Friday, August 13, 2010

Why Does a Tomboy Relate to THE HUNDRED DRESSES?

A few weeks ago Veronica Roth said that she was planning to blog about favorite childhood books and invited others to blog with her. While I’ve thought about, discussed, and made notes about books since I last posted here, I (quite obviously) haven’t refined any of my thoughts enough to post them. Happily, her suggestion nudged me in just the right way and I raised my hand to say I’d re-read something, too. There was no backing down, I’d made a commitment on a public forum. Veronica coined the word ‘accountabilibuddies’ for those of us who agreed to post about a favorite childhood book today. Thanks for the nudge, acountabilibuddy!

I’m certain that I first read THE HUNDRED DRESSES in the months before I turned eight and moved for the 9th time. (Yes, nine moves in eight years. That can happen when you’re a military brat.) Though I don’t remember my first read, I have memories of seeing the book in at least two libraries, and reading it in two bedrooms. If those memories are accurate, it helped me get through leaving Churchland Academy in Virginia and starting Peterson Elementary in Alaska.

In brief, Eleanor Estes’s Newbery-honor book (published in 1944) is about the teasing a girl from a poor, immigrant family endures from her schoolmates. Despite the fact she wears the same faded blue dress to school every day, Wanda Petronski claims to have one hundred dresses lined up in her closet. No one believes her, but no one offers her friendship or seeks out the truth about her statement. Only after her family abruptly moves (due to discrimination) do her classmates find out that Wanda is a skilled artist who had drawn a hundred dresses. While her main tormentors, Maddie and Peggy, feel guilty enough to send Wanda a letter, they never apologize. Wanda, however, is gracious enough to gift two of the drawings to the girls whose final response is, “She must have really liked us anyway.”

Why would this story with its heavy-handed moral of acceptance, understanding, and forgiveness join the literary landscape of my childhood? How could this quiet, outdated story have such resonance? And why would tomboy Heather read and re-read a book about dresses?

If I encountered THE HUNDRED DRESSES for the first time today, I would argue that my elementary-school self would not have liked it. It’s didactic. It’s underdeveloped. It’s clearly a girl book. A story about mean girls and dresses? No thanks.

And I’d be wrong. This book was a touchpoint in my childhood. I didn’t need more information about Wanda or her life at home. I filled in those blanks myself because I already kind of knew her.

I connected to the story because the quiet girl in the faded blue dress was familiar. I had learned that misspeaking could haunt you on the playground. I knew what it was to be the weird kid nobody really spoke to. I understood that if you might be moving again anyway, there didn’t seem to be a point to making friends. I had been uncertain of my place in the landscape of the school and neighborhood. I definitely didn’t understand the clique of girls who had the luxury of life-long friendship, but I knew all about being on the outskirts, uncertain about whether those girls were teasing or genuinely offering friendship.

I wasn’t Wanda, but I understood her well. And I still do.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Katherine Paterson Makes Me Blush

When the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature was announced on January 4th, I cheered along with everyone else that Katherine Paterson had been appointed. I know how beloved she is and how many people cite her books among their life-long favorites.

While I was certain I’d read a few of her books, I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d read. I looked over her list of titles to refresh my memory and was shocked with what I found.

I had read exactly one book.


Once I got over the surprise, I had two options: play along with the world and cheer Ms. Paterson on without sharing any personal opinion or publicly acknowledge this gap in my reading history. I decided I was strong enough to do the latter and tweeted, “Aunt Feather is embarrassed to admit she's only read one book by our new Ambassador of Children's Lit. She'll be heading to the library to rectify this.”

And I did. That afternoon I scoured the shelves at Brooklyn Public Library, checked out the nine books they had on the shelves and put holds on two additional titles that had been suggested. And I embarked on a Katherine Patterson Marathon Read. While I never intended to kick off 2010 with an author study, that’s exactly what’s happening.

I invite you to join me. Pick up a Katherine Paterson title you haven’t read. Revisit a favorite. Read one aloud with a child. Check out an audio book to share with your family.

And honor our new Ambassador by taking her advice: Read More. As she said in The New York Times, “I think of all the joy reading has given me. It is not just because it is good for you, but because it is good.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

To see or not to see WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

It’s time for a confession.

I’m not entirely sure I want to see WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.

There. I’ve said it, it’s out there, and I’ll suffer the consequences. This is not to say I won’t see it (I reserve the right to change my mind) but I’m find I’m waiting for it with apprehension rather than in anticipation.

If you look at my movie-viewing history, you’ll find I’ve avoided many filmed versions of my favorite childhood books. I generally try to come up with some kind of academic, incontrovertible reason for doing so, but more often than not it comes down to fear that my internal vision won’t be reflected on screen.

I skipped the two films of The Chronicles of Narnia because I know what Lucy and Mr. Tumnus and Reepicheep look and sound like and I wasn’t willing to accept any substitute. And I remembered that C.S. Lewis never sold the film rights himself believing that a film wouldn't be able to do the fantastic elements of his books justice. For me, that was reason enough not to see the movies. The author was alive when film was an established medium (unlike, say, Oscar Wilde) and he said no. By not seeing the movie, I was not only stubbornly preserving my childhood vision, I was honoring the wishes of the creator of that world. (Though I do concede that Tilda Swinton was perfectly cast as the White Witch.)

I also said no to THE GOLDEN COMPASS (the text and some themes had to be softened and Lyra didn’t seem spunky enough), TWILIGHT (I am solidly team Jacob, and I do not like that casting), CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS (what’s that scientist doing there?), and a resounding no to A WRINKLE IN TIME (the IT in my imagination is plenty scary, thank you).

There are yeses. HOLES I allowed because I knew that Louis Sachar had written the screenplay. While HARRIET THE SPY wasn’t quite mean enough, I couldn’t resist Eartha Kitt as Agatha K. Plummer. And I was thrilled that Tim Burton returned some of the edge to CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.

But Aunt Feather, I hear you asking, why no to WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE? You love Spike Jonez (I do), Dave Eggers is brilliant (he is), Sendak gave his seal of approval (he did), and this is one of the most important books of your life (absolutely).

And therein lies the problem.

This is one of the most important books of my entire life. It was regularly checked out of the library throughout my childhood. My folks gave me tickets to see the opera when I was in high school. When I left teaching and bookselling for an office job, I kept a copy of the book at my desk just in case I needed it. Over the years, I developed my own ideas about Max and his mother’s backstory, cemented clear thoughts about the personalities of the Wild Things, and honed specific ways of delivering the dialogue when I read the book aloud. And I’ve had all 300-odd words memorized for as long as I can remember.

Frankly, I’m scared to lose all that. I’m concerned that I’ll move away from my gruff read of “We’ll eat you up—we love you so!” to the soft way that line is delivered in the movie. I worry that the landscape of the island (for that’s where the Wild Things make their home in my mind) will change irreversibly after seeing what Jonez and company have created. Even from the preview, the presence of a desert confuses me beyond measure. There’s no desert where the Wild Things live. And of course I worry that I’ll learn things about Max which will change my relationship with him.

I don’t doubt that Sendak’s story and art have been beautifully expanded upon and built up for the film. I’m sure that the backstory and additional details enrich the world and give it additional depth and heart. And I’m sure that the performances are unparalleled. But I’m not sure that the filmed version will enrich the landscape that I’ve been building since I was a toddler.

Long and short, I’m worried that the magic of the film will tarnish the magic of the book. And when I have a choice, books win.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Picture Books Get Banned, Too

In getting ready for this week, I looked over lists of banned and challenged books. I was looking for titles I’ve never read and challenges I’d forgotten, and titles I didn’t know had ever caused a ruckus.

I expected to see the Harry Potter books (witchcraft and sorcery), Judy Blume (sex), and recent Newbery Award Winner THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY (the word ‘scrotum’ caused an uproar). And then there were titles that surprised me—that literally made me exclaim out loud. Picture books caused most of my confusion.

In picture books, I knew that Sendak’s Caldecott Honor book IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN continues to cause a stir because Mickey spends much of the book naked (as I explained to a friend ‘you can’t show his pee-pee!’) I had already heard that AND TANGO MAKES THREE held the top-spot on the challenged books list for the third year in a row (this title about a same-sex penguin couple has been challenged internationally.) It was no surprise at all that THE STUPIDS is challenged time and again because there is objection to the use of the word ‘stupid’ and a claim that the series promotes negative behavior.

And then came the surprises. As I saw each of the following titles on the list I tried to figure out why they were challenged before I read the explanation. In every instance, when I had one at all, my guess was wrong.

Dr. Seuss is acclaimed for his early readers and his ability to address complex issues in accessible parables. THE LORAX introduces a creature fighting to defend the trees, the creatures who live among them, and the land itself from an unnecessary corporate expansion. What could be offensive about this conservationist picture book? THE LORAX was challenged in California because the ‘I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees’ chant might defame the logging industry.

Caldecott Award Winner SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE by William Steig has long been one of my favorites. I have always thought of this as a loving story of family and undying love. I thought that perhaps the magic which changes Sylvester from a donkey into a rock and back again might be considered witchcraft. But I was wrong. In 1977 the book was challenged in Illinois because in this world where all the characters are animals, the police officers are illustrated as pigs and that could be construed as defamatory to law enforcement.

I knew the KING AND KING had been challenged from coast to coast and overseas because of the homosexual relationship, but was someone really offended by the fact the Queen is a divorcee? A parent in California was.

My guess when I saw THE THREE LITTLE PIGS on a list was that it might be cited because of violence (particularly in early, traditional tellings) I didn't expect to find out the book was challenged as school reading because the pigs as food might be offensive to the Muslim community.

Suffice it to say, that picture books land on banned books lists is a reminder that no book is free from scrutiny. Every title is subject to unexpected interpretation. And most importantly, that every book we read over our lifetimes might someday require defense.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I Read Banned Books

I have been very blessed in many areas of my life. One of the most important personally and professionally is the fact that I grew up in a in a household of readers. Of equal importance was that this was a family of readers in which no book was forbidden.

Certainly there were books my siblings and I chose which my parents didn’t care for, but I never remember them forbidding even one title. Granted, if I chose something they considered too sophisticated (THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG the summer between 8th and 9th grade, for example) they let me know—but it was with a subtle, “I’d prefer if you didn’t read that now…” I can’t remember even one instance where they said no to me or to my siblings when it came to the written word.

And happily—luckily—though I attended school all over the United States, I don’t recall living in district where a book was challenged by a parent, educator, or community at large.

Today is the start of the 28th annual observation of Banned Books Week. This is a week to celebrate our freedom to read and our access to information. Glance over the list compiled by the American Library Association of the 100 most frequently challenged books from the 90’s and my guess is you’ll be surprised by what some people have found so offensive they want to restrict access for the rest of us. This is also a week to show support to all of those who help protect our intellectual rights on a daily basis—particularly the librarians, booksellers, and educators who are most often on the front lines.

I’ve been reading quite a bit to prepare for this week, and I found myself returning to this quote by Margaret Bald, co-author of 100 BANNED BOOKS, again and again:

“When you look back over the centuries at censorship and see the incredible range of books and authors whose works were suppressed, you can only be struck by how absurdly ineffective and useless it has been in the long run.”

There are hundreds of books that have been banned or challenged over the centuries. My challenge to you is to read one of those books this week.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Will Oprah pick SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM?

While I’d intended to write only about the classics and the forgotten and the out of print until I got my proverbial sea-legs with this blog, I need to leave that aside for today. Please forgive in advance any sweeping statements or generalizations I may make, but I hope that after you read this book, you’ll feel the same way.

When speculation about the next Oprah Book Club pick began a few weeks ago, there were a handful of details which were broadly available to those who cared to look for them. Who the publisher was, the length and price of said book, and the fact that the choice was like no other that Oprah had put her book club seal on were reported on in the publishing trades I read daily, and I filed away this information.

Once it was confirmed that the book was going to be from Little, Brown and Company, I crossed my fingers and hoped that Uwem Akpan’s SAY YOU’RE ONE OF THEM would be the choice. According to a small piece in the media today, it is.

I first read two of the stories in this collection, ‘An Ex-mas Feast’ and ‘My Parents’ Bedroom’ when they were published in The New Yorker. When I came across them in this collection, I immediately remembered specific details and felt the pulse-racing upset I’d felt when I first read them. There was not only intellectual memory, but sense memory associated with the stories. To have that clarity and emotional response years after the first encounter was unexpected and spoke to me of the lasting, powerful, and important nature of Akpan’s storytelling.

SAY YOU’RE ONE OF THEM is a collection of short stories, set across Africa which address the difficult issues which are facing the young people across that continent. Genocide, AIDS, orphans, child prostitution, lack of education, and slavery are some of the issues contained within its pages.

Is it easy reading? No. Is it important and necessary? Absolutely. In my mind, this is a title which needs to be in every library—both school and public—across the United States and around the world.

And not to make light of the stories or the issues, be prepared to take action after reading the collection. You’ll surely want to do something: trick or treat for UNICEF, write letters for Amnesty International, donate to Doctors Without Borders, support a local Peace Corps volunteer.

That’s my greatest hope: that this book will galvanize readers to care enough to do something for the children the world over who need our help.

Friday, September 11, 2009

"God bless the gargoyles. God bless us all."

On September 11th, eight years ago, I was preparing for the first day of school: setting up the classroom, meeting students, calling parents…

At the time I was teaching during the week and bookselling on weekends. The school opted to postpone the first day until the following week to allow families time together and to allow the staff time to develop strategies to address the questions and comments our preschool students would surely have. Similarly, the bookstore instituted additional storytimes—a place to allow families to gather and relax, for parents to search for titles that might help them talk to their children, and for kids to be in a familiar place outside of their home.

The store compiled a list of titles to read and to suggest to families, but of course the booksellers added additional books which had personal meaning or which gave us comfort. There were a lot of titles about love and forgiveness, about families and home, about peace and understanding. Terrific titles, meaningful and important books all.

But it surprised me to find that the title which gave me the most comfort during this time was one I added to our suggested titles list — Dav Pilkey’s GOD BLESS THE GARGOYLES. Yes, that Dav Pilkey. Dav Pilkey the creator of Captain Underpants and The Dumb Bunnies.

GOD BLESS THE GARGOYLES tells the tale of how and why gargoyles perch on churches and cathedrals— that they were placed there to look over and protect us, to scare evil away. Yet over the centuries, our relationship with them changed, and people began to worry over these creatures, concerned that their frightening appearance reflected an unsavory soul. The gargoyles took this to heart and were devastated. Soon angels heard their crying and flew down to comfort them and to work with them to watch over mankind. To this day, whether we know it or not, accept it or not, they still look over us.

I first encountered the book when it was released in 1996 and it quickly became a favorite. But it was never an easy book to handsell. My passion for it worked during the Halloween season, but it’s not a book that is an easy one to suggest for birthdays or bookreports. It is not a book likely to become an obvious favorite.

After the events of 9/11, I realized what an important book this had become to me. Now it is among the first I turn to when I need comfort. It makes me weep and it brings me peace. And now that it is the reason I suggest it to others.

God bless the hearts and the souls who are grieving:
For those who have left, and for those who are leaving.
God bless each perishing body and mind
God bless all creatures remaining behind.