12 October 2011

What “Urban” Means

Two years ago, I took note of comments from bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle and librarian Betsy Bird about white adults who don’t want to take home books about children of color, but also don’t want to acknowledge that (perhaps even to themselves).

This month Bird offered another report at Fuse #8 about how some parents avoid the awkward words:

Parents these days speak in code. As a New York children’s librarian I had to learn this the hard way. Let’s say they want a folktale about a girl outwitting a witch. I pull out something like McKissack’s Precious and the Boo Hag and proudly hand it to them. When I do, the parent scrunches up their nose and I think to myself, “Uh-oh.” Then they say it. “Yeah, um . . . we were looking for something a little less . . . urban.”

Never mind that the book takes places in the country. In this day and age “urban” means “black,” so any time a parents wants to steer a child clear of a book they justify it with the U word, as if it’s the baleful city life they wish to avoid (this in the heart of Manhattan, I will point out).
Of course, “urban” has a different value when paired with “fantasy,” and the result is marketed to adults and teens. What “urban fantasy” is may not be entirely clear (here’s one attempt at definition from RDW). But the scariness of the modern American city evidently has more literary value in supernatural thrillers.

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