Dies Drear:  The main character is a contemporary African-American boy whose family has just moved to Ohio to an old and mysterious house that was once a major stop on the Underground Railroad.  Creepy events ensue, with both supernatural and everyday social conflicts.

Time's Memory:  I keep describing this as Beloved for 5th Graders.  It's really for high school and up.  Lester starts from a disaffected slave ship captain's perspective, moves to an African woman that he rescues, and then follows the journeys of an African spirit who has come over to America in her belly to try to heal the wounds that slavery is creating.  Beautifully written, if requiring suspension of disbelief at a higher level than most YA books.

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm:  Unlike the above authors who represent groups of which they are part, Farmer is white.  She lived in Africa and did do solid research for this futuristic Zimbabwe depiction, complete with privileged children who move outside of their comfort zone and are almost trapped in a village that tries to recreate the past.  At the talk, I described my complex sense of the importance of paying attention to who writes what by asking *how* they come to know what they write about.  I can't champion only representative authors writing about whole imagined futuristic countries any more than I can defend anybody writing about just anything.  Each situation deserves careful examination for how the author came by the cultural knowledge they represent in their fiction.

Magic or Madness:  This one is possibly the most problematic of the bunch, but an interesting problem.  Reason's father is characterized only by his absence and his Australian Aboriginal origins.  Reason's biracial identity is not deeply developed, and the significance of her father's ancestry is, in great part, that it is from outside her mother's family's realm of magical control.  Reason's "otherness" becomes vital when she learns that her mother's family is magic, but in a way that can lead to madness, and provides symbolic hope that she may escape the family curse.  This race-as-other trope appears in lots of cheesy ways in fiction for young people, and while this is less cheesy than some I've seen, it's still worth thinking about critically.

Books Representing Imagined Races (that may function as metaphors for real people or the power relations they inhabit)

  • Watersmeet by Ellen Jensen Abbott
  • Black & White (previously published as Naughts and Crosses) by Malorie Blackman
  • City of Fire by Laurence Yep
  • Dust City by Robert Weston
  • Voices by Ursula Le Guin

Watersmeet:  this has become my favorite of the imagined-race-society books, simply because it tackles both human skin-color-based racism *and* races of dwarves and centaurs too.  Abisina's mother is a healer in a Vranian village, Vranians being obsessed with light skin and light eyes.  Abisina herself is biracial, and has only survived to her teens because of her mother's local power and outsider nature as a healer.  When racial violence comes to the village yet again, Abisina barely escapes.  She is grudgingly  rescued by a Dwarf, who hates humans generally but listens to his grandmother's more accepting views.  They travel together to Watersmeet, where Abisina finds that her darker-skinned father is a leader of this place where the barriers between all the races have been overcome and led to a place of refuge and peace.  However, Abisina, who was attacked by Centaurs on her journey, is utterly overcome by the idea that Centaurs roam free here, and has to overcome internalized racism.  Especially when her father turns out to be a Centaur in disguise.  This book may be overly simplistic in its good-versus-evil battle at the end, but the emotional world that Abisina inhabits is convincing.

Black and White:  Imagine a world in which black-skinned people ruled over white-skinned slaves for hundreds of years, and the white-skinned people are only now beginning to achieve the right to schooling.  This is the world in which wealthy black-skinned Sephy falls in love with white-skinned Callum, the son of her family's maid.  This simple reversal does amazing things in making the reader have to rethink again and again the tropes of racism in our contemporary society.  It's an effective reversal for disrupting the usual metaphors that operate around "black" and "white."

City of Fire:  Main character Scirye comes from "an area where many cultures and people had mingled," and her ancestry is defined by a tradition of fierce women warriors, one of whom Scirye is in training to become.  Yep sets this in a steam-punk-like imagined 1941, and dragons and other mythical creatures appear throughout the story, making references to Norse, Hawaiian, and other mythologies.  Although he borrows from real people, Yep is creating a fusion fantasy that draws from too many different traditions to map into any one group of real people.

Dust City:  The characters here are wolves, foxes, ravens, and hominids, and it hasn't escaped the notice of the animalia that the hominids always have all the good luck.  Henry is a wolf, the son of the famous Big Bad Wolf, and his life in the Home for Wayward Wolves is really little better than being in prison.  When he begins to investigate the real story behind his father's arrest, he stumbles across a murder victim, and flees rather than stay and explain that he didn't do it.  When he does, he runs into the city's seamy underbelly of Dust dealers, and slowly uncovers the truth about fairydust.  This is a lot darker than initial perusal might suggest, with plenty of gore and violence and even one tragic genocide at the frightening resolution of the many mysteries introduced here.  Being a "wolf" operates as a loose but compelling metaphor for race, and in particular for the kinds of prejudices and judicial-and-prison system injustices faced by generations of African-American young men in the United States.

Voices:  One culture has conquered another, and now the dark-skinned Alds rule over the city of Ansul.  Memer is the product of both, as the child of a previous wave of conquering Alds and her own Ansul mother, making her visibly bi-racial in a world defined by tensions between these two imagined races.  

The discussion afterwards was great and wide-ranging, as we talked further about the complexities of representation, including the fact that young people struggling with racism in their lives may not want to read about it in their fantasies.  Then again, maybe they will.  The way that fantasy represents real and imagined races to young readers is certainly an area and an issue that is ripe for more debate, and I can only hope that these descriptions of books are thought provoking and, perhaps, reading-provoking.

this sure looks interesting...