America, My Love, America, My Heart, by Daria Peoples-Riley
Coming April 6, 2021
I usually love the anticipation that comes from pre-ordering a book and waiting for it to arrive. That cover! That hook! I love my own impatience! But when I read a review of one of my eagerly awaited books in a respected journal, a pretty nice review, one sentence gave me pause. Made me and several other writers wonder, Is this review racist?
I prodded a friend and received an advance copy. Advance copies are another thing I honestly love. What’s even better than pre-ordering and anticipating? Peeking around the corner and getting a glimpse into the future.
Reading America, My Love, America, My Heart, by Daria Peoples-Riley, gave me a pins-and-needles flush of feeling from the first pages. The end papers are covered with the careful and childlike script of the pledge of allegiance over a painting of the US flag. It is impossible not to know that the covenant of those words, with liberty and justice for all, does not hold true for every child in America. And the refrain of the book “Do you love me?” feels immediately answered. The adult reader already knows. The children depicted on the ensuing pages know too. Not everyone. Not well enough. Not completely.
The children depicted in the book along with their families and teachers are painted in shades of gray, though they are all clearly children of color. Peoples-Riley colors them in with her words:
Do you love my black?
Do you love my brown?
Do you love my throne?
Do you love my crown?
The use of red, white, and blue… and grey to color the book is a choice that conveys powerful emotion. A choice that feels thoughtful as the contemplative expressions of the children watching their flag sideways. A choice with visual echoes of the past but depicted as the present. A choice that calls the reader to see the truth in black and white.
That truth is moving and painful.
As joyful and reflective and watchful as the children in this book are, as the children in our world are, they are still not loved well enough. Not invited to be their full and vibrant selves.
Which brings me back to the review in School Library Journal. It reads, “The patriotic symbolism is evident, but because color is used so sparingly, and the narrative arc so muted, the sequencing can start to lag.” Is that what the sparing use of color does? Is this a fair critique of the book’s use of paint? I feel like I already know. And I’m lovingly calling on School Library Journal, as many others have done, to do better.
The review gives weight to the use of red, white, and blue, to evoke patriotic symbolism, but does not critically consider the use of grey to depict Black and Brown children in any meaningful way. Painting kids in grey evokes the reality in which Black and Brown kids are not seen, and this review does that again.
It is hard to linger (to “lag”) in pain and hard truth. Our discomfort with that as a nation, our impulse to rush past things many think of as being captured in a black and white past before we’ve really reckoned with them has just gotten us nowhere to be proud of. Has not moved our institutions to love black and brown children as their full selves.
Denying that truth is racist.
Needing to rush past those feelings is racist.
An unwillingness to interrogate biases and assumptions in reviews is racist.
I want to be able to trust our publishing institutions with reviews of books for children of color. Pretending like we consistently can is not going to move us toward any kind of a more vibrant and just future. But this book—reading it aloud in laps and classrooms and on library rugs while someone silently counts to ten before turning each page so that everyone has a chance to feel every image and word—could.