I just returned from participating in the annual Children’s Literature Association conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and while I will definitely be posting my thoughts on the conference, first, this:
One of the great things about my job (assistant professor teaching classes on children’s and young adult literature) is that publishers send me free books. This introduces me to an awful lot of great literature that I might not otherwise encounter, as well as saves me potentially hundreds of dollars per year. I’m incredibly grateful to all the publishers who have me on their lists, especially Lee & Low, Children’s Book Press, and Scholastic, and all the others who have sent me books because I’m on 2 awards committees (Jane Addams and Asian Pacific American), or just because.
Today I received a book that I think was not “just because” because there was no mention that it wanted to be considered for either award. The letter from the editor began thusly:
As a child armchair traveler, I passionately followed the exotic adventures related in books such as The Story about Ping… Exotic to me as a child (and still today), as I always have been captivated by reading about cultures and times different from my own, and places far from home.
This tells me that right off the bat that the author of this letter is white. While many of us can claim to love stories that depict cultures “different from my own,” labeling them as “exotic” immediately calls up Orientalist and fetishist sentiments. This was my first gut reaction.
As well, the fact that he cited The Story About Ping, which was illustrated by The Five Chinese Brothers illustrator Kurt Weise (see Schwartz, Albert V. “the Five Chinese Brothers: Time to Retire.” Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 8, no. 3 (1977): 3-7 and the response to it Lanes, Selma G. “A Case for the Five Chinese Brothers.” School Library Journal no. October 1977 (1977): 90-91) makes his Orientalist orientation a little more clear. The Story About Ping has been criticized for depictions of both animal cruelty and its Orientalist illustrations (slanted eyes, etc.), so a person who enjoyed that book’s “exotic” story probably does not examine illustrations or perspectives very critically. This situation reminds me of recent conversations sparked by Laura Atkins (“What’s the Story? Reflections on White Privilege in the Publications of Children’s Books“) and Zetta Elliott (“Something Like an Open Letter to the Children’s Publishing Industry“) as another clear example of the white-ness of children’s literature publishing; if there were more Asian Americans walking the halls of children’s publishing houses, this kind of language would not be used with such flagrant Othering.
My point in writing about this is to emphasize, in addition to how I read the white gaze through the editor’s word choice, but more so the importance of the editor’s introductory letter. I am an Asian American, and I am sensitive and react quite viscerally to the use of the word “exotic” because it is loaded with fetishistic, Orientalist fantasies of the white gaze on Asian Others; as a female, to me it signifies white males colonizing and hypersexualizing the bodies of Asian females (and yes, the editor is male). Others who are less sensitized to these words may not react the same to an introductory letter that describes an Asian culture as “exotic,” but I find it repugnant. As allies and advocates for healthy and non-fetishistic perspectives on underrepresented cultures, I hope you will not be okay with words such as “exotic.”
I have not read the enclosed book, and am not sure I will. I say that because the point here is not the book, but the editor’s letter and the impact it had on me as a potential reader, reviewer and promoter (since in my professional capacity I do review and promote books), so I don’t want you to criticize my criticisms based on not having read the book; it’s about the letter. I don’t have to read everything that comes across my desk, and a letter like that gives me a reason not to.