Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Controversy vs. Mediocrity

It is only January 19, but I feel like it's already been a huge and exciting year for children's literature. Last week we saw picture book Last Stop on Market Street win the Newbery and a Caldecott honor. This book got it RIGHT in so many ways.

This weekend, I spent a lot of time reading commentary in the children's literature world about a controversial picture book called A Cake for George Washington. The short story is this - the book is based on a real slave of Washington's who sets about to make a birthday cake with his daughter, only to find there is no sugar in the kitchen. A simple search will pull up opinions left and right and give you more information about it than I want to rehash here. The problem in simple terms is that the father and daughter are depicted as happy and smiling while they set about their work. Illustrators will say they very well may have been smiling while taking pride in their work. Critics will say this gives children a white-washed view of slavery.
Scholastic pulled the book not long after printing, so we may never get to read it. As a librarian, I want to read it. As a writer, I still wonder how that book made it to print. But I love hearing the different opinions that are coming out of this. The discussion, the texts I exchanged yesterday for an hour with a co-worker about this. Because even though I may not have read it,  here's what I think it is probably not - MEDIOCRE.

The author, Ramin Ganeshram, is a food writer with great writing credentials in other areas. I believe she and the illustrator had good intentions in crafting this story, and I think it's a great idea. It may be a story that should be told, just in a way that wasn't quite so...off. As writers and publishers and librarians, we need to get this stuff RIGHT.

So if any good comes out of this, it is that we are talking about it and trying to get it RIGHT. And also GREAT. Coincidentally, I have been reading Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature by three experts in the children's lit world. I recently texted my co-worker a passage from the book, where the authors remind us about the time author Jane Yolen called three popular children's books - (The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister and Love You Forever by Robert Munsch) the "triumvirate of mediocrity". My co-worker and  I laughed because we've seen these titles get requested many times. We know there's nothing wrong with them, but we also know there are so many wonderful books BEYOND those. We talk about how even though we have a small library where most of what I order is the CREAM of the CROP, we still get new books that come in, get passed around the staff, and get a resounding...eh. It's fine. It's okay. Did that author do their BEST?

So let's keep the conversation going. I want to hear what Chris Rock says as the black host of the all-white Oscars this year. I want to order more diverse books for my not-so-diverse library population and I want them to make my patrons take them out so I can justify ordering them. I want more stops on Market Street and more conversations by publishing houses about how to make A Cake for George Washington RIGHT. I also want less mediocrity, because our children deserve it.

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