And What About Nostalgia?

Nostalgia reigns in the world of children’s books. What grown-up doesn’t have fond memories of books read or listened to in that enchanted time we call childhood? What parent wouldn’t want to buy their child a shelfload of those very same books? And yet, and yet…

I think about the Enid Blyton books that were my staple youthful reading, and I am frankly tired of the racism they contained, some of it veiled and some of it not so much. I think of The Little House on the Prairie books and Dr. Seuss. I tell myself I’d much rather see children reading anti-racist books. What are we doing, still feeding kids that old poison?

But what about the grownup world? Should we forget those books existed? Or does calling them out also call out the attitudes they’re infused with, attitudes that have not gone away?

It’s the question Angelica Jade Bastién asks in her article, first published in 2017: What are We to Do with Cinematic Monuments to the Confederacy?

Excerpt:

What makes Gone With the Wind’s racism so important and difficult to taxonomize is the deftness of its characterization. The white characters in the film, including minor bit players, feel real, complex, and human in ways many period epics fail to conceptualize. They are heroes it can be hard not to root for. For all her cruelty and selfishness, Scarlett’s prickly nature make her a fascinating anti-heroine. Yet everyone — including Melanie, one of the most selfless and naïvely angelic women ever portrayed in film — are still complicit in, and directly benefit from, the enslavement of black people. 

Dr. Seuss still dominates, witness this exhibition in Toronto at the end of last year, before Covid-19 shuttered all such mass extravaganzas. When the ALSC decided to rename the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, a mere 2 years ago, there was pushback. Nostalgia dies hard, it seems. I wonder if those who hold it dear know just how its effects are playing out in the lives of real children.

Enduring Appeal

I’m eating my Judgmint today in memory of Notorious RBG. Thank you to the clever people at the Unemployed Philosophers Guild who dreamed these up just to help me feel better.

Thanks as well to Sunil Adam for calling my attention to American Kahani, an online platform for Indian Americans and South Asian Americans to express our views on different facets of American life. The web site says it features “Indian Americans Through the Looking Glass.” American Kahani turns that looking glass onto the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a few different ways: What Ruth Ginsburg’s Life and Work Mean to a Young Indian American Woman Like Me by Asha Shajahan. Excerpt:

Like Ruth, I’m a first generation American. Our families have the same ideals for quality education and hard work to succeed. Ruth was brought up at a time where “nice” girls didn’t speak up or make demands. Women were treated as weak and second class citizens. They were obliged to follow men. Unfortunately, this gender disparity is still present today, particularly in the Indian community. 

More:

Indian Americans Mourn Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Death; Flood Social Media With Tributes

Preeta Bansal, former Solicitor General of the State of New York, went down memory lane in a Facebook post… “she helped me to find my voice as a woman lawyer, as an Indian American, and as a person of spirituality and faith not of the dominant tradition.” 

and finally, from Ishani Peddi, a high school senior from Georgia:

The Youth of America Must Rally to Uphold the Progressive Legacy of the Notorious RBG

With her signature dissents and trailblazing history, RBG has always been a voice for liberals, straying from oppressive norms, despite their popularity. This attitude has inspired young women to speak their minds, even as they continue to be silenced today. Despite the age gap between Ginsburg and her ever loyal teenage fans, her ideas and personality shall forever remain relevant for those that seek to bring change and fight against stereotypes.

We’re all desperate to make connections, to find some meaning in the bigger stories playing out around us. Eat your Judgmints, my people. Remember those who came before. And consider carefully what you plan to do with your vote.

How Do You Compete With Free?

Deborah Ahenkora is a publisher based in Accra, Ghana. “We don’t live in silos,” she says. In this interview with journalist and radio show host Nahlah Ayed, Ahenkora talks about her childhood reading, the challenges faced by publishers in African countries and her wake-up moment after reading Nancy Drew and confessing to well-meaning adults that she’d decided then and there to become a detective.

Dreams, ambition, reality, and the magic of escaping into a book, all interwoven with a reading of Bahiya, the Little Zebra, a picture book from Tanzania and Egypt, written by Nahida Esmail and illustrated by Randa Abubakr. (African Bureau Stories)

Ahenkora speaks of a book famine in Africa. She asks:

What would the world look like if young Canadian girls were growing up reading about a little girl living in Harare?

And when the marketplace is flooded with free book donations from the developed world, all glossy and beautifully finished, how can local entrepreneurs hope to compete? In 2008, she founded the Golden Baobab Prize for African writers of children’s literature in 2008 — when she was just a 19-year old university student.The interview raises great questions and showcases the voice of a woman with an important and necessary vision.

Before Fake News Became a Thing: Reflecting on the Career of J Marks

Years ago, I came across a YA novel titled Rama: A Legend by a writer who called himself Jamake Highwater. Even back then, in the 1990’s, I wondered how come someone with a Native American-sounding name, writing about mostly Native subjects in an authoritative sounding voice, would choose to turn his attention to a retelling of the Ramayana. I didn’t know any Native writers personally at the time, but it seemed odd, somehow.

What gave this man, I wondered, the authority to fictionalize the Ramayana? Still, he seemed to bear the stamp of approval from the publishing world. The book was published by Henry Holt. Publishers Weekly called it “an authentic adaptation and abridgment of the original for an American audience,” so who was I to quibble? Anyway, over the years, I became preoccupied with other subcontinental story tropes being hijacked and hopelessly hacked, to great approval in the very market I was trying to submit to. Who had the time to worry about Jamake Highwater?

Later I heard there was something scandalous about him, something to do with his lack of authenticity, but I didn’t pay too much attention. Hoaxes of this kind had been in the air for decades, it seemed, witness The Education of Little Tree.

Then recently, pottering around the Internet, while avoiding the novel that has been beating me over the head, I stumbled upon this article in Indian Country Today. Excerpt:

In 1984, Hank Adams (the Native American activist) sent an astounding exposé on the “Indian expert” Jamake Mamake Highwater that we published in the pages of Akwesasne Notes. (Vine Deloria acted as a go-between to get it published and Suzan Harjo did some research.) What Hank Adams had uncovered was that the Native American author (who claimed Blackfoot/Cherokee heritage), a noted intellectual, a recipient of Ford Foundation grants and major publishing contracts, was not a Native American at all, but a writer named J Marks (J, Jay or Jack Marks, born Jackie Marks). 

Adams’s exposé was published in 1984. A decade later, in 1997, I may have been seeing the shapeshifting efforts of a man who was trying to retool the focus of his authority from Native traditions to Southeast Asian ones with a fictionalization of the Ramayana. Was it based on sources from Java or Bali, or maybe on the Thai Ramakien? I don’t remember and none of the reviews still available saw fit to mention a source.

A cautionary tale, this. A reminder that fakery has been with us for years. In our children’s book industry, it can leave long lasting footprints.

[Image source: abebooks.com]

Caste in America

Growing up in India, I sensed, long before I had words to express it, that caste and its realities were at glaring odds with the secular, liberal democratic society the country seemed on the way to forging. I used to think that if I ignored caste, it would somehow go away. As a society, in my lifetime, we would surely come to see what a terrible thing it was, how unjust, how divisive. We would, I imagined, outgrow it.

How wrong I was.

Now Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is nudging me to think of caste, the concept, to use it as a lens for looking at power and privilege, oppression and history, in the country to which I immigrated back on 1979.

In a Throughline podcast interview, Wilkerson says:

“So much of the history that we have received, as Americans, has been from a singular perspective, and we are only now beginning to hear the voices of people who have been in the shadows–not seen, not heard. And that means we have not had the full history. We have not had the full experience of knowing what the complete picture is of our country…”

She looked at India, and at Nazi Germany, trying to understand how institutionalized hierarchy uses the language of oppression. No coincidence that the Nazis studied Jim Crow laws, or that Martin Luther King, Jr., on his famous visit to India in 1959, suddenly found himself thinking that he himself was a kind of untouchable in his own country.

In India, I see that Wilkerson’s book is subtitled The Lies That Divide Us.

Wilkerson says, “This is the house that we have inherited.” I am presuming, then, as a woman who left India for America, to lay claim to more than one house. They are both crumbling structures, and Wilkerson has convinced me that caste has been foundational to them both. She, however, sees “caste” as a more useful term than race, because to her, it’s simply descriptive. It doesn’t come loaded with emotional baggage. Me? I think that long-lasting damage wreaked in the name of caste and caste divisions, the crimes committed–all of it still exists. At this moment, one of my countries is waking up to the existence of this wound upon its being–the other, alas, is leaning into the structure of caste. That structure may, in fact, be more adaptable, and therefore more malleable and capable of manipulation, than Dr. King could have foreseen in 1959.

History and Self in Everything Sad is Untrue

Here is the debut offering from an exciting new press—Levine Querido—notable in contemporary children’s and YA publishing for the minds behind it and for its focus on building a platform for previously underrepresented voices.

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri is autobiographical. It’s fiction. It’s history. It’s memory. It’s truth. Spanning three continents and carrying influences from a 6,000-year old history, it is told in the sharp yet tender voice of a young narrator and his adult self. Sad without being sentimental, this is no memoir about becoming American. Instead, it elevates complexity, hunts it down in past and present and makes us look it in the eye–family history, the personal traumas of being a refugee, the experiences of generations who have lived in an ever-changing world, and the intricacies of inherited myth. Truth? Lies? Where does memory fall?

But this isn’t an intellectual exercise in pushing the limits of a memoir, either. The story grabs readers and tosses them into the narrator’s life, starting at three with the slaughter of a bull, a normal family, and a larger than life grandfather, Baba Haji. But also Scheherazade and an entire mythic history and poetry and politics and a thousand sensory images. You, reader, suggests Nayeri, you’re the king, and these are tales of marvel. Then he upends the expectations, switches time and place, and we’re hanging on for the ride. Poop stories, God (or not), what it feels like to be sutured without anesthesia, a toy sheep weighted with the longings of childhood, Pringles chips as symbols of welcome. As welcome as is this book, with its multiple layers and its fierce refusal to accept a hyphenated American status for its characters, choosing instead to embrace their humanity.

Truth, Facts, and Story

Marion Dane Bauer’s last nonfiction book resides in the space where facts and truth overlap, collide, and blaze into story.

In her blog, she discusses that space and what it has come to mean to her.

Excerpt:

…facts told in the right cadence, gathered into the right form, shaped toward the right meaning can move us.  And feeling is all.

Thus my latest picture book, The Stuff of Stars, published by Candlewick in 2018.  Thus two new recently acquired picture books, We, the Curious Ones, which explores the tension between science and story over the centuries, and One Small Acorn, which tells the story of a single acorn within the story of a forest within the story of us.

To hold The Stuff of Stars in your hands, to turn its luminous pages, is to encounter magic.

Notes to Self: History Feeds into Reality Feeds into Fiction

Attending to the news cycle could drive us all round the bend, because we can’t stand to look and, if we have a shred of decency left in us, we can’t look away.

Headline from The Guardian: Across America, police are responding to peaceful protests with violence

Excerpt from Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States:

To write something down doesn’t make it true. But the history of truth is lashed to the history of writing like a mast to a sail….To write something down is to make a fossil record of a mind. Stories are full of power and force; the seas with meaning, with truths and lies, evasions and honesty

History is in the making, all around us. Add a notebook. A pen.

A character emerges.

Manipulate time. Now? The past? The future? Which of those could we possibly have imagined as we are compelled to imagine and reimagine them daily now?

I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a now that has exerted a more powerful pull on my conscience. This is a test. It has to be. Tomorrow may well depend on how we live this today of ours. How young people tomorrow will perceive and employ the history of truth may well depend on how we write about it.