Children’s Literature

This Year’s Darkness

It always happens on Thanksgiving week: the rain, the cold, and the darkness all descend at once. One week, it is autumn: I think about winter as a future entity, a thing that will happen to me someday. The next week winter has descended, like a gavel to a bench.

As I drive home from work, the twilight bends towards night, and the gray of the fog, the drizzle, the sheen of the road, the glass-smooth water on the inlet, blend into one dark blanket. I navigate my way home by following the taillights in front of me. It is dark now, I tell myself. I feel like I’m breathing deep, sending oxygen to my toes, preparing for the plunge into winter, for the ten long weeks of darkness before February brings a promising light, a long burning glow beneath the cloud cover.

This year the darkness is darker. I don’t need to tell you why.

(Yesterday on the drive home his voice came on my radio. He was shouting to a crowd in Ohio, boasting about how big he had won. “I can’t stand it,” I said, leaning my head towards the backseat. I didn’t want Smoke, my eight-year-old, to be taken in by his bravado. “Who?” Stump, my three-year-old, asked me. “I don’t even like to say his name,” I said. “Me neither,” Smoke solemnly agreed. “Voldemort,” I said. Stump accepted that answer. It was dark, of course, when this happened.)

I have a new favorite book: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by the great William Steig. It’s for children, but it’s also for me. In it, Sylvester, a donkey, finds a magic red pebble and accidentally changes himself into a rock. He is immobile and, because he can’t touch the rock, he can’t un-wish his wish. It seems to be an impossible predicament. How will he ever return to himself?

Sylvester’s parents are stricken. They cannot find him nor can they find any clues about his disappearance. Many pages of the book serve only to mark the passage of time, in which all parties struggle to come to terms with their new situation. Sylvester descends into a long, deep sleep. Seasons pass. And here is my favorite page:

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One day a wolf sat on the rock that was Sylvester and howled and howled because he was hungry.

This page is my favorite because nothing further happens with this wolf. He is not instrumental to the plot. This is his only page. He shows up, he howls in hunger, he leaves. He animates the story’s grief. The pads of his paws, through a layer of snow, touch the rock that is Sylvester. He will survive this season, but the season will require him to suffer.

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Teaching our Kids about Women who Kick Ass: *Rad American Women A – Z*

Every once in a while a children’s book comes out that gives me the urge to run to my nearest bookstore and buy a dozen copies, so that I can hand one to every child in my life. When I first encountered Rad American Women A – Z, I had precisely this urge. Until I sat down with my son at bedtime and read these stories of women athletes, artists and activists and activists, I hadn’t realized how deeply satisfying it was to talk my son about issues that matter. Within our first fifteen minutes of engaging with the book, we talked about sexism, beauty norms, and slavery.

Written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl, Rad American Women profiles a historic North American woman for each letter of the alphabet. It features names that many of us will easily recognize (Carol Burnett, FloJo, Patti Smith) as well as names that were new to me (Lucy Parsons, the Grimke sisters) In short, it presents compelling woman role models (something all of our children need), and introduces conversations about inclusion and representation. I’m so grateful to have had a chance to talk to Kate, the book’s author, about her vision for this book.

Page18JB: When I introduced this book to my six-year-old son, his immediate response was “Aw, why no men?” We’ve had a number of conversations about sexism and gender, but I had a hard time finding the right words to explain why it’s important to document and recognize women’s history. Do you have any advice?

Kate: First of all, I absolutely love that you read it with your 6-yr old son. This book is for girls, yes, but it’s absolutely for boys too. And I love that he asked that, because it inspires dialogue, and that’s just what we want this book to do. Yes, the questions that children ask may be challenging for us—as parents, caregivers, teachers, etc—to answer, but it’s so incredibly crucial that we do the work to answer these questions. And it’s so crucial that kids even get to ask. In the introduction to the book I made a point to address the importance of finding inspiration in all kinds of people, even the ones who don’t look like you. So to some degree, the answer to your son’s question is there: “These women are American heroes, and they’re part of all of our histories. We can find inspiration in the stories of all people, no matter who they are.”

Beyond that, though, my advice to parents, etc, faced with this kind of question, is to encourage the questioner to begin paying attention to how gender is and isn’t represented. A great place to start for young people might be money—look through a stack of bills and talk about whose face is on them. What do you notice? Why might there not be any girls? Why might it be nice to have a girl on money? The WomenOn20s campaign is taking off right now, and there’s a fantastic video that addresses this exact topic.

I’m also the mother of a son, but he’s 19 months old, so we haven’t had these talks yet.  My daughter gets it, and recently, upon learning that her dad is a feminist too (“Really daddy? You’re a feminist too?” “Yup!”) she spread her arms wide, threw back her head, and proclaimed “MY PARENTS ARE FEMINISTS!!!” I’m excited for the challenge of raising my boy, and teaching him how to navigate the tricky terrain of gender and gender expectations, because it is absolutely complex and crazy for boys too.

Page20JB: One thing that has surprised me about this book is that reading it with my son has been incredibly conversational. The other night, we didn’t start bedtime until 9 so I told him we could read three of the entries from Rad Women. Three pages later, I looked at the clock and it was ten-thirty. For us, reading it has been an ongoing project that’s really different from reading a typical story book or chapter book. We have to pause for conversations about Big Things like rules, slavery, and integrity. I’m wondering how you imagined children and their families would engage with the text.

Kate: I love hearing this! So great, and I think one of the wonderful and unique things about the book are the myriad ways that you can approach and experience it. I don’t necessarily imagine that people will read the whole thing, start to finish, if they’re reading it to a young person. I mean, they certainly can! But if you’re reading to a child, it is very likely that you’ll be stopping along the way to discuss. My daughter and I have been doing a letter per night, and aren’t going in order. She likes to flip through, look at the images, and then choose a woman to read about.

Page8JB: Another thing that surprised me was that the entries inspired conversations about racism, classism, and ableism just as much as sexism. For instance, only three sentences into the letter A (Angela Davis), I paused to answer a whole lot of questions about afros, and wound up discussing their historical significance and cultural beauty norms, etc. The book feels very naturally intersectional, but I wonder what process you might have gone through to achieve that.

Kate: First of all, your son sounds like an amazingly curious and awesome kiddo. I love that he’s asking these questions—imagine if all children were allowed exposure to these complicated issues at an early age, and were then allowed to ask questions. And yes, I define the KKK in the first sentence of the book. In a bio about Angela Davis no less. Race, class, ability, sexuality—it’s all in there, because it’s all connected. I recently encountered a woman in a bookstore who was buying several copies and she told me “I can’t wait to teach my niece about intersectionality!” And I was like YES.

As the writer, the intersectionality part came easy, at least in terms of addressing it. I was lucky to get my feminist schooling in the Women’s (now Feminist) Studies department at UC Santa Cruz, and vividly remember my first quarter, where I was thrilled to take a class with Bettina Aptheker whose lectures never ignored the connections between race, class, gender, and ability. Now as for how to break all that down in 300 words that a kid can read and process—that was the challenge.  I tried to approach it all in an open and honest manner: how would I explain this to my kid? Often the simplest explanation is best. How do you explain the KKK? Well, they were a group of racist white men. How do you explain that Bessie Coleman couldn’t enroll in aviation school? You say they wouldn’t accept a black woman. I also had help from my fantastic editors, Michelle Tea and Elaine Katzenberger, along with many friends who read along the way.

Page42JB: Something that my son has loved about the book is the way the women often appear with an object or in a pose that reveals what they were famous for. My son likes to stare at each picture for a while and then guess. I got to explain to him what a typewriter was, and he guessed that maybe Lucy Parsons was famous for “being fancy”. The bold style of the images is such a perfect match that it seems inevitable, but I’m curious at what point different stylistic decisions were made–how did the look of the book evolve?

Kate: Miriam and I agreed that we wanted the images to be as dynamic and varied as possible—we didn’t want just portraits, but we also didn’t want everyone to be in motion. We wanted a mix. We looked at many images of each woman, and Miriam selected ones to base the paper-cuts off of. We added the objects for some to help readers connect to what the woman did—microscope, tennis racket, guitar, etc—and to add more texture and variety. Once we decided to collaborate, Miriam was off and running, and would text me pictures of the paper-cuts as she created them. That was thrilling! I loved getting texts and seeing these amazing pieces of art, and I was always, always struck by how well she’s able to capture the spirit and energy of each woman.

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JB: Do you have an entry you are particularly fond of, maybe one that you hope readers notice or pay special attention to?

Kate: Well, X of course. That’s a special one because it’s so different from the others, and it’s a place for readers to kind of pause and think. It was emotional to write, for sure—I definitely cried while crafting that one, both because it made me think of the thousands of women whose contributions remain invisible, but also because of the hopeful aspect of the entry, as it looks to the future. My hope is that it expands the reader’s perception of the book and all its meanings by personalizing it. That entry is a favorite for many people—I know Miriam’s 8 year old daughter reads it over and over, and my daughter loves to look at the images, pointing out which ones are “her” and which ones are “me.” I especially love that she’s never ridden a skateboard, but she still chooses that image as one that’s “her”!

You can purchase your copy of Rad American Women A – Z from City Lights Press, or ask your local bookseller.

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Reasons to Love Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

I recently discovered Michael Rosen’s Sad Book when a Facebook friend shared this image, which is the first page of the book.

From Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

From Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

I was intrigued. Within 48 hours I held a copy in my hands. Here are the reasons why I love it.

1. It fills a need I didn’t know I had. As a contemporary parent, I’ve been turned on to the importance of emotional literacy. I know that I’m supposed to talk to my sons about feelings, to help them learn to name specific feelings. I’ve seen handouts like this one, designed to facilitate this kind of learning.

I haven’t done much of this for two reasons. First of all, I struggle to name my own feelings with that kind of specificity. I don’t feel like a qualified instructor. Perhaps more importantly, I find these handouts a little boring. But the Sad Book takes a single emotion and blows it up. We get to see how sadness manifests in multiple ways. Some of pictures look like sadness; others look like anger, like joy, like beauty.

When my son saw the first page of the Sad Book, he let out a giggle and said: “That guy’s happy!” His initial reaction was the perfect segue to engaging more deeply with both the text and the idea.

2. It doesn’t tell a story. My main complaint about children’s literature today is that so often the illustrations surpass the writing. Many children’s books tell stories that may be serviceable enough, but they only hold a child’s (and a parent’s) attention for as long as it takes to get through the book. They don’t stick with us, or invite multiple readings.

The Sad Book alludes to the story of the author’s loss of his teenage son, but it doesn’t tell that story directly. In short, it’s not so much a story book, but an essay on sadness. This is right, since the point isn’t to make the reader feel sad, but to invite us to look at sadness from an outsider’s perspective.

3. Quentin Blake—who knew? Quentin Blake’s illustration style holds some history for me, since Roald Dahl was my favorite author as a child, and Blake’s sketches illustrate most of his books. I always thought of his style as just that—sketchy. I liked his pictures well enough, but they never struck me as particularly impressive. (I was too young then to appreciate that sometimes simplicity is the hallmark of craft.) But look at this:

From Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

From Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

 

The Sad Book strikes me as the best possible showcase for Quentin Blake’s work. His illustrations here manage to balance comedy, tragedy and horror, often times all on a single page, capturing the complexity of the feelings that Rosen describes. Also, if I were an artist I could probably explain this better, but the way he captures light and shadow breaks my heart a little bit.

So that’s my pitch. I think that you should read Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.

Just to offer an alternate perspective, Kellie, my partner, hates the Sad Book. She thinks it’s too sad.