Archive | October, 2010

For the Joy of Dance and Books about It

19 Oct

Last week I happened to see a review of one of my books on Goodreads that caused me to pause. The review was not particularly flattering and I thought the reviewer entirely missed the point of the book. I decided (for the first time in my career as an author) to respond to it online. Following is the review and my response.

Library Lady wrote:

Why can’t an African American girl who loves ballet just dance ballet, and ballet alone?

Why does she have to dress up in kente and cowries to offset her ballet class? Would an Asian child have to wear a kimono or a Jewish child have to be shown dancing the hora?

This is a beautiful ballet book. The lines of the illustration are pitch perfect. The correct ballet terms are used. And if you insist on being politically correct, Maya’s teacher is also African American, a grownup black ballerina!

But adding the other dance bits seems to say, “It’s okay. Maya is an African American girl who likes ballet, but she’s still a homegirl.”

It’s gratuitous. It’s unneeded. And it does injustice to girls who love ballet, no matter what the color of their skin.

This is my response.

As the author of My Friend Maya Loves to Dance my perspective is quite different from that of the reviewer.  I wrote and Eric Velasquez illustrated a story called My Friend Maya Loves to Dance. What Library Lady has done in a few short sentences is to misconstrue the title and content (the title is not My Friend Maya Loves Ballet). In so doing I believe she has shifted the focus of the review from coverage relating to the authenticity of the real story to a commentary that expresses her own views on political correctness and how diversity should or should not be depicted in this particular title or perhaps in books in general.

Maya loves to dance. Period. Since music is her muse and she loves all kinds of music, Maya loves all kinds of dance. Ballet and western music are part of her repertoire but they are not the basis of it. Maya loves jazz, blues, rock, reggae, and gospel. She loves praise dancing, tap and ballet. Those facts are clearly stated in the text. Incidentally, through the art, it is apparent that all of these forms/styles of dance are being offered in the dance studio where Maya takes lessons and/or she engages in them outside her lessons.  Clearly, Maya loves to dance!

Maya is a homegirl. But that is positive terminology for her, not the negative jargon the reviewer’s words seem to suggest. Dance is core to Maya’s being and she expresses joy in her African American heritage naturally and innately, not in opposition to or as an offset to another standard. The fact that she studies ballet is simply that. Maya takes ballet lessons. She dances because it brings her joy.

I am somewhat reassured by Library Lady’s words: “This is a beautiful (ballet) book. The lines of the illustration are pitch perfect.”  (The words are hers but the parentheses are mine and I’d suggest deleting the words “ballet” from the first sentence). “The correct ballet terms are used.”  The Library Lady must love ballet herself.  But for her to suggest that the other “dance bits” are gratuitous and unneeded does an injustice to the storyline as well as to the author and the illustrator.  I too love ballet but I did not write a book solely about ballet.  The models for this book are real people who live and work in my community which is similar to communities elsewhere in this country. The basis of the story is my experience as a black child taking dance lessons over 50 years ago as well as witnessing the young dancers in a local dance (not just ballet) studio.

And yes, Maya’s teacher is African American–a grownup black ballerina!  Her presence in the story has nothing to do with political correctness. She is based on an actual person, and like many women and men around the country teaching dance is what she does for a living.

Authors and illustrators spend a great deal of time, thought, research, imagination and creativity in their collaborative efforts making good picture books for children. Of course, all reviews show some degree of subjectivity and that is to be expected. However, I think Library Lady has missed an opportunity for fairness and objectivity.  Her review seeks to make a dance form and those people that perform it exclusive, rather than inclusive. Maya loves to dance, and I invite those of us who also exalt in this diverse form of expression to embrace Maya and her diversity.

What say you?


Threads: A is for Anansi in Literature for Children

11 Oct

There were some incredible presentations, discussions and conversations at the A is for Anansi Conference: Literature for Children of African Descent held at NYU this past weekend. (October 8-9). I’d like to share a few threads beginning with the notes I prepared for a panel that I moderated concerning the History/Significance of African American Literature for Children. Panelists included Kathleen T. Horning, Joe Monti, Colin Bootman, Regina Brooks and Hannah Erlich.

Mega thanks go to organizers Jaira Placide and Rashida Ismaili and for the sponsor of this historic conference, NYU’s Institute of African American Affairs under the direction of Manthia Diawara. Thanks for inviting me, Wade and Just Us Books to participate and to share our perspectives at the conference.

Time constraints prevented me from posing all of the questions I would like to have asked the panelists, but I am posting them here as a reminder of both the framework for the discussion and other ideas not covered over the course of the conference that I’d like to discuss in this blog. As days progress, I hope to post additional threads in this complex web of thoughts and ideas and action points surrounding issues in African American literature for children.

“Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” –African Proverb

Scholar and children’s literature expert, Rudine Sims Bishop writes the following words in introductory comments of her book, FREE WITHIN OURSELVES: “The seeds of an African American children’s literature were sown in the soil of Black people’s struggles for liberation, literacy and survival. For those seeds to develop into a body of written literature or children, there first had to be, among other things, a critical mass of child readers, a collective recognition of children as a reading audience distinct from adults, and a significant number of writers willing to address their work to that child readership.”

As the panelists prepare to make their presentations, I would like to propose these questions for all of us to consider.

1. How relevant is an historical perspective in terms of creating, developing, marketing and selling books for and about children of African American descent?

2. Contemporary children in the US today are more than 55 years removed from the historic 1954 Supreme Court Decision that stuck down “separate and unequal schools” for its citizenry. How realistic is it for them to be curious about that decision’s ramifications in literature in 2010? Does it matter?

3. Should children’s books be “color-blind”? What do you think that term means to parents who select and buy books for their children?

4. Let’s talk about authenticity, content, canon, and critical mass. Who should be telling, editing, marketing and selling African American stories?

6. Some writers have suggested that multicultural literature should be mirrors and reflectors for diversity in our nation. What are some practical ways to share books cross-culturally?

7. President Barack Obama was shown earlier in the year reading a picture book to a group of children at a White House gathering. What African American title (or book written and/or illustrated by a person of African descent) would you suggest that he read at the next setting? What books would you suggest for Sasha and Malia?