Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Imagination Gap in #Kidlit and #YAlit: An Introduction to the Dark Fantastic

The time to emancipate our imaginations is now.  

In my 15 years as an educator, I have seen much attention paid to racial and ethnic achievement gaps, particularly in my intersecting fields (K-12 literacy, language arts, and English education). Some have begun to talk about other gaps in education -- the understanding gap, the relevancy gap, and the funding gap. Critical conversations about educational gaps in cities like Detroit and Philadelphia inspire other parts of my work, including a new summer institute for urban teachers that we'll start this year.

Until recently, less attention has been paid to a corresponding gap in children's literature and media. I was glad to see New York Times op-eds by Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher Myers earlier this year that thrust disparities in children's publishing into the public discourse beyond #kidlit and #yalit. The University of Wisconsin's Cooperative Children's Book Center, which analyzes trends in children's publishing on an annual basis, should also be acknowledged.

Many have called attention to the fact that #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It is a campaign that I fully support. At the forefront of the most recent efforts have been many wonderful people, including Jason Low, publisher at Lee and Low Books, Tu Books editorial director Stacy Whitman, and award-winning YA author Malinda Lo. There are others whom I will feature in future blog posts, including a phenomenal group of authors and publishers who insisted that BookCon 2014 examine its glaring lack of diversity. They proudly continue efforts that began decades ago by advocates such as Augusta Baker, Rudine Sims Bishop, Nancy Larrick, and others.

Yet as speculative fiction author Daniel José Older and others pointed out during this spring's discussions, calling for diversity is not enough. As he so aptly reminds us:

The question industry professionals need to ask themselves is: “How can I use my position to help create a literary world that is diverse, equitable, and doesn’t just represent the same segment of society it always has since its inception? What concrete actions can I take to make actual change and move beyond the tired conversation we’ve been having for decades?"

As one of those industry professionals -- a professor responsible for designing, teaching, and evaluating courses on children's and YA literature and media -- I hope to use this blog as an occasion to take up Older's call.  Inspired by a 2010 Horn Book article by children's and YA author Zetta Elliott, I have begun to think of the diversity crisis in children's and young adult media as an imagination gap.  I have long suspected, and I am assuredly not alone, that disparities in literacy attainment among kids and teens are ultimately rooted in a massive failure of the collective imagination.  

Let's be clear.  I'm not referring to any failure in the imaginations of young people. Those are humming right along as always, as kids and teens all over the world are now using new media to inscribe themselves into existence (more on that later). Our young people have not failed us.

I am referring to the failures of adults. 

These are but a few of the many imagination gaps that I have seen as a teacher, fan, and now professor-participant in children's and youth media, publishing, and the fan cultures that have risen up around both via social media.  It's not just about the lack of representation of characters of color in children's publishing and media. It's also about the characters that actually do show up on the page, on a tablet, on a television or movie screen, or on the computer.  Stereotyping, caricature, and marginalization has been a persistent problem in children's literature throughout its long history. Unfortunately, even within the sparse numbers of diverse texts that make it into print every year, problems remain.

Is it any wonder that some kids and teens of color don't like to read much?

Here is a radical, potentially dangerous thought:  It's not that kids and teens of color and other marginalized and minoritized young people won't read.  

It's just that many adults haven't thought very much about the racialized mirrors, windows, and doors that are in the books we offer them to read. We don't consider how kids and teens who look like them are represented in books, movies, comics, and online.  And we aren't thinking critically enough about how those story representations shape not only their lives today, but also whether they will want to pick up the next book tomorrow.

One way we can begin this important conversation is by exploring what I am calling the dark fantastic. Other scholars, artists, and activists have called this category multicultural fantasy, the postcolonial fantastic, or the Black fantastic. I've chosen to use dark on purpose. As I delve deeply into this line of inquiry, the more convinced I am that I've finally landed on the term that describes the phenomenon I've noticed. 

The fantastic -- and here, I have been influenced by many different thinkers -- includes fantasy fiction, but goes beyond it to include all stories-that-never-were, whether they are marketed, shelved or classified as science fiction, fairy tales, superhero comics, alternate histories, etc.  I like "the fantastic" as a concept and a term better than speculative fiction. The fantastic captures the wonder of stepping into a world-that-never-was, and immersing yourself in it, in a way that I'm not sure "spec-fic" does.

The dark fantastic -- my term for the role that racial difference plays at the frontiers and at the forefronts of our fantastically storied imaginations -- may provide some answers for why magical stories seem to be written for some people and not for others.  Examining examples of today's dark fantastic may help us understand how profound our societal crisis of imagination truly has become. Working toward a dark fantastic that is transformative, emancipatory, and restorative has the power to make our world anew.

I hope to use this blog as a space to "think aloud" about race and the imagination in children's and young adult books, media, and associated cultures.  This will also be a space for me to post links to my academic work, practitioner pieces, and a small but growing number of op-eds I've been asked to write.

Here's what you'll find here:  I am a children's and young adult literature scholar who is most keenly interested in speculative fiction and media, graphica and superhero comics, and YA reads (fantasy and historical fiction in particular).  Thanks to my awesome students, I also have burgeoning interests in teen television, Hollywood adaptations of YA spec-fic, and illustrated texts of all kinds.  Above and beyond my interests as a critic, my current research examines how urban Black kids in Detroit and Philadelphia respond to reading about slavery in books for older children and young adolescents, so I'll be touching upon history in this blog as well.  (I'm finding that my Dark Fantastic and Healing Fictions projects are speaking to each other quite a bit.)

My age group of expertise/focus is adolescents and young adults, although I began my teaching career in a fifth grade classroom and have now taught K-12 methods and children's literature courses for several years. 

Since I'm on the tenure track, I won't be blogging daily, but I hope that I will be here regularly enough to contribute my views and my voice to the larger conversation. I'll also be participating in Donalyn Miller's #bookaday summer reading challenge soon.  One of the reasons I launched my blog now was so that I could have a place beyond Goodreads to post reviews.  It will also be a convenient spot to post links, so please drop me a line if there's something that I've missed.

Closing with a Paulo Freire quote I try to live by -- "If I do not love the world--if I do not love life--if I do not love people--I cannot enter into dialogue."

Let the dialogue begin.


  1. Sounds great! I added your blog to my feedly. I love this: "The time to emancipate our imaginations is now."

  2. Thanks! I need to go back and edit the post, but it's been sitting in my queue as a draft for three months. Writing an article for an industry publication, but need a platform other than Twitter to contribute. Appreciate the response! :)

  3. Looking forward to this dialogue, indeed.

    I'm here via Tu Books/Diversity in YA tumblr link, and I'm loving the phrase "failure of imagination" in reference to diversity in fantasy YA/children's lit. Oh, indeed. Thank you in advance for nudging us toward more critical thought.

    1. Hi, Tanita! Your comment means the world to me. I've enjoyed your work for many years and wrote about A LA CARTE in a 2011 article about urban landscapes in YA lit. Your work was also featured in a presentation by Dr. Yolanda Hood at the Children's Literature Association scholarly conference that just ended this evening. Thank you for your support of my blog, but I'd like to thank you even more for your novels. Peace and strength over the miles! :)


    2. WOW. Thank you! Words like these keep the pilot light burning when my creative flame goes dim.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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