The second YALSA YA Lit Symposium abounded in riches for the inclusive title hungry: where to mine for new GLBTQ books, how to evaluate requests from teens for street lit, when to stop and do a good readers advisory interview instead of just stocking the shelves and expecting the goods will be found by the readers who want them. Pam Spencer Holley called out the difference between a teen’s reading interests and that of his or her (overprotective?) parent.  Robin Brenner showed off sequential art panels that speak louder than words.  Author, educator, and activist Sophia Quintero reminded all that discussion is a necessary adjunct to reading tough stuff.

One underlying theme of all the presentations I heard, and many of the audience’s questions and comments, remained whispered rather than addressed head on (at least in my hearing).  That is, intentions are indeed good, and a stumbling block for many in what might be called dominant library culture (female, white, mature adult, self-accepting, socially liberal) is a habit of believing misused prepositions.  Now, I’m not going to go all grammar and linguistics on you (we can all hope), but there is a heap of difference in the following statements:

“Here are some good books about Latinas.”

“Here are some good books for Latinas.”

“Here is a good book from a Latina author.”

For this discussion, let’s ignore what “good” means, because that’s not the point I hope to call to attention; we heard about good, bad, and value-free a lot, and in well spoken ways, during the symposium.  On a frequent basis, however, speakers were telling me that books about specific marginalized, atypical, or foreign characters were for readers who matched these characters’ demographics.  A friend of mine is frustrated by her colleagues in Minnesota who weed books about characters who belong to marginalized populations because their dominant culture users “don’t bother reading them. They don’t see that they are valuable.”  It’s an old problem but one we need to recognize and call to our colleagues’ awareness:  for whom you perceive a book’s audience is getting mixed up with who you are seeing in the book.

Let’s really move beyond good intentions and check our prepositional laxness.  For generations collections offered teens of every demographic—class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, ability—characters and plots deemed of interest and/or of world broadening capacity in which people and settings tended toward placement in the dominant culture or came with aspirations to enter or to be accepted by the dominant culture.  With our new age of books that truly reflect, engage, and explore other experiences—those of people in situations and worlds where class, color, gender, sexual orientation, language, religious tradition, and ability matter—we need to remember that these various experiences matter to all of us, not just to readers who identify with the specific demographic depicted in the specific book.

Books about teens in wheelchairs aren’t just for teens in wheelchairs or for teens who know someone else in a wheelchair.  Books that explore life from the viewpoint of a Jewish Latina anxious for her first kiss from a boy don’t belong in a ghetto where only straight Jewish Latinas get to hear about them.  “For” and “about” are powerful prepositions.  They can lead our good intentions astray if we don’t remember to notice which preposition we use both in speaking and in collecting. “By” is another: there are lots of healthy discussions ongoing in and beyond the library about who can most genuinely depict the experiences of marginalized characters: does the writer have to be Black to create a credible Black character? Does the cartoonist have to represent well researched amputee recovery images in order to make sure the graphic novel, in which the images by and large are far from photo-realistic, is worth reading?

“By” also holds a huge socioeconomic load.  If we provide teens with street lit, are we showing them that telling a story can indeed pay off, in neighborhood recognition if not in truly big bucks?  If all the library’s memoirs of persons who wrote about what’s it like to be marginalized also show the writers spent time in juvenile detention, how can we be justified in claiming the collection is balanced?

A symposium, by definition, involves discussion, and this second YALSA YA Lit Symposium engendered that.  I hope the discussions continue as we move beyond good intentions and work hard to explore our own understandings of “diversity in young adult literature.”

2 Thoughts on “Beyond Good Intentions: The power and peril of prepositions

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I enjoyed the conference and came away feeling that there is a lot of good work being done in thinking about the broader issues surrounding diversity in young adult literature. But in some instances the presentations were still focused on diversifying collections to reflect your community. Of course this is critical, but isn’t that where we started? If we’re moving beyond good intentions, we must realize that books can touch even those kids whose lives are different from those of the characters. Yes, we want our kids to be reflected in the books, but let’s recognize the fact that a white middle class teen can connect with a working class Asian character, a straight girl can connect with a gay male. It’s especially important that we as young adult librarians recognize this. The people we work with are at the time in life when they are exploring their identities, questioning themselves, and trying on different personas. Why not expose all of them to a range of ways of thinking and being? Just because they don’t match the character’s demographic does not mean they don’t “need” this book.

  2. Heather Booth on November 15, 2010 at 11:43 am said:

    Really, really great points. I definitely think there is a need for resources that help teens find characters to connect with on basic demographic points, but isn’t one of the wonderful things about fiction the way we can find echoes of ourselves in all different kinds of people? I started a new forum on the Symposium Ning where we can share the ways we move the diversity from the booklists into our libraries on a practical level. Please consider adding ideas and stories! We wouldn’t be moving “Beyond Diversity” at all if the conversation stopped in Albuquerque.
    http://ning.it/9dbc0c

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