Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What Our Favorites Say About Us

Having created a list of our favorite children’s books, we look at it and think about what's missing, and why. Back when Allan Bloom and others were making lists of books everyone should read, there was much appropriate criticism directed at how those lists effectively pronounced one set of experiences to be definitive, and even, in a prescriptive way, declared which books everyone *should* read in order to become better Americans, or better- informed intellectuals. This is one basis for our criticism of Kristof's list, which purports to be a definitive list of books kids *should* read to make themselves better people. By identifying what Kristof left out, our response sought to identify the values his list of chosen books reproduces.

Our own list of favorites is not meant to be definitive, but something personal for the two of us, and something evolving. The list will evolve as we read new books, and also as we remember old ones that we loved as children and left out the first time because they were not at the surface of our minds. For example, I (Catha) would add to our list of favorites The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper, a book I must have read more than 10 times, as well as Judy's Journey, by Lois Lenski. And I (Tova) recently remembered the pleasure of reading The Boxcar Children, both because I—like the children in this series—always felt I knew better than the adults in my life what was best for me, and because I was lucky enough to share with my siblings a wooden treehouse in our yard, where we created our own children’s universe (a club called “The Snakes”), and worked out whatever problems we encountered amongst ourselves (again, similar to what the boxcar children did). I also recently remembered loving Madeline L’Engle’s fantasy novels, particularly the series that begins with A Wrinkle In Time.

Reflecting on our list, however, it's impossible not to notice that like Allan Bloom’s lists, it reproduces our personal experiences and leaves much out. Our list is entirely by white authors. Some of the reason for our exclusion of non-white authors must reflect what authors were being published and what books were available, but some of it surely reflects the stories with which we connected and the books to which our parents and peers exposed us. Like all lists, ours reflects who we are and where we came from.

In this post, we wanted to comment more consciously about books that we love that are by non-white authors. Among the list of our true favorites is Lucille Clifton's story, “Three Wishes,” published in Free to Be You and Me, about two friends who fight and make up. Our kids have also discovered some favorites by non-white authors,including Chato's Kitchen, by Gary Soto, and Tar Beach, by Faith Ringgold, both for younger kids, and The Watsons Go to Birmingham and Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis, for older readers. We ourselves have discovered books for our children, including The Big Box, by Toni Morrison. Morrison’s picture books tend to validate the experiences of children and question, from their perspective, adult rules and prescriptions that sometimes just don’t make sense to kids, and aren’t, from Morrison’s point of view, absolutely necessary to achieving social stability.

There is an explosion in the volume and diversity of children's literature being published now. Still, our children read many of the same books as their peers, either because their friends recommend them or their friends’ parents do; then, too, teachers continue to assign the same books in schools for kids to read. One has the feeling, sometimes, that teachers deliberately assign certain award-winning authors' books only in order to achieve diversity. There are children’s books by non-white authors, however, which not only have won awards, but which have also become popular because of their representation of children's experiences not particular to discrimination.

Consider, for instance, the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which won the National Book Award for juvenile fiction in 2007. What’s particularly wonderful about this fictionalized autobiography is the way that Alexie both captures the experience of what it means to be the “bullied” kid (an experience that crosses ethnic, racial and class boundaries) and creates a narrative that is about the experience of growing up as an American Indian.

We don't want to succumb to including other books and authors in a tokenistic way, and we plan to continue to write here about the books we love or are being widely read, or that we find interesting for some reason, without being artificial in our choices. Having noticed, though, that our list of favorites was initially by all-white authors, we're going to continue to notice how our choices reflect on our own experiences, and remember to challenge ourselves to consider what we might be leaving out when we are tempted to pronounce anything definitive.