The Association of Library Services For Children (ALSC) thinks my children’s record, “We’re Not Kiddin’ Around”, contains potentially racist material…I just want to clarify a few things……
Recently I was surprised the American Library Association’s Association of Library Services For Children (www.ALSC.org) informed me that my children’s record promoted some potentially racist and offensive concepts noting a few of the books that we sing about on our new record “We’re Not Kiddin’ Around”.
I had submitted a number of banner ads to run on their website, and responded to their initial inquiry into possibly writing a blog post for them. Weeks after submitting the materials, I received this response from their Membership and Marketing Specialist, Ms. Elizabeth (Elly) Serrano:
Thank you for considering ALSC for these ad placements and for a proposed guest blog piece on children’s books and music. While the idea of how music can enrich a reading experience would appeal to our members, we do have concerns with book titles on the website’s homepage, http://www.musickideos.com/, which are not in alignment with our values of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Additionally, the proposed guest blog post summary we received could be interpreted as an advertisement of the website and services, which also does not align with our Blog Policy.
Considering these points, we’re unable to move forward with the ads and guest blog post at this time.
Thank you again for considering ALSC.
Elizabeth (Elly) Serrano
Membership and Marketing Specialist
Association for Library Service to Children
225 N Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60601
A Division of the American Library Association
When I inquired what specifically they found offensive or out of bounds I was told:
“The Five Chinese Brothers in addition to Monkey Lost due to potential concerns of anthropomorphic images of monkeys in children’s literature.”
Needless to say I was somewhat surprised-especially since it appears that Elly didn’t seem to make it past the homepage of the album’s website to look at the book titles (which features a pretty great illustration of a diverse group of excited kids reading books by the fantastic Rob Steen!) or listen to the music. If she would have dug deeper, I think she possibly might have had a different opinion.
I do understand the need to be careful about the books, media and messages that we present to young people, but it wasn’t my intention at all to promote any sort of potentially racist context/content or offensive messaging. It was actually quite the opposite, and I submitted the project to the organization knowing that American Library Association’s code of ethics is an important cornerstone in the integrity of the public library system. Here’s what I found on their website-
“We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.”
“We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.”
As someone who has worked in the public library system, I feel that libraries should perhaps be less about filtering/censoring and more about access. Librarians are supposed to provide access and awareness to a variety of ideas, materials, and ideas, and help us navigate and understand them.
So since the ALSC has cast their decision on “We’re Not Kiddin’ Around” I felt the need to clarify and explain my position on this project and these books to educators and children’s librarians who may not know about this project, and might be open to hearing about it. Plus, if you want, you can have a free copy of the music (read to the end for more about this offer.)…
Let’s start with “Monkey Lost” -
by Ed Heck, a book he wrote and dedicated to his two young sons. Internationally known, with a wry sense of humor and a playful, endearing visual style, Ed created a book that celebrates children’s imaginations, and the way they find solace, creativity and understanding through storytelling. It’s a story that illustrate children’s innate ability as storytellers, and is a book that encourages creative thinking, brainstorming, and sharing ideas.
Elizabeth (Elly) Serrano stated they objected to the book because of “potential concerns of anthropomorphic images of monkeys in children’s literature.”
When a boy loses his precious plush-toy monkey, his classmates rally around him and try to and help him find the lost monkey. In a rollicking ramble, all the children begin to think about all the crazy places the mischievous monkey may have gone- to the movies, to the zoo, to the park. All sounds like some pretty racist stuff to me. A bunch of kids trying to figure out where an imaginary monkey is. Yup, and that monkey on a surfboard, that will certainly whip that group of second graders into a full-on cross-burning.
It is a story about a lost stuffed animal.
It is a story about using your imagination.
When I’ve read this story to young people I often ask them where else the monkey could go? What else could the monkey be doing? I don’t think there has ever been a time where a child raised their hand and suggested that the monkey should be lynched.
Seriously- are we now censoring all monkeys, elephants, ants, spiders, coyotes -all animals that have places in multi-cultural literature and are anthropomorphized across countless books? I guess so- so that could free up some shelf space on the bookshelves. Before you throw them out, please send me any animal books that the great Jerry Pinkney illustrated- he was masterful.
By the way, Ed Heck, the book’s author recorded a sweet video with me where he teaches kids to draw a monkey like the character in the book. Its a great activity and I encourage you to sit down with a 6 or 7 year old and give it a shot. Here’s the link (http://musickideos.com/activities.html) and I bet you’ll see a kid create something fun, and you’ll see a kid who is proud of making something with a pencil and a piece of paper. Thank God I didn’t ask him to teach kids how to draw Pepe the Frog. Maybe I’ll save that for the next record. (Just kidding!!) ;-)
My sister, who is a creative nursery school teacher, actually plays a real life version of hide and seek with a sock monkey after reading the book to her class. It’s really pretty amusing.
Ms. Serrano’s concern about “potential concerns of anthropomorphic images of monkeys in children’s literature” reminded me of some of the articles and analyses of the “Curious George” tizzy over the years. The analogy to slavery, the promotion of white supremacy, colonialism et al………I actually find it more interesting to read the story to kids and see them raise their own concerns about a story or character and turn it into a discussion.
I encourage you to read this post by Sachi Feris — a brilliant educator from Brooklyn:
Her post about how she handled the book with her daughter is a lesson for all of us. She understood how her daughter was processing the story, and generated an engaging, genuine discussion around the story. In addition, she managed to bring the story into “playtime”-extending the opportunity for her daughter to discuss and learn further from the book.
Discuss and learn. Important concepts and skills I’d hope that we should creatively apply to both the teaching and learning process. If we carelessly censor material that could potentially be challenging, we limit the opportunity for meaningful discussions to happen, and it completely goes against the fundamental mission of a library to provide access and awareness to published materials.
Now, the next objection, I can understand, to a point. I know that this next book has been a concern to many people over the years, so I thought I would just let folks know why I wrote a song about the book-
The Five Chinese Brothers.
I knew I was taking a risk including this book in the project, but if you look at the website- you will see exactly what my process and justification was for its inclusion. Plus I think it is a pretty good tune, and Soozie Tyrell kicks some butt on the fiddle solo.
I specifically state on the www.musickideos.com website that “People have shunned this book for its illustrations. This is actually based on an old Chinese folk tale, and to me, it’s all about super powers and helping each other out.”
I read this book as a child. I remember being enthralled with the super-powers that these five brothers had- the ability to stretch and change your shape, the ability to withstand fire, the ability to hold one’s breath, swallow the sea and be impenetrable to swords and axes….It was a story of superheroes — who were brothers- who helped each other out. Pretty inspirational. I wonder if Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were influenced by this story in their youth when they created The Fantastic Four?
In the early eighties I worked at The Door- a multi-faceted youth center in New York City, where I was part of an educational research program on exploring teaching and learning with a collection of Apple IIe computers. One of the activities we created for the kids was to create a series of urban folktales about superheroes in ancient New York City- drawing on comic books, kid’s stories, and ancient myths we created our own collection mythological characters that had superpowers and unique talents- and we used a range of stories to help brainstorm and inspire ideas. Yes, we used The Five Chines Brothers, and the more traditional “Seven Chinese Brothers” as part of the lesson.
There’s an excellent essay by Selma G. Lanes in a book that specifically addresses the concerns raised by some academics and the ALSC. I encourage you to find a copy of the book Through The Looking Glass- which was published in 2004 by David R. Godine, (Publisher/Boston)
Lanes completely refutes the calls by an academic to ban the book because of its alleged racist drawings and stereotypes. I encourage you to read the entire piece “A Case For The Five Chinese Brothers”, but I’ll include the following excerpts below. When I read this piece a number of years ago when working on a library design project, I found it inspirational-so I returned to the essay when I received the ALSC’s response to “We’re Not Kiddin’ Around”-
“…as it happens, I was fond of The Five Chinese Brothers as a child, and I would be willing to swear on a stack of fortune cookies that the book did nothing but encourage positive thought in me about the Chinese and the future from which they spring.
Far from finding the five brother’s yellow skin “bilious” I always thought of artist art Wiese’s faces as being the color of sunshine or butter, cheerful and highly appealing. And if Mr. Wiese’s heroes are rendered in a broad cartoon style, well, why not? This approach has been used by many a successful children’s book artists from Peter Newell to Jack Kent without the intention of demeaning the subjects thus rendered. It is, in fact, a style particularly well-suited to the folktale, a genre which deals in broad truths We are not concerned with he names, ages or specific physical features of the characters in a Grimm fairy tale any more than we are in Bishop’s confection.
The fact of the brothers’ being exact look-alike is the great joke of the book- not a racial joke on the Chinese, but a specific joke on the judge and townspeople in the town. The great charm of the story, of course, is that the upon a time there were Five Chines Brothers, and they all looked exactly alike.”
I’m not denying that some people find the artwork in this book offensive. I totally understand that. But if you are going to cite “We’re Not Kiddin’ Around” on the grounds of potential racial issues, I think we should take a broader look at some other books and media on many bookshelves and apply the same sweeping criteria of censorship.
I wonder how many computer centers in public libraries across the country have books and video games on their shelves and hard drives with Mario from Nintendo on them???? A slight Italian stereotype maybe?
A quick search through some online catalogs from various libraries across the country not only produced images of Mario, but also DVDs that featured Mr.Magoo- a character with a rather stereotypical Chinese bus boy who was integral to the humor and jokes woven into the episodes. And we should also note that the humor of the main character was centered around the mishaps and mayhem created by a person with a visual impairment. I’m not sure where we draw the lines on sensitivity, stereotypes and offensive humor, but I think we need to apply the same standards across our bookshelves and media bins.
As an exercise, I looked at each one of the songs and books I included on “We’re Not Kiddin’ Around” and applied blanket generalizations to each of the selections. The results of this exercise was shocking to me. As innocent, naive, good-intentioned and unaware as I was, the bottom line conclusion I came to is that Frank Migliorelli (and The Dirtnappers and their special guests) is promoting oppression, racism, bullying, and all kinds of other mind wrecking mayhem on the youth of America… Let’s take a look at each of the books-
Where the Wild Things Are-A blatant demonstration of colonialism/imperialism practices. Could be perceived as a “how to” manual for conquering other cultures. Very dangerous.
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel- Worker exploitation and a steam shovel that is obviously burning tons of fossil fuels. Off the shelf, now!
Monkey Lost-Issues noted above.
5 Chinese Brothers-Ditto
Harry The Dirty Dog-Hmmmm, that dirty dog could symbolize blackface, everything needs to be “white”. Pitch it.
Flat Stanley-Be careful, there’s bullying and shaming in this book, some sort of mocking of a handicap or disability. Pull it off the shelf.
Own and Mzee- Animal exploitation and captivity-can’t really say too much about zoos in some circles, so we better put it on the pile, even though Oprah liked it.
Go Dog Go- More anthropomorphism, not to mention a few possible costumes that might be perceived as culturally insensitive….better toss it.
Wow. I swear I honestly didn’t mean any of this to happen!
But the real problem is……
Our inability to take chances to think and teach critically. We’ve been talking about critical thinking for years, at least as long as I’ve been involved in education and developing educational media a products for kids. Unfortunately, we’re all guilty of not truly challenging the status quo.
As educators, we are so afraid of offending, saying the wrong thing, using the wrong words, showing the wrong images, we’ve become afraid of taking chances, challenging our students, and teaching from multiple perspectives. On the internet, people are so loudly trying to promote what they think is correct, we’ve stopped listening, evaluating and discussing. This is a struggle we’ve had on our hands for years, and in my own personal and professional journey as a designer, an educator, and a director of educational programs. We have to do better.
I look to libraries and librarians as educators and institutions who help guide us to resources to adopt, evaluate and understand things from multiple perspectives. We need those professionals who guide us to materials that help us learn to discuss, understand different view points, help us organize and study our past so we can look to the future with new ideas and create solutions. This can’t come from censorship or creating blanket criteria that stifles the opportunity to evaluate perspectives. Access and awareness helps promote discourse, discussion, and demonstration. Creating opportunities that allow multiple perspectives and opinions to be heard, evaluated and adapted is the amazing service that we all expect and benefit from our public library system.
It really wasn’t about the record. I’m sad that the ALSC didn’t like it, but I honestly don’t think the project was evaluated according to the American Library Association’s code of ethics. It was obvious that the Membership and Marketing Specialist gave We’re Not Kiddin’ Around” a cursory glance, saw something that was potentially an “issue” and dismissed it the entire project. Unfortunately, they seemed to miss that the idea behind this project was to inspire reading, create awareness of some great stories, promote local libraries and bookstores, inspire caregivers and children………and to have some fun.
In conclusion, I’d just like to make the following offer- If you are a children’s librarian or K-8 teacher and want a copy of the record, email me at email@example.com and I’ll send you a copy of the CD (if you still use CDs) or a link to free downloads of the files. Also, if you visit www.musickideos.com and think you might have an idea for the “Activities” section of the website, please feel free to send them on! I’d love to hear from some creative educators and share your ideas!
I’ll be doing a few gigs here and there, as the pandemic allows. If you happen to be in the bar, show me your ALSC membership card, and I’ll buy you a beer. I might even play the song “5 Chinese Brothers” and dedicate it to you. Hopefully, you might sing along.
Returning once more to Selma Lane’s counter critique of the The Five Chinese Brothers she writes,
“By all means, let’s avoid using any picture book that might give offense, but let’s also avoid blanket condemnations. It’s just possible that one man’s stereotype may be another’s broadening experience.”
A very important point, indeed. I’ll leave you with that.
Thanks for reading, and please visit www.musickideos.com and share the songs on a playlist on Spotify. You can even leave “The Five Chinese Brothers” and “My Monkey Got Lost” off your playlist if they make you feel uncomfortable. I don’t mind- enjoy! And keep reading to kids.
Frank Migliorelli is a songwriter, designer, a former college professor at Tisch School of the Arts and Steinhardt School of Education (NYU), and former Director of Digital Experience at The New York Public Library. He’s actually designed a number of children’s libraries, and currently is working on developing a cooperative farm that focuses on food security and feeding people who need food. If you are a children’s librarian or teacher and want a free copy of “We’re Not Kiddin’ Around” feel free to reach out to him and he’ll send you one. He doesn’t bite, and he’s not a racist.