Jonah Heller Speaks Out

Jonah Heller recently wrote the following in a FaceBook post. Because he doesn’t have a blog home and because this deserves a wider audience, I’m sharing it here now. Jonah holds an AFA from Young Harris College and a BFA in Dramatic Writing for Film and Television from Savannah College of Art and Design. He currently studies writing for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Having just written a critical thesis on picture books featuring gender creative boys, and considering the original subject being discussed in the linked article regards said topic… I have something I’d like to say:

Myles E. Johnson and Kendrick Daye’s “Large Fears,” is the picture book being discussed. Huffington Post describes it as a story about “a black boy who loves pink things… and longs to travel to Mars where he thinks he will find people and things that accept him rather than shame… [him] for being different from other young black boys in his life.”

“Large Fears” joins a list of titles featuring gender creative, African American, male protagonists that I can count on one hand.

One. Hand.

The other two I can pull out of my bibliographies from my recent critical research into gender creative picture books for boys, are:

Alexis De Vaux and Cheryl Hanna’s “An Enchanted Hair Tale” (Harper and Row, 1987)
Cheryl Kilodavis and Suzanne DeSimone’s “My Princess Boy: a mom’s story about a young boy who likes to dress up” (1st Aladdin, 2004)

If anyone can think of any other picture book titles which specifically feature a gender creative African American boy, please let me know.

*Note: There’s a 14-year gap in publishing between “Enchanted Hair Tale” and an 11-year gap between “My Princess Boy” and “Large Fears.

That’s an entire decade between each title.

If you were born in 1987 like I was, that means you had limited or zero access to just one picture book featuring a gender creative African American boy. I actually never encountered “Enchanted Hair Tale” in my childhood. I found it twenty-seven years later.
For the generation of kids born 10 years after I was, they had limited or zero access to “Enchanted Hair Tale” and “My Princess Boy.” Not much of an improvement in a decade.
There are not “hundreds” or “thousands” of books, featuring gender creative African American boys, written for children who specifically identify that way.

Now, you can be a moron and you can make a stupid blanket statement by saying that there are “hundreds” and “thousands” of books written for marginalized children as someone in the comments thread did:
“There are not too few books for marginalised young people. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them. You don’t have to read about a queer black boy to read a book about a marginalised child. The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what “needs” to be represented.”

But you’d be lumping an awful lot of countless, diverse individual experiences together. And that’s just stupid, ill-informed, and irresponsible.
You would be minimally correct in that some marginalized children could maybe encounter a selection of books that feature a protagonist that is in some way marginalized.

Then, you can also make another dumb, blanket assumption:
If a gender creative African American boy has a broad imagination they can substitute one marginalized experience for another and apply it to their own lives.

Shouldn’t they be able to picture themselves and their own situation as being similar to that story they read about a little Caucasian girl who wouldn’t quit being a tomboy?
The answer is no. They shouldn’t have to. And you’re an idiot for thinking they should.
Because the experience of a gender creative African American boy is not the same experience of a gender creative Caucasian girl.

Because “Enchanted Hair Tale,” “My Princess Boy,” and “Large Fears” are not the same stories as Andrea Beaty and David Robert’s “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” Leslea Newman and Cyd Moore’s “A Fire Engine for Ruthie,” or Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Temple’s “Not All Princesses Dress in Pink.”

As Laura Atkins put it:
“It means something to read a book that in some way mirrors your experience. It means a lot. All kids deserve to have both mirrors and windows.”

Let me break down that person’s response to Laura:
“Read a newspaper. Read a magazine. Go see a movie. There are zillions of places kids can see mirrors.”
Having come from a screenwriting background before I started pursuing children’s literature, I can soundly say that those mirrors are just as limited and underrepresented in all forms of media entertainment and not just children’s books.
I’ve sat in a comic book illustration classroom where the class was predominantly white and only two of us were exploring diverse characters and shapes in our drawings. Others were fixated on manga-style, over-beautified versions of white people. Perhaps those individuals have grown and explored since then, but perhaps not. Either way, that reluctance to step outside the white norm is part of our next generation of young illustrators!

So whether it’s a magazine, a movie, or a video game: kids from diverse backgrounds are still encountering negative stereotypes that belittle and make fun of their own experiences. Or, they don’t see themselves at all.

While some of these mirrors may have been produced, created, and put out into the world, they are not always available to every child. Access is the key word here. Physical access can be limited or restricted due a number of reasons: parental, school, community or library censorship; lack of interest from publishers and marketers; or outrageously skewed prices.

While researching gender creative picture books, I also took on the role of the consumer when I purchased some books online. What I found was that a child, parent, or librarian’s access to these books can be incredibly limited due to pricing. Not to mention the actual quality of writing and illustration these books is on a… wide spectrum.

Some gender creative titles are self-published or crowd-funded because that was the only way those authors could put their work into the world. That being said, you find some books which could have definitely used the helping hand of an editor and an art director.

The price of these books can vary – significantly. If it’s self-published or crowd funded, you might have to really hunt the book down on the internet to purchase it on an alternative site to Amazon, such as Etsy.

You might find a book for as low as .01 cent plus shipping and handling; the book store may just be looking to get that book off its hands because it may not be a title with a wide audience appeal. That’s pretty good for the reader who’s purchasing that book. It’s also pretty bad for the author in that they’re not making any money on that title – which may discourage them from producing more work in the future. While the one book is cheap, the potential for more books like that being produced is lowered.

On the flip side, you might find a book for as high as $45-$50. Here, the author is selling it themselves or the store is hiking up the price so that the author and they can make a profit. Good for the author and the bookstore. Bad for the customer in that very few people are going to want to pay $45 for one picture book. While it may have been a quality book, access to that title is limited based on price.

Also, purchasing the book may have been the customer’s only option if their local public library is run by a conservative director and conservative board.
Then, we have some titles that are great books but are simply out-of-print and are no longer being published. Would anybody like to purchase Bruce Mack’s “Jesse’s Dream Skirt” for $165.00+? I had to special request that book on an inter-library loan. But how many parents or librarians will be dedicated enough to pursue that option?

So, I laugh at this idea that there are “zillions” of places kids can see mirrors. No, there are not. Access plays a big role.

On to the next bit:
“Books do not have a ‘job.’”
Actually, books do have a job. The more artsy and literary of writers may cringe at this statement, and those of you may feel free to disagree with me… but realistically, the first job of any book is to entertain.
If it’s not entertaining, no one’s going to enjoy reading it to themselves or sitting down and reading it to their children.

“Books are to teach kids about the world, about being different or being brave. I really hate this idea that we need agendas in books.”
Teaching kids about the world and being brave can be considered an agenda in a book!!!!!!!!! This person says that books are to teach kids about the world, but then immediately detests the idea of teaching an agenda? Perhaps they meant some books can be overbearingly didactic, in which case I do agree.

“A great book has a philosophical, spiritual, intellectual agenda that speaks to many many people — not just gay black boys. I’m sorry, but write a pamphlet about it.”
I agree, partially, that a great book can speak to many people. But that doesn’t always mean that every great book which speaks to many people features a diverse protagonist.
Regarding agendas: Yes. You will find some gender creative picture books for boys that are loaded with didacticism and lessons about being better human beings. In some cases, the writers of these books have chosen to focus on delivering a message rather than telling a story. That’s an unfortunate truth.

Yes, some of them do read like poorly illustrated pamphlets you’d find inside of a therapist’s office, instead of reading like a quality children’s book. In these cases, the writer has ignored their craft completely and chosen not to do their job.
Yes, it does lower their audience appeal. Not everyone likes to be preached at.
Yes, that does affect their sales and their potential to produce more. Not everyone can make a profit on a sermon. And not every child should have to be force-fed a lesson.
Yes, this is all an ongoing issue within this window of picture books that needs to be addressed by those writers.

But, no. Those writers do not need to write a pamphlet about it.
Those writers need only to pull up their britches and remember that the first agenda and job of any book is to entertain because these kids deserve representation in quality-written books with quality illustrations. And, not all of these kids want to read the same story of oppression and marginalization over and over again that beats them over the head with a message at the end of it. That gets boring.

So, I say: produce good, quality work with diverse characters. Tell a well-written and craft-focused story – don’t just deliver a lesson. And if you can’t speak to a certain experience, then step aside and let someone else who has lived that life have a chance to say something about how it really feels.

More on this topic to be delivered during a lecture coming this summer (hopefully).

(The bold and italicized font was added to Jonah’s writing.)

3 thoughts on “Jonah Heller Speaks Out

  1. I read another blog post by someone else here on WordPress (can’t remember who) that brought up this book and the commentary. The person who was saying books should not have an agenda is actually a children’s book writer, herself!

    I found her commentary closed-minded and sad. Thanks for sharing this and putting this story out there.


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