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Of childhood reading and salad

I can’t find my (ancient, battered) copy of SPIDERWEB FOR TWO, by Elizabeth Enright, which is frustrating, because I want to quote from it. I’ll have to settle for summary instead. I think it’s from the chapter titled “A Pocketful of Gold.” Oliver and Randy are trying to solve one of the story’s mysterious clues; Randy is sick in bed, so Oliver is on his own. Along the way, he meets Miss Bishop, and they have a conversation about, among other things, gardening. Miss Bishop says, “Purslane is delicious in a salad,” and Oliver is stunned to hear this, because to him, purslane has always been just a bothersome weed.

The second I read that passage, I wanted to taste purslane. It wasn’t until I was an adult–in fact, just a few years ago–that I finally got my chance when I spotted some at a farmer’s market. Miss Bishop was right. It was delicious, with a faint lemon flavor and a wonderful crisp texture due to the thickness of its leaves. (It’s also full of nutrients, if you like that sort of thing.)

A few weeks ago, I spotted some tiny weedy sprouts of purslane in the flower bed. About a dozen of them, barely bigger than my thumb.

 

They were dug up and given their own little bed, and now, three weeks later–WOW, are they happy!



My lovely crop of purslane wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t read that passage in SPIDERWEB FOR TWO (some fifty years ago!). For me, the connection is about more than just a plant. It’s about curiosity, and being open to new experiences, and paying attention, and maybe even a weed by any other name….

A good children’s book has that kind of power: to make connections that last a lifetime.

With salad on the side.

 

Standing on shoulders

Here’s something I often hear from diverse creators: “I’m writing books for kids because when I was little, I never saw myself in books. I want to make sure every child has the chance to see themselves in a book.”

Sound familiar? The inspiration is a noble one, and I couldn’t be more excited about the work being produced these days by writers from marginalized communities. It’s a challenging, tumultous, and EXCITING time in the world of children’s books.

When I hear something like the above, I can certainly relate. There were so few books featuring Asian or Asian-American characters when I was growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s.

BUT. And this is important.

There WERE people doing that work. There were creators battling conditions a thousand times less woke than today, overcoming the obstacles, publishing one book at a time into what must have seemed like a void. No marketing, No WNDB, no social media communities.

If you were born after about 1970, and you tell audiences that you are writing books because you never saw yourself in a book, I believe you. But the books were there, AND THEIR CREATORS DESERVE TO BE ACKNOWLEDGED.

It was not the fault of the creators that their books weren’t/aren’t better known. Their books got close to ZERO support at every level–from the publishing process right on through to the educational system and the general zeitgeist of the time.

It follows, therefore, that it was also not the fault of readers in marginalized communities that they were unaware of these books. (With thanks to Namrata Tripathi, Jamar Perry, David Bowles, KT Horning, and others, for helping me clarify this point.) How could they find books that were absent from bookstores, libraries, classrooms?

I think today’s creators need to be careful not to inadvertently perpetuate the erasure of that seminal work. Saying something like, “I never saw myself in a book,” could easily be misapprehended as meaning, “There were no books about kids like me out there.”

So a humble suggestion: When you say, “I never saw myself in a book,” perhaps you might add a line or two acknowledging the shoulders we all stand on. How about something like, “My education did not include being introduced to the wonderful books by authors like Eloise Greenfield or Donald Crews.”

Dr. Debbie Reese offers this language: “Societal marginalization of writers that were creating mirrors for me meant that I didn’t see those mirrors until I was an adult.”

Eloise Greenfield. Donald Crews. Lawrence Yep. John Donovan. Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve. Pura Belpré. Alma Flor Ada. Those are a few creators that came to mind immediately. There are more. They are not household names, and they should be.

Honor our forebears. And then make them proud.

Because…Ashley

In 2017, Ashley Bryan won a Newbery Honor for his book FREEDOM OVER ME. At the time, he was 93 years old. I have known and loved him long enough that I cannot remember where or when we met.

Ashley accepted that Newbery Honor (and the Coretta Scott King Author Honor award as well) at the ALA conference in June of 2017. I wanted to give him a small token of appreciation and celebration, so I knitted him a hat. The pattern uses a simple cable design that looks like owls:

Can you see them? I added embroidered eyes to three of the owls. (One is sleepy.)

And this is how the hat came out:

Throughout ALA, Ashley was positively SWAMPED with admirers and well-wishers. I said a quick hello to him, but I didn’t want to add to the crush. So I gave the gift bag containing the hat to his editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, and asked her to give it to Ashley. In the end, though, I was never quite certain that he received it.

Ashley is now 95, and I got to see him last month–the first time I had seen him since that ALA. (Huge thanks to Sarah Corson and Ashley’s family for helping to arrange the meeting.) During our visit, I casually asked him if he had ever gotten the hat.

He looked stricken. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “I’m going to look for it when I get home.” (Our meeting took place in Houston, where Ashley was staying with family. The rest of the year, he lives on an island off the coast of Maine.) I felt terrible about asking, because it was clear that he was dismayed by the question.

But we went on to much more pleasant conversation; I got to see the F&Gs for his next book, BLOOMING BENEATH THE SUN (April 2019), with remarkable cut-paper collage illustrations. “I think it’s the strongest collage work I’ve ever done,” Ashley told me.

Which left me breathless. Imagine doing your strongest work ever at age 95….

A little while later, we got ready to go out to lunch. Ashley put on his parka, then pulled a hat from the pocket and began to put it on.

“Ashley!” I exclaimed. “That’s it–that’s the hat I made for you!”

Hard to say which of us was more delighted. And here he is, wearing the hat.

My encounters with Ashley, although much too infrequent, are always memorable.

A writing strategy

Back in the day, major-league baseball franchises occasionally had a team member whose title was ‘player-manager’. Just like it sounds, a player-manager played regularly on the field AND made the managerial decisions. The last such player-manager was Pete Rose, for the Cincinnati Reds back in the 1980s.

When I’m at a conference, I’m usually on the faculty, and I’ve often wished there were a designation similar to ‘player-manager’. Something like ‘faculty-colleague’, maybe?

Because in my conversations with attendees, I do as much learning as I do teaching.

Here’s the latest example. I was fortunate to be a faculty special guest at the Highlights Foundation Summer Camp last week. I gave one presentation, and participated in the final faculty Q&A session. Otherwise, I used my four days there as a mini-retreat, to work on the revision of a middle-grade manuscript.

It’s been a difficult project. I’m making progress, but it’s slo-o-o-o-w.

Then one of the attendees–hi, Neda!–told me about a writing session she and a few other campers had done together. Among her companions was Alex Villasante. Alex kept the group on task by setting her phone timer, and they worked in 15-minute focused bursts.

I had learned about this tip long ago (Elizabeth Gilbert, for example, says 30 minutes), but had forgotten about it. Well, I’ve been using it ever since Neda reminded me of it–and finding it VERY helpful.

I’m doing 10 or 12 minutes. For that length of time, I stay on my manuscript, no cheating, step away from the phone, ma’am. When the beep sounds, I get a little reward–a peek at Twitter, a round of Toy Blast, a quick stretch. Then another session, and another after that.

Whether it’s the luxury of a days-long writing retreat, an afternoon with no other commitments, an hour when the grandchild takes a nap (RAISES HAND)–the writing time available to us is always precious. To me, it’s incredibly frustrating and confidence-sapping to carve out time like that–and then sit staring blankly at the screen, or else fritter away those valuable minutes.

Short, focused bursts + little rewards are working for me. Maybe you’d like to try it as well.

And a big thank you to writing colleagues Neda and Alex. 🙂

The choices we make

I want to write here about looking at our own stuff. But first, a story.

As a student in the inaugural Women’s Studies course at my university, I could hardly wait for classes to begin. A group of professors and grad students had dedicated years to lobbying for a Women’s Studies program; this course was the first to be approved by the administration.

During the opening lecture in the overflowing auditorium, we learned how hard the group had worked to make the course truly different. The syllabus consisted entirely of works written by women. Authority would be decentralized: Our study groups would be headed by a cooperative panel of three teaching assistants, not just one. Our written work would be read and critiqued by the three TAs, who would collectively agree on the grade.

I felt like I was not just witnessing history, but actually participating in real societal change. For our first assignment, we were asked to write about why we had chosen to enroll in the course, and what we hoped to gain from it. Our responses, we were told, would help shape the entire program.

I took the instructors at their word. My essay expressed enthusiasm for the course, and then asked a question: Why was every reading on the syllabus written by a white woman? I had hoped to learn about global efforts toward justice for women, but not only were the writers exclusively white, they were almost all American (Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir the exceptions). And I wrote—respectfully, I thought—that perhaps it would have been more accurate to title the course “Western Women’s Studies.”

I was totally unprepared for the responses from the TAs, all of whom were white. From two of them, my essay received the following comments: Did I not realize how hard they had worked on the syllabus, how difficult it had been to choose the best and most relevant readings? Did I not understand that at this crucial juncture, criticism of the course could be detrimental to the program? Did I not perceive the importance of a united front in the fight against male injustice?

The third TA was more understanding. Her comments began, “We need voices like yours in the women’s movement,” which was heartening. But that was followed by something about “trusting the process,” and the need for patience.

It was 1981. Today, 37 years later, I can still feel the sting of those remarks, as keen as a slap to my face. Those TAs believed passionately in the fight for women’s rights. I had so badly wanted the entire experience of a course created by such women to be revolutionary. Instead, by shutting out entire groups of voices, they were replicating the mistakes of the men before them.

And the worst part was that they were unaware of doing so.

The basis for the question I asked in my essay has a name now: intersectionality. Thirty-seven years is almost two generations, and I am still asking the same question.

I am grateful for the opportunities and inspiration #kidlitwomen has provided this month. But I confess to dismay at evidence of a collective consciousness that, with a few notable exceptions, continues to neglect intersectionality, thereby imperiling us to repeat the errors of the past. Heightened awareness of gender inequity without intersectionality perpetuates the current whack-a-mole approach in all its short-term inefficiency, rather than bringing about true enduring change in the status quo.

Looking at our own stuff. It’s always difficult. Each one of us needs to confront how we have internalized the acceptance of injustice in its many forms, including racism and sexism, due to the dominant culture of inequity. (And yes, that statement applies to everyone, not just white people.)

I’ll go first.

For more than ten years, I did countless author presentations at elementary schools, mostly K-5. In 2013, as a result of publishing a middle-school book, I began to get requests to visit 6-8 and 6-9 schools.

That took some getting used to: Middle-school kids are a different species from their younger siblings. While still in the midst of this transition, I was booked to do a presentation to a large audience of middle-schoolers who were almost all African-American.

Students from three schools were being bussed to the presentation. The venue was less than ideal, a gloomy basement room with terrible acoustics. When I walked in and saw all those students, I panicked a little. I had spoken many times at elementary schools serving mostly students of color, but these kids were in middle school. I started to doubt myself—to worry about whether my presentation would speak to them. I wondered if I should alter my usual talk.

One of the busses was late, so rather than having everyone sit around waiting, the organizer suggested that I sign books for the students who were already there. I sat at a table, and the students lined up with their books.

I spoke to every student. Some were friendly, others shy. They all smiled and thanked me.

By the time the signing was finished, the doubt had vanished. Why had I panicked? Because they were middle-schoolers? Or because they were mostly black? Now I thank the stars for the late bus: The time I got to spend with those students, more than a hundred of them, was a critical learning moment for me. I realized that my anxiety might possibly have been based on racist assumptions, which the students broke down without knowing they were doing so.

To avoid becoming that which we are trying to escape requires that we approach problems from an entirely different universe of thought. With humility in place of certainty. Respect instead of dismissiveness. Self-awareness rather than blame. We need to question the assumptions that go into our choices and preferences. Most importantly, we must work relentlessly to make intersectional thought a habit.

It can feel overwhelming, so here’s a place to start: our bookshelves. Beyond the economic implications of supporting marginalized writers with our dollars, creators of children’s literature have another important incentive for examining our choices. As writers, what we read goes into our work on many levels, including the subconscious. The books we read matter to the children we write for.

We can take the time to reflect on the books we read and buy, and like or dislike. Viewed in terms of shelf space: Why are the books I own written–in such staggering proportion–by white authors? If I shelve my “funny” books together, do I find that they’re mostly created by men? The books authored by POC that I’ve purchased—are they all written by the “big” names?

 Then we need to spend time with books that deconstruct those assumptions. 

From November 2016 until the end of 2017, I made the decision to read and buy almost exclusively books by marginalized women. Not that I hadn’t before—I just made it a more conscious choice. What an amazing year of reading. Stories by women of color, gay women, trans women, women with disabilities, neurodiverse women, women of multiple marginalized groups–stories that have enlarged and enriched my wonder at the spirit of humanity.

We’re not just trying to change children’s books. We’re trying to change the world—which is incredibly hard work. But it always begins the same way: By looking at our own stuff, and changing the choices we make every day.

(With thanks to–among many others–Anna Dobbin, Tracey Baptiste, Meg Medina, Jackie Woodson, and Leah Henderson, with the acknowledgment that they might not agree with everything I have written here.)

#kidlitwomen

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