#vted Reads: The Dark Fantastic

On this episode, it’s the return of Aimee Arandia Østensen! She’s here to talk with me about The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.

We reflect on what we read growing up, and have deeply spicy thoughts about fan fiction, Island of the Blue Dolphin and what, specifically is the correct pronunciation of G I F.

(It’s G-if.)

Oh yeah, we go there.

Plus: who gets to opt out of reading certain books in the classroom? And who, specifically, can opt in?

I’m Jeanie Phillips, this is #vted Reads, the podcast by, for and with Vermont educators. Let’s chat. 

Jeanie: Thank you so much for joining me, Aimee.  Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Aimee:  Hi! My name is Aimee Arandia Østensen.  I am a Filipina-American educator. And I currently am working at Shelburne Farms as a Professional Learning Facilitator in Educating for Sustainability.  In general, that means we work with teachers and schools to support their process and practice and to integrate concepts of sustainability and equity into their work.

Jeanie:  Aimee, you were on the podcast not long ago, in the fall, talking about one of our mutually favorite books: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.  And I remember that conversation so fondly, so I’m super excited to have you back on.

 

Full disclosure:  Aimee and I have been working together on a webinar called Who’s Outside? Building an Anti-Racist Bookshelf (video).

And this book, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic has been crucial, as we’ve been thinking through how to go even deeper thinking about what books are we getting into the hands of students.  That’s been super fun.  So, I’m really excited for this conversation.  And I’m a little bit daunted and nervous about it, too, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

So, I’ve been really overwhelmed by how to ask intelligent questions about this book.

Because it is so smart and brimming full of insights and provocations, and has me thinking so much that I was almost not even sure where to begin. But I’m going to start at Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s starting point, which is that she begins the book by talking about herself as a young reader. It’s on page one.

“Even,” she writes, “magic was inaccessible to me.” There was a lack of Black characters in general and Black girls in particular in books about the magic and the fantastical, she writes.

And she begins with this premise that even though that wasn’t available to her in characters that look like her, she needed magic. That all children really deserve magic.  Yet, it’s been disproportionately distributed, if you will.  So, I’m wondering, Aimee, if we might start with stories of ourselves as young readers. If we might step back and imagine just the way Ebony Elizabeth Thomas does, ourselves as little people looking for magic.

Aimee:  It’s such an interesting thought.  And I did have a childhood that was written books and storytelling.

It was just one of those things that my family did together.  Every night we got into bed and read books together before we went to sleep. Every single night.  And I distinctly remember my dad reading to my brothers and I. We read the entire Hobbit series.  We read the entire Wizard of Oz series.  And so, there was a lot of that magical fantasy land.

Interestingly enough, I remember a moment in school when our teacher was reciting, or starting to recite certain, what do you call them?  Nursery rhymes.  And I grew up in a largely white suburb of Syracuse, New York. There were literally four families of color that I was aware of in the entire school. Ours being one of them.  And out of those families, three of them were first generation or second generation Black Americans.

So our teacher was starting to recite nursery rhymes, and she invited us to, like, complete the nursery rhyme (as teachers back then were want to do).  And none of the kids in the class could do it.

But I could. Because it was kind of a point at home that we learned these American nursery rhymes.

My mom recited them and they read us books with all of them in.  And so, it was a part of my childhood.  And I realize that might not have been a part of my American counterpoints’ childhoods as well.  But there was access to those worlds of magic and fantasy and what ifs through these books at home. Constantly, yes.

What about you, Jeanie?

Jeanie:  Oh, I envy you that.  Most of my reading at home was done on my own.  We were not a family of books, but I was a kid who read.

And I would hide to read because my mom thought I would grow up to be anti-social.  And maybe she was right.  But so, I would hide often to read including in a tree house.

The first book I remember reading that was really fantasy was A Wrinkle in Time, which I re-read as an adult and did not love nearly as much as I did when I was a kid.

But when I was a kid? I loved that book. And I loved the whole series.  The thing that drew me though, at that time that was the most fantastical for me was the whole family.  This idea like: the dad goes missing, right?  And they go and search up the dad.

So many of the books I read at that time were me wishing — because my father had passed away when I was seven, and my parents had been divorced — was me wishing for whole family.  And for this sense of what I called at the time, or thought of at the time as normalcy. This middle-class family life that was beyond my family.  And so, what that’s made me think of — as I am an avid reader of young adult, middle grades fiction — is what would have happened if I had been introduced to something like The Benefits of Being an Octopus or some other story where there were families that looked like mine. I don’t remember many books like that.

Aimee:  It’s interesting, that. The idea of books in which you could see yourself.  And thank goodness, Jeanie, there are so many more books about different kinds of families that are being published now and have been for a while.

But I’m understanding now that all the books I was exposed to as a child and in school at the time we were reading, we had readers, right?

There were textbooks that were put together with stories that were pre-selected.  We didn’t have bookshelves full of books that you could go and choose what you wanted to read. What appealed to you. We were basically told to read what was already pre selected.

But looking back on that, nothing, I believe, really represented my family and my experience in any of those texts.

It isn’t until recently that I actually understood that.  So I feel like my imagination of seeing myself in those other worlds was incredibly limited.

I loved reading but I also know that none of them were like me.  But I didn’t even notice! So I wonder what that says about the impact of culture and assimilation.

Jeanie:  Right away on Page 3, our author of The Dark Fantastic writes,

“The problem of representation has created discord in the collective imagination.”

And when I read that, it landed like a thud, like a thud of truth, but also like, oh, like, right in my gut.  And I guess that’s what I hear you talking about, is this thud of like, we’ve constricted our very imagination.

Aimee:  Yeah, and that is, somehow, it’s — it highlighted my limitations.  If I’m thinking about my imagination as being within a frame; it highlighted those borders of the frame for me that I just wasn’t paying attention to before. It makes me think of things we’re exposed to these days that kind of shake up what we imagine is possible.  And then I realized, oh my God, my imagination of what’s possible has been so limited, and I didn’t even realize it.

Jeanie:  I know, right?  That’s the scary thing. When you realize what you didn’t realize. That’s the paradigm shift of like, oh, my, yes. I think all the time about education and about the world and talking to my son recently about, I’m going to say economics, but also about how schools work and how we are limited by our imagination. We can’t think beyond what we already know. So then thinking about that in our most creative forms, like writing and art, just breaks my heart.

And what you said earlier about not seeing yourself made me think a lot about towards the end of this book.

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas says she talks about writing fan fiction.  She wrote fan fiction for Harry Potter as a teacher when she first discovered Harry Potter.  She was a huge fan and she wrote all this fan fiction from the point of view of Angelina Johnson, who is the Black character, really, in Harry Potter — or at least the most well-known.

And she tried writing about from the perspective of Hermione in her fan fiction.  And she says:

“Well, I loved Hermione Granger, perhaps too much for a young adult needing to leave childhood behind.  She wasn’t a mirror for my experiences because I did not look like her.  I knew that I could never view the wizarding world through her eyes, but only peer over her shoulder.”

That makes me wonder how often our students feel like instead of stepping inside the shoes, that they’re peering over the shoulder of characters. Particularly our readers who don’t see themselves represented on the page.

Aimee:  Yes! That really struck me as well.  As a teacher, we often ask students to make personal connections to the characters, and the settings, and the challenges, within books.  We ask them to make a connection to themselves, and a connection to the context that they might be in so that they can deep more deeply relate to what’s happening in the story and engage with that.

But reading Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’ writing about fan fiction and the ways that people are needing to re-story. To re-write the story and re-envision it. That opened up a window for me.  And if that character, that fictive character, is indeed not a mirror for the students and they need to appear over the shoulder in order to be engaged? Maybe the questions that we should be asking students aren’t about, like:

  • How are you similar or different from that character?
  • Why do you think that she feels this way?
  • Have you ever felt that way?

Maybe the question is more like: “If you were in this story…” Not if you were that character, because maybe that character is so impossibly different from whoever the reader is that you can’t even. Like, my backstory that I’m coming into this just isn’t going to match that that book in that context.

What if we were encouraging students to imagine they could take their full backstory, take their context and their full knowledge of who they are, and place themselves within a story… what would happen?

I just think it’s something that we haven’t been seeing. And I say “we” grandly assuming that there are many amazing teachers out there who are doing such good things.  But I feel like I’ve missed that opportunity to engage students who broadly weren’t represented in the collection of published books to connect more deeply with story.

Jeanie:  You’re getting into things that came up for me a lot in this book. And I’m going to try to remember to address what each one at a time.

One is this notion of representation. Who’s represented on our bookshelves? Right? Thinking about who’s showing up.

And there, I think there’s a bit of a double standard in that, right?  What Ebony Elizabeth Thomas writes about, specifically in the Hunger Games chapter, is about Rue. And the outrage that so many readers felt when The Hunger Games was made into a movie, and Rue was cast as an African-American young woman. There was a lot of overt racism, but also just like:

“If Suzanne Collins wanted her to be Black, she would have said so!”

*sigh*

And it reminded me a little bit of Ijeoma Oluo when I saw her speak, a couple years ago.  She said, what if we, what if we use the word white the way we use Black or other words? So that every single time we were talking about a white person, a white political figure, or a white person in history, a white character, we put the word “white”. Because it seemed to me what they were saying is: she never said Black, so, the default is white.

Aimee:  I know that absolutely echoes my experience as a reader to this day. I recognize that my default imagination and my visualization of what’s happening in those stories is by default, white people. Unless I have indicators on the cover or in the description in the text that they’re distinctly not white.  And I haven’t even recognized that as a problem for myself.

Jeanie:  That is so disturbing to me, right?  You and I are about the same age.

Aimee:  Yes.

Jeanie:  We know this.  And we have been so exposed.  The canon has been so white that as default readers, we assume white no matter what.  And I’ll be honest, like, I think I do that too unless I’ve thought a lot about this.  I’m not proud to admit it, but unless the author is a person of color, I think I do assume white.

Aimee: I agree with that.  And I am disturbed personally, right, as somebody who I consider myself a brown person, an Asian-American, and I’m not looking I’m not even looking for myself in the book in terms of like, what my racial experiences in the world and in the United States.  I’m not even looking.  And I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a really horrible thing.

Jeanie: What gives me hope in this book is in, again, in the chapter about Harry Potter. Specifically Hermione. The author talks about people younger than her — and I think she’s younger than us–

Aimee:  I think five or 10 years.

Jeanie:  She said that people even younger than her, especially Black girls, saw Hermione as Black. Read Hermione as Black.  They said: “Brown or dark frizzy hair and brown eyes? She’s Black like me.”

And then later, when JK Rowling wrote the adaptation for the theatre, Hermione was played by a Black girl. And that confirmed it for them even more.  But I love this distinction between Ebony Elizabeth Thomas saying, oh yes, I read Hermione as white and could relate to these younger Black women reading Harry Potter and saying, oh no, Hermione is a Black girl. There are whole tumblrs and blogs about this.

I think, to me, what that says is that our imagination is slowly being liberated.

Aimee:  I love that! And I love that we’re seeing it kind of transition. I grab that idea of emancipating the collective imagination, as well as the individual imagination.

It’s so necessary, because of the fact that you’re saying that different people are reading the same text and seeing different people within it. It means that it’s possible, right?  So often — and I think this might be a product of the education I received as a child — there was this myth that was perpetuated about the sanctity of the text. Right?  That what we read is absolute and true. There’s only one way to interpret it. A right way and a wrong way.

And I am so relieved to hear that we’re moving past that. That there’s much more room for people to interpret and imagine the life within a book in multiple ways. It’s not just in your closet or in your tree house, but as part of the public dialogue.

Jeanie:  That leads me to this other thought about the canon.  I follow Ebony Elizabeth Thomas on Twitter, because she’s brilliant. (If you’re on Twitter, you should follow her too.) And she talks a lot about how teachers and professors today are deciding what goes into curriculum and on our syllabi.  We are choosing which stories get re-told and re-storied.

Parents, families and caregivers also choose stories. But nostalgia is tempting. We want our kids to love what we loved as children.

I think this is really true in the classroom.

I think it’s especially like in high schools where everybody reads A Separate Peace, or Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird, right?  Those are all great books, but they’re not the only great books.

And being stuck in an old canon is problematic, right? Not just because those books were written by people who maybe hadn’t considered the troubles and controversies and the joys that we’ve experienced in the contemporary world, but also because those books were written in a time that was more colorblind and less critical of the world and of colonization and racism and the legacy of those things.

Aimee:  I absolutely agree. You know, I think I feeling like I’m finally old enough to see that thinking shifting.  And the way that we critique, something that’s published today is far different than the way we were thinking about it 20 years ago — which isn’t that long ago.  And certainly, the books of my childhood we weren’t even imagining that we should critique them. I grew up with books like the Little House on the Prairie series.  All of the Judy Blume books, they were big in my childhood.

And, and then books like My Side of the Mountain, and Julia the Wolves, and you were mentioning not too long ago, the Scott O’Dell books. There’s a lot of relevance in those books still, but we’re reading them differently.  We have to read them differently because we have 30 or 40 years of collective shared life and thinking behind it now.  And it’s just kind of fascinating to think back to the things that we so highly valued and prized as children. They look different now.

Jeanie:  I remember in fourth grade, Miss Polink, I loved her so much.  She was the best teacher ever.  And she read Island of the Blue Dolphins to us. Scott O’Dell’s book. And I was in love.  I was in love with that book, I was in love with the story, I was in love with Miss Polink.  I was just so there I could hardly wait every day for her to read that book aloud to me.  It meant so much to me, right, that book.

And now all these years later, I know that that book — we all know that that book is problematic, right?  It’s not an #OwnVoices story.  Scott O’Dell took liberties. But I think it’s still tempting to share it.  And I’ve known many teachers, elementary, middle and high school students who are like:

“But that book has to be shared because kids love it!”

The truth is that there are books written this year that will have that same impact on students and be more culturally relevant and sustaining than Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins.

If I were to teach that book again, it would be so different than when I was in fourth grade because we need to look with a critical lens at what’s happening in that storytelling.  I probably wouldn’t teach it.  I’d probably instead seek out a book by a Native writer, right.  Maybe I would seek out The Marrow Thieves say, or some other book written by a First Nations or an Indigenous person, to tell a story like that instead. And probably the students in my class would have an equally powerful experience like I had at that time. Because they’re being read a brilliant story by a person they care about.

Aimee:  I love hearing from you who is so in tune with the world of publishing and what’s coming out and how things have changed, that writing is getting better.

It’s not just the old icons that were incredible at their time and still have incredible pieces. There are excellent writers today and the way that writing is happening, it’s exploring identity and experience in different ways.  And that is so rich.

I’m one of those people that might feel nostalgic about certain books that I love and cherish for some reason and they’re old, right?  I think if I were to teach them now, I would really want to give kids that opportunity to be fan fiction authors as they engage in those books.

Rather than having them write about: if you were facing the challenge that whomever was facing, what might you do?  I would ask them to reimagine the story in a way. You know? Take certain elements that we think are important, like the arc of the story, and reimagine it.

And that could be an amazing kind of substitute for a book report, right?

Jeanie:  I couldn’t agree more! As I was reading this, because Ebony Elizabeth Thomas is deeply wrapped up in this fan fiction community and talking about transmedia and all these interesting things, I was like, why aren’t we assigning fan fiction?  Why aren’t we giving it as an option for kids to like, put themselves in the stories? To imagine different characters or imagine different outcomes?

And then also I was thinking about the other point I wanted to make from earlier, about the power of counter-story.  I know that interested both you and I to talk a little bit about how she uses counter-story or talks about using counter-story in this book.  Do you want to explain or shall I?

Aimee:  I would love it if you set it up, Jeannie.

Jeanie:  Okay, so counter-story comes from critical race theory.  It’s this idea that we can learn from telling the story from a different perspective from the non-dominant perspective. That that that is a form of not just resistance but of scholarship.

And so, in this case, one of the counter-stories that Ebony Elizabeth Thomas tells, is that she reimagines The Hunger Games from Rue’s perspective.  Rue takes center stage and this comes from fan fiction, actually. Plus it’s the label of a GIF.  Do we say G-IF or J-IF?

Aimee:  I say G-IF.

Jeanie:  I’m going with it.  GIF!  This is from page 63.  Can we just stop and talk about this for a minute?  Thresh doesn’t make an alliance.  Thresh doesn’t waste time liking Katniss. Because Thresh knows that either he must kill her or she must kill him for one of them to win.  This is the only way he can repay her for protecting Rue when he couldn’t.  It’s the only way he can repay her for honoring Rue when he couldn’t.  He honored her by sparing her friend, the girl who would have died for her.  The revolution really doesn’t start with Katniss.  It starts with Rue.

Aimee:  I love that.  I love that re-centering of an event or a moment in a story because often we’re stuck in the lens of, in that instance, Katniss, right? We’re seeing it through her experience and we’re centering her storyline, her plotline.  And I love that that in that entry.  There’s re-centering.  There’s thinking about Thresh’s experience, and then also Rue. Like, centering Rue that in that very, very pivotal moment.

And if you don’t stop to wonder, to kind of do a 360 view of a scene, you’ll just keep going.

It’s easy and it’s amazing to get carried away with the life of a book and let it just take you away and not necessarily have a lot of agency while you’re reading.

But wait: that excerpt that you just read just reinforces to me that it’s so important to stop and do a 360 view and reread or re envision the situation from multiple character’s point of view.

Jeanie:  You know, there are a couple places in this book where Ebony Elizabeth Thomas asks, is it that Black kids don’t like to read?  Like, is it that Black and brown kids don’t like to read?  Or is it that we keep giving them books and hoping they’ll connect with characters that are very unlike them, right?

Aimee:  And I think we don’t really know. Right?  Because we haven’t done the study.  And yet, why would the second thing not be true?  Right?  Why?  Why can’t we put things out there in front of kids that really do reflect their experience in the world at least as an entry point?  Right?

Jeanie:  When I was a K-6 librarian, I did this workshop with the Flynn Theatre, and I think it was called Words Come Alive.  And I really loved it. The thing that felt true to me as a reader, and as a mother who read to her son, is that reading is really about connection, right?  Reading to my son as a young person was about him being on my lap. About cuddling.  It was an emotional experience.  And when I saw kindergarteners come in who had been read to in the thing, I noticed that they felt the emotion of the story. Like, they got wrapped up in the emotion of the story.

That’s really why we read. Because it makes us feel things, right?

And kids who hadn’t been read to, often felt disconnected from the story. Or looked to disconnect from the story.

So what Words Come Alive did is it had us have kids stand up in their own bubble space, right? And they would act out the story not like a play, but like, I remember Scaredy Squirrel and I’d be like:

“Scaredy Squirrel was really scared! Could you show me what that would look like?”

And the emotions would play out in their bodies and their faces. What we were doing was building this emotional connection to story.  And I do think there’s something to this experience of a reader and noticing: when do you feel emotionally connected to a character?

I have some curiosity about that!

  • When does that happen for students?
  • When does that happen when we’re reading aloud?
  • Who feels connected?  Who doesn’t?  Why?
  • And how we might use that to think about representation in our stories?

Aimee:  I love that question, Jeanie. Often as an educator, we asked those questions about how kids are connecting to story as a means for assessment of student learning.

But what if we asked that same question and used it as an assessment of the collection that we’re offering?

Or our role as curator?  And how, what a good job we’re doing of that.

Or if it’s creating an environment so that kids can have meaningful connections to story.

Jeanie:  Oh, my goodness, Aimee, you are speaking my language.  This is delightful.  Because I think so much about formative assessment and formative feedback, not just being feedback to learner on how to get better, but for being feedback to teacher about like, what are we doing that’s working or not working?

And so, whether it’s the collection or the curriculum, right, like: who sees themselves in the curriculum? Where does it feel relevant and connected to student’s lives, right?  This feels really useful.  And if it doesn’t do either, how do we help them make that emotional connection? How do we find curriculum and content that already feels emotionally connected for them?

Aimee:  You and I have been doing some soul-searching and internet-searching these past few weeks as we’ve been reading The Dark Fantastic, but also putting together our thoughts for that Building The Anti-Racist Bookshelf workshop.  And one of the delightful things that we found is that there are so many resources out there, and great lists of books that appeal to different types of readers and have representation across the spectrum.  It is so heartwarming to see that it’s not that hard to go find inspiration about what other books we could be adding to our collections.

Link to slidedeck for Who's Outside? Building an Anti-Racist Bookshelf

Jeanie:  It’s been a delight.  And I think about like: this book isn’t just about representation in general.  It’s really about representation in what Thomas calls the fantastic. What she also refers to as “a world that never was”.  She gives examples like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (which you brought up earlier) or Barrie’s Peter Pan, Harry Potter.

And increasingly, there are so many more fantasy or fantastic books available written by people of color.

I know that the Binti trilogy is a huge favorite with my colleague and friend Life LeGeros. That’s by Nnedi Okorafor. Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone series is another one that’s really like ringing true for readers.

Also Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, and I am currently really loving this one (although it’s more of an adult or older young adult book): The City We Became by NK Jemisin. I’m reading that in tandem with The Dark Fantastic.  And what I’m really interested in is the way that NK Jemisin is subverting the dominant paradigm.  So, in this book, The City We Became, our heroes are this motley multicultural crew, right, from all sorts of backgrounds.

And our villain is Dr. White.  She is a white woman.

She dresses in white.

The evil tentacles she creates are white.

And I just love the way this book is handling topics like gentrification and white supremacy in these really subtle ways where white is the evil. There’s more and more available in this realm of magic that is so important because Ebony Elizabeth Thomas talks about how if you want to see Black and brown people in literature, you have to look at realistic fiction, historical fiction — and it’s all about struggle.  What if you just want to see representation in a way that’s imaginative and fantastical and magical and not just in the struggle?

Aimee:  I think all of those things are so exciting, Jeanie.  And I’m listening to you talk about The City We Became and that kind of binary of black and white and one being evil and one being good.  I haven’t read that book yet but I’m wondering about what your experience is in having that turned on its head.  And if it’s resonating beyond the book into the way you’re seeing the world.

Jeanie:  That’s a good question.  I am wondering myself if I would notice it as starkly as I do if I weren’t reading Dr. Thomas, right?  That’s one wondering I have.

There’s this point in the book — I’m actually listening to it on audio, and it’s a brilliant audio book because it has all these added production layers that I’m just loving — but there’s this one point in the book where a young woman from Staten Island whose father is a cop and she’s Irish-American, and she talks about how she’s in the car with Dr. White and she can’t see Dr. White as evil because Dr. White is all the things she associates with not evil.  She’s white and she’s female and she’s well-dressed, right?  And so, you’re really seeing white supremacy in action.

Reading that, listening to that, at the same time that there was a coup happening in the Capitol that we didn’t take very seriously because they were white people? Was this moment of like resonance with the text.

I’m kind of loving it.

I’m loving this subversion and the way in which it feels really relevant in this moment.

And I suppose that gets me, Aimee, to this conversation you and I have been having over and over again about windows, mirrors and sliding doors.

So, so often when we talk about representation in young adult literature we’re talking about mirrors.  If you’re white, you’re like surrounded by mirrors. Because so much of children’s literature is written from a white perspective. The second most popular perspective one is animals.

And then at the far end, are Indigenous and Native youth who are looking in a mirror the size of a makeup compact. Teeny tiny little mirror! And so much for the conversation is about who sees themselves represented.

But I feel like there’s this other conversation that’s becoming more, increasingly more important to me which is the conversation about windows.

And you and I have been sort of playing with this idea of what would that info graphic look like if it was less about mirrors and more about windows: who do we see represented that’s different than ourselves?

Aimee:  We’ve been talking a little bit about Rudine Sims Bishop and her concept of windows and mirrors and sliding doors.  That’s a very commonly heard phrase that’s used when we think about literature. 

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas takes a different quote from Rudine Sims Bishop than we often hear.  At the end of that quote, she says, Rudine Sims Bishop says:

My assessment was that historically, children from parallel cultures have been offered mainly books as windows into the lives that were different from their own, and children from the dominant culture had been offered mainly fiction that mirrored their own lives.  All children need both.

Jeanie:  Yes, I’ve been thinking more and more about how that if we drew that infographic as windows.  It would just be everybody looking through a peephole at such a narrow slice.  And that hopefully what I’m seeing now in children’s literature publishing — although not fast enough if we keep following that infographic — is that peephole is sort of starting to expand.

So maybe now it’s like a porthole in a cruise ship.

Infographic with visuals representing diversity in children's books from 2018.

Aimee:  Yeah. One of the teachers we were having this conversation with suggested the idea of a snow globe as the window.  That it’s a 360 view of mostly whiteness.  And I don’t know if this was her intention but it’s a shiny glass surface.  So, for her being a white educator, it was really reflecting back who she is.

That’s kind of the world of literature that she’s surrounded by.

And yet there is this little — it’s an interesting metaphor because you can see through a snow globe into things that are beyond, but it’s really not within your immediate household so to speak.

Jeanie:  We just get glimpses. If all of those glimpses are just like, I worry about those glimpses becoming a single story.  And I think I know that Ebony Elizabeth Thomas talks about this idea of a single story too.  And so, by all means, read The Hate U Give with your students.  Like I think that’s a crucial book to read with students.  But if you’re only reading books where Black and brown people get shot.  That’s a single story, right?

So read The Hate U Give but also read The Season of Styx Malone, right?  Like also read books, read the Binti Trilogy with your students or Children of Blood and Bone.  Make sure that you’re not only reading books by Black and — books by and about Black and brown people that are set in the civil rights era, that are about struggle, that are set in inner cities.  And one of the things that you’ve really been keeping an eye on and thinking about is books about Black and brown young people that are outside in the natural world.

Aimee:  Yeah, and there’s when you talk to people who consider themselves to be nature educators or people who are connected to nature.  And want to build that relationship before their students or between nature and their own students.

There’s a canon of books in circulation that are very common. Books like Blueberries for Sal and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and My Side of the Mountain and Hoot. These are all books whose characters are white, and it’s not something that is necessarily in focus when people are experiencing these books.

But when you are repeatedly exposing students to books that are only portraying white people in joyful, playful, exploratory relationships with the natural world? And there’s an absence of Black and brown people having those experiences?

That puts this limit on our imagination.

It really limits the window.

And as you were saying, we’ve got so many books that are about Black struggle and brown struggle. Now, there are wonderful ways for young students to learn about history as a storytelling entryway, but then they need to go deeper into the facts of what happened.

But if Indigenous people, Black people, brown people, people from different parts of the world that have immigrated to the United States over time are only portrayed within these problematic moments in our history, then it deprives all of us of the possibility to imagine joyful positive thriving Black and brown people.

It also limits our imagination on who can show up to celebrate life. Who can show up to solve the problems that we’re facing, who can show up as leaders.  And who can show up as like a good friend. Someone that you can confide in, somebody that you can have a meaningful relationship with.

So, when I look at the canon of books that’s portraying this nature of relationship, and I see predominantly white characters? My concern is the limit on our imagination of what’s possible in that relationship.  And who can be present.

Jeanie:  It doesn’t make it impossible but it makes it less probable.  I think about one of my heroes is Bryan Stevenson who wrote Just Mercy.  And I heard him interviewed recently on Krista Tippett’s On Being.  And he was talking about how he grew up, he didn’t know a single lawyer.  He didn’t know a white lawyer.  He certainly didn’t know of anybody who was a Black lawyer and he became a lawyer, right?  And that’s possible.

It’s not that it’s not possible but how do we make it less of a struggle?

Or less like, you know, just to use the Hunger Games, since we’re talking about it earlier, how can we make it more like may the odds be ever in your favor? Not just for Katniss but for Rue, right?  Not just for white kids but for all kids.

Aimee:  I’ve been thinking about the Hunger Games this morning.  And wondering as I read it before the movie — which is really hard to separate in my memory these days because once I see a movie that I can’t see what I saw before the movie.  But I was wondering: How did I experience that book? Like, who was I identifying with as I read it?

I’m pretty sure I identified with Katniss.  She doesn’t mirror me but I think she’s framed as the heroine of the story.  She’s framed as something admirable and desirable, right? In terms of like, who one could be.  As a reader, that’s who I put myself in the place of.

But I wonder, you know: what impact does that have on my imagination of who can be that heroine.  Could it have been Rue?

And Ebony Elizabeth Thomas gets deep into the significance of Rue and the possibilities of who she could be as a Black girl.

All of the kind of significance and symbology that she has as a Black girl in current modern society, and how it’s problematic that she almost couldn’t be Katniss.  That she had to fulfill the role that she did as possibly as catalyst, possibly as a sacrifice, possibly as an assistant to the heroine.  But there were limitations on acceptance of her as possibly becoming the lead heroine in the story.

Jeanie:  Well, and there’s all this wrapped up in who can be the innocents of childhood. Thomas writes about how that was always meant to be about the innocence of white childhood, right?  And I want to mention two things about this.  She talks —  Ebony Elizabeth Thomas talks a lot.  We love her, don’t we?  Can we just say how much we love her and her thinking?

In talking about the problem with innocence in the Dark Fantastic, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas on page 55 writes:

Something about Black childhood confounds children’s and young adult literature, which is why Black characters are often trapped in narratives about slavery, Civil Rights, ghetto survival, or survival in the White world. While historical fiction and contemporary realism are important genres for Black childhood and teen life, Black children and adolescents are often missing from other kinds of stories, especially stories like The Hunger Games.

And she goes on to talk about when we think about childhood as innocents, it’s “not as a symbol of innocence but as its embodiment… This innocence was raced White.”

I think that’s really powerful.

And I think it’s really problematic. Right?

While I do have hope that authors like NK Jemisin and Tomi Adeyemi et cetera, are transforming that, it made me think of two things.

One is it made me want to re-read so many things with this critical lens.

And two, it made me realize there is such potential in using books like the Hunger Games, young adult books, as ways to analyze literature that is missing from especially high school curriculum.  You middle school teachers are great.  You’re often using these amazing middle grades books.  But I want to see more of this read, this like critical analysis of young adult literature in high school.

Aimee:  I wholeheartedly agree with you.  And  I think you and I would have absolutely loved having that opportunity as high school students to critically analyze the books we were reading which happened to be To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn and Romeo & Juliet.  Those were the things that I was reading in high school.  And I would love the chance to go back and look at that from a critical lens.

When you were reading that excerpt about the Hunger Games and the innocence of a child and it being associated with white children only, it kind of sparked a different side of that coin for me.  Which is this idea that Black children especially in this country are born into racism.  And that’s something that is reality for them since the day that they’re born and can be aware of their surroundings.

And I’ve had the experience in teaching where parents of white children want to protect their innocence for an extended period of time. Of not wanting to know what not wanting their children to know about the civil rights movement and slavery and racism in history much less racism today as we experience it.  Parents have been wanting to protect their young white children from it.  This is not all parents but some parents.

And I understand that in terms of, you know, developmentally appropriate timing to take on challenging issues for students at a time when they can process it, when they have the ability to cognitively.  However, there’s this tension for me that Black children don’t have that grace.  They need to address and understand the reality of racism from the time that their feet hit the ground.  And so, it’s related to this idea that we can’t imagine collectively, we can’t imagine the innocence of being held by a Black character.  And that, but then we also protect innocence for our white children more so than we do for everyone else.

Jeanie:  Oh gosh.  There’s so much there.  I feel like we could talk for days about this.  And one of the things I’m thinking about is I’m thinking about how often in schools we perpetuate these notions that the dominant group can’t experience art and culture by the non-dominant group.

I saw a tweet the other day that said every time a librarian hands a book that features a female protagonist to a boy, a kitten feels the warmth of the sun or something like that.  I’m kind of butchering it but like I totally felt that because there’s this assumption that boys won’t read books about female characters.  That would lead female characters in the same way that there’s this assumption that white kids won’t read books about that focus on Black and brown kids.

And that makes me really sad because I think that’s a huge part of why we are where we are today.

I was listening to NPR right before the Georgia runoff election and I heard this woman interviewed and she was from Georgia.  And she’s saying:  well it has to go for Trump. Georgia had to have gone for Trump because everybody I know voted for Trump and I’ve been to three Trump rallies.  Everybody at the Trump rally supported Trump. 

And I was like: “Huh. That’s our problem with windows again.”  That’s like I can’t imagine another reality because I’ve only had my reality.

Aimee:  Well said.

Jeanie:  I’ve only experienced my reality.  She gets to vote for who she wants to vote for.  But the fact that she couldn’t even imagine anyone outside of her own experience, to me, is like a problem with the canon.  And so, we just had Dr. Dena Simmons who is amazing, at the Middle Grades Conference on Saturday.  And she was asked a question about, what about people who want to opt-out in thinking about racism?  And she was like you mean white people want to opt-out, right, because Black people don’t get to opt-out.  Brown people don’t get to opt-out.

And so later somebody brought up that their school is — their middle school was reading Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, and that some families were opting out.  Do we let kids opt out of The Catcher in the Rye?  Do we let them opt out of Shakespeare?  Like, why do we let them opt out of stories that focus on Black and brown students especially when, you know, when they’re experiencing violence like we see in the real world, right?  And also, please don’t make that the only book your teaching about Black young people.  Like, please, don’t let that be the single story you’re teaching in your middle school.  So, it’s brought up a lot of feelings for me.

Aimee:  Yeah, but it speaks exactly directly to white privilege and the fact that we entertain the question that some people can opt-out.  And it’s clear that it’s the families of white children that are choosing to opt-out.  Why are we even entertaining that question?

Jeanie:  And why don’t all kids get to see themselves in playful ways and in fantastical ways and magical ways which is really the question that our author here, that Dr. Thomas is asking.  Okay, I have one more thing I want to ask you about.

Aimee:  Great.

Jeanie:  Because you help me think so much.  I’ve been thinking a lot about #OwnVoices.  Meaning, the #OwnVoices movement is really about it’s not just important that we have Black and brown characters on our shelves.  We want those be written by Black and brown authors, right?  And that who gets the right to tell whose story.

And I’ve been thinking about that because well, because of NK Jemisin’s book.  I’ve been thinking about, she writes all sorts of characters, right?  So, she is a Black woman and she’s writing a character who is Native American.  She’s writing a character who is Indian-American, first-generation Indian-American.  She’s writing a character that is Irish-American.  And I’ve been thinking about like oh, is that okay?  Just like I will not read American Dirt, because it’s a Mexican immigration story written by a white woman.

Yeah, I don’t need to read that.

But what it’s got me thinking about is, is it easier for Black and brown people to write stories about white folks because they’re immersed in white culture?  And is it really that white folks need to avoid that because we are not.

Aimee:  That is so interesting, Jeannie.  And I have to tell you it’s resonating with me in terms of our experiences, our different experiences in settler colonialism.

I experienced white culture with the ability to see it from the outside because it’s very different from what my home culture has been, what I was growing up with.  And as a child it felt like dissonance of like why can’t I be like all the other families.  Mom, why can’t you be like Kendra’s mom?  She lets her do this and I want to have these kinds of clothes and I don’t want to eat that kind of food.  So, it was this tension for me really under the umbrella of assimilation.  But it was real because the tension was always there.  I was heightened, my awareness was heightened around home culture and dominant culture.  And I didn’t have those words.  And I didn’t have the words for white culture at the time.  It was just this heightened awareness of difference.

And so, you know, as I’ve gotten older, I can see the water that I’m in.  I can see what those cultural touchstones are that are different from my home culture.  And I’m aware of it and I can make choices about it.  Sometimes I’m not aware of it.  I want to put that out there.  I feel I’ve got biases I don’t know what all of them are.  But when I do become aware of it, it’s easy for me to understand there’s something different because I’ve lived something different.  There are many more something’s different.

But so my wonder for you, Jeannie, is like, how do you experience settler colonialism and culture of whiteness?

Jeanie:  Oh gosh, we need another hour or two.  I think that’s a really great question.  And I think I don’t know about other folks but as a white person, a white woman, it has been a series of paradigm shifts, right?  Like, and I have to continually look for paradigm shifts to help me see, to help me get enough distance to see the brainwashing, to see the water, right, that I swim in.

I think that’s why I seek out books like Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’ is to help me see more clearly what I haven’t been able to see what I’ve mostly lived and been indoctrinated into.  And so, taking a class with the amazing Marie Vea last summer to think about decolonization was really intense. Being friends with Judy Dow and learning from her and from you, and from so many people from my friend Rhiannon Kim, from so many people in my life helps me to like sort of step back and see the world a little more clearly, less myopically.

And so, there’s a quote Christie Nold sent to me from this blog from Chad C. Everett.  His blog is called ImagineLit, one word.  And I just pulled it up because I think it’s really relevant and it could be in conversation with this book, and in conversation that we’re having.

So, I think about one of the ways in which I start to learn to shift perspectives and see the water of racism, is through relationships with people of color.

One of the things that makes me really sad about the current state of our world is that we’re more segregated than ever.  I had so many different kinds of friends in all sorts of ways in college.  And as you move beyond college that becomes less and less likely because our world is so segregated. One of the avenues in for me is that I grew up really poor.  So, poverty in a way, my experience of poverty even now as a very middle-class person is one intersection that allows me to see classism more clearly.  As a woman, right, like I can see patriarchy a little more clearly.

I don’t know if that answers your question or just muddied the waters further.

I’m really interested in this notion that it’s not enough just what’s on our bookshelves.  It’s also about the media we consume, who were in conversation with, where we get our news, who we’re friends with, who were following on Twitter.  Like, we need to make sure that we’re seeking out diverse voices in all aspects of our lives.

Aimee:  Jeanie, I think that what you’ve landed on is that we need to instill that practice of seeking out diverse voices.

And I think it’s not just about diversifying the bookshelf.

But then, you know, putting those books that speak of different experiences and counter-story, putting them in the hands of students and centering them.

So, it’s not just enough to say well, if I have this book on my shelf maybe that one boy who happens to be brown and is interested in sports or music or whatever it is, maybe he’ll find it, right?  But maybe that book is more important, not more important, but just as important for the light-haired girl who is living her Barbie world.  And that works for her because maybe she’s never going to be challenged.  So, I think it’s, again, it’s about diversifying our exposure, right?  It’s not just about making the options available but putting it in somebody’s hands.

Jeanie:  Becoming comfortable having conversations about it.  So, I would challenge our listeners.  I would challenge teachers.  My guess is that if we stacked up all the books kids are exposed to in their schooling, there’s going to be this enormous stack from white perspectives.  And there’s going to be a much, much, much smaller stack from nonwhite perspectives, all the different nonwhite perspectives together.  That infographic that we’re going to put in the transcript is going to, is going to show what that kind of would look like.

So, I’ve been thinking about this.  I’ve been thinking about it as a reader myself.  If I only read Black and brown authors for the rest of my reading life, and I read a lot, I’m still never going to catch up, I’m still not going to balance those stacks.  So, if we as teachers only read books from the perspectives of marginalized communities: Black and brown people, poor folks, queer folks, right, differently-abled folks, like, we would still never catch up with the perspectives kids are exposed to from dominant culture.

Aimee:  We would never catch up but we’re pushing on the edges of our collective imagination.  And honestly that is what we really, really need to do to have the capacity, to collectively imagine a future that’s better for all of us, and not just for some of us.  And I think we’re unknowingly limiting that future visioning by the media exposure and whose voices get heard and whose stories get told, because we haven’t yet developed that collective muscle of really envisioning a different future.  It’s — we just are so limited, and so I am excited about that possibility.

Jeanie:  And I’m excited about expanding our collective imagination to what is curriculum, who’s represented in the curriculum to what is — how kids engage in the world and like looking beyond the ways they’re engaging in the world.  I would — I think that Ebony Elizabeth Thomas gives us this great language to really push past not just what’s represented in the Fantastic as she calls it, but in our world, right?  Like, how do we expand our collective imagination?  And you, Aimee, have really helped me expand my imagination in so many ways.  I want to thank you so much for working with me, for collaborating with me on the webinar, which was really your instigation, I guess.  I’m collaborating with you and for collaborating with me on my own thinking.

Aimee:  And Jeanie, I want to reciprocate that gratitude because I did seek you out as a partner because I had this idea of, you know, this idea of building the anti-racist bookshelf.

I had some ideas of my own but I knew that they weren’t quite where I wanted my thinking to be at.  And I wanted to push them further.  So, I invited you to join me as a thinking partner and a co-facilitator because I knew that you could add something to my thinking and push my edges in a way that I needed, and that is definitely healthy.  So, I thank you for playfully engaging in these conversations with me and entertaining the Fantastic and doing the introspection with me around how are we limited and what is it that we’re not yet seeing and understanding, and what do we need to do to start understanding that?

Jeanie:  I love being on the learning edge with you.  Thank you so much.

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of southern Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

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