Monday, July 27, 2015

Must Read

From sociologist Joe Feagin, interviewed in the New York Times, "American Racism in the 'White Frame'":
"To understand well the realities of American racism, one must adopt an analytical perspective focused on the what, why and who of the systemic white racism that is central and foundational to this society ... 
"Prejudice is much less than half the story. Because prejudice is only one part of the larger white racial frame that is central to rationalizing and maintaining systemic racism, one can be less racially prejudiced and still operate out of many other aspects of that dominant frame."
I'd advise skipping the comments which are, for the most part, a display of White Fragility (see previous post).
Feagin references one of his books, The First R: How Children learn Race & Racism, reviewed here.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Black Lives Matter

Those of us who create and share children's books don't do so in a vacuum. This has been a heartbreaking year of growing awareness of and horror at the depth and pervasiveness of violence directed at the African American community. The frequency of the news stories and the terrible circumstances and outcomes can overwhelm any viewer with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

But as advocates for children, when events shake our nation, we don't have the option of being paralyzed. We are compelled to respond, to try to do something - anything - to make the world better for our children. All of our children.

With that challenge in mind, here are some links to some of the most compelling ideas that I've seen in the last several months, ideas to propel us one step forward in what many people are calling the civil rights movement of our time:

  • Robin DiAngelo, Associate Professor of Critical Multicultural and Social Justice Education at Westfield State University, has coined the term "White Fragility" for the ways white people respond to racial stress:
"Our socialization renders us racially illiterate. When you add a lack of humility to that illiteracy (because we don’t know what we don’t know), you get the break-down we so often see when trying to engage white people in meaningful conversations about race... 
"This systemic and institutional control allows those of us who are white in North America to live in a social environment that protects and insulates us from race-based stress. We have organized society to reproduce and reinforce our racial interests and perspectives. Further, we are centered in all matters deemed normal, universal, benign, neutral and good. Thus, we move through a wholly racialized world with an unracialized identity (e.g. white people can represent all of humanity, people of color can only represent their racial selves). Challenges to this identity become highly stressful and even intolerable."

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates' brilliant, much-talked about new book, Between the World and Me, written as an extended letter to his teenage son, is a searing, penetrating read, the cumulative effect of which is to catch a glimpse, at a visceral level, of the reality of living in a black body in America:    
"The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one's eyes and forgetting the work of one's hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning towards something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But this is your work. Its must be, only to preserve the sanctity of your mind."                                                                         

"If books and stories change lives, if diverse books allow children of color to be seen and validated, then why is book purchasing not a major charitable action?"
In the face of hundreds of years of race-based dehumanization and violence, institutionalized racism and white supremacy, I may feel paralyzed. But I can take the next step in educating myself. I can start conversations about race with any and everyone I come into contact with. And I can keep figuring out ways to get more books featuring Black lives into the hands of all our children.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Collection Launched!

We had a delightful gathering for our reception last Thursday for The Picture Book Project: A Bates College Collection Portraying People of Color.

The Picture Book Project team: Bates College Professor Krista Aronson, with baby Hope; me; students Gift Pola Kiti, Caroline Kern and Brenna Callahan

Attendees included students and faculty from Bates and people from the wider community including Tilbury House, the Maine State Library, and the Maine Humanities Council...
and best of all, children.

Stars in My Eyes

Last week I received the great news that my upcoming picture book, I'm New Here, received a starred review in Kirkus!
"O’Brien’s watercolor-and-digital illustrations masterfully use perspective, white space, and the contrast between the children 'back home' and in their new settings to highlight the transition from outsider to friend. ...
Whether readers are new themselves or meeting those who are new, there are lessons to be learned here about perseverance, bravery, and inclusion, and O’Brien’s lessons are heartfelt and poetically rendered."

My editor, Julie Bliven, commented in an email that, "I feel as though the reviewer was sitting at our table two years ago at Simmons and listening in on you, me, and Whitney [art director]. They really understood what you were trying to achieve."

It's thrilling to have a beloved project recognized in this public way. And it's rare - and deeply affirming - to be gotten, to have the book described exactly as we envisioned it.

This mention increases the likelihood that the people who are looking for books about immigrant children will find it, and best of all, that it will get into the hands of children who will find themselves reflected in my book.

Thanks, Kirkus!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Picture Book Project

You are invited to the launch of 

The Picture Book Project

A Bates College Collection Portraying People of Color

May 21st 
Bates College Ladd Library
Light refreshments will be served

Come celebrate with other parents, teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators, publishers and researchers who share an interest in diverse children's books. Hear about the collection, peruse the books and learn how you can check them out for personal or professional use.

Founded by Krista Aronson, Associate Professor of Psychology at Bates, in collaboration with Anne Sibley O'Brien, children's book creator, the Collection is comprised of fiction and narrative non-fiction picture books (grades K-3) depicting characters of color published in the United States between 2002-2013. Using the collection, Professor Aronson, her collaborators and students contribute to the national dialogue about diverse children's books, capturing and communicating their dominant themes and exploring their impact on inclusion and bias, including how teachers and parents utilize them in everyday life. In line with its community focus, these books are available to everyone at Bates and beyond for research, education and personal use. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Finding the Audience for a New Book

I've just begun the Udemy Course for Freelancers taught by author and entrepreneur Seth Godin. Subscribing to his blog, I've found that at least a quarter of his daily posts are so useful, challenging or thought-provoking that I wanted to share them and/or save them for further reflection. 

In his course, a series of 87 short videos with writing exercises, Godin guides students through a process designed "to create a non-generic, unique and remarkable individual who has the leverage and the freedom to make a ruckus." There's also a comment board where students can post their responses and engage in discussion. 

I decided to take the course to focus on the project of finding the audience for my forthcoming title, I'm New Here, a concept picture book about three immigrant children, coming out in August from Charlesbridge.

The first part of the course, "Why Freelance?," includes a series of questions which Godin encourages respondents to answer publicly, in blogs or on Facebook. Here goes...

Who Are You?
1. What do you want to do?
Big picture: To create appealing, engaging children's books that touch people of all ages, connecting them to each other across race, culture and other differences, and to bring these books to a wide audience. 
Current project: To find the audience for this book: To get a copy of I'm New Here into every public school in the U.S.

2. Who do you want to change, and how do you want to change them? 
To increase awareness of and empathy for the challenges of being a new arrival among the teachers and classmates of refugee and immigrant children, and to inspire them with ways to support new students through the adjustment process.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Welcoming Refugees

Over the last two years I've been excited to learn of the work of Welcoming America,
"a national, grassroots-driven collaborative that works to promote mutual respect and cooperation between foreign-born and U.S.-born Americans. The ultimate goal of Welcoming America is to create a welcoming atmosphere – community by community – in which immigrants are more likely to integrate into the social fabric of their adopted hometowns.
One of WA's projects is Welcoming Refugees:
"Through a cooperative agreement with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Welcoming America helps organizations and communities across the United States to prepare their communities for successful resettlement over the long term by fostering greater understanding and support for refugees." 
Sign up to be part of the Welcoming Refugees network. Their Community Blog is full of resources.

On the Community Blog, I've just begun a series of posts, "Connecting Through Stories," which will focus on creating welcoming communities and conversations by using children's books featuring stories of the experiences of new Americans.

This first post is about the Cambodian American experience, in celebration of Cambodian New Year and acknowledging the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge invasion of Phnom Penh and the start of the 4-year genocide.

Upcoming posts will include books related to World Refugee Day, Ramadan, and finally in September, National Welcoming Week.