Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Problematic Trust: Why We Can't Just "Trust Child Readers"

There have been some conversations happening recently, both with substantial bits taking place on SLJ's A Fuse #8 Production, on a couple of topics that you might have thought wouldn't be connected. First there's Monday's "Are Historical Heroes Allowed to Have Prejudices in Children's Literature?" which responds to and expounds on conversation at Heavy Medal about Laura Amy Schlitz's The Hired Girl, out this year. That one, as the title suggests, explores the topic of characters in historical fiction having and/or expressing racial (and other) prejudices contemporary to their time period. Second is Tuesday's "Hands Off, Hussy! Hot Men of Children's Literature Under (Too Little?) Fire"--blogger Betsy Bird's take on how a recent New York Magazine piece harkens, in some ways, to her past Hot Men of Children's Literature series on her blog.

Like I said, you might not expect there to be any connection between the two. By all means, I think you should read them both--and that specifically includes the thoughtful discussion in the comments as well. But what I want to respond to here is the common thread in these pieces: the idea that we should simply "trust child readers."

The implied argument is that, if we "trust child readers," the problematic aspects of prejudices and sexism in literature can't really be that bad or have much of an impact. This, to me, is a milquetoast argument ignorant of the world in which we live.

You see, I do trust child readers. I trust them to take what they read in books and understand it within the larger context of what they read and know and experience. The problem here lies in that the context available to children who live on this planet, and specifically in this country, is fundamentally prejudiced and sexist. And we simply cannot trust anybody, youth or not, to independently reject a prejudiced opinion or sexist construct when the very reality of day to day life perpetuates these opinions and constructs. It may happen some of the time, but that's not a probability I want to trust.

I think it is irresponsible for people who aim to get books into the hands of children to "trust child readers" all on their own, because readers cannot trust entrenched societal norms and constructs to give them an unbiased, equitable view of the world to have as a baseline. If the world you live in is rife with microaggressions and revisionist history where it comes to First/Native Nations--which is the case here in the United States--it is unreasonable to suggest that we can "trust child readers" to understand the nuance and historicity of a passage in which a protagonist thinks:
“It seemed to me–I mean, it doesn’t now, but it did then–as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there are Indians out West, but they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.” -The Hired Girl, Laura Amy Schlitz
We cannot "trust child readers" to use other books and what they know about the world to understand the underlying prejudice or sexism of a passage/character/plot device. We cannot trust because other books and what readers know about the world reinforces such underlying prejudice and sexism, rather than assisting in debunking or even pointing out the problematic aspects.

Basically, we do not live in a world in which we can "trust child readers" because our world is one in which prejudice and sexism are so very entrenched that they affect all aspects of a person's life, from their education to what they see in their entertainment to who runs, and wants to run, their government.

We also do not live in a world in which we can feel confident that the next book that a child picks up, or the one after that, or even the one after that will offer a different perspective, a less prejudiced or biased one. We know that the representation of people of color and other types of diversity in books for youth is consistently dismal, and often problematic when it's there at all. We know that publishing isn't getting any more diverse, so we're not going to suddenly get a pool of better diverse books by diverse authors who know what they're talking about as opposed to representation that is frequently stereotypical and rife with tokenism.

So if children cannot rely on what they see in the world, and what they see in other books, can we responsibly say that trusting child readers is sufficient? I say, resoundingly, no. It's not sufficient. It's not okay, and in fact it contributes to these persistent and systemic problems of racial prejudice and sexism.

What I do think is that, instead of affirming that we should just "trust child readers" and all will end well, we need to work harder. Authors need to work harder to make sure that when they include moments of prejudice and sexism, they do so because it is necessary to the story and they do so with nuance. Journalists need to work harder to consider the impact their pieces will have--because satire that perpetuates sexism isn't really satire, it's status quo. And librarians and others who want for children to read and enjoy great books need to work harder to demand that the books available to children in the first place are better, are representative, are respectful and not microagressive.

It is very easy for all of us to shirk this work. That's what the establishment, which runs on privilege oppressing the "other," would have us do.

I think we can be better. But I'm not just going to trust us to do better. I need to actively see and live it. Don't you?


3 comments:

  1. Thank you for doing this post.

    Here's part of why I can't trust a child reader. We can't even trust an ADULT reader.

    Over at that SLJ Heavy Medal discussion, the "don't convert the baby" part of the book is being used as a bit of humor. The adults making those remarks are oblivious to what forced conversions meant to those of us whose people went through that. I'm Pueblo Indian. The Catholics and what they did to Pueblo people is well documented. It was brutal.

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    1. You bring up a good point here, Debbie. I think it's important to recognize that so much of humor comes at attempts to cover up pain--either one's own felt pain, or the guilt of inflicting it. We shouldn't be reading things at face value.

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  2. Thanks for sharing this, Amy. This is wonderful food for thought, and so well put.

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