Go! Go! Go!

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With a magical wave of her Bolex, Marie Menken (1905-1970) takes us from morning to nightfall through a comically sped-up day. As a city portrait of busyness and informational onslaught, the film is timely and familiar. But to me, its more eternal theme is collectivity – all the ways we come together (or sabotage coming together) in the name of going places, self-improving, goal-chasing, social climbing, creating and cavorting. I love the joyful invitation to notice what and who is swirling around you – that kaleidoscope of people going, going, going, as if being a human among humans could be a graceful thing.

(Text I wrote for the “Outsiders: American Photography and Film” exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. March 11 – May 27, 2016.)

What We Talk About When We Talk About Diversity

By | Blog, Uncategorized

As ‘diversity’ is set to become the next big publishing phenomenon, I have been thinking increasingly about what diversity means, what it desires, what it demands. I have noticed (alongside many, many, many others), how easily the language of diversity has been superficially and cosmetically adopted, often replacing or displacing other ways of talking about social justice, power, and institutional exclusion.

I have noticed how the inclusion of certain kinds of diversity can act as a form of appeasement—forestalling  often necessary conversation and, yes, conflict. (Note: we are fairly conflict-averse in the kidslit world. Every one is so damn nice! As one children’s author put it to me: “It’s a bunny eat bunny world out there.”)

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I don’t know how to get at all the questions and concerns I have about the way these conversations are unfolding but I think it would be helpful to clarify what we mean when we say “diversity” because, good intentions and inclusive rhetorics aside, I don’t think we always mean the same thing. In fact, I think there are many disparate models of diversity at play in the world of picture books.

Here are a few I’ve noted:

‘Realistic’/Sociological Diversity

These books tend to focus on a community with realistic characters facing contemporary scenarios (often dealing with explicit ‘problems’ such as poverty, urban blight, migration and resettlement and often featuring descriptive language/illustration.)

Biographical/Historical Diversity

These books are what Christopher Myers calls the traditional “townships” for characters of colour. They sometimes intertwine a historical perspective with personal experience (again, they often feature descriptive language/illustration.)

Allegorical/Parable Diversity

These books tend to tackle “prejudice” by taking a disarmingly whimsical and/or symbolic approach. Animals, objects (sporks!), colours may stand in for humans in an attempt to represent difference in a non-threatening way.

Rooted but Expressive Diversity

These books feature racially specific characters and contexts but often involve fanciful flights of adventure, imagination or personal growth (usually using expressive illustration.) Christopher Myers notes that many children “see books less as mirrors and more as maps. They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.”

Casual Diversity

These are books in which the characters’ minority status is not central to the plot. Some call these stories “culturally neutral.”  Often there is a blanding of cultural and historical specificity and a strong tendency to fall back on eternal and universal values like “using your imagination” or “loving animals.”  I’ve noticed that casual diversity is a growing (and dominant?) diversity trend. (Note: this approach, while visually and even emotionally appealing, makes me nervous because it is so easy and so effacing of conflict and history. One of the challenges in the kidslit world is that liberal humanism is so entrenched, it can be difficult to challenge the “we are all the same” narrative without coming across as a complete killjoy. For writers and readers of color, there may also be a politics of gratitude at work. We are so grateful to be accepted at the proverbial literary table that we cease to question who is doing the accepting and on what terms.)

Backdrop Diversity

An extension of casual diversity, these books tend to feature an array of cultures/races as background characters. Again, difference is portrayed as non-threatening and universal. (I struggle with casual and backdrop diversity  because I think this approach may allow for gentle, age-appropriate conversations about inclusion—providing a ‘mirror’ for younger children—but I wonder if it’s also appealing to adults who find it more sellable.)

Encyclopedic Diversity

These books tend to show a glorious array of costume, décor, landscape, homes, to represent worldliness and/or cosmopolitanism. The problem with encyclopedic diversity is that the form itself is limiting. Curt text combined with metonymic images have a tendency to become stereotypical and feel weirdly anthropological. This is generally not an approach that well-serves the historically ‘othered.’ How, after all, do we explore and address race and difference, if the race and cultural identity of characters aren’t developed? (Note: in many ways, this is a challenge intrinsic to any 200-800 word text! This is my struggle as a writer too.)

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What I am proposing in all of this is that one can have a robust display of differences without at all challenging norms or structures of dominant identity.

The strategy of erasing historical and cultural specificity in favor of visual pluralism, for example, stops us at the surface of the image. It is cosmetic. Moreover, it presents difference in a palatable, eminently marketable way. (Lest we forget the lessons of 1980s Benetton-style globalization: difference is a commodity fetish.)

As writers, editors, publishers, reviewers, bloggers, teachers… as book people, I think we need to be aware of the moments when our ‘diversifying’ efforts become tokenizing, essentializing, or aestheticizing. I think we also need to be mindful of how certain characters ‘of colour’ are played off others or turned into ‘model’ picture book minorities. (i.e. Maybe it’s not enough to ‘pop an Asian character’ into your story. As Paula Young Lee recently noted: “Asians are now also 21st century versions of your ‘one Black friend,’ a kind of moral cloak protecting white people against accusations of racism.”)

In all of this I want to emphasize that inviting a critical conversation about diversity is not about calling out or shaming individual books, authors, illustrators, or publishers. It’s about the subtler, knottier work of changing institutions and attitudes that enforce dubious conventions and defaults that acquire the lustre of “tradition” or “popular taste.” It’s about ensuring that we move beyond representational inclusion towards systemic inclusion, which would include a long-term commitment to diverse writers, editors, publishers, reviewers (through mentorships, grants and paid internships.) It’s about nurturing stories that may be more specific and less broadly sellable. And it’s about respecting children and not underestimating their willingness to take on thorny, thought-provoking subjects or their openness in approaching the complicated and unfamiliar–especially if the stories are beautiful, funny, dramatic and non-medicinal!

Which brings me to another model of diversity, what some have called:

Critical Diversity

These books are not about creating symbols or markers out of difference. They are not about finding models of successful or paradigmatic blackness (or indigenousness, Asianness, Hispanicness, etc.) that can (in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates) be “singled out, made examples of, transfigured into parables of diversity.” Critical diversity allows us to see “how broad  the black normal is” (Coates). Critical diversity moves beyond superficial inclusion to highlights differences within communities, accounting for class position, disability, gender, religion, etc. In scholar Rinaldo Walcott‘s words, if we are to get at “the depth and texture of how blackness is experienced and lived out in both its extra and intra-black differences” it cannot “only be framed and understood in relationship to race and racism. Thus critical diversity seeks to not just populate our various arenas with one-dimensional encounters. It seeks to provide encounters that strike deeply at the core of what it means to be human.”

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The current dialogue about diversity is a wonderful and welcome starting point and there are so many thoughtful and inspiring initiatives, including these recent ones by  Simon and Schuster and the trailblazing Groundwood Books .

My final point, if I have one, is that perhaps we need to be both fast and slow in our speed of change, both expeditious yet reflective as we move forward. I do feel that in a scramble to fill the vacuum, we may rush towards a ‘panicked diversity’ (again, ‘toss an Asian character in there and be done with it’). Let’s remember that this is a generations’ old conversation. Let’s make this conversation lasting and systemically meaningful so that it continues well past the current marketing and media moment.

Thank you. xx

(With special thanks to Professor Cheryl Cowdy at York University who invited me to speak to her undergraduate class today, thus inciting many of the thoughts shared here. Note: all illustrations are by Gyo Fujikawa and date back to the 1960s.)

New Year’s Intentions

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1. Obsess delightfully (after Yayoi Kusama.)

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2. Occupy suggestive spaces
(between accessible and complex, spare and profuse, funny and sad.)

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3. Balance control with surrender (after Brian Eno.)

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4. Improvise (but sometimes follow recipes.)

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5. Make work ‘to order’ (occasionally, if it’s a good way of living.)

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6. Tell cool lies (when it is necessary to escape reality
and/or serve your art.)

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7. Find a warm but steady method.

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8. Practice punctuality and neatness (as a form of kindness.)

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9. Be patterned (but unafraid to smudge the pattern.)

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10. Do write in the world.

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Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!
あけましておめでとうございます!

(Image sources: Yayoi Kusama Horse Play, Woodstock, NY, 1963; “1550 Chairs Stacked Between Two City Buildings” by Doris Salcedo, 2002; “Untitled, (A Gathering of Time)” by Cy Twombly, 2003; “Skater” via a panel of analysts; M.F.K. Fisher; “Isamu Noguchi tweaking a wooden frame for an Akari lamp at manufacturer Ozeki & Co’s workshop”; “jiji-de-jiji” via B-sides Archive; “Japanese American Chicago Resettlement, Picnic at Lake”; “Untitled (Perfect Lovers)” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 1991; “Wood Block Printing” and “Black Lives Matter” via La Mignonette)

Jumpology

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A busy autumn full of change. These are days of stress and too much rushing. But then one day we find a moment to stop. And jump. Jump! We are paying tribute to air and thumbing our nose at gravity. We are antic and spring-footed. Our Patron Saint is Philippe Halsman whose jump pictures created a new idiom for portraiture.

 

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“[L]ife has taught us to control and disguise our facial expressions, but it has not taught us to control our jumps.  I wanted to see famous people reveal in a jump their ambition or their lack of it, their self-importance or their insecurity, and many other traits.” –Philippe Halsman, Jump Book (1959)

maclear's dad

70 years ago

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My father reporting on July 31, 1960. (Taken from the CBC Archive for the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

Everywhere, there are cranes. Hundreds of the folded origami paper birds are massed on strings in patients’ rooms at Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Hospital, tokens of good luck for people who are sick and dying. Fifteen years after the bomb, increasing numbers of people are suffering from leukemia, or cancer of the blood. As CBC reporter Michael Maclear tours the hospital, he learns that between 40 and 50 people are still dying each year of complications from the atomic bomb.” —CBC Archive

The Specific Ocean

Modeling the subject

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I have mentioned this before but in my twenties I worked for five years for a graphic designer. I had come across a series of very smart, pretty books that he had designed, and being a bookish person, I walked into his studio one day and offered my services. The problem was that I had no skills to speak of and I had never designed anything. I was not a trained architect like a few of the studio staff. I was not an I.T. whiz. I knew a little bit about art and I was good at listening and reading, but beyond that I had nothing specific to offer.

The designer must have been having a good day because he took me on. As an added bonus, the studio sat atop a bakery. The bakery and the studio both grew much bigger a few years later but for a while they were both small and improvisational. The bakery, as it tried new things, often made mistakes and fallen cake tops would be delivered upstairs to the studio. I remember eating many cake tops.

We worked on a variety of interesting projects as a studio: a movie, a museum show, a book, a manifesto, and a font generator. We collaborated with architects, dancers, composers, filmmakers and visual artists. The designer introduced me to the work of John Cage, Brian Eno, Claes Oldenburg, David Byrne—artists whose roaming adventures took them to the collapsing cliffs of old disciplines. I made good friends. We laughed a lot. The designer was (for the most part) a friendly and funny man, admirable qualities in a boss if you ever need to have one.

Of all the things he made, it was the designer’s approach to book design that really changed the way I thought about form. In each book he made, he aimed to create an object that wasn’t merely an illustration of the content, but rather a model of it. For example, if he was making a book about the city he set out to create something that performed and behaved—with abrasiveness, typographic density, collisions and jumpcuts—like the city itself.

This past year I had the incredible good fortune of working with two book teams that seem to have taken this philosophy of ‘modeling’ to heart. The Specific Ocean (illustrated by Katty Maurey, designed by Karen Powers, and edited by Yvette Ghione) feels, to me, like a dazzling incarnation of the ocean. Opening its pages I can almost smell the salty surf and feel the warm breeze. With its sun-bleached palette and slow visual tempo it fills my heart with seaside happiness.



The (soon-to-be-published) second project, The Good Little Book, is the genius creation of Marion Arbona (uber-illustrator), Scott Richardson (master designer/novelist extraordinaire), and Tara Walker (beloved editor.) I adore the look and feel of this book. When I hold it in my hands I have the sense of an object well-worn and loved over time. It immediately transports me to the used bookshops I frequented as a teenage thrift-shopper. From the crowded name-plate to the doodly marginalia to the textured tinge of multiple readings, a whole world of old and lost books is wonderfully evoked.


Kyos's Ocean

The Specific Ocean

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Tomorrow is the publication day for The Specific Ocean—a book born of travel and memory, water and salt, ease and grit. The title came from my youngest son during a stay on the Pacific Ocean. (He took to calling it the Specific Ocean after mishearing its true name or maybe after deciding that he knew its truer name.) I hope you enjoy it.

A few thanks: to Katty Maurey whose art fills me with big, big feelings and captures so beautifully the tone and tempo of the ocean; to Karen Powers, Yvette Ghione, Michaela Cornell, Naseem Hrab, Jude Kahn, and all the amazing people at Kids Can Press for bringing this book so gracefully to shore; and, finally, a huge THANK YOU to the bloggers and readers who help keep books afloat.

(Photo: My mum and I on the Pacific Ocean.)

“The Creation of Oscar” a guest post by Mika (my son)

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“Mother’s Day was that weekend and the teacher told us to make something but she didn’t specify what. All she said was “make something your mother would like” (she wasn’t very helpful) so I thought for a while and then I thought my mother likes cute things. So I settled on this idea. I took such a long time to think that everyone took all the art supplies and all that was left was an acorn, a few beads, a pinecone and some felt. But that was all I needed to make Oscar.

Here is how you do it:
Step 1 take the cap off the acorn
Step 2 glue the acorn cap onto the bead
Step 3 draw a face
Step 4 glue the bottom of the head to the pinecone
Step 5 cut the felt into a rectangle
Step 5 wrap the felt around the pinecone
Step 6 glue the felt on
Step 7 enjoy!

To conclude my mother loved the gift. She said it was adorable.

THE END

(p.s. This is a true story.)”