Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dust Poetry, or Learning to Appreciate the Rain

I just finished reading Out of the Dust, a novel in free verse published by Karen Hesse in 1997. I love the way this book’s sparse and rhythmic poetry evokes the bleakness of the Dust Bowl and the desperate longing for rain that must have characterized the daily moments of individuals experiencing this historical moment.

The book alternates between different kinds of poems: ones that develop the story and characterization; poems that evoke the protagonist Billie Joe’s changing relationship to her piano; and short lyric poems that poignantly evoke the daily moments of life in 1930s Oklahoma when literally everything—food included—was continually covered with dust.

I particularly like the poems in which the physical arrangement of lines on the page seem to mimic the black and white keys on the piano. For instance, early on, when Billie Jo can still play piano (later on, a tragic accident burns her hands), she shares her experience of playing in “On Stage”:

When I point my fingers at the keys,
the music
springs straight out of me,
Right hand
playing notes sharp as
telling stories while the
buttery rhythms back me up
on the left.

Later, however, in a poem called “The Dream,” Billie Jo transforms the piano into a medium through which she processes the loss of her mother and the use of her hands:

Piano, my silent
I can touch you,
you are cool
and smooth
and willing
to stay with me
stay with me
talk to me
you accept
the cover to your keys
and still
make room
for all that I

Even though this poem narrates her inability to play, it still serves as a creative medium through which Billie Jo experiences her life. Here, the two columns of lines—which in the poem above represented black and white keys—become three columns. Perhaps the third column represents Billie Jo’s imaginative life, the part of her mother she has internalized and the silent music she creates as she ruminates on the musical instrument that is not being played—that instead represents the possibility of making music (and thus symbolizes other possibilities for Billie Jo’s life).

Other types of poems in the book, such as its short lyric poems, evoke the need for rain in a way that reminded me of how much the daily pleasures of my life depend on easy access to water, and how little I really appreciate that ease:

After seventy days
Of wind and sun,
Of wind and clouds,
Of wind and sand,
After seventy days,
Of wind and dust,
A little

When rain does come, Hesse vividly captures the detail with which her characters appreciate it. In lines from the poem, “Hope in a Drizzle,” Billie Jo’s mother stands out in a long-awaited rain, pregnant and naked:

She was bare as a pear,
sliding down her skin,
leaving traces of mud on her face and her long back,
trickling dark and light paths,
slow tracks of wet dust down the bulge of her belly.
my dazzling ma, round and ripe and striped
like a melon.

While much of the book centers around the ubiquity of dust and the lack of rain, the book’s emotional center results from a household accident caused by human carelessness—though the pressure of daily dust surely contributes to the atmosphere in which such a mistake can pass. When Billie Jo’s mother mistakes a pail of kerosene for water and goes to make coffee with it, a fire burns Billie Jo’s hands and her mother’s pregnant body, ultimately resulting in the death of mother and baby during childbirth.

What’s so amazing about this section of the book, and what follows, is that the poetry becomes bleaker in a way that seems to parallel the worsening of weather conditions: dust storms blacken the sky, and kill children and animals; likewise, the lines of communication dry up between Billie Jo and her father, whose relationship and will to live languish in the desperate aftermath of the accident.

The book’s moral, if it has one, is that out of the seemingly endless trauma and guilt of loss, life can return; people survive as a result of small kindnesses, silently given and taken; but to emerge out of crisis, one must take care of oneself, and one must be willing to forgive others for the pain they have caused us.

The book’s title, Out of the Dust, perhaps refers to the dust of words that seem to fail people when tragedy hits; tragedy in this sense seems to rob language of the force of action. But survival involves finding words, music, or some kind of medium in which to rewrite, or reimagine, one’s experience:

Billie Jo captures this return to life in her poem, “Thanksgiving List,” in which she expresses thankfulness for:

Food without dust,
Daddy seeing to Ma’s piano,
Newly cleaned and tuned,
The days when my hands don’t hurt at all,
The thank-you note from Lucille in Moline, Kansas,
The sound of rain,
Daddy’s hole staying full of water
As the windmill turns,
The smell of green,
Of damp earth,
Of hope returning to our farm.

What I love about this list—the part of it I have quoted here—is how the healing that completes the book results from the steps Billie Jo and her father take to incorporate her mother’s unrealized dreams into their daily lives: they keep her mother alive through building the pond she had imagined would counter the dust’s destruction, by caring for her apple trees, cleaning and using her piano, and accepting someone new in their life. In the end, they come “out of the dust” by not letting her death kill them too.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Words: Meaning and Escape

The Book Thief is a best-selling novel by Markus Zusak that involves many of the same themes as the book that was the subject of our last blog entry, An Interrupted Life, the Journal of Etty Hillesum. Reading and writing provide the vehicles for a young girl to impart more meaning --- and more pleasure --- into her life, as she grows up in the midst of the terrors of Nazi Germany.

The Book Thief is simultaneously beautiful, horrifying, and entertaining: a disturbing combination. As the many people who have read the book know, the narrator of The Book Thief is Death, and its plot centers around a young girl, Liesel Meminger, telling the story of her growing up near Munich during World War II. Although not Jewish, Liesel is still a victim of Nazism. Death and loss surround her: Her father has died, her brother dies after her mother goes to the concentration camp at Dachau, and Liesel is sent to live with a foster family. A refugee Jewish man comes to live in the basement of the foster family. He and Liesel become close, but he is ultimately forced to flee. The poverty in which Liesel and her friends and family live intensifies, as does the repression of Nazism and the frequency of the bombing in her neighborhood.

In the midst of tragedy, Liesel finds solace in reading -- reading whatever she can find. Ultimately, she provides this same solace to others through reading out loud in a shelter while bombs fall around them. Reading is an art that comforts, for as Liesel reads, “she could feel their frightened eyes hanging on to her as she hauled the words in and breathed them out. A voice played the notes inside her. This, it said, is your accordion” (381). Words have a contradictory power, however, for as Liesel later reflects, words can create and extend the power of evil, for “[w]ithout words, the F├╝hrer would not exist” (521).

Ultimately, Liesel writes the story of her life in her journal, and doing so saves her life, literally. Like the Journal of Etty Hillesum, her reading and writing provide her a means to affirm life. Certainly, as Sanchez-Eppler argues and we discuss below, they give her a “source of power, self-validation, and even play.”

Perhaps most fascinating about The Book Thief is its popularity. It is dark and disturbing, using ironic humor even in treating the most serious subjects. Unlike many children’s books, it describes complex paradoxes and moral uncertainties and does not fully resolve them. But like so many children’s books, it is itself about reading and writing, and the power of words -- and I suspect this is one reason it has so many passionate fans.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Children's Journal: Adaptation, Resistance, or Survival?

In her wonderful book, Dependent States: The Child’s Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture, Karen Sanchez-Eppler examines the culture-making functions of literacy journals in which early-nineteenth-century children practiced their “penmanship and composition” (21). Sanchez-Eppler argues that nineteenth-century children’s journals are sites of imitation through which children simultaneously learn to internalize “adult behaviors and forms” and “form these strictures into a source of power, self-validation, and even play” (33).

If historically the child’s private journal has functioned as a site of resistance to adult authority, or at least a medium through which children might exercise some degree of power over their interpretation and reproduction of grown-up culture, might Sanchez-Eppler’s insights also apply to a journal written under circumstances in which the child is not being asked to incorporate into the dominant culture, but rather is defined as the exception that makes the idea of the human possible?

I am thinking about An Interrupted Life, the Journal of Etty Hillesum, written in the Netherlands during the Second World War and first published illegally—and on her request—in 1943 (the same year that she died at Auschwitz).

One of the things I have always admired about this book is how in spite of the fact that Hillesum pens her journal in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, with the knowledge that she will probably soon die (and, as the journal progresses, from her family’s hiding place in a friend’s apartment), she is able to engage in everyday thoughts and activities while barely mentioning the historical circumstances that frame her existence. In other words, even as Nazi ideology classifies Hillesum as inhuman and therefore unfit to live, and even as this ideology determines her living conditions, she writes entries in her diary that are full of the simple details of everyday life and expressions of the mind-in-movement. Her journal entries in fact seem to capture the activities and thought-processes define the “human.”

For instance, in the entry for Monday Morning, 10 March, 1941, Hillesum writes:

“Come on, my girl, get down to work or God help you. And no more excuses either, no little headache here or a bit of nausea there, or I’m not feeling very well…You’ve just got to work and that’s that. No fantasies, no grandiose ideas, and no earth-shattering insights. Making a translation exercise and finding the right words are much more important. And that is something I have to learn and for which I must fight to the death: all fantasies and dreams shall be ejected by force from my brain, and I shall sweep myself clean from within, to make space for real studies, large and small” (7).

Not only does this passage embody the wandering of the mind and the self-talk that every human being experiences, but it also points to something that Hillesum continually returns to: that meaning inheres in the small acts and details of everyday life.

I wonder if Hillesum didn’t focus on these details as a means of survival, because to ruminate on the racist theories that motivated the Holocaust would serve as a challenge to her mental stability. Even though she rarely talks about the political events through which she is living (the diary mostly records her relationship with a man named S.), the act of writing seems to function as a means by which she gains hold over these events. In this sense, Hillesum uses journal-writing as a form of “power and self-validation” similar, I think, to how Sanchez-Eppler theorizes the subtleties of journaling. In one passage, Hillesum actually reflects on the act of writing as a form of survival, when, trying to fight off a bad mood and a headache, she writes, “I shall try to ‘compose’ myself a little over a sheet of writing paper” (74).

Even more amazing to me is the way Hillesum, when she does choose to reflect on the political events of her world, refuses to succumb to despair in her treatment of them. She writes,

“I believe…that I could be truly happy, for true happiness is an achievement as well…They are such a sad lot, the human race today. So little real radiation and joie de vivre. Instead, masses of minor complexes and trivial worries and petty envies and unhappy marriages and disappointing children, etc., etc. But even if you live in an attic and have nothing but dry bread to eat, life is still worth living. And if this period proves too difficult and prevents us from living our life to the full, well, we shouldn’t take it too tragically, or go somewhat wistfully to pot” (44).

Here, Hillesum is reflecting on the possibility that she will be killed by the Nazis, and yet she continues to insist on enjoying the moments she has left. Perhaps, again, it is her knowledge of impending death that enables Hillesum to appreciate the time-wasting nature of negativity. Yet what strikes me even more powerfully (or rather, struck me originally when I read this book as a teenager) is Hillesum’s definition of God as a spirit within herself. Like other survivors, Hillesum could not imagine a transcendent God in the face of the events of the Holocaust, but in the spirit of the romantics, finds God within herself--a concept that has always remained appealing to me.

When I first read this book, I was a teenager, and like others at this age, I was trying to discover what my own approach to God was going to be. I was attracted to Hillesum’s views not only because they emerged out of a real reckoning with the possible and unspeakable horrors of life, but also because instead of focusing on daily horrors, she finds solace in the deceptively insignificant details of everday life. Hillesum confesses that she hopes she might “perform a thousand daily tasks with love, but let every one spring from a greater central core of devotion and love” (165). In this passage, Hillesum's definition of godliness seems to mimic the form that many private journals take: the listing of one's daily tasks and thoughts about those tasks. This embrace of the quotidian seems a much more useful understanding of the human than that defined by Nazi ideology, the often-silent demon that Hillesum's optimistic journal repeatedly occludes, but occludes as a means of survival.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What Our Favorites Say About Us

Having created a list of our favorite children’s books, we look at it and think about what's missing, and why. Back when Allan Bloom and others were making lists of books everyone should read, there was much appropriate criticism directed at how those lists effectively pronounced one set of experiences to be definitive, and even, in a prescriptive way, declared which books everyone *should* read in order to become better Americans, or better- informed intellectuals. This is one basis for our criticism of Kristof's list, which purports to be a definitive list of books kids *should* read to make themselves better people. By identifying what Kristof left out, our response sought to identify the values his list of chosen books reproduces.

Our own list of favorites is not meant to be definitive, but something personal for the two of us, and something evolving. The list will evolve as we read new books, and also as we remember old ones that we loved as children and left out the first time because they were not at the surface of our minds. For example, I (Catha) would add to our list of favorites The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper, a book I must have read more than 10 times, as well as Judy's Journey, by Lois Lenski. And I (Tova) recently remembered the pleasure of reading The Boxcar Children, both because I—like the children in this series—always felt I knew better than the adults in my life what was best for me, and because I was lucky enough to share with my siblings a wooden treehouse in our yard, where we created our own children’s universe (a club called “The Snakes”), and worked out whatever problems we encountered amongst ourselves (again, similar to what the boxcar children did). I also recently remembered loving Madeline L’Engle’s fantasy novels, particularly the series that begins with A Wrinkle In Time.

Reflecting on our list, however, it's impossible not to notice that like Allan Bloom’s lists, it reproduces our personal experiences and leaves much out. Our list is entirely by white authors. Some of the reason for our exclusion of non-white authors must reflect what authors were being published and what books were available, but some of it surely reflects the stories with which we connected and the books to which our parents and peers exposed us. Like all lists, ours reflects who we are and where we came from.

In this post, we wanted to comment more consciously about books that we love that are by non-white authors. Among the list of our true favorites is Lucille Clifton's story, “Three Wishes,” published in Free to Be You and Me, about two friends who fight and make up. Our kids have also discovered some favorites by non-white authors,including Chato's Kitchen, by Gary Soto, and Tar Beach, by Faith Ringgold, both for younger kids, and The Watsons Go to Birmingham and Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis, for older readers. We ourselves have discovered books for our children, including The Big Box, by Toni Morrison. Morrison’s picture books tend to validate the experiences of children and question, from their perspective, adult rules and prescriptions that sometimes just don’t make sense to kids, and aren’t, from Morrison’s point of view, absolutely necessary to achieving social stability.

There is an explosion in the volume and diversity of children's literature being published now. Still, our children read many of the same books as their peers, either because their friends recommend them or their friends’ parents do; then, too, teachers continue to assign the same books in schools for kids to read. One has the feeling, sometimes, that teachers deliberately assign certain award-winning authors' books only in order to achieve diversity. There are children’s books by non-white authors, however, which not only have won awards, but which have also become popular because of their representation of children's experiences not particular to discrimination.

Consider, for instance, the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which won the National Book Award for juvenile fiction in 2007. What’s particularly wonderful about this fictionalized autobiography is the way that Alexie both captures the experience of what it means to be the “bullied” kid (an experience that crosses ethnic, racial and class boundaries) and creates a narrative that is about the experience of growing up as an American Indian.

We don't want to succumb to including other books and authors in a tokenistic way, and we plan to continue to write here about the books we love or are being widely read, or that we find interesting for some reason, without being artificial in our choices. Having noticed, though, that our list of favorites was initially by all-white authors, we're going to continue to notice how our choices reflect on our own experiences, and remember to challenge ourselves to consider what we might be leaving out when we are tempted to pronounce anything definitive.

Friday, July 31, 2009

My Daughter's (Current) Favorite Books

Having made a list of favorites (even a list of purported "great" books), it’s impossible not to think about what's missing from the list, or what list of favorites someone else would choose. Since one of the reasons I love reading children's literature is sharing it with my kids, I reviewed my choices with my 10 year old daughter, who goes by "T."

T. has some of the same favorites I do – especially The Golden Compass. There is another series she's been reading lately that has her incredibly excited: Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Her review is below, and it’s noticeable how she comments that the writing made her feel like she was in the book. Descriptive, evocative writing that pulls the reader into the story is part of what makes the best children’s literature so enjoyable to read, for adults as well as children. (And as for our own, no-doubt evolving, list of favorites, look for future discussion soon.)

T.’s Reflection on Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Percy Jackson and the Olympians tells the story of a demi-god and his friends, and is based at a camp for other demi-gods who are learning their fates, along with learning how to fight mystical creatures out of Greek mythology. The recently ended five-book series has adventure along with hardships and comedy. The five books are called The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan's Curse, The Battle of The Labyrinth, and The Last Olympian. There are well done plot twists, plus some amazing character development. Riordan describes everything that happened really well, so that reading it is like putting yourself in the book. I especially liked how at the beginning of the books something would happen, and then later in the series connections would be made to what happened earlier. I love that all the characters had different personalities depending on which Greek gods were their mothers or fathers, and how they had different skills. The chapter titles are hilarious, for instance: Grover Loses his Pants, I Become Supreme Lord of The Bathroom, My Parents Go Commando, Nico Buys Happy Meals For The Dead, and I Put On A Few Extra Million Pounds. They're all funny, but I don't want to spoil it by giving them all away. The series was so good it made you wish there was another book. These action-packed books are great introductions to Greek mythology, and make you want to learn more. If you do want to learn more, you can go to http://www.percyjacksonbooks.com or http://www.rickriordan.com.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our List of "Great" Books: A Response to Kristof

What is it that makes a children’s book a *great* book? In his July 4, 2009 article in The New York Times, (“The Best Kids’ Books Ever”), Nicholas Kristof provides a list of his favorites, many of which seem to center around the exploits or adventures of personified animals (Charlotte’s Web, Wind in the Willows, Freddy the Pig, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, and Lad, a Dog, to name a few). Kristof’s other choices seem to center around boys’ detective fiction (Hardy Boys, Alex Rider) and books about class mobility (Little Lord Fauntelroy and The Prince and the Pauper). See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/05/opinion/05kristof.html?_r=2.

While this post doesn’t pretend to be a full review of Kristof’s list (forthcoming), it does bear noting that many of his chosen books have in common a tendency to 1) prioritize adventure stories over books that emphasize imaginative escapes from the worlds that children inhabit; 2) avoid social critique by animating social problems through animals; and 3) reproduce capitalist, middle-class values. Kristof even begins the essay with a cheer for American-style capitalist values when he praises “middle-class students whose parents drag them off to summer classes or make them read books” and he calls for “self-improvement” for “poor kids” whose I.Q.’s drop “each summer vacation”—presumably because their parents are letting them vegetate in front of one screen or another.

One of Kristof’s favorites is Freddy the Pig (and its series), written in the 1950s by Walter R. Brooks. As one example of how Kristof’s choices tend to reproduce capitalist values, the animals in Freddy the Detective, which Kristof particularly recommends, help out their adopted human farm family by cheerily performing chores around the family’s house and farm. One scene in this book features a squirrel “foreman” who scolds his fleet of gardeners for being lazy, untrustworthy workers: “[Squirrel] broke off to shout angrily at one of the workmen…’ Excuse me sir, he apologized to Freddy. You can’t trust these fellows a minute. They know the difference all right, but they pretend they think the nasturtiums are weeds so they can pull ‘em up and eat ‘em. They like the taste.’” (31)

Not all of Kristof’s choices so blatantly reproduce capitalist values, but many simply avoid the question altogether in favor of human-animal friendship (Charlotte’s Web, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be) or, in the case of Little Lord Fauntelroy, imagine a fabled world in which one could easily escape the hardships of working-class life. Kristof addresses his projected audience by framing his list with an appeal to wealthy parents who likely have their children in expensive test-prep programs: “this is a book so full of SAT words it could put Stanley Kaplan out of business.” By thus appealing to them, Kristof is suggesting that one central reason why children should read is so they can get ahead in the competitive world of capitalism. But is that really what the *best* children’s books should be doing?

We look forward to reviewing the entirety of Kristof's list someday. In the meantime, we offer our own list of favorites. What makes these books "great" to us is hard to pin down, and it may not be enough just to say that we loved them as kids and still love them now. Reflecting on what the books on our list have in common, we note that some of the books use magic as a means of exploring and imaginatively conquering the anxiety of adaptation to the world of adults; others involve a struggle against an unjust, often tyrannical authority; and some are non-fiction books (or fictionalized real-life stories) that convey individual responses to their own, often unjust, worlds. We have not annotated the list, but plan, in the near future of this blog, to offer some discussion of why, for us, these books belong on any list of the *great* children’s books of our time.

Our Favorite Children’s Books

Fantasy/Science Fiction
Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (and the rest of the Time quartet)
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (and sequels)
Edward Eager, Half Magic
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Ursula K. Le Guin, the Earthsea novels
Julie Andrews, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles
Isaac Asimov, I, Robot
Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (and companion books)

The "Real"
Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe
Etty Hillesum, The Diaries of Etty Hillesum
Linotte: The Early Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 3 (1914-1920)
Sydney Taylor, All-of-a-kind Family
Farley Mowat, Born Naked
Marguerite Henry, Misty of Chincoteague (and Stormy, Misty’s Foal)

Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy
E. L. Konigsburg. From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E.
Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends
e.e. cummings, Complete Poems

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Andy Spandy

Andy Spandy Sugardy Candy
French Almond Rock

This familiar skipping rhyme comes from one of our favorite stories of all time: Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep. Written by Eleanor Farjeon and first published in 1936, Elsie Piddock tells the story of a girl who could “skip like never so.” It has all the elements of some wonderful children’s stories---an outrageously talented young heroine, magic, and a successful struggle against unjust authority.

Elsie can already skip longer than anyone else when the faeries gift her with a magical skipping rope, with one handle that tastes like Sugar Candy and another like French Almond Rock. Naturally, Elsie can only use the rope while she is small enough to fit it. She learns the high skip, the sly skip, the long skip, the strong skip, the skip double-double, and---best of all---the skip against trouble. When an evil Lord threatens to enclose the commons, Elsie returns at 109 years old---again small enough to use her faerie rope ---and with her strong skip she sends the Lord deep into the bowels of the earth, defeating his plans to build factories on the peoples’ skipping grounds.

While it's a great story with a captivating rhythm to its language and an endearing heroine, Elsie Piddock offers more, including insightful points about what motivates people to engage in a fight against the odds, and what it takes to win. As the story explains in a discursive aside, when the new Lord comes to the town, “bad as the high rents were to [the people], they did not mind these so much as the loss of their old rights." It seems to the people like the powerful must always win; thus they are willing to give up because they know they will lose: the people "knew in their hearts that they must be beaten in the end, [while] the Lord was sure of his victory."

The plan Elsie devises to save the town commons of course combines magic and clever negotiation, like so many children's stories about victorious underdogs. One of the things we love about Elsie’s plan is not only that she returns to champion children’s rights as a 109 year old woman, but also that she returns to childhood, in this metaphoric sense, to transform the feeling kids often have—that the adults will always win, no matter how unfair it seems. Instead of allowing the townspeople to give in to this feeling, Elsie exploits the cleverness and trickiness that kids often develop in the face of adult authority. In doing so, she shows the book’s child-readers that one can, at least imaginatively, transform the unequal power bargain between kids and adults--one which they fear will never fundamentally change.

You'll have to read the story to find out exactly how Elsie does it, but we love that it's not just Elsie who skips in the celebration that ultimately saves the town commons: everyone who has ever skipped must take a turn.