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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Racially Insensitive

Wendy pointedly asked the following question: "If a book is racially insensitive does that affect its distinguishedness?
The very best literature aims to explore what it means to be human, and since the human condition includes being racially insensitive, it stands to reason that the very best literature will challenge us to think and feel deeply on these matters–even to the point of being offended.  I do think it’s possible for something to be an artistic work of genius, but also be morally reprehensible. The two are not mutually exclusive.
That being said, however, it’s another thing altogether to honor such a book with an award, to put it up on the pedestal for all the world to admire.  I do not endorse that and I would hope that none of us would, but I have grave concerns about who is allowed to define what is racially insensitive and what is not.
Nina has challenged us to look at A SEASON OF GIFTS from a new perspective, using new metaphors and analogies, even if they be imperfect in some respects, in order to form a new paradigm.  I would further add that we need to examine all of our assumptions.
I will comment more specifically on A SEASON OF GIFTS after I reread it in the coming week, but I do want to take a brief tour through several more recent books to show you that, indeed, racially insensitive subject matter (or the mishandling thereof) is alive and well in award-winning children’s books today. 
For this excercise, please be aware that I am playing the devil’s advocate, that I have no problem whatsoever with any of the following titles.  I just want you to see them in a new light, even as you are looking at A SEASON OF GIFTS with new eyes.
First up, please consider CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS by Marilyn Nelson, winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, a Newbery Honor, and a National Book Award nomination.  It is a breathtaking, towering achievement in poetry for young readers, but it also features the most brutal, most graphic image in the entire canon: that of a lynched black man with his penis cut off and stuffed in his mouth.  The image, though graphic, is fleeting and not a substantial issue in the book.  The serious tone of the book, coupled with additional context, may assuage most of our fears.  Still, I question whether it is an appropriate presentation for all children, let alone African American children.  Was the last detail on that image really necessary?  Couldn’t the horror of the situation have been conveyed without it?  Adding insult to injury?  Is this racially insensitive?
Next please consider HITLER YOUTH by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, winner of a Newbery Honor and a Sibert Honor.  If you are not offended by this book, perhaps it is because you do not have loved ones that suffered at the hands of this mass murderer.  How ironic that its very title is named in honor of the group that adored, praised, and supported him.  Just what we need in this age of neo-Nazism.  And it just gets worse from there as Bartoletti takes a very dispassionate and ambivalent tone, trusting that readers will be able to clearly see the evil for exactly what it is.  While Peck employs a humorous tone compared to Bartoletti’s more serious one, they are both trusting their readers to come to the proper conclusion without didactic intent.  You may scoff at this line of thought, thinking it an exaggeration on my part, but I have talked with Jewish adults who have these concerns.  To be sure, they are from the older generation, but they are extremely vested in how Hitler and the Holocaust are portrayed to younger generations who may not be as sensitive or aware, and we would do well not to dismiss their concerns so lightly.
SHOW WAY by Jacqueline Woodson was a Newbery Honor book the same year as HITLER YOUTH.  Many people thought it was also a serious Caldecott contender.  The reason that I find this book germane to our discussion is that one fundamental assumption is that the aggrieved parties should have the last word–or at least the most important word–in what is racially insensitive.  For example, black people may not be of one mind about her use of the n-word or her violent imagery, but we trust Marilyn Nelson in the previous instance because she comes from that minority group–and we are not wrong to do so.  But I ask you: How far does that trust extend?  There have been serious scholarly concerns about the veracity of quilt codes in the Underground Railroad and that is a major thread running through SHOW WAY.  If we are going to accuse Peck of propagating mistruths, ought we not also lay that charge at the feet of Woodson, too?  Do minorities have such proprietary rights to their culture that they can bend the truth when it suits them?
(HITLER YOUTH and SHOW WAY are clearly two of the better Honor books in the enitre canon and I’m not just saying that because they are my Honor books.  I remind you again that I am playing devil’s advocate in this little game of Who Can Be More Racially Sensitive and I’ll defend Woodson’s book against my own charges in the comments below.)
AMERICAN BORN CHINESE by Gene Yang won the Printz Award and a National Book Award nomination.  This graphic novel has multiple plot strands, two of which contain offensive material.  One follows a Chinese-American boy as he assimilates into mainstream culture, the other includes the most grosteque embodiment of all Chinese stereotypes.  The visual nature of the book heightens the offensive quality.  Yang repeatedly makes us laugh at these uncomfortable situations.  If you have rejected the previous examples because of their serious tone you cannot dismiss this book so lightly.  Yang uses a humorous approach and he does not use the didactic context that we would expect of such highly offensive material.  I’ve also heard of negative reponses from Chinese-American students; their gatekeepers have always dismissed their reaction by claiming the racist experiences struck too close to home.  Does that matter? 
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie won the National Book Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and a Los Angeles Book Prize nomination.  On her blog, Debbie describes how page 72 of A SEASON OF GIFTS seared her eyes and made her blanch.  I’ll tell you which page of ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY had the same affect on me: page 64.  With similar modesty, I won’t repeat it here, but let’s just say it nudges Marilyn Nelson into second place in the Who Can Offend Me Most contest.
Now I am an occasional reader of Debbie’s blog, and I know she is fond of this book (as am I).  When some suggested the book had anti-gay slurs nobody took those charges more seriously than Debbie, but I’m wondering why they didn’t leap at her on her first reading.
I see how carefully you read A SEASON OF GIFTS, Debbie, and wonder how you can read ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY and need someone to point the potentially inflammatory stuff out. 
And, then there’s the n-word on page 64.  Now maybe you addressed that on your blog and I just missed it, but otherwise I never saw any acknowledgement of the pain and discomfort this word causes us all, most especially African American children.  But don’t you think that mental picture would also offend Native children and, in fact, all children?
Oh, I understand that the slur is realistic, but as we know from Peck, realism alone is not a good enough justification.  I also understand the literary reasons for the slur, that Junior needed something sufficiently offensive to punch the guy with our full moral vindication.  But couldn’t he have  gone with a less obscene insult?  Richard Peck would never write that because we would crucify him if he did (and, too, he doesn’t use swear words).  Why can Sherman Alexie do it with impunity?
So, again I ask you, Debbie: How is it that the Native child can read page 72 of A SEASON OF GIFTS and feel pain and shame, but read page 64 of ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY and not feel similarly?  That’s a fundamental inconsistency in your reading responses that I’m having a hard time figuring out.
That brings me to the end of our little tour.  I really don’t want to hijack the discussion away from A SEASON OF GIFTS and will post more specifically on that book once I have reread it.  I also want to reiterate that I madly adore all of the books that I have mentioned in this post.  I put myself through this uncomfortable little excercise because A SEASON OF GIFTS does not exist in a vacuum, but is rather one book in a remarkable body of children’s literature that pushes our buttons as far as race is concerned.  Question Richard Peck fearlessly, but also question yourself and your assumptions.  Are you just drawing an arbitrary line in the sand?  Or is there really a method to your madness?  A unified field theory of racially insensitive subject matter?
Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I don’t want to get into an debate about quilt codes, but I offer a couple notes of caution. We used to think John Henry was a myth, but now we know better (AIN’T NOTHING BUT A MAN by Nelson and Aronson). We also used to think the first Americans walked across the Bering Strait, but again, now we know better (WHO WAS FIRST? by Freedman). The absence of evidence does not necessarily disprove the existence of something. Similarly, the presence of faulty logic doesn’t disprove the existence of something either.

    Even if we assume the worst case scenario that the quilt code is not real, Woodson’s book does not make any widespread claims about their use. She only states that through oral history she has learned that her ancestor claimed she sewed quilts and that said ancestor believed they worked as a valid code. The book never really claims any of the people she sent actually reached freedom because of the code. So even in a worst case scenario I don’t have trouble reconciling Woodson’s book with what we currently know historically.

  2. Thanks for exploring this question, Jonathan. And thanks for giving that Newbery Honor to Hitler Youth, which I thought was astounding. The ambivalence of that book is, I think, one of its greatest strengths; and I think it’s presented that way because it’s for somewhat older readers. But I had not thought about it from the POV you describe, and I will keep that in mind.

    I do think an author’s intent figures in here, though I know some would consider that irrelevant (depending on the situation, I do too, sometimes). You mention having trouble reconciling the Season of Gifts/Part-Time Indian dichotomy. I think the reader of the joke you mention in Alexie’s book is SUPPOSED to feel pain and shame; the pain and shame that the protagonist feels. That is, at least on some level, okay with me; not every kid or adult is going to be able to handle it. I would definitely feel differently if this had been written by a white author, and I think that’s one of the big questions you ask in your post–whether the author’s race should be the last word. I also know that, no matter what Alexie’s intent was, a powerful “joke” like that is going to be repeated, sometimes in cruel ways. That does make me feel uncomfortable–that a non-Indian kid who might never have heard that joke ordinarily might repeat it to non-Indian friends and laugh, or say it cruelly to an American Indian they know, after reading the book.

    So, IMHO, the books you reference all have a racially sensitive purpose for the material they use. Does Peck? Did he need to make light of a serious and painful issue in order to make an important point about those goofy white people?

  3. Wendy, thank you for putting into words in that last paragraph what I have been trying to say about the Peck.

    Jonathan, there is no line in the sand, and I’m not trying to draw one, and I have to resist the attempts of anyone to label my argument as “PC” or “drawing a line.” I’ve only been arguing about specifically what Peck has done in this book, and how I see it measuring against the Newbery criteria. I appreciate the way this discussion has gotten bigger…but am mostly curious to hear what you think on second reading of the Peck.

  4. Debbie Reese says:

    I’m a week behind in returning to this conversation. And I’m not ready to respond yet. Jonathan asked pointed questions about me that I do not want to leave unanswered. Just can’t get to them… yet.

  5. Marilyn Nelson says:

    Just a note of clarification: the details of the lynching which the boy Carver sees in my book, Carver: A Life in Poems are in the poem as a bow to historical accuracy. My book is not a work of fiction.

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