Yesterday author Daniel José Older spoke on a panel of authors and artists discussing diversity in children’s literature. One of the artists on the panel produced the illustrations for a recently published children’s book that is highly rated by critics while also highly criticized by many readers for its depictions of a slave mother and her child smiling through their work in the nineteenth century American South.
I do not want to give the book any more press than it has already generated. Daniel José Older’s remarks on the panel to the artist herself were a schooling in what we who write for young people all need to hear, remember, and understand right now. This second.
I marvel at the tone deafness of so many in our culture to the legacy of peril that young people of color must exist with on a daily basis. Yet while watching this video of Mr. Older speaking, I felt like you do when someone is getting in trouble and you’re not a hundred percent sure it shouldn’t be you.
I’m glad it’s not me getting that talking-to, I thought. I’m glad I would never need to have my eyes opened for me. I’m already aware.
But I have to tell you, watching that portion of the panel, I am not comfortable. I never should have been comfortable in the first place. I’m a much more effective ally uncomfortable.
I’m reevaluating my own work for young people in light of what Mr. Older said, both as a teacher and as a writer. I am re-evaluating a YA novel I just finished drafting.
I am re-evaluating the way I teach American Literature, and the texts I offer my AP students.
I watch that video and hear the exhaustion and pain in Older’s voice and think I will pay homage to the Herculean effort of that artist and brother citizen on behalf of young readers by paying better attention.
I will encourage my own students and former students who are writers to get great. I will use what tiny clout I have to advocate for their work. I will push them to advocate for their own words like their lives depended upon it.
It’s what I can do to help us move forward and get free. It’s not enough.