Episode 76 , Representation Matters: Exploring Female Identity in Children’s and YA Literature, after panel discussion PART 1


Welcome to episode 76 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday). 

Today’s episode is recording from the 2018 NCTE conference. After the panel “Representation Matters: Exploring Female Identity in Children’s and YA Literature” was held, a few of the participants gathered to continue the conversation. This is part 1 of the after panel discussion.  Please come back on Wed. to hear part 2.

Read all the kidlitwomen* essays shared in March

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On today's podcast you will hear:


Laura Jimenez who is a lecturer at Boston University School of Education, Literacy program. She teaches children’s literature courses that focus on both the reader and the text by using an explicit social justice lens. Her work spans both literature and literacy, with a special interest in graphic novels and issues of representation in young adult literature. She was also featured at this podcast on episode 69.


Noelle Mapes who is 2nd grade teacher on the Lower East Side of NYC, She shares anecdotally about teaching in the classroom in the real world with practical tips on how we can teach justice and equity to kids and the importance of weaving social justice curriculum into the classroom culture to avoid feeling that social justice education is contrived or a "once-a-year" event. You can find her on twitter @noeycat.


Brendan Kiely is The New York Times bestselling author of All American Boys (with Jason Reynolds), Tradition, The Last True Love Story, and The Gospel of Winter. His work has been published in more than ten languages, received a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, the Walter Dean Myers Award, the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. His work has been selected twice as one of the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults and was a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best. Originally from the Boston area, he now lives with his wife in New York City. 


Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon  her most recent picture book,   A Big Mooncake for Little Star, was awarded the Caldecott Honor. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour (here & here), as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf.


Grace:                                        We've just finished our panel, Representation Matters. And, I have four of the panelists here, and I'd like them to each introduce themselves and maybe we will talk a bit about what we discussed on the panel. All right, so, why don't we start with you?

Dr. Laura J.:                            So I'm Dr. Laura Jimenez, and I'm at Boston University. I talked about ... Well, I've been collecting data on graphic novels with female protagonists for a few years now, and I have an enormous library that's approaching about 300. And so, I have been looking at different aspects of representation, including who is in the book, who speaks, whether or not their actions move the plot forward. It's been interesting looking across these books. One of the things we do in academia is we count things. And so, I had assumed that by counting I would have found that men were at fault for everything that was going wrong in children's literature, and it turns out that's not the case.

Dr. Laura J.:                            So, we use a couple of different metrics to look at the graphic novels that we're looking at. And they all have female protagonists, but we notice that many of them only have one female protagonist. She is solo and alone. And others have multiples and probably the best have more or as many female speaking protagonists as ... or speaking characters as male characters.

Noelle M:                                I'm Noelle [Mapes? 00:02:11].

Noelle M:               No worries. I'm a second grade teacher on the lower eastside of Manhattan and I talked a little bit about the different texts that I lean on, that my classroom leans on. And the main text that we've used at the beginning of the last two years is WHO ARE YOU, A KID'S GUIDE TO GENDER IDENTITY by Brook Pessin-Whedbee and illustrated by Naomi Bardoff. And I found that this text serves as a foundation for very intentional language around identity and gender. So it gives kids a vast vocabulary for thinking about gender, ways to ask questions in kind and inclusive ways, and how to navigate potential differences in themselves or among other people.

Noelle M:                                 It also goes beyond the binary of boy ... of just boys versus girls, which developmentally it's a very typical theme for 7 and 8 year-olds. And then after that, I spend the year with my class just living in the children's book renaissance that we're in. We read a lot of non-fiction books about women in the world because there are so many women in the world that we can admire and there's so many books about them right now. And then some of the practices that have sprouted out of these wonderful books are a feminist club that we started. It's across different grades. It just meets once every other week and the kids pick a feminist that they love and they become that feminist. They research her and they {brief interruption by new person entering the discussion room} - so they just research a feminist, they become her, they interview each other.

Noelle M:                                 Different discussions around [inaudible 00:13:04] and then the study that I shared on the panel was about gendered interruptions. All my kids love Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And so we looked at the gendered patterns of speaking on the Supreme Court. This was two springs ago. So it was during the Neil Gorsuch ... it was during a large political moment with the Supreme Court and one boy said that this mirrored the patterns in our own classroom.

Noelle m:                                 And so then all the kids decided that they wanted to collect data on that and see if that was a reality. And they did. A couple boys felt targeted for being boys and their feelings were validated and we had a discussion about that. The thing that I really liked about the discussion after their feelings of being targeted was that they let the girls just speak for a long time. The girls said that they're constantly and consistently interrupted. They said that there are different expectations of girls in school and outside of school that the boys just don't know about. And then they talked about valuing listening over sharing.

Noelle M:                                 Something important to note about this study was that all my kids that year identified on the binary. So I've had other years where kids are somewhere in the middle of the binary and that would be a different consideration to take up if you're a teacher who is interested in doing that. And the boys came to the conclusion that their temporary discomfort could not be equated with the girls' lived experiences. And that's something that could be applied to a lot of different things. So like the white ... not that I have white kids in my class, but I imagine that white kids could deal with the discomfort and the shame of whiteness as a structure temporarily in order to become better and more informed allies. We analyzed the data, we made action steps, and all of this is really only possible because of great children's books.

Grace:                                        Great! Okay, and our last panelist on this recording ...

Brendan K:                              I'm Brendan Kiely and I'm grateful to be here. And I spoke a bit about my most recent book TRADITION in which I'm trying to represent what it's like for young men to follow the leadership of young women and to see women as leaders. And I think that is in the way that in ALL AMERICAN BOYS, I was trying to get white characters to process their whiteness and begin to think about their participation in a racist society because of their whiteness. Which they should feel ashamed and guilty about and also reflect on and to begin to grapple with, otherwise we can't just even begin to have a conversation about dismantling the system that people who perpetuated ... choose ignorance as opposed to accountability. Likewise, and I think what's applicable to this is, that men have to, in the same way, learn how to become better listeners.

Brendan K:                              And I think it's so interesting to hear your comments about listening in the classroom and that processing, it's remarkable. I wish I could be a fly on the wall there. Because so often the representations of heroism in our young adult literature are often men or as you mentioned on the panel too, a bit about women who embody some of those more traditional, kind of masculine type characteristics swooping in to save the day. But instead what I'm trying to create in the body of work that I've written, is a literature of listening in which we prioritize the sort of heroic values of humility and courage and accountability. Because that's part of our humanity and that's the part that I think I would like to encourage more. And as I made mention of this term "moral monsters', and it's a line that I pulled from the faculty report of Waterville College in 1856. And the line in more of its totality is something to the effect of ... who will our students become and if we don't think about teaching emotional intelligence and prioritizing emotional intelligence, we'll make "moral monsters" out of the would-be adults.

Brendan K:                              And so often, as I look around, society today, the leadership, the white male leadership are moral monsters. And I am a white male and I would like to do my part through writing to dismantle some of that so that we can be active participants and not moral monsters.

Grace:                                        Well that ties into one of the big questions of our panel which was "how can we combat male toxicity with the work that we do?" So and I think that you all have really interesting answers to that. Laura, why don't you tell us a little about that.

Dr. Laura J.:                            So in my research, what I've found is that, like I said before, I assumed my hypothesis was that somehow men were going to be the ones that were perpetrating these systems of inequity. That was my hypothesis, that's what I figured I would see but what I found was really interesting is that the authorship did not predict the ways that women and girl are portrayed as whole complex beings. What is the thing that predicts or I'm not sure if it predicts, I don't know what direction it goes. I can't assume directionality. I can only assume correlation ... is that the more women that are in a book and the more they're able to speak, the more whole and complete women characters are, in those books. And it seems to be a measure of broadening of voices, gives rise to a truer more authentic chorus of voices.

Grace:                                        Well, I think it's so interesting because that you said that it didn't matter the authorship of the books. Because so often we get caught up on that and so the whole thing being own voices, when it comes to diversity. And so, why do you think that the authorship doesn't matter as much as we initially thought it would.

Dr. Laura J.:                            I think what's interesting is that ... I want to make a clearer distinction. What I mean by that is that male and female authors, nobody identified or as far as I could find, nobody in my study identified as not male or female. Again they enacted the binary. Women are just as culpable for sustaining and supporting and promoting a heterosexist, misogynistic, racist, ableist system that we exist in. And that doesn't seem to be the thing that we work out. It seems to be something that we instead prefer to support as we are adjacent to power, we are going to try to uphold that power system.

Dr. Laura J.:                            And so, yeah, a lot of the problematic characters, the most problematic characters were probably written by men. I gave one example of the BONE Series by Jeff Smith. Hugely popular. Thorn is the first female you see in that. And Thorn has a real issue with clothes. She can't stay clothed. She can't stay dry. She can't stay ... like her shirts can't stay intact, right. Throughout the entire series, right? And so, that is a huge issue with that and we are often to loathe to look at that kind of representation. That's problematic because we think it's in good fun.

Grace:                                        So Noelle, you work with younger grades. So this is an interesting question for you because how do you combat that at such a young age. And I know a lot of the attendees at the panel were asking you for advice about that. How do you do that in your classroom? So what do you have to say?

Noelle M.:                               I think the most important thing that early educators can do is trust their kids. They're already dealing with these wider issues that grown-ups are dealing with. They already notice what is allowed to be spoken about and what is not allowed to be spoken about. They notice who lives where. They notice who wears what. And when you don't talk about those things then you're erasing their noticings. When you do talk about those things, you're elevating the geniuses that they bring into the classroom.

Noelle M.:                               One thing that I want to think about just with non-fiction texts. Sometimes it feels like I'm perpetuating the idea of exceptionalism. Like RBG, she was the one woman from her law school class to get a job and move on in such a way. Or Sonia Sotomayor from the South Bronx too. So I think teachers can talk about exceptionalism with their children and think why are they exceptions? What are the structures that are in place that make it so that not everyone could be elevated to whatever job that they want to do? Six year-olds, 7 year-olds, 8 year-olds, 3 and 4 year-olds probably, I don't teach them but I'm assuming they really know what's up. And so when we give them the language, when we give them the space to think about bigger issues, they can teach us a lot of things that we didn't even notice.

Grace:                                        Can you give just an example of that, like kind of like model that for somebody who might not be used to that?

Noelle M.:                               Example of?

Grace:                                        Let's say, okay here's an example that happened to me. My daughter when she was 3, I read her the book TAR BEACH by Faith Ringgold. And I read her the part where it says, you know, my father was not allowed to join the union. And she's like "what's a union?" And I said, "Oh it's this group of men, that they" ... I'm not sure if I said "men" but I probably did (laughs) ... "you know that they all belonged to this thing because they had the same job but he was not allowed to because he was black. Because back then, they didn't allow black men to join the union because they didn't think they were as good. That things were not equal then." And so, at the time I thought I did an okay job, not a great job but okay job, right? 'Cause I could tell she was thinking about it and then the next day we were reading it again and then we were at a different part of the book and she was like "what's the thing again that's different now that's different then?"

Grace:                                        And I had no idea what she was talking about. I was like "um, I'm not sure." And she was like, "No, no you said the thing yesterday." And I kept ... I wasn't really sure what she was talking about and then I realized that she was talking about the union. But by the time I figured out what she was talking about, she got really upset and she was like "I don't want to talk about it" and she didn't want to read the book anymore because it obviously had become this ... it had become an issue instead of me being able to talk about it instead of me being able to talk about it in a very cohesive way.

Grace:                                        So, I guess what I'm thinking is, what would've been, what kind of language could I have used that would have been better and I feel like what kind of language can I use next time around that would make it go smoother. With hopes that this is not my only chance (laughter) that we can ... that there will be more than one conversation about these kind of things.

Noelle M.:                               Totally. I think you're already doing right by not shying away from it. I talk a lot, a lot, about racism in the class but it starts from a place of identity. So kids come in and they think about their facets of identity and then we give words to those facets of identity. We talk about how those are socially created but they're lived realities within these social creations. So if I'm thinking about book like TAR BEACH that does ... I don't know if they explicitly talk about racism, right, but it's implicit, right?

Noelle M.:                               So, something I try really hard to do is back then and now there are, there is discrimination against specific groups of people in the United States. Because if we think about whiteness in the United States and we think about whiteness abroad, like it's very different and some kids are from different places, so it's tough to be really inclusive and be really specific. So I think that's really hard to do. But when we talk about racism in my classroom at least, I don't know what it would be like to talk to a kid yet, that I have, but in our classroom I'm like "Oh, there are ... there's a pattern in the United States, the United States was founded on this idea that white people are better than brown and black people.

Noelle M.:                               And it's changed throughout the years but in this story the white people have excluded this black person from this group so that he wouldn't have the same rates as them. And so that's why the history is built-in to this particular story. Even now white people still exclude black people. And anti-blackness is global, you know, so we could talk about that but that might be messy.

Grace:                                        No but that's, it's good, it's just like even, I feel like we have such a hard time -

Noelle M.:                               Totally.

Grace:                                        - talking about race, just any kind of like, any kind of language we can give people is so helpful. If it's just because that way we don't shut down, you know.

Noelle M.:                               The beautiful thing about kids is they have such a keen sense of justice. So as soon as you just show them the reality, they're like "Wow that's unfair". And they feel the passion, they feel the natural reaction to the oppression. So their anger is a natural reaction to oppression, right? So they feel that and you can build on that and that's what's kind of exciting. And it's never just one conversation 'cause I bet she notices interactions, different stories with that.

THIS IS PART 1, Please return on Wed for Part 2.

Grace Lin