Banned Books Week: an interview with Meg Medina and a GIVEAWAY!

“What kids need and deserve is to feel respected – not just by their classmates, but also by teachers and school leaders who ought to have faith in young people’s ability to read, think, and decide.” – Meg Medina

Yesterday, I wrote a short review of Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass and talked about a situation involving Meg  being uninvited from a middle school speaking engagement in Virginia because of the word ASS in the book’s title.  I wanted to know more about the situation, so I reached out to Meg.

I was so happy when Meg Medina agreed to answer a few questions about not only her work and her motivation, but her recent experience with being in the spotlight.

And then she sent back her incredible, thoughtful answers and I was beyond happy!

Below, you’ll find out a little bit more about Meg and her work, particularly the motivation for writing the wonderful Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass.  There’s also more information about the situation in Virginia and some really insightful commentary.

Meg Medina

Meg Medina is a Cuban American author who writes picture books, middle grade, and YA fiction. Her work examines how cultures intersect through the eyes of young people, and she brings to audiences stories that speak to both what is unique in Latino culture and to the qualities that are universal. Her favorite protagonists are strong girls. Her books are Milagros: Girl from Away; The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind; Tia Isa Wants a Car; and Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. She is the 2012 winner of the Ezra Jack Keats New Writers Award. When she is not writing, Meg works on community projects that support girls, Latino youth and/or literacy. She lives with her extended family in Richmond, Virginia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Where does it end? When we only allow kids to read books that offend absolutely no one and that offer up nothing that makes them reflect on the uncomfortable realities of their lives?  – Meg Medina

Tell us a little bit about YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS.  What was the genesis of the book?

Meg Medina: YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS is the story of 16-year-old Piddy Sanchez who finds herself the target of a school bully at her new high school. Bullying is the main event in the novel but we cross lots of terrain, like cultural identity, relationships between mothers and daughters, sexual relationships, relationships between students and teachers. I based the novel on a shard of truth from my experience with a school bully in junior high school. The impact of that experience was long lasting and awful. I lost my trust of others. My grades dropped, as I cut class and skipped school. And for a time, I experimented with risky people. It took years for me to feel better and get back on track.

At the National Coalition Against Censorship blog, they mentioned that you had been told that your book seemed to “address the inner city“.  I think many people can see this as a thinly veiled racist dog whistle.  What was your reaction to this element of the administration’s response?

MM: It was actually a quote to a reporter who covered the story. Neither the superintendent nor the principal spoke to me at all. http://www.richmondmagazine.com/blogs.php?blogID=3fa19738ea6e1cb340bfc8ee7b35d280

But, in any case, it was a stunner coming from a school superintendent.

Even if she were trying to point out that the novel was set in Queens, New York, it would be a silly reason to dismiss a book. The idea that a reader has nothing to learn from characters that are in different circumstances is ridiculous.

As for the alarming overtones: Kids aren’t bullies because they’re Latino or because they live in a city. Kids who dress in Northface jackets and drive nice cars — or who live in Cumberland County — can be just as awful.

Have there been any updates on the situation in Virginia?  What has happened since the story has become more widely known?  How has it impacted you?

MM: Well, my Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded with much-appreciated support. This included a post from Judy Blume who has been fighting censorship for decades now.

I’ve received invitations to places as far away as Alaska – and I’ll be part of an anti-bullying community event in Washington, DC next month where I will definitely say the title of my book. Also, I’m proud to say that Richmond City Library, Main Branch, is starting a teen book club this coming spring. YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS is one of their first titles on the list.

The biggest impact, though, has been on my willingness to speak up. As a rule, I’m not a person who seeks out conflict. However, I’m now past just shaking my head and quietly “working around” people who feel justified in censoring books for young people – mine or anyone else’s. Where does it end? When we only allow kids to read books that offend absolutely no one and that offer up nothing that makes them reflect on the uncomfortable realities of their lives?

One of the things I love about YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS is how effectively you get across that bullying can start over seemingly nothing (Piddy doesn’t even know Yaqui) and then escalate into something that takes over the victim’s whole life.  Can you talk about the process of making the bullying feel so accurate intense? 

MM: Definitely, you can be bullied for the most ridiculous reason. In fact, bullying has very little to do with the victim. It’s mostly about power and about what the bully is trying to work out. The sad part, though, is that kids who get bullied often believe that there is something wrong with them, something that marks them as a loser. That’s where the hopelessness and shame begin.

When I drew Piddy as a character, I drew a normal kid with brains and average looks and people who loved her. She could be anybody. There’s nothing about Piddy that’s “wrong.”

Yaqui was tricky; you could write an entire novel about a girl like that, couldn’t you? But I wanted to tell Piddy’s story, not Yaqui’s. So, as I fleshed out Yaqui, I worked on revealing her only through Piddy’s experience and perceptions. Yaqui started out as a sentence, something that didn’t worry Piddy very much at all. But as each chapter unfolded and as Piddy’s self-confidence eroded, the idea of Yaqui seeped into every part of Piddy’s being until it was all consuming. That overpowering dread felt the most realistic to me.

What lessons about bullying do YOU want young readers, be they bullied, bullies, or bystanders, to take from this YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS? What about the messages for adults who work with or are involved with teenagers?

MM: Researchers will tell you that the reasons for bullying are varied and complicated, and they may be right. But at the core, I think kids savage each other mostly because they want to ease their own insecurities, rage and despair – and because no one has stopped them from doing so.

I don’t know that I have lessons in mind, and I certainly don’t offer easy solutions. What I do have is a story that might help a reader feel less lonely and one that might open honest dialogue in a classroom, a library or at a kitchen table.

I wish adults would stop wringing their hands about the wrong things – like whether it’s okay to say, “ass” in front of 14 year olds. Conversations like that miss the point and cement adults’ reputation as being out of touch. What kids need and deserve is to feel respected – not just by their classmates, but also by teachers and school leaders who ought to have faith in young people’s ability to read, think, and decide.

I love your GIRLS OF SUMMER project as well as how all of your work apologetically concentrates strong female characters!  Why do you think this is so important in books for children and young adults? 

MM: Thanks. I love that project, too. Gigi Amateau and I pick 18 books for strong girls every year and then we spend the summer chatting with the authors of those books on our blog.  We include picture book all the way to YA to reflect the long and challenging journey of growing up a strong girl.

There are other fantastic lists (the Amelia Bloomer Prize, for one), but Girls of Summer reflects our personal favorites, the books we recommended to our own daughters and the newer titles we mention to the wonderful girls we meet every day. We’re picky about finding books about unconventional girls who choose their own path, girls who reflect on themselves and who learn to take charge of their fate.

Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on next?

MM: I have a picture book due out in 2015 called LORO MANGO (Candlewick Press).  And I’m just lifting off on a Young Adult manuscript for Candlewick Press. It’s also set in Queens, but this time we travel to 1977.  Oh, and heads up. I’m pretty sure someone will say “ass” in that one, too.

Thanks so much to Meg!  Not only did she agree to this interview, but Meg is giving away a signed paperback copy of her last YA novel The Girl Who Could Silence the Winda lovely, ethereal story about (you guessed it!) a strong girl finding her place in the world to one lucky reader.  And since I want to keep my pledge to stand up for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by getting it in as many hands as possible, I’m giving away a copy of that!  

Want to be entered to win these awesome books?  Leave a comment on this blog and I’ll choose a random winner! And since the point of  these blogs is to share this story and Meg’s experience as widely as possible?  You can earn an extra entry by sharing this on Twitter or Facebook.  Just link to your share in your comment and you’ll be entered twice

Let’s honor the battles of Banned Books Week by STILL talking about this; by saying it was wrong and, as Meg points out, symptomatic of a larger problem teens face.  Let’s have faith.  And let’s fight for it.

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Banned Books Week: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

It all starts with a buzz that high school student Piddy shrugs off – “Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass!” She doesn’t even know Yaqui so why would she want to fight with Piddy?  It’s probably a case of mistaken identity or no big deal.  And, anyway, what’s the worst this total stranger could do?

This is the start of Meg Medina’s powerful Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass, one of my favorite YA books of 2013.  I’ve been in love with this book since it was first released back in March.  It’s received four starred reviews. I’ve booktalked it to my teens, featured it in my displays, and promoted it on our library’s teen Facebook page because I think it’s truly special.  Why?  Before anything else, what a delight to see a diverse cast of characters dealing with a universal story – this is always such a treat in YA.

Next is the way Medina structures the escalation of bullying.  Rarely, if ever, have I read a book that so accurately portrays the intensity and the slow build and burn of high school bullying.  I want to pull my hair out when I read stories about teenagers who are bullied and see school administration responding with “Well, but does it happen on campus?”  As if the insidiousness of bullying doesn’t follow teens; sink into every moment of their life, as if saying that gets administrators off the hook for not helping teens. Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass is flat-out brilliant at showing how bullying isn’t the kind of thing teenagers can just walk away from, even when they try.  Medina knows that bullying is a campaign of harassment that builds and builds – that’s what happens to Piddy.  She thinks things with Yaqui are silly or, at least, can be ignored.  But they can’t – Yaqui isn’t going away, if anything she is escalating her behavior against Piddy.

This escalation, and this understanding of bullying behavior, gives Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass not just a claustrophobic sense of reality but also makes it a page-turner.  As Piddy looks for a way out, Medina uses this as a way to let us into Piddy’s whole world; her interactions with her mother, her burgeoning relationship with a boy, and the way this bullying blows apart her well-ordered life. You’re rooting for Piddy but you, like her, are also not sure what the “right” solution is.  Again, what a beautiful lifeline in literature Medina has created here: she doesn’t lie to the young readers of this book, she doesn’t make it seem as simple as “Piddy should just tell!” That would only be the beginning of a whole new set of problems – Piddy knows that and so will teens.  Understanding this, unraveling this pain, is more than that and this book doesn’t shy away from that truth.  It’s what makes it work and it’s what makes it unique.

This is a very good book, a special book, and, yes, in some spots a very hard book to read.  But it’s also the kind of book I think can matter in teen’s lives – help them actually see the shockwaves of bullying, help them know they aren’t the only person who has felt their whole life spin out over something they can’t control, maybe even help them feel not just a little empathy but a little less alone in a dark time.

Yaqui_frontcoverfull (1)

This is also a book that, you may notice, has the word ASS in the title.  Which, ostensibly, is what got Meg Medina uninvited from speaking at a middle school in Virginia.  I say ostensibly because, while I am sure the word ASS was part of it?  I also know that it was something deeper – it was the way books like Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass make adults uncomfortable – the way it makes them confront the dark realities of life as an adolescent.  Those are scary things for adults to have to face and those are the kind of things that pull books off shelves and out of children’s hands.

It’s words like ass and it’s worlds where girls you don’t even know can determine to make your life a living nightmare while adults in your world stand powerless that make books disappear from public and school library shelves. A challenge here, an uninvited author there, a concerned parent with a letter to a principal, a board – these things not just erode the intellectual freedom of children and teens but take something life-saving, life-changing from them – books, stories, words, a hand in the dark.

THIS is why we, librarians, educators, teachers, writers, fight challenges and raise awareness about them.  It’s why we want to get people talking about them and being outraged about them and fighting them.  That’s why we have BANNED BOOKS WEEK.

We do not, make no mistake, celebrate Banned Books Week.  Throw that out the window.  We celebrate a commitment to defending intellectual freedom, we celebrate the fight, we celebrate everyone who does not go quietly.  We do this because we want you, the general public, we want you to know this is happening all over this country and it MATTERS.

I wanted to boost the signal on what happened to Meg Medina and what it reveals to us about how easily books are pulled away from the very readers who might need them the most.  I wanted this year’s Banned Books Week to be a time for all of us, from those of us active in this field to the friends you have on Facebook who shared that video of the cat librarian in Russia, to let people know that challenges like this are happening all across this country and we do not agree and we will not be silent.

This Banned Books Week: Stand up for Yaqui Delgado.  

How?

Take this pledge with me:

We will talk about challenges, about climates that discourage intellectual freedom.  We will share it.  We will be outraged about it, we will encourage others to be outraged about it.  We will tell the story of how books matter, about what they can do for teens. Moreover: we will tell teens about these books. We will BUY THE BOOKS.  We will ask the libraries in our communities, the public libraries and the school libraries, to BUY THE BOOKS for our communities. We will not let all the readers who see their story in Piddy’s story be silenced and made invisible.  We will insist their voices count.

To further boost the signal, I also reached out to Meg to see if she would do an interview with me about what happened and what she’s learned from it.  She graciously agreed and then gave me some amazing, insightful answers.  Tomorrow, to continue this campaign to stand up for Yaqui, I will not only post the interview, but everyone who comments will have a chance to win a hardcover copy of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass AND a signed copy of Meg’s novel The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind.

Let’s boost the signal.  Let’s raise our voices.

Let’s kick some ass.

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Show Me The Awesome: Stop Calling It Self-Promotion

showmetheawesome2
Artwork by John LeMasney, lemasney.com

It’s almost impossible for me to think of three librarians I admire and learn from more than Liz Burns, Kelly Jensen, and Sophie Brookover. They have acted as sounding boards, cheering squads, hand-holders, and inspirations for me in all aspects of my professional life. So, it was no surprise to me that they came up with an amazing way to help librarians talk about self-promotion: what it means, what it looks like, why we do it.  They called this project SHOW ME THE AWESOME.  Here’s an intro post from Kelly explaining it all.  SHOW ME THE AWESOME will run over the course of May, with a ton of librarians participating.   Already the past two weeks have been chock-full of great writing and insight into not just what self-promotion means but even great examples of  successful programs and outreach worth promoting. Believe me, you’ll want to read through all these amazing posts – they’re energizing and inspiring. So make sure you bookmark  this on-going round-up of SHOW ME THE AWESOME posts from Sophie.  It’s constantly updated and there’s SO MUCH good stuff there!

When I started thinking about what I wanted to discuss about self-promotion I thought of several programs I’d love to talk about or how I created a teen non-fiction collection or how I grew our manga collection and used it to wildly boost teen circulation.  Those were all serious thoughts and things I wanted to share and promote.  But then I came back to an idea that was even simpler.  I wanted to get all meta and talk about self-promotion itself.  And that’s when I realized that if you’re having problems with self-promotion, with the concept, with what it can do for you – it’s really very simple.

Stop calling it self-promotion.

Self-promotion is focused on self.  It’s the first word, after all.  Self-promotion sounds like someone who is focused on talking only about you, you, you.   It’s even has connotations that, gosh, if that person were any good – if what they were doing was any good – someone else would surely notice and then talk about and promote it without their interference.  So a self-promoter?  That must be someone who just wants to talk about their mediocre work because no one else will.

Think, instead, of having a conversation – of talking to someone about what you do and why you love it.  Think about your part in this conversation: how you’ll talk about what you did, the work you put into the project, the results you had in mind.  Think about this moment, this conversation, as one of sharing.

That sounds much better, doesn’t it? As a matter of fact, that probably sounds like something you do quite often, something you probably even enjoy.  That sounds like something you do at the salad bar and the grocery store and in small talk and, sometimes, without even being totally conscious of it.

It’s time to change that part.  It’s time to start thinking of ALL those conversations: the ones you have with colleagues, the ones you have with library and community stakeholders, the ones you have with friends who want to chat about your job,  as what they really are: self-promotion.

And yet you still don’t have to call it that.  You still don’t have to think of it as something you’re doing because you’re not good enough for someone else to do it for/about you. You can think of it, instead, as just the regular conversation about what you do, what you do in your library, and what you do in your professional life.  You can think of it as the way you explain to people that, no, actually, libraries are still very well used even though Google exists and yes, actually, lots of children and teens still love reading.  When you do this, when you do this with the clarity and passion that comes so naturally to every librarian I’ve ever talked with who believes in what we do, you are promoting not just YOURSELF and the work you do in your library and your daily life but the work all of us in our profession do.

And that, I think, is the most important lesson of “self-promotion” – it SAYS self right there and sometimes it FEELS like it’s all about self, self, self – what it’s really promoting is the value and critical importance of librarianship.  You might feel like you’re only talking about yourself, but you’re not.  You’re talking about the libraries and librarians a person has loved their whole life.  You’re talking about the things they had no idea we do now days.  You’re talking about the kind of dedication and innovation libraries in every single town in this country bring to work every day, determined to push on in the face of budget cuts and public naysayers.

In the end, self promotion, that word and concept you might struggle with or might even think doesn’t apply to all that “regular” stuff you do, is as simple as one thing:

you’re sharing the truth of what we do when you talk about what YOU do. 

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Game Shoes

“Sympathizers are spectators; empathizers wear game shoes.” -John Eyberg

I have been so lucky in my professional life.  From the tight band of women who were my grad school friends and are now librarians and archivists all over the US to the friends and connections I made through my work in YALSA to the people I’ve been lucky enough to work with in my day-to-day librarianship, I’ve found nothing but support and encouragement from my professional colleagues and it’s made me even more excited to do what I do.

And, of course, there’s the online world of connections, another place I’ve found a warm welcome.  (waves to all my blog readers and twitter followers.)

Today, I wanted to start by talking specifically about a group of fantastic, inspirational colleagues (and friends!) I connected with at Midwinter this year, thanks to an amazing event organized by the dynamic and amazing Kelly.  This group stayed in contact after Midwinter.  Boy, did we ever stay in contact!

Kelly, Andrea, Katie, Sarah, Abby, and me formed an email chain after Midwinter and it took on a life of its own.   I cannot even tell you how much inspiration and support this group has given me over the past three months.  Booklists, summer reading strategies, dealing with our administration, plans for outreach, sharing our success to inspire each other, venting about bad days so we feel less alone – it’s a group of people ready with encouragement, ideas, humor, experience and always there to jump into the game.  I’m so lucky to even be part of this group and to have these girls in the game with me.  It makes me better and it makes me try harder.

For me, one of the most important parts, one of the best parts, of having empathizers there with you is for the moments of outrage: the moment when you find someone who has the same outrage as you, feels the same injustice and wants to raise their voice in the same way you do.

Just about a week ago,  author Brendan Halpin posted some commentary on a Washington Post article about the “gender divide” in YA fic. (and, yes, that totally means “boys don’t read!  there’s all these supernatural books for girls!”  Which is a totally legit point, because we all know boys won’t/don’t/can’t read paranormal books and it’s not like 4 of the 7 children’s/YA titles that sold over 1,000,000 copies in 2010 had male protagonists and were written by men. )

First of all, the Washington Post article had good intentions, I guess, and was at least semi-researched and really wasn’t that bad.  But, I swear to GOD it just made me want to pull my hair out.  OH GOOD, LET’S HAVE THIS DISCUSSION AGAIN!

SO GLAD this issue is getting coverage and being brought up yet again because, WOW, there’s just not enough discussion about it.  It’s not like there are numerous professional titles about engaging boys with libraries and literacy, blogs written by and centered on boys reading, or a monthly column in VOYA about books and programming for boys, or that over half the Printz winners have been written by men and feature teen boy lead characters.  Oh, wait! It’s exactly like that.

So, yes, I had issues with the Washington Post article … but then came Halpin’s post which took things to a whole other level.

And that level is: Really?!

Let’s start with: “we’d better find more books for boys because boys need books that reflect their realities.” Which, you know, that’s an issue close to my heart.  I am totally a person that speaks up for the importance of that, OK?  But really?  Really? There aren’t enough young adult/childrens books out there that reflect boy’s/men’s reality?  Really?  I know, what a stirring point, but honestly!  If you can look around our culture, around every single part of our contemporary culture (and, yes, publishing is included as part of said culture) and still say to yourself: “Women are the machine and they are bringing an unconscious bias towards men to their gatekeeping!!” I honestly can’t say more to you than: Really?!

MUCH LESS than the unspoken end of that is “because boys can’t relate to girl’s experiences, you know the way girls can so easily relate to boys.”  You know, there’s a real gender divide happening and that gender divide is: girls love books with boy protagonists because of course they can relate but no boy in his right mind would be caught dead reading a book with a girl protagonist.  How’s he expected to relate???!

This is what we might think of as the Twilight/Harry Potter faux-dichotomy: Harry Potter sells well?  Gee, that’s because it’s such a universal, magical, epic story we can all relate to and lose ourselves in!  Twilight sells well?  Teenage girls and middle age women are buying them all because NO boys or men are interested in stuff like vampires and werewolves and love stories.  Gross-out!  WOMEN: RUINING THINGS BY BUYING TWILIGHT, WAY TO GO.

While I read Halpin’s post, my mouth dangled open in disbelief.  It wasn’t just about the Washington Post article, it wasn’t just about getting boys to read – it was about how “women of twitter” weren’t taking the issue seriously enough, about how further that in children’s publishing “women are the machine”, about how women, i.e. the machine, do not serve everyone equally.  Halpin’s post was an exquisite experience in privilege, a perfect illustration of it, really, because it used privilege to deny privilege.

I knew I had to respond, to try to point out how problematic Halpin’s blog was.  I knew I had to voice my outrage.  And just as I started to wrestle with how I was going to do this: how I was going to approach the inherent privilege and straw man logic in his post, how I was going to address all of the coverage this issue consistently receives, so to approach it as if it were entirely novel was ridiculous. Believe me, I wasn’t relishing this.  I didn’t want to start a “fight”, I didn’t want to be “unfun“, I have a thousand other blogs I need to write so I didn’t want to be writing this one.  But … well, some things you just have to address.

And then?  Just like that – I found out that Jodi, AKA bookgazing, had written the perfect, comprehensive response over at Lady Business.   Said response had everything I wanted to say only said better.

It wasn’t just relief that now I didn’t “have” to write a response, it wasn’t just knowing that there was someone out there as outraged about a particular issue as I was: it was knowing that there was someone else in the game with me.

I am so grateful for all the empathizers in my life: the people like Kelly, the bloggers at Lady Business, and so many more people than I could possibly list, both within my professional field and just in my life:  the people who share my outrage and speak out about it.

All of them make me so glad I’m in the game and I am eternally grateful for the reminders and the assists.

(who are some of your empathizers and inspirations?)

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Silver Phoenix, Sean Kingston, and the Importance of Visibility

“My reality is filled with young people who don’t see themselves reflected in books. And if you don’t see yourself in books, do you exist? Do you matter? Does anyone care about your life? Your story? Well, I know that we all matter, and my goal as an artist is to make sure others know, too.” -Charles R. Smith, Jr. in his 2010 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award acceptance speech

I live and work in a small town.  According to the 2000 census, the population was 11,909.  In many ways, my town is an “average” small town.  We have one four screen movie theater, one grocery store, and no restaurants open after 10 PM.  It’s the kind of place where you can spend ten minutes in the one grocery store and see ten people you know.

But something is different about where I live (which means something is different about where I work) … in my small town is one of the largest science and technology institutions in the world.  People come from all over the world to work here and they live in our community.  For the most part, these people are highly educated and make a whole lot of money.  37% of the population has a graduate or professional degree.  This means that while I work in a small town, my patron base is international.  A few weeks on the job, I complimented a smiling 8 year old on her purse.  She replied, “Thanks, we bought in Singapore.  We stopped there on our way to New Delhi for vacation.”  I would soon find that in this town, that was the norm.  When I look around a story time, I see parents from (among other places) China, Mongolia, India, France, Russia, Nepal, Spain, Israel, Germany, Jordan, Korea, Scotland, and Japan.  Our library has a thriving, circulating foreign language collection that includes books, magazines, newspapers and DVDs.  I live and work in a small town, but I am often reminded it’s not like many other small towns I have known.  I have learned a lot working here and it’s made me more attuned than ever to issues of visibility and why it matters.

When I think of the latest round of cover whitewashing that is slated to occur when Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix comes out in paperback with a barely disguised white girl on the cover instead of an accurate representation of Ai Ling, the kick-ass Asian protagonist actually featured in the book, I think about Jenny.

Jenny is twelve years old.  She’s an avid reader.  She’s also Chinese. One day several months ago we were talking about manga.  She asked me, with disgust, if I knew about the upcoming Avatar movie.

“Did you know they cast white people in that movie?” She said, disgust rolling off her every word in that way only twelve year olds can manage.

“I did.  That’s so dumb, isn’t it?”

“What is it?”  She asked, practically vibrating with anger.  “Do they think Asians aren’t cool enough or something?”

This, this simple question, is everything you need to know about visibility.  This is the question I think M. Night Shyamalan and everyone involved with Avatar the Last Airbender should have to answer to Jenny’s face.

Many people have written much more eloquently than I could about the problems with changing the cover of Silver Phoenix. (and its forthcoming sequel Fury of the Phoenix)  Here’s a sample of some of those posts:

Inkstone: I Guess I Still Have One Post In Me
Steph Su: Why I Want More Asians on YA Book Covers
Trisha: Asian-American Characters and Me
Miss Attitude: Guess What This Post Is About? (with a great link roundup)

But one point I never really saw addressed was this: what about libraries (like mine) that bought Silver Phoenix when it first came out?  How do these covers look together? My library system purchased it for a variety of reasons: great reviews and huge demand among our patrons for fantasy with strong female characters, for instance.  But we also bought it because we have large Asian patron base, because we see dozens of readers like Jenny every day, because it’s our professional responsibility to put books that reflect their faces, their identities, into their hands and their hearts.

For all of these reasons, and due to the success we’ve had with the first book, it’s a no-brainer that my library will be purchasing Fury of the Phoenix. So what now, Greenwillow Books?  How do these covers look together?

How will these books look to Jenny if she sees them together?  What message is she going to be getting?  What are we saying to Jenny?  How should my library display these books together?  What should I say when I am booktalking, promoting, and hand-selling the series and showing both books to my patrons?  Do you think they will not notice this difference?  Do you think it doesn’t matter?

VISIBILITY MATTERS.

There’s a reason Queer Nation took to the streets and shouted “We’re Here!  We’re Queer!  Get used to it!”  There’s an equal reason that, in 2002, The Simpsons would have Lisa tell the Gay Pride parade marching down her street and chanting this once radical statement of purpose: “You do this every year.  We are used to it!”

About a month or so ago, I was researching Justin Bieber (no, seriously.  He’s a youth cultural phenomenon librarians should at least be somewhat cognizant of.) and I discovered that he has a duet with Sean Kingston.  The duet, Eenie Meenie, went platinum in the US and the video has over 12 million hits on YouTube.   That part isn’t much of a surprise, Bieber collaborates with everyone (a key to his success and appeal, for sure) and, really, he and Kingston have a lot in common.  They were both discovered as teenagers through their presence on social media sites and built huge fanbases online that translated to “real” album sales.  When I looked up the video, however, I admit I was kind of blown away by the plot.

Basically, Bieber and Kingston are unwittingly competing for the affection of the same girl at a party.  She flirts with one and the other as they are in different parts of the house party.  Bieber and Kingston eventually meet up and realize that GASP this “eenie meenie miney moe lova has been PLAYING THEM BOTH!  Neither one seems to have hard feelings, they roll their eyes and embrace as the girl stomps off.

On the one hand, besides the problematic “girls, never flirt with more than one dude at a time or else you’re an unfaithful skank!!!” messaging, this is a pretty typical video.  Bieber and Kingston aren’t in the video as super-famous-musicians, they’re just two guys at a party who happen to be flirting with a girl that seems equally interested in both of them.  Why get blown away?

I was blown away that this simple narrative of “one girl is equally interested in two guys and is perhaps coyly leading them on simultaneously” was presented featuring one guy our society would absolutely consider “fat” and one we would consider “normal.” (NOTE: obviously, I’m not assigning or claiming either of these words to or for Bieber and Kingston, but in contemporary American culture, I think it’s inescapable and obvious that they’d be labeled with them.)

Sean Kingston and Justin Beiber nonchalantly competing for a girl is VISIBILITY IN ACTION.

When I see Sean Kingston flirting, dancing, looking hip and suave, and wooing a girl – I have a new way of rejecting the preconception that everyone has to look one single way, that there is only one standard for what makes you desirable, noticeable, what makes you, as Charles R. Smith, Jr. might say: exist.

When I see Sean Kingston, to some degree, I see myself.

We all deserve that experience.  That’s why these conversations are so important.  That’s why it matters that we keep discussing what Ai Ling should look like on the covers of the books she lives in, what it means and what messages it sends when she disappears into a black blur and turns into an oblique and ambiguous pair of lips.

Like Queer Nation so many years ago, we should ALL stand on the rooftops and march through the streets and shout: WE’RE HERE! until our stories are told, until attention is paid.

We owe it to Jenny.

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