A Curation of Children’s Literature

I would describe my reading selection scheme as “eclectic” at best, so the idea of putting together a “strategic collection of 15 works” fills me with a degree of anxiousness. I found approaching this task daunting and troubling. I am far more used to being approached by colleagues or students and have them inquire about books and resources that will help for “blank.” From that, I have no trouble pulling together a plethora of titles that would help them accomplish their task.

The other selection criteria that I have typically used, as a teacher-librarian, has been to select books that have recently come into our library. While the vast majority are selected by the library team, we take requests too. Being informed and up to date on the books on our shelves is very important to me as a literacy advocate, as forming that trusting relationship with readers, wanna-be readers and “mandatory, this is for silent reading in class” readers is essential to have patrons come back to the library and utilize our space, for book selection and other activities.

Staying on some sort of track over 15 works without having it become artificial or thematic, as would usually occur during the selection of classroom materials or literature kits was an additional difficulty. The strategy that I eventually adopted to move forward with the assignment was in accordance to a stream of consciousness approach, simply listing the works that I have consumed recently and connecting the big idea that lead me to pick up these books.

The big idea that I have seen trending in my overall selection and recommendations in literature has one that I recognized has been following me around for a while and for reasons that come from a very introspective place. I will come back to that after I introduce a few works in my collection.

  1. The danger of a single story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  2. A continent of stories: Slaying the dragons of hate with words interview with Deborah Ahenkorah

It was the TED Talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie began me down this vein of thinking. She spoke of being from Nigeria and the influence of Western literature on her identity and the perceptions that others had from her. Though she had no experience of snow or ginger beer growing up in Nigeria, that is what the characters in her stories played in and drank as that was what the characters in the stories that she read did. Just the same, if the stories about Africa, or anywhere, maintain a single narrative, then this shapes the perception of who is reading and listening to these stories. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person” (Adichie, 2009), and if we are only consuming one story or type of story from a singular, homogeneous source, then our conceptions about differences in others will also remain homogeneous.

Through the creation of the Golden Baobab Award, publisher Deborah Ahenkora also explores how offering different representations through literature can help broaden representation and, by extension, understanding and empathy about different places, people and lifestyles (CBC Radio, 2020). The idea of diverse representation in books and stories leaves the debates about developing empathy through children’s’ literature as proposed by academics such as Kerry Mallan (2013) behind and concentrates on voices other than straight, white and Western. As children see themselves and the world around them represented more fairly and accurately, I hope, we can focus less on developing empathy in groups and fairly represent diverse groups so that they can bring their own voices to the narrative. This is necessary as “[t]he continued lack of diversity in children’s literature is devastating for children as readers, many of whom rarely see their lives and cultural identities within a book” and “[c]hildren who are missing and underrepresented may either take on deficit societal notions of their culture or reject literacy as relevant for their lives” (Short, 2018, p. 293). Empathy toward a particular portion of the world, be it culture, colour, or identity still does not acknowledge that there is a power structure as it is usually the from the dominant group, we seek to develop the empathy in. Giving a voice to the minority may help promote the understanding that, in the words of Deborah Ahenkorah, “[w]e don’t live in silos. We live in parallel realities” (CBC Radio, 2020).

  1. Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson
  2. The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta
  3. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
  4. The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones
  5. 19 Love Songs by David Levithan
  6. Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert
  7. Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert

With the words of an author and a publisher, both of whom I would play for a class of secondary level students to illustrate ideas around authorial voice, my curation journey began. Allow me to continue based on the category closest to my heart at the moment. Young adult fiction has undergone a radical transformation in recent years, with topics and writing exploring things that have typically been left for “adult” narratives. What has struck me about the following list in particular is how far they are from the diversity explicitly being the central notion to the plot or conflict. If LGBTQ+ teens pick up the following, they will find characters who are not simply struggling to exist, but who do and are themselves in all sorts of situations, including worlds with daemons, witches and even set in space. It is not their role to have to explain their feelings and thoughts about being LGBTQ+, so they get on with their lives and participate in the world at large, engaging in friendships, solving problems and battling skeletons.

What is magical to me was the subtlety that some of the novels had with their characters’ diversity and identities. The Bone Houses and Sorcery of Thorns provided only hints that a potential romantic relationship may be affected by the sexual orientation of another character. In Gideon the Ninth, Gideon’s closest relationships are with other female characters and it is even implied that she has romantic feelings for a secondary character, but in no way does she have to explain or answer to why she may blush in the presence of another female. There is no explanation needed in The Lost Coast either, particularly as all of the characters central to the plot identify themselves as queer. 19 Love Songs, Picture us in the Light and Little & Lion may be more identifiable as the realistic, YA fiction, and have characters who are LGBTQ+, but the plot lines do not revolve around how they manage the justifications for their existence or fighting for their place in the story.

The idea of subtle inclusion of diversity certainly carries over to graphic novels and in other visual forms. The Eisner Award winning series Lumberjanes has managed to flip the comic world around and introduce a new audience to graphic novels. Five girls at camp continually overcome supernatural challenges of brains and brawn by working as a team and supporting each other through friendship. In the background, burgeoning feelings between two friends that could be inferred as romantic are shown visually, through proximity, colour and expression. Intended for a younger audience, this interaction between these two characters could be easily overlooked, unless a reader was aware and attuned to it.

  1. Lumberjanes. Vol. 1, Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis
  2. Star vs. the Forces of Evil, “Ransomgram” on Disney Channel

Star vs. the Forces of Evil is an American stylized anime series where navigating teenage friendships and feelings happen in the backdrop of saving multiple dimensions. The season four episode “Ransomgram” introduced Brunzetta, who the titular character alternated lovingly starring at with and alternate universe version of her friend Marco through the bisexual flag’s colours of pink, purple and blue. Subtle and not nearly the focus of the show, but picked up on enough to be celebrated by a community that is underrepresented (Jackman, 2019).

The Wicked and Divine and Harley Quinn series is intended for more mature audiences. The characters are more open and about their sexuality and these series have been celebrated by the LGBTQ community for challenging mainstream comic tropes, as opposed to be an independent or alternate genre. Anecdotally, the majority of my school library’s circulation of the above titles are to girls, suggesting support for Kathy Short’s premise that readers are desirous of seeing themselves represented. In this case, women being represented with what has been a male dominated genre and format.

  1. The Wicked and Divine. Vol.1, The Faust Act by Kieron Gillen
  2. Harley Quinn. Vol. 1, Hot in the City by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti
  1. Don’t Call Me Bear! by Aaron Blabey
  2. Not a Box by Antionette Portis

In the final category, I would like to include a format that I am least familiar with. I don’t know if I could have included these titles without understanding what attracted me to including the above. Don’t Call Me Bear! and Not a Box are picture books that introduce the idea that names do not equal definitions or descriptions of identity. Antionette Portis illustrates that a box can function as anything that isn’t a box, therefore defying the singular identifier that is placed upon it. Don’t Call Me Bear! also contains a similar message but extended it to a koala that is fighting back against the improper application of the term “bear” to his species. Names and their correct usage have a place and the teaching of either or both books could be used to suggest the importance of such.

As a middle-aged, white, cis-male, I have been aware that I reflect the dominant societal position for a while now. This awareness also brings the understanding that voices from my perspective have dominated the various narrative forms through presenting this perspective. In my role as an English teacher and now teacher-librarian, I have made efforts to include the voices of the underrepresented and missing to the materials that are in my classroom and now library. I will say that I have found the most success when materials represent diversity, not as the reason for conflict, but a genuine placeholder in the narrative. Perhaps with a multitude of diverse voices, the danger that comes from a single story will be drowned out.

Works Cited:

Adichie, C. N. (2009). Transcript of “The danger of a single story.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript

Blabey, A. (2019). Don’t call me bear! Scholastic, Inc.

CBC Radio. (2020, February 5). A continent of stories: Slaying the dragons of hate with words | CBC Radio. CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/a-continent-of-stories-slaying-the-dragons-of-hate-with-words-1.5452560

Capetta, A. R. (2019). The lost coast. Candlewick Press.

Colbert, B. (2017). Little & Lion. Little, Brown and Company.

Conner, A., & Palmiotti, J. (2014). Harley Quinn. Vol. 1, Hot in the city (Vol. 1). DC Comics.

Cotugno, S. (2019, March 17). Ransomgram (No. 60a). In Star vs. The Forces of Evil. Disney Channel.

Gilbert, K. L. (2019). Picture us in the light. Hyperion.

Gillen, K. (2014). The wicked the divine. Vol. 1, The Faust act (Vol. 1). Image Comics.

Jackman, J. (2019, March 26). Did Star vs. The Forces of Evil’s main character just come out as bi? PinkNews – Gay News, Reviews and Comment from the World’s Most Read Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans News Service. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2019/03/26/star-vs-the-forces-of-evil-bisexual-disney-fans/

Levithan, D. (2020). 19 Love Songs. Random House Children’s Books.

Lloyd-Jones, E. (2019). The bone houses. Little, Brown and Company.

Mallan, K. (2013). Empathy: Narrative Empathy and Children’s Literature. In Y. Wu, K. Mallan, & R. McGillis (Eds.), (Re)imagining the World: Children’s literature’s response to changing times (pp. 105–114). Springer Berlin Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-36760-1_9

Muir, T. (2019). Gideon the ninth. Tor.

Portis, A. (2006). Not a box. HarperCollins US.

Rogerson, M. (2019). Sorcery of thorns. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division.

Short, K. G. (2018). What’s Trending in Children’s Literature and Why It Matters. Language Arts, 95(5), 287–298.

Stevenson, N., Ellis, G., Allen, B. A., & Watters, S. (2015). Beware the kitten holy. BOOM! Box.

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