David Bowles on Writing for Border Kids in the Age of Trump

Middle grade author David Bowles makes the case that all writing—especially that which upholds and does not challenge the status quo—is inherently political. 

All writing is political.

There is a tendency (not just on the Right) to want to eliminate from children’s lives works considered polemical, divisive or rebellious. Any book that deviates markedly from the national narrative that the U.S. is special, chosen by God or destiny as a shining example for the world, is labeled “too political.”

Of course, the problem is that we don’t all have the privilege of pretending that narrative is true.

You’ve probably seen the Diversity in Children’s Books infographics created by David Huyck and Sarah Park Dahlen. It’s a striking image, all those mirrors ranged around the white child while the children of color struggle to find their reflections in meager looking glasses.

Choosing simply to add another mirror to the myriad that glitter around the white kid? That’s a political act. It’s a perpetuation of the status quo, of the myth of homogeneity, of the divine national narrative.

It’s an erasure of hard truths that some have the privilege, power, and position to ignore.

Spending my high school years in government housing in a small border town in South Texas, I noticed the chasm between what our assigned books portrayed and the experiences of a Mexican American teen. I spent my entire school career without reading a single story that featured a U.S. Latino or one that grappled with the unique challenges that we faced, simply existing in a country that pretends we don’t matter.

That’s when I knew I would become a writer, if only to counter the erasure that had been perpetuated on generations of my ancestors.

I never dreamed it would get worse. But here we are, in Trump’s America.

How do writers grapple with this dilemma? How do we produce work just homogeneous enough to get past the gatekeepers—folks for whom a Latinx, Black, or Native voice is a jarring exception to their internalized notions of quality literature—while also centering the identities and issues of our communities?

When Adam [Gidwitz] approached me about co-authoring the fourth book in his Unicorn Rescue Society series, I was thrilled. But he wanted to write about chupacabras…in the border city of Laredo.

My heart sank. There was no way he would do what I believed needing doing.

“We can’t write about Laredo,” I told him at last, “without discussing the border and the wall.”

Adam was eager to take on that subject, so with respect and compassion for the characters, we faced the wall head-on. The relatively light-hearted middle grade adventure series provided us with the perfect opportunity to blend a successful, mainstream narrative structure with marginalized voices and issues.

Our book strikes a balance, I’d argue, between frankness about the impact of Trump’s immigration policies on border communities and breezy, silly fun.

Kids on the border, after all, are still kids even though they are confronted every day with hideous rhetoric about their community, even though their lives are put in danger by twisted policies and ethnic hatred, even though they wince at the barbed wire, checkpoints, and ICE raids.

Book cover for Unicorn Rescue SocietyIf they can still find joy despite all that horror, why can’t authors strike that balance in their work?

Nevertheless—though our editor berates me every time she hears I’m doing this—I have a habit of checking reviews on Goodreads, etc., trying to gauge the general reception of my work.

The Chupacabras of the Río Grande gets plenty of four- and five-star reviews, enough to make my little heart swell. But the one- and two-star reviews are very revealing.

They are almost universally written by white folks.

Every one of them complains the book is too political.

How nice it must be to live in a comfortable, homogeneous bubble, never stopped or questioned, never worrying about a cop killing your child, never wondering if a relative will be swept up and detained indefinitely.

How convenient when the default for “person” is the same as the racial/ethnic identity you’ve been raised with, that permeates every aspect of your sheltered world, that seems unquestionably “right.”

If the very inclusion of a child of color’s daily reality is too “political” for you to share with white children, I have news for you.

You’re probably a racist.

Not a virulent, hate-spewing, David Dukesque racist. No. You have just internalized the notion that your life and issues are the ones that truly matter, and anything else, anything that makes you uncomfortable, needs to be erased or silenced.

That’s racism, too.

At this moment, with kids locked in cages and falling beneath a hail of bullets, your comfort has ceased to matter.

It’s time we focused on the children.


David Bowles is a Mexican American author from South Texas, where he teaches at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley. He has written several titles, most notably The Smoking Mirror (Pura Belpré Honor Book) and They Call Me Güero (Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, Claudia Lewis Award for Excellence in Poetry, Pura Belpré Honor Book, Walter Dean Myers Honor Book). His work has also been published in multiple anthologies, plus venues such as Asymptote, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Metamorphoses, Rattle, Translation Review, and the Journal of Children’s Literature. In 2017, David was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.

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Reality Check

Reality check: Anyone who follows children's literature knows that it is dominated by wokeness. The idea that left-leaning, rebellious and diverse books are somehow shunted away from publication, in the age of A IS FOR ACTIVIST, SPARKLE BOY, T.H.U.G, INTERNMENT, THE POET X, and UNPRESIDENTED is just ridiculous. In fact, the opposite is true.

Posted : Dec 19, 2019 05:11


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