July 29, 2022
Books can be joyful, imaginative, thought-provoking, thrilling. But unfortunately at times they may perpetuate stereotypes, racism, discrimination, under-representation or “other-ness”. And so may their authors in the real world. How do we respond to this – as parents or book-lovers, or pediatricians? On this episode, Dr. Gabi Hester hosts a book club with four Kids Experts and avid book readers to explore strategies for when kids books miss the mark.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: This is Talking Pediatrics, a clinical podcast by Children’s Minnesota, home to the Kid Experts where the complex is our every day. Each week we bring you intriguing stories and relevant pediatric health care information as we partner with you in the care of your patients. Our guests, data, ideas and practical tips will surprise, challenge and perhaps change how you care for kids.
Welcome to Talking Pediatrics. I’m your host, Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd. Books are such an important part of a child’s early life and continue to be an important part of many of our lives going forward. On today’s Guidelines with Gabi, we take a venture back into Book Club to learn about how we can tackle some of the problematic texts that we grew up reading.
Child: Welcome to Book Club with Gabi.
Dr. Gabi Hester: Books have power to transport and transform. Thanks to books like My Side of the Mountain and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, as a kid, I would ebb and flow from wanting to carve out a tree and live on cattails to living in a grand art museum and hanging my laundry amidst the masterpieces.
But do books speak to everyone? What values do they imbue or uphold? And what should they try to achieve? What are the obligations, if any, of authors?
Today on this third episode of Book Club with Gabi, we’re going to talk about when books and their authors might falter or fail us in some way, and specifically what we can do. How do we respond as readers, parents, siblings, friends, and as pediatricians and community members when the content of books does not create an environment where kids feel safe and healthy and able to express themselves, or when the authors or creators of that content do not uphold or put forth values that create or protect that environment.
There are lots of different opinions on these topics, but we are all part of Children’s Minnesota, where the vision is to be every family’s essential partner in raising healthier children. So today we’ll be approaching this topic with that in mind.
I’m joined today by four awesome guests. Love to go around and just have you guys introduce yourselves. So let’s start with you.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: Hello. I’m Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd of Talking Pediatrics podcast, also the chief education officer and director of gender health at Children’s Minnesota, parent of three readers and an avid reader myself.
Siman Nuurali: Hi, everyone. I’m Siman Nuurali. I am in the value and clinical excellence department. I do have five readers and also a very avid reader myself. And I’m the author of the Sadiq series, which is based on an eight year old Somali American boy, just having adventures with his friends.
Dr. Gabi Hester: And I can attest to those being amazing books.
Carrie Overgaard: Hi, I’m Carrie Overgaard. I’m one of the quality and patient safety coaches here at Children’s. I have an eight year old at home who enjoys comic books immensely, and I work really hard to make sure he sees me reading whenever possible too. So love reading the adult nonfiction and just any social justice material, especially since it works well for not only my job, but also my personal life.
Dr. Lindsey Yock: I am Dr. Lindsey Yock. I’m one of the hospitalists here at Children’s, and by background, I also have a law degree, which is fascinating to me, just from the aspirations of policy and what our culture should be. I am an avid reader, but I’m unique in that I don’t have little readers at home. So this is a topic I’m super interested in and one that I’m eager to learn from.
Dr. Gabi Hester: And I’m also going to participate in today’s conversation as a learner. I’m Gabi Hester. I’m a pediatric hospitalist and the medical director of quality improvement here. And I have two children at home, one of whom is an avid reader and the other is a more reluctant reader, but an avid listener and engager in stories.
I’m so excited to talk with you all today, and there’s a lot to cover. I thought maybe the first area that we might talk about is when the content of the book has words or images that have explicit connotations. And when I think about one example that I came across in reading to my kids is Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl. So in that book, which is sort of a follow up to the more well known Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there are a number of passages, plot lines, jokes that play on derogatory stereotypes of Asian people, and more specifically Chinese people.
And I really struggled with this because how I’ve sort of approached content like this in the past with my kids has been to read it, to acknowledge it, and then to talk about why that was wrong, why that is wrong now. But there was just so much in this book that I just had to put it down. It was like, I’m not going to be able to stop and have this conversation every other sentence, and it’s no longer going to be of any benefit to really engage. And that’s at least how I felt in reading that with my kids. So we only made it a few chapters in.
But what examples do you guys have of this type of situation? And how do you engage and encounter that with your own families? And how would you recommend that you have that conversation with families in your clinical setting or with your families or peers and colleagues when they’re dealing with that in their own lives?
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: So there’s a young adult author that I really enjoy named Rainbow Rowell, and Rainbow Rowell wrote a book called Eleanor & Park. And there is a lot of Korean American racism in that book. And the tricky thing about that particular book is that when I read it as a white person, I don’t actually know that I was fully aware of it. It wasn’t until after I read some critique of it and then went back through it that I could see it. And so I think that’s one of the hard things, particularly when you are a person who is not a part of a marginalized community that’s being represented, you might not always recognize the racism or homophobia or ethnocentrism or whatever is in the book until it’s pointed out to you. So that’s a little bit tricky.
And when I read to my kids, there’s so many great kids books out there, I’ve really, really tried to avoid it. But one place I’ve gotten tripped up is the Berenstain Bears, because that was just such a series that I was into as a kid. And I actually have a lot of those books still. And for me, there’s a lot of gender stereotyping in those, implications that Brother Bear is very humiliated because Sister Bear made the baseball team, and he didn’t, implying that boys should be better at sports than girls. Or Mama gets a new job, and that’s like a big revelation in the family.
And so I use those opportunities just like I do when my kids watch shows with problematic stereotypes to talk about why do you think that? And that’s what I kind of would talk to parents about in the primary care clinic. Why do you think that Brother thinks that boys are better at sports than girls? Do you believe that? Do you know girls who are good at sports? Why do you think that they think it’s a big deal that Mama gets a job? Do you know people who are both boys and girls or both mommies and daddies or men and women who work and just kind of get them to start to think critically about their environment. But sometimes I think it’s, you got to recognize it first.
Dr. Gabi Hester: And even how they depict Papa Bear as sort of this aloof, not engaged dufus of a dad. And I can see how that certainly doesn’t reflect many families and their experience.
Lindsay, I know that you and I have had some conversations about some beloved literature that we read as children. And one of the things that we’ve talked about is how do you address language and topics as it evolves over time, and really that changing of cultural views and perceived as norms. So words that were viewed as appropriate at one time, whether or not they should have been, are no longer appropriate.
And I have a little example of my daughter is obsessed with Baby-Sitters Club books by Ann M. Martin. And I was reading one recently, and they used a word for a child who is intellectually disabled that we don’t use anymore and shouldn’t use anymore. And so my approach was to literally take a pen and cross off the word in the book that we owned, not a library book, and write this word makes people feel uncomfortable. It’s not appropriate to use. And here’s some better terminology. I don’t know if writing up in books is the best answer, but especially from your perspective of someone who loves language and has a lot of experience in the legal field, how do you approach that topic of evolution over time?
Dr. Lindsey Yock: I think that’s an awesome question, and the evolution of language will always be with us and so will always be a challenge and a calling for parents and for caring adults to think about with children. I think it touches on two things, one that we’ve already been talking about, which is nostalgia and favorite books or favorite works. And I think it’s natural that we want to share what we loved as younger readers with the young readers in our lives. And we may not pre-vet that material. We think, oh, this was wonderful. I have such fond memories and then barrel right into stereotypes or outdated language.
So I think knowing that’s going to happen may be part of the preparation for having an approach to your young learners and your children. But I think your example, Gabi, of striking out the word in the book that you owned and offering an alternative, I think is an awesome way to role model what to do when you inevitably encounter content, because it would be wonderful to avoid it all together, but that also doesn’t teach how to be an upstander or how to encounter the material, how to stay calm, how to help the people around you.
So I think as a physician, there’s this idea of sort of a bit of a challenge or a titration. I think we owe it to children to put them in difficult situations so that they learn how to handle them. Not saying that means go read problematic material as a prescription, but I think that we infantalize children if we don’t do that. And I think as their role models and as they’re carrying adults, we have to find a way to do it. So I think your example of literally modifying, that’s powerful, you’ve written over written word, and you’re teaching an alternative.
At the same time, I think back to the nostalgia piece, I grew up reading the Nancy Drew hard cover mystery series. And because there were so many, it just was a universe I could continue to go to. I think what I read were already the sanitized “post-racist” versions of those books. But even that I think has lots of tropes that I would recognize now that as a younger reader I didn’t. But I think to have grace and forgiveness for what we didn’t know when we didn’t know it is to keep the door open to getting better. So I think the response is not to presume there’s nothing of value in a work that otherwise felt valuable, but to try to critically approach it and say, how do I help my children?
And so I think also, helping children be prepared for parentally unsupervised encounters in the real world, so that they’re more comfortable and ready to both recognize and then have a response to content that’s hard. I think that is also part of the mission. So for that example of an intellectual disability slur that was in that material, I think at this point, having encountered it in a book, if one of your children hears that on a playground, they’re prepared to recognize that’s not how we talk about other people and that may not have happened had they not had that experience.
But I do back on the nostalgia. I think that’s so tricky because we go to works that we cared about, or that meant something to us. And I’m certainly more evolved than I was 10 years ago, and it makes sense the books will be too.
Siman Nuurali: There’s been a debate right around removing problematic language from “the classics.” So I think in the past couple of years, there was a conversation around removing the N word from the Huckleberry Finn books. And that can be really hard. So as a black person, yes, it’s offensive to me. And I obviously don’t want to see it, but I think it’s such a key component similar to what Lindsey said is you want your children to know the word and what it means and why it’s problematic or why it’s destructive, because if they never encounter it, they will not know sort of either the severity or the significance of it. And so I’m kind of torn because I’m like, I kind of want it removed, but also don’t want it removed. I don’t think we serve kids by shielding them from things. We infantalize them. And kids are just as complex, just as nuanced, just as smart as adults consider them to be. But we have this thing where, oh, no, it’s children. They can’t really handle that. And in that process, I think we do them at disservice because they don’t become aware of what it means to be human and the flaws that accompany that.
And language is alive. Language is a living, breathing thing. It evolves over time. And so what might have been really normal in the 1800s or 1700s is not now. And so I don’t think the solution is to take them out. I think the solution is to have frank conversations with kids about what that means, and especially just very clearly saying this is wrong, but this is why it’s wrong. And if you hear somebody say this, this is how you should respond.
Dr. Gabi Hester: To that end too, I think erasing that type of literature from history does a disservice of sort of removing what were problematic things in the past. And one example is I absolutely loved Laura Ingalls Wilder works. And I grew up in Wisconsin, which is where Laura was born, but there’s extreme amount of racism in those books. And to take those off the shelf and not talk about that history, they’re reflecting the history of the time, where there was a lot of racism. And so if we just get rid of those books, then we lose the opportunity to share with children what it was like back in those days when there was a lot of racism.
Siman Nuurali: So having been born and raised in Kenya, when I was reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, my context was, I was a Kenyan. I was in the majority. I was not subject to racism. I’m not descended from slaves. I know what my identity is. I can trace it. But then when I was a kid, I was fascinated. I actually wanted to go live in the woods in Wisconsin.
And it’s also really contextual. It’s really very relevant and specific to the actual area it is. And people outside of that may not know particularly what the problem is. But then as I got older, I was like, oh no, these are terrible. And then came to the states, and then experienced racism, and everything’s kind of like a full circle moment. So absolutely. I don’t think it’s helpful to run away from it or not deal with it at least.
Dr. Gabi Hester: We’ve talked a lot about content of books. There are some authors that are problematic as well and just wondering how do we, or do we, separate authors from the material that they produce? And how do you approach that in the sense of commercialism, financially supporting a person by buying and engaging with their books? For those who might not be as familiar in our audience, J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, which many of us have some nostalgic feelings towards, promotes hateful, anti-trans statements and sentiments, and really has a profoundly negative impact on that community. Do we read Harry Potter? Do we not read Harry Potter? Do we talk about the authors behind these books? How do we deal with this?
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: I think, for me, this is obviously something that I thought a lot about being a member of the LGBTQ community, running a gender health program, being a part of the transgender community, there’s a lot out there about J.K. Rowling. I just want to pay as little attention to her as a person as possible and give as little attention to her ideas.
Harry Potter is tricky because something, not just personally for me, but I just feel like in our culture, it’s a very well known story. It’s something that many kids are engaged with. Obviously, there’s a theme park, all of those things. They’ve read the books. They’ve watched the movies. I’m trying to limit the financial support of that enterprise as much as possible because I don’t agree with her.
The interesting thing about Harry Potter is one day, I’m going to write a book or a blog. You could dissect that entire series and all of the messages that are in that series are completely contrary to the way that J.K. Rowling shows up in the world. So this idea that muggles or non-magical people don’t deserve to be at Hogwarts, they’re not real wizards, all of these things is just completely contrary to the way that she sees women and feminism and not being a real woman and kind of all of this trans-exclusive feminism.
So I hope to use her words against her in the future. And at some point will have that conversation with my kids when it comes up and try to tread lightly in the supporting with my dollars in the meantime.
Carrie Overgaard: I’ve personally struggled with the concept of a binary bias. Is somebody all good or all bad when they do or say something? I’m still struggling with it. When I look at the way J.K. Rowling has said some immensely hurtful things and fueled a massive movement that hurt so many people, that bears acknowledgement at some point. As the parent of an eight year old, I don’t think we’re ready to go into depth on that yet. And of course, we watch the Harry Potter movies, but I feel like it’s going to be so important to really start mentioning to him in small details saying, the person who wrote this or came up with this story really had said some pretty hurtful things to some people that we care about in our community and that we know personally. What are your thoughts about how to even approach this? Do you feel like this is something that we should keep on supporting because their name is attached to this?
It’s that complication of separating the art from the artist? How do we really maneuver that best? And I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to be able to say something when we see something horrible happening, but how do we go about saying that and being effective with that message? Because I feel like as one person to say I’m not going to spend my money on this theme park, what is that going to mean in the big context? And really what it means too is me, again, being that role model for my son. Because this one act may not make a difference, but it means something to me, and it means something to my friends.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: Well, I think it’s kind of allowing for conversations like that. I appreciate your comments about, essentially, can good things come from bad people? Or can good work come from people who hold problematic views? And I think it’s a really complex topic and probably more nuanced than a yes or no answer, but I think it’s something that we all have to kind of grapple with.
Siman Nuurali: And J.K. Rowling, I think long before she started to speak out at the forefront of being trans-exclusionary, for sure, and having a very closed perception of what or who a woman is, was problematic from the very first book for other reasons. And so she’s, as a person, I think has been fairly consistent. I mean, the amount of othering that exists in Harry Potter and is quite evident in the first one. I mean, she has an Asian character called Cho Chang, and oh my God, what a death of imagination. And she has one black kid that gets killed, that just doesn’t have any sort of complexity to his character.
And there’s this white supremacy, hey, who’s born of two really great wizards, and he himself might be the greatest wizard. That character’s very white and very clearly white and is surrounded by white people, all his friends. He doesn’t have a black friend. He doesn’t have an Asian friend or anything like that. And so she’s been a problematic person from the jump. I think it can be really hard, again, going back to that conversation about what you expose kids to and what do you keep them away from? It’s going to be hard, especially when it means that this person is profiting either financially or any other ways. I mean, J.K. Rowling is rich for life. She doesn’t need our dollars.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: She doesn’t need our theme park money.
Siman Nuurali: She actually does not. That woman has more money than God. And so it can be a little bit of a resistance, a rebellion, to not support that. I think it’s still important to have the conversations with the kids, but if it’s a matter of where am I putting my money, I think it can be really important and really powerful for kids to grow up knowing that they do have power to not involve themselves in problematic places or spaces or with people that are very obviously anti-human rights.
Dr. Gabi Hester: So we’ve given some space and oxygen to some books that didn’t get it right and to some authors who didn’t get it right. But I want to give some oxygen to those authors who are doing it right and really are putting forth incredible content that’s diverse and shows kids that they’re valued no matter who they are. So I’m hopeful that we can go around and kind of share an example of someone or some book series that you think might be doing it right.
Child: Take home books.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: Number one, I would highly recommend the Sadiq book series authored by our very own Siman Nuurali. They’re a really good series for, I would say, early readers in the kind of five to seven year old range. And my older kids really like them. Each book teaches a few Somali words, which I think my kids kind of get into. They love learning that. So I really enjoy those book series.
And then another book I’d really recommend is a book called George, about a transgender girl. And it’s really well done. It’s again, geared towards children. It’s a young adult book, but I would actually recommend that adults read it as well. It’ll take you less than a day, but it’s a great young adult book about the experience of a transgender character that I think is really well done.
Siman Nuurali: Number two. I’m going to go for an old favorite Maurice Sendak, who for me is sort of the gold standard in children’s literature, I think, because he really humanized kids, and they have this wide spectrum of feelings and emotions, and they have a right to that space. I will say another favorite is The Little Prince, which is about a love for books, and reading is basically what the story is about. So those are my favorites.
Carrie Overgaard: So number three. I’m going to say there was a great book series by Andrea Beaty, I believe is her name. So she does a book called Ada Twist, Scientist. And I feel like the representation in that book was just really meaningful to me as somebody who has such a love and a passion for science and having my son see that somebody can and should be a woman in a science field and ask all of the really great questions. I mean, what kid doesn’t love asking why 20 million times, and just seeing the direction that it can take them. So that was really meaningful. Other books that Andrea has done includes Rosie Revere, Engineer, which again, I think is really great to have a woman in an engineering field represented. She also has one called Iggy Peck, Architect. Okay. It’s a guy in architecture.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: She has a parallel series that’s for slightly older readers that are chapter books, and it’s the first one is based off of Rosie, and then there’s several ones that come after it. So she’s taken the picture books and written a chapter book series, and they’re all very good.
Dr. Lindsey Yock: Number four. I think panning back into process more than any specific work, maybe just a plug for any adults who are listening or people who spend time with children, your pediatricians are eager to have these conversations. We are a resource for you. Dr. Hester and I are based in the hospital exclusively, but we love to talk there too. So the doors are open no matter who you’re seeing. If you ask questions, we will answer, and we will dialogue with you. So I think that would just be my process plug that this will always be a question. We are here to help.
Dr. Gabi Hester: Number five. The Baby-Sitters Club. So I do want to give them a plug because Ann M. Martin, author of the series, they’ve rewritten some of the books and done it in the form of graphic novels, and in so doing, they have changed some of the characters to be more diverse and more representative. I just thought that was nice that they’re at least being thoughtful about trying to change the narrative a little bit.
Thank you all so much for joining me today for another Book Club with Gabi. So exciting to talk with you all. I feel like I’ve walked away with more ideas that I can really translate into my approach with my own family, as well as the kids that I am taking care of professional setting. So thank you all so much.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: Thank you for joining us for Talking Pediatrics. Come back each week for a new episode with our caregivers and experts in pediatric health. Our executive producer and showrunner is Ilze Vogel. Episodes are engineered, produced, and edited by Jake Beaver. Amy Juba is our marketing representative. For more information and additional episodes, visit us at childrensmn.org/talkingpediatrics, and to rate and review our show, please go to childrensmn.org/survey.