"Signing my Tax Returns" by Donald Trump (via Twitter)

On Saturday, The New York Times released part of Donald Trump’s 1995 tax returns that revealed over $900 million in business losses and concluded that Trump could have avoided paying any federal income taxes for 18 years, deducting up to $50 million a year from his taxable income each year.

If true, Trump may have avoided paying up to $360 million in taxes over 18 years.

"Healthcare Apps for Android Tablets" by Intel Free Press is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

I am not going to shock anyone by stating that we live in a time where distrust of government is high, where people believe that they need to ‘take back’ whatever they feel needs taking back. This opinion runs especially strong in matters surrounding healthcare, where people question a range of issues, including: universal insurance, low cost pharmaceuticals, the efficacy of particular medical tests, and autonomy as regards end of life (and other medical) decisions.

"President Harry S. Truman, shortly after being elected as President, smiles as he holds up a copy of the Chicago Tribune issue predicting his electoral defeat. St. Louis, Missouri, on November 3, 1948." Photograph held by The Harry S. Truman Museum and is licensed under public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

This post originally appeared in The Indy Star on August 26, 2016.

Polls in 1948 indicated Harry Truman had no chance to win the election. He ignored the ominous polls, took off on his whistle-stop tour and won the election anyway. Pollsters and pundits were shocked. Americans today would be wise to follow Truman’s lead and disregard the swarm of polls dominating the media landscape this year.

"A Barra também será a casa dos atletas, com os 31 prédios da Vila Olímpico" by Gabriel Heusi is licensed under CC BY 3.0 br (via Wikimedia Commons)

Early in his classic Being Peace, Thich Naht Hanh says the following:

Meditation is to be aware of what is going on-in our bodies, in our feelings, in our minds, and in the world. Each day 40,000 children die of hunger. The superpowers now have more than 50,000 nuclear warheads, enough to destroy our planet many times. Yet the sunrise is beautiful, and the rose that bloomed this morning along the wall is a miracle. Life is both dreadful and wonderful. To practice meditation is to be in touch with both aspects.

Image modified from the original photograph: "Rodin--The Thinker" by Edward Steichen, 1902 (Public Domain)

Much has been written about the appalling, depressing and infuriating case concerning Brock Turner and his unnamed victim. I won’t rehearse the case, nor the dialectic it has sparked between those sympathetic to the victim and those outraged that sympathy can ever be extended to crime perpetrators, especially when such perpetrators are member of a hyper-privileged class such as that to which Turner belongs.

"Solitude" by Mortimer62 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (via Flickr)

Most Republicans don’t want Donald Trump as the nominee. Most Republicans didn’t want Trump during the primaries. He benefited from a crowded field of traditional candidates in the early primaries. The preferences of voters who voted for the third place candidates and beyond were simply lost. They had no say between the first and second place candidates.

"Day 365+19" by Wouter de Bruijn is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (via Flickr)

This post originally appeared September 29, 2015.

In Part One of this two-part post on the moral importance of providing children with diverse books, I concluded that white authors need to write about non-white characters, or else they gravely falsify the “reality” presented in their stories. We don’t live in an all-white world. We don’t have all-white readers. Our non-white readers need to see themselves in our stories; our white readers need not to see themselves, exclusively, in every single story.

But how do we do this? As so often happens, the “how” can be even more ethically challenging than the “what” or the “why.”

Assume I’m creating a classroom scene (my specialty as an author is school stories). How do I let readers know the racial or ethnic identity of my characters? For starters, I need to give my characters names that suggest a wide range of national origins, even as sometimes this feels self-conscious, evidence that I’m trying too hard for cheerful “Sesame Street” multiculturalism. But how else can I convey to readers the racial or ethnic identity of the kids in the class?

Two approaches here seem equally problematic. One is to come right out and label characters by race or ethnicity: “Jenny, an African-American girl in the front row, raised her hand to answer Ms. Singh’s question.” This would work, in my view, only if we called attention to the race and ethnicity of every character in the same way: “Sam, a Caucasian boy of Swedish ancestry, raised his hand. . .” That this falls in such a startling way on our ears makes clear the extent to which authors treat “white” as the default setting, where characters are understood to be white unless otherwise specified.

To avoid this, authors often use other markers for race, such as describing a character’s skin tones as “creamy café au lait” or “rich chocolate mousse.” But this is clearly as racially heavy-handed as the first option. We don’t describe white characters by comparing their complexions to food, remarking that her skin was “like pink lemonade” or “like vanilla pudding.” Sometimes diversity can be suggested in other ways: by mentioning a character’s long blond curls, or tight black braids, or by a cultural reference to a favorite food or family holiday celebrated. Oh, but it can feel so blatantly earnest!

Because my books are often illustrated, I have an easy – or cowardly? – way of avoiding this dilemma: rely on the pictures to do deftly what words can do only clumsily. Illustrators can’t escape depicting characters as having skin tones, facial features, or hair that indicate ethnicity, unless (which many do!) they draw anthropomorphized animals instead. But this means that sometimes I am surprised to find that I have created diverse characters without consciously setting out to do so.

My Franklin School Friends chapter book series presents a trio of best friends. Kelsey stars in Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; Annika stars in Annika Riz, Math Whiz; and Izzy stars in Izzy Barr, Running Star, the third book in the series. The illustrations show Izzy as Black, perhaps triggered by my description of her short tight braids. I’m pleased about this. I like the idea of best-friendship across racial lines that is celebrated in these books. But . . . I’m nervous that my star reader is white, my star math student is white, and my star athlete is Black. Doesn’t this perpetuate stereotypes that whites excel academically while African Americans excel in sports?

Perhaps. But in my Gus and Grandpa easy reader series, while Gus and Grandpa are white, the other child character who appears in almost every book is Ryan Mason: the perfect, high-achieving neighbor boy, the kid who has the fanciest bike and the scientifically dazzling show-and-tell projects. The illustrations show Ryan as Black. So this works against the cultural expectations arguably reinforced by Izzy.

This leads me to conclude that, while we certainly don’t want our stories to perpetuate stereotypes, we also don’t want to be so paralyzed by fear (is my character too stereotypically Asian? or too carefully constructed to refute stereotype?) that white authors give up on including diverse characters at all. What we need is not fewer characters of color in our stories, but more. I have now created a Black kid who loves to run and one who is an enviably perfect next-door neighbor. In other books I have an Asian American girl who knits sweaters for homeless shelter dogs and a Latino kid who is doing a science fair experiment that involves trying to explode a pickle.

No one character in any one book can bear the weight of representing all people of color any more than any character in any one book can bear the weight of representing all white people. We need lots of books about lots of kids, with different skin colors and various cultural backgrounds, doing a whole bunch of cool things and wrestling with a wide range of kidlike problems. We need, desperately, to foster and promote work by authors of color, but white authors can’t just write safely in an all-white bubble. We need to write out of our comfort zones. Or else, fifty years hence, the all-white world of children’s books will continue to be as all white as it is today.

"Juno over Jupiter" by Kevin Gill is Licensed under CC-SA 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Late on July 4th, NASA tweeted that their space probe, Juno, successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit after five years and 1.7 billion miles of travel. Juno is the first spacecraft to reach Jupiter since Galileo in 1995. The probe broke multiple records during its journey, including fastest man-made object at 165,000 miles per hour, and farthest solar-powered spacecraft from Earth. Juno more than broke the 492-million-mile record held by the Rosetta mission.

"Birds on wire" by sunsrfr is licensed by CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (via Flickr)

This post originally appeared September 22, 2015.

For the first time in census history, the majority of children living in the United States are now children of color. But the vast majority of children living within the pages of American children’s books are white. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which releases annual statistics on the number of U.S. children’s books by and about people of color, in 2014 only 8 percent of children’s book authors were nonwhite (African American, Asian American, American Indian, or Latino), and only 11 percent of characters. Little progress has been made in diversifying children’s book publishing since librarian Nancy Larrick published her famous 1965 essay, “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” fifty years ago.

Why does this matter? Rudine Sims Bishop uses the following metaphor to explain. For children of color, diverse books serve as mirrors: “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.” For white children in a white-dominant society, diverse books serve as windows: “They need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans. . . . If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world.”

As a children’s book author and professor of children’s literature, I’m going to take it as ethically uncontroversial that we – all those who work in some way to produce and disseminate books for children – should strive to remedy the current situation. This means prioritizing the recruitment and retention of diverse editors and the encouraging and fostering of diverse authors. It means supporting organizations such as We Need Diverse Books, “a grassroots organization created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature.” It means accepting the challenge posed by Prof. Michelle H. Martin, one of the speakers in last year’s Prindle Institute symposium on Race and Children’s Literature, to buy diverse books as holiday and birthday gifts for the children we love.

As a white children’s author, however, I want to focus on the thorny question of what I can do to make my own books more representative of my readers. First I need to ask the hard question of whether white authors have the ability to write convincingly about characters of color, or the cultural authority to do so.

Can white authors write about non-white characters and “get it right”? It’s hard to know what would even count as “getting it right,” as the experience of any cultural, ethnic, or racial group is not one uniform, monolithic thing, presenting a single clear comparison point against which various representations can be judged. There are as many ways of being Black as there are of being white. It’s somewhat easier, perhaps, to see what would count as getting representation of another group wrong. It would be to write in a way that relies on stereotype and cliché, especially in a way that perpetuates negative assessments and expectations. Here the judges, in my view, can only be members of the non-dominant group themselves (noting that disagreement here is to be expected). Thus, as children’s books can’t be put into the hands of young readers without prior gatekeeping by editors, booksellers, librarians, and teachers, this speaks to the importance of having a significant number of non-white persons serving in these positions.

But are white authors even entitled to write about the experience of non-white people? Do we have, as it were, the right to do so? While surely we need to reject the general principle that nobody can write outside of the confines of his or her own narrow, insular, personal experience, when white people write about people of color, we face the further issue of cultural appropriation: exploitation of members of marginalized groups by privileged members of the dominant group. White authors writing about non-white characters can seem one more example of white people taking what belongs to others: bodies, land, artifacts, and now, stories.

I myself would feel cautious about writing a book about a non-white main character that focuses centrally on that character’s experience of racism. Maybe it’s because I think I’d be bound to get it wrong, because I can’t imagine being able fully to know what it’s like to be a Black person in the United States in 2015. So maybe it’s the previous concern about accuracy of representation that is doing the work here. It just feels hubristic to think that I could tackle that experience, “whitesplain” it to others, with any confidence. Another, more imaginative writer might legitimately feel otherwise.

That said, I’m no longer willing – ethically willing – to write an all-white world into creation in my books. Children need and deserve diverse books. I have to do what I can, within these limits, to provide books that reflect the classrooms and families of the real world in which my readers live.

In the next post, I look at the ethical challenges that arise in trying to do this.