Archive for September, 2010

Book-Banners Hurt Young People

Banned Books Week 2010 posterAs I look at the American Library Association’s lists of Banned and Challenged Books, one recurring theme emerges: most (though not all) depict difficulties faced by children and teens. Though the motive for banning books is protection, restricting access to these books hurts the children and teens who are most in need of them.  Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak and Maya Angelou‘s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings both addresses the aftermath of rape. Harry Potter tells of a child who thrives despite the active neglect of his foster parents. Rudolfo Anaya‘s Bless Me, Ultima depicts the experience of facing peers who ridicule you for your culture and of facing parents more invested in their dreams than your own.  Tim O’Brien‘s The Things They Carried and Walter Dean Myers‘s Fallen Angels depicts how war shapes a young psyche.  Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole’s And Tango Makes Three shows that same-sex parents appear elsewhere in the animal kingdom, too.  Alex Sanchez‘s Rainbow Boys depicts the challenges gay teens face.

Children in vulnerable populations need to read books that help them make sense of their experiences.  As Mr. Antolini tells Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger‘s The Catcher in the Rye (another frequently challenged book), “you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. … Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now.  Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles.  You’ll learn from them — if you want to. … They tend to express themselves more clearly, and they usually have a passion for following their thoughts through to the end” (189).  Or ,as Holden says earlier in the novel, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author was a friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it” (18).

Many of the books that have been banned or challenged are exactly the books that can be the friend to the young person who desperately needs to know that she or he is not alone, that other people have faced similar struggles.  Though there are many such teens, I have been thinking a lot about the high suicide rate among gay teen-agers.  (And, yes, Given Holden’s anxiety about “flits,” The Catcher in the Rye may not be the book to which gay teens turn.)

Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” Project has strikes me as particularly effective because it lets GLBTQ youth know not only that they’re not alone, but also that the traumas of high school do end and life can be good and even wonderful at times.

David Leviathan, Boy Meets BoyOf course, I’d much rather that young people lived in the world of David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, where teen-agers are allowed to express their sexual preference without fear of bullying.  But we don’t live in that world.  In the past three weeks, bullying has led to the suicides of Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, and others whose deaths have not made headlines.  It’s extremely hard for teen-agers to realize that life can get better for them. Videos like this can help.

I think that books can help, too.  In my Literature for Adolescents class, I teach Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat and Sara Ryan’s Empress of the World.  I teach the former for its frank depiction of sexuality, but also its magical realism, its lyrical prose, and its influence on later writers… such as Sara Ryan, who alludes to Weetzie in her novel.  I teach her Empress of the World because — in addition to being a well-written narrative — I find that my students are more likely to teach it than Weetzie Bat.  They’re able to appreciate Weetzie Bat as art, but the conception of Cherokee Bat makes some uncomfortable.Sara Ryan, Empress of the World Since many will go on to be high school teachers, I want them to have a book about gay teens that they feel comfortable teaching.

(Incidentally, I’m definitely open to other suggestions for other gay-friendly books for that “slot” on the syllabus.  Each time I teach the class, I change it a little, swapping out some books, adding new ones, and so on.  So… if you have suggestions, please place them in the comments below.)

High school can be a difficult time — especially if you’re a member of any group that’s mocked, bullied or ridiculed for being “different.”  It’s hard enough growing up knowing that, say, your government believes that your sexuality makes you unfit to serve your country in uniform.  Or growing up knowing that you need to keep your love a secret, lest you be the victim of a hate crime.  If you’re taught to feel ashamed for who you are, you may not be inclined to talk to other people.  A library is one place where you might find the books that can talk to you, and to help you know that you’re not alone.

Teen-agers of all types (different genders, sexualities, nationalities, ethnicities, body types, religions, etc.) need access to books that help them make sense of what they are going through.  Denying them access to these books contributes to their marginalization and puts them at greater risk.

Why do some parents want to deny young readers access?  I say “parents” because, according to the American Library Association, over half (55%!) of all challenges to books come from parents.  To put that in perspective, the next-highest group of challengers are patrons (13%), followed by other (11%), administrators (9%), and board members (3%).  I have to believe that, in seeking to deny readers access, these parents are acting in what (they think) is the best interests of their community.  And, certainly, the desire to protect one’s children is universal (or nearly universal) among parents — and for good reason.

But any individual young person will not match one parent’s idea of what teenage-hood (or childhood) “is” or “should be.”  There are as many different kinds of teen-agers (and children) as there are different kinds of adults.  Never do we hear an adult say, “This book is inappropriate for adults” or “adults will like this.”  Yet, if we replace the word “adults” with “teen-agers” or “children,” then we’ll see a phrase encountered far too often.  A grown-up resists generalizations about him- or her-self, but is often quite happy to generalize about younger people.  This (well-intentioned) impulse to protect young adults by upholding such generalized, abstract notions of “teen-ager” or “child” not only fails to prepare young persons for the sometimes cruel world they face, but in fact has a greater potential to make their lives harder.

I know that literature is not in itself a solution to the problems of homophobia and bullying.  But it can help diminish the effects of both. And for the friends and families of Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas and all the other young GLBTQ people out there, we need to support the freedom to read.

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Crockett Johnson Laughs

Crockett Johnson was not a teller of jokes.  His sense of humor was wry, subtle, sardonic.  He’d quietly offer a well-turned phrase or make an off-hand observation that perfectly addressed the moment.  However, in contrast to his gentle delivery, he “had this sort of earthy laugh,”1 a “marvelous laugh.”2 Courtesy of Nina Stagakis, here is a previously unpublished photograph of Crockett Johnson laughing, circa 1967 — which would make Johnson 60 or 61.

Crockett Johnson Laughs, 1967.  Courtesy of Nina Stagakis.

Having had successful careers as both cartoonist and children’s author, Johnson at the time of this photo had recently embarked upon a new career: abstract artist and mathematician.  He would ultimately paint over 100 mathematically-inspired paintings, and publish two original theorems.

But he’s better remembered for the wit of his words, and the succinct elegance of his artwork’s clean, clear line. One reason his humor succeeded derived from a refusal to condescend to his audience.  As he put it, “Humor for children must be written for adults. I cannot think of a good, humorous children’s book that has not been.  An inconsistency or a line or situation that makes a grownup wince is almost certain to insult, or worse, bore a child.”3

The preceding is part of a series of musings on, material omitted from, and occasional excerpts from my forthcoming The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (UP Mississippi, 2012).  At present, none of the above is in the book.  When my editor returns the manuscript, perhaps I’ll find a way to work it in.  However, given that he’ll be writing with suggestions on how to cut 27,000 words, it’s more likely that you’ll only read the above here.

Harold laughs. From Crockett Johnson, Harold's Circus (1959).

from Crockett Johnson, Harold’s Circus (1959).


1. Dan Richter, telephone interview with Philip Nel, 28 June 2005.

2. Nina Stagakis, telephone interview with Philip Nel, 30 June 2001.

3. Crockett Johnson, in Weston Woods catalogue (Weston, CT: Weston Woods Studios, Inc., 1969), p. 12.

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Speaking Out

Laurie Halse Anderson's SpeakWesley Scroggins, Associate Professor of Management at Missouri State University, thinks that Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak (1999) is “soft pornography.”  Having read and taught Speak many times, I suspect that Mr. Scroggins either lacks some basic literary skills (such as how to detect tone) or is in need of psychological counseling. As an English professor, I’m not qualified to help with the latter, but I can help him with the former.  So, Dr. Scroggins, I’m dedicating this blog post to you.

In an editorial printed on Saturday, Professor Scroggins makes the “soft pornography” allegation and then writes the following about Speak:

This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes.

Professor Scroggins has described some plot elements, but has not discerned the novel’s perspective on those events.  The above summary is akin to saying of Ray Bradbury‘s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) that it shows firemen as pyromaniacs who start fires instead of putting them out, and burn books, too!  The book does display these events, but it does so in order to invite us to consider them critically.

Speak‘s narrator, Melinda Sordino, uses a literary technique known as irony.  When we use irony, we’re deliberately creating tension between a superficial, literal meaning, and a different, deeper, intended meaning.  If, for instance, I were to speak of George W. Bush’s eloquence or Barack Obama’s pessimism, I would be speaking ironically: the former U.S. president is as famous for his misstatements (“Bushisms”) as the current U.S. president is for his optimism.  Similarly, Melinda is speaking ironically when she writes, “I think the Merryweather cheerleaders confuse me because I missed out on Sunday school.  It has to be a miracle. There is no other explanation.  How else could they sleep with the football team on Saturday night and be reincarnated as virginal goddesses on Monday?” (29).  Here’s how you can tell.  First, statements like “It has to be a miracle” and “There is no other explanation” are hyberbole: exaggerated statements.  Indeed, in context, both are so exaggerated as to make the reader doubt their veracity.  Second, the second half of the final sentence quoted contradicts the first half: it’s not possible both to “sleep with the football team” and to be a “virginal goddess.”  Indeed, depending on one’s religious beliefs, it’s doubtful that anyone can be a “goddess” (another example of the hyperbole that engenders doubt). We might characterize the tone (speaker’s attitude towards the object of discourse) as sarcastic.  Sarcasm (which frequently involves deploying apparent praise as criticism) is a blunt form of irony.  The combination of hyperbole, contradictory statements, and a sarcastic tone helps us understand that Melinda is speaking ironically here.  Specifically, she’s criticizing the hypocrisy of a social order that endorses such a double standard in its treatment of women — treating the cheerleaders, as she says in the sentence following the one I quoted, “as if they operate in two realities simultaneously” (29-30).  Perceiving irony requires the reader to use context to detect tone.

Here, for example, is the context for Melinda’s statement, “This was what high school was supposed to feel like” (134).  Throughout the novel, Melinda speaks primarily to the reader and says very little to the other characters.  Just before she began her freshman year of high school, she went to a party, drank beer, and was raped.  The event traumatizes her.  She feels shame (survivors of rape often blame themselves), and doesn’t want to talk to anyone about what happened.  She says, “This was what high school was supposed to feel like” just as she begins to recall the events leading up to her rape.  A “gorgeous cover-model guy,” a senior whose name she does not know, begins flirting with her, and kisses her.  A little drunk, she “couldn’t figure out how to tell him to slow down,” but believes that he is attracted to her: “Nearly knocked me off my feet, that kiss.  And I thought that just for a minute there that I had a boyfriend, I would start high school with a boyfriend, older and stronger and ready to watch out for me” (135).  In other words, the statement “This was what high school was supposed to feel like” describes her state of mind prior to the senior’s sexual assault.  Inexperienced with alcohol and inexperienced with dating, Melinda is unaware that the senior’s intentions are anything other than romantic.  We, the readers, know better.  We know she is talking about the party where something happened, the party to which she has alluded many times already.  We know that something painful is about to occur.

And it does.  Immediately after she expresses the thought that the senior (who, we learn later, is named Andy) will look out for her, the next sentences are “He kissed me hard again. His teeth ground hard against my lips. It was hard to breathe” (135).  And then “A cloud cloaked the moon.  Shadows looked like photo negatives” (135).  Several words here clue the reader into the fact that something is about to go wrong.  The darkness of the “cloud cloaked” and shadows, and the uncanniness of “photo negatives” convey that Melinda’s experience is taking a dark turn. So, too, does the repetition of the word “hard” (three times) coupled (twice) with sensations of pain or distress: “teeth ground hard against my lips” and “hard to breathe.”  If you’re more than just functionally literate, you should recognize this.

Dr. Scroggins does not seem to be more than just functionally literate because he classifies the next scene as “soft pornography.”  If he finds a young girl’s rape to be sexually exciting, then he is in dire need of counseling.  Indeed, were I his employer, I would remove him from the classroom until he had undergone such counseling: such a man is a potential danger to students and colleagues.  However, Psychology is not my area of expertise.  (I earned a B.A. in English and in Psychology, but a Ph.D. in English.)  So, let us assume that the issue is literacy and not pathology.  Here is the scene he describes as pornographic:

“Do you want to?” he asked.

What did he say? I didn’t answer.  I didn’t know. I didn’t speak.

We were on the ground. When did that happen? “No.” No I did not like this. I was on the ground and he was on top of me. My lips mumble something about leaving, about a friend who needs me, about my parents worrying. I can hear myself — I’m mumbling like a deranged drunk. His lips lock on mine and I can’t say anything. I twist my head away. He is so heavy. There is a boulder on me. I open my mouth to breath, to scream, and his hand covers it. In my head, my voice is clear as a bell: “NO I DON’T WANT TO!” But I can’t spit it out. I’m trying to remember how we got on the ground and where the moon went and wham! shirt up, shorts down, and the ground smells wet and dark and NO! — I’m not really here, I’m definitely back at Rachel’s crimping my hair and glueing on fake nails, and he smells like beer and mean and he hurts me hurts me hurts me and gets up

and zips his jeans

and smiles (135-136).

The fact that the next thing Melinda does is call 911 should be a clue that the preceding experience was not meant to elicit desire.  If it aroused Dr. Scroggins, then let us assume he simply lacks sufficient literacy skils to perceive why this scene is disturbing.

Here’s why it is.  First of all, it’s a textbook case of rape: Andy (the senior) forces Melinda to have sex without consent.  He asks, “Do you want to?” Melinda at first does not reply, but then says (at the top of the long paragraph) “No.”  So, right there: rape.

Second of all, the words Melinda uses to describe the experience convey her pain, Andy’s coercion, and the subsequent trauma.  She says, “I twist my head away” — a sign of resistance.  She wants to move but cannot because he is more powerful than she is: “There is a boulder on me.” When she tries to scream, he covers her mouth with his hand.  These, not incidentally, are also signs of rape.  Rape is a crime of power, not of desire.  The moment when she thinks, “I’m not really here,” is a moment of dissociation, common when a person is experiencing trauma.  Finally, the repeated “hurts me hurts me hurts me” should give Dr. Scroggins and any reader a clue that this experience is not erotic, but painful.  It’s a crime.  It’s called rape.

If Professor Scroggins does not know the difference between rape and consensual sex, then he is a criminal waiting to happen.  If, on the other hand, he simply lacks sufficient literacy skills to read literature, then I hope that this blog posting may be of some help to him.

UPDATE, 9:00 pm.  There are many other interesting responses to this editorial.  Here are links to a few of them:

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Can Censoring a Children’s Book Remove Its Prejudices?

When I posted news of my “Censoring Children’s Literature” course last month, several people (well, OK, one person …maybe two) expressed an interest in hearing more about the course.  So, given that Banned Books Week is coming up next week, here’s an update. Having lately been examining two versions of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle (1920, 1988) and three versions of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964, 1973, 1998), we’ve been addressing this question: Do Bowdlerized texts alter the ideological assumptions of the original?  The answer is more complicated than you might think.

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)NOTE. Please see my revised, substantially expanded, better inquiry into this subject — Chapter 2 (“How to Read Uncomfortably: Racism, Affect, and Classic Children’s Books”) of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, 2017), pp. 67-106.

One could make a case for “yes, they do alter the ideological assumptions of the original.”  The 1988 edition of Doctor Dolittle removes all references to skin color: “black man” becomes “man,” and “white man” becomes “man” or “foreign man.”  Instead of tricking Prince Bumpo by preying on his desire to be white (in the original), Polynesia tricks Prince Bumpo by hypnotizing him (in the current version).  In the 1973 edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Oompa-Loompas are no longer African Pygmies — they’re from Loompaland.  Illustrator Joseph Schindelman changes their colors from black to white, and current illustrator Quentin Blake keeps them white in his 1998 edition.  Inasmuch as Willy Wonka’s workers are human beings imported from another country, the whitened Oompa-Loompas remove the original book’s implication that a person of European descent had enslaved people of African descent, and that the latter group had gladly accepted their new lot as his slaves.  Similarly, inasmuch the colonialist impulses of Doctor Dolittle are now no longer so explicitly attached to skin color, the 1988 edition diminishes the overt racism of the original edition.  The King of the Jolliginki may still throw childish temper tantrums and Prince Bumpo still may be easily duped, but in the new edition they’re simply color-less victims of Lofting’s satire.

The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Joseph Schindelman, 1964

The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Joseph Schindelman, 1964

The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Joseph Schindelman, 1973

The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Joseph Schindelman, 1973

The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Quentin Blake, 1998

The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Quentin Blake, 1998

One could also make a case for “no, they do not alter the ideological assumptions of the original,” claiming that the new versions instead more subtly encode the same racial and colonial messages of the original versions.  After all, the Oompa-Loompas still live in “thick jungles infested by the most dangerous beasts in the entire world,” and are still a “tribe” who do not learn English until they come to Britain.  Even though the animals are now nonsensical (“hornswogglers and snozzwangers and those terrible wicked whangdoodles”), it’s not unreasonable for a child to assume that a “tribe” living in “thick jungles” are Africans living in Africa.  And they still happily acquiesce to being shipped to England “in large packing cases with holes in them,” and find life in a factory preferable to life in their native land.  Though I don’t agree with all of Eleanor Cameron’s 1972 critique, the 1973 and 1998 versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory do not fundamentally contradict her concerns about “Willy Wonka’s unfeeling attitude toward the Oompa-Loompas, their role as conveniences and devices to be used for Wonka’s purposes, their being brought over from Africa for enforced servitude, and the fact that their situation is all a part of the fun and games.”

Similarly, while the 1988 edition of Doctor Dolittle makes an effort to make race invisible, it does not make the original book’s colonial ideologies vanish.  Though now from “the Land of the Europeans” instead of “the Land of the White Men,” Doctor Dolittle is an enlightened white European who goes to civilize the natives.  The King of the Jolliginki may now be colorless, but he still lives in a palace “made of mud” in the jungle, and is foolish enough to be duped by a bird (Polynesia).  Both he and his men are prone to childlike tantrums, which (even sans color) invokes the stereotype of Africans as childlike.  And the monkeys still stand in for indigenous people. They are sick because of lack of proper sanitation (flies infect their food supply), and they have no history: “the monkeys had no history books of their own before Doctor Dolittle came to write them for them, they remember everything that happens by telling stories to their children.”  Removing skin color from the text and illustrations does not necessarily remove colonialism.  As New York librarian Isabelle Suhl wrote of the Doctor Dolittle series in 1968, “These attitudes permeate the books … and are reflected in the plots and actions of the stories, in the characterizations of both animals and people as well as in the language that the characters use. Editing out a few racial epithets will not, in my view, make the books less chauvinistic.”

The Story of Doctor Dolittle, frontispiece, illustrated by Hugh Lofting, 1920

frontispiece, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, illustrated by Hugh Lofting, 1920
The Story of Doctor Dolittle, frontispiece, 1988

frontispiece, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, illustrated by Hugh Lofting, 1988

So, then.  What do you do with these books?  If you’re persuaded by the idea that de-colorizing the books also removes ideology, then you can with clear conscience read the new versions to young people and encourage young people to read them.  After all, Dahl himself revised Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and in so doing replaced Africa with the pleasantly nonsensical Loompaland.  And Doctor Dolittle’s kindness towards animals has inspired many advocates of animal rights.  The 1988 edition uses the words of one such person, Jane Goodall, as a blurb on the back of the book: “Any child who is not given the opportunity to make the acquaintance of this rotund, kindly, and enthusiastic doctor/naturalist and all of his animal friends will miss out on something important.”  Along side of any troubling ideas, the Dolittle books contain much that may delight and instruct.

However, if you’re concerned that the books simply dress up racial and colonial ideologies in different costumes, then you face a choice: (1) Discourage children from reading them, (2) Permit children to read only the Bowdlerized versions, (3) Allow children to read any version, original or Bowdlerized.

(1) Discussing revised editions of her own works, Anne Fine asks, “Which is the real version? Who’s to say? The originals are the ones I would save from a fire. I rather hope the newer versions are the ones my readers would take with them to desert islands.”  I think what she means by this is that she hopes people re-read the revised editions, but thinks the originals should be preserved for posterity.  In Should We Burn Babar?, Herbert Kohl uses a similar logic: “I wouldn’t ban or burn Babar, or pull it from libraries.  But buy it?  No.  I see no reason to go out of one’s way to make Babar available to children, primarily because I don’t see much critical reading going on in the schools and children don’t need to be propagandized about colonialism, sexism, or racism.”  So, then, we might relegate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Doctor Dolittle — whether original or revised — to the status of cultural artifact, historically significant but no longer read.

One problem with this approach is that it acts as a kind of covert censorship, a blacklist of sorts.  It says: “oh, no, we’re not banning the book.  We’re just not inviting it.”  So, if you’re of a libertarian mindset, this response will not suffice.

(2) What about allowing children to read only the Bowdlerized versions, then?  That might (in some measure) appease the person of libertarian leanings who nonetheless does not wish to collude in the replication of harmful ideologies.  Yes, it might… if you believe that the Bowdlerized versions do — as Lori Mack, editor of the 1988 version of Doctor Dolittle, said of that volume — “preserve Hugh Lofting’s style and spirit” but without “the offensive caricature.”  However, if you’re a literary purist who believes in granting access to the original work or if you worry that these versions offer only a more subtle, insidious kind of propagandizing, then this approach will fail.

But will it?  Books containing stereotypes (whether re-costumed or not) invite children to participate in that way of thinking, but children do not have to accept the invitation.  They may resist.  If a book’s presentation of people of color does not conform to other images of people of color, then a child may dismiss the book as anomalous.  As an outlier, it perhaps does not unconsciously shape their perceptions.

(3) If you believe in the child’s potential to resist, then you might argue for granting access to the original work on the grounds that the egregiousness of the original’s stereotypes will serve as a kind of “warning flag.”  In other words, one might argue that blunt offensiveness is less harmful than a subtler delivery of prejudices because the reader is more likely to reject the former.  We can read a book and disagree with the book; encountering a book with racist imagery might be more likely to provoke our censure.  Encountering a book in which that imagery has been cleaned up (even while leaving other underlying assumptions intact) might be less likely to provoke our censure.  In sum, we could make the case that unvarnished prejudice serves as a better teaching tool.

One problem of this approach, however, is the disproportional burden it places on members of the stereotyped group.  The white child (for example) who encounters Prince Bumpo or an Oompa-Loompa has the unearned privilege of not seeing people of her or his ethnicity being stereotyped.  The African-American child (for example) does not have that privilege.  This is not to say that prejudice lacks any ill consequences for the dominant group — a white child learning that he or she is more important, more central, can teach that child that dominating children (or adults) of color is acceptable behavior.  Rather, this is to say that prejudice harms different groups in different ways.

What, then, is the solution?  I’d be the first to acknowledge that there is no ideal solution.  One could argue, for instance, that a “colorless” Doctor Dolittle rightly highlights the fact that race is a fiction: black, white, beige, yellow, etc. are pure fantasy.  We’re all members of the human race.  On the other hand, one could counter that claim by noting that while race may be imaginary, people act on racial distinctions as if they were real: denying the social fact of race is a form of lying.

As an educator, I’m inclined to fall back on the (albeit imperfect) solution of reading troubling texts with young people, and talking with them about what they encounter.  As Herb Kohl writes, “It is not developmentally inevitable that children will learn how to evaluate with sensitivity and intelligence what the adult world presents them.  It is our responsibility, as critical and sensitive adults, to nurture the development of this sensibility in our children.”  Further, he notes, critical reading can be a source of both pleasure and power: “children quickly come to understand that critical sensibility strengthens them. It allows them to stand their ground ….  It is a source of pleasure of well — of the joy that comes from feeling that one is living according to conviction and understanding.”

As a negative state, innocence cannot be sustained indefinitely.  As they grow up, children will gain experience and knowledge.  Some of those experiences will hurt; some of that knowledge will make them sad.  If we exclude troubling works from the discussion, then children are more likely to face sadness and pain on their own.  It is, I think, better that we give them the tools with which to face prejudice-bearing literature.  In doing so, we can help them learn to cope with a world that can be neither just nor fair.  With this knowledge, perhaps we may also give them a source of power.

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Inventing Language: Speech Acts and Their Creators

How many people have lent their names to a speech act? I’m not thinking of proper nouns that denote a literary style (Dickensian, Kafkaesque, Proustian), but of a specific syntactical, grammatical, or other linguistic act named for a person.  This is what I’ve come up with.

Lofting, Doctor Dolittle bowdlerizedBowdlerize: named for Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), who in who in 1818 published an edition of Shakespeare, “in which those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”  The word, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells us, is a transitive verb, meaning “To expurgate (a book or writing), by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive; to castrate.”  It’s also a common phenomenon in literature for children. The 1988 edition of Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Doctor Dolittle (1920) removes all references to skin color, and changes the scene in which Polynesia tricks Prince Bumpo: instead of preying on his desire to have white skin (as she does in the 1920 edition), she hypnotizes him.

Tove Jansson, Finn Family MoomintrollSpoonerism: named for William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), who had a habit of swapping the initial sounds of words.  And that’s what it means: “An accidental transposition of the initial sounds, or other parts, of two or more words” (OED).  In children’s literature, Tove Jansson’s Thingumy and Bob (from her Moomin books) speak in Spoonerisms.  In Finn Family Moomintroll (English translation, 1958), Thingumy “can fell smood” (smell food) and wonders whether they can go into the Moominhouse.  Bob says, “Don’t be frightened if they’re gross and crumpy” (cross and grumpy).  For a more recent example, Shel Silvertein’s Runny Babbit (2005) contains 40 poems full of Spoonerisms.

Malapropism might be excluded from my short list on the grounds that it comes from a fictional character and not an actual person.  Named for Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop (from his 1775 play, The Rivals), who utters phrases such as “the very pineapple of politeness” (instead of “the very pinnacle of politeness”).  The word means, “The ludicrous misuse of words, esp. in mistaking a word for another resembling it; an instance of this” (OED).  Some Bushisms are also malapropisms — such as “potential mental losses” or “vuclanize society.”

So.  Are there other speech acts named for specific people?  What have I missed here?

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The Purple Crayon’s Legacy, Part I: Comics & Cartoons

One side effect of writing The Purple Crayon and A Hole to Dig: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming, 2012) is that I could write pages on how Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) has influenced subsequent artists and writers — and, for that matter, on Harold’s antecedents.  (The list of works discussed in the “metafiction” post covers some of each.)  Today, I’m focusing just on comics and cartoons.  (Click on each for a larger image.)

Paul Trap, Thatta Baby, 12 Sep. 2010

Paul Trap’s Thata Baby (12 Sept. 2010) offers an homage to HaroldKeith Haring, and Bil Keane’s Family Circus.  It’s also the immediate inspiration for this post.  I’d not heard of either Trap or his comic until it appeared in yesterday’s Kansas City Star.  I like the strip and hope to see more from him.

Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, Zits, 1 Feb. 2009

In this February 2009 Zits Sunday comic strip, Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman offer their own tribute.  Rather than celebrate a child’s creativity (as Trap does in his strip), Scott and Borgman position Harold as a book that erases any boundaries between adulthood and childhood.  Though Jeremy Duncan usually displays a teen-ager’s reluctance to hang out with his parents, he in the final panel becomes a child waiting for storytime. His gangly adolescent body rests in his mother’s lap, she holds the book in her hands, and he says, “Start from the beginning.”

Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott, Baby Blues, 18 Nov. 2007

The opening panel of this November 2007 Baby Blues — Jerry Scott’s other strip (drawn by Rick Kirkman) — offers a visual homage to the current editions of Harold and the Purple Crayon (Harold’s jumper is blue, not white).  Mostly, though, tales by Johnson, Grimm, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle, all serve as an occasion for Zoe to mock her brother Hammie.  Though a funny strip, it’s more focused on its gag than on Johnson’s work.  (And, hey, why not?  It is comic, after all….)

A recent (May 2010) episode of The Simpsons did more than offer a visual homage.

screenshot from The Simpsons, May 2010

Embracing Harold’s creative spirit, it had our purple-crayon-wielding hero draw the opening Simpsons-sit-on-couch sequence.  After he finishes, Homer asks Harold to draw him a beer.

another screenshot from The Simpsons, May 2010

But the best purple-crayon-influenced comic is definitely Kevin Cannon’s Blotchmen.  A mash-up of William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say,” Moore and GibbonsWatchmen, Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and (of course) Harold and the Purple Crayon, Blotchmen is more than the sum of its influences.  Here are pages 9 and 10, both of which feature Harold battling Rorschach:

page 9 from Kevin Cannon's Blotchmen

page 10 from Kevin Cannon's Blotchmen

So.  There’s some of the legacy of the purple crayon.  What comics, comic strips or cartoons have I missed?

(I’ll get to picture books and other media in a later post….)

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Kadir Nelson Is the Best; or, When the Caldecott Committee Strikes Out

What makes an award-winner?  One of the best picture books of 2008, Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (2008) won neither the Caldecott Medal nor a Caldecott Honor.  The following year, Jerry Pinkney became the first African American to win the Caldecott Medal — “given to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children” — for his The Lion & the Mouse (2009).1 That said, We Are the Ship did not come up completely empty-handed.  It did win the Coretta Scott King Author and Illustrator Awards, “given to an African American author and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions.”2 And it received plenty of great reviews.   But it should have won the Caldecott.

Kadir Nelson, opening to 3rd chapter of We Are the Ship

A lavishly illustrated non-fiction work, Nelson’s We Are the Ship may have missed the Caldecott due to a perception that it is more illustrated book than picture book.  However, art gives the book its narrative power, and an interdependent relationship between words and pictures conveys the histories of athletes who, denied participation in the all-white major leagues, displayed their talents in the low-paying but high-performing Negro Leagues.  A compelling sports history, We Are the Ship not only was the best picture book of 2008, but is one of the best picture books of the last decade.

Kadir Nelson, We Are the Ship (cover)Critics would be correct to point out that, at about 500 words per page, We Are the Ship has far more text than an ordinary picture book; at 88 pages (including index), Nelson’s chronicle is much longer than a typical picture book, which runs 64 or fewer pages.  However, the 2008 Caldecott winner The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) is over 500 pages, and Nelson’s We Are the Ship succeeds because of “the interdependence of pictures and words,” to quote Barbara Bader’s definition of the picture book.3 In its first page of text, “5th Inning” (each chapter is named for an inning) speaks of five of the “Greatest Baseball Players in the World: The Negro League All-Stars,” including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and George “Mule” Suttles.  On the page to its left, the chapter’s first image shows Gibson, his uniform’s sleeves rolled up, the muscles on his strong arms visible, hands gripping the bat resting on his shoulder.  Beyond making his story stand out, the portrait amplifies the comment that “Josh Gibson was a powerful hitter, but we had other fellows who could hit just as far” (41): this single picture of a strong player stands in for so many others.  Nelson’s painting — which also appears on the book’s cover — has Gibson looking directly at the reader, unsmiling, ready to play ball.  The look on his face highlights this sentence: “Many of our guys could have rewritten the record books if they had been given the chance to play in the majors” (41).  The juxtaposition of those words with his determined expression conveys the sense that those are his thoughts right now, while he stares at us.

Nelson’s borderless single-page and double-page illustrations immerse the reader in the world of the league.  Just after the narrator tells us that the Negro League’s success inspired white owners of independent Negro teams to form a “rival league of their own” (9), we turn the page to find two pages filled with a single magnified ticket for the first Colored World Series, between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Hilldale Club in 1924.  Both pages of this spread unfold out, revealing a panoramic view — four pages wide — of both teams and their managers, standing in Kansas City’s Muehlebach Field.  The effect is like stepping into a color photograph, even though it’s actually a painting based on a black-and-white photo.  Enhancing the vividness of the athletes, Nelson renders them in detail and in color, but leaves the crowds behind them blurrier and in shades of grey.  The contrast between the fuzzy background and the crisp, bright foreground makes the teams pop out at the viewer.  Though a period photograph would likely have had handwritten names beneath each person, Nelson’s typewritten captions convey an air of historical authenticity.  The result makes us feel as if we are both looking at and standing inside a photo from 1924.

Writing in a conversational tone, Nelson makes history come alive by creating the feeling of an oral interview, as if an old-time Negro league player were talking to us.  When discussing the fact that many ballplayers came from Latin America, Nelson’s narrator says of Cristóbal Torriente: “If he had been a couple shades lighter, he could have played in the majors. Major league owners would take a Cuban before they would a Negro. Guess they didn’t know slave ships stopped down in those islands, too” (53).  The omission of “of” between “couple” and “shades,” the absence of “I” before “Guess,” and the contraction “didn’t” creates an informal, colloquial feel to the language.  In his Author’s Note, Nelson reveals that this was precisely his intent: he read interviews and listened to ex-players tell their stories, and decided that “hearing the story of Negro League baseball directly from those who experienced it firsthand made it more real, more accessible” (80).

Kadir Nelson, Chapter 6 of We Are the Ship

The result of eight years’ work, We Are the Ship will appeal to anyone interested in baseball, portraiture, history, the struggle for civil rights, or beautiful picture books.  Taking its title from Negro National League founder Rube Foster’s comment that “We are the ship; all else the sea,” Nelson’s book chronicles the rise and demise of the league that began to fade when the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson in 1947.  In so doing, Nelson brings to life the unsung heroes of the sport.  As he writes, “We had many Josh Gibsons in the Negro Leagues.  We had many Satchel Paiges.  But you never heard about them.  It’s a shame the world didn’t get to see them play” (51).  Thanks to We Are the Ship, the world will now at least get a glimpse.

However, more people would get that glimpse if We Are the Ship had won the Caldecott — because that would ensure its presence in every single public and school library in America.  I realize, of course, that award-winners are the result of a consensus; the prize goes to whichever book more committee members agree on.  And the work that beat Nelson’s, Beth Krommes‘ pictures for Susan Marie Swanson‘s The House in the Night (2008), is definitely good.  The elegant simplicity of the text (inspired by a nursery rhyme) works well with the scratchboard-and-watercolor artwork, itself reminiscent of classic illustrations by, say, Wanda Gág.  I see why the committee chose The House in the Night. I like the book, and enjoy re-reading my copy. But We Are the Ship is more innovative, distinctive, and virtuosic.  In sum, “the most distinguished American picture book for children” of 2008 was and is We Are the Ship.


1. “Welcome to the Caldecott Medal Home Page.”  American Library Association. <>.

2. “The Coretta Scott King Book Awards for Authors and Illustrators.”  American Library Association. <>.

3. Barbara Bader, American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within (New York: Macmillan, 1976), p. 1.

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Parry Gripp, Commercial Jingles, & Other Good Music

What ever happened to commercial jingles?  When I was growing up, it seemed to me that most products had their own theme songs: “My bologna has a first name — it’s O-s-c-a-r,” “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz,” “Hershey is the great American chocolate bar,” “What walks downstairs, alone or in pairs, and makes such a slinkety sound?”

Parry GrippToday, most commercials just use pop songs that have little (or nothing) to do with the product. I enjoy a good pop song, and in fact have discovered some through their commercial use.  But the jingle mostly has gone out of fashion.

Well, save for Parry Gripp.  The frontman of Nerf Herder (perhaps best known for the theme to Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Gripp writes lots of songs that harken back to the commercial jingles of yore — except that he’s generally not selling anything.  He’s just writing very hummable ditties about his various obsessions… which usually include food or animals (especially hamsters and cats).

People seem to either love or hate Gripp, and probably for the same reason.  After one listen, his songs stay with you.  They’re earworms.  If you find his work too “pop” or simply too “silly,” you probably won’t appreciate “Hamster on a Piano” on an endless loop in your head.  On the other hand, if Gripp’s melodic whimsy appeals to your ear or to your sense of humor, his songs are too fun to resist.

Gripp appeals to the part of me that sang along with the “Slinky” song and tuned into Dr. Demento’s radio show every week. And, as some of the mixes I’ve posted here begin to reflect, I enjoy nearly all varieties of music.  To quote Ray Charles, “It’s like Duke Ellington said, there are only two kinds of music — good and bad. And you can tell when something is good.”  I like that statement because it establishes no aesthetic criteria other than each person’s particular taste.  And that’s as it should be.  When it comes to music, people should not feel obliged to apologize for their taste — say, admit liking a certain type of music, but then dismiss that type of music as “a guilty pleasure.”  With music, there are no guilty pleasures.  To paraphrase Charles’ citation of Ellington, there’s only good and bad, and you can tell when it’s good.

If you enjoy Parry Gripp or Ray Charles or Duke Ellington or Esquivel or AC/DC or Ella Fitzgerald or the Sex Pistols or Jay-Z or Beethoven or Emmylou Harris or Fats Waller or [insert name of artist/composer here], then that’s good music.  If you don’t, then listen something you do enjoy.

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More Metafiction for Children

Since “Metafiction for Children: A User’s Guide” went up yesterday (as the final entry on In Media Res“Children’s Culture” week), I’ve been pleased by people’s kind response to my amateur video.  Thanks, everyone!

There are far more books than I could include in the film, and there were several I had not thought of. So, I thought I’d expand the field of inquiry here with a more complete bibliography of metafictional works for young readers.

First, the titles included in the film clip:

  • Lane Smith, It’s a Book (2010)
  • Art Spiegelman, Open Me… I’m a Dog! (1997)
  • Winsor McCay, Little Nemo In Slumberland of May 2, 1909.  From The Best of Little Nemo in Slumberland (1997), edited and with an introduction by Richard Marschall, and including appreciations by Maurice Sendak, Ron Goulart, Art Spiegelman, Charles M. Schulz, Chuck Jones, and Bill Watterson.
  • Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (Part 1, 1605; Part 2, 1615).  Not a children’s book.  Obviously.
  • Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space (1999).  The two-page spread is from this book.
  • Dav Pilkey, the above title, and: The Adventures of Captain Underpants (1997), Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets (1999), Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants (2000).
  • Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992)
  • Walter Dean Myers, Monster (1999)
  • David Macaulay, Black and White (1990)
  • Ann Jonas, Round Trip (1983)
  • D.W. Johnson, Palazzo Inverso (2010)
  • Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld, Duck! Rabbit! (2009)
  • Charley Bowers, The Bowers Mother Goose Movie Book (1923)
  • David A. Carter, One Red Dot (2004)
  • Peter Newell, Topys & Turvys (1902)
  • David Wiesner, The Three Pigs (2001)
  • Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)

Over on In Media Res, I list the titles behind me:

  • Jon Agee’s The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau (1988)
  • Barbara Lehman’s The Red Book (2004)
  • Roderick Townley’s The Great Good Thing (2001)
  • Johnson’s A Picture for Harold’s Room (1960)
  • Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile (2010)
  • Deborah Freedman’s Scribble (2007)
  • Laurie Keller’s The Scrambled States of America (1998)

And there are even a few back there that you can’t see (because my body blocks them from the shot):

  • Donald Barthelme, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine (1971)
  • Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf (1989)

More picture books:

  • Ahlberg and Ingman, The PencilAllan Ahlberg, The Bravest Bear Ever (2000)
  • Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman. The Pencil (2008)
  • Janet and Allen Ahlberg, The Jolly Postman (1986)
  • Anthony Browne, Bear Hunt (1979)
  • Remy Charlip and Jerry Joyner, Thirteen (1975)
  • Nicole Claveloux, Go, Go, Go, Grabote! (1973)
  • Michael Garland, Miss Smith’s Incredible Storybook (2003) and sequels
  • Mordicai GersteinA Book (2009)
  • Shirley Glaser, The Alphazeds.  Pictures by Milton Glaser (2003)
  • Emily Gravett, Wolves (2005)
  • Emily Gravett, Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears (2007)
  • Deborah Hopkinson and John Hendrix, Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale (2008)
  • Roberto Innocenti and J. Patrick Lewis, The Last Resort (2002)
  • Tove Jansson, The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My (1952; English, 1996)
  • Crockett Johnson, the Harold series (1955-1963)
  • Barbara Kanninen, A Story with Pictures (2007)
  • Julius Lester, Ackamarackus. Illustrated by Emilie Chollat (2001)
  • Mike Lester, A Is for Salad (2000)
  • Patrick McDonnell, Art (2006)
  • Richard McGuire, What’s Wrong with This Book? (1996)
  • Peter Newell, The Hole Book (1908), The Slant Book (1910), and The Rocket Book (1912)
  • Margie Palatini, Piggie Pie. Illustrated by Howard Fine (1995)
  • Terry Pratchett, Where’s My Cow? Illustrated by Melvyn Grant (2005)
  • Jon Scieszka and Steve Johnson, The Frog Prince Continued (1991)
  • Shel Silverstein, Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book (1961)
  • William Steig, Yellow & Pink (1984)
  • Jon Stone and Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This Book (1971)
  • Chris Van Allsburg, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984)
  • Chris Van Allsburg, Bad Day at Riverbend (1995)
  • Mo Willems, We Are in a Book! (2010)

More chapter books:

  • Janet and Allan Ahlberg, It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (1993)
  • Mary Amato, Please Write in This Book. Illustrated by Eric Brace (2006)
  • Avi, Nothing But the Truth (1991)
  • Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010)
  • Clement Freud, Grimble (1968)
  • Cornelia Funke, Inkheart (2003), Inkspell (2005), and Inkdeath (2008)
  • Linda Sue Park, Project MulberryLois Lowry, The Willoughbys (2008)
  • Geraldine McCaughrean, A Pack of Lies: Twelve Stories in One (1988)
  • E. Nesbit, The Story of the Treasure-Seekers (1899)
  • E. Nesbit, “The Town in the Library, in the Town in the Library” in Nine Unlikely Tales for Children (1901)
  • Terry Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001)
  • Linda Sue Park, Project Mulberry (2005)
  • Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999-2006)
  • Scott Westerfield, Extras (2009)
  • The Choose Your Own Adventure books (1979-1998)

More Comics: George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, G. B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury, Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes, Berke Breathed’s Bloom County.

Some Graphic Novels:

  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (the graphic novel)Lynda Barry, 100 Demons (2002)
  • Daniel Clowes, Ice Haven (2005)
  • Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (1987)
  • Bryan Lee O’Malley, the Scott Pilgrim series (2004-2010)
  • Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007)
  • Art Spiegelman, Maus (1986 & 1991)
  • Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan (2000)
  • Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese (2006)

Thanks to the child_lit community (especially Tracy Barrett, Pat Bartoshesky, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Sarah Blake Johnson, Deborah Hopkinson, Kate Wooddell), Deborah Freedman (via Twitter), and to Eric Carpenter (via In Media Res) for their suggestions.

And, of course, this list is incomplete!  Please add your own favorites in the comments section, below.

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Crockett Johnson: Ford’s Out Front!

With a nod to the survival of the U.S. auto industry, here’s an ad campaign from when American automakers were thriving.  Created for Ford in 1947-1948, Crockett Johnson based these ads on his untitled cartoon, popularly known as The Little Man with the Eyes, which ran in Collier’s from 1940 to 1943.  In each cartoon, the caption works with shifts in the man’s gaze to convey the joke.  Here’s one from July 13, 1940:

Crockett Johnson, The Little Man with the Eyes, 13 July 1940

The Little Man’s vertigo reminds me of Harold‘s experience on elevators (they “made his stomach feel funny”).  And here’s the ad campaign.  My guess is that this image would have run on one magazine page, as a teaser for the following one.  So, you’d read this:

Crockett Johnson, Ford ad, part 1

Then, you’d turn the page, and learn just what the little man has been looking at — a Ford, of course!

Crockett Johnson, Ford ad, pt 2

This advertisement seems to be a stand-alone spot:

Crockett Johnson, Watch Ford in 48

The one above also appears in black-and-white in Art Directors Annual of Advertising and Editorial Art 27 (1948), in which we learn that the art director is Wallace W. Elton, the artist Crockett Johnson, and the agency J. Walter Thompson Company.

And now, an advertisement of my own.  Coming in spring of 2012, from the University Press of Mississippi: The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  I’ll continue to post related items (and, occasionally, an extract from the bio. itself) here on the blog.  So, stay tuned!

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