Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Multicultural Children's literature hasn't come far enough

Every once in a while one needs a reminder about the subtlety of racism in children's books. I've been assuming, wrongly it turns out, that children's writers are enlightened, fair-minded. I even assumed that children's writers wrote about what they knew. But then....I came across this blurb for No Castles Here by A C Bauer.

AUGIE BORETSKI KNOWS how to get by. If you're a skinny white kid in the destitute city of Camden, New Jersey, you keep your head down, avoid the drug dealers and thugs, and try your best to be invisible. Augie used to be good at that, but suddenly his life is changing. . . . First, Augie accidentally steals a strange book of fairy tales. Then his mom makes him join the Big Brothers program and the chorus. And two bullies try to beat him up every day because of it. Just when it seems like things can't get any worse, an ice storm wrecks Augie's school. The city plans to close the school, abandoning one more building to the drug addicts. But Augie has a plan. For the first time in his life, Augie Boretski is not going down without a fight.

Okay, is it me? Am I being touchy here? I'm wondering what a white parent/teacher will think about a blurb like "Skinny white kids keep their heads down."

But wait, this was on one of the writer's websites:

Book: No Castles Here
Camden, New Jersey, is the armpit of the world, as far as Augie is concerned. Home to losers and bullies, its schools offer nothing to someone who isn’t smart, isn’t stupid, and who isn’t a troublemaker. When Augie escapes to Philadelphia dreaming of castles and promise, he becomes a thief and steals a magical book of fairy tales.

Life only gets crazier. For sixth grade, Augie is assigned the meanest, toughest teacher in school. His mom signs him up with a Big Brother he doesn’t want. And he discovers that even in his world, there might be such a thing as a fairy godmother.

Augie is eleven-and-a-half. This is his time for adventure. He hadn’t figured it would begin in a bookstore.

Book Info:

ISBN (Hardcover): 978-0-375-83921-4

ISBN (Library Binding): 978-0-375-93921-1

Release date: October 23, 2007

Pages: 288

Now, honestly, I'm all for creativity. And I haven't read the book. But would such a blurb make me -- someone who lives in the hood, thank you-- want to read this book?
To the eyes of black folks -- especially black folks in a hood-- the blurb for No Castles Here sounds dang racist. The blurb seems to be written to only middle class or upper middle class white folks. The implicit stereotyping going on in the blurb for No Castles here is not only offensive but it shows that some authors are so in their little social cultures that they don't know the truth about other cultures. Interestingly, --and a bit terrifying-- the book got a starred review from Kirkus. Obviously, the reviewers at Kirkus also live in milieus where they think there's nothing wrong with the blurb.

But let's tackle the first basic untruth of this blurb: the notion that skinny white kids in the hood keep their heads down. Honestly, skinny white kids in the hood generally DON'T keep their heads down. By kindergarten every kid --white or black-- is part of the neighborhood and they all get along. How do I know this? Because I live in the hood and white kids and black kids in the hood --places like Camden, for instance-- generally all get along quite well, thank you! White kids in my town don't walk around in fear. The kids all walk around in these multicultural cliques that have nothing to do with race.

It makes me wonder if the author knows about living in black neighborhoods. And actually, if we are to be really honest here, it's generally the black kid in a white neighborhood who walks around holding his head down. Not the other way around. Black folks tend to be pretty inclusive when it comes to neighborhood kids.

And then there is this idea about roaming gangs. Where the heck did A C E Bauer get this idea that gangs bothered innocent kids? Especially innocent skinny white kids? (By the way, is she saying that all the black kids are beefy and overfed?) Reading this blurb and the excerpt on the publisher's site has pretty much convinced me that A C E Bauer has created a world which the white reader will instantly recognize as their worse fear. I generally don't get too annoyed about wrong-headed books but sometimes some stuff just annoy a person no end. And the inclusion of a so-called dignified "African-American gentleman" in the excerpt doesn't help her cause either. I just hate it when a "dignified" black person appears inside a book that seems to be built on racial assumptions about how black kids treat good/smart/skinny white kids.

Folks, we need more black children book writers out there. Or else we need more poor white folks writing children books. You know what I mean. Someone from the hood who really knows what life is like.
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