Some say social media that questions books like A Fine Dessert is unfairly attacking the author and illustrator. Some say the creators of the book are being publicly shamed. Roger Sutton said that about the change made to Amazing Grace.
I grew up in a small town in the Midwest in the 1970s and 1980s. At school, I was usually the only brown face in a sea of white. It seemed to me that whenever the topic of black history came up, it was always in relation to slavery, about how black people were once the property of white people--no more human than a horse or a wheelbarrow. Sometimes white kids snickered and made jokes about the topic. Sometimes, black kids did too.A wash of emotion floods over me each time I read Don's words. I've heard similar things from Native kids and teens, too. Don takes up the topic of slavery in Poet. But he does it with a full understanding of what it feels like to be a black child reading a book that depicts slavery.
I have no doubt that Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall meant well when they created A Fine Dessert, but they and the community of people who worked with them on the book created it from within a space that doesn't have what Don has. The outcome, as most of us know, has caused an enormous discussion on social media.
I have empathy for Jenkins and Blackall, but as my larger text above makes clear, my empathy is with children. Because of social media, Jenkins, Blackall, and anyone who is following this discussion, have heard from people they don't normally hear from. People who aren't in their community. In this case, African American parents who are stunned with the depiction of slavery in A Fine Dessert. Some of the response has been blistering in its anger. Jenkins has heard them, and subsequently, apologized.
Thus far, Blackall has not. She says she's heard them, but what does it mean when you hear someone--with reason or with fury--tell you that you've hurt them, but all you do is rebut what they say? I don't know what to call that response.
She and people who are empathizing with her are decrying social media, but I celebrate what it is doing right now in children's literature. Because of it, I have a blog that people read. They link to it. They reference it. They assign it. They share it. The outcome? People write to tell me what they're learning.
Because of social media, we can all watch a video of a panel discussion that took place last weekend. A discussion--I think--that has never happened before at a conference. I'm asking my colleagues who research children's literature. Nobody recalls one like this before.
Sean Qualls, Sophie Blackall, and Daniel Jose Older spoke on a panel titled "Lens of Diversity: It is Not All in What You See" at the New York City School Library System's 26th annual conference. I'm studying the video and will have more to say about it later, but for now, watch it yourself.
I'll be back with a post about it later. For now I've got to finish preparing a talk I'll be giving for Chicago Public Library tomorrow. I was shaken to the core as I watched the video. Shaken by the denial of Qualls and Blackall, and shaken by the honesty of Older. He is using social media to effect change. Change is happening. I know that change is happening because of the email I get from gatekeepers.
I think we're in the crisis that Walter Dean Myers anticipated in 1986 in his New York Times article, I Thought We Would Actually Revolutionize the Industry. He wrote about how the 1970s looked like a turning point:
...the quality of the books written by blacks in the 70's was so outstanding that I actually thought we would revolutionize the industry, bringing to it a quality and dimension that would raise the standard for all children's books. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. No sooner had all the pieces conducive to the publishing of more books on the black experience come together than they started falling apart.
This time round, I think things will not fall apart. Social media is driving change in children's literature. And so, I celebrate it.