This year at Fall Philly, we’re broadening our horizons by featuring an academic perspective on kidlit! Rachel Skrlac Lo is a professor of education at Villanova and an advocate for accurate and diverse representation in children’s literature. I asked her my burning questions about diversity, and she graciously answered them over a shiraz. I hope you’ll come to Fall Philly to learn even more about how YOU can contribute to an inclusive, sensitive, and positive environment in children’s literature!
And now, here’s Rachel!
LB: Hi there, Rachel, and welcome to the Eastern Penn Points Cafe! As we settle into our comfy booth, what can we get you to drink?
RSL: A nice shiraz, thanks!
LB: And a little something to eat?
RSL: Surprise me.
LB: Surprise!! Our culinary experts say that dark chocolate and fruit are the perfect pairings for shiraz in the morning, particularly in donut form.
LB: We’re really looking forward to having you speak at Fall Philly about family representation in children’s literature, and it will be awesome for our writers and illustrators to get the perspective of an educator-of-educators! Can you tell us a little bit about the classes you teach at Villanova?
RSL: Currently, I’m teaching graduate students Philosophy of Education. In this class, we think about how we think about education. We read historical texts by John Dewey. Many people know for the Dewey Decimal System in libraries, but he was a renowned philosopher of education and his work encourages educators to put the child at the center of learning. His work, for me, connects to children’s literature because children’s literature is all about creating engaging literary experiences for children. We read other scholars too and students are required to create their own philosophy of education. It’s so important to understand our own beliefs about childhood, education, and the social roles we adults play in children’s growth and development especially when our careers are intimately connected to children’s lives!
I’m also teaching an undergraduate course on literacy and English language learners. I love bringing foreign language and wordless picturebooks into this class and asking my students to imagine they are the language learner. My students plan to teach a range of subjects – math, science, social studies, Latin, Spanish, English – and for most this is the first time they think about teaching students who may not speak English fluently. We spend a lot of time exploring the connection between language and culture in order to welcome all learners into our classrooms.
LB: What is one misconception you come across regularly when it comes to diverse representation in children’s literature?
RSL: A frequent misconception is that diversity can be addressed simply by changing the color of the skin of a few characters. Diversity should mean acknowledging that our differences are more than skin deep. While I believe stories that celebrate universal experiences of the human condition have value, when they are the only stories, they tend to overlook, ignore, or misrepresent perspectives of those who do not make up the dominant group or majority.
LB: In a divisive political climate, how can writers and illustrators contribute to positivity and inclusiveness?
RSL: Wow, that’s a great question. There are a few things to do:
- If you write/draw a story that isn’t from your culture, do lots of research and then seek the advice of people from that culture. Be open to their critiques and learn from them. Also, if you can, pay them or show appropriate appreciation for their labor. Creating a story that is accurate is as important as creating one that is well written and beautifully illustrated.
- If your work, once published, is critiqued for its representation of diversity, then express appreciation for that feedback and learn from the experience. We all hate to receive criticism – but our work is always in progress. We grow by being open to new information. See the critique as an opportunity to do better next time. (And also recognize that even though the book may have passed over dozens of eyes at the publishing house, many publishing houses lack diverse staff, so they may not “catch” a problematic passage or image.)
- Don’t try to tell everyone’s story, but enjoy the story you are creating. We don’t all experience life the same way – imagine how boring the world would be if we did – so don’t worry about your story needing to have a checklist of diversity.
LB: In light of the #ownvoices movement, do you think there are any “rules” about who can or can’t write/illustrate underrepresented characters? I’ve had discussions with agents/editors who are saying that a white author can NEVER write a biracial or minority character, and that POC authors can ONLY write from the point of view of their own group. Others suggest sensitivity readers, combined with considerable experience with the group in question. There has been a lot of buzz about this, particularly amongst white writers who want to be a part of representing minorities in a positive and sensitive way.
RSL: I am torn on this. My answers above indicate that I think you can bring elements of different cultures into your writing but when you do, you must make sure you are doing it exceptionally well (see #1, above). This is a little trickier if you are writing from a first person perspective or the central characters are not from your group. Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Chains and a white woman, did a lot of research and worked extensively with different experts to ensure her representations were accurate and fair. She recognized that while she could write the story, it wasn’t hers to tell alone. She was open to being told she was wrong and she was extremely conscientious about how she approached the work.
We all have to be sensitive about who gets to tell whose stories. Recent research by CCBC and Jason Low show that books continue to underrepresent all groups except white children and there is a lack of diversity of staff in publishing houses. This translates into a lack of opportunities for minoritized groups to enter the publishing industry. If our goal is to increase the number of diverse stories without considering the identities of the authors/illustrators, then author identity shouldn’t matter. But our goal should be broader and more inclusive than this in part because increasing diversity of storytellers means we have access to more stories and perspectives. This is good for everyone.
LB: What is your dream for the children’s literature of the future?
RSL: I love the work being done by #WeNeedDiverseBooks and their efforts to raise awareness of the diversity of human condition through books. I hope we can agree that children’s books can be fun, irreverent, and entertaining and safe places for all children to see the world as it really is.
LB: Okay, Rachel, it’s time for rapid-fire favorites! Take a deep breath and tell us your favorite….
Cereal and a smoothie
Quote about education:
Too many to choose but one I used in class last night and related to which discourses we chose to engage in:
“The general refusal by male academics to engage with feminist theory, and to self-reflect on their own work from the perspective of a male reading of feminist critiques, seriously undermines whatever gender(ed) messages they claim to have for women about women.” Carmen Luke in Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy, 1992, p. 40
We need to be willing to read, listen to, and understand those who are unlike us if we claim to understand their perspective. Otherwise, we are silencing them.
Book you’ve read recently:
The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower, an Australian author writing about two sisters in post WWII Sydney. Written in the 1966, this truly is a timeless tale about power, oppression, and how the oppressed can become complicit and codependent. Even though it is 50 years old, there are truths in the book that will haunt me for a long time.
Way to pass the summers as a kid:
Hanging out with my sister and friends. Road trips through northern British Columbia and Alberta.
Animal (real or fantastical) to tame as a pet:
My cats have tamed me.
Thank you so much for joining us today! We are looking forward to seeing you in Philly!