ALSC Charlemae Rollins President’s Program

Considering all children: a new ideal in evaluating and engaging around books for youth

June 26, 2018

From left: panelists Jason Reynolds, Ebony Thomas, Margarita Engle, and Debbie Reese at the ALSC Charlemae Rollins President's Program at the 2018 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans on June 25.
From left: panelists Jason Reynolds, Ebony Thomas, Margarita Engle, and Debbie Reese at the ALSC Charlemae Rollins President's Program at the 2018 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans on June 25.

In the midst of an amazing conference, sometimes one session stands out among the others as one you will internalize and remember forever. The ALSC Charlemae Rollins President’s Program on June 25 at 2018 ALA Annual Conference is that session. Moderated by Edith Campbell, the panel featured Ebony Thomas, Debbie Reese, Margarita Engle, and Jason Reynolds. The talent, knowledge, and passion displayed Monday was phenomenal.

ALSC President Nina Lindsay kicked things off, revealing that the Caldecott award has an 87% rate of white authors, those of whom have mainly white characters. Librarian Charlemae Rollins was a critical voice in materials that reflect the black experience, and was the namesake of the program.

Up first on the panel was Ebony Thomas, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at University of Pennsylvania and a 2018 recipient of the Children’s Literature Association Honor Award. Thomas posed the question, “Do all stories truly matter? What would it look like if we had a world where all stories, featuring all children, mattered?” Thomas stressed that we hear about an achievement gap often, but there has also been a diversity gap in the texts children read. Kids need the books they read to have mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. We need to ask ourselves, “Is the mirror distorted? Does the window have bars?”

Next up was Debbie Reese, critic/librarian/scholar/activist best known for her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature. Reese is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, which is a sovereign nation in what is currently the northern part of New Mexico. Reese examined the case of William Apess, a Native Pequot, who went to a white school and was taught not to like himself because of depictions of Indians as savages.

She further explained that in the Little House on the Prairie (LHOP) books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, characters repeatedly made statements declaring Indians as savages and that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” While others sometime dismiss this as “a product of her time” and “that’s what they thought back then,” Native families did not think that, ever. The “product of her time argument” does not stand up, Reese said, as modern books, such as American Sniper by Chris Kyle, refer to “injuns” and “savages.” Reese has also found 18 books thus far, published since 2011, that refer to Little House on the Prairie. Nora Raleigh Baskin’s The Summer Before Boys portrays characters that want to imagine living as they do in LHOP, mentioning Indian captives and being scalped. These examples and more are what prompted Reese to advocate for the recent name change of the Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, of which Jacqueline Woodson was the first recipient Sunday evening.

Margarita Engle is a Cuban American author and the 2017–2019 Young People’s Poet (YPP) Laureate, among many other honorable awards and distinctions. Seeing television images of children in cages recently, Engle realized that she has perspectives from both sides of the border. Growing up during the time of Castro’s rule, she had to visit family in secret, speaking in whispers so neighbors would not hear, because hostility between nations sliced the family in half. “Don’t sprinkle pages of kids with Latino names without authenticity. Stories need to come from the heart to be honest … the power of #ownvoices comes from the inside,” she said. “Avoid assumptions and stereotypes. Children are the peacemakers of the future … we need to build bridges, not walls.” Engle concluded: “Ignorance is a wall. Knowledge is a bridge.”

Last to speak was author Jason Reynolds, who has earned countless honors and awards including the Printz, Newbery, Coretta Scott King, and Odyssey in the past few days alone, in addition to many other distinctions. He described the three things important to him when he writes: humility, intimacy, and gratitude.

Reynolds said that he works on being empathetic every day. When asked what kids are looking for, he replied, “They don’t want nothing corny … if it is honest, they can connect to that. Be authentic; they can always tell when it is BS.” He adds springboards to the mirrors, windows, sliding doors, bridges, and walls mentioned by panel members earlier, to give kids a place to jump off from. If you are serving marginalized kids, “They don’t need your salvation. They don’t need you to save them, they need you to see them,” he said.

A resource guide with panel member biographies, critical readings, blog and book review sites, and must-have books for every library and was provided to attendees.


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