Search on SLJ.com ....
Subscribe to SLJ
Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

When You Reach Me: The Race Card

As we’ve become fixated with the character of Julia, some people have pressed me to clarify my vague comments, and while I’m still not in possession of my copy of WHEN YOU REACH ME, I will make a better effort to be more specific.
 
First, however, let me remind you that I do think Julia behaves like a regular little girl (characterization) and that she grows and changes over the course of the story (character development).  I think these aspects are distinguished–perhaps even most distinguished–especially for a supporting character in a first person narration.
 
RECOGNIZING RACISM
 
One of the rites of passage for growing up white in America are those moments when you begin to realize that there is social injustice in the world, that various people are treated poorly for all the wrong reasons.  There is a large body of literature for children written by authors about those moments when white children realize that racism exists in the world, typically these books feature a main character who experiences racism vicariously through the mistreatment of a friend or acquaintance.  LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY (Newbery Honor, Printz Honor) and A NORTHERN LIGHT (Printz Honor, Carnegie Medal) are good examples.  THE LIBERATION OF GABRIEL KING by K.L. Going is one that came out during my Newbery year; BONE BY BONE BY BONE by Tony Johnston came out during my Printz year.  The list goes on and on.   Now how many of these friendship stories can you think about from the viewpoint of the black character?  Not many.  Hence, I ask the question: Do the black characters function as a plot device that allows the white character to view the world differently?  Or are they really fully developed characters in their own right?   
 
Moreover, I’m not sure that the tropes of these friendship stories allow the same kind of visceral reaction you get when authors inhabit the black viewpoint in books about racism (CHAINS, THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, MONSTER, DAY OF TEARS, A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL).  For me, there is a gentler, muted quality to the racism in those earlier stories (as there should be).  That is an observation rather than a criticism.  Indeed, I’m not saying that the stories mentioned in the previous paragraphs are bad.  Far from it, they all deservedly won awards or critical priase.  To me, however, they all followed the same formula when dealing with race and racism, and thus new books in the same vein begin to feel somewhat cliched, however original they may otherwise be.  While WHEN YOU REACH ME does follow that pattern, that doesn’t make it a less deserving award-winner (besides the Newbery committee will not be comparing it to any of the books that I have mentioned here), but it does damper my enthusiasm slightly (and only slightly) on a personal level.  
 
MIRANDA RECOGNIZES RACISM
 
Nina mentions and praises Miranda’s reaction to Jimmy’s ethnic slur: "I had never seen a grown-up do it before. If Mom had been there, she would have whacked him on the head with a plastic tray."
 
While this is more subtle than: "Dear reader, my author has just made an ethnic slur and now to prove that I do not condone the racial slur, I must not only have a visceral negative reaction, but I must point it out to you, dear reader, in the event that you are too stupid to otherwise note it."
 
It is not quite as subtle as: "I gave Jimmy a nasty look."  Which requires the child to infer that the ethnic slur is wrong and that Miranda disapproves of it.  I’m sure some people will argue that this is too much subtlety for a child audience, but I would disagree. 
 
JULIA’S AMBIGUOUS RACIAL IDENTY
 
Julia’s skin color is described, but she’s never labeled racially or ethnically.  She could be African American, but she could be Indian or Asian, too.  Or biracial.  As I mentioned earlier, it’s a similar technique employed by Virginia Euwer Wolf in the MAKE LEMONADE trilogy.  It allows the reader to impose an ethnicity or racial identity on the character.  We would generally recognize this as a strength, but there’s also a trade-off.  Isn’t there also a generic quality to the character?  One writer told me that, for example, when you set a book in the South, everybody knows that it’s hot and humid.  What she looks for are the details in the setting that reveal a native understanding of the region.  What are the details that would escape the notice of the casual visitor?  Apply this to Julia’s characterization.  She’s universal, but not very specific.  Again, this is not a weakness of the book, generally speaking or in terms of the Newbery criteria, but it still left me wishing for those extra skillfully woven details.  Another slight note of dissatisfaction.
 
JULIA AS A TOKEN CHARACTER
 
Julia’s darker skin color is foreshadowed before the big reveal in the store as evidenced by her crayon complaint, but it also raises other questions.  Did none of the other children of color complain about crayons?  Or were there no other children of color?  Or did Miranda simply not note them in her narrative? For whatever reason, Julia is set up to be the token black character, the one that is going give Miranda her big epiphany about racism.  At least in the beginning.  She does grow into much more than that in the latter part of the story.  And I realize as I’m typing this that it reminds me of THE WESTING GAME a bit in how Raskin created all those stereotypes and they all grew and changed into fully developed characters.  So I’m perfectly willing to allow for Stead to do the same thing, but yet I still remain slightly puzzled that in a city as diverse as New York that you would need to set aside a single character as the Other . . . [Edited to add that Genevieve has already pointed out that Jay Stringer and others did come from other races and/or ethnicities so I am wrong right out of the gate.  My apologies.  Read the book twice, but the last time was way back in September.]
 
CONCLUSION
 
So you can see I sort of have ambivalent feelings these race issues as they are addressed in WHEN YOU REACH ME–which is why I proposed it as tentatively as I did, only moving into my devil’s advocate role as more and more people objected (and I objected to them objecting).  I do think there is a layer of race in this book that we have not previously discussed.  I wish more people would acknowledge it and discuss it, but I understand that nobody wants to damage the book’s reputation heading into the final week.  Still waiting to get my hands on my copy for some textual evidence, but this lays the groundwork at least.   
 
 
 
share save 171 16 When You Reach Me: The Race Card
Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Genevieve says:

    I didn’t read Julia as providing Miranda with an epiphany that racism exists. (If Miranda’s thinking that her mom would’ve whacked Jimmy on the head for a racist comment, then she’s seen her mom react to racism in some way before.) The epiphany that Miranda has, as far as Jimmy is concerned, is one about her own judgment — that she has so misjudged Jimmy, thinking he’s just a nice guy who lets three kids work in his store, and ignoring earlier hints of his racism because she’d already decided he was a nice guy, when really he screams at one of her classmates and tells her never to come in his shop, because he’s racist. Like Miranda’s other epiphanies in the story (that Julia looked at Annemarie like she herself looked at Sal, i.e. that Julia longs to have Annemarie’s friendship back; that Sal essentially dropped her as a friend because she had drawn the circle too tight around them both so that they had no other friends; that the Laughing Man’s statements made sense), her epiphany is about her own misjudgment of people.

    The fact that one of her several epiphanies involves recognizing that another person she knows is racist (which is not the same as her first learning that there is social injustice in the world) does not mean that Julia is a token who only exists to provide Miranda with that experience. And When You Reach Me is not primarily about that moment when Miranda sees Jimmy as a racist – I would say it’s primarily about the time travel story, and about Miranda’s realization that she has misjudged so many people (Jimmy, Sal, Julia, Annemarie, even the girl who was afraid to ask to go to the bathroom) and her actions to change that and broaden her friendships and better her interactions.

  2. a teacher says:

    Off topic, I do think I may remember why you’d think Jimmy is Asian-American (from another comment in another post) . . . Isn’t there a scene where Colin imitates Jimmy by tugging at the corners of his eyes, slanting them. Or am I confusing this with some other story altogether?

  3. Wendy says:

    I’m perfectly willing to “damage” the book’s reputation if necessary. I hope anyone would be. Why would we want a book that didn’t live up to our own standards to win?

    Your post is making me think about WYRM on a deeper level–or, at least, a more specific level–and I appreciate that. That said, I disagree with a number of things above.

    1. Julia doesn’t “function as a plot device that allows the white character to view the world differently”–at least, not because she’s a person of color. (I think Stead meant her specifically to be black or partly black, and wrote that way, but I know this is never stated.) Miranda has been raised by a mother who’s passionate about civil rights, and has presumably–based on comments made throughout the book–been aware of racism and injustice since she was tiny. The revelations brought about by the character of Julia are not about “racism in the world” or anything like that; they’re about Miranda’s assumptions about Julia based on things like her wealth and finickiness and air of superiority.

    -The “visceral reaction” is about the horror of being perceived as a racist, and about having a horrible fight with your best friend, and about having Annemarie comment on the one thing Miranda is desperately insecure about–her relative poverty. There’s no “visceral reaction” about racism because there isn’t any scene in the book where Miranda discovers it.

    -I think what Miranda thinks about Jimmy’s ethnic slur is FAR more subtle than “I gave Jimmy a nasty look”, and more elegantly written as well. With this sentence Stead points out that Miranda is aware of ethnic slurs expressed among children; we get an idea of her mother’s character; it gives detail to the setting (what’s handy for hitting in the sandwich shop? a plastic tray); and we experience the bewilderment Miranda feels. We wouldn’t get any of that with a “nasty look” observation. And in fact, what’s written DOES make us infer how Miranda feels about it. “I gave Jimmy a nasty look” tells us. I don’t see how your suggestion is more subtle.

    -In an attempt to look at this through a child’s eyes, I can think yes, Julia’s race would be ambiguous. As adults, while we couldn’t guess it from her own description of her skin color, I think it’s clear that she’s black (or at least appears that way to Jimmy). His comments about “blood telling” are basically specific to racist stereotypes of black people. That level of stereotype and vitriol, the comments about people stealing, are primarily used against black people. I’m not saying, of course, that there aren’t cruel stereotypes about Asians and Latinos and Arabics and American Indians, but I think Jimmy’s statements point specifically to Julia being black. (Would be interested in other thoughts on that.) Also, the “hot chocolate” comment is mostly commonly used on black women. But yes, I don’t think many or most children will pick up on all of that; does it matter? I’m not sure. I’m not going to call this ambiguity necessarily a strength, though it might spark more conversation and pondering than if it were spelled out more clearly.

    -Actually, the book specifically states that twelve of the kids in Miranda’s class use brown paper for their skin tone and eleven of them didn’t complain. You state again that Julia is “set up to be the token black character–HOW? What makes her a token in your eyes? In what way is she set aside as the Other? As I say above, Miranda’s epiphany is not about racism.

  4. Wendy says:

    Oops! I was looking back and just realized that the book DOES state that Julia is black:

    Annemarie whirled around to face us. “He thinks Julia did it because she’s black.” [page 130]

    A teacher, I don’t remember a scene like the one you describe–there is a scene, mentioned by Nina, where Jimmy makes that gesture. If there’s one later where Colin does it in imitation, he’s doing an imitation of Jimmy’s gesture and not of his eyes.

  5. a teacher says:

    Jonathan, I really don’t understand why you’re trying to make this an issue.

    You say in this post: “I do think there is a layer of race in this book that we have not previously discussed. I wish more people would acknowledge it and discuss it, but I understand that nobody wants to damage the book’s reputation heading into the final week.”

    The reason no one is discussing this indepth (other than here, with you) has NOTHING to do with not wanting to damage the book. It has to do with the fact that it’s really not an issue!

    You mention books like LIZZIE BRIGHT, CHAINS, and MONSTER, books which have very strong “race” themes . . . but those books have nothing to do with WHEN YOU REACH ME. Race is a strong, central theme in those books. I don’t really know if it is in WHEN YOU REACH ME, so I don’t know why you’re claiming to make it one.

    This is a first person narrative from Miranda’s point of view. Miranda who is a loner until Sal de-friends her, forcing her to pay attention to others in her class and make new friends. Whether or not other black students in their class raised issues about the colors provided to them is TOTALLY IRRELEVANT because Miranda doesn’t care about them. She’s paying attention to Julia.

    I guess I just don’t know what you’re asking of people. You seem to praise WHEN YOU REACH ME, but yet, really quick to raise questions about it and play “devil’s advocate” when discussing it. You say that you want the race issue inside of it discussed, yet time and time again when you’ve tried, your “race issues” with the story don’t really hold much weight.

    So what exactly are you looking for? What questions are you wanting answered? I understand what you’re saying in your sections “RECOGNIZING RACISM” I just don’t see what it has to do with anything and why it’s such a big deal.

  6. Genevieve says:

    I also think that Stead’s statement about Miranda’s reaction to Jimmy’s slur is more subtle and layered than if she’d said “I gave him a nasty look.” For all the reasons Wendy said, plus: it doesn’t require Miranda to outwardly chide Jimmy, and therefore he apparently doesn’t realize that she doesn’t agree with him (which is part of why he thinks she is as racist about Julia as he is, misinterpreting what she meant by “Swiss Miss”).

    Jonathan, you said “One writer told me that, for example, when you set a book in the South, everybody knows that it’s hot and humid. What she looks for are the details in the setting that reveal a native understanding of the region. What are the details that would escape the notice of the casual visitor? Apply this to Julia’s characterization. She’s universal, but not very specific.”

    Julia’s characterization is quite specific and full of details that would escape the casual describer. The first time she’s referred to, we learn that she has cafe au lait skin, sixty-percent-cacao chocolate eyes, is not like the rest of the kids at school because she frequently disappears for a few weeks on trips with her parents and comes back with satin ribbons worked into her braids or a green velvet scoop-necked dress or wearing three gold rings on one finger, or having gone to Switzerland and come back with a little silver watch “that she was always shoving in people’s faces” (a detail, but an opinion rather than a fact, and later shown to not match with others’ opinions), and that she was big on announcing things in a loud voice so everyone could hear, including that “as punishment” for some unspecified wrong, Annemarie couldn’t eat lunch with her for the rest of the week. Later we learn other details, such as many about Julia’s apartment, that Julia insists strongly on putting a UFO into the Main Street model they’re making, etc.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Okay, lots of things to respond to, but I just want to say several things up front, things which may have gotten lost in this discussion.

    1. This book is not quite my cup of tea, but I do think that it is distinguished. Nothing any of us have said (myself included) convince me that it’s worthy of anything less than a Newbery Honor, but nothing anybody has said convinces me that it is worthy of the Medal, either. Nevertheless, I do expect it to win the Newbery Medal and my avid student readers certainly hope that it will.

    2. I wrote this post hoping it might answer many of the questions of the previous one, but it just seems to have opened an entirely new can of worms. In hindsight, I should have patiently waited for the book so I could skim and check certain parts of it. Since I was obviously wrong in what I remember, I think it seriously compromises my arguements . . . if they were ever really arguments to begin with.

    3. When this line of thinking started off as a seed thought, I did think it was somewhat unjustified (in the same way that I thought the objections to A SEASON OF GIFTS were unjustified), but I decided to toss it out there to see what kind of response it would get. I phrased it provocatively and I have repeatedly made missteps along the way in terms of misquoting the book, so I do apologize for helping this whole thing mushroom into something bigger than it really ever ought to have been. That said, I will respond to some of the early comments.

    1. Wendy and Genevieve, your comments have been very helpful for me to see things in a different light and I thank you for that. I especially appreciate Genevieve’s comments on epiphanies and Wendy’s on the slur (although I’m not entirely convinced, I do think you have some very sound logic here).

    2. Please understand that nothing in RECOGNIZING RACISM applies specifically to WHEN YOU REACH ME. Rather, it represents my attempt to tell you which books have informed my paradigm (i.e. I read fifteen to twenty books and they all have these characteristics, and therefore I see this book fitting this pattern–understand?).

    4. If you think LIZZIE BRIGHT and A NORTHERN LIGHT are books that are solely about racism–or even largely about racism–then you are sorely mistaken and I would urge you to reread them. Imagine if you’re not familar with these books, that’s a pretty useless section. Each of those main characters has several issues they are dealing with, one of which is an inter-racial friendship, and I don’t think that friendship is the central focus of either book.

    5. I used very broad terms like “racism” and “social injustice” in that section to allow for the differences in these books. They are umbrella terms used very loosely.

    I’m going to wait until I get my copy before I wade back into the fray, and even then only if I find something signicant to say. In the meantime, I’ll sit back and watch you all gang up on me. Poor me! :-)

  8. Anonymous says:

    Jonathan you said:
    “For whatever reason, Julia is set up to be the token black character, the one that is going give Miranda her big epiphany about racism.”

    Well, when you retrieve your copy of the book and start looking at all the references of Julia…you may come away a bit embarassed by that assertion.

    As I stated in a comment in the previous post entitled “Cream of the Crop”, the author barely(and I mean just barely!!!) succeeds in painting Julia as black.

    On page 34 was a scene in the second grade where the students did self-portraits out of colored construction paper. It never goes into any detail who got what paper. It says ten kids got brown paper, some kids got hot pink paper. Maybe there were 20 kids in the class and ten sheets of pink and ten sheets of brown distributed randomly.
    At any rate Miranda(the MC narrator) did say that Julia was dark complected…which could mean anything. Maybe Julia was a white girl who’s family had a vacation home in Florida which they visited regularly.

    The only definitive place where Julia’s race came into play was the “store incident” running from pages 129 to 130.
    On 129 is where Jimmy says:
    “Some things are in the blood. All the money in the world can’t change a person’s blood.”
    Then there is a back and forth discussion until page 130 when Annemarie says:
    “He thinks Julia did it because she’s black.”
    That single sentence is the clincher.
    Without it Julia’s race is indeterminant throughout the entire book.
    Jimmy could have been complaining about the “Blood” of any dark-complected race…Hispanic…Indian…Pakastani… suntanned whites.

    Also in this segment, Miranda’s use of the term “Swiss Miss” had to do with Julia’s family trip to Switzerland and the clothes and jewelry Julia came home with and flaunted in everyone’s face…and Julia’s aloofness, her prissy fashion conciousness, and her status seeking.
    “Swiss Miss” had nothing to do with Julia’s race.

    Jonathan, to save you the trouble of a total re-read, I went out to Amazon and did a “Search the Book” search on the name “Julia”.

    There are 41 pages with one or more occurances of “Julia” on that page.
    Here are the pages:
    33,34,35,37,38
    44,
    56,
    74,76,77,78,80,82,83,
    89,90,91,92,93,95,96,
    102,104,108,109,
    125,129,130,
    143,144,145,147,
    152,154,155,156,
    180,182,
    195,196,197.

    I challenge anyone to find anywhere in this book, besides on pages 129 and 130, that in any way alludes to Julia’s race.

    The above list of pages are there for your use.

    My contention is that if you took out pages 129 and 130 you would have absolutely no idea that someone’s race ever played a part in this book.
    And if you took out the single line:
    “He thinks Julia did it because she’s black.”…you’d never know definitively the identy of Julia’s dark-complected race…including a sunworshipng white…

    I think for an author to be accused of setting up a “Token African American” she needs to at least establish that “Token Characters Black Identity”, further than a single line…”He thinks Julia did it because she’s black…”

  9. Monica Edinger says:

    The word I believe I used in my NYTimes review was spare when describing this book and spare seems to me a good way to describe the characterizations. Stead selects moments, scenes, memories, and such to give readers just what is needed to build the setting and narrative arc. With characters too. As for tokens, the only characters I might agree are so-called in this book might be the elderly as they do come up in rather simplistic descriptions in an early chapter about a tenants meeting or perhaps once or twice when Louisa mentions them at the home where she works. But otherwise I think the major characters are all beautifully developed as full, significant, complex, and necessary to the story.

    Let’s take Richard. “Probably someone German” says Miranda’s mother on the very first page. Even after having read the book several times first-generation-German-me sits up when reading that, but then I relax when turning the page and finish the sentence, “…glaring at Richard, who is German, but not awful.” I think that is a beautiful setup to make you think, ah — not a Nazi at all. (Being first generation German Jew I’m very alert to how Germans are presented, can’t help it.)

    I bring up Richard because he comes up immediately and is, if my memory is correct, the only person in the book who does get clearly and immediately defined by ethnicity/cultural/etc and equally clearly and immediately be proven to be not the stereotype that comes to mind for many when “German” is read.

    I feel that just as Richard is an elegantly developed character so is Julia. Just as Richard is not the stereotypic German so is Julia not the stereotypic rich girl (although it takes Miranda a whole book to discover this, of course). Both are important characters, beautifully developed. Others above have, to my mind, successfully argued against Jonathan’s assertion as to her being a token and wish I had the time to do so more effectively as well.

    One point. It is, of course, Jimmy who does the following. “…stretched his eyelids back with two fingers, and bowed down low — it was the classic fake-Chinese act. I had never seen a grown-up do it before. If Mom had been there she would have whacked him on the head with a plastic tray.” (ARC 62)

  10. Monica Edinger says:

    Another brief point. I think from the start we get the sense that Miranda has been raised to be anti-racist by her mother and, as is often the case, it is an all the bigger shock to her to learn that there are aspects to racism among people she thinks she knows that are new to her. Seeing a grown-up behaving the way Jimmy does is such a one.

    And so she learns something pretty dreadful about adults as she also learns about epilepsy and the waxing and waning of friendships (having mostly watched others come and go until her experience with Sal), and more.

    That veil gets lifted here and there throughout the novel.

  11. Anonymous says:

    When the Black-Eyed Susan’s complained about representation (books by or about black people), given what anonymous just posted about Julia’s flimsy, non-existent characterization *as a black person*, is When You Reach Me really a book that, as Wendy described it, does everything right? Is this the book from this year that you give to black kids so that they can see themselves in children’s literature? As much as Black-Eyed Susan’s complained about Civil Rights books, I’m thinking she would opt for Claudette Colvin and Marching For Freedom. Wouldn’t you? This probably has nothing to do with the Newbery criteria, of course, but still.

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    “…glaring at Richard, who is German, but not awful.”

    But isn’t it almost like Miranda expects us to have a negative stereotype of Germans? Do ten- and eleven-year olds have negative stereotypes of Germans? Or do you think Miranda has already met Germans who are awful and she is saying that Richard is not one of them?

  13. Jonathan Hunt says:

    So when I read subtle things like this and Miranda’s response to Jimmy’s ethnic slur, I question whether it wanders into the realm of not-too-didactic-but-kinda-didactic. Not a big sledgehammer, if you will, but a little tiny mallet, repeatedly hammering throughout the novel.

    I’ll admit I’m wrong about Julia being a token character, and I don’t think I’ve necessarily criticized the anti-racist (or anti-judge a book by its cover) theme of the novel that many have spoken so eloquently about, but I guess there’s still something that I can’t quite articulate, not something that knocks it out of contention or anything . . .

  14. Wendy says:

    I really wish you anonymous people would either not be anonymous or choose a handle. We wouldn’t know the difference if it wasn’t your real name, but it makes it possible to trace the discussion.

    I didn’t say this book “does “everything right”. I said it gets “something right”. And I mean that. Too many children’s books are white by default, including all their secondary characters–even books set in New York. This book explicitly has a multiethnic cast. The various posts about lack of diversity over the last week have talked about how most black children in books fulfill a ghetto stereotype or are totally flat (or both). Julia is neither. I don’t know what the anonymous commenter above (who you characterize as showing that Julia is “flimsy” as a black person) was trying to prove. I read the comment several times trying to get the point. S/he is wrong, for one thing. The book is clear that the self-portraits the kids are creating involves using brown for at least some of the kids who are people of color and hot-pink for the white kids. To think that it is saying anything else in that passage requires a deliberate misreading.

    A suntanned white girl does not have “60% cacao” shaded skin, especially as an important part of her identity. This, too, can only come from a deliberate misreading.

    I think I made my case for Jimmy’s comments about Julia’s “blood” to be specifically referring to her appearing black. While it isn’t definitive, it is definitely, definitely not a reference to her being white and suntanned.

    Yes, the book only comes out and says she’s black once. How many times does it have to say so? What are the cultural or ethnic markers you think have to be included for Julia to “count” as a black character?

    No one has ever said anything about giving this book to black kids so they can see themselves in children’s literature. We have said only that this is a book with a multiethnic cast.

  15. Wendy says:

    I think you have to read that “German” comment in context, Jonathan–Miranda’s mom says “someone strict and awful…probably someone German”, glares at Richard, Miranda is amused because Richard is German and not strict or awful. I think as far as Miranda is concerned, and most child readers for that matter, the joke would work the same whether Richard was German or Australian or Colombian. The extra level of a German stereotype Monica mentioned is noticeable to the informed reader, but not really the point, I think.

    I’ll go with you on the not-really-didactic-but-kinda-didactic comment. This is a book with a LOT of “lessons” in it.

  16. a teacher says:

    Just so you know, I’ve always used the handle “a teacher”. Anytime it pops up in discussions, it’s me. However I can start using my name if you’d like . . .

    The only reason I haven’t is because you’re all kidlit bloggers who seem to know each other and I’m just a teacher somewhere in the midwest, following along and trying to chime in from time to time.

    I can start using my real name though . . .

  17. a teacher says:

    Jonathan, I don’t like that you feel “ganged up” on and I certainly don’t agree with much of what you’ve questioned and brought up regarding this issue (I just don’t think it’s an issue at all) . . . However as someone else already mentioned, I am glad you brought all of this up. It has caused us to dig into the book a little deeper and made me think of things inside the book that I would not have thought of.

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Oh, don’t worry about me. If I can dish it out, I have to be prepared to take it. Besides, this is the only time I’ve been wrong in all these many months. ;-)

  19. Genevieve says:

    A teacher, I’m just a parent who loves kidlit (just so you know you’re not the only one who’s not a kidlit blogger).

  20. Monica Edinger says:

    a teacher, I’m just a teacher too!

  21. Nina says:

    “a teacher”…we know you by your handle, and I think that’s exactly what Wendy was asking for. I think her comment was directed at “Anonymous.” This has indeed come up before, and though I have no desire to aggressively monitor etiquette on this blog, I will say that my personal preference, for the good of the discussion, would be that posters who need to be anonymous would “choose a handle”…like “a teacher”…or just be “Anonymous12″ or how about “probably someone German”?

    [and that IS a joke, folks]

  22. Jenny(first Anonymous) says:

    Wendy-
    I’m the “first Anonymous”…so now I’ll give myself the handle “Jenny” (no–it’s not my real name)…

    Very often we read things and come away thinking something was there…when it really wasn’t…

    Wendy…you made a number of assertions such as:
    –1. “I don’t know what the anonymous commenter above (who you characterize as showing that Julia is “flimsy” as a black person) was trying to prove. I read the comment several times trying to get the point. S/he is wrong, for one thing. The book is clear that the self-portraits the kids are creating involve using brown for at least some of the kids who are people of color and hot-pink for the white kids. To think that it is saying anything else in that passage requires a deliberate misreading.”
    –2. “A suntanned white girl does not have “60% cacao” shaded skin, especially as an important part of her identity. This, too, can only come from a deliberate misreading.”

    Ok…here are the two paragraphs from page 34…verbatim…

    “My first memory of Julia is from the second grade, when we made self-portraits in art. She complained there was no “café au lait”-colored construction paper for her skin, or “sixty-percent-cacao-chocolate” color for her eyes. I remember staring at her while these words came out of her mouth, and thinking, Your skin is light brown. Your eyes are dark brown. Why don’t you just use brown, you idiot? Jay Stringer didn’t complain about the paper, and neither did any of the other ten kids using brown. I didn’t complain about the stupid hot-pink color I’d been given. Did my skin look hot-pink to her?
    But I soon found out that Julia wasn’t like the rest of us. She took trips all over the world with her parents. She would disappear from school and show up two weeks later with satin ribbons worked into her braids, or with a new green velvet scoop-neck dress, or wearing three gold rings on one finger. She learned about sixty-percent-cacao chocolate, she said, in Switzerland, where her parents had bought her a lot of it, along with a little silver watch she was always shoving in people’s faces.”

    OK “sixty-percent-cacao-chocolate” was a description of eye-color…not skin color.
    Her skin color was described as “café au lait”.

    I’ve read the above passage over and over again…and I’m hard pressed to draw from it that construction paper was distributed among the children to depict the child’s ethnicity.
    This author could have, and maybe should have, included a specific sentence saying that the white kids got hot-pink paper…and the rest of the kids got brown paper.
    And assuming you make the leap that the paper conformed to children’s ethnicity–what ethnicity is Julia who has “sixty-percent-cacao-chocolate” eye color and “café au lait” skin color? Is Julia Black, Hispanic, Middle-Eastern, Indian/Pakastani?

    Wendy…here’s another one of your assertions:
    –3. “I think I made my case for Jimmy’s comments about Julia’s “blood” to be specifically referring to her appearing black. While it isn’t definitive, it is definitely, definitely not a reference to her being white and suntanned.”

    Answer: Here the word “blood” is used as a slur to denote an ethnic group…not appearance. Blood is red–not black. Surely, Jimmy may have prejudice against Hispanics, Middle-Eastern and Indian/Pakastani ethnic groups, where the word “blood” could be thrown out as a pejorative alluding those races.

    Wendy…you said:
    –4. “What are the cultural or ethnic markers you think have to be included for Julia to “count” as a black character?
    –5. “Yes, the book only comes out and says she’s black once. How many times does it have to say so?”

    Answer: Well, certainly more than once, and preferably fairly early in the text. I would have liked to know Julia was “Black” when she was introduced for the first time…right there on page 34.

    And you said:
    –6. “This book explicitly has a multiethnic cast.”
    –7. “We have said only that this is a book with a multiethnic cast.”

    Answer: Julia is black (as stated once). Richard (a side character) is German. And, as far as the rest of the multiethnic cast goes,–THAT’S IT (unless I missed somebody)…

    You also made the point that:
    –8. “Too many children’s books are white by default, including all their secondary characters–even books set in New York.”

    Answer: This assertion is indeed hard to argue with. If the ethnicity of a character is not specifically cited then they seem to default to the author’s skin color. White authors default to white characters.
    I would expect no less of black authors who would default to Black characters and specifically identify those non-black characters as being White, Hispanic, Middle-eastern, Asian…etc.
    The real issue comes down to, why authors of all races are not employing multiethnic casts?

  23. Jonathan Hunt says:

    A couple of sentences separate Julia-is-black from Dumbledore-is-gay. If Rowling *had* included a sentence that said Dumbledore is gay, do you think there is enough circumstanital textual evidence to corroborate that claim? Just a random, curious thought.

  24. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Not necessarily saying it’s comparable. Dumbledore’s gayness is not important to the story, while Julia’s ethnicity certainly is. Still, I know lot’s of people that felt even a cursory sentence wouldn’t have made Dumbledore any gayer than he already is–or isn’t. Just thinking out loud . . .

  25. Wendy says:

    Oops, yes, the cacao-vs-cafe-au-lait was a mistake. But I think it’s clear that the kids were using paper that approximated their skin tones. I don’t have anything else to say. I don’t get how it can be read any other way. It is a “self-portrait”; Miranda herself, who we know is white, is given hot-pink, even though she mentions it doesn’t actually look like her skin; Julia feels the need to match her own skin and eye color; Miranda thinks of specific children who are given brown. Yes, Julia’s exact ethnicity (as well as that of Jay and the other kids) is ambiguous at this point. I don’t have a problem with that. Others might. I prefer it to the Jessi-is-black-and-Mallory-is-white phenomenon you find in the second chapter of every Baby-Sitters Club book. That’s preference on my part and preference on yours. I’m curious, why do you need to know the first time Julia’s introduced that she is, specifically, black?

    I’m going to repeat what I said previously, that while Jimmy almost certainly has prejudices against multiple ethnic groups, the remarks he makes are most often used specifically against black people.

    (I haven’t read the HP books, Jonathan, so can’t comment on that.)

  26. a teacher says:

    I read and loved all the HP books, but never inferred Dumbledore’s “gayness” until the movies came along . . .

    Has Rowling ever said anything about that?

  27. Jonathan Hunt says:

    After the seventh and final book came out, when asked if Dumbledore ever found love, Rowling said she always thought of Dumbledore as gay. There was a big furor over it. Many people felt that Rowling should have included that information in the text rather than slide it in afterward. Kind of interesting to try and look at the text from that angle. Kind of similar to the Julia situation, but different in too many respects to be a helpful comparison–and, too, not a discussion the Newbery committee will even remotely be having. Ignore me.

  28. Jenny says:

    Wendy-
    Actually…I don’t think the distribution of paper to aproximate ones skin tone (which in turn, I guess, would lead to ethinicity) was made clear at all.

    And I don’t think a Baby-Sitters Club book-like-list the race of every character is desirable.

    I would have liked to know at least that Julia was in some way ethnic(non-white) on page 34.

    You picked up on something that obviously flew right by me…just like Dumbledore’s gayness flew right by me(although I’ve only read Potter 1 and 2).

    But I don’t think I’m alone in my ethnic confusion…

    Previously “A Teacher” commented in the “Cream of the Crop” post about the revelation that “Julia was black” and the confusion it presented to her class:

    “A Teacher” said:
    “I think there’s definitely some truth to this, because that scene shocked the crap out of my students! It actually took them some time to process what exactly was happening.”

    Wendy, you asked:
    I’m curious, why do you need to know the first time Julia’s introduced that she is, specifically, black?

    Because it threw me for a loop…and the “big reveal” actually came off looking like a bit of a device. It was as if the author was dribbling this information out in the same way the time travel clues were being dribbled out…even though Julia’s race had nothing to do with the physics and mysteries of time travel…

  29. a teacher says:

    “Previously “A Teacher” commented in the “Cream of the Crop” post about the revelation that “Julia was black” and the confusion it presented to her class:”

    Just a small clarification, “a teacher” is a “he”, not a “she”. No biggie :)

  30. a teacher says:

    “Because it threw me for a loop…and the “big reveal” actually came off looking like a bit of a device. It was as if the author was dribbling this information out in the same way the time travel clues were being dribbled out…even though Julia’s race had nothing to do with the physics and mysteries of time travel…”

    I definitely can see what you mean, however the style of her writing and the way her plot unfolded was not a problem to me. It would be interesting to know why Stead decided to keep the races of these children so ambiguous . . . Because the further and further we dive into this text, it becomes clearer and clearer that there is something to this. And these decisions had to have been made on purpose. It’d be interesting to know why . . .

  31. Jenny says:

    Appologies to a Teacher…

    To answer your question, I think is was a purposful avoidance on the author’s part. And based on you class’s reaction, I think she definately succeeded in the “Ah-Ha” moment.

    And although the book does point out issues surrounding ethnicity and sterotyping…I think the overall themes center more around adolecent and family relationships…and the slings and arrows surrounding them.

  32. Genevieve says:

    The evidence is right there in the text, in this scene on p.34.

    “Jay Stringer didn’t complain about the paper, and neither did any of the other ten kids using brown. I didn’t complain about the stupid hot-pink color I’d been given. Did my skin look hot-pink to her? ”

    The implication is that Miranda didn’t complain about hot-pink even though her skin wasn’t hot-pink, and the eleven specific other children who were given brown didn’t complain, even though their skin wasn’t precisely the brown of the construction paper they were given.

    Stead is more subtle in her original descriptions of each character than saying, “Julia, who was black, complained about the brown construction paper she was given. Jay Stringer, who was black, didn’t complain about the brown construction paper, and neither did any of the other ten black (or of color in some way) kids who were given brown construction paper.”

    “Cafe au lait” is frequently used to describe lighter black skin in literature. (See Mitali Perkins’ complaint about food metaphors used to describe people of color’s skin and eyes.) I certainly gathered from this scene, as soon as I read it, that Julia was ethnic and most likely black, and this was confirmed during the scene at the store.

    As a side note, I appreciated Stead’s working in later on Julia’s insistence on the exact color – it seemed persnickety when she first insisted on it, but later when she says to Miranda, “You know what color your hair is?” and Miranda says “Plain brown” (or something like that), Julia says, “It’s caramel.” and Miranda feels more beautiful for it having been named and specified as something attractive.

  33. a teacher says:

    “To answer your question, I think is was a purposful avoidance on the author’s part. And based on you class’s reaction, I think she definately succeeded in the “Ah-Ha” moment.”

    But I have a hard time believing that the sole reason Stead was ambiguous about the students’ ethnicity was to surprise readers later with Julia’s true skin color. Especially considering that some readers put it together long before the scene in the store. Hints were given earlier.

    I think it’s fairly obvious now, that Stead very carefully constructed the text of this story to purposely be ambiguous about the race of certain characters and I think it’d be interesting to know why exactly. Sorry, but I just don’t think the Julia-being-black “Ah ha” moment is enough of a reason, especially when clues to her skin color were given long before that “Ah ha” moment took place.

    Maybe it was just simply “style”, maybe there was something more Stead wanted to say about race in general . . . It’ be really interesting to see her comment on this though!

  34. Miriam says:

    I definitely inferred “Julia (and ten other kids in the class) is (are) non-white” from the self-portrait/construction paper scene. Probably informed by conversations about crayons and skin color in early elementary school and by a passage in Maniac Magee in which he’s told he’s white and inspects his skin, finding a wide range of colors (brown, pinkish, peachish) but no white—but I definitely got it. I read into it a bit further: that Julia’s parents had told her about cafe-au-lait skin and 60%-cacao-chocolate skin in response to their own experiences with stereotyping and slurs.

    Without, of course, consciously realizing that I was reading my own experiences and assumptions into it… something we all do with every book.

    Personally, I had no problem with Julia and didn’t feel she was a token, unless every character in the book who isn’t Mira is a token whatever.

  35. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Genevieve, thanks for mentioning the Mitali Perkins blog post, “Ten Tips On Writing Race in Novels.” It offers a lot of food for thought, especially in relationship to WHEN YOU REACH ME. On balance, I think Stead would get passing marks from Perkins with a few minor missteps like the food metaphors.

  36. Jenny says:

    Genevieve…OH MY…HERE WE GO AGAIN…

    Just like Wendy, you’re reading in extra words–thus reaching conclusions that aren’t really there…

    Your arguments don’t compute, even when the paragraphs of your arguments are right next to the original quotation from the text in the book.

    Genevieve you started with the actual quote from the book:
    “Jay Stringer didn’t complain about the paper, and neither did any of the other ten kids using brown. I didn’t complain about the stupid hot-pink color I’d been given. Did my skin look hot-pink to her?”

    OK…that was the quote from the book…
    Then Genevieve…you follow with your rationale…which I’ll split in half:

    Your #1 Point:
    “The implication is that Miranda didn’t complain about hot-pink even though her skin wasn’t hot-pink.”

    Your #2 Point:
    “And the eleven specific other children who were given brown didn’t complain, even though their skin wasn’t precisely the brown of the construction paper they were given.”

    Answer to Point #1:
    “Well…nobody’s skin is hot pink.

    Answer to Point #2:
    “Where in the original text was the “TRUE SKIN COLOR” of these eleven other individuals ever described as brown…any brown…any brown that also happened not to match the brown of the construction paper that they had been given?

    No…when you really start analysing it, the author bent over backwards not to diviluge too much information that would effect this mystery of Julia’s race.

  37. Nina says:

    Jenny, I think that Stead was very intentional in not revealing too much, but I don’t think that she intended Julia’s race to be a big mystery. There are enough clues in that passage that readers can infer as Genevieve has.

    I DO think Stead was trying to get inside the head of Miranda, and this passage shows how admirably she does it. Because it’s clear from this passage that ethinicity is NOT a big deal to Miranda: it doesn’t rise to the surface of her thoughts. Thus, the big impact when she realizes that Jimmy is being racist.

    If readers don’t read between the lines on p.34 and are surprised, then I’m not sure what a terrible flaw it is. I do think the book would be *weaker* if Stead had been more obvious about it.

  38. Jenny says:

    Just an added aside…

    On my first read (up to “the reveal”) I thought in my minds eye that Julia was a default white-girl…a white-girl painted as a twelve year-old, globe-trotting, fashion-concious, snooty girl with exotic dark features, including dark-brown eyes, and either black or darkest brown hair.

    Also, there has been a lot of mention of colored crayons(which is neither here nor there).
    It’s actually colored construction paper that was described in the text.
    An Amazon “Search the Book’s” text shows no occurances of crayon/crayons.

    I think regardless of a person catching Julia’s race question early or late, I get the feeling from the commenters that there was narry a hint of “A Race Card” being played. Yes, perhaps some added mystery(desired or not)…but “No Race Card”.

  39. Jonathan Hunt says:

    In reading through the links from the Mitali Perkins post, I came across two mentions from the Newbery canon where characters are dark-skinned or black and it’s a surprise reveal. Of course, in niether case is the race or ethnicity of neither character as germane to the plot as Julia’s is. So like Dumbledore, these are good comparables (to borrow a real estate term), but not perfect ones. First, someone mentioned JENNIFER, HECATE, etc. where it’s mentioned halway through that Jennifer’s mom is black. And second, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK where somebody is mentioned as being darker skinned than Scarlett.

  40. Jenny... says:

    One last thought…

    In regards to Miranda’s take on the whole construction paper self-portrait art project…Nina said(and Nina, correct me if I’m putting words in your mouth):

    “I DO think Stead was trying to get inside the head of Miranda, and this passage shows how admirably she does it. Because it’s clear from this passage that ethinicity is NOT a big deal to Miranda: it doesn’t rise to the surface of her thoughts. Thus, the big impact when she realizes that Jimmy is being racist.”

    Wow–I think Nina has this one nailed!!!
    (can’t put it any better.)

  41. a teacher says:

    I didn’t know that about THE GRAVEYARD BOOK! Does anyone know the text from the novel off the top of their head? Wow . . .

  42. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Mitali Perkins links to a Read Roger post where Judith Ridge made the following comment–

    I’ve just read Gaiman’s marvellous (i)The Graveyard Book(/i). In Scarlett’s second appearance, there’s a narrative comment that another character has even darker skin than Scarlett. I thought this was deftly done, and it also served to set me back on my heels and think, wow—I just assumed she was white, because I wasn’t given any other information to the contrary. Nicely done, Mr Gaiman!

  43. Laurie (Six Boxes of Books) says:

    Jonathan wrote, “I think Stead would get passing marks from Perkins with a few minor missteps like the food metaphors.”
    The food metaphors–Julia describing her skin as cafe au lait and her eyes as chocolate-colored–are not a misstep on the part of the author as described by Mitali Perkins. This is how Julia describes herself. It is part of Stead’s characterization of Julia–that she has a superior attitude toward her classmates, considers herself more special, and likes to use fancy phrases, which irritates Miranda. Julia is the one using the food metaphors, and it is an effective way to depict her personality.

  44. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The problem is that when you read hundreds of books with racial and ethnic characters and they all use food metaphors time and again then it creates a cliche, so that no matter how effectively Stead uses the words to portray Julia’s personality it’s still a cliche. Just like when you read hundreds of historical nonfiction books with Indians and they always portray the Indians in ceremonial dress rather than modern clothes. It creates a cliche in spite of how effectively the author might otherwise use the particular photographs.

    Anyway, the color effectively depicts Julia’s personality? It effectively depicts the fact that there is no way Julia is a flesh and blood second grader (when the incident is purported to have happened). She can have these words–”cafe au lait” and “sixty percent cacao chocolate” in her vocabulary, but what makes it depart the land of reality is that she is using these words figuratively to describe her skin color (simile and metaphor).

    Completely developmentally impossible for a second grader. Just like (as I pointed out in the first go round on this book) that for Marcus to analyze A WRINKLE IN TIME the way he does in second grade (yes, yes, Marcus is in sixth grader now, but remember when he first read the book, and told his teacher his theory, he *was* in second grade). I don’t even think Einstein showed these kinds of flashes of brilliance in second grade. I’ve obviously spent way too much time around second graders, both the gifted and talented kind and the go-to-Europe-during-school-for-two-weeks kind, but . . . I mean, come on, people, the brain just isn’t developed early enough to do those things.

    These are minor things, of course, in the overall scheme of things. The book has so many strengths that these are very small things in comparison, but it’s still not as good as CLAUDETTE COLVIN, CHARLES AND EMMA, LIPS TOUCH, or THE DUNDERHEADS, but, hey, being fifth best isn’t that bad now, is it? Probably good enough for a Newbery Honor. :-)

  45. Jonathan Hunt says:

    But how perfect and fitting that Marcus and Julia should end up together, eh? If only they’d met in second grade!

  46. a teacher says:

    You kind of have to suspend your disbelief a little bit though . . . These aren’t any normal 2nd graders. These 2nd graders grow up to discover time travel!

    Plus in Julia’s case describing her skin color, it depends on what she’s hearing at home. Kids often repeat what they hear at home. And if Julia’s parents aren’t referring to her as “black” or “brown” at an early age, then I don’t find that scene as far fetched as you do. Kids will say the darndest things!

    To state that it’s not as good as CLAUDETTE, or CHARLES AND EMMA, or LIPS TOUCH, or THE DUNDERHEADS as if it’s a fact, is pretty silly. Because it’s very easily just as good and distinguished than all those, if not more distinguished than most of those!

  47. Nina says:

    I heard Julia’s 2nd grade comments about her own skin color as a parroting of something an adult (likely her mother?) told her. More plausible that way…

  48. Genevieve says:

    That’s absolutely what I pictured too, Nina. It made me think that at some point at home, Julia had been using things that name colors, wanted to know what color to call her skin and eyes other than “brown,” and her mother said “Your skin is cafe au lait, and your eyes, oh, they’re just like 60-percent cacao chocolate.” I know in kindergarten and first grade my son was crazy for Crayola crayons and their names, and when we saw something (upholstery, a shirt, whatever), he’d say what Crayola crayon color it was.

  49. Jonathan Hunt says:

    A couple things.

    1. I’m okay with willing suspension of disbelief, but why suspend disbelief unless you absolutely have to. Why not just characterize Marcus and Julia as regular kids? They don’t have to be freakishly smart second graders to invent time travel once their brains have matured to the point that they can deal with abstracts.

    2. Oh, now it’s black mothers (rather than white authors) that use food words to describe their children? Just as we cannot concern ourselves with what Grandma Dowdel should have done with the Indian bones, we also cannot concern ourselves with how Julia might have come across those words. While both cases are rooted in sound logic, they are both also instances of speculation. We can only go based on what’s in the text.

  50. Monica Edinger says:

    Inferencing is not allowed? Nor reader response?

  51. Jonathan Hunt says:

    If they are allowed in WHEN YOU REACH ME then they have to be allowed in A SEASON OF GIFTS, no? We can’t have one set of standards for books we like–and another set for books we don’t. I was referencing the latest discussion of the Peck, but, really, I’m all for inferences and reader response (as you know)

    It’s easy to get into the head of a character and see how things could have, should have, would have unfolded from their viewpoint. I think what Nina and Genevieve have said makes perfect sense (just as my similar questioning about what Mrs. Dowdel should have done with the “bones” makes sense). But when we look the characters this way, aren’t we really just making excuses for Peck and Stead?

  52. Nina says:

    Jonathan, I’m simply not getting the parallels you’re trying to draw between the Peck and the Stead.

    Looking at the Stead…I don’t think I’m making excuses. I think she lays the groundwork perfectly for the inferences she wants readers to make. Now, the fact that *some* readers haven’t made those inferences is an issue for discussion.

    The Peck is a totally different kind of book, totally different style, totally different use of issues of race.

  53. Stephanie says:

    This is not specifically related to the topic at hand, but since the discussion is about race in WYRM, it seems like the right place to pose this query.

    Does anyone else wonder why Miranda dislikes Julia?

    On the surface it appears that Miranda’s dislike of Julia is justified. But this book is about solving mysteries which leads me to look beyond the surface of how things appear. I know the book tells us she brags about the things her wealth brings her (which is annoying), but what is really wrong with Julia wanting construction paper that better matches her skin? And if Julia is, in fact biracial (especially if she is black and white), it would make even more sense that she wouldn’t want to have to choose between her two races by using either hot pink (white) or brown (black) paper.

    Also, If Julia is really as irritating as Miranda/the narrator wants us to believe, then why don’t any of the other students dislike her? Surely, if Julia were such a pain, other students would share Miranda’s feelings. Of course, they could and we, the readers, simply aren’t told, but if this were the case, Julia would never have to ask why Miranda specifically dislikes her. Julia would know, or at least she would see Miranda as a collective, and not an individual, quandary.

    Moreover, it is only after Jimmy’s inappropriate behavior and racial slur toward Julia that Miranda is able to see her as a full human being. Part of this, no doubt, due to Miranda maturing, but is it possible that part of this change is due to a recognition (whether conscious or unconscious) of her own racist feelings toward Julia? Possibly. But since Miranda never stops to ask herself why she didn’t like Julia, even after they begin to become friends, we don’t know.

    Miranda’s dislike of Julia puts me in mind of people I’ve met who don’t like Oprah (stick with me here, this will become relevant). “I don’t like Oprah,” they tell me. “Why?” I ask in response. And there is no answer. There is no reason. Which leads me to believe that they dislike what Oprah is: an incredibly rich and powerful black female. Is it possible that Miranda finds reason to dislike Julia because she is rich and black? After all, Annemarie is rich (though, granted, not as braggadocios as Julia is portrayed) and Miranda does not find fault with her.

    I’d love to hear thoughts on this. This is not a full-fledged argument, but more a string of thoughts that have been nagging at me since I read the book in early December. Does anyone else find this problematic?

  54. LaTonya says:

    Whoa! Black-Eyed Susan here. A friend told me about this discussion. I read 90% of the comments so forgive me if I misread or misintepret. I’m neither a teacher nor kidlet blogger (I fail to see why anyone had to clarify that; I took the request about anonymous to mean the reader wanted to know if anon was always the same person).

    I’m black but please don’t use me as the spokesperson. To me, here’s an instance where race is being made an issue when it isn’t.

    The lovely thing about being black is that we come in a hundred different shades. In my own nuclear family everyone is a different shade of brown from my father who we tease needs some color in the winter to my mother who is a very lovely almost dark brown. Anywho, sorry folks, the construction paper was enough for me to know Julia was black and kids would say just what Miranda said. Julia annoyed her and Miranda just honestly said she thought Julia was making a big deal of her beautiful complexion.

    A friend recommended this book to me and I LOVED it. I liked how Stead developed Julia. I think Jonathon missed how Stead turned stereotypes on their heads. Like Jacqueline Woodson has done, in this story the person of color has privilege and it’s the main white character who is poor by comparison. And the characters are diverse as they should be for a story set in New York.

    I hope the person who referenced me won’t be disappointed, but no I would not prefer a historical title over When You Reach Me. Black kids and I love a good story. Period. We want adventure, magic, suspending belief and I want memorable writing. If your book also include black characters outside of the narrow roles we normally get that is a huge plus and WYRM gives us that and more. I don’t insist a good book has to poc characters. I argue when you have poc that we are afford the same range, diveristy and believability as you’d expect in any book.

    This book is about a young girl whose veil gets lifted. The writing swept me up. I willingly suspended reality for time travel. This book works for me even if I can’t get my head completely around the concept of time travel. Kudos to Stead for convincing me to believe.

    None of the characters are perfectly good or completely bad. Jimmy’s attitude is racist but who didn’t like him before the revelation? There’s a lesson in that alone. The ugly isn’t always apparent. Do you stop loving your family members even though they believe or say ugly things? You don’t have to answer but I’m betting black and white readers here have relatives who said equally ugly things like Jimmy and you don’t disown them. You reject the racism. I digress.

    Some things kids will pick up on and others they won’t. But give them credit to see more because I think we adults sometimes forget what it means to be 12. We forget that sometimes you understand or appreciate more than you are able to articulate. Sometimes seeds are planted and years later you reflect on stories like WYRM and you realize more than you did when you were a kid.

    Julia is no token. She certainly wasn’t a the oppressed stereotype but come on this wasn’t Julia’s show in the first place and I’m okay with that.

    Let’s have that pigeon-holing/race discussion about black characters when it’s actually appropriate.

  55. Doret says:

    When You Reach Me is a great book that has nothing to do with race. Stead just happen to create a secondary character of color

    Miranda doesn’t have to like Julia because of her race. Julia wasn’t a very likeable girl at first. She was spoiled and self centered.

    Jonathan – I am really bothered by the fact that when you chose books as examples by authors Black viewpoints, you started with two books by White authors.

    Now I am beyond the point of thinking White authors can’t create believable and realistic Black characters. Many can and many have.

    But I admit it, I am still a little old fashioned, when there’s a point to be made about black viewpoint I still want the authors used as examples to be Black. This may change in 10 or 15 years but I doubt it.

    I also have big problem with A Wreath For Emmett Till being grouped with the novels. Emmett Till is far from fiction.

  56. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Nina, I think we missed a great opportunity to hammer out our differences in person yesterday, and while I think we could do that here online, it wouldn’t be as economical, and I still have other topics I want to address in this last week, so I’m going to make a couple more remarks and then bow out.

    LaTonya, I referenced you above, but I didn’t say that you’d prefer the historical title over the contemporary title, but rather the nonfiction title over the fiction. I’d like to know if you’ve read CLAUDETTE COLVIN and MARCHING FOR FREEDOM and if so, what your opinion of them was . . .

    Doret, I understand your concern about how I listed the titles, but I was originally comparing how white authors write about race and how black authors write about race and then I changed it, deleting that distinction because I didn’t want to make more enemies than I already have. I mentioned that the first group of friendship stories are written by white authors. I’ve read dozens of stories about Miranda and Julia, but they’re all written from Miranda’s point of view. I think that’s a distinct pattern of How To Write About Race From A White Person’s Point Of View. I offered in contrast, books written by black authors from the black viewpoint (and I included EMMETT TILL not because it’s fiction, but because of how it conveys the horrors of racism). Can white authors write about racism with the same emotional punch that black people can? Yes, that’s why I cite books like CHAINS and OCTAVIAN (and I did make the distinction in my original wording that these were by white authors). And nonfiction, too, like CLAUDETTE, MARCHING, and RACE by Marc Aronson. I probably got too far ahead of myself because if you haven’t read the books that I am talking about.

  57. Jonathan Hunt says:

    A final note for those joining this thread recently. This discussion actually started in a previous thread, “The Cream of the Crop,” and carried over to this one.

    My contention is that if we are going to look critically at race and racism in A SEASON OF GIFTS and YEARS OF DUST then we have to do it in all of the books. I’m not necessarily arguing that any of these concerns are valid–indeed, I’ve retracted several of my questions and half-baked assertions here–but I do not think we are wrong to explore them. We could also explore the question in THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE as well, and every other book that has race and racism present as a theme or subplot.

    On a final note, if I can switch gears and talk about Miranda rather than Julia. Many of us have talked effusively and glowingly about her a-ha moment with Jimmy and we’re proud that her mother raised her anti-racist. And we are not necessarily wrong to do so.

    But I hope we will speak equally highly of Joanne Blackmon’s a-ha moment. (“The first time Joanne Blackmon was arrested, she was just ten years old.”) and Claudette Colvin’s (“Then my mom came straight across the room, raised her hand, and gave me a backhand slap across my face. I burst into tears. She said, “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to touch them? The white boy’s mother nodded at my mom and said, “That’s right, Mary.” That’s how I learned I should never touch another white person again.”) Neither Joanne nor Claudette were afforded the subtlety of Miranda’s realization, but their stories are no less distinguished because of it.

  58. Genevieve says:

    LaTonya and Doret, thank you for your insights and opinions. As you say, this really seems to be a case of race and pigeon-holing/tokenism being made an issue where it isn’t there in the book.

    Latonya, it was one of the anonymouses above who cited you and predicted that you would prefer a historical civil rights story to When You Reach Me. I was very glad to hear from you personally instead of just assumptions as to what you would say about the book.

  59. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Was it an anonymous? Oh, okay. I thought it was me. I’d still like to know LaTonya’s opinion on CLAUDETTE COLVIN, MARCHING FOR FREEDOM, and THE FROG SCIENTISTS (in the Cybils nonfiction category).

  60. Nina says:

    Stephanie, your question about wondering WHY Miranda doesn’t like Julia does strike a chord with me… at least, the part about Jimmy. I’m not sure I go along with the whole argument (which, to be fair, you say you’re posing as a question and not an argument), but I do think you nailed it with:

    “Moreover, it is only after Jimmy’s inappropriate behavior and racial slur toward Julia that Miranda is able to see her as a full human being. Part of this, no doubt, due to Miranda maturing, but is it possible that part of this change is due to a recognition (whether conscious or unconscious) of her own racist feelings toward Julia? Possibly.”

    …That is, I don’t think that Miranda consciously realized that racism could be a problem for Julia, and this event–in which she was an unwilling tool (Jimmy counting her as an accomplice with the Swiss Miss comment)–not only made her see Julia as a real person, but realize that the world ISN’T colorblind as, perhaps, she’d been raised to believe…and that she COULD be inadvertantly complicit in something she abhorred, unless she recognized it (racism) for what it is.

  61. Nina says:

    (English teachers welcome to use the above for exercises in correcting subject-verb and tense agreement, and my brain dead-apologies to the rest. I think my gist is got anyway.)

  62. LaTonya says:

    Jonathon,

    I wasn’t bothered by being referenced so it didn’t matter. My point was I hoped that whoever thought I might prefer the non-fiction, historical titles wouldn’t be disappointed. Moreover anyone who actually reads me knows that I think we have a good number of solid of historical titles featuring African Americans. My criticism is the lack of AA characters in other genres. I haven’t read the Colvin or Marching For Freedom titles. To be honest, at my age, I’ve read these books half a dozen times in my lifetime already. My parents were pretty pro-black. I hope no one takes this an a slight against these writers. If you’ve read my recent rant you know I take issue with how editors and publishing houses dictate that only historical and non-fiction works by AA writers sell. You all really need to join the rest of the reading world.

    I want more books, books that will get kids excited and not simply the adults.
    My aim is to get kids excited about reading so I’m looking for books like When You Reach Me. I’m currently reading and enjoying The Prince of Fenway Park. I’m waiting for the publishing industry and those who report on the industry to catch up and acknowledge writers like Troy Cle and Melissa Thompson.

    For four years I actively ran a small library. My aim was to expose my girls to characters who looked like them and to those who didn’t. The world is more than black and white.

    For what it’s worth, I live in a neighborhood that is largely South Asian and I seek out a lot of South Asian YA literature. I should also mention that I focus on YA and only recently have I tried to learn more and read more in MG and children’s lit.

    I am also very interested in the Newbery contenders so I am likely to read Colvin and Marching For Freedom. Because the majority pays attention to award winners. It seems the only time KOC gets any attention is when it wins an award. Well, how can a KOC win when the majority doesn’t even know it exists?

    Lastly, I worked in publishing in my former life. I had the good fortune of working with librarians both public and schools. The publishing industry needs to do a better job of connecting with librarians. If you spent more time with the folks who are actually interacting with kids, you would learn a lot. Teachers need to revisit the library beyond the computer lab and make an effort to read books kids read instead of simply assigning what they consider good literature and parents need to pick up a book. Kids emulate what they see.

    Stepping off my soapoox now.

    Thanks.

  63. Jonathan Hunt says:

    If and when you do read CLAUDETTE COLVIN or MARCHING FOR FREEDOM, I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you think it’s same old, same old. You also might be interested in THE FROG SCIENTIST which I mentioned earlier.

  64. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think this thread is effectively dead, but Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray has picked it up on her blog if anyone is interested . . .

  65. Stephanie says:

    Thanks, Nina, for responding to my post. I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for signs that this question could be turned into an argument when I reread WYRM.

    The reason this bothers me, if it is in fact true, is that there is never an examination of Miranda’s feelings toward Julia. That said, it’s entirely feasible that reader’s will pick up on things that are not explicitly noted in the text!

  66. Nina says:

    In our discussions of WYRM, we’ve noted a LOT of places where things aren’t explicitly noted in the text, but where I believe Stead has clearly laid the ground to lead the reader to a particular inference. This, to me, is a strength of the book, and does justice to her readership.

  67. 'Smart Girl!' Feeling Not So Smart says:

    Now that the book is out and the story lines have been outed by the first round of readers, I have some questions about events. I don’t know where to turn. I will ask the question here. If there is a better place to pose such points, please let me know.

    I am ashamed to admit parts of the ending did not satisfy or explain moments in time.

    A prime example: What am I missing? What is the point of the $2 bills and their disappearance from Jimmy’s Fred Flintstone bank?

    Am I looking for it to mean something when it doesn’t?

    Please help. Or advise. Or both. :}

  68. Genevieve says:

    Smart Girl, if I remember right, the laughing man took the $2 bills and that is how he had been buying food to keep going while he waited for the key moment.

  69. Smart Girl says:

    Oh! Genevieve! Thank you. That makes sense. I didn’t connect, ahem, $2 plus $2 (dollar bills). :>

  70. mimi says:

    you didn’t tell us who the author is

Speak Your Mind

*