I have been interviewing for some positions in New York where I would be working with local kids to enhance their love of reading. Sounds pretty great, right? Fingers, toes, arms, legs, and eyes crossed. But my experience running to and from Boston and New York and wandering around Brooklyn for hours has got me thinking a lot about what books I would want to introduce to the kids of these neighborhoods. Needless to say, most of these kids are getting an academic experience that weakly reflects their own life. They are reading books about white kids, about economically comfortable worlds, and the books that do represent minorities are usually minorities functioning within majorities, none of which are representations of the neighborhoods I would be working with in New York City.
When thinking about books for early readers with a broader concept of race and class there are two ways to think about it. 1) The idealist position where race and class are constructed as obsolete 2) A representation of race and class differs from the stereotypical representations (white/wealthy).
While I love option number one, we are just not culturally there yet and the selections of books are few and far between. Vera B. Williams’ “More, More, More, Said the Baby” does a really great job at this, representing multicultural families who act almost exactly the same.
I truly think there would be more on this list if class was taken out of the equation. Oh-so-many books that represent minorities as the norm are coupled with environments that are full of stuff. Lots of toys, lots of comfy furniture, lots of space; aka lots of markers of class. Examples: Molly Bang’s “Ten, Nine, Eight” and Susan Meyers’ “Everywhere Babies”
This leaves me to mostly work within option number two which, luckily, is full of possibilities. I immediately turn to my 2009 obsession: Jacqueline Woodson. She has written novels and picturebooks that have truly enriched the discussion of race and class in children’s literature. Her picturebook “Visiting Day” tells the story of a young girl who is cared for by her Grandmother and their visit to her father in jail and “Our Gracie Aunt” deals with two children who are sent to their Aunt’s home by a social worker since their mother is no longer able to care of them. Both are lovingly told and openly accept the narratives and the characters as they are. These are stories that are rarely told but commonly experienced and offer an opportunity for a child to see a true reflection of their life AND if the child does not have those experiences the books offer a position of acceptance, or normality, of such situations.
One issue I do have with “Visiting Day” is the representation of all of the police force outside and inside the jail as white, grimacing men. It visually creates a line between the races that I think works negatively. But is this is an honest representation? I am a white girl from suburbia after all. Do I have a right to seek this idealistic approach? Would a child find fallacy in a multiracial police force?
It is empowering to see what kind of work a book can do and I am beginning to feel the pressure of the complexities that arise and the compromises that must be made when you are putting together a book list for 75 children in a school where over 8 nationalities are represented. It really is all so exciting.
Geez. And I don’t even have the job yet.