Book Reviews

Wacky Wednesday: Denver Comic Con

Cosplay is Life.

That may be a stretch, but I went to Denver Comic Con this summer, and it is evident that a great many people take cosplay very very seriously. I would count myself among those people, but I didn’t finish my Mass Effect costume, and I lack the funds to be as hardcore as the more serious cosplayers. I spent money on comics and graphic novels for my classroom, instead.

A quick, shameless plug: I went to DCC with my friend Dextra, an indie artist. I have a few of her pieces, as well as a fantastic T-Rex dress with her artwork on it. Her Facebook page has links to her etsy and Redbubble shops.

Anyway.

DCC is a celebration of geekdom in all its glory. I registered for a half-credit educator’s track and sat in several amazing panels on diversity and representation in comics and pop culture. Pop Culture Classroom sponsors several conventions during the year, and Denver is one of them.

Highlights from the panels:

  • College students presenting their projects through an intersectional feminist lens
  • High school (!!!) students presenting their projects analyzing the representation of an identity politic (gender, religious identity, mental illness, LGBTQ, race) throughout the eras of comics
  • The “Indigenerds” discussions of stereotype and representation of Native American characters in popular culture
  • The two Star Wars panels: one on critical reading, and one on stories of resistance

I added several titles from Native Realities to my library. I bought several of Jeremy Whitley’s titles, too (including some My Little Pony single issues, duh). He signed them for me. He happens to be one of the kindest people ever, and made sure to show me the three-panel dialogue exchange with a female Deaf pirate in one of the books I bought!

One last thing, speaking of Deaf characters: two different panels mentioned the graphic autobiography El Deafo by Cece Bell, which several of my students have read (and loved). It’s about a deaf bunny. You should read it. I also found out about Matt Fraction’s run of Hawkeye; issue #19 is in ASL! So: even though the comics world still needs work in regards to representation of disability (a couple panels mentioned that weakness), it’s improving, bit by bit.

Curriculum Disputes, Reading Lists, and More Books by White Guys

Last Monday, a committee in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho recommended Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck be removed from the ninth grade general reading list to the small-group reading list.

The four committee members who feel the book should be removed from required reading shared their reasons with the Spokesman-Review:

  • Profanity: use of words like “bastard” and “God damn.” One committee member counted the profanities–102 profanities in its 110 pages.
  • Negativity and darkness: committee members found the story too “negative.” This next bit I’ll just quote directly from the article:

The book is of high literary quality, committee member Eugene Marano said, and he’s not so bothered by the coarse language. But the gloomy tone gives him pause, especially the bleak ending.

“I thought it was too dark for ninth-graders,” said Marano, a retired Kootenai County magistrate judge. “It needs to be in a small group to explain away the dark part of it.”

The Boise Weekly did a little digging and found the approved books for large and small group instruction for ninth grade in the Coeur d’Alene school district:

Current approved titles on the ninth grade whole group reading list are “Romeo & Juliet,” Animal Farm, Great Expectations and The House on Mango Street. Titles on the small group reading list include Go Ask Alice, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Odyssey.

Here’s what I have gleaned from this reporting, the above books that have not been challenged, and my knowledge of those texts: The Great Depression is too bleak, but teen suicide (as told by Shakespeare) and teen drug use and suicide (as told by an LDS Idaho writer in the form of a cautionary tale) are not. While small group novels have more challenging or intense content, the committee appears to be under the assumption that this pedagogical strategy is used to “explain away” the bleakness, negativity, or challenging nature of the text, rather than to dig into, discuss, analyze, synthesize, or reflect upon it. The ad hoc committee and school board need to have this point clarified. Immediately.

That covers my response to the coverage thus far. Now I get to the heart of the matter.

While I appreciate the articles by both the Spokesman-Review and the Boise-Weekly, I am not satisfied by the depth of their research. In thirty minutes of searching, I downloaded Coeur d’Alene School District’s Approved Novels list for grades 6 through 9. The district website says the document was last updated December 2014; the document itself states September 2013. I went through each title for each grade; as an educator, a member of the greater Idaho community, and a part of the growing consciousness of how a “safe” canon has diminished our ability to engage in critical thought, I am very troubled by what I find, both in terms of the content itself, and how our framing of it limits students.

Banning and challenging books is anachronistic and counter-productive. Last year, the Meridian, Idaho, school district banned the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The American Library Association named it the most-challenged book of 2014. The ALA “condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information,” and “promotes the freedom to read.” Banning books does not protect students from ideas. Choosing to challenge a novel, when students have access to the the entire world of information in their pockets, demonstrates an archaic understanding of the purpose of education and the sharing of information. Finally, after the ban of the Alexie novel, interest in the book increased, and instead of it simply appearing on a supplemental reading list, every student was provided a copy of the novel. For free.

The committee does not understand ninth grade students. Fourteen-year-old students, even in conservative northern Idaho, have heard the words “bastard” and “damn.” They have heard the Lord’s name taken in vain. They have used those words, and worse. Reading them, in a piece of literature meant to reflect the experiences of migrant workers during the Great Depression, will not scandalize them. Furthermore, if eighth-grade students can handle the required text of The Diary of Anne Frank, which also has a bleak ending, they can handle Of Mice and Men, provided they have a competent teacher who guides them through the process–which they do. It was the Great Depression; it did not have a happy ending for the nation’s poor, and hiding that is insulting to the history and to the students. Committee: trust your teachers, trust your students.

In 2015, the book list is populated with predominantly white male authors. This begs the question: why are we arguing about a book written by a dead white guy? Of the approved titles on the Whole Group Reading List (and I am including the required titles and choice lists), almost 70% are written by white men. Several of them are repeats of the same author; there are two (TWO!) other novels by Steinbeck on the approved novels list. I’m going to break this down some more, because this is the most problematic piece of the issue.

  • In grade 9, a teacher may elect for the class to read The Miracle Worker, which is based on Helen Keller’s autobiography, but is not the autobiography itself. As an educator of the Deaf, I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered individuals whose entire concept of deafness is based not on Keller’s words, but on someone else’s adaptation of them. This is part of a pattern of books that address the topic of disability that are written by able-bodied authors: Freak the Mighty (grade 7), and two books from the grade 9 Small Group list, Stoner and Spaz, and Stuck in Neutral.
  • The Grade 11 list has left me irate. In the entire canon of American Literature, out of the 11 titles selected for the approved novel list, there is one novel written by a woman. ONE. Where are women like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Willa Cather, or Louisa May Alcott?
  • Again, Grade 11: Eleven novels, two Authors of Color. Frederick Douglass’ autobiography is on the list, as well as Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. The selection of two biographies on a list that also features classic works of fiction is an easy way to make sure the list pays lip service to diversity without tackling broader systems of inequality. This is unacceptable. On the entire 6th-12th grade list of 73 titles, there are only seven titles written by People of Color: 3 African-American, 1 African, 1 Latina, 1 Chinese-American, 1 Japanese-American. There are other novels that address topics of racism, segregation, and diversity, but these are written by white authors who do not represent the Black (or Latino, or Native) literary community. As I was working on this blog post, a video surfaced of the principal of TNT Academy in Georgia making racially charged remarks at graduation. A Twitter conversation turned toward colorblind pedagogy, and everything clicked about this entire book challenge (tweet embedded with permission):

This is what a legacy of systemic silencing and supremacy looks like. This is where it starts: narrowing our students’ access to books based on our archaic definitions of whether a novel is “a quality story [or] a page turner.” Arguing about the word “bastard” and whether the Great Depression is too depressing, instead of challenging our state’s entrenched biases. The person who successfully challenged Alexie’s novel last spring claimed a semi-autobiographical novel written by a Native American that described his experiences of racism when he left the reservation was, by definition, a racist novel. We are seeing the damage wrought by decades of failing to engage students with literary voices outside the approved canon.

Knots on a Counting Rope, or How Feminism Ruined My Childhood

Book Cover: Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin, Jr., and John Archambault Illustrated by Ted Rand

Book Cover: Knots on a Counting Rope
by Bill Martin, Jr., and John Archambault
Illustrated by Ted Rand

This week, a small piece of my childhood died.

My students love Reading Rainbow. I started using the old episodes when Idaho hooked every teacher up with a subscription to Discovery Education. Over 150 old episodes are available for streaming, and most of them are captioned for my deaf and hard-of-hearing students. I interpret them anyway, but the captions really help my students catch vocabulary words and sentence structure. When we read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, we watched the accompanying Reading Rainbow, which was fascinating: we got to watch some great domino-crash cause-and-effect footage. It tickles my nostalgia bone, too. I was thrilled to find the episode with the clip about making paper from recycled denim. With that many episodes, we find a lot of uses for integrating the videos into our units.

I am starting a unit on the Native American tribes of Idaho. I sought some videos and books to introduce the unit so we had some common literature experiences. Reading Rainbow offered an episode featuring Knots on a Counting Rope. I hadn’t read that book in years and only had vague (but positive) memories of the story. So I previewed the video and cracked open the book.

Intersectional Feminism ruined a piece of my childhood this week.

This book was a classic, a staple of every elementary classroom. It features Indians! And a blind kid! And he overcomes his blindness and becomes one with nature! How great is that!

I wish I could say I read this story to my kids and they loved it and the end. Or I guess I’m glad I can say I didn’t and they didn’t and NOT the end.

This book is an example of intersectional (or what I call “ampersandwiched”) literature: it portrays the intersection between two areas of marginalization. But this book is done poorly, as many attempts by authors who are not Native and who do not have disabilities are. It falls into a number of common traps.

  • The “Magical Native American” or “Mystic Shaman” trope is present in speaking to the wind and the horses speaking to the newborn, among others. Most of this book could fall under that stereotype. This cliché depends upon the idea that all Native Americans commune with nature and are imbued with special powers or insight because of that connection. The mystic shaman is considered by many to be a positive stereotype, but it is a stereotype nonetheless. Stereotypes limit the depths of characters and limit our understanding to a flat representation.
  • The “Magical Differently Abled Person” trope is present in the character of the grandson. In overcoming his fear of racing his horse while blind (by becoming one with nature, by the way), we are meant to feel inspired by him. I wrote a paper on this for my Feminist Theory class last semester: going about life with a disability does not automatically make someone “inspirational.” Far too many books that feature a character with a disability fall into this trap of objectifying that character and using the disability as a plot device. At the end, someone learns a lesson (often it’s us, the reader, or another able-bodied person in the story) and we all go away better people. I will be digging into this phenomenon more as I work though children’s and young adult literature over the upcoming months.

I am not saying anyone is a bad person for liking this book. I am sharing my journey in reassessing what I consider “classic” children’s books. I remember this book fondly; years ago my sister brought it home from school when my aunt was visiting, and I remember them snuggling in the recliner while my aunt read it to her. It hurts to reread something so well-loved and see how it could have contributed to my own stereotypes, and how I might still cling to pieces of those stereotypes as an adult.

For more on people with disabilities as “inspiration,” take ten minutes to watch this TED talk by Stella Young.