Archive for March, 2017

Refugee Stories for Young Readers: Francesca Sanna’s The Journey (Public Books)

Public Books (logo)Over on Public Books today, I have a new, short piece on Francesca Sanna’s The Journey, a.k.a. one of the best picture books published last year.  If you have yet to read it, check out “Refugee Stories for Young Readers” (my essay), which includes some images from the book.  In the piece, I observe that

As Francesca Sanna’s The Journey (2016) demonstrates, the children’s picture book is the ideal medium for voicing that unsettling feeling when something unbelievable suddenly becomes true. Its visual metaphors render difficult emotions clearly, and illustrate children’s literature’s ability to express dark realities in the language of the fantastic.

Francesca Sanna, The Journey (2016)The book follows a refugee family’s journey away from their home country, towards an uncertain future. It’s beautiful, wise, moving and, yes, appropriate for children.  (In the essay, I also look at some other recent children’s picture books on refugees.)

As I also note in the piece, more than half of the world’s refugees today are children under the age of 18. That’s nearly 50 million young people, making this the worst child refugee crisis since World War II.

If you can, please donate to the International Rescue Committee.  You might also consult the organization’s website — lots of useful information there.

At the beginning and explicitly at the end of my brief essay, I call out the U.S. government’s inhumane response to refugees. Though I’ve written other pieces critical of Trumpy’s amoral regime, they’ve mostly been on my blog.*  This is my first such piece to appear in a “real” publication.  There will be others.

Am I indulging in the delusion that my writing is changing hearts and minds? If I am honest with myself, I hope my words might do that — even if they reach only one person. I think it more likely that what I write may aid someone already resisting our tiny-fingered overlord and his wrecking crew, perhaps by reflecting back her thoughts in a slightly different light, or by offering another way of approaching a question, or by providing information.  At the same time, I know that phoning and writing my representatives, marching, protesting are all more important. So, I’ll keep doing those things, too. Though any result of my scholarly/writerly efforts will be hard to quantify (and may be purely imaginary), I’ll keep on doing this simply because it’s what I do as a writer and scholar.  Not incidentally, it’s a theme I notice across the culture. 99% Invisible recently did a two-part episode on sanctuary (part 1, part 2). The Allusionist devoted an episode to the history of sanctuary.  Podcasters create podcasts, composers make music, and writers write.  In addition to whatever direct actions we also take, we can all contribute via our chosen medium.  (And, on that subject….)

Migration, Refugees, & Diaspora in Children’s Literature

Call for Papers

There’s still time to submit an essay for this special issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly!
DUE: 1 Nov. 2017

My job is thinking about how literature for young people can help children — and all of us — make sense of the world.  As I’ve written elsewhere, children’s books have much to say to those of us who are no longer children.  The Journey certainly does.

————

* Mostly on my blog. I also wrote a piece for the Dedicate Your No-Trump Vote effort last September. Earlier this month, I was extensively quoted in Michael Cavna’s Washington Post column, and a little bit in this Key Reporter piece.

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017)Is cataloguing this information here simply aiding the Trumpocracy, should it wish to add me to its list of undesirables?  It might be. But it’s important to remind ourselves: Do not obey in advance.  If you haven’t already read it, check out Timothy Snyder‘s brief, useful, and conveniently pocket-sized book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books/Random House, 2017).  Its very first lesson is:

Do not obey in advance.

Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do. (17)

So. Do not obey. Resist! Contact your representatives and senators — at both the federal level and the state level. VOTE in all elections! And keep paying attention. As The Washington Post‘s Trump-era slogan (introduced Feb 22nd) reminds us, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

Washington Post: "Democracy Dies in Darkness"

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Happy π Day from Nine Kinds of Pie

π Day is upon us once again!  Here are 3.14 pieces of Pi (as it were).

1. The π sculpture in Seattle, Washington.

Pi sculpture, Seattle, Washington

Photo by Niall Kennedy.

2. π to 1000 decimal places

3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923078

16406286208998628034825342117067982148086513282306647093844609550582

23172535940812848111745028410270193852110555964462294895493038196442

88109756659334461284756482337867831652712019091456485669234603486104

54326648213393607260249141273724587006606315588174881520920962829254

09171536436789259036001133053054882046652138414695194151160943305727

03657595919530921861173819326117931051185480744623799627495673518857

52724891227938183011949129833673362440656643086021394946395224737190

70217986094370277053921717629317675238467481846766940513200056812714

52635608277857713427577896091736371787214684409012249534301465495853

71050792279689258923542019956112129021960864034418159813629774771309

96051870721134999999837297804995105973173281609631859502445945534690

83026425223082533446850352619311881710100031378387528865875332083814

20617177669147303598253490428755468731159562863882353787593751957781

8577805321712268066130019278766111959092164201989

This website lists π out to its one millionth digit. So does this one.

3. My childhood obsession with this number.

I have never cared a great deal about the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.  But, when I was a child, I did memorize π out to its tenth decimal point. I also wrote it out on a piece of paper out to its hundredth decimal point — an item I discovered a couple of years ago when cleaning out my childhood archive (then stored in boxes in my mother’s basement). Why write it out to the hundredth digit?  Perhaps I planned to memorize the number all the way out to that decimal?

Most likely, its novelty captivated me.  I loved paging through the Guinness Book of World Records, and even bought a new edition of the book each year.  There, you could learn about Chang and Eng Bunker, or the longest word (that isn’t a technical term or proper noun): floccinaucinihilipilification, which (in case you were wondering) is the act of estimating something worthless.  π is not worthless, but my attraction to it derives more from its oddity than its utility.

The sarcastic among you might observe that an affection for arcane information is a fairly good description of my profession — college professor. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But you would be belittling the fact that knowledge is worth pursuing for its own sake. Knowledge has no obligation to be useful. Or, to put this another way, do not be discouraged if its purpose may initially elude you.  You never know when knowledge might come in handy, or what ideas it might generate.

0.14.  Two Previous Posts on π

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Firearms and Fascists: Does the Kansas House believe in democracy?

No guns. Sign on door of ECS Building, Kansas State UniversityFor nearly two months (since January 18th), Representative John Barker — the chair of the Kansas House’s Federal and State Affairs Committee — has refused to bring House Bill 2074 to the full Kansas House so that the entire chamber can vote on it.  The bill extends universities’ and hospital’s exemption for campus carry, and it’s a popular bill: the public testimony in favor has consistently far exceeded the testimony against it.  Instead, tomorrow, the committee will consider HB 2074’s nemesis, HB 2220.  It prohibits any regulation of guns on college campuses, and any current regulations are rendered “null and void.”  And no, I’m not joking.  Read the bill.

I cannot be there to testify at 9:00 AM Thursday March 9th in Room 346-S.  So, I have sent my testimony in advance.  It’s my third such testimony this semester.  Though I wrote it in haste, I make no apologies for its content.  HB 2220 is a fascist bill.  And the committee’s failure to bring HB 2074 up for a vote prompts me to question Representative Barker’s commitment to the democratic process.  Let the House vote!


HB 2220 is not only a bad bill.  It is a fascist bill.  Faculty, students, and staff of Kansas Universities are overwhelmingly against campus carry.  And so, has the House Committee on State and Federal Affairs advanced HB 2074 — which would continue the exemption for universities and hospitals — so that the full House may vote on it?  No.  Instead, it is now considering HB 2220, which forces guns onto Kansas university campuses against the will of those who study and work there.

My question for the committee is this: Do you believe in democracy or don’t you?  Why not let the House vote on HB 2074?  Why advance this dangerous bill (HB 2220) instead?  There is no evidence that weaponizing campuses makes them safer.  In fact, quite the opposite is true — as many have told you before.  In a state where guns are not regulated (where owners of firearms do not even need to learn how to use their weapons), inviting them onto college campuses is reckless in the extreme.  You increase the risk of death by accident, and by intent — the likelihood of a successful suicide increases when firearms are accessible.  And you do not prevent mass shootings.  The “good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun” is an alternative fact promoted by the NRA.  Think about it: in an active shooter situation, an untrained but armed person will magically be transformed into a superhero?  Really?  (Hint: NO, guns do not turn untrained civilians into superheroes.)  If the military does not allow guns in its classes (except for weapons-training classes) or in its barracks, why should colleges?  The military are trained professionals.  Faculty, students, and staff on college campuses are not — by design, since Kansas refuses to adopt even the modest provision that gun-owners learn how to use their guns.

Though I offer these thoughts as a private citizen, my opinions are informed by my job as professor at Kansas State University.  I have enjoyed my decade-and-a-half living and working in Kansas.  However, now that the legislature insists on endangering my life, and the lives of my colleagues and students, I find that I enjoy it much less. Indeed, in addition to seeking another job, I find that I have to spend valuable time trying to convince my state legislature not to kill us all.  So.  Oppose HB 2220.  Bring HB 2074 up for a full vote.

Thank you for your time and for your attention to this urgent matter.

Philip Nel

Manhattan, KS


Representative John BarkerKansans, please contact every member of the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, but especially Representative John Barker

Tell him and them to exempt university campuses and hospitals from firearms.  Advance HB 2074 to the floor of the House for a vote.  Oppose HB 2220.


Related writing on this subject (by me, and on this blog unless otherwise indicated):

Finally, to any academics who may be reading this: Is your university in a state or country with (relatively) competent governance? Or is it a private university (and thus not required to weaponize)? Does it seek an expert on children’s literature? Well, seek no further! Here is my curriculum vitae and a page devoted to my books (with selected reviews of same):

Drop me a line. (Email address is at right, under “A note on mp3s.”)  I’d love to hear from you!

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Seuss’s Matilda: Horton’s Ancestor

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!  To celebrate the 113th anniversary of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s birth, here are two things Seussian.

1. The True Story of Horton Hatches the Egg

Dr. Seuss, Horton Hatches the Egg (1940)When asked how he came up with the idea of Horton Hatches the Egg (1940), Seuss would often give an answer like this (from a September 1972 interview):

Horton Hatches the Egg was a lucky accident. I was in my New York studio one day, sketching on transparent tracing paper, and I had the window open. The wind simply took a picture of an elephant that I’d drawn and put it on top of another sheet of paper that had a tree on it. All I had to do was to figure out what the elephant was doing in that tree. I’ve left my window open for 30 years since that, but nothing’s happened.

That’s a delightful story, but it’s not true.  Not only do earlier accounts contradict it, but in a 1938 issue of Judge magazine, Seuss published “Matilda, the Elephant with a Mother Complex.” In that story, an elephant also hatches an egg — but it does not turn out happily. Matilda’s egg hatches, the bird sees her, and it flies off in terror. In contrast, Horton’s baby elephant-bird chooses him over its biological mother, Mayzie.

This past December, Southebys attempted to auction some original art of Matilda — though not precisely the art used in that Judge story. It seems to be an earlier version of the art, but it’s not clear how much earlier. Its provenance suggests it could be over a decade older.

Dr. Seuss, Matilda the Compassionate Elephant (1938)

The auction described the piece like this:

ESTIMATE: $30,000 – $40,000
DESCRIPTION: signed Dr.Seuss pen-and-ink drawing on paper 10 1/2 x 6 1/2 inches; 11 x 8 1/2 inches (267 x 165 mm; 279 x 216 mm) Executed circa 1938.
CATALOG NOTE: A delightful original drawing comprising the earliest known version of Dr Seuss’s beloved character Horton (here a femaile [sic] elephant, Matilda), looking very pleased with herself, seated on a small egg, with captions written on banners above and below the image.

The catalogue offers other information, some of it accurate and some of it less so.  But let’s skip ahead to the provenance:

PROVENANCE: Given by Geisel to Harvey Poe, Jr (born in 1916) while the artist was vacationing in Brookline, Maine (Harvey Poe, Sr managed the Mountain Ash Inn & Cottages, where the artist stayed). Mr Poe believes it was given to him when he was about 9 (i.e. 1925) and while this is of course possible, it seems more likely the drawing was given to him well after Geisel’s return from Europe, probably soon after the similar design appeared in Judge magazine (April 1938).

Is the piece really from 1925? It could be. On June 23rd, Geisel graduated from Dartmouth, and two months later left for Oxford, England.  He was in the U.S. for most of 1925, and not far from Brookline, Maine.  In addition to New Hampshire (where Dartmouth is), Geisel was also in Springfield, Massachusetts (his hometown). Prior to then, he had been drawing cartoons for Dartmouth’s Jack-o-Lantern.  Stylistically, however, this piece looks closer to his art from a decade later.

Priced at $30,000-$40,000, the original “Matilda” drawing failed to sell.  To the best of my knowledge, it is still being held at Southebys. So, if you have that sort of cash lying around (I don’t!), try bidding on next time it goes up for auction.

2. Me, talking about Seuss, yesterday on The Joy Cardin Show.

I was on for the entire 8 o’clock hour of yesterday’s show.  Did I have anything interesting to say?  You be the judge.  Listen here.


To continue your celebration of Seuss’s birthday, you may enjoy perusing other posts tagged Seuss. Here’s a selection:

From time to time, I get asked to talk about Dr. Seuss:

  • Joshua Barajas, “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Dr. Seuss,” PBS News Hour blog, 22 July 2015.
  • “New Window into Dr. Seuss’s genius” (26 Feb. 2014). John Wilkens’ article in the San Diego Tribune discusses new Seuss material that his widow, Audrey, donated to the Dr. Seuss Papers at UCSD.
  • “Dr. Seuss: Mini-Biography.”  A&E Biography (2013).  Time: 4 minutes.
  • All Things Considered. Lynn Neary, “‘The Bippolo Seed’ : The ‘Lost’ Dr. Seuss Stories” (13 Apr. 2011): audio & transcript.  Charles Cohen & I talk about the new book of “lost” Seuss stories (edited by Charles).  Time: 3 mins, 30 secs.
  • Diane Rehm Show. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (22 Dec. 2010): audio | transcript. Reverend Derrick Harkins, Maria Salvadore, and I talk with Diane Rehm about the Grinch.  Time: 1 hour.
  • Morning Edition. Lynn Neary, “Fifty Years of The Cat in the Hat” (1 Mar. 2007): audio & transcript. Anita Silvey and I talk with Lynn Neary about the Cat in the Hat.  Time: 7 mins, 20 secs.
  • Talk of the Nation.  Steve Inskeep, “Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Dr. Seuss: A New Book Looks Back on the Life of Theodor Geisel” (10 Feb. 2004): audio.  I was a bit nervous at the beginning (I believe it was my first time on live national radio), but after the first few minutes I seem to settle into it well enough.  Time: 1 hour.

Though the website design impedes its utility, Random House’s Seussville‘s author section includes a bio. and timeline I wrote — the former heavily influenced by Judith and Neil Morgan’s excellent Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel.  (If you read only one book about Dr. Seuss, the Morgans’ bio is the one I’d recommend.) Happy Read Across America Day!*


*Each year on or near March 2nd (the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), the National Education Association sponsors Read Across America, designed to promote literacy. This year, it’s being celebrated on Wednesday, March 2nd. Read more about it at the NEA’s website.

Read Across America: An NEA Project

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