Season 2 Episode 1: Lazy Diversity in Children’s Books [Transcript]

Intro: Welcome to the Picture Bookstagang Podcast 

I’m Ale

I’m Corrie

I’m Kelly

And we’re the picture bookstagang! We invite you to join us here every other week while we discuss amazing books and issues  in children’s literature.  As well as Early literacy education and parenting as it relates to reading.  We can’t wait to dig in and deep and get nerdy about picture books with you.

K 0:40 Hello and welcome back to the picture books again podcast. My name is Kelly and I’m here with my two incredible co hosts Ale and Corie.

A 0:50 Hello, my name is la my pronouns are she her.

C 0:56 Hello, I’m so excited. We’re back. My name is Corie pronouns are she or they.

K: 0:59 And again, I’m Kelly, and I am remiss that I did not announce my pronounce so my pronouns are she her. So, this week. I’m very excited to be back. It’s been a long hiatus, but we just needed to jump back on the horse and talk about something that we’re seeing pretty often right now suddenly, and that is the issue of books that are touting diversity over, true representation, lazy multiculturalism.

This hands around the world children’s singing in a chorus. Everybody in the same book at the same time representing 15 countries in one book. It’s something we’re seeing more and more in picture books, and we need to talk about why it’s a problem.

C 1:37 We sure do.

A 1:46  Agreed.

K 2:00 Oh, it’s going to take us a moment to get back on the podcasting course everyone.  It’s been several months we needed a break we recorded a lot of episodes. We did 22 episodes in like six months. So, you know, we need to get back into it. So, here’s where we’re seeing a problem. There’s definitely been a few books that have come out this year that have been, you know, an A to Z of cultures around the world or, here’s a buffet of every family that exists all in one book.

And there’s been some pretty immediate backlash to a few of them.

 And maybe, Corey could jump in and talk about why it’s kind of a problem to represent everyone at one time.

C 2:34  Sure. So I think one of the things that irritates me the most about these books is, I think, Very often they rely on stereotypical depiction, especially if you’re talking about different countries and different cultures, because even if you think about China, you know, they’re a myriad of different foods, not everybody eats the same food so if you want to talk about China in just one page or you want to talk about the United States in just one page, there are so many distinct cultural groups that live in that country that how can you possibly do it justice and do it in a culturally responsive way, in a picture book is, or even a short one, that’s just an anthology with just a page or two. I just don’t think you can be comprehensive in any way.

A 3:30  That’s a great point. It’s just incredibly reductive to put an entire identity that encompasses millions of people into one picture of, you know, maybe a few people wearing some specific sort of clothing or celebrating one particular festival and actually that reminds me of another thing, along this vein of a book that was recently released that I received. And it was about celebrations around the world. And each one had like a craft, you could make to go with it, which is also incredibly problematic because a lot of these are incredibly like religious or or sacred traditions and to reduce them to something that you can make with a cupcake liner is like, not a great idea. Right?

K 4:26 Well yeah, especially when you’re marketing that a book should people outside of that culture or religion or things like that like it’s different when you are Jewish teacher teaching at a Jewish school and doing your craft around a Jewish holiday. You can use all the muffin liners you want, but when you’re making a book, and you’re from outside of that culture and your marketing it to people that are outside of that culture, like how, how can you possibly be culturally responsive, which is the perfect term.  Corey just put out there. And, you know, I am definitely the question that keeps coming on to my mind when I see these books that are you know all around the world, and 26 different countries or 12 different countries or 12 different religions or 26 different

types of families or all of these different things I’m like, where’s the authority. You know, if our focus is on own voices and people telling their own stories. Nobody has authority to tell 26 different stories. We all have intersection all identities, but we don’t have 26 and it’s most likely. Um, So, you know, it’s like where’s the authority and then this is something that Corey said a long time ago and just rings in my head over and over and over and it’s, you know, even if the words aren’t good I can change those but I can’t change the illustrations, you know, with the illustrations or bad children internalize those images so quickly.  And I’m definitely seeing more racist illustrations unintentionally racist illustrations coming out.

A 5:58 And it’s it’s become really concerning for me, it’s it’s really, it’s problematic on a number of levels of course but I think that it definitely stems from a desire to create more books that are meeting the needs of readers and book buyers who want to discuss the diversity and humanity, with their students and children, but I think that the way that they’re approaching it is just trying to jam, everything in there so that they can sell it, and they’re not necessarily doing the work to make sure that every single piece is done, respectfully, or even accurately.

C 6:46  Yeah, it’s tokenizing. I even just saw a subscription box that, you know, each month is information about a different country. And what I was really interested to go to the website and find out was okay, who is making these boxes where are they getting the educational information, how it’s exactly that Kelly said like who is the authority, who is the authority on Kenyan culture. It’s a Kenyan individual so who is making this box, you know, about, Kenya or Argentina, or things like that. Do they have primary sources? And how are they compensating these primary sources like how are they finding this information, how are they using it to build an actual learning tool that doesn’t tokenize and stereotype?

K 7:34 Yeah and I mean we we thought a board book, a while back.

That was you know babies around the world or something like that I don’t even specifically remember anymore because I tried to put it out of my memory, but you know one of the problems with that particular book was they represented a personal person in traditional tribal clothing for South Africa, but then assigned a colonizer language to that person. And, you know, that’s really easy to do if you google a popular language in South Africa and you come up with Afrikaans, but that doesn’t make any sense applying to the depiction that they put there. So, like you have to have a more nuanced look, human beings even to do something incredibly simple with one sentence like an a board book.  And, you know, I, I have seen the hurt that some of these quick and simple depictions have caused. And, you know, it really hurts me because when we have books that are about a single person or topic that are problematic. There’s mass outrage but I feel like the outrage is completely different when we’re talking about these faux multiculturalism faux diversity, try and jam it all into one book things because they’re like well, it’s mostly good, so we just have to excuse this little thing and I’m like why do we have to excuse that one little thing Why can’t we demand that publishers try harder and not trying to just meet this diversity demand, because June 2020 happened like that’s not okay that they’re just pushing books out to meet this diversity demand.

A 9:18 There is this definite defensiveness that is like aggressive, I think that recently. I found myself embroiled in a number of these kinds of arguments with people who are angry because I’ve pointed something out about a book that I thought was problematic, and usually they come from me in direct messaging for no one, no one can see it. But, but usually they’re like well How come you have to be so picky. It’s just a book, you know, you can just look look past it and you’re going to destroy people you’re going to destroy authors these publishers you know they rely on these books to make money you shouldn’t be making waves. And it’s like, I don’t know I feel like people are overly defensive to the point where they just aren’t holding publishers, up to the same standards they would hold publishers up to a book about surgery or some other topic that had a real world effect on people being able to learn something for some reason for diversity, they’re like, Oh, well they’re trying their best and that’s enough.  And we shouldn’t be complaining too loudly, or we’re making problems.  (Note, this comparison of diversity due diligence to non fiction due diligence is thought that was shared with me by Lucy Catchpole, who does excellent work on Disability Representation in Children’s books, please check her out @thecatchpoles) 

C 10:28  That to me is just such an incredibly privileged response. Yeah, and also a response that shows how complicit these individuals are in white supremacy, because I am Irish, for example, and if I was upset that Irish people were being portrayed inaccurately that’s completely reasonable, just like it’s completely reasonable for individuals who see cultural aspects of their own ethnicity and heritage portrayed like it’s 100% acceptable for them to be upset and good…the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Just because you didn’t intend for something to be different. Offensive doesn’t mean that it absolves you have any accountability that you have to take if you’re promoting stereotypes and also harming the group that the book is about.

K  11:20 Yeah, and in this is that intentional for impact it’s like okay well my intention was good. I just wanted everybody to hold hands and Kumbaya, it’s like, okay, but you’re ignoring everyone else’s humanity and individuality and culture and the importance inherent importance as an individual human being and and so when you brush aside groups that have valid experiences trauma nuance, culture, all these things, you know, It hurts. It really hurts them and and I’m, I can’t excuse, a book that is mostly good that has a really problematic passage targets one group of people I can’t excuse it I don’t, I don’t find it to be acceptable.

And, you know, as a reviewer.  You know I’m in a position now where I have a bigger following, which has its pros and cons and but one of the things that I do I am in the position of privilege to do is, you know, email publishers and say this is a problem.  They don’t always listen, but I can make those waves, because I have a voice that they’ll listen to, because I have a platform that they’re afraid of me using. Let it out.  Well you

You don’t always listen but I can make those waves now so, you know, and that’s your responsibility as a reviewer when you see problematic passages, is that you can go to the publisher and say this is a problem and our job as critical human beings as  parents as educators as reviewers is all of those things is to look at things critically and teach our children those critical reasoning skills, and I’m just like I’m really tired because I feel like so many books got pushed ahead this year, that haven’t had their due diligence done.

Corrie 12:50 I would be interested to know how many exactly or sort of like what I would give to be a fly on the wall. When the books that are being chosen to be prioritized are being discussed.

K 13:09 Yeah, because I think we all know that the books that are coming out now were acquired prior to June 2020 as a rule, because, because of how long the publishing cycle takes. So the question right now is what books are being pushed ahead in the schedule, because they were already acquired. And I don’t know if there’s any way for us to figure that out but it certainly feels like some things have been pushed ahead in the schedule in order to meet a requirement of diverse titles, which is just the term diverse books and diversity and all problematic and has so many issues inherent in it, and we acknowledge that but there’s.

A 13:49 It’s hard to say, but I do know that there are a few a few traditionally published book that said books that have come out this year that were acquired after the pandemic produced and put out like just in any publishers have already put out children’s picture books about the pandemic. And we’re so like I don’t know three quarters in our to say at this point, how far we are in, but they’ve managed to turn it all in one year.   Yeah, so it’s hard to say exactly how fast, but we do know that there was definitely a consumer pressure for publishers to be putting out titles that met with the demand for Black Lives Matter and just diverse books, in general, is what people have wanted to buy this year. So, it’s hard to say how many steps were skipped in rushing things along for some of these because we are getting a lot of books that do look like the team didn’t didn’t take the magnifying glass to it particularly well that’s for sure.

K 14:58 But is it a problem of, they were already in queue just to turn it around and they were following their old standards because this is a long standing problem, right. So is it a problem of the fact that these were already in queue and they didn’t take a second look with a more cultures, culturally responsive anti racist lens because it had already been approved already been acquired.  Everybody on all levels that already approved it. And so, and it was fine, they never looked at it again. But now we have fresher eyes. In a, in an industry that is largely white sis gender straight nondisabled, and it is starting to wake up to the concept of anti racism, you know, our is the problem, they just didn’t look at these books again after they were acquired another it’s just released time.

C 15:49 I mean I think that’s an interesting point. And also a great example of a book that has come out since June 2020 is the teaching for change book that’s sleeping there just published and that talks extensively about all the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, and it talks about all of these subjects, but the three creators of the books are really long time, activists they’re ABAR educators in progress like they’re at the top of their field, and they have been entrenched in this work for years probably decades.  At this point I’m going to try to call anybody out of their age, but, you know, they’re highly educated professionals, and they wrote an awesome book that has come out already, you know in under a year from the protests.

K 16:45  And what is it called?

C 16:46  It’s called teaching for change. 

K 16:47 Okay.

C 16:48  It’s very good.

A 16:49 So it can be done.

C 16:50  It can be done!

K 16:51 It be done, but that comes back to that question of authority again and also that’s not trying to be hands around the world everybody’s happy and this is diversity in a book and look we popped a queer family in the corner of this page so we did it guys, and a bunch of people in wheelchairs like I like I’m the tropes or too much right. It’s tokenism.

A 15:50  It’s also genre really this kind of books that are about not really anything at all, they just seem to show a lot of people that looks different, with like visual markers of being certain things, the whole premise is problematic and honestly the books are usually pretty crappy just a story, there’s a story, there’s no, they’re just like look by this and you have a diverse thing  for your shelf. It’s like lazy lazy anti racism for children 

C 17:47  They look the same just different shades. 

K 17:48 Yeah. And, you know, there was a post on palette by Felicity on Instagram and she said the answer to diverse clip art is, not the paint bucket and I’m I palette by Felicity I did that coin that best phrase I’ve ever heard. the answer to diversity is not the paint bucket.

C 18:11 That is so funny. 

K 18:12 It’s so good. She hit the ball out of the park with that statement, and you know and and this is what I’m seeing it’s like these little pictorial. I cannot go iconography type people they’re all round. And, you know, it’s so easy to fall into stereotypes like putting slanted eyes on Asian people with that, that pictorial style which is a major problem.

 and then it’s just paint bucket to show different  skin tones and then some wheelchairs.

A And everybody  with a disability has a wheelchair. 

K 19:15 The only religious headgear ism is a hijab like it just makes no sense to me.  That’s not the world.  Why, why don’t we have Sikh people in here. Why don’t we have, like, there’s so many humans like we can get some some hearing aids we can get some walking sticks like you know humans use all kinds of mobility aids wheelchairs are not the only representation of actual real life disability.  And it’s just like humans are so multifaceted. It just isn’t even fair to reduce them down to like 12 types, 

C 19:25 I mean it’s whitewashing diversity, especially when you see all of that because the people who are doing this don’t even care enough to try to have an accurate portrayal or to try to portray even more marginalized populations that he has even less of a representation in literature.

A 19:40  So we could, we could rant about this all day and we want to sing one of the thoughts was sorry, it is just so I think that may be part of the problem here is that these books that we are trying to pinpoint here that we’re upset about, they tend to have no storyline, and just sort of be a catalog of human beings that are being illustrated with probably clip art, and it doesn’t mean that we can’t have many diverse families in a book, but this is just not the way it’s working and I’m just thinking of the  Little Feminist board books that they did, they got the Stonewall award for Didn’t they families, did a great job and I think that what was different, there was that they actually used photographs of specific 

K 20:35 families and didn’t try and generalize the  images you know what I mean. There are books that do this well and and that would be a good example is, you know, like, 75% of the families in that book, identify somewhere in the LGBT Q is a spectrum of life, but they didn’t label everyone so it leaves it open to interpretation and.  And that just and the real human beings with real bodies, so you can’t make stereotypes that have actual humans because it’s photographs. Right.  I mean, you probably could, but that’s not what happened here.  But there’s still there’s a few books. “My Family Your Family” which was a board book from second story press that came out last year. It also did a very good job because they drew more realistic illustrations and again they left a lot open to interpretation.  It was, you know, large family small family, my family, their family, you know when you’re when you’re. Sometimes when it’s very hard to do properly, but sometimes when you simplify it leaves more open to interpretation so that you’re not reducing things down to a stereotype. And then on the flip side. It’s also very hard to do that well. So when you leave it to one paragraph it’s like well what are you going to say about all of Sweden in one paragraph and not just talk about IKEA. 

C 21:35 Ikea deserves two paragraphs. Okay? My Art Blart is a household name.

K 21:58 So, so again we could, we could rant about this all day, but like, what, what is the actual answer to improving the landscape and still allowing us to have like a book of holidays, that isn’t offensive.

A 22:13 That’s such a good question maybe the answer is having more people involved in the process of what is defining each country or each religion like actually consultancy at every level perhaps 

K wild idea, wild 

C revolutionary just having one book that talks about one holiday.  That is, has consultants maybe the answer is not jamming things into an anthology. I love anthologies that I love. And that biographies anthology of biographies and, but like.

K 23:05 So on that note of biography anthologies maybe that’s part of the answer is you start talking about one child who has a name, who is a person from that place or culture or thing, or whatever.

 And it’s like, Kyle from England. Yeah. This is Kyle likes. And, you know, but it but it humanizes it, this is what one child likes it doesn’t.

A 23:30 Oh! we had a book like that. Well, remember we got it for the list the infographic when I loved it so much. Yeah, it’s an infographic around the world or something like that it was really well done. It was written from the perspective of I think a girl from Spain. And then each page, had a different full infographic of something random like lunch boxes around the world and so they showed each lunch box and it was very like it was somehow about many places but also very very specific at the same time. Really great.

K24:05 So, maybe, then the final issue is just make better books and stop just jamming out quota.  Yeah.

C 24:02 Where are you today my friend. Yeah, I’m always salty, and that’s like always the conclusion that we come to, it’s just like, well do it better to a better.

K 24:13  By the way, we’re not saying that we can do it better. We’re just saying that we’re tired of seeing the same problems over again. And, you know, especially when you know that publishing houses have like seven layers of editors, working on a book. 4 It’s like they’re just there needs to be so much more 

A 24:35 They’re gonna come for us, but I honestly that I wouldn’t even want to write a diversity with hand holding around the world book because I actually just don’t think they’re usually particularly interesting

you know they’re just like look we’re all happy peace to everyone, it’s just like what is even happening in these books.

C 24:53  It’s an excellent point 

K 24:54 You’re not wrong.

A 24:54  The people that want these books that are just general diversity are just incredibly lazy in their approach to trying to make their reading or their classroom, more anti racist they’re like well we just don’t want to deal with it.

K 25:17 And I think this goes back to Coreys point that it comes from a place of privilege that you’re like, I don’t want to really talk about these issues in depth.  So having all these super specific books doesn’t really work for me so I’d really rather just have one book where everybody’s happy and I can see one of every type person there. As if that’s even possible to do and it’s not. It’s just not. So, you know, you have to try harder. As a parent and an educator, if you want to show, children, more human beings, outside of yourself that have different identities than you. And that’s across the board for everyone, you have to try harder you can’t just put the books on your shelf and call it a day.

C 26:05 t doesn’t work, representation is not like collecting Pokemon cards. It’s, it’s like radically different than that. And sometimes I interact with people who think that it’s just that easy. They’re like, Oh, I did the thing and now I’m done.  Yeah, no, no, 

A 26:20 It’s like yeah I want to save a buck by by buying three books that show children around the world and then they can go back to reading the same books that they were already going to read anyways. That is about what some white little boy and his dog.

K 26:29 00 Boy, so we have a long road to go, and I think we need to put a pin in it there and say, welcome back to the picture books are getting podcast, we might not be posting every week. New episodes but we are back. We’re here to chat be salty, we want to be looser this year we want to spice bring a new spicy 2021 and energy two things so be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform we are on Apple, Google Spotify Amazon.  All of the podcast platforms. Make sure you follow us on Instagram and drop us a line and let us know. What are you reading.

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