By Sujei Lugo
Several days ago, I had the opportunity to attend the 2015 American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits Conference (#alamw15), held in Chicago. My main reasons for attending the conference were to meet with my dissertation committee, attend REFORMA (The National Association to Promote Library & Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking) meetings and discuss and collaborate with fellow Reformistas about ongoing projects and events. My presence in Chicago and #alamw15 also drove me to participate in and attend events and engage in conversations with fellow bloggers, librarians, educators, authors, publishers, and supporters of children’s and young-adult literature.
In this post I want to share with you about the sessions and events that I took part in and some reflections on my overall experience at the conference.
On Friday, January 30, 2015, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), along with the Children’s Book Council (CBC) hosted Day of Diversity: Dialogue and Action in Children’s Literature and Library Programming. I was not able to attend because this was an invitation-only event, but I followed the conversation through tweets, then afterward in blog posts reflecting on that day. The purpose of the event was to “discuss strategies for ensuring that all children have access to diverse literature and library programming.” Although great remarks were given by the keynote speaker, former ALA and REFORMA president Dr. Camila Alire; Día founder, author, and storyteller Pat Mora; former ALA Offices for Literacy & Outreach Services Director Satia Orange; and Native authors and authors of color, the overall impression was that it felt like a Diversity 101 event. Based on social media commentaries and subsequent talks, the event lacked real discussions about systemic problems, White privilege and anti-racist approaches to children’s literature. These conversations are long overdue in children’s librarianship and the publishing industry, and it is a pity that events where these conversations should happen do not embrace that challenge. Great recaps and reflections were posted by Debbie Reese, Edith Campbell, Zetta Elliott, Sarah Park, Don Tate, Maya Christina Gonzalez and Jason Low.
The REFORMA meetings and events were a great experience to get to know fellow Latino/a and Chicano/a librarians, educators and authors, immerse myself in committee work and projects, and finally meet people whose work I have admired for years. These gatherings were among the most welcoming spaces I’ve attended in my professional career in the United States. They also are dealing with serious issues regarding not only Latino populations in the United States, but Latin American immigrants as well.
A great example of this is the Children in Crisis Project. With this project, REFORMA delivers blankets, books, and backpacks to children held in detention centers near the border. The children, many as young as two years old, are unaccompanied refugee minors crossing the border, mainly from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Their journey crossing the border, many to reunite with family in the U.S. and to escape state and local violence, must be seen as a humanitarian crisis, and care needs to be given to focus on the social, emotional, informational, and legal needs of these children. As the co-chair of REFORMA’s Children in Crisis Task Force, Oralia Garza de Cortés said, “this project is like an underground railroad of books to our most vulnerable children.” REFORMA is currently partnering with nonprofits to continue to enhance efforts to help and support our children. (Here is a link that informs about ways to help, collaborate with, and donate to the Children in Crisis Project.)
On Saturday night, REFORMA celebrated its traditional Noche de Cuentos, an evening filled with stories, people, and warmth. The night was enlivened by author, storyteller, and librarian Lucía González, and Latino children’s literature and literacy consultant Oralia Garza de Cortés. Both women have been great supporters of Latino children’s literature for decades and contributed immensely to diversity in children’s librarianship. Lucía is also the author of the bilingual picture book The Storyteller’s Candle, about the life and impact of Pura Belpré’s work in New York, its Puerto Rican community in 1920’s-30s, and bilingual children’s librarianship. Oralia is the co-founder of the Pura Belpré Award, named after the Puerto Rican author, folklorist, and first Latina librarian of the New York Public Library. In “Noche de Cuentos” they both showcased their talent for sincere and engrossing storytelling. It was proof of how important preserving and telling our stories are. “That’s how stories get around, you tell them,” said Lucía, after finishing the tale of Blanquita and Her Wild Ducks, giving us a powerful reminder of how the voices that are constantly silenced, marginalized, and misrepresented will always find ways to amplify and give strength to their communities through storytelling. This was affirmed many times during the night: Pat Mora read poems and brought us charm and joy, and Maya Christina González read her picture books and told us that “kids need to know we are part of nature, and we belong here.” More emphasis on the power of our stories came when Jasmin Cardenas, a local storyteller, told us that “if we tell stories, this would be a better place.” Claudia Guadalupe Martinez shared the importance of community building, as portrayed in her YA novel, Pig Park. With its focus on stories, people, marginalized voices, powerful voices, and community support for each other, Noche de Cuentos was a much-needed intergenerational event.
While #alamw15 focused more on meetings, the exhibit hall, and the Youth Media Awards, several additional sessions were offered. I attended the Ignite Session on Saturday and was looking forward to seeing the presentations of two fellow librarians, tweeps, and overall great supporters of diversity in children’s literature–Angie Manfredi and Edith Campbell. In her presentation, “20 Kids/Teens Titles to Diversify Your Collection Today,” Angie gave fast book talks about diverse children’s and young-adult books that librarians can add to their collection. From the Latino holiday picture book T’was Nochebuena to the middle grade all-black cast book The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, she gave her audience a glimpse of diverse titles that reflect an intersection of different identities and backgrounds. Her energy and enthusiasm encouraged people to not only state that “We Need Diverse Books,” but that we need to buy them and promote them in our libraries and bookstores. (You can see the slides to her presentation here.)
The closing presentation of the Ignite Session was Edith’s “The Kids Are Not All White.” She started out by giving numbers and percentages demonstrating how children’s literature is not representative of our children’s population. She leaned toward a reflection and call to action to truly make efforts to be inclusive in our libraries. She challenged the view that diverse books are only for kids of color, and the status quo in books that shows us “who we were, but not who we can be.” Edith addressed language diversity, too, calling on us to include titles written in other languages in our collections, and titles that intersect income, gender, and race. She also emphasized the need to rethink views about self-publishing and technology, and how they are fertile spaces for those who are traditionally marginalized. Both presentations fit well within the different conversations about diversity and children’s literature that were happening at #alamw15. Because it was an Ignite session with a broad audience, they were “preaching” outside the usual crowd, to an audience that included academic and adult services librarians that may not have otherwise been aware of the attention being given to White privilege and diversity in publishing around the #kidlit world.
As we all know, the most talked about event of #alamw15 was the Youth Media Awards. This was my first time attending the awards, which I usually watch on my computer through a livestream. Early that morning, attendees, overwhelmingly White, started gathering and lining up to enter the room. Although I was, like them, excited to see who the winners and honorees of such a widely followed event in the world of U.S. children’s literature would be, I used the opportunity to engage in conversations, view people’s reactions, and note the racial/ethnic background of those deciding the award-worthy books of the year. As awards were presented to books by/about people of color and people with disabilities, the crowd kept clapping joyfully as a sign of approval that diverse titles were being recognized. (For a full list of winners visit: ALA Youth Media Award Winners and for a list of Latino/a authors and illustrators winners and honorees, here is our recap.)
As people were applauding and celebrating the diversity of winning titles, I was thinking how great it was to see those book covers on that big screen, and how those that had overlooked them during the year were now finally going to at least read about them and maybe even bring them to their libraries and classrooms. You see, the fact is that we’ve always been publishing great award-worthy titles, but they are continually neglected by the children’s literature world. While people were applauding, I was thinking about recent comments I’d heard that Brown Girl Dreaming shouldn’t win the Newbery, since she had already won the National Book Award. I wondered if similar things were said when a White author’s book had won the National Book Award. This, along with other observations and conversations, led me to question the celebratory spirit around me. Was the applause like that scene from The Boondocks’ “Garden Party” episode, where everything Huey says White people around him seem obligated to applaud and praise?
As I sat in the room, I heard some audience members complaining about the use of Spanish during the Pura Belpré Awards, an award that celebrates Latino children’s literature and is co-sponsored by REFORMA. As the morning unfolded, I watched the almost all-White committee members stand up, some wearing “Trust the Process” t-shirts. Toward the end of the awards, someone said that apparently there were finally good diverse titles this year, since they won awards. The implication was that the lack of award-winning diverse titles in years past was an indication that Latinos, Asians, Native, and Black people had never published GREAT books throughout those years.
When I finally exited the room, I approached Pat Mora (walking away by herself) to congratulate her for her work and her Mary Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Award. While talking to her, I was surprised and angry that no other person approached her to congratulate her. This woman has been an influential force in children’s literature, and she had just won an award recognizing her marvelous work. That work includes being the founder of Día, an official annual celebration that has been sponsored and championed by ALA. I realized that most people there had no idea who she was. The same people that were applauding inside the room as her picture was displayed on the big screen, as soon as her award was announced? The same people that sometimes state their “concern” of how we need to bring more authors, illustrators, and librarians of color to these events and into our field?
I introduced myself to her (in Spanish), and as we started talking, the first thing she said to me was: “Nada ha cambiado” (Nothing has changed). Words that stayed in my mind as I reflected upon my experience walking through the exhibit halls.
Nada ha cambiado.
The exhibit hall is a place where publishers, authors, and library businesses display new products, highlight new titles, and give away promotional materials and advanced reader’s copies (ARCs). The layout of the exhibit hall speaks volumes about the power centers: the amount of floor space that the big publishing houses occupy tells us how much of the exhibit floor they own. This is obvious. Fees paid for space in the exhibit hall in any convention generate revenue for the organization that sets up the event. Simply put, the big publishers with their marketing budgets, will obviously have a higher visibility than small publishers, but it still feels uncomfortable that smaller publishers are marginalized on the floor of an event organized by/for librarians that work in libraries that serve a diverse society. As I walked through the exhibit hall, my approach was to find Latino children’s and young-adult books and children’s books in Spanish. Among the sea of book covers with bears, puppies, and White girls at the Scholastic booth, I saw, in the far back, one of my most anticipated YA books of 2015, Shadowshaper, by Daniel José Older. I asked the publisher’s rep if she had a copy of it to give away. In the booth were stacks and stacks of other titles, prominently placed, evident that they were being heavily promoted by the publisher. As I strolled down those aisles I was surprised to see a large stack of ARCs of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Echo. They were going fast as librarians took copies. Minutes later, I approached a big publisher’s representative and asked her what Latino children’s books they had. She replied that they only carry “good” books. The look on my face and the two Latino books I had in my hands, no doubt, pushed her to follow her response with: “You already have those. Those are the good ones.”
Despite that conversation (and it was only one of many), I can say that I found several Latino children’s books, but in a low percentage compared to books by White people, about White people, and bears. Was I able to find a couple of Latino/a books, because I was looking for them? Because I recognize and know the titles, covers, authors and illustrators? Could people who had no idea Latino/a writers and illustrators exist, see their books? Were they displayed in a way such that people who don’t know about them could see, browse, and then buy them?
Another thing that caught my attention was that indie presses that publish stories by Native authors and authors of color were not packed with people. At their book signings, there were no lines of people waiting to meet the authors. This called to mind René Saldaña’s post: Forgive Me My Bluntness: I’m a Writer of Color and I’m Right Here In Front of You: I’m the One Sitting Alone at the Table. I was honored to meet Erika T. Wurth, author of Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend (Debbie Reese’s review); Isabel Quintero, author of Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (our review by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez); J.L. Powers, author of Colors of the Wind: The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza; and Lee Byrd, co-founder of Cinco Puntos Press.
Wurth, Quintero, Powers, and Byrd are among the many people with whom I had great conversations. I am among a growing number of people who support their work. In my many interactions and conversations, we laid out common ground and talked about how White privilege and institutionalized racism in children’s literature and publishing have always been a systemic issue. Privilege and power go across the publishing industry, book reviewing, librarianship, education, and media. We need more than diverse books. We need opportunities at places like library conferences to create awareness about privilege and power. In our work as bloggers, we must review and promote books by writers who are of marginalized populations. We must point to their accurate reflections of those populations. But we must also call out stereotypical and racist content in children’s books overall, and we must name White privilege when we see it. Yep, there’s a hell of a lot to do.
Full interview: Pan Dulce #4
The upcoming major event for REFORMA and Latino children’s literature is the Pura Belpré Award 20th Anniversary Celebración that’s going to be held in Orlando, Florida at the 2016 ALA Annual Conference. I attended the Task Force meeting; there are great plans ahead to celebrate past award winners and honorees, and a wide selection of Latino children’s books as well. More information to come! Check out how you can help and support this gran celebración.