Alice's Academy

Caroline Jones, editor

Introduction: Culture, Gender, and Identity in Children’s and YA texts

Caroline Jones

Alice’s first column of 2014 explores issues of culture, gender, and identity in children’s and young adult texts. The ideas foregrounded here are timely, especially in light of a flurry of statistical and anecdotal revelations about a stunning lack of diversity in children’s books published in the United States. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s study “Children's Books by and about People of Color Published in the United States”  identifies 93 of 3200 books evaluated that were written about African or African American characters (67 of those were written by African or African American authors).  Christopher Myers contributed an essay, “Young Dreamers,” to the Horn Book Magazine in August 2013, which he followed on March 15 of this year with a New York Times Opinion piece entitled “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature.” Myers’s piece is companioned by his father, Walter Dean Myers’s “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Literature?”. The CCBC’s listserve discussion for February focused on issues of diversity (and the lack thereof) in the worlds of children’s and young adult publishing. Each of these venues lamented the dominance of the white, middle-class voice, and each, in its own way, asked readers, “Why are we so surprised?”

Each of our Alice essays explores these issues from distinct points of view: Chandler from the perspective of feminist, African American traditional stories, and Cadden from the perspective of a young adult graphic novel featuring a contemporary Chinese American protagonist and a traditional Chinese folktale.

Karen Chandler’s “Playing to Girls in Virginia Hamilton’s Her Stories and Patricia McKissack’s Porch Lies: Frames of Selfhood, Community, and Audience” considers the female voice in traditional African American stories, pondering the ways in which girls’ and women’s experience is featured and valorized in traditional porch, tall, and folk tales dominated by male heroes. Chandler considers Hamilton’s collection, Her Stories, comprised of exclusively female heroes, and McKissack’s Porch Lies, which, while traditional in its male-dominance, is narrated by a young girl who actively makes each story her own. Chandler seeks out depictions of agential female heroes even in settings that might initially indicate conventions of female passivity.

Mike Cadden’s “‘But You Are Still a Monkey’: American Born Chinese and Racial Self-Acceptance” calls into question the wide acknowledgement of Gene Luen Yang’s young adult graphic novel, American Born Chinese, as a positive model of ethnic identity. This call for reassessment surfaces and questions passive assumptions about traditionally privileged subject positions (e.g. whiteness, maleness), suggesting that perhaps such ideologies are more powerful and have more currency than progressive and forward-thinking scholars and educators would like to admit.

I encourage you to explore with these authors the complex and vexed territory of racial, ethnic, national, and gender diversity in the increasingly diverse worlds of children’s and young adult literatures.


Caroline Jones

Volume 17, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, March/April 2014

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"Introduction: Culture, Gender and Identity in Children's and YA Texts" © Caroline Jones, 2014.

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