Racism is on a lot of people’s minds right now. My sister told me last night that there were riots in Portland over the results of the Darren Wilson case. And last week folks in the children’s book world were buzzing angrily about Lemony Snicket’s distasteful “joke” about Jacqueline Woodson’s watermelon allergy.
The issue of racism hit home for me last week when I ran into an issue with a local children’s bookseller. She didn’t carry a book I wanted. So why is this an issue of racism? Well, first a little about Santa Fe: the census says that Santa Fe is 51% Latino. Santa Fe High is about 85% Latino. And Capitol High is probably closer to 95%. Those are the two public high schools. But there are about a dozen private hippy schools and charter schools and I will eat my hand if they enroll more than 5–10% Latino kids. Tuition at the local private schools is about $20,000/year for high school. Just for reference, the AP Lit class as Santa Fe High had to read Othello out loud last year, because they couldn’t afford to buy a class set.
Race is a bizarre issue in Santa Fe. Racism is ubiquitous here. It is one of the most segregated places I have ever been. And yet, cultural appropriation is rampant. Everyone here eats “New Mexican” food which is a pleasing combination of actual Mexican food and Native American food. We all celebrate Fiesta and the burning of Zozobra. And nobody calls it cultural appropriation. And nobody seems to mind that the same historical culture that we’re celebrating is actually a living tradition that belongs to half of our community that is not even welcome downtown in the plaza anymore. As I said, it is a bizarre place.
So back to the children’s book store. I have shopped here many times. I have chatted with the owner. And I have always been very supportive. I support local, independent book stores in general. I support children’s bookstores, particularly. But I don’t know if I can support this shop any longer. Because she doesn’t carry Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets to the Universe. She doesn’t carry any books by Benjamin Alire Saenz, it turns out. Despite the fact that he grew up around here and that his books are set here.
I sent this email to the store owner asking about this:
Something really upset me last time I was in the shop, and I have tried to let it go, but I am still thinking about it. I came in to the shop looking for Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets to the Universe. And I discovered that you don’t carry it. And you don’t carry any books by Benjamin Alire Saenz, in fact. This really threw me. Aristotle & Dante was the most decorated YA novel of 2013. It got a Printz Honor, the Stonewall Award, A Lambda Literary Award, and the Pura Belpre. It’s also by far and away the most beautiful and honest book I have read in years. And Saenz is the only Latino author to have ever won the Pen/Faulkner award, I believe. And he grew up in Mesilla and graduated from Las Cruces High.Half of the children and teens in this town are latino. Half of them could relate better to Saenz’s books than any other books that have been written in the children’s book market. Is that half of our town not welcome in your shop?
Here is the response I got from her:
Thanks so much for your email and your feedback. I’m sorry you were upset by the absence of Aristotle and Dante… on the
shelves of Bee Hive. I have in fact carried it in the store and tried to keep it in stock for quite a while. But it just didn’t move. Because the books come and go so quickly and I only have so much of a budget to reorder books – it only makes sense for me to keep the books in stock that sell and, of course, offer to special order any other specific requests. I assure you Bee Hive was created for all of the kids of Santa Fe – I am not interested to catering to any one demographic. And I would love to get
more Latino readers in the store. But, as with many things in the independent book store business, it has been a challenge.
Thanks so much for your support and your time and attention.
I hope to see you in the store soon.
So, to put it mildly, this response is bull. Let’s deconstruct it for a second. First of all, the book has been out for less than two years. She says that she tried to keep it in stock for “quite a while” but it hadn’t been in stock for like eight months when I came in. Also, I’ve shopped there for awhile. Which means I remember buying another book there and having her tell me that the book I bought had been on the shelves for three years and no one had ever bought it. So why did Aristotle & Dante get sent back? Another problem with this response: why hasn’t she read this book? We’ve chatted books. She recommended Eleanor & Park to me, which I loved. But she obviously hasn’t read Aristotle & Dante. But she is widely read in children’s & YA. Why did she not bother to read this book with four metals on its cover that is set basically in her own community? I don’t know.
I have been trying to understand the racial dynamics in this town since I moved here. I have worked in the public schools and in the private schools. I have friends who are rich white folk and friends who are dirt poor Mexican folk. Lots of good people on both sides. But the racial tensions . . . I’m just not sure.
There’s a lot more to say here. More to say about Ferguson and what happened at the National Book Awards and the responses to them and several articles I’ve read about race recently. And I will, because these are important issues and I think one of the biggest problems is the lack of real dialogue about them. It’s easy to be politically correct. And to police those who aren’t. It’s easy to throw money at a problem. But actually talking about something as powerful, uncomfortable, and intractable as racism is less easy. So this month, let’s talk about racism.