Race, Culture, and Power in Kid/YA Books

I'm heading west to teach a Jan Term course at Saint Mary's College of California called "Race, Culture, and Power in Children's and Young Adult Books." Here's the first part of my syllabus:

Why are children’s stories so powerful? Who has the right to tell stories about marginalized communities? This course will explore the question of authenticity in storytelling and unmask explicit and implicit messages about race, power, and culture communicated through books for young readers. A secondary course goal is to help students improve their analytical writing.
  • Part One: The Subversive Power of Children’s Stories
  • Part Two: Race in Children’s Stories
  • Part Three: Culture in Children’s Stories
  • Part Four: Power in Children’s Books
Alison Lurie, author of Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature makes this argument about how children’s books can affect the common good:
The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten. 
On the flip side, children’s literature has also been a key part of state propaganda used by totalitarian and oppressive governments to impose certain social and moral codes on child readers. As Bruno Bettelheim argued in The Uses of Enchantment, stories told to children powerfully shape their moral world. Children with a well-developed sense of justice and compassionate hearts widened by stories can significantly serve the common good. Storytelling is a powerful act, especially when it involves young hearts and minds. From Uncle Tom's Cabin to Harry Potter, books can either repudiate or encourage stereotypes and injustice.

Students will explore and debate five questions:

(1) BOOK COVERS: Should young adult and middle grade novels depict faces on covers?

(2) BOOK AWARDS: Should ethnic book awards be based on the race/ethnicity of the author/illustrator?

(3) BANNING: Should certain children’s books be banned in homes and classrooms because of racism or cultural stereotyping?

(4) BOWDLERIZATION: Should we “bowdlerize” children’s classics that—seen with today’s eyes—are racist, or let them stand and be read as is?

(5) AUTHENTICITY: Should a story be told only by a cultural “insider” to guarantee authenticity?

This year I'm privileged to introduce my 26 students to Debbie Reese, who blogs at American Indians in Children's Literature, Stacy L. Whitman, editor at TU Books, and Yolanda Leroy, editorial director of Charlesbridge, via Skype.  Renee Ting, publisher of Shen's Books, will visit us in person. Since the theme of Jan Term 2013 is "inspiration," students will also be writing and creating picture books that explore a theme related to race, culture, or power.


Little Willow said…
Awesome! Have fun, Mitali!
Gerri Lanier said…
* Thanks for posting this part of your syllabus. Your indelible words gave me a lot to think about as I go on with my work.
tanita davis said…
What lucky ducks at St. M's!
I have been on that campus once or twice, and each time am amazed at how beautiful it is... Keep us posted on what you're doing; if you do a Cali reading or signing, let us know.
Jade Varden said…
Great gig! Sounds like you have a great game plan. I love the topic.
Jade Varden said…
Great gig! Sounds like you have a great game plan. I love the topic.
Jade Varden said…
Great gig! Sounds like you have a great game plan. I love the topic.
Charlotte said…
I would like to take this course!

Ms. Yingling said…
This looks great! What I'm struggling with is FINDING books with characters of various ethnicities or set in other parts of the world.
Mitali, This sounds like a great course and one you'll be masterful at facilitating. These are conversations I'd like to have in person with a variety of other people- commenting on-line is such a tricky business- tone and meaning can be lost and intentions misheard. We need more direct conversations like you're facilitating.
patty mccormick said…
Hey, Mitali, the fabulous Tiphanie Yanique passed this on to me. Awesome concept for a class. Hope you'll share more as it goes on. Enjoy Cali.
Patty Mac