Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Re: A response to Kristof's "Best Kids' Books Ever"

Yesterday, as I was perusing the New York Times, I noticed that columnist Nicholas Kristof has a list of "The Best Kids' Books Ever." Since I LOVE reading and developed my love of reading as a child, I was interested in his list.

So I guess a few caveats about Kristof and his list. To the best of my knowledge, he's not an expert. What I mean is, his academic training isn't as a Children's librarian, in reading education, or education/English at all. I'm sure he is a father (I think he alludes to this) and thus has as much "hands on" experience as any parent engaged with their children. I mention this because I'm trying to cut Kristof some slack, because I was, quite frankly, a bit shocked at his list.

My first reaction is, it's pretty antiquated. And I use that word purposely--he's got Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Prince and the Pauper on his list. Now don't get me wrong--some of the best stories that the world has produced are its oldest stories. But Kristof opens his piece by citing stats about U.S. levels of literacy and reading levels, and particularly lamenting the gaps that emerge with kids who don't come from affluent backgrounds or rigorous school districts--lower-middle, and working class kids essentially. He actually refers to them as "poor" kids (which, to the best of my knowledge, has a certain condescending ring to it, although it's also brutally honest I think in some cases).

Anyway, Kristof seems to offer his list as a exhortation to these "poor" families to get their kids to read rather than to be stuck in front of the Ninetendo wii all day. And yet, who does he thinks he's talking to? I mean, first of all, kids who grow up in working class families and communities are not going to rush out to read Little Lord Fauntleroy or the Hardy Boys series. I mean, some will and will love it, but those are the kids who are readers and who take a flashlight to bed and spend all their time in the library. We aren't worried about those kids, whatever class background they come from. The real question is, how do you get the kid who hates to read--who doesn't see anything in the books s/he is assigned in school and who doesn't see his/her LIFE reflected in these books--to start reading? Having books that either take place in the late 20th early 21st century or that were written in this time period may just be one place to start.

But my other beef with Kristof's list is its unrelenting MALE-ness. I mean, he does list Charlotte's Web as his #1 book, but if you look down the list, at the books that HE remembers liking and reading, it's no surprise that most of them have male protagonists or fairly masculine themes or were written by male writers (including Charlotte's Web, although I am a big E.B. White fan).

Let me be clear, it's not that I don't appreciate kids' books written by men or with male characters/protagonists. But this is Kristof's list for kids--all kids, not just little boys who grew up in predominantly white suburban families. With the exception of Anne of Green Gables and the author J.K. Rowling, it's a pretty masculine list--and he makes a fairly disparaging comment about Nancy Drew that I particularly take offense to, given the fact that Nancy Drew, as a children's book series, emerged at a time when there just weren't a lot of female literary role models for young girls to draw on. Books that Kristof failed to mention, either written by women or featuring strong girl characters include: The Little House on the Prairie book series, works by Madeline L'Engle, such as A Wrinkle in Time, Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Series, a truly wonderful series of fantasy books with a central male character (like Harry Potter) but with equally strong female characters and lovely writing, plotting, character development, and works by Ellen Raskin, particularly The Westing Game, one of my favorites (and I should note that Raskin is one of the few writers to include multicultural characters in fairly nuanced ways).

Which brings me to my final bone of contention with Kristof's list: his vision of race in kids' literature. It's pretty white. No, let me amend that. It's ALL white. Maybe with the exception of a few characters in the Harry Potter series (like Cho Chang and others, but they are not main characters) there are no characters of color and there are no writers of color in his list. My guess is that at least some (dare I saw 1/3) of the "poor" people that Kristof is trying to reach out to with this list are people of color, families of color (I'd guess for some of his readers when they read "poor" they are equating "black/Latino" in their minds, but let us not forget that many rural poor families in the South and mid-West are poor WHITE families--and there are also urban poor white families as well, which isn't to say that there isn't a correlation between race and class, especially given the way that racism has operated in this nation, but you all know that already so I'll stop preaching it).

What was I saying?

Oh yeah, race. Or rather the fact that Kristof's vision of his "best" kids' books are a rather monochromatic lot. And even if all the "poor" kids he envisions are white kids, don't they still deserve to read about non-white kids? In fact, in a mixed-race America--given the demographics of race and ethnicity in America, it seems criminal nowadays not to acknowledge that the world is really racially diverse. So giving kids a list of books to read that doesn't help them see a variety of races and cultures and ethnicities (and I mean I don't even know where to begin with sexuality and I already covered gender) just seems to be of PARAMOUNT importance.

While I was in grad school I paid the bills by working for a summer program that mentored high school kids, predominantly non-white, helping to prep them to get into college. We assigned a common reading, a novel, to them, and my second summer with the program I recommended Frank Chin's Donald Duk as an appropriate reading level book, but more importantly, as a book that the kids in the program (about 1/3 of them were SouthEast Asian) could relate to. It was a big hit--not just among the Asian American kids but among the black and Latino and white kids as well. They could relate to the main character, Donald, and his feelings of ethnic self hatred and his feelings of pride that eventually grew. But especially for the Asian American boys in the program, they said that this was the first time they read a book with someone who "looked" like them--who had similar experiences and who came from similar class and ethnic backgrounds. They were profoundly moved by the experience of reading Donald Duk, and I was profoundly moved by how much literature could make a difference--the right literature. There were kids who had JUST learned English the year before, who really struggled to get through the book--but they said it was the first time they read a book in English that they enjoyed--that they finished AHEAD of schedule.

So the last thing I want to leave you with, dear readers, is a plea for some suggestions of your own--ones that will combat the whiteness, the maleness, and the out-of-touch nature of Kristof's list (and especially if you have suggestions about works that touch on sexuality, that'd be great). I'm a bit out of the loop with the world of kids' books. I grew up reading (and loving) books like The Phantom Toll Booth and fantasy works by Lloyd Alexander (like the Prydain series). But I know that the world of kids' books has really grown since the mid-1970s (thank Goodness!) and works by writers like Allen Say have grown in popularity, so hearing your suggestions in the comment section will help all of us have a better sense of what "Best Kids' Books" should be on the reading list of a Mixed Race America.

[UPDATE: This post has been cross-listed on the Anti-Racist Parent blog (click here) and California NOW (click here). Thought I'd mention these cross-postings because especially on Anti-Racist Parent, there are some great suggestions for kids' books that are much more diverse than Kristof's list]


dance said...

Did you see his follow-up?


He notes your point re class and race.

Anonymous said...

Well, that was a lame "apology". Nevertheless, thanks for raising the issue - great post! Let's come up with our own multi-racial and multi-cultural "Best kids books ever" list.

Here are a couple of nominations: "The Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats (classic) and "Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes" by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury (recent).

Obviously, I have a toddler...what about books for other age groups?


Jennifer said...

Dance & Ms. Thrash,
Thanks for your comments. Yeah, I didn't find Kristof's brief nod to the race/class issues to be really satisfactory--I mean, his apology was to Roald Dahl and other great kids books that he left off. Oh well.

And thanks for reminding me about THE SNOWY DAY--I LOVED that book when I was a kid! There's also a book about an African American kid running a toothpaste factory and becoming a millionaire--can't remember the title but that's where I learned that you just need water and baking soda to clean your teeth!

Alexandra said...

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was one of my favorite books growing up. There were several sequels to the series as well.

Not just snowy day, but all of Ezra Jack Keats books are GREAT for toddler/preschool age.

The toothpaste book: The toothpaste millionaire.

Jennifer said...

THE TOOTHPASTE MILLIONAIRE! Thank you for the reference Alexandra--I'll go out and look for it right now.

And thanks for the other kids' book references too!

Anonymous said...

Ever since my first comment I have been searching high and low for great kids books with Asian lead characters. I went to Borders in search of examples...boy was that disappointing! I was getting really discouraged until my husband reminded that we have several great examples in our home library, namely:
"My name is Yoon" (by Recorvitis) and related titles in that series; "Bee Bim Bop!" (by Linda Sue Park) and "Dear Juno" (by Pak).


Jennifer said...

Ms. Thrash--
Thanks for those references! And keep them coming. I do know what you mean; chain bookstores are not the easiest places to find multiethnic/multiracial or just books with racial/ethnic minority characters.

Thanks for being diligent!