01/02/2017

The PC Police Crack Down On . . . Kids Books

Megan Cox Gurdon, Wall Street Journal

Ranking high among the surrealities of 2016 was the meltdown at a literary festival in Australia when the American-born novelist Lionel Shriver defended the freedom of fiction writers to conjure characters unlike themselves.

“Taken to their logical conclusion,” Ms. Shriver warned, “ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all.” Among the concepts she skewered was “cultural appropriation,” the notion that members of one ethnic group mustn’t use (or eat or wear or write about) things emanating from other ethnic groups. The illogical impracticality of the idea, especially with fiction, hasn’t impeded its spread, and the resulting umbrage was a wonder to behold: An Australian writer of Egyptian and Sudanese origin stormed out of the speech, later blaming Ms. Shriver for celebrating “the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.” The officials in charge of the event disavowed their keynote speaker’s remarks.

Such exquisite sensitivities put a lot of well-meaning people into terrible predicaments in 2016. In the children’s literary realm, where “diversity” has become the lodestar, the year began and ended with choler, indignation and the repudiation of books.

In January, after a two-week social-media drumming, Scholastic pulled from distribution “A Birthday Cake for George Washington, ” which was criticized for an excessively jolly portrayal of enslaved people in the first president’s household. The picture book valorized Hercules, Washington’s chef, who is regarded as America’s first celebrity cook and who, in the story, dazzles his daughter by confecting a cake without sugar. That the book was written by Ramin Ganeshram, a woman of Iranian-Trinidadian descent, and was illustrated and edited by two African-American women, Vanessa Brantley-Newton and Andrea Davis Pinkney respectively, did not soften the opprobrium.

That controversy was reminiscent of an earlier one, when ignominy befell author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall, who are white, for their 2015 picture book “A Fine Dessert,” published by Schwartz + Wade. The story traces four centuries of social and domestic change by showing the evolving ways in which families have prepared a sweet dish called blackberry fool. The book’s crime, to its detractors, was what one called the story’s “degrading” depiction of an enslaved mother and daughter in 1810 enjoying themselves as they make and taste the dessert.

That controversy was reminiscent of an earlier one, when ignominy befell author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall, who are white, for their 2015 picture book “A Fine Dessert,” published by Schwartz + Wade. The story traces four centuries of social and domestic change by showing the evolving ways in which families have prepared a sweet dish called blackberry fool. The book’s crime, to its detractors, was what one called the story’s “degrading” depiction of an enslaved mother and daughter in 1810 enjoying themselves as they make and taste the dessert.

In July, controversy swirled around Lane Smith ’s picture book “There Is a Tribe of Kids” (which publisher Roaring Brook did not recall) for representing children in a natural setting with feathers in their hair (see below)—as if, critics said, they were “playing Indian.” In August, Candlewick recalled copies of E.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s young-adult novel “When We Was Fierce.” Early critical praise had morphed into social-media wrath over the author’s use of an invented urban dialect that was, in the words of one prominent fault-finder, “deeply insensitive.”

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