Archive for the ‘Wondering’ Category

One Sad Birthday

January 18, 2016

George Washington’s birthday is coming up next month–Feb. 22nd, in case you’ve forgotten in the birthday cakemashup that we call Presidents’ Day.  It’s probably with that date in mind that Scholastic timed its release of its new picture book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington,  for early this month, to give libraries time to purchase the book and feature it in their Presidents Day displays.  A Birthday Cake for George Washington features Hercules, Mt. Vernon head cook, and the long process of baking a special cake for a special occasion (recipe included).  But on the book’s way to market, something happened that the Scholastic publicity and school & library coordinators should have foreseen, especially considering what befell an earlier culinary picture book.

I wrote about that at A Fine Dessert, published a year ago, racked up an impressive list of raves and starred reviews before running aground on the reef of social conscience.  The story tracks the history of blackberry fool (a kind of cobbler) through the lives of four children living in four different centuries who enjoyed making the dessert with a mother or dad.  It’s a lovely little book with sunny illustrations and engaging text, but one of the children is a slave girl living on a South Carolina plantation. Most of the scenes of the little girl picking blackberries, whipping cream, and later licking the bowl with her mother show her smiling and apparently happy.

Did actual slaves ever smile?  Of course.  Did they ever experience moments of joy?  All humans do.  Did they ever take pride in their work?  Those who mastered a skill for which they received praise undoubtedly did.  Not because they were less than human but because they were fully human–the very thing that made chattel slavery so heinous was also the quality that allowed these people to experience life its complex, deep, and mystifying dimensions.  That included happiness and pride.

Anyway, the discontent was already there in the background when Scholastic released George Washington’s Birthday.  In its pages Washington’s slave cook Hercules is seen with his daughter, Delia, whipping up a scrumptious cake that pleases the master and his guests and wins numerous complements to the chef.  This makes him happy.  The author, NY Times food editor Ramen Gameshram, spent four years researching the topic, including original documents and primary sources from the Mt. Vernon archives, and says it is beyond dispute that Washington and his chef enjoyed a close relationship and respected each other.   I think this is probably true.  But it didn’t stop Hercules from escaping when he had the chance, an act that bewildered his master.  Though courageous, disciplined, inspiring, honorable, and indispensable, Washington was also as boneheaded as any in his generation about the morality of  African servitude.

Anyway, the press about A Birthday Cake for George Washington was so bad Scholastic announced just yesterday that it will no longer distribute the book, and will accept all returns.  This is the only picture book recall I can remember (though it’s not exactly a recall).  While praising the talents and good intentions of the author/illustrator team, the publisher reluctantly concludes that “without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”

Well, yeah.  I’m surprised the editorial department didn’t see that one coming.  I haven’t perused the book, so I don’t know if any context was provided in a historical note at the end–but historical notes in picture books for preschoolers don’t get read anyway.  The Amazon page is now up to 182 reviews with an average of 1 1/2 stars.  I doubt that every reviewer read the book much beyond the preview, and elsewhere on the web some of the comments are vicious.

Author Ramen Gameshram thoughtfully explained her rationale, and I largely agree with her.  For example, “the range of human emotion and behavior is vast, and there is room in between how the literary world depicted historical African American characters [i.e., as childish, simple souls] and how it does now.” Humans are vastly complicated, and can’t be reduced a “a condition,” however miserable and overwhelming.  Slavery does not define African Americans, then or now–to be defined by a single term or condition is to submit to slavery all over again.

And yet–it’s probably best, at this present time, to pull the book.  It would have been even better to hold off on publication altogether.  I’m sad about it; sad that we can’t talk about the actual historical record and the varieties of human experience, but it’s impossible now.  Maybe later; I do hope so.



Book-Burning and Guilty Consciences

June 10, 2015

I burned a book once.

True confessions: it was an ARC I got at a library or booksellers convention, and I didn’t like it.  Usually I don’t burn books I don’t like—that conjures up all kinds of Nazified images, like in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  But it was winter, and we had a fire in the wood stove, and I was so irritated with the contents (don’t even remember what the book was now) that I bent its innocent spine and tossed a section at a time into the flames!  I’m not bragging, because I still feel a little guilty.  What is it about books that seem so not-for-burning?

Maybe it’s their humanity.  Humans are sometimes described as embodied souls–not quite accurately, I think–but if that’s so, books are embodied minds.  Every human artefact is in some way an embodiment of the mind, and we do burn old houses and letters and discontinued uniforms and items no longer useful (otherwise known as trash). Books are more personal, though: they don’t just say something about the writer, they also testify to the reader.  When displayed proudly on a shelf they declare our admiration–or pretention, if we haven’t actually read them.  When stuck in a briefcase or hidden under a sweater they assert our guilty pleasure.  When blazing in a bonfire they express our contempt.

Some thoughts, stories, premises, and exploitations are contemptible, and I wouldn’t have a big problem with a bonfire made of Hustler magazines.  When the Ephesian converts brought their occult books and magic scrolls “and burned them in the sight of all” (Acts 19:19), they meant to demonstrate the worthlessness of superstition against the power of the Holy Spirit.  Book-burning is a statement—or least it seems like it should be.  Remember the scene in The Day After Tomorrow where the survivors of an apocalypse are burning books in the library just to keep warm?  That was a statement in itself: Look how and how quickly a civilization can fall.   (I couldn’t find a video clip on youtube, but that scene has its own piece of soundtrack, appropriately mournful.)

Each volume, whether it’s Karl Marx or J. K. Rowling or Pope Benedict or Louis L’Amour or E. L. James stamped on the spine, represents some little facet of humanity, whether noble or trashy.  All together, they represent one huge facet of humanity, perhaps the most definitive one: the ability to communicate in words, across continents and down the years.  Even if it was written to formula by a nameless hack in a basement apartment, each book is a little voice crying out—articulately.

Voices from the flames give me the creeps.

I tend to hold on to books the way hoarders hold on to old tools, old clothes, pieces of string: I might need those particular words someday.  But limited space demands culling every now and then, especially since I now get unsolicited copies for possible review. So . . . what to do with unwanted books?  Not just the unsolicited ones, but the ones you now realize you’ll never get around to reading, the ones you’ve outgrown, the ones that were gifts from Aunt Marge who totally doesn’t get you?

  1. That’s what library sales are for, and once I’ve dropped off the two-three boxes I accumulate every year I try not to think about what happens to the books that don’t sell.  Not my problem.
  2. Some trendy couples use books as decorating items.  If you google “Creative Uses for Old Books,” or similar key words, you’ll get pages and pages of ideas: knickknack shelves, furniture, desk accessories, clocks, paper roses.  A few years ago a very creative lady I know make these as giveaways for all the authors attending the Warrensburg Children’s Literature Festival:

JC book

(Those little voices may have cried out when the saber saw cut into them, but I don’t care–I’m keeping mine forever!)

  1. And did you know there’s a whole creative field of book sculpture?  I love these—a striking blend of thought and deed, word and form, spirit and flesh.  The artist said, “Let there be . . .” and it was so.


My admiration for books-as-art doesn’t change the fact that most of us can’t do this for all their unwanted titles.  It’s an understated secret that publishers submit their unsold copies to the pulping machine.  I shiver at the thought—some of MY books have met that fate–but at least those unappreciated pages can be reincarnated to new pages.  And life goes on . . .

Where Does the Magic Come From?

May 2, 2015

In 2008, a middle-grade novel called Savvy, by first-time novelist Ingrid Law, swept numerous awards lists and was anointed with the silver medallion of Newbery runner-up.  Savvy has certain distinctive elements: a real-life location (rural Ohio), a loving though eccentric family, quirky characters, a desperate situation–and supernatural intervention, because each member of the family has a particular “savvy,” or supernatural power, that’s revealed at his or her 13th birthday.  The genre is best described as magical realism: a story set in an actual place and time, where the main problem or conflict is solved by other-worldly phenomena. (Even though, in this book and many others, the “savvy” is as much a problem as it is a solution.)

Since the publication of Savvy, I’ve noticed a bunch of books cut on the same general pattern.  Of course, stories where supernatural events occur in our own world (as opposed to a mythical kingdom or alternate universe) have plenty of representatives in classic children’s fiction—think The Indian in the Cupboard, or Tuck Everlasting, or—even farther back—Mary Poppins.  “Magic” is a staple of children’s literature, from fairy tales to Arabian nights, so what’s new?

Well, nothing is really new, as Solomon noted (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:9).  But “new” does go in cycles, and we seem to be in a magical realism cycle now.

Important to note: this is different from magic as the learned power to manipulate inanimate forces (as in the Harry Potter series) or to conjure and control spirits (as in the Batimaeus series).  Savvy is a prime example of what I’m seeing more of.  Just recently I reviewed Lucky Strike: real-life location (Mississippi Gulf Coast), loving but eccentric family (Nate’s crotchety grandpa), quirky characters (Genesis Magnolia Beam and her father the Rev.), a desperate situation (lightning strike), and a supernatural power (sudden, inordinate luck).   And A Snicker of Magic: real-life location (western North Carolina), eccentric family (wandering mama), quirky characters (just about everybody in Midnight Gulch), desperate situation (homelessness), supernatural power (seeing words).

Then there’s Almost Super.  And Bliss and Cake.  Also Flora & Ulysses, and Egg & Spoon.  Sometimes the formula takes an interesting twist: the main characters in Almost Super receive “stupid” powers, and in Remarkable the main character is the only one in her town who doesn’t possess some phenomenal gift.  The magic almost always occurs without explanation; it’s just there, or it’s part of the family heritage from way back.

Most of these books tend toward sunny optimism.  Even though danger or sadness weaves into the plot, the reader knows that the best friend will not die, that the main character will find a home, that Dad will recover, and their immediate neighborhood will be much better off than it was before.  In fact, if I could sum up the theme of almost all the aforementioned books, it would be

The world is a beautiful, fascinating place, and you are a magical person if only you would realize it and tap into your special power.

 This is true and not true.  The world is beautiful and fascinating but also hard and cruel (that’s a point that YA literature has often been criticized for making).  How to solve that paradox, or at least live with it, might be seen as the big theme of all literature.  “Magic,” in the magical-realism genre, could be interpreted as a way to make the world come out right without recourse to any form of religious consolation.

Classic fairy tales like Cinderella perform a similar function, but fairy tales take place in a world understood as Once upon a time.  In other words, not here.  Also fairy tales are peopled by types rather than personalities: the wicked queen or stepmother, the noble prince, and the kind and beautiful heroine, with dwarves, giants, gnomes, and talking animals for magical mischief and comic relief.  The generic nature of fairy tales insures their survival.  They are for all time, not today’s Issue of the Week.  When highjacked and made to serve an agenda they lose their power.

The uniformity of fairy tales (truth and beauty always win) tells us something about the moral compass and human yearning for clear distinctions between good and evil. I’m not sure what the increase in magical realism for middle-schoolers tells us, except perhaps that when God goes out the door, “magic” creeps down the chimney. We have our supernatural yearnings, and need our supernatural fix.

I believe the world is beautiful and fascinating because God made it, and I believe the world is also hard and cruel because it’s fallen. We yearn for something beyond the world because He has planted eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes again, 3:11). In an increasingly secular society, though, I can’t say that just anywhere, and perhaps the last place I can say it is in a novel.  Fiction can’t preach.  But it can reflect, and current youth fiction might be reflecting a response to practical atheism in the public square and the public schools.  As these become more secular, life can’t be seen as a gift, because gifts demand givers. Life can only be a problem, or a series of problems, to be solved with facts and hard data (and gritty “realistic” YA novels).  With nowhere else to go, imagination retreats into fantasy, offering hope that there’s a little magic in all of us.

But where does the magic come from?  If we can’t answer that question, or if the answer is strictly relative, those puffy hopes are nothing but clouds.

Not a Fan. But Still . . .

April 17, 2015

Not a fan.  Nope.  Saw the first one but remembered almost nothing of it because we took our 18-month-old with us, and I was so worried about possible inappropriate behavior the story poured over me like water without making an impression.  We missed Episode V altogether—two kids by then, little disposable income.  When Episode I appeared, I caught it at the dollar house—actually two dollars by then—and decided it was worth about that much.  The pretentious hype that surrounded it was a huge turnoff, too: documentary “retrospectives,” contemplative essays, interviews with Bill Moyers (“If you see a Bill Moyers special on it,” a sarcastic friend told me once, “you’ve plumbed the depths”).  So I skipped II and III, except for bits happened upon while scrolling through the channels in motel rooms.  No, not a fan.

So I’m a little hard-pressed to explain my reaction to this:

That voiceover, that musical score, the final fadeout on Solo’s battered face with that familiar goofy smile, and Chewbacca’s answering growl: We’re home.  Yeah, in a way . . .

I still want to nitpick: shouldn’t Chewie look a little gray, too?  Cool trailer, but so many explosions—is this going to be another mindless FX orgy?  Such obvious emotional string-pulling; makes me feel a little silly, falling for it.  But I can’t explain the little catch in my throat when that particular chord clashes and the trumpets blare out that staggering fanfare and the Millennium Falcon zooms into the frame yet again.

A New Hope slammed into American culture in 1977, near the end of a miserable decade: two major assassinations within ten years, Vietnam, inflation, Watergate, oil embargoes, gas lines, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise.”  And the movies, to the best of my memory, were floundering in a swamp of grainy, noir-ish despair (Midnight Cowboy, Death Wish, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?).  Fortunately, George Lucas wasn’t paying attention. American Graffiti (1973) captured mid-century teenage angst with wit and aplomb and launched a few careers (Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, that bit-player Harrison Ford), kicked off a nostalgia boom (“Happy Days”) and bankrolled Lucas’s next big project.  Not science fiction; space fantasy.  Harking back to Flash Gordon and Saturday matinees at the Bijou, but weighted by his quasi-profound, California-style spirituality.  It was a peculiar vision the suits didn’t get, but they left him alone, and we got Star Wars.

Picture the world in 1977: no cell phones.  No personal computing or internet.  Very few cable channels.  No VCR’s.  What America liked we all liked; the buzz was THE BUZZ.  Star Wars (as we knew it at the time; not A New Hope) seemed to ring all bells: fun and exciting and unexpected and jaw-dropping (special effects would never be the same), with a whiff of profundity if you felt like writing a book about it–Joseph Campbell and his Hero with a Thousand Faces was about to receive an enormous leg-up.  Further episodes were a given: Empire, widely agreed to be one of the best sequels ever.  Then Jedi.

Close readers may have observed that I didn’t mention Jedi in the first paragraph.  That’s the one that got me: one of the few movies we saw as a family in the theater, with a big screen and surround sound.  At the first sight of Vader’s shuttle gliding into the reconstructed Death Star, I was hooked.  The wonders did not cease. It was wonderful—one of my three big movie crushes.  Even though the dialogue made me cringe and the ending was embarrassing, I was in love.  These things have to hit at the right time, when certain variables line up and certain doors in the soul stand open; otherwise it would have been fun but not an obsession.

It was a relatively brief obsession, from which I moved on.  I was interested but not excited about the prequels, which proved to be the graveyard of reputations.  (“No, really,” I have said since, “Hayden Christensen is a good actor.  Have you seen Shattered Glass?”)  No reputation took a bigger beating than George Lucas’s, and the announcement that Episode VII would feature the original stars in their original roles was met with mixed feelings.  None have aged especially well: Hamill is best known for voice acting, Fisher for caustic novels and memoirs, and Ford . . . why didn’t anybody tell him that Indiana Jones IV was a bad idea?

But still.  It’s the longest-running movie franchise ever.  Middle-aged Americans literally (not figuratively) grew up with it.  Like The Wizard of Oz, it’s part of the cultural landscape, dating back to before culture got so fractured.  And in spite of all the years and cynical take-downs, there’s still something gawkily sincere about it.  It wants to stir us, not merely entertain us or milk us for spare change.  George Lucas believes in it—even after I, II, and III–and if we clap our hands hard enough, we’ll believe too.  Chewie, are we home?

No, of course not.  The trailer will not deliver all it promises because the elaborate, multi-billion-dollar scaffolding of Star Wars is too flimsy to support humanity’s hopes, no matter what Bill Moyers used to think.  It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking that anymore–but that involuntary thrill at a musical theme still means something.  The wonder is our capacity for wonder and longing.  We’re all vulnerable to it, whether it comes through music or art or dance or sailing or building or NASCAR racing–something takes each of us through the surface of time and pins us to eternity for fleeting moments. It would be a huge mistake, on the basis of those moments, to join the church of Star Wars.  But those involuntary thrills that feel like a stab of unfulfilled desire point to something bigger and better and beyond us—also much more real than a flickering image on a movie screen.

Bits, Pieces, and Memories–What Stories Are Made of

April 8, 2015

The three questions children’s authors get from kids:

  • What made you want to be a writer?
  • Which of your books do you like best?
  • Where do you get your ideas?

When asked in a school setting, authors attempt to answer either seriously or cleverly, but in conversation with peers they roll their eyes and share some of the clever answers.  When you think about it, though, these are profound questions and the answers are deeply mysterious. When someone asks, What made you want to be a writer? They are really asking

What compelled you to sit for hours at a desk, all alone, struggling with self-doubt and fear and blank page phobia (surely there’s medical designation for that), all for the sake of the occasional blaze of satisfaction when you know you’ve expressed a cogent thought in a totally appropriate way, when there may be no lasting spiritual satisfaction from it, much less financial?

The answer: I have to.

Which of your books do you like best? is actually

Which story that you labored to give birth to–suffering discomfort and random interior kicking and fond fuzzy dreams, and that now, in the glare of day, is subject to unfeeling reviews and mass indifference, if not rejection (and that’s provided it got published in the first place; the questioner doesn’t even know about the miscarriages)—do you prefer?

The answer: What do you mean, ‘my books’?  They haven’t been mine since the public got hold of them.

Where do you get your ideas? might seem like the easiest to answer because it’s looking for specifics, not tortured analysis.  But even then, specifics may be elusive, especially when it comes to the grand overarching idea of a book like (just for instance) The Giver.  The relationship between the elements of fiction—or any work of art—isn’t easy to distinguish.  As Dorothy Sayers speculates in The Mind of the Maker, the Idea (or inspiration) is so embedded in the Energy (the execution, or work itself) which both are so impacted by the Power (responses to the work), that separate strands are impossible to tease out. A story begins with an Idea that somehow muscles its way to the front of the author’s mind, but it comes already trailing bits of plot and character and pieces of aha! response.  I attempt a definition:lowry

A story is an artificial bird made of scraps and strands that acquires a life of its own during its making and, when complete, flies away.

Speaking of The Giver (and finally getting around to what this post is about), last week I attended “An Evening with Lois Lowry,” sponsored by our local library as the kickoff event of this month’s One Read program.  The event organizers booked a large auditorium but not large enough.  Those who were late (i.e., 25 minutes early rather than 35), were turned away like foolish virgins (not an insult; see Matthew 25:1-13).  I managed to be 35 minutes early, no credit to me.

Anyone who’s interested in children’s literature, or anyone who is a child who likes to read, is familiar with The Giver, so I wasn’t surprised at the turnout. But Lois Lowry surprised me in the best way.  Her talk did not appear to have any structure—it was sort of like life, where the years go one way and the memories go another and things you study you don’t learn while the unexpected lessons end up making you what you are.   Family began her story, as it should: father, a career navy medical officer; mother, an avid reader; older sister and first reading teacher; little brother who came along late.  Lowry was born in Honolulu in 1937 and spent her first two years on the beach under the shadow of the US naval fleet.  They moved back to the states before that Day that Shall Live in Infamy.  She remembers her mother being lonely during the long war years when her father was deployed to the Pacific, but when peace returned he was allowed to take the whole family to Japan.  Lois, then 11, expected exotic locations, but the family moved into the brand-new all-planned-out neighborhood for military families, which looked just like Main Street USA.  The real Japan was elsewhere, beyond the straight streets and tall fences of her cozy community.

The years fly: back to the States, more moving, high school, college cut short for marriage, four children.  Her parents lived long, but the years did cruel things to their memories: her mother recalled sorrowful events with all the pain as if they’d just happened.  Her father kept forgetting why his oldest daughter wasn’t around anymore (an early death from cancer).  Lois started thinking about memory.  What if memories could be manipulated, or dismissed, or brought back?giver

She inherited an interest in photography, as well as her first camera, from her dad.  It turned out to be more than an interest; for a while it was a profession.  In fact, the iconic figure on the cover of her most famous book has a name: Carl Gustav Nelsen, a Norwegian neighbor.  Lowry herself took that picture.

Her remembered life, non-linear and self-sorting, took its own wavering shape as she talked to us.  She pulled strands of family, memory, photography, and place and wove them back into her stories.  When she first pictured “the Community” of The Giver, where everyone served a preassigned purpose and abhorred the unexpected, it was the all-American navy base in Japan she had in mind.  Likewise, the “elsewhere” outside the community gates modeled the expansive territory her hero Jonas escaped to.  The Community can control its citizens only because collective memory has been manipulated (i.e., eradicated).  Preserving and passing on mankind’s memory, just in case it’s needed, is the Giver’s function. Thus the bird was furnished, and with character and conflict, it came to life.

Of course, she had to talk about the movie.  Two things she liked: the expansion of the Director’s role (obviously Meryl Streep couldn’t play a bit part!) added depth to that character that even the author had not appreciated.  And Lowry thought the way memories were transmitted in the movie was much better than having Jonas lie on a table while his mentor pressed memories through his bare back (slides of some disturbing covers from foreign translations made that point).  Another thing she liked: the 22,000 books that filled the shelves of the Giver’s quarters were purchased new and later donated to schools in South Africa, where most of the movie was filmed.

Outside in the lobby stacks of books were waiting to be signed, so she didn’t have much time for questions.  The reliable Big Three showed up, even though I think she already answered them.

One more thing: an amazing story I’d never heard.  She lived in Japan from the ages of 11 through 13, those classic transitional years so rich for authors who write middle-grade novels.  She wasn’t confined to “the Community”—shortly after moving to Japan, her parents bought her a green bicycle and allowed her to explore “Elsewhere” to her heart’s content.  Tokyo was rebuilding rapidly after the war and prospects were looking up.  Still, she found the Japanese characteristically reserved, and she was not the most outgoing person herself.  But there was one boy who looked to be about her age, whom she saw so often they became acquaintances of a sort.  They never spoke, but always looked, and sometimes nodded to each other.  For some reason, she never forgot him.

Fast-forward 45 years.  The Giver wins the 1994 Newbery Gold Medal for excellence in children’s fiction. That same year, a book called Grandfather’s Journey wins top honors for illustration.  At the awards event that summer, Lowry meets the illustrator Allen Say and shares some of her life story.  On learning that her father was stationed in Tokyo, he says, “Really?  I grew up in Tokyo.”  Obviously his heritage was Japanese.  That’s what Grandfather’s Journey is about—heritage, family, growth and change.  “What year? Where did you live?”  More and more recollections spill out between them, faster and faster, until he asks, “Were you the girl on the green bicycle?”

And some say there is no God.  Story itself, an unpredictable fusion of spirit and flesh, gives the lie to that one.

What Are They Thinking!?

December 22, 2010

Any teachers out there?  I’ve never taught school so I lack a first-hand perspective, but word from the front is that not only are reading skills declining, thinking skills are too.  At a writers’ meeting, at least three aspiring children’s writers who are also teachers agreed that more students can’t spell and continually mix up homonyms.  Even simple distinctions like to, two, and too defeat them, and no amount of workbook exercises correct the problem.  They might score 100% in the workbook, but make the same mistakes in composition.

I noticed this problem when homeschooling: what the kids got correct in the workbook they missed in original composition.  Obviously it didn’t click–at first–that what the workbooks were teaching had real-world application.  I think over time they began to see connections between what they read and what they wrote, but in the meantime I ditched the workbooks and just focused on grammar through composition.  (The program Learning Language Arts Through Literature does this, but it wasn’t available back in the pioneer days.  Ruth Beechick’s You Can Teach Your Child at Home and Sam Blumenthal’s How to Tutor take the same approach–end of homeschool commercial.)  

We were able to correct the problem of the grammar-writing connection–but it remains a hurdle for kids of elementary age–one that is not being cleared, apparently.  A fifth-grade teacher in our group said that her district tried a pilot program involving intense focus on spelling for an entire year–spelling notebooks, drills, exercises, etc.–and at year’s end the pilot class’s skills were little or no better than the other fifth-graders who didn’t participate.

Some kids seem to have a natural ability to spell, or at least it comes fairly easily to them.  I think it has to do with the kind of memory you have, an ability to recognize and remember certain letter combinations.  From my homeschooling days I recall many good readers who were terrible spellers and nothing seemed to help much.  Besides, bad spellers can always look to founding fathers who couldn’t spell–Thomas Jefferson comes to mind.

But the inability to distinguish homonyms is something else again–that’s a thinking problem.  The fact that English is notoriously difficult in spelling and idiom is no excuse.  An agile brain should learn fairly early to distinguish between there, their, and they’re and determine the context where each one fits.  It involves several functions: recognizing the letter sequence, knowing the definition, and determining the usage.  Which sounds complicated–and it is!  But any fourth- or fifth-grader should be able to do it.  If they can’t, they are deficient in two vital functions: distinction and connection.

We’re not supposed to say that anyone is “deficient.”  No, Julie and Jayden just think differently, and all ways are good.  Except that if you are lacking in either of these critical functions, you can’t be said to “think” at all.

Here’s what education is: learning to distinguish between one thing and another, and, once the distinction is made, discerning how one thing relates to another.  Our brains are made to learn subtlety and precision, to skip lightly between inferences and stretch comparisons.  What makes apples different from oranges?  And how are they alike?  How is the American Revolution different from the French Revolution, and how are they related?  What’s the connection between waves and particles? 

And how about the connection between reading and thinking?  We don’t fully know, but we’ll probably know a lot more before long.

Gross, part two

October 8, 2010

Almost the whole of Christian theology could perhaps be deduced from two facts: (1) That men make coarse jokes, and (b) That they feel the dead to be uncanny.                                                              C. S. Lewis, Miracles

In commenting on the trend in juvenile literature toward gross-out humor (in order to appeal to boys),I don’t see much speculation as to why so much juvenile humor is obsessed with bodily functions.  In fact, that’s one characteristic that defines “juvenile.” Yes, little kids giggle uncontrollably at the very word “underwear,” but why?  Yes, 5-8 year-old girls (and 5-21 year-old boys) roll on the floor at any mention of poop, boogers, pee, snot–I won’t go on–but what makes these particular emissions funny, when blood is something else?  Lewis’s point is that human beings are a peculiar phenomenon, feet of clay and head of cloud, forever at odds with their own nature.  “I do not perceive that dogs see anything funny about being dogs; I suspect that angels see nothing funny about being angels.” 

Presumably, both dogs and angels feel at fully at home in themselves, whether bounded by skin or spirit.  But humans, who are somewhere in between, laugh at bodily functions and shiver at ghosts.  If this were an inborn characteristic we would expect it to show up very early, and so it does.  Ghost stories are just as popular as gross stories among kids, and what could explain the peculiar popularity of zombies among young adults?

Recent lab tests at Yale University indicate a sense of morality in babies as young as six months.  But a natural tendency, by definition, is not a refined sensibility.  Little children may have a rudimentary understanding of right and wrong but still need to be trained in the nuances, especially regarding their own tendency to make exceptions for themselves.  The humor inherent in the angel/animal dichotomy that translates to potty jokes is no reason to react in horror, but neither does it mean we should forego, or even delay, the training in what’s appropriate.  Isn’t “doing what comes naturally” the antithesis of education?

Ex ducere, the Latin root of education, means “to lead out of.”   Maybe we could start by leading out of the bathroom.

I Can’t Keep Up With Them!

September 25, 2010

Another day, another book challenge.  Wes Scoggins of Republic, MO has claimed that three books should be banned from the school curriculum because they are “soft-pornography” (I think he means “soft-core” pornography?)  The books in question are Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson), Twenty Boy Summer (Sarah Ockler), and Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut).  I’ve only read Speak, which I would not classify as soft-core anything.  Twenty Boy Summer I somehow missed in the continual flood of YA books published every year and Vonnegut is one of those dense literary geniuses encountered in one’s academic career, who flowered after my academic career was over.

I have to wonder if Mr. Scoggins is jumping on the bandwagon after the dust-up in Stockton (see below), but apparently not.  He has other concerns about the district curriculum and isn’t afraid to express himself.  My opinion doesn’t change.  It’s his right to speak up and the school’s right to consider his objections and decide in any way they think best.  Ms. Anderson and Ms. Ockler will enjoy a little bump in books sales and Mr. Vonnegut will keep on doing whatever he does.  (Is he still alive?  Better check on that.)  No bonfires will be lit and no child will be turned off reading who wasn’t already.  It’s a great country–everybody chill.

Here We Go Again

September 15, 2010

Just in time for Banned Books Week, another censorship case, this time close to home.  The school board of Stockton, MO recently voted 7-0 to uphold the restriction of a single book: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.  I’ve read the book, which has won numerous awards including the National Book Award for Children’s fiction.  (The NBA really needs to divide the award into children’s and YA divisions.)  Frankly I don’t remember a lot of it, which is my fault, not Mr. Alexie’s–I should have taken a few notes.  The main character is a Native American teenager who escapes the reservation to attend a white school–the narrative concerns his struggles to adjust and reconcile his native culture with the life he wants to live.  Practically everyone in his family dies, mostly from problems related to alcohol.  This closely reflects the author’s own experience and might have been his fate if he’d stayed on the Rez.

I respect Mr. Alexie and the value of his struggle and his right in a free society to write any book he chooses.  At the same time, I timidly suggest that there’s no need to assume we’re on the fast track to Nazi book bonfires every time a volume is booted from a school library.  A few points:

a. Parents have rights, too.  Maybe the ‘rents are hopelessly provincial and square, but that in itself does not prohibit them from exercising some judgment over their children’s input.  Anyone who’s been a parent knows the anxiety, uncertainty, and often heartbreak of raising a child.  And every parent makes mistakes.  Restricting certain media may be a mistake, but it’s one of small consequence, more often than not.  Given the toll taken by parental abdication in our society, I’m a lot more tolerant of parental overreach–if that’s what this is.

b. Testimonials to the contrary, I don’t think a teen is going to be damaged by not reading Sherman Alexie’s book.  I do not presume to know what inspires everybody, but I do know that if you miss the first bus to Inspiration there’s likely to be another coming along soon.  During the community meeting this week a high school student stood up to say, “This book is my hope.  It’s about not giving up.  It’s about not letting people tell you you’re not worth it.”  I don’t disagree; I only suggest that The Absolutely True Diary is not the only book out there with that theme.  “This book expresses my hope” is a reasonable statement.  “This book is my hope” is an overstatement, unless Mr. Alexie is in the running for the next Messiah.

c. Kids who want to read this book can read it.  Especially high school kids, most of whom have a driver’s license.  Or have a friend with a driver’s license.  I’ll bet they go to Springfield occasionally.  The Greene County library has a few copies of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian; that’s where I got mine.  The Cedar County Library can get it through inter-library loan if it’s not in their collection.  Ask.  Be resourceful.  Use some initiative.  Stockton is not an armed camp.

d. Some YA books can be damaging to some readers.  We writers assert the power of the written word.  But if the written word has so much power, can we not ascribe negative effects as well as positive?  The Absolutely True Diary expresses a generally positive theme in an extremely negative milieu.  While the protagonist’s story will be encouraging to some teens, there are other who feel like they’re stuck on the Rez even though their lives aren’t all that bad; they don’t need to be encouraged to feel sorry for themselves.  And those who are already depressed may not need any more.  For, in spite of some laughs and a “hopeful” ending, the novel is depressing overall.  This is a trend in YA books, so pronounced I’m wondering what kind of view kids are getting of the world they will soon inherit.  Do we notice a lot of optimism out there?  Time will tell, but I’d like to see a little sunshine in the YA world.

e. Book bans generally don’t work, especially if they’re publicized: the book gains more readers than it would otherwise.  Still, I can’t quite blame folks for trying to hold the line against more and more explicit material.  (This book is certainly not the worst YA I’ve ever read, but yes, it has its moments.)  And every time they do, the knives come out–not against the book or its author, but against the line-holders.  They’re yahoos, control freaks, philistines; they’re stupid, backward, narrow.   But maybe they’re just ordinary parents and grandparents trying to protect their kids and maintain some kind of community standard.  I don’t think this is a particularly effective way to do it; at the same time I can’t help sympathizing with the “where will it end?” mentality.

I believe that artists–writers, painters, movie-makers–are mentors to the public.  Children’s authors should never preach to their audience, but they shouldn’t pander either.  “We’re just meeting our readers where they are–kids today hear this kind of language, deal with these kinds of issues all the time.”  If they are–and I don’t disagree–how much does mass media contribute to that?  A lot, I think.  Media, including novels, helps drag the standards down, then points to the standards as evidence that it’s just being realistic.  There’s no easy solution.  For myself, I’m trying to be realistic but not graphic when it comes to writing for kids.  Now back to that manuscript I’m trying to finish up.

No Other Name

September 2, 2010

If we think of Young Adult fiction as a burgeoning universe (expanding rapidly from a singularity known as Twilight), “Christian YA” is a robust galaxy within it.  Like Christian fiction in general, it’s improving: more realistic, stronger characters, believable conclusions (i.e., no mass conversions of all sympathetic characters by the end).  But in the process of becoming better fiction, it may be becoming less “Christian.”  By that I mean, in some Christian YA at least, the name of Jesus is barely mentioned.  God is certainly a major theme, and since many of these stories have some references to church, and are published by Thomas Nelson or Zondervan, we may assume it’s the God of the Bible.  But the salvation reached is often generic (like an ill-defined homecoming or inner “peace”) or potential (characters deciding to give God another chance or more thought after an outright rejection).  I haven’t read the entire subgenre so I wouldn’t say they’re all this way, but that seems to be a trend.

Meanwhile, another trend.  In secular YA fiction, the use of Jesus’s name is increasing.  A lot.  Just in the last five years or so: if you want to be considered serious, important, or edgy, you swear by the Lord.  This is true in almost any genre, from a seventies contemporary award-winner like Tales From the Madman Underground (which I had to stop reading because the profanity was so extreme) to dystopian fiction like Chaos Rising trilogy, whose setting is a planet outside our solar system.  It’s not enough to say Oh my God anymore; the swearing must be specific.  But nobody says Oh my Buddha! or Holy Krishna! or Sweet Allah!  No other name has the same impact.  Or can it be that no other name has the same power, whether for blessing or curse?

It’s very curious: Christian YA novels downplay the name of Jesus in order to be taken more seriously.  Secular YA novels play up the name of Jesus for the same reason.  How odd is that?