“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?
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.