“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

Those were the words that led to Senator Jeff Flake’s spine suddenly kicking into gear, which in turn led to this week’s FBI investigation of the allegation by a decorous, professional, polite, restrained accuser, against an angry, outraged, arrogant, self-righteous candidate for the highest court in the land. Whatever might transpire, those spoken words remain. Look at me.

Important words. If you don’t look at me you are telling me that I don’t matter. If you don’t look at me, you are telling me you don’t care. But also, look at me and acknowledge that I have power. My words have power. They count. I count.

LookatmeIt’s no coincidence, I think, that the command, “Look at me,” so commonly used when an adult is speaking to an unruly child (so ludicrously appropriate when spoken to national leaders who have lost their collective way) is only a word and a punctuation mark removed from June Jordan‘s glorious poem, “Who Look at Me?”

Excerpt:

Who look at me?

Who see the children
on their street the torn down door the wall
complete an early losing
games of ball
the search to find
a fatherhood a mothering of mind
a multimillion multicolored mirror
of an honest humankind?

Say it out loud. Humankind–a word with depths of meaning from which we have strayed. The world could use a mothering of mind.

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse

IMG_2076It is hard to believe that this book was published in 2012. The borders it crosses are at once of some imagined tomorrow and emphatically of now, now, now. Opening in a bleak near-future Vermont landscape, the novel introduces the reader to young Radley. She arrives home from a service trip to Haiti, only to find that the American People’s Party has won the election and is in power in the United States, and her parents have gone missing. After hunkering down for a while, terrorized, in her home, hiding from police who, she believes, are after her, she decides to head north.

IMG_2075

Just take a look at the concluding passage on this page–the escape to Canada, the metal guardrail, the relief of the crossing. It could be about border-crossings today, northward crossings we never thought we’d see in our time.

The realities of 2017 have at times had the effect of making me feel utterly useless. I’ve questioned whether there is anything to be gained by the work I do, even questioned my belief that somehow, in my small way, I can try to make the world a better place.

One could quibble that the plot in this book turns too easily, or that allies show up a little too readily, or even that Rad’s greatest loss is a touch predictable. But Karen Hesse‘s Safekeeping gave me a little jolt of something completely necessary and vitally important. A kind of sweetness, like that of the girl she writes about, hungry for human contact and learning to trust her own best instincts. It reminded me of the strange and mysterious power of fiction to speak to reality. And in the end, it’s the remarkable prescience in the storyline that kept me turning the pages.

 

What Does Peace Feel Like?

Can we learn about peace without considering its terrible opposite? Here is a list of books for children on the subject, from the Institute for Humane Education.

cvr9780689866760_9780689866760_lgVladimir Radunsky (whose Manneken Pis is one of my all-time favorite books) reflects on children’s perceptions in this thoughtful, serious collection.

Yet here is what’s going on in the world. Do we really know any more what peace feels like? Is there a day when somewhere in the world, innocents are not being killed in wars waged in the name of borders, territory, religion, ideology, or just plain greed?

Children did not make this mess.

They don’t deserve to inherit it.

 

Fred Korematsu and Another Infamous Executive Order

628dd2bfb56cd1d0122408860ee65943Fred Korematsu Speaks Up is a new children’s book co-written by VCFA graduate Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi. When Laura first talked to me about this project I was excited. It seemed a vitally important story to tell. A story that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Today, the signing of executive orders is carrying a kind of crazed trigger-happiness that threatens to turn the clock back upon civil rights. Today, Fred’s story begins to carry a tragic new urgency.

I’ll be talking to Laura some more about her book. Meanwhile, here’s a snippet from the web site of the ACLU of Northern California:

Monday, Jan. 30, 2017 is Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, established by the California legislature in 2010 to commemorate the ACLU of Northern California’s client who was interned during World War II.

Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017 is the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which began Japanese Internment.

It would be a shame to let that February 17th anniversary go by without taking some action, whatever we can, each of us who cares. Action to stop the erosion of civil rights and liberties in the land that was supposed to be the cradle of both.

Lies, Activism, and Books for Young People

1984

In the Age of Trump, when “alternative facts” are touted as real and the highest seat in the executive branch of the United States government is occupied by a liarsales of George Orwell’s 1984 are booming, and we’re suddenly reminded that the young have to be our last best hope.

My own chapter book, Book Uncle and Me, written back in 2010 or so and originally published in India in 2012, is a story of politics, corruption, and a kid who has to take her nose out of her book and do something. It now seems surprisingly relevant, and has made it onto a few lists  in the last couple of months.

From The Horn Book,  here is a nonfiction list of books about young people making a difference. And finally, look at this year’s ALA awards list! I’d like to think that books as always can offer us a tiny ray of hope. The children’s and YA book world must keep its focus on diversity, justice, and inclusion, especially in the face of racism and isolationism. That’s the truth.

Resistance at Standing Rock 

All story is personal and all story is political. Here is a real life story of resistance playing out in our time, but really, it’s not a new tale.

lastingechoesI am reminded of Joseph Bruchac’s Lasting Echoes, his eloquent compilation of Native voices that carried the story of endurance, suffering, and resistance into the twentieth century and made it accessible to young readers.

Keeping this history alive has always been important. But knowing it and understanding its significance is, sadly, much more relevant today. Instead of taking the road toward healing the planet and communicating with the indigenous people of the continent, we have taken quite a different trajectory.

Meanwhile the protests continue against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

 

 

In Trumpistan

trumpWhen I last posted about A Child’s First Book of Trump, it was a joke. A funny, smart, insightful joke. A joke that was a little bit pleased with itself.

Now Americus Trumpus, a creature who “thrives in the most contentious conditions,” is in charge. No joke.

Only in America, it seems, is it possible to rage against the establishment by voting into power a man with inherited (that is to say unearned) wealth who doesn’t pay his taxes. Who mocks minorities of all sorts, denies climate change, and gets the support of the Ku Klux Klan. If this is a wake-up call, then we’re all reeling from the giant bucket of ice-water thrown in our faces. It’s like Reconstruction all over again or as if the entire Civil Rights movement has been ripped up and thrown away.

Meanwhile, in Trumpistan, the children’s literature community tries to pick up the pieces.

Oh No! It’s the Bright Orange Beastie

trumpWhat is a Trump anyway? Who in the last century would have imagined that we’d be pondering that troubling question in 2016, or that this brave new century would morph into The Age of Perpetual War?

As we head into the ominous storm of the first ever Reality TV Presidential Campaign (Oh no! Libba Bray, say it ain’t going to be a Reality TV Presidency!) here’s a humorist’s take on The Trump–in picture book form. Written by Michael Ian Black and illustrated by Marc Rosenthal.

Not for children, necessarily, or for the faint of heart.

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.