Prescience in Fiction 

messengerAnti-immigrant rhetoric…build a wall…despise the other…blame victims…carry weapons.

I’m not referring to hate speech spouted by some egomaniacal aspirant to power in the United States. This is all from the fictional world created by Lois Lowry in her astonishingly relevant The Giver quartet. I’m just rereading Book 3, Messenger. The last time I read it, Matty’s gift felt almost mythic in its savior-like quality. Now I’m struck by the degree to which  the world in the book is our world. By how  farsighted fiction can be. Walls. Immigration. Hatred. Weapons.

First published in 2004. Read it now.

Post-Brexit Racism and Children’s Books

 

Five hundred percent. Five hundred? That’s right. That’s how much expressions of racism have gone up in Britain post-Brexit. Julia Eccleshare, children’s books editor of the Guardian newspaper, calls for books to counter a disturbing trend.

Ferdinand

MannekenpisI shudder to think about what that percentage could be, in another country headed for an electoral face-off.

And I think of The Story of Ferdinand, and Manneken Pis: The Simple Story of a Boy Who Peed on a War, and all the other books that have whispered, sung, laughed, cried about peace through many years and many childhoods. Now that the world seems headed in quite another direction, we may need such books more than ever.

From Ex- to Post-colonial, via Enid Blyton

maloryNakul Krishna reflects on the effect of reading Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series as a child:

I reckon that one way for the ex-colonial to be post-colonial is to stop letting colonialism be the only measure of our attention. The thing is not to gawp, in admiration or horror or awkwardness, at that history, but to find ways of putting it to use.

Krishna read Blyton across lines of gender as well as race and geography, and of course, history. He writes of visiting Britain later, taking all his insecurities with him, postcolonial conflicts included. He writes of finding the southeast coast where the Malory Towers books are set.

This Britain I could live with, only half-tamed, surrounded by a sea of greater antiquity than any empire.

I too read Blyton avidly as a child. I had my moment of disillusionment. I left her behind. Later, visiting England, I found myself connecting with places from Beatrix Potter and Jane Austen rather than Blyton. I think I put away the slight discomfort that Blyton still arouses in me. Still, Krishna’s essay reminded me of why I’d loved those books in the first place.

Children’s Literature in Cambodia?

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When you travel to a place for just a few days, you can’t do much more than get a glimpse of it. Enough to raise questions. Enough to change you just a little, shake up your complacency. But apart from the place I am there to see, wherever I travel, I usually find myself looking for two things: children’s books and Indian restaurants.

As a result, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, somewhere among the archeology and mythology and the triumph of the trees, somewhere between a trek into the jungle and a welcome dinner at New Delhi Indian Restaurant, I found a bookstore. I looked for children’s books. I found slim pickings, mostly reprints of Eric Carle and some Japanese manga. A recent LitHub daily informed me that the Cambodian literary scene is burgeoning after a long hiatus. The Mekong Review is on a mission, to find writers who will create a new literature in English, produce writing to express “local soul” and “connect each of the countries through which the Mekong runs.”

So I started thinking, what about books for children? For the sweet daughter of the owners of that New Delhi restaurant, who rode off on her bike to buy okra for the dinner we ordered late at night? The kids in uniform we saw filing to school through the neighborhoods of Siem Reap? Yuri Wellington, the Executive Director of Teach Cambodia, Inc., asks these questions as well. Unsurprisingly, she finds that most books about Cambodia that are available to children in North America focus on the years of genocide. They are worthy books:

Half-Spoon-of-RiceSong for Cambodia

But should they be the only story? The years of horror are important to remember, sure. But it seems self-evident that healing ought to matter more. Much more than a single horrific memory, especially in a land with a vast and ancient history, in which musicians missing limbs are a constant reminder of the terrors of war and genocide. Cambodian children do not need to be defined by a single national trauma that happened before they were born.

So where are the other children’s stories of Cambodia? Wellington suggests a few titles, mostly from NGOs, sometimes a bit message-y. But here, she says, look at this video. Look at these children, hungry to love books.

Reading Without Walls

Consider Gene Luen Yang’s challenge.

RWW-Challenge-300x225It’s simple. Yang, who is the US National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, suggests that we might expand our horizons by taking down the walls around our reading choices.

 

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Some of us grew up on a diet of books about characters who looked nothing like us and lived very different lives from ours. That’s all we had when I grew up. It places you in a pretty humbling position to constantly be reading about a world of which you know nothing. But it can teach you a lot as well. About the world, about empathy, about tolerance and understanding. About what it takes to navigate the mazes of walls we encounter in life.

 

Interview With Karen Rivers

Karen Rivers is a friend and colleague, a neighbor, and a fellow writer who teaches. She is the author of The Girl in the Well is Me, which Kirkus, in a starred review, called “a brilliantly revealed, sometimes even funny, exploration of courage, the will to live, and the importance of being true to oneself.”

Here she is talking to me about her new YA novel from FSG, Before We Go Extinct. In praise of the book, the National Reading Campaign says:

Before We Go Extinct has no easy answers. Rivers’ characters are complex – sometimes cruel, and other times child-like in their innocence – and she does not condescend with a tidy conclusion that ties up all the plot threads.

Here’s Karen talking about the main character’s journey and the process of writing the novel.

Orphanhood, Updated

Writers have long opened up the horizons for child characters by the simple expedient of killing off their parents. How could Mowgli have been taken in by the wolfpack if his mother and father hadn’t first been eaten by a tiger? From Frodo Baggins to the Baudelaire children, orphanhood is a plot device that has generated an inexhaustible list of characters. Parents simply get in the way. So much so that some characters, like Peter Pan, choose to abandon their parents and run away, choosing orphanhood as the path to adventure.

Mind you, Mowgli didn’t start this trend. Mike Mariani argues that without orphans the novel itself may not have been conceived.

detectivesassistantSince it’s such a common trope, it is even possible to write an orphan story today without making it seem hackneyed and trite? Try Kate Hannigan’s The Detective’s Assistant, (Little, Brown, 2015) a middle grade thriller based on the true-life story of Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton’s agent. From the time the Right Reverend deposits young Nell on the doorstep of her Aunt Kitty, the “waif’s last relation in the world,” it’s clear that Nell had better do her best to hold fast to her severe, mysterious aunt. And she does. There is no better detective’s assistant than this determined orphan. She and her aunt solve a series of mysteries in this breathless and rollicking book, wending their way through American history in the process. It’s stroke of genius to combine the orphan role with the narrative voice of a kind of junior Dr. Watson–with spunk.

 

Tolstoy Was not Writing for Me

Is there anyone who shows us better than Toni Morrison how to weather life and keep on singing? Singing fiercely, what’s more. Look at this 2015 Guardian interview.

Admittedly, her forays into children’s books have left me, well, puzzled. Because where is the ferocious beauty of language, the glorious leaping narrative I know from The Bluest Eye or Beloved? Where is the “appetite for truth?”

Never mind. Today I’m breathing in this passage from the interview:

Most writers claim to abhor labels but Morrison has always welcomed the term “black writer”. “I’m writing for black people,” she says, “in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it” – she refers to the writer James Baldwin talking about “a little white man deep inside of all of us”. Did she exorcise hers? “Well I never really had it. I just never did.”

Today I am returning to a picture book that is not selling. Nothing saps courage more than a manuscript that has not found a home. I’m told there’s too much information in this one. The structure is slight. There’s not enough there there.

I’m setting those comments aside for now. They may be completely on target but addressing objections head-on has never been my style.

Instead I’m going to see if it will help to come at the story another way. To try to zero in on the child reader–a brown kid like the brown kid I used to be, the brown kid I still carry around inside me. Not writing for everyone, the way Tolstoy was not writing for me. Maybe that way I’ll find out if there is in fact a story lurking behind the words.

Mirrors? Windows? How About Prisms?

9781406306552Monica Edinger has an interesting post about some of my favorite chapter books, the Anna Hibiscus books by Atinuke.

Elsewhere, I’ve suggested prisms as a concept, something to add to the usual array of glassy metaphors about reading. I maintain that cultural content in children’s books needs to be woven into the story so the authors intention is not stamped all over it. It needs to be taken for granted by the character concerned, the way Anna takes her melded identity. Simultaneously, it works when it is knowingly complicated–as in  Atinuke’s decision to use the noun “Africa” instead of “Nigeria,” or my own decision to avoid italics in Hindi or Tamil language words in some of my books. My character would not set those words apart as “foreign” so why should my narrative do so?

For the most part you can only render cultural content in this way, knowingly, only when it is deeply familiar to you. Speaking of which, here’s a writer to watch.

Children in Literature

Rivka Galchen’s piece on the “sometimes reciprocal hostility between writing and children” arrived in a LitHub alert earlier this month, raising fresh questions about the place of my chosen field of writing in the larger literary world.

If literature has always looked askance at children, perhaps reflecting the views of society at large, where does that leave literature for children? Back when I started writing for young readers, I’d get really annoyed by perfectly well-intentioned people who asked me when I thought I’d write a book for grown-ups. As if writing for kids were the equivalent of going to kindergarten, and if I wanted to grow up, hadn’t I better start, you know, writing for real people? Sadly, a quarter-century later, that question does not seem to have gone away.

 

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It’s possible to have a meaningful conversation between someone who’s 85 and someone who’s 3.

Maybe it’s just that those of us who write for the young are better able to remember that we were once children too and that childhood is not an alien space but a deeply human one.

Galchen writes:

But if I seem to be wandering into an appraisal of babies—so underrepresented!—as in need of their own subaltern studies then I have wandered too far.

Or not. Remember Perry Nodelman’s paper on the child as “other.”

It gives me some comfort to think that in literature for children, child characters may not have power but they do, so often, claim agency. They are rich and human, flawed and full, and in general a whole lot more than “catalysts of decay or despair.”