March 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

New Year, New Possibilities | Consider the Source

invitedIt’s the end of the year, and this column is both a wrap-up and, I hope, a first step toward a new path. First, I was thrilled to see Tanya Lee Stone’s Courage Has No Color, the True Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers (Candlewick, 2013) on the 2014 YALSA nonfiction finalist list—in part because I edited it along with Hilary Van Dusen of Candlewick Press, but also because that book, along with Steve Sheinkin’s forthcoming The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights (Roaring Brook, January, 2014), led me to a realization—and, perhaps, an invitation.

When Tanya considered working on the story of the Triple Nickles she was concerned about her standing writing about those African American paratroopers, since she is white. Ashley Bryan insisted that she go ahead with it. Tanya, like Steve, had found a story about World War II, African American servicemen, and discrimination that no one else had told. Perhaps because of this, no one raised the old question of identity—why is a white author writing a book about people of color?

Thinking about what Tanya and Steve have accomplished led me to a question that I hope opens new doors: Why are there so few nonfiction books by people of color that are not about the history of their own race/ethnicity? Why, for example, don’t we have a Walter Dean Myers biography of, say, Fiorello La Guardia, or for that matter, William Shakespeare? Why don’t we have Charles Smith on white point guards such as Bob Cousy or John Stockton? Joyce Hansen on Abe Lincoln? Andrea Davis Pinkney on Benny Goodman? Wouldn’t it be fascinating to have these accomplished writers, who are steeped in history and skilled in writing for young people, looking at a culture that is not “theirs” (in the same way African American history is), but is part of our common history?

I can think of a few exceptions: Tonya Bolden’s FDR’s Alphabet Soup (Knopf, 2010); E.B. Lewis’s illustrations for Mary Matthews’s Magid Fasts for Ramadan (HMH, 2000) and Doreen Rappaport and Lyndall Callan’s Dirt on Their Skirts (Dial, 2000); and some of the books by Leo and Diane Dillon that were expressly meant to be about all and everyone. I am sure you can add more. But I am equally sure you recognize the pattern I am describing. Books by people of color tend not only to be about people of color, but indeed their own particular background. Is that necessarily a good thing?

I posed this question to my graduate MLIS students, and one, an African American woman, felt strongly that while she could see the value of books written by people of color on any subject, she feared that as long as there is still such a huge need for titles on African American history—and so few examples—that that small stock would be diminished. One of my editors added a concern that many readers are so glad, so eager, to find books about themselves, we need to keep making sure more and more such books are available. And those readers who know that I have spoken out against ethnic rules for awards (see “Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes” published in The Horn Book Magazine and  Andrea Davis Pinkney’s eloquent response) may suspect that I am trying a judo move: encourage people of color to expand their range and the case for having “to be it to write it” diminishes.

No to all three. I am not suggesting that there be fewer books on any subject. I am not revisiting the old ethnic awards issue—I’ve had my say on that. And I have never accepted the “I-want-a-book-about-a-person-like-me” argument. Or, at least, I have never accepted it as a case-closing position. Because as indeed James Baldwin so eloquently stated, books connect you with everyone: “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” Books can give you the chance to explore and enter lives that are not your own. And, thus, authors studying such books can enter histories that belong to all of us, and bring us fresh, interesting, unique insights into that pageant.

Wouldn’t it be thrilling to have Ed Young, Gene Leun Yang, and Allen Say exploring Jewish history, Italian history, and Irish history—the way, for example, Peter Sis visits histories from around the globe? Why should history in general belong only to white authors and illustrators, while history in particular (within a given underrepresented minority) belongs to that group? Isn’t that a bad trade? Doesn’t it send the message that, say, Greece, Rome, the Medieval Period, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment were somehow white?

They were not—not then, and not now. Plato is as important to Asian Americans as Confucius is to Arab Americans as Marie Curie is to Hispanic Americans as Frederick Douglass is to European Americans as Thomas Aquinas or Martin Luther are to me as a Jewish American. These individuals and their ideas formed the present in which we all live, the air we all breathe. We all have the right, indeed the need, to explore and retell these stories. The stories get better as different people consider them—adding new insights and fresh angles of vision.

If we believe that students from underrepresented communities are drawn to authors they can identify with, shouldn’t we ask those authors to lead those students all over the planet and throughout history? Wouldn’t you love Kadir Nelson to depict Alexander the Great in battle, or Zheng He at sail in full vibrant color? Nikki Giovanni could introduce us to the Romantic Poets, Coe Booth has already written about Judy Blume, how about a full biography? Mitali Perkins has stated how much Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women meant to her—why not a bio of Alcott?  I’m riffing here, and I don’t mean to insult any authors (sounds as if we can start a new K-12 parlor game—celebrity dating for authors and subjects). But tell me, wouldn’t you buy Myers on Shakespeare, and rush to turn the pages to find out how this author reads Hamlet and Lear and gosh, wow, Othello?

I wish all of you a good finish to this year, and a great start to the next—one that’s full of riffs, possibilities, and openings. Perhaps, even, some books I’ve imagined here.


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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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  1. Leigh Anne Focareta says:

    The stories of people of color are still disproportionately told. Does the world really need ANOTHER book about the Romantic poets, regardless of WHO chooses to write it? Honestly, with so many narratives still submerged, I’d prefer we stop writing over the same tired ground…give me something new. Tell me something I don’t know. ANOTHER book on Hamlet? I think I just threw up in my mouth a little…

    Authors of color should write about whatever THEY chose to write about. Period. Trying to encourage them to “expand their range” is tactless at best, ignorant at worst. It’s an argument that strips them of agency, implies that writing about their own people is somehow limited, that there is a larger, more noble world out there they aren’t participating in. As a fan of writing by diverse authors, I would much prefer to go where they lead me, rather than force them to go where I — and people who look like me — would be more comfortable having them.

    • marc aronson says:

      Of course it is never up to a commentator to tell anyone what to write or illustrate or study. However I think it is fair of me to point out a particular slant to the work of creators whose interests surely are as wide as the world. How much of this slant is due to market pressure — editors/publishers seeing authors of color as a conduit to a specific matching market, and thus either nudging or actually channeling them to stay in one groove, or how much comes from the preferences of the creators is not clear to me. And while creators must have total freedom, I also think the argument that a reader of an under-represented group might be pleased to have a trusted author lead him/her out into the world, to new subjects, ideas, themes not related to their shared background — as, indeed, Baldwin seems to me to be saying,

  2. Greg Smith says:

    I generally agree with Leigh Anne Focareta’s comment that POC’s stories are so under-represented that it does not make sense to lament that they aren’t writing about people or topics “not-like” themselves.

    However, it seems to me that to demand they “[t]ell me something I don’t know,” instead of writing “ANOTHER book on Hamlet” tends to contradict the position that “[a]uthors of color should write about whatever THEY chose to write about. Period.” Authours who can bring different perspectives to even the most apparently “tired ground” precisely because that subject matter matters most to them are the ones who create new understandings applicable in ways as-yet unimagined.

    Perhaps the most problematic element is suggesting there is a duty to tread “tired ground”, rather than the freedom to do so should they choose that path.

    • marc aronson says:

      I do not think any creators have a “duty” to cover any ground, tired or fresh. Indeed that is my point. I am not saying writers of color “should” write about white authors or historical figures. In fact there was nothing exclusively or particularly “white” about the range of subjects I riffed about — they spanned a variety of cultures and continents. I am by nature an anti-nationalist — I want to open possibilities of connection to all in writing and art much as it exists is music. And in this piece I was noting how those cross-connections arising from passion and interest are rarely evident in materials for young readers created by people of color.