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