15 October 2015


BSC #16: Jessi's Secret Language by Ann M. Martin

My family is black.

I know it sounds funny to announce it like that. If we were white, I wouldn't have to, because you would probably
assume we were white. But when you're a minority things are different.

. . . I don't think any of us expected the one bad thing we found in Stoneybrook: There are hardly any black families here. We are the only black family in our neighbourhood, and I am--get this--the only black kid in the whole entire sixth grade at Stoneybrook Middle School. Can you believe it? I can't.

Unfortunately, things have been a little rough for us. I can't tell if some people here really
don't like black people, or if they just haven't known many, so they're kind of wary of us . . .

Jessi, honey, I can't believe it, either. Until Ann M. Martin confessed it, I had also assumed Stoneybrook was a little more diverse than that. But then I'd have to admit that none of the BSC members, their relatives, or their clients have been black . . . which probably means Stoneybrook has been like a 1940s Warner Brothers picture to me, with token black people conspicuously inserted into group shots and sequences, but not really part of the dynamic, interesting world of the story. But hey, there's a Japanese main character!

It seems that I've hit the "right book at the right time" jackpot this week! With the next BSC book on my agenda just happening to be about a black family and hearing-impaired children, what should the YA/MG crowd on Twitter do but take aim at author Meg Rosoff for daring to question the sacred cow of "diversity" in children's literature. For Rosoff's full thoughtcrime, please study the following screengrab . . .

I can totally see why the #WeNeedDiverseBooks crowd is clutching its (multicoloured?) pearls, and I do sympathise enough to help them all gently to the nearest fainting couch, but I agree with most of Meg Rosoff's points here. (Perhaps the only thing I don't care for is the "wings" vs. "mirrors" dichotomy.) And I'd like to thank her for helping me articulate the problem I've had with the current push toward "diversity": it's too literal. Forget about three-dimensional characters; all you really need is someone who ticks at least three boxes on the "minority" or "marginalised" checklist. (I can't wait for an indignant diversity warrior to demand that I prove my description is literally true . . .)

Now, I can get behind the general idea of diversity in reading choices. I personally don't like having too many of the same kind of book in a row--and I think there is enough variety in both my Locus Focus list and the "Two or Three" Book Club picks to show that I "get around" enough, though I do tend to keep to certain broad areas. That others have made the measure of "diversity" the number of major characters who aren't white, heteronormative, or "abled" (Let me know if I've missed a major category!) is merely a difference of opinion--and not a bad thing at all. But we do have a problem when those who want more such books argue that their preference is also the moral one. If this is so, then anyone who disagrees, as Meg Rosoff did, is a bad guy who can't see his own "privilege" and is depriving minority children of desperately-needed "mirrors." That's unfair enough without even touching on the second problem, the one that really kills me.

Do you remember which archetypal figure needed to see himself in a mirror before he could be happy? . . . Take note of the moral of his story.

Or just take note of what Alone said about (you and) beauty ads--"You want it to be true that advertising sets the standard of beauty because in the insane calculus of your psychology you have a better chance of changing Dove than you have of changing yourself"--and realise that it could also be said about (you and) books. That is: "You want it to be true that publishing sets the standard for social value because in the insane calculus of your psychology you have a better chance of changing children's books than you have of changing yourself."

But I should really get back to Jessi's Secret Language, which took diversity seriously decades before authors could be harassed with hashtags. One thing I like about it is the special way that Jessi and the club fit together, though there is more telling than showing, as exemplified in this passage . . .

Kristy started the [Baby-sitters] club in order to help out parents in the neighbourhood who needed sitters, and to earn money, of course. But for me, the club has done something else. It has helped to pave my way here in Stoneybrook. I'm meeting lots of people, especially people in my neighbourhood, and those people are finding out that I (a black girl) am not scary or awful or anything except just another eleven-year-old kid, who happens to have dark skin. (And who happens to be a good dancer, a good joke-teller, a good reader, good with languages, and most important, good with children. But a terrible letter writer.)

Jessi, dear, I'm really glad that you're showing your warier neighbours the truth; I just wish you could have done it with neighbours we've already met and that Martin hadn't brought in a whole new family for you to work with. Snotty Jenny Prezzioso could have been your first challenge--as she was the newly-introduced Braddock children's first challenge. And I imagine you would have been great with hyperactive Jackie Rodowsky, maybe introducing him to dance as a way to keep his body in motion without wrecking everything around him or hurting himself! I can only speculate why Martin chose to let you share your debut with the Braddocks, which means you spend more time telling readers what it's like to be deaf in a hearing world than showing us what it's like to be black in a mostly white world.

There's also something FF-ish about having both a new sitter and new sittees. While we could say that Martin is just expanding her fictional world faster than she normally does, which feels awkward enough, it also seems as if she's hitching that world to an agenda beyond her usual objective of telling a entertaining story in which baby-sitting does a group of girls and their community a lot of good. For sure, her being the world's creator gives her every right to do that . . . but neither that nor her good intentions save Jessi's Secret Language from coming off as a novel-length public service announcement with a license to use the entire BSC cast.

I don't know what you were watching in 1990,
but for me, this came to mind almost immediately

Can you imagine a Juvenile Series All-Stars to the Rescue??? . . . No, I can't, either. LOL! . . . Let's hope that Jessi's next book makes up for this one.

Image Sources: a) BSC #16: Jessi's Secret Language by Ann M. Martin, b) Meg Rosoff doubleplusungoodthink


Sheila said...

I don't think diversity in fiction is as much a mirror as a friend -- that is, it makes you feel less alone when there's someone like you in the books you read. I grew up idealizing public school, and you grew up idealizing America, because all of our (fictional) friends were in those places! I might have felt more at ease with my own situation if I'd felt there was anyone else in the world in my shoes. And I think that's one reason why minorities in books are so important -- for the kid who is the only gay black kid he knows, finding one in fiction can make him feel a lot less lonely.

But of course, just as important is to prevent literature just being a mirror for white boys. I mean, if every single book you read is about someone just like you, you might think everyone is like you. And then you might miss the ways in which other people struggle. Even if you're a gay black kid, when you read a book about an adopted Asian kid, you might have your eyes opened a bit about how you're not the ONLY person on earth who has unique challenges. I think that's kind of the point about Jesse and the deaf kids (though it was long enough ago that I don't remember if it was spelled out) -- Jesse thinks she's so underprivileged because she's the only black kid her age, but then she meets kids who are deaf and has to step outside of herself and realize that others have it hard too.

(Note: I've been behind on blogs lately, so don't be surprised if I suddenly comment on everything. Sorry! ;)

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, I do think it's obvious that books can do the kind of good you're describing. I just don't think it's their job to do it. And I think a push to assign books such jobs reduces literature to a tool for social engineering. The only reason the #WeNeedDiverseBooks crowd don't look as sinister as they are is that they're not a government ministry.

As for the specific issue of minorities and mirrors, I do think it's narcissistic to need to be reflected in something (be it beauty ads or children's books) in order to feel better about oneself. (Coincidentally, I just got done watching a video of a debate about "skinny" mannequins in which one of the participants argued that mannequins should reflect the fact that people come in all shapes and sizes because otherwise many women might feel bad about their bodies and develop unhealthy habits. And I had two reactions: a) there's got to be a better reason for it; and b) WHY do we need validation from retail displays to be happy???)

I also wonder whether the reason some children think books with protagonists who simply don't look like them is not so much a problem with the books as it is a problem with the children. If a child rejected potential real-life friends simply because of their skin colour, we wouldn't project the first child's issues onto the others, would we? I find it more troubling to think that young readers cannot relate to well-written but different-looking characters who actually have a lot in common with them, because it shows a failure of imagination. If this is true for a white boy who struggles with or rejects a book about an Asian girl protagonist, then it's also true for an Asian girl who struggles with or rejects a book with a white boy protagonist.

Sheila said...

Is anyone really suggesting that Asian girls should NEVER read books about white boys? Pretty sure they do all the time. But there's a real problem with boys NEVER reading books with girl protagonists. Nothing to do about that, I suppose, but wish they'd pick different books. I think everyone, whether minority or not, should be reading some books that reflect them and some that push their worldview out by NOT reflecting them. Just like you might want some friends who share important things in common with you, and some who don't. If all of them do, you'll be ignorant of differences; if none of them do, you'll feel alone and unsupported. The trouble is that with books, when they are not diverse, one group is too thoroughly reflected and the other group not reflected enough.

Do you think books attempting to be a positive moral force is bad, though? Are you a believer in Art for Art's Sake?

Enbrethiliel said...


We totally disagree on a couple of things. (Surprise!) I don't think it's much of a problem if boys never read books with girl protagonists--nor if _____ never read books with _____ protagonists. (Fill in the blanks with absolutely anything.) If they're not interested, they're simply not interested. It's not a symptom of some horrible character defect.

Now, I do think it's a bit sad that some people are just not as intellectually curious as others. I like "diversity" in reading myself (though I define it more by different genres or time periods than by the race or sex of the protagonists); and I've done my share of challenging fellow readers to break out of their comfort zones. But if they want to stay where they are, then that's really not a problem. A few centuries ago, most of us wouldn't have learned how to read at all. (I think the popularity of less "worthwhile" books, from penny dreadfuls to celebrity biographies, is a built-in feature of universal literacy. The poor readers we will always have with us . . . and nothing we literary snobs do will make them more like us.)

I also don't think it's a big issue if one group is greatly reflected, while another is barely reflected at all, if this is also a reflection of either reality or how the author honestly sees the world. (One of the most ridiculous moments of my life was the time I had to defend both J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson because The Lord of the Rings has no black characters.) Having said that, I think lots of modern writers who live in racially diverse areas honestly see the world that way. And many books have become "diverse" organically, because of those writers' experiences. With many more to follow! In case it wasn't clear, I don't think this is a bad thing at all. But there's something about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement (and about Jessi's Secret Language) that does not seem organic to me. And no, I'm not just smelling the money. (Remember twenty years ago when Oprah's Book Club was such a success that publishers started asking writers to submit "Oprah books"? Well, "diverse books" are the new "Oprah books." There are bound to be some gems in each mix, but the trend itself is our self-appointed betters telling us what we "should" read.)

To answer your last question, I do think that literature (to paraphrase a friend, who was paraphrasing a philosopher) is meant to refine the passions; and in that sense, it can definitely be a positive moral force. At the same time, I am very suspicious of modern books that were purposely written to make readers more moral. This is mostly my bias, I admit, because it boils down to my possibly not agreeing with the author about what is or is not moral. Yet I think any well-written book, even those that fit some trend or agenda, can have a refining effect on us. But putting the trend or agenda first, with all the other elements of literature meant to serve it, just turns the books into propaganda.

Belfry Bat said...

Here's what bugs me: "diversity" in fiction, for its own sake, is cheap.

Or to put it another way: when an author, whether to have been "edgy" or to push an agenda, or just out of carelessness, writes a child's adoptive mother and father as two men, there aren't actually two men contending with a world that deplores their bedroom practice (if that's how the book is written) — nor is there actually a child who is either sheltered from it or immersed in it. Nor, actually, is there a world around them that doesn't notice the weirdness of their situation, if that's how the writer wants to write it. There is nothing other than honesty that might constrain a writer to make the written world conform to the real world, and even honesty can be deluded.

Enbrethiliel said...


For all the trumpeting of "diversity" in literature as a reflection of reality, I wonder how many of the stories are less a reflection of the world than a reflection of the authors' idea of an ideal world.

Sheila said...

You're kind of going to have to pick one. Previously you said that if a gay black boy wants to read only about other gay black boys, that's bad morally, it's narcissistic, literature should challenge instead of just being a mirror. But when I said that that would be bad for straight white boys, suddenly you're saying it's the child's choice what they are and aren't interested in.

I'm definitely in favor of kids reading things they're interested in, but there has to BE stuff out there for them to read before they can exercise that choice. If all the choices are the same, then the kids' preferences don't really matter all that much.

As adults, we do have the responsibility to write, promote, and/or buy the sort of literature we want to be available to kids. So it IS a moral choice. Obviously we should choose good literature, stuff that's true to life, and so forth, but I do think diversity is something to at least consider.

Enbrethiliel said...


That's totally not what I said. I said that if someone needs to see a reflection of himself in a book before he can be happy with it, that is narcissistic. If he chooses to read only stuff that feeds his narcissism, well, I do recognize his freedom to do so, though I'd consider him one of the "poor readers" because of it. I also think that a movement that celebrates this sort of narcissistic reading is a bad thing.

As I keep saying, I really like diverse reading choices. I just think that #WeNeedDiverseBooks making it about race and sex is being extremely literal and promoting a narcissistic idea.

Enbrethiliel said...


Since my last reply, which I dashed off during a quick break at work, I've had more time to think about the issue of books as mirrors. This time, my focus was Sheila's phrase "literature as just a mirror for white boys." As a description of what we might call "canonical" children's literature, that really bothers me.

Can we really reduce books as diverse as Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, the Tintin series, the Harry Potter series, and most of both Greek and Norse mythology (to name just a few selections) to "mirrors for white boys"? I suppose there have been some children's books written from a self-consciously white point of view, by authors who don't care much for racial diversity and have their own agenda; but I would feel very, very sorry for a reader who could go through the actual classics and read them only in that very narrow, race-centric light.

On the other hand, I think the books with non-white, non-heteronormative protagonists that have been published primarily for the sake of diversity can be called merely mirrors for Asian girls . . . or gay blacks . . . or whatever the category of the month happens to be. For they were intended to be. In this sense, they don't deserve to be called the equals of books that were written without an agenda. Now, I am very open to the possibility that there will turn out to be some true classics among them, but I'm not optimistic about any publishing trend driven by (poor) readers who see books primarily as mirrors.