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Once again it is time for our annual diversity audit.
Why? Because we believe that we are what we read; and also because we believe that a great way to expand our horizons is to read books written by or about people who have lived radically different lives from ours. So each year, we use Black History Month to explore how diversely we ourselves have read during the previous 12 months.
So one quick number from this year's audit -- overall in 2021, we reviewed 78 books in total. And, a second stat, just over half, (51%) of the authors we reviewed were written by authors of color (up from 47% in 2020, 28% in 2019, and 36% in 2018).
The other thing we use Black History Month to do is feature amazing books by superb Black authors. So now, some thoughts about great books, followed by numbers from this latest audit for those of you who like data and accountability.
Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman (2021). The youngest presidential inaugural poet in US history has penned a collection of poems that delve into the collective trauma of Covid-19 and the perils of erasure. Combining primary source materials such as letters by survivors of the Spanish Flu and her own original work, Ms. Gorman offers a path forward. A path that includes looking both at the lessons of our past as well as our own stories. We found this a perfect volume to pick up and read for a bit, then put aside for awhile, and then return to it, and continue the journey these poems offer - one that is playful, pithy, memorable, humorous, calm, and heartbreaking. Gorman somehow packs all into this one volume. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith (2021). This history was named a Best Book of 2021 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Economist, Smithsonian, Esquire, Entropy, The Christian Science Monitor, WBEZ's Nerdette Podcast, TeenVogue, GoodReads, SheReads, BookPage, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Fathom Magazine, the New York Public Library, and the Chicago Public Library. It was also longlisted for the National Book Award, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In it, Smith, a staff writer at The Atlantic, examines how slavery has been central in shaping our nation’s collective history and ourselves. In doing so, he travels, among other places, from New Orleans, a port for much of the slave trade, to Monticello where park rangers talk about how the narrative they present to visitors has changed over the decades, to Manhattan where the slave trade built wealth. Ultimately this book offers hope by creating a new understanding of the role that personal stories and history can play in making sense of our country and the people who live here and lead it. ~ Lisa Christie
A Strange Loop: A musical by Michael R Jackson (2020). We don't often review plays and yet I found myself reading A Strange Loop - Mr. Jackson's professional debut, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2020. The main character - Usher - is a Black, queer writer, working a day job as an usher on Broadway while writing his own story and an original musical about a Black, queer writer, working a day job on Broadway while writing his original musical. I think you see the loop now. This contemporary musical follows an artist trying to overcome a host of obstacles - not the least of which are the punishing thoughts in his own head. Read it for the challenge reading drama provides. Read it for insight into the lives of queer Black men in the world. Read it because it will have you thinking about what all the voices in your own head would be saying to you on stage in your brain's play. ~ Lisa Christie
Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi and illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky (2020). This book exists because sometimes you need a board book to start difficult conversations. With this picture book, Mr. Kendi gives excellent tips for all of us to use as we try to be antiracist humans in the world. We are so glad they created something for infants and children and the adults who love them. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
And now the audit numbers. Although we know some of the authors we highlighted identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, we do not know the sexual orientations for all the authors we review, and thus, we do not audit by sexual orientation. We also do not have access to economic class statistics. Thus, our diversity audit focuses on identified gender and race/ethnicity.
We read and reviewed fewer books this past year than in any other year - 78 compared to 153 books in 2020, 94 books in 2019, 202 books in 2018, and 164 in 2017. We may need to fix that. (Note: For these audits, we do not include posts by guest reviewers or events such as Pages in the Pub because these books are selected by others.)
Over half (62%) of the books we reviewed were written by women (65% in 2020; 57% in 2019). Staying with stats regarding women authors we reviewed, almost a quarter (23%) of all authors we featured were white women from the USA (up from 21% in 2020 and 2019, down from 32% in 2018), and 8% of all authors we read were white women from outside the USA (down from 14% in 2020 and 20% in 2019 and same as in 2018). Latina authors were 5% of our authors in 2021; down from 11% in 2020 and up from 2% in 2019 and 4% in 2018. Like last year, only 1% of featured authors were Asian women (down from 4% in 2019 and 6% in 2018). We featured more Black women in 2021 - 18% (up from 2020's 14%, 10% in 2019, and 12% in 2018). We also featured more Arab American women (4%) and Native American women (3%), both up from zero in previous years.
As for the authors identifying as men, white men from the USA were 14% (down from 17% in 2020 and 23% in 2019) of the authors we featured. Fewer (4%) of the authors we featured were white men from outside of the USA (down from 13% in 2020 and 8% in 2019). We featured more Black male authors (13%) this past year, compared to 5% in 2020 and 7% in 2019. Very few authors we featured were Asian men (1%) or Latinos (3% which was up from 1% in 2020). None of the authors we featured identified as of Middle Eastern descent (down from 2% in 2019). We increased the number of Native American male authors we featured (4% compared to 2% in 2020 an 0% in 2019).
Adding men and women together, 51% of the authors we reviewed were persons of color (up from 47% in 2020, 28% in 2019, and 36% in 2018). Within the white authors there was a decrease in geographic diversity, 18% (down from 21% in 2020 and 33% in 2019, and up from 16% in 2018) of the white authors we featured were from outside the USA. The largest group of authors of color were Black (31%), up from 24% in 2020, 15% in 2019 and 13% in 2018.
To sum, we improved the percentage of authors of color we reviewed: 51% of all authors reviewed in 2021 were authors of color (47% in 2020, 28% in 2019, 36% in 2018, 32% in 2017, 26% in 2016, 23% in 2015). And, once again, we vow to continue to review a diverse range of authors year after year.
Two recent radio stories - NPR's "Banned Books are Back in the Spotlight but They've Always Been for this Book Club" and On The Media's "Read the Room" and a new New York Times op-ed about book banning efforts in Tennessee - have us thinking a lot about banned books.
These two broadcasts piqued our interest to the point that we decided to dig deeper into the long lists of banned books. Reviewing them, our stances become even more strident; because, as we scanned them, we realized just how much we had loved and learned from SO SO MANY books on these lists. SO MANY.
It probably comes as no surprise that these two Book Jammers don't shy away from banned books. Most often a book that has been censored holds a powerful idea between its pages. And powerful ideas make for powerful reading (and discussions). So today, we choose to review just a handful of the many banned books that have made a difference in our lives. The list of books we couldn't include in today's reviews is much longer - but we hope that the ones we are sharing help you learn, grow, be entertained in unexpected ways, and to find power between their pages.
[Full disclosure: One of the Lisas of the Book Jam is serving our our local school board (which in our town this means serving on three boards -- long story but it has a lot to do with the fact our schools are in a bi-state district created while JFK was President). This means she is doing a lot of thinking about banned books in the specific context of education and schools. Mostly she's remembering that had these lists been enforced in her childhood schools, she would have missed the transformative experiences of Mrs. McPherson's 8th grade English class.]
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958). In this lucky reader’s life there have been a few books that find their way into my hands that upon turning the last page cause me to reverently and gently place them down, to blink and slowly exhale, and then to turn my gaze back out upon the world feeling that my view has changed. This is one such book. Things Fall Apart is a novel set in precolonial Africa towards the end of the 1800’s and chronicles the effect of the the arrival of British missionaries and government on village life. It is the story of Okonkwo, a brave and powerful but flawed warrior of the Igbo clan in Nigeria. The tale is told from the deep “inside” of his clan. The “Obi” (main house), the religion, the lore, the language, family structure and the traditions are shown through his eyes and those of his family and friends. The reader is transported to another world and way of life where pythons are considered sacred and yams represent riches. It is also one where social order and connection is maintained by full moon ceremonies, wrestling, foo-foo feasts, the power of ancestral gods, and the reality of banishment. All of which is threatened by the arrival of white people. This novel explores the reality of an ever changing world while forcing us to consider what we lose along with that change. It also pushes us to consider the complexity of leadership, community, justice, and what it means to respect our fellow humans. It is not hard to understand why it is considered by many as one of the most important 100 books of all time. ~ Lisa Cadow (Previously reviewed in books-honoring-black-history-month-and-our-annual-diversity-audit)
Dear Martin by Nic Stone (2017). A superb YA novel about being profiled by the police, and how current events, BLM, and politics affect Black youth today. In this excellent debut novel, a Black student – Justyce McAllister, top of his class, captain of the debate team, and set for the Ivy League next year – is handcuffed by a police officer and released without physical harm. The psychological toll of being profiled is explored as this novel delves into his life at his mostly white prep school and in his mostly Black neighborhood. To help cope, Justyce researches the writings of MLK and writes him letters asking for guidance about how to live today. While Martin obviously never answers, the letters provide a great premise for thinking about how MLK would have handled life as a black man today. The letters also provide grounding once the novel’s action turns extremely ugly. Read it and discuss. I also highly recommend the sequel Dear Justyce - which we do not think has been banned yet. (Both novels could be considered the boy’s perspective on the situations in The Hate U Give reviewed below.) ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in some-ya-titles-that-lead-to-great-discussions)
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017). Sometimes it takes a work of fiction to give life to current events. And sometimes it takes a book for children to give all of us a starting point for conversations about difficult issues. Ms. Thomas has done all of us a service by producing this fresh, enlightening, and spectacular book about the black lives lost at the hands of the police every year in the USA. Starr Carter, the teen she created to put faces on the statistics, straddles two worlds — that of her poor black neighborhood and that of her exclusive prep school on the other side of town. She believes she is doing a pretty good job managing the differing realities of her life until she witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood friend by a police officer. As a description of this book stated, The Hate U Give “addresses issues of racism and police violence with intelligence, heart, and unflinching honesty”. Just as importantly, it is a great story, with fully formed characters who will haunt you, told by a gifted author. Please read this one! We also recommend Ms. Thomas's On the Come Up, which makes many banned books lists and was recently reviewed by us here. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in some-ya-titles-that-lead-to-great-discussions)
There There by Tommy Orange (2018). The writing in Tommy Orange's debut novel is forceful and builds a percussive momentum as the story progresses, perhaps not unlike the beat of a drum at a Native American Powwow. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the author himself majored in sound engineering as an undergraduate before working in a bookstore and falling in love with reading and writing. There There explores identity and sense of place, telling the story of twelve characters, mostly urban Native Americans, all living in Oakland, California. Their lives are braided together though it is not until the end, at the Oakland Powwow, that the reader understands just how. From the outset, it is clear that things won't end well. However, the beauty of the prose, the poignant stories of the individuals it tells, and the insights and honesty it offers into the Native American experience compel one to read to the painful, shocking finish. Orange's work has received a great deal of publicity since it was published in 2018. Margaret Atwood and Pam Houston have both sung its praises. The New York Times named it one if the "10 Best books of the Year" in 2018. It was even a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. These kinds of reviews can be off-putting to the casual reader, the hype overwhelming, the literariness of it all stopping one before the first page can even be turned. Don't let this get in the way of reading such an important and accessible book. For me it was one of those "shape shifters," a work that helped me to understand our culture and history in a different, richer (though not easier or more comfortable) way. ~ Lisa Cadow (Previously reviewed in the-book-jam-returns-with-two-great-titles-just-for-you)
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013) – When the book ends you will think hard about children from the “other side of the tracks” and from family situations that are less than ideal. Set during one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits — both from the wrong side of the tracks. They are also both smart enough to know that one’s first love rarely, if ever, lasts, but willing to try anyway. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own high school years, riding the school bus, any time you tried to fit in while figuring out who you were. And yes, you will remember your own first love. ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in some-ya-titles-that-lead-to-great-discussions)
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970). I first read this as part of a college course on multiculturalism, and wow — what insight into so many things is held in this slim volume. In this concise novel, an 11-year-old girl yearns to have blue eyes, with tragic consequences. ~ Lisa Christie (Also reviewed in my list of books that shaped me here.)
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2007). This graphic memoir by Vermont’s own Ms. Bechdel bravely tackles how sexual identity is formed, the costs of suppression, and well, “coming of age” for lack of a better phrase. We also highly recommend the Tony Award winning Broadway play. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in substantive-reads-for-great-discussions)