I haven’t been blogging lately as the nature of this blog is changing. To what? I am not sure, although today I am compelled to write.

Today I did my first act of successful witnessing.

Two black women  had been pulled over by the police.

I pulled up beside them, unrolled my window and asked if they wanted a witness. The driver said yes. I parked my car (illegally) and got out of the car with my cell phone. I kept a “respectful” distance away from the police and also from the women in the car.

The woman in the passenger seat looked to me as if she was having a  traumatized response. She was having difficulty breathing and was shaking uncontrollably.  I moved a little bit closer, slowly –  (after all, I am white, and I could be triggering her as well) and asked if they needed anything. The driver said “water” and reached out some money to me. I did not take the money. I went and got the water and gave to the woman. The driver said to me: “with all that is going on, we just don’t know, we just don’t know” inbetween trying to assist the passenger with breathing and calming. She said to me, “we will feel better when the cop leaves.” I moved away from their car.

The cop asked, “can I speak to you for a moment.” I moved towards him so that he would not come towards the women. He said, “she appears to be having a panic attack.” I said, “Absolutely. Are you done? I  think it would assist if you were able to leave.” He got in his car and left.

The driver then asked the passenger if she wanted to get out. I opened the door and held out my hand to help her to get out of the car, which was really difficult given how scared she was. She said, “hold me, hold me” and I reached out to hug her but realized within two seconds that she was not able to relax with me. By that time the driver was there and was able to hold her and calm her down. The driver also talked with me a lot about their fear, and I listened.

The passenger calmed down. Not totally, but enough that she was able to stop shaking. Her eyes were red. Her skin was clammy. I say these things because that was how it was when I left.  Totally traumatized. I asked if they needed anything else in the moment or if there was anything else I could do for them.

In case people don’t know or understand I want to break down the privilege part: 1. I was able to witness. 2. I was able to be calm around the cop because I personally have not had negative experiences with cops. 3. I was treated with respect from the cop. 4. I was able to leave and feel as if I were making a difference and that my day was richer for the experience. 5. I was not harassed or penalized in any way for parking illegally. 6, 7, 8, 9.  I’m sure there are even more ways I am not yet aware of how much privilege I had in this interaction. These points are not given, are never if rarely the experience of my friends that are people of color in their interactions with the police. This is white privilege.

If a white person had been a driver and needed help would they have had their wits about them enough to offer money for what was needed? The fact that this woman offered me money in the midst of what must have been her own fear and trauma, the fear and trauma of her loved one, and the legacy of trauma she and her people have experienced from those in “authority”  not to mention the  basic hassle and frustration of being pulled over and given a ticket shows her amazing skill and resilience in the face of a huge amount of stress.

White people do not have this stress and trauma. This is privilege.

Out of the entire experience the fact that she offered me money is what I keep coming back to. I am not at all surprised by it, but it touched me at a deep level. I honestly think if I were in the same situation I wouldn’t have thought to offer money in the moment (maybe after, when the person brought the water). This is itself speaks volumes about my privilege and entitlement, not to mention my assumption that people have enough money on them to buy a bottle of water.

Her offer of the money for the water speaks volumes. It said, “I don’t want anything for free. I just want to be treated like a normal human being.”

 

SLJTeen_ITMAwardsP.D. Workman’s fictional Tattooed Teardrops and Tewhan Butler’s nonfiction title America’s Massacre: The Audacity of Despair and a Message of Hope top this year’s In the Margins (ITM) Book Awards. The selection committee, operating under Library Services for Youth in Custody, selected these winning works among books by, for, and about kids living in the margins. Many of the books selected were either self-published or released by small presses. For the second time in the award’s history, the committee has also chosen a Social Justice/Advocacy Award-winner: Girls in Justice by Richard Ross. For more info about the award, the winning titles, the Top Ten list, and annotations, see the official press release below.

For Immediate Release

3/7/2016

Contact: Amy Cheney,  In the Margins Book Award and Committee

SAN FRANCISCO —The In the Margins Book Award and Selection Committee, (ITM) a committee under the umbrella of Library Services for Youth in Custody (LYSC) selected their top fiction book,Tattooed Teardrops by PD Workman and non-fiction book, America’s Massacre: The Audacity of Despair and a Message of Hope by Tewhan Butler as well as a list of Top Ten, an official list of books by, for and about kids living in the margins. ITM strives to find the best books for teens living in poverty, on the streets, in custody, or a cycle of all three.

Many people in the margins choose to self-publish.  We are dedicated to finding the best of the best of these titles that fit our charge. This is our third year of highlighting self and small press published books that validate, illuminate and humanize those living in the margins. We bring true diversity to bookshelves and libraries by reading, reviewing, debating, soliciting teen feedback and awarding honors for these titles. The majority of  our list may be unknown to you or have gotten little attention in traditional reviews, but are hits with our teens. This is a statement for the need for more of us to look for and highlight diverse books. This year we continue with our top fiction, top non-fiction, and Social Justice | Advocacy award category.  We are proud to contribute to bringing these voices out of the underground and into your libraries, and hope more and more librarians and awards committees will see the value and necessity of including self-published and small press published books.
In the Margins Top Fiction Award, 2016: Tattooed Teardrops by P.D. Workman
In the Margins Top Non-Fiction Award, 2016:  America’s Massacre: The Audacity of Despair and a Message of Hope by Tewhan Butler

In addition, for the second year, we have chosen a title for our Social Justice/Advocacy Award. The winning title is: Girls in Justice by Richard Ross

In the Margins Official 2016 Top Ten List

Butler, Tewhan. America’s Massacre: The Audacity of Despair and a Message of Hope. Raise UP Media. October 2014. PB $19.99. ISBN 9780692281826.

Carter, Alton. The Boy Who Carried Bricks: A True Story of Survival. Roadrunner Press. March 2014. 196p. HC $18.95. ISBN 9781937054342.

Deutch, Kevin. The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York’s Blood and Crips. Lyons Press. December 2014. 214p. PB $16.95. ISBN 9781493007608.

Frank, E.R. Dime. Simon Teen. May 2015. 336p. HC $17.99. ISBN 9781481431606.

Kern, Peggy. Little Peach. Balzer + Bray. March 2015. 208p. HC $17.99. ISBN 9780062266958.

Laboucane-Benson, Patti. The Outside Circle. House of Anansi Press. June 2015. 264p. PB $19.95. ISBN 9781770899377.

Lewis, Tony Jr. Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Hanover Place Press. July 2015. 166p. PB $9.99.

Ross, Richard. Girls in Justice. The Image of Justice. 2015. 192p. HC $29.95. ISBN 9780985510619.

Voloj, Julian. Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker. NBM Publishing. May 2015. 128p. PB $12.99. ISBN 9781561639489.

Workman, P.D. Tattooed Teardrops. PD Workman. August 2014. 292p. PB $15.95. ISBN 9780993768750.

Annotations, the full list and further information on the committee and selections can be found at http://youthlibraries.org/2016-margins-official-list-0.

The 2016 Committee members are:

  • Sabrina Carnesi, School Librarian, Crittenden Middle School, VA
  • Amy Cheney, District Library Manager, Oakland Unified School District, CA
  • Dale Clark, Teacher-Librarian, Fraser Park Secondary, Burnaby Youth Custody Services, Burnaby, BC, Canada
  • Joe Coyle, Project Coordinator, Mix IT Up!, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL
  • Marvin DeBose Sr., Library Supervisor, Free Library of Philadelphia, PA
  • Lisa Goldstein, Division Manager, Central Youth Wing, Brooklyn Public Library, NY
  • Sian Marshall, Head of Teen Services, Oxford Public Library, Oxford Michigan
  • Maggie Novario, Teen Librarian, Fort Vancouver Regional Library District, WA
  • Kerry Sutherland, Youth Services Librarian, Akron-Summit County Public Library, OH

Please go to Library Services for Youth in Custody (LYSC) http://youthlibraries.org/  for more information.

By  on June 12, 2015  Leave a Comment

Throughout my library career, I’ve worked with disenfranchised and resourceful people of color (I don’t like the term at-risk), from preschoolers to adults. For a while, I was a children’s librarian and I implemented a bookmobile program serving a local Headstart and preschool centers with multicultural youth. I provided up to four to six storytimes a day. What I didn’t know about storytime and storytelling when I started, I learned by the time I left that job. By then, I was also keenly aware of how few multicultural picture books there were. I contacted Children’s Book Press— an independent publisher based in San Francisco (now owned by the fantastic Lee & Low)—to locate titles that would be relevant to the kids in my community.

Flash forward to today, and I’m teaching a group of max unit kids to read to their babies (or brothers, or sisters, or cousins). It’s mostly an excuse for me to share books with them. I start with one of my favorite books, Debra Frasier’s On the Day You Were Born (HMH, 1991). As I read, these young people—some of whom who are facing 15 or 20 years of incarceration (and, even, an unbelievable 80 years)—were sucking their thumbs and twirling their hair. In a group of six girls, only one said she’d been read to as a child. What a difference it would make to have positive and welcoming reflections of themselves in the books that we shared. Imagine if all industries, including publishing, were accepting and warm toward them. As Frederick Douglass observed, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

PuffyLast month, I attended the Association of Children’s Librarians of Northern California 2015 Institute. The event’s topic was “All Due Respect: A Dialogue about Diversity, Equity, and Creating Safe Spaces for All Youth.” There, I discovered several offerings that would make excellent read-alouds and storytime picks for incarcerated teens, and a few are included below. Check the organization’s Facebook pagefor videos of some of the presentations.

Aya de León’s Puffy: People Whose Hair Defies Gravity sold out in about 15 minutes, as attendees saw the value of this book. What fun! This title has photographs of real kids and real families with full heads of buoyant hair and the narrative is set to a Dr. Seussian beat. The back cover features honor society student Vanessa Van Dyke who was bullied, then threatened with expulsion, because of her hair. Vanessa says, “It’s puffy and I like it that way.” Buy this one in multiple copies.

Oh Oh BabyI sat next to Janine Macbeth of Blood Orange Press and she slipped me her 2013 book. I actually burst into tears as I read it. Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! is simply gorgeous, both physically— with illustrations of tempura paintings on craft paper—and emotionally. It’s on a topic that’s rarely addressed: baby boys and their fathers. Blood Orange Press is an independent publisher that believes “children and adults of all ages should have access to stories that recognize and lift up their individual power, dignity, and beauty.” This book does just that. It’s an absolute must-purchase for every library.

boy bricksBeing a good father is what motivated Alton Carter, author of The Boy Who Carried Bricks to write his story. His book tells the hard tale of how he was broken as a boy: his mom had five children by four different men and there’s a blank space on his birth certificate under father’s name. Raised in a violent, dysfunctional family living in desperate poverty, Alton finally ran away and ended up in foster care. He was sent to live on a “farm” where he and the other children were horrifically abused and mistreated.

The In the Margins committee that I sit on has been debating the merits of this book, and the biggest issue we’re currently having is over the cover. Committee member Dale Clark says, “If they can get past the cover, a lot of kids would be able to relate to the horrors of Alton’s life. But that cover has to go. Seriously, it could easily be mistaken as an elementary novel and it is anything but that.” I’ve booktalked it with a blank cover. So far, the feedback I’ve received has been positive. We also contacted the publisher with our opinions about the cover and they were receptive to our feedback for the next edition.

Burn-Baby-Burn-Kevin Craig’s Burn Baby, Burn Baby has a good cover and some great graphics inside, especially the chapter headings— a cool heart with flames. Francis’s face was disfigured when his abusive father set him on fire. Now, he’s being bullied by kids at school and doubts anyone can love him. But, Rachel, the new hot girl at school is totally into him. Can it be true? A short page count, appealing cover, and topics ranging bullying to abuse and a bit of romance make this a compelling choice for every library.

If you don’t know who Freeway Rick Ross is, I’m about to officially increase your cool quotient. RICK_ROSS_Rick Ross is the name of the one-time drug kingpin who goes by the name Freeway Rick Ross (to distinguish himself from the rapper Rick Ross). Ross was involved in the crack cocaine trade in Los Angeles, as well as in other areas of the United States, and made millions. His connections to the Iran-Contra scandal were first revealed in a series of articles published by the San Jose Mercury News. While in prison, he taught himself to read and write, and now teaches economics to kids in the Watts neighborhood of LA, and speaks as a reformed drug dealer and community builder. Despite some uneven and repetitive writing of his Freeway Rick Ross: The Untold Autobiography, this is a must-have for every urban library for its author, and its intro to the politics of the drug wars. Purchase multiple copies; it’s going to be popular.

Ghetto BrotherJulian Voloj’s Ghetto Brother is an important book, presenting the story of a once-broken child who becomes a whole adult. Part biography, part history, this graphic novel follows the young, Puerto Rican Benjy as he navigates the streets of the South Bronx as gangs form and develop peace treaties, to his marriage to a childhood sweetheart, and the start of the hip-hop movement. Looking back 40 years, Benjy is able to put gangs and gang life into a larger sociopolitical context that many youth can’t. In this narrative, the protagonist learns of secrets about himself and his family that add even more multicultural depth and dimension to his story. Black-and-white photographs of people and places and a foreword by Jeff Chang (Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Picador; 2005) make this book both timely and relevant. The dark cover and fuzzy black-and-white drawings detract from the overall presentation, but the story is stellar. It’s a must-purchase for every urban and juvenile detention facility library.

Most of the kids I work with start out actively hating to read, primarily due to the dearth of materials that are relevant to their lives. I honestly believe that if there were more diverse books, there would be far less violence in the world. The fact that these books do not exist is in itself a hostile act that perpetuates violence.

Carter, Alton. The Boy Who Carried Bricks. Roadrunner Pr. 2015. Tr $18.95. 179p. ISBN 9781937054342.

Craig, Kevin. Burn Baby, Burn Baby. Curiosity Quills Pr. 2014. pap. $12.99 141p. 9781620076514.

de Leόn, Aya. Puffy: People Whose Hair Defies Gravity. CreateSpace. 2013. pap. $15. 23p. 9781494436773

Macbeth, Janine. Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! Blood Orange Pr. 2013. Tr $15.95. 32p. 9780985351403.

Ross, Rick and Cathy Scott. Freeway Rick Ross: The Untold Autobiography. CreateSpace. 2014. pap. $19.99. 282p. 9781499651539.

Voloj, Julian. Ghetto Brother Warrior to Peacemaker. illus.by Claudia Ahlering. NBM. 2015. pap. $12.99. 127p. 9781561639489.

Great interview. 

RAWing with Paul Langan answering the five questions of doom

  1. Tell me how you got started writing, in particular writing for teens. Why did you focus on writing books with an urban setting featuring youth of color?

I wrote my first short story in 6th grade. It was almost Halloween, and my reading teacher challenged our class to write a scary story. The winning story would be selected by the class and receive a $5 prize. I was a new kid in the school, and I wrote my story about the thing that scared me the most—a classmate who spent much of his time shoving me in the hallways and threatening me on the playground. In my story, he met a glorious end at the hands of a horde of bully-hungry zombies. He got attention, which he liked, but I got that $5 prize and discovered a new tool to deal with difficulties in my world: writing.

Many moons later, I worked for Townsend Press as a coordinator for a summer reading program for Philadelphia 8th graders. My goal was to get kids reading. To do that, we created a reading contest. Kids would select a book straight off teacher recommendation lists and bestseller charts. They’d read it and call our toll-free reading hotline where I’d confirm they finished the book. Prizes, including cash, were awarded based on the number of pages each student read.

We had fun that summer, but I discovered our students, mostly African American teens, seemed uninterested in the titles teachers recommended. Instead, they gravitated toward novels set in cities, featuring protagonists that looked like them (a rarity in the YA world in the late 1990’s). In retrospect, we should not have been surprised that they preferred books that spoke to their experiences. But at the time, this idea was revolutionary. The kids schooled us. The lesson was simple: if we want young adults to pay attention to books, we need to give them books that pay attention to them. That idea sparked the Bluford Series.

2.      Bluford is popular for lot s of reasons, but in particular often with kids who can’t or won’t read other books. In your opinion, what are the elements of a successful book for reluctant teen readers?  

Confession. I’ve never liked the term reluctant reader.  I’ve seen many with this label become avid readers—once they get the right book. Why don’t they have it? One culprit is reluctant publishers. For too long, mainstream publishers refused to acknowledge or embrace young readers of color. This is well documented by greater minds than me, and it is changing (finally). But traditional publishing still seems reluctant to address the issue of access. Listing a hardback book for $19.99 online or in a suburban bookstore is evidence of the problem. In crowded neighborhoods in Philly, Chicago, or Detroit, for example, bookstores are rare. Municipal libraries are underfunded. School libraries are being shuttered. Money for books and eBooks is limited. As a result, many teens don’t get to experience exciting YA books. Is it fair to call them reluctant readers? I don’t think so.

And sometimes we actually teach them to be reluctant. Kids without access to books tend to have reading experiences confined to what’s taught in school. Often these books are far removed from students’ interests, and they come with baggage: quizzes, writing assignments, worksheets, book reports, etc. These tasks make reading a punishable activity. For strong readers, this work can be dull. For struggling readers (more often boys), this work can leave them discouraged or frustrated. Years of this in school can destroy enthusiasm for reading. It may even lead students to conclude books have nothing to offer—or to give up on reading altogether.

The Bluford Series was crafted to change this. Bluford stories attempt to reintroduce reading to teens who have, for whatever reason, abandoned books. Each novel is set in bustling inner-city Bluford High School, a place one reader called “Hogwarts in the ’hood.” Each story begins with a situation that has emotional hooks that resonate for young adults: the desire to connect and be accepted, the longing for love and respect, the pain of loss or rejection, the feeling of being misunderstood by family or friends, the sting of betrayal and rivalry, the difficulty of being young and confused and uncertain, the magical intensity of growing up. These sparks burn bright in young adults.

In addition, the books are short (less than 200 pages), giving teens who may think they dislike reading a chance to finish a book. Many write to me saying Bluford novels are the first they’ve ever voluntarily completed. Some describe feeling as if something was wrong with them because, for the first time in their lives, they stayed up all night reading. A few have even said they thought they were ill because their hearts raced and they forgot about dinner while reading!

To produce this reaction, Bluford novels move quickly and include lots of action and suspense, starting on page one if possible. They also, I hope, pack an emotional punch, leaving readers with something to think and, perhaps, talk about.  This combination allows the books to compete with smart phones, social networking, and video games for teens’ attention—not an easy task. It might also convince them to give books a second chance. That was the intent from day one.

3.      Tell me a little bit about the deal with Scholastic coming out with the Bluford books with different covers, and in one case, a different title.  What, if any other changes, did you need to make to make the Scholasticable? (is that a word?)

I like the word! I may have to borrow it. Yes, Scholastic approached us years ago and expressed interest in distributing the Bluford Series. Townsend Press, my employer, is a small educational publisher. We lack the reach, expertise, and distribution muscle of Scholastic and were delighted they felt our novels were potentially Scholasticable.

We agreed to terms in which both Townsend and Scholastic could distribute the books. Their marketing team felt that photograph-based covers made more business sense. They also requested that we change the title of one of our books—The Gun—for fear some bookstore chains may refuse to carry it. To appease them, I renamed that book Payback, an alternate title I had all along.

4.      Okay, the big question:  so I reluctantly read a blog review of Outburst in my The Alternative series. This book tells the story of an African American teenage girl coming out of detention and going into a foster home.  The review began with “Jones, who is white …” and I wished I would have stopped reading there. Have you faced this being a white male writing stories for and about kids of color?  Most everybody seems to be onboard with we need diverse books, but not if those books are not written by people of color.  What are our thoughts on this issue?

Ah, yes. The Big Question—worthy of more than a few paragraphs!

I’ve been around the block for a while now. Early on, I visited schools where readers—teens and adults—didn’t know I was white until my pasty face appeared in the front office. I heard readers exclaim, “Oh my God, he’s white,” more than a few times. I have also heard my books described as “ghetto novels,” a racially charged term with positive and negative meanings. Still others have suggested I’ve “neglected” or even discriminated against white readers by not featuring white protagonists. Others are angry that I’ve written such books, arguing that I have no right to do so.

Race is our cultural third rail, and it is woven right into our national DNA, whether we want to admit it or not.  We are all impacted, and we all play a part. If you choose to avoid the issue or look away, you’re playing a part too, a passive one.

Most writers, myself included, are not passive. If we were, we wouldn’t choose this path. When you decide to write, you make a commitment to be true to what you are creating. That means doing your homework and research, mining your experience, and delving through your own creative process to tell the Truth. Your readers deserve all you can give (and sometimes more). So do your characters. If you get it wrong, both will abandon you.

For Bluford, I chose to set events in a city school, similar to the schools students in our summer program attended.  For believability and realism, I made this fictional high school mirror the population in those schools. As a result, few students at Bluford High are white. That’s reality! Unlike most YA books, especially in 2001 when Bluford appeared, nonwhite characters are not relegated to the sidelines. They are not minor players or token characters. Instead, they are the centerpiece, the heroes and foils, parents and children, principals and janitors, bullies and targets, veterans and neighbors, police officers and thugs in every story. Sometimes they are many of these things at once. Like all of us, they are complex and multi-layered with their own histories, secrets, and mysteries. They are also, I hope, full of contradictions, flaws, talents, fears, hopes, beauty and ugliness—traits that are authentically human. Real.

I get letters all the time. My favorites are those that say, “I know you’re white, but it’s okay because you totally get it.”  I treasure these because as a writer and fellow human being, Iwant to get it. It is the prime directive.

Of course, there are some things as a white man I will never fully understand. While I have many experiences which inform my work, my white skin makes my American experience different than that of my characters and many of my readers. This is complex territory too big to fully address here, but as a white writer, I must account for it, examine what it means, own up to it, and always remember it. This is our cultural backdrop, but it is not an excuse to avoid or ignore readers of color. That approach has been standard practice for far too long, and we see where it leads. Let’s change it. I think all writers should join in this effort. All readers matter.

Regardless of background or history, writers share a single challenge: to breathe art and Truth into their work. Readers get to decide whether we are successful. It’s that simple. To paraphrase the Bard, the story is the thing.

Does the story hold up? Does the writer get it? Does the art resonate? If yes, there’s nothing more to say. I aim for yes.

5.      What are you working out now?  In addition to writing Bluford books, what else do you do for Townsend Press?

We’re a small independent educational publisher, but we have a big reach. We produce materials—novels, leveled books for emerging readers, reading/writing texts for schools and colleges—that engage students and help teachers teach. The Bluford Series is just one part of that. We also sponsor various programs to assist schools with limited budgets. As an editor at Townsend Press, I have many responsibilities outside the Bluford Series. Lately I’ve spent much time working to digitize our offerings. But I am happy to say I’ll be returning to the Bluford Series full-time next year, and a new Bluford book, in the works for some time now, will be out this fall. We’ll post details about it soon on Bluford’s Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Bluford.Series

YALSA’s Cultural Competencies Task Force interviews Patrick Jones, retired young adult services guru, author, speaker, winner of the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Library Association and Catholic Library Association, and pro wrestling enthusiast. Patrick was a teen librarian for 20 years, and continues to be an advocate for teens and teen services. This podcast gives an overview of how best to reach out and serve young adults in juvenile correctional facilities and provides advice to librarians new to outreach to prisons:

http://yalsa.ala.org/blog/2015/05/07/podcast-with-patrick-jones-serving-incarcerated-youth/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+feedburner%2Fyalsa+%28YALSA+Blog%29

Resources:

Librarians Serving Youth in Custody: http://www.youthlibraries.org/.

The Beat Within: A Publication of Writing and Art from the Inside:http://www.thebeatwithin.org/.

Contra Costa Times article about librarian Amy Cheney:http://www.contracostatimes.com/breaking-news/ci_27691434/alameda-county-librarian-connects-incarcerated-youths-lesser-known.

Literacy for Incarcerated Teens: http://www.literacyforincarceratedteens.org/.

Reaching Out to Young Adults in Jail, p.16:http://yalsa.ala.org/yals/yalsarchive/volume3/3n1_fall2004.pdf

School Library Journal article about literacy for incarcerated teens:http://www.slj.com/2014/09/literacy/literacy-for-incarcerated-teens/#_

The following selected works feature young women dealing with tough stuff, including sex trafficking, incarceration, and self-harm.

Up to 73 percent of juvenile justice cases involve girls who have histories of physical and sexual violence. Eighty percent of all girls in detention in 2011 were placed there for low-level offenses. Black girls make up only eight percent of the U.S. population of youth aged 10–17 yet constitute 39 percent of those detained. This is just some of the information documented in Richard Ross’s new book Girls in Justice (Image of Justice, 2015)The facts are brought to stark and full-color life through an array of superb photographs, matter-of-fact yet gut-wrenching stories of these young women, and six provocative essays by adults questioning the juvenile justice system.

At first glance, I thought there were too many white girls pictured, and it was jarring as to the facts documented and what I see everyday. But the vast majority of the girls featured in Ross’s title are young women of color, and what I might have read for white are actually Latinas. This accurately reflects the statistics on the individuals who populate our prisons. The book depicts, directly and indirectly, the intense discrimination that these girls face. Z.O., age 15, photographed on the back cover with Trust Nobody tattooed on her arm says: “I was just AWOL for a few days from my foster home. I was 11 when I was taken from my house. My mom was smoking crack and pregnant. My dad lives in Mexico. I was putting Wite-Out on a park bench and I was sitting there cutting class. They handcuffed me.” This text belongs in all libraries across the country for concrete insight into the reality of these girls’ lives.

Juvenile in JusticeRoss’s self-published Juvenile In Justice was recognized in the 2013 Alex Awards, sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA). I was there, and I screamed, I was so excited. It’s the perfect adult book for teens—deceptively simple and extremely powerful—multiple perspectives that support and build upon one another. Following the win, the Alex Awards committee added this to its eligibility requirements: “Titles that are self-published, published only in eBook format, and/or published from a publisher outside of the U.S. will not be considered eligible until the first year the book is available in print or distributed through a U.S. publishing house.” While I understand ALA’s point of view,  this criterion perpetuates the lack of diversity that we find in our library bookshelves. It is so discouraging.

PBS and CNN featured Ross’s new book on their media outlets—none of these venues would think about not featuring a book because it’s self-published. Ross has several other books that we can look forward to reading next year: Juvie Talk: Unlocking the Language of Lockdown and Parent of Last Resort: Child Welfare in America (both Image of Justice).

KernLittle PeachPeggy Kern, best known for her excellent titles in the “Bluford High” series from the independent Townsend Pr., has a new book, Little Peach (HarperCollins, 2015). We know things aren’t working out well for 14-year-old ‘Chelle, as she’s narrating her story from a hospital bed. With broken teeth and swollen eyes, she can barely remember her name.Little Peach is the story of how she got to this point.

Told in flashbacks, starting with the death of her loving grandfather, then moving to her mom’s, and her drug addiction, ‘Chelle decides to follow her friend to the Pink Houses in New York and meets Devon at Grand Central Station. With a good size print and a low page count, this book will be a hit with reluctant readers. Is the book better since it’s been picked up by HarperCollins? Not at all, in fact the hardback format and innocuous cover is going to make it a harder sell, compared to the books she writes for Townsend, which does a terrific job marketing books featuring teens of color.

Workman_Tattooed TeadropsP.D. Workman’s self-published book Ruby landed a Top 10 spot on our In the Margins 2014 list. As an exciting footnote, the In the Margins committee is actively advocating with Ingram and Baker & Taylor to feature the self-published and independent titles we review, including Workman’s books. In her latest offering, Tattooed Teardrops (2014), Tamara wants to turn her life around after being released from juvie. But when her psychotic ex-cellmate Glock shows up, Tamara’s life spirals out of control. How can she convince her probation officer and foster family that she has changed? How does she escape the influence of the frightening and out-of-control Glock? Readers will appreciate the realistic details about Tamara’s release, her issues dealing with a foster family, her emotional triggers, and the challenges facing someone trying to maintain the conditions of parole. For those teens who love books where all that can go wrong does go wrong (isn’t that almost all of them?), this is a winner.

Frank_DimeE.R. Frank, author and social worker and is back, and it’s been worth the wait. Like America (2002 S. & S.), Dime is a richly complex, psychological mystery with the right amount of interior and exterior action. Never preachy, the narration allows readers to gain their own insights through the extraordinary prose. Thirteen-year-old Dime has a problem. She has to write a note so that people will understand. Should she write the note as Brandy or Lollipop, two of the girls she lives with? Or should she write the note as if Money were talking, or Truth?

The note isn’t really the problem, even though she fixates on it. Lollipop, 10, is in the bedroom all day with her virtual fans. And soon the fans are going to be brought to her in real life. The real problem is that Dime didn’t think Daddy was someone who would put a naked 10-year-old girl in a room to earn money. She’s beginning to see more clearly and with the truth comes greater danger and an understanding of the consequences. This is some of the best writing I’ve seen that illuminates how girls are set up in complicated situations, and how love and abuse become confused in the minds of victims of sexual violence. Some teens may miss the literary references, but it won’t lessen the story’s power.

While clearly (from the cover) Tattooed Teardrops features a white protagonist, both Dime and Little Peach feature protagonists whose race is not specified. A pet peeve of mine is books where race is not specified, because the author is assuming the character is WHITE, where other characters that are NOT WHITE are described by their race. This is NOT the case in either of these books, where both Kern and Frank carefully created universal characters that all girls are going to be able to identify with.

The Beauty and the Beast Effect in YA Literature part II, a discussion of rape/abduction fantasies by author Christa DesirMy girls are picking up C. Desir’s books and loving them. In Bleed Like Me (S. & S., 2015), Amelia Gannon is a cutter. Her parents adopted three brothers orphaned in Guatemala five years before, and since then they have no time for her. The boys terrorize the family, and Amelia will do anything to escape. She meets Brooks, a hot, tough, former juvenile detention detainee who was once in in foster care (his father wanted to kill him and his mother is a meth head). Brooks makes Amelia feel loved, special, needed— but he’s also very possessive and wants to take her away from everything she knows so he can have her all to himself. There is no happy ending for either of them.  Librarian Sabrina Carnesi says, “This is a very important piece due to the multi-layered dysfunctional relationships, which makes for a more authentic presentation. In real life, one experience does not lead to a 180 degree turnaround in behavioral patterns. It’s so obvious to readers that the lesson has not been learned and that IS the lesson. The issues raised in Bleed Like Me serve as a catalyst for critical discussions.”

DESIR, C. Bleed Like Me. S. & S./Simon Pulse. 2014. 288p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442498907.

FRANK, E.RDime. S. & S./Atheneum. 2015. 336p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481431606.

KERN, Peggy. Little Peach. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. 2015. 208p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062266958.

ROSS, Richard.Girls In Justice. Image of Justice. 2015. 191p. Tr. $29.95. ISBN 9780985510619.

WORKMAN, P.DTattooed Teardrops. pdworkman. 2014. 294p. pap. $15.95. ISBN 9780993768750.

Other resources:

A booklist for girls on the topics of sexual abuse and trafficking

#SVYALit (Sexual Violence in YA Lit) Project Index from “Teen Librarian Toolbox”

Listen to this terrific  presentation about why we need diverse books, in case you don’t already know, or want to feel validated and reinspired:

hhttp://www.eventscribe.com/2015/ALA-Midwinter/assets/audio-flash/171186/launcher.asp?AssetID=43021

“When I said I was bored my mom told me to go read a book but I didn’t because I thought books were boring. In school I didn’t’ really read, I just skimmed the words. But since I’ve been here (Alameda County Juvenile Hall), for four months, I’ve read a good 6 books: Letter to an Incarcerated Brother (Hill Harper), Sister Souljah, Straight Out of East Oakland (Rev. Harry Williams), Buck (MK Asante), an autobiography of Tupac Shakur. I’ve even been reading the dictionary! It’s the most I’ve every read – I never finished a book before. The books give me education and space to be somewhere else. They’ve opened my mind and  opened my vocabulary!”  – Brendon S. 

 

Check out this great 38 minute informational video from Ryan Dowd of Hesed House: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYiEEhhrFh4&feature=youtu.be

I love this article for many, many reasons. Look at the cover of this book, the Girl Who Swallowed the Sun. It’s beautiful! How many covers do you see that is the  full face of a dark skinned person? I could probably count them on one hand. That is a terrible, terrible thing for the world. Thank you, Zetta, for changing the world.

Zetta came to visit the girls last Saturday, and it was delightful. The girls, brown and black and one white, enthusiastically participated. They sat on top of  the desks (after telling me adamantly that they were NOT going to sit in a circle), picked up the books they wanted, listened to Zetta, talked about reading, writing and what they were good at, and loved every minute of it. One of the girls said she forgot that probation staff was in the room. That says it all!

By Zetta Elliott in School Library Journal  on March 16, 2015

Zetta_coverI can’t breathe.

I am a Black feminist writer committed to social justice. I write stories about Black children and teens, but within the children’s literature community I have struggled to find a home or what poet June Jordan calls “living room.” In “Moving Towards Home,” Jordan describes a place “where the talk will take place in my language…where my children will grow without horror…where I can sit without grief.” If “home” represents sanctuary—a safe space where one can speak in one’s authentic voice, feel valued, and able to thrive—then the children’s literature community is not my home. I am—and likely will remain—an outsider.

By industry standards, I suppose I am a failed author. Since I started writing for young readers in 2000, only three of my thirty stories have been published traditionally. I turned to self-publishing as my only recourse, and now face the contempt of those who see self-publishing as a mere exercise in vanity.

SELF-PUBLISHING OR SELF-SEGREGATION?

Last year a white Facebook “friend” suggested that my decision to self-publish was analogous to Blacks in the civil rights era choosing to dine in their segregated neighborhood instead of integrating Jim Crow lunch counters in the South. In her mind, self-publishing is a cowardly form of surrender; to be truly noble (and, therefore, deserving of publication) I ought to patiently insist upon my right to sit alongside white authors regardless of the hostility, rejection, and disdain I regularly encounter.

Zetta_last bunnySince 2009 I have used my scholarly training to examine white supremacy in the children’s literature community where African Americans remain marginalized, despite the 2014 increase in books about Africans/African Americans. This sudden spike (reflected in the latest statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) was not paired with a comparable increase in the number of books by Blacks, however, suggesting that power remains where it has always been: in the hands of whites.

Publishers Weekly’s 2014 salary survey revealed that only 1 percent of industry professionals self-identify as African American (89 percent self-identify as white). That the homogeneity of the publishing workforce matches the homogeneity of published authors and their books is no coincidence. The marginalization of writers of color is the result of very deliberate decisions made by gatekeepers within the children’s literature community—editors, agents, librarians, and reviewers. These decisions place insurmountable barriers in the path of far too many talented writers of color.

I know better than to turn to the publishing industry when I seek justice for “my children:” Trayvon, Renisha, Jordan, Islan, Ramarley, Aiyana, and Tamir. I know not to hope that industry gatekeepers will rush to publish books for the children of Eric Garner as they struggle to make sense of the murder of their father at the hands of the New York Police Department. But I also know that children’s literature can help to counter the racially biased thinking that insists Michael Brown was “no angel” but rather “a demon” to be feared and destroyed. I believe there’s a direct link between the misrepresentation of Black youth as inherently criminal and the justification given by those who so brazenly take their lives.

The publishing industry can’t solve this problem single-handedly, but the erasure of Black youth from children’s literature nonetheless functions as a kind of “symbolic annihilation.” Despite the fact thatthe majority of primary school children in the U.S. are now kids of color, the publishing industry continues to produce books that overwhelmingly feature white children only. The message is clear: the lives of kids of color don’t matter.

GAPING HOLES IN “MAINSTREAM APPEAL”

A friend who is a librarian in Oakland, CA, recently encountered a young patron requesting a book on Michael Brown, and she had to explain that the traditional publishing process will likely take years to produce such a book. Police brutality is an issue of great importance to the Black community—the poet Jordan has called it one of our “urgencies”—yet the publishing industry has failed to produce children’s books that reflect and/or explain this reality. According to Horn Book editor-in-chief Roger Sutton, self-published books “aren’t filling any kind of need that isn’t already being met by established publishers,” as he wrote in a blog post entitled “An open letter to the self-published author feeling dissed.”  Sutton finds it “difficult to otherwise think of subjects that scare the mainstream off.”

Really? How many children’s books do we have about police brutality—mass incarceration—lynching—HIV/AIDS? Homelessness and suicide among queer youth of color? How many books show Black children using magic and/or technology to shape an alternative universe?

These are the kinds of stories that I write and am forced to self-publish, because they are rejected over and over by (mostly white) editors whose “most important job,” according to Sutton, “is to understand what contribution your story makes—or doesn’t—to the big world of books and readers.” Longtime editor and children’s literature scholar Laura Atkins counters that mainstream publishers seem to worry about “publishing only those books which they think will be palatable to the ‘mainstream.’ This results in books that tend to target a white middle-class audience.” Many members of the children’s literature community clamor for greater diversity but remain silent when another Black teenager is shot down. They cling to the fantasy that white supremacy has shaped every U.S. institution except the publishing industry. Like racism in police forces across this nation, racism in publishing is cultural and systemic; the problem cannot be solved merely by hiring a few (more) people of color.

THE ASSIMILATION PROBLEM

In her essay, “How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion,” published on the site Model View CultureKẏra condemns the liberal impulse to position “marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination.” It frustrates me that most people seem comfortable with the reform of the existing system rather than its transformation. The idea of trying something new seems positively terrifying, and those of us proposing viable alternatives are generally shut out of the diversity discussion. At the recent Day of Diversity held during the American Library Association’s Midwinter Convention in Chicago, I once again heard calls for best-selling books that will prove to the corporate publishing industry that there is demand for diversity. Yet Kẏra rightly observes, “When we work for justice and liberation, we can’t accept progress that is conditional on being economically beneficial.”

As a writer who prioritizes social justice over popularity and/or profit, I find “living room” in alternatives to the existing system. Since 2013 I have self-published 10 books for young readers. You likely won’t have heard of any of them, since indie books are excluded from review by the major outlets—which leaves just a few openminded bloggers, and without reviews, most public libraries won’t add a book to their collection (many don’t consider self-published books at all).

I SELF-PUBLISH FOR TRANSPARENCY

One reason I self-publish is to provide a degree of transparency that is largely missing from the traditional publishing process, and to refute the claim that the low number of books by people of color is a question of “merit.” Atkins, who has written about white privilege in publishing, observes, “It isn’t clear how books are selected, or how they are developed or marketed. So we don’t really see why books are rejected.”

Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander self-published his first thirteen books and acknowledges that there’s a “long history” of self-publishing in the Black community. Following in the tradition of independent publishers such as Just Us Books, founded by Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson in 1987, Alexander started his own press in 1995 and assumed responsibility for writing, promoting, and selling his own books. But I suspect most fledgling writers simply give up after hitting the publishing industry’s seemingly impenetrable wall.

As an indie author, I have the freedom to write about the things that matter most to the members of my community rather than waiting for approval from a gatekeeper who lacks the cultural competence needed to truly appreciate my work. Like the books generated by Reflection Press or Blood Orange Press, focusing on diverse authors and readers, my Rosetta Press imprint produces stories that are culturally specific and organic—not forced through a white filter in order to be labeled “universal.” Diverse books can foster cross-cultural understanding at an early age. At a moment when 75 percent of whites have no friends of color and public schools are rapidly “resegregating,” the need for diverse children’s literature is greater than ever.

I am partnering with other artist-activists to develop a model of community-based publishing that uses print-on-demand technology to transfer power from the industry’s (mostly white) gatekeepers to those excluded from the publishing process. Currently, as writer-in-residence at Brooklyn’s Weeksville Heritage Center, I am teaching free writing classes for children and adults and am developing a picture book about the free, 19th-century African American community, which the center will publish independently. I hold “office hours” and have set up a blog so that community members can “ask an author” any questions they may have about writing and publishing.

Instead of investing in a costly (and often antagonistic) MFA in writing, I encourage aspiring book creators to first take Maya Gonzalez‘s online course “The Heart of It,” which puts “the power of children’s books in the hands of the people and the community, in part by demystifying both traditional and self-publishing routes,” she says. An award-winning author of more than twenty books for children, Gonzalez is driven by a desire to restore voice to those who have been silenced: “Through the reclamation of storytelling we can hear and learn from each others’ experience. We can know each other again…perhaps for the first time. We can tell the stories we know we need to hear. And we can heal.”

LIBRARIES PRODUCING STORIES

I am hopeful that more public libraries will embrace a community-based publishing model and assist diverse patrons as they learn how to tell their stories, becoming producers and not just consumers of books. Public libraries have served as a sanctuary for me since I was a child, and I had a library card in this country long before I had a green card. The Brooklyn Public Library sends me into dozens of schools every year, enabling hundreds of kids of color to meet an author who lives in and writes about the magic to be found in their community. Most of my thirteen books for young readers aren’t part of the library’s collection, but perhaps that will change over time. I am hopeful that in the future the bias against self-published books will diminish as gatekeepers realize that it is unfair to punish writers of color for failing at a game that’s rigged. Until then, I will continue to self-publish, and I will offer my “organic” writing to the members of my community. I will find a home where my creativity can flourish. I will insist upon my right to breathe.