Diversity, Francelia Butler, and ChLA Buzz: A Snippet of Conversation with Dr. Katharine Capshaw

Volume 2 (June 2014)

“The Frog Prince” by C. Jackson

Recently, editors of the Unjournal had the privilege of sitting down for a nice, long chat with renowned children’s literature scholar, Dr. Katharine Capshaw. Capshaw, who will be delivering the Francelia Butler Lecture at the 41st Annual Children’s Literature Association Conference this year, will soon publish her book on photographic picture books for children during the Civil Rights era. In due time we will have the full interview published for your reading pleasure (and it is a pleasure indeed! From telling us about her stake in social justice to describing Francelia Butler’s legacy in bringing children’s literature to academia at UConn, Capshaw captivated us from start to finish). For now we give you a preview–just a little snippet of our enlightening conversation with Capshaw.  

About the authors: Unjournal editors Alya Hameed, Alixandria Lombardo, Rebecca Howat, and Kelsey Wadman were all present at this interview, but the following excerpt mostly reiterates an exchange between Capshaw and co-editor-in-chief, Alya Hameed.

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Hameed: There are a lot of issues and debates about diversity in children’s literature right now. Of course this is ongoing, but just recently there has been Dr. Phillip Serrato’s essay “Working with What We’ve Got” and Walter Dean Myers had an article published in The New York Times titled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Why do you think children’s literature still suffers from a lack of books that are representative of lived diversity?

Capshaw: There are definitely issues surrounding the publishing industry, and we will be discussing these issues at the 2014 ChLA conference. We’re going to have a panel of publishers talking about some of the impediments and pathways to publishing more books about people of color.

Frankly, scholarship is also part of the problem. Scholarship influences what people teach. If, as professors, we aren’t teaching diverse texts then they are not going to get into the hands of the classroom teachers that we’re training, so they’re less likely to get to children. When you have student-teachers in your class, you want them to at least have the choice to teach texts that are representative of lived diversity. In terms of African American literature, you at least want them to know about Walter Dean Myers, Virginia Hamilton, and Marilyn Nelson, for instance.

I think there is also a problem with children’s literature as a field because it is not, perhaps, as responsive to lived experience as other literary fields. What do you think?

H: That makes perfect sense. I struggle when I look at diversity issues in literature at large. I’m Pakistani American, and I don’t know if that literature exists anywhere. When people talk about diversity they talk about “African American” or “Latino American”… or “Asian American” in general, which is painted with broad strokes. Even the term diversity ends up not being diverse.

C: I agree! Why is American Born Chinese one of the only Asian American texts that gets taught in survey classes? We also need to be public intellectuals and talk about these limitations in blog posts, or Huffington Post, or Salon. These venues have wide access to the public, and publishing pieces with them can help change people’s sensibilities. Alya, you could write a piece about diversity as a term not being diverse enough, particularly concerning Asian American literature. That is a really pressing issue.

Wadman: Did issues like these prompt the beginning of ChLA’s Diversity Committee?

C: Yes, in 2006, a number of scholars at the conference talked about ways to make the conference offerings more representative. So we formed a committee and the membership and the board approved it. One of its goals was an established diversity panel at every ChLA conference. Michelle Pagni Stewart and the rest of the committee helped to create the ChLA Diversity Research Grant (a new initiative that ChLA has just approved) in order to support scholarship in diversity. This diversity committee was initiated by Kenneth Kidd, Michelle Martin, June Cummins, Michelle Pagni Stewart, and others, and now new members are elected every year. We wanted to take the energy around diversity and make sure it became a permanent part of the conference.

H: What can you disclose about your upcoming Francelia Butler Lecture at the 2014 ChLA conference?

C: I see it as an opportunity to discuss the challenges scholars face when studying and teaching ethnic children’s literature. I also wish to start a conversation about our place within the academy, especially in terms of our interaction with Education and librarianship. But mostly I’m excited to listen to the panels at this conference. I know we’ll all learn a lot and be able to bring those conversations home to our own institutions.

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