Changing Representation one book at a time

In the Spring of 2021, I attended my first YA book festival, entitled, “North Texas Teen Book Festival,” or NTTBF. This was my first book festival. One common point continually surfaces from the authors is the desire to represent a story that has a connection to their lives. The purpose of this session and many like it is to learn about the process of the author. Angie Thomas, in speaking about Concrete Rose, talks about writing from a perspective other than her own. She says that she was proud of the  “work that I put in…and the end result in writing about a 17 year old black boy…I was writing outside of my own experience for the first time (Thomas, 2021). She says that writing out of her comfort zone has given her the pride and in turn the confidence to explore writing about characters outside of her comfort zone more frequently. Thomas is making an important statement for current and future authors.

I attended the Harper Collins author panel during the 2021 IASL Conference, which was made up of four writers. These writers include Joanna Ho, Jasmine Warga, Janae Marks and Brady Colbert. Like Thomas, they spoke about how they did not see representations of themselves growing up, whether Asian American, Black or Middle Eastern. However, there were topics addressed that went beyond the author process and addressed real questions about application of these types of stories in the school.

Changes in Representation

Author of Black Birds in the Sky, Colbert says that since the publication of her first book seven years ago, “I have seen such a big change since then..in what educators and librarians are actively recommending…diversity in race, sexuality, disability” (Meik, 2021). This is exciting to hear and author say and bodes well for the future of children’s and YA literature. In my own reading of these past few years, almost every book I read has a character, including many instances of being the protagonist that is identifies as LGBTQIA+. Before then, I had never had that experience.

Milissa Vo, moderator of the panel, poses the question, “As both an author and educator, where do you feel is the best place to start, when examining books in curriculum, particularly with early childhood educators, who may be using your picture books in their classrooms?” (Meik, 2021). This question is directed at Joanna Ho, author of the picture book, Eyes that Kiss in the Corners, who also is a high school teacher. She says, as an educator, it is about looking at the “whole offering and what is the narrative you are telling” and while you are trying to be inclusive, are you falling into the trap of the single-story such as “black pain” or for Latinx people —“immigrants” “refugee stories” (Meik, 2021). The danger is also when educators take a book that is diverse and to still use it in a way that supports white supremacy culture or values. Ho gives an example of and educator taking her book, with an Asian American protagonist. In this example, the eductor presents the moral of this book as being, “her eyes are different, but different is ok” or “her eyes are different, but different is beautiful.” This is still a way of dividing different groups of people. Instead, she suggests educators take a more critical approach. This means posing questions such as, “Why we need this books” Or regarding the shape of the eyes of Asian Americans, “Why is that not a standard of beauty in our country?” (Meik, 2021). It is powerful to hear an author, who has experienced life as an Asian American, be candid about the direction educators should be guiding their students.

Every evening, after dinner, my husband and I take our children to our neighborhood park. One evening, I saw a young girl who looked like she was 10 or 11. She looked sad, bored and lonely. Her father was nearby, helping coach soccer. I asked her if she was alright. She said that her one friend had moved away. I asked if she could make new friends in the coming year – especially since next year would be like everyone was brand new. She said, “no, I am Muslim, and my friend was the only other Muslim. Now I am all alone in my school.” I told her I was sorry about how she felt.

Jasmine Warga, author of The Shape of Thunder, said a comment that made me pause and reflect on this interaction. Vo asks Warga about why it was important to write about the “intersectionality of identity and other specific experiences?” (Meik, 2021). Warga says,

“being a Middle Eastern American, can be such a fraught experience…especially in the wake of 9/11…. this experience of feeling somehow being Middle Eastern is in conflict with being American and being Muslim is in conflict with being American….It was a big struggle of my childhood” (Meik, 2020).

She goes on to explain that while she acknowledges that struggle, she now sees the beauty of being both Muslim and American. When I think of that little girl, I see her conflict. It was festering so much and so close to the surface, the she told me all about her feelings, even though I was a perfect stranger. What kind of experience would she have if she read a book in which she sees herself, a Muslim and American girl in a story? She would find that she is not alone and that others before her have felt the same way. She would see these things, but would also see and find hope.

Authors and Books from IASL Harper Collins Panel:

Jasmine Warga- The Shape of Thunder

Janae Marks- A Soft Place

Brandy Colbert – Black Birds in the Sky

Joanna Ho – Eyes that Kiss in the Corners

CITATION

Meik, J. (2021, July 13) IASL 2021. Harper Collins author panel recording [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-AWActEsO4&list=PLXbDHLKtdGMnFGVh0Es6ARveZEjjeLK2f

NTTBF (2021, March 6).[Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfR-OjgsqUs

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