Archive for Children’s Literature

Crockett Johnson Tells the Story of Money

Today is the 111th birthday of Crockett Johnson (1906-1975). To celebrate, let’s take a deep dive in his oeuvre — looking at one of his lesser-known books, This Rich World.


The popular story is that Crockett Johnson began creating books for children when he illustrated Ruth Krauss’s The Carrot Seed (1945). This is a compelling narrative. Krauss was his wife, it was his first book for Harper (which would later publish his Harold books), and The Carrot Seed became a classic.

Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money, illustrated by Crockett Johnson (McBride, 1943): front cover

But the first book expressly for children that was illustrated by Crockett Johnson is Constance J. Foster’s This Rich World: The Story of Money (1943).  I say “book expressly for children” because, though his daily strip Barnaby included children among its readers, the comic — which yielded two books (in 1943 and 1944) — did not imagine young people as its primary audience. This Rich World: The Story of Money did.  As the dust jacket’s inside front flap says, “Into this unusual and delightful book have been packed all the things the young reader wants to know about money.”

As you might expect, some of the information in a book published three quarters of a century ago feels dated: This Rich World is too easy on colonialism and favors masculine pronouns (men earn money).


“all the things the young reader wants to know about money”

But there’s a lot in here that young people — and many of our elected representatives — could learn from today.  For instance, taxes are the price we pay for living in a civil society.

Crockett Johnson, "Taxless Town, part 1" from Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money (1943)

Crockett Johnson, "Taxless Town, part 2" from Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money (1943)

A flat tax (such as a sales tax) is unfair, because the wealthy and the working class pay the same tax, even though it costs the rich a far smaller percentage of their income.

Crockett Johnson, "You pay taxes, too!" from Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money (1943)

There’s interesting trivia, too, such as the derivation of the expression “worth his salt.” The word salary derives from the word for salt — a valuable commodity because the “ancient world had no refrigerators and so needed salt and spices to preserve its good” (35). So, “In early Roman times the soldiers received part of their wages in the form of salt. This was known as salarium, or salt money. We still say sometimes that a man isn’t ‘worth his salt’ when he is lazy or shirks his work” (36).

Crockett Johnson, "Are you worth your salt?" from Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money (1943)


Who was Constance J. Foster?

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)While writing the biography of Johnson and Krauss, I wondered: how did Johnson come to illustrate her book? Were they part of the same social circle? Might they have met? Biographical data on Constance J. Foster is scarce. So, I bought used copies of other books she wrote or co-wrote, hoping that the dust jackets might give me some clues. From her The Attractive Child (1941), we learn that she lives in Great Neck, NY, and that she consulted many experts — most of whom are from New York City.  She has a family (whom she thanks), and was likely then writing for Parents Magazine: one of her thanks goes to that publication’s editor. Fathers Are Parents Too (1951), co written with Dr. O. Suprgeon English, tells us that “Mrs. Constance J. Foster has been a free-lance writer since 1927 and her articles have appeared in Parents’ Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, etc.” Her pamphlet, Developing responsibility in children (1953), offers much about her philosophy of parenting, but nothing about the author.

Constance J. Foster, The Attractive Child (1941) O. Spurgeon English and Constance J. Foster, Fathers Are Parents Too (1951) Constance J. Foster, Developing Responsibility in Children (1953)

As it turns out, our best source is the back dust jacket of This Rich World itself.

Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money, illustrated by Crockett Johnson (McBride, 1943): back cover

My guess is that she may have met Johnson — if she knew him at all — via Johnson’s wife. Krauss was then studying Anthropology at Columbia, and two of Foster’s sources for The Attractive Child are affiliated with Columbia. More than that, Krauss’s and Foster’s shared interest in children’s development might have provided occasion for them to meet.


Share the wealth

Whatever Foster’s connection (if any) to Johnson might have been, the book’s message is one that the current occupant of the White House would do well to heed. Foster argues that we should share the wealth. She twice cites Adam Smith’s “golden rule of world trade”: “It is better for a nation if the other nations with whom it does business are rich, not poor” (71, 157).

Crockett Johnson, "Wars are wasteful," from Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money (McBride, 1943)

Her final chapter — “Wars Are Wasteful” — repeats that point. If Foster is at times too willing to affiliate free trade with freedom, she also very rightly stresses the need to work together:

Only human brotherhood and the equality of all men, of all colors and races, will work. In the past some people have had more clothes and food and houses than they could use, while others have not had nearly enough. Unless we can build a world in the future in which everybody has enough, then no peace will last long. (157-58)

Crockett Johnson, frontispiece Constance J. Foster, This Rich World: The Story of Money (McBride, 1943)

Crockett Johnson’s art tells that story, too — the story of money and of the need to distribute it fairly if we are to live in peace.


Crockett Johnson birthday posts from previous years

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Was the Cat in the Hat Black? (Talks at Google)

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)And now,… presenting a 45-minute illustrated lecture of my Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books.

Indeed, here are two versions, one in English and one in Spanish (which is also delivered via sign language).  Both versions were recorded in the past couple of months — the English-language one in Mountain View in July 2017, and the Spanish-language one in Santiago in August 2017.

The English-language version comes courtesy of Talks at Google.

Talks at GoogleThanks to (ex-Googler) Tyler Shores for making the Google connection, and to David Barry and everyone at Google for their hospitality!  I had a great visit to the Mountain View campus this past July.


La versión en español es cortesía de Chile’s Ministerio de Educación. Mi discurso comienza a los 34 minutos del video. Esta versión dura unos 10 minutos más: estoy hablando más lentamente para ayudar al traductor a mantener el ritmo.

Muchismas gracias a Mónica Bombal Molina por la invitación, y a Mónica, Andrea Casals, y Catalina Landerretche por su hospitalitad. ¡Me gustó mucho mi visita a Santiago!


Related posts (on this blog unless otherwise indicated), including glimpses of the work in progress:

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7 Questions We Should Ask About Children’s Literature (Oxford UP blog)

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)White nationalism is on the rise in the US and nativism is in the ascendant across the globe.  What role can literature for children play in teaching the next generation to be more empathetic, to respect difference, and to reject hatred?  How do we find children’s books that promote these values?  And what do we do with classics that offend?

Over on the Oxford University Press blog today, you’ll find “7 Questions We Should Ask About Children’s Literature,” including:

  1. What does this book present as normal? You might follow up with these more specific questions borrowed (and slightly modified) from Nathalie Wooldridge:
  • What or whose view of the world, or kinds of behavior does the book present as normal?
  • Why is the book written from this perspective? How else could it have been written?
  • What assumptions does the book make about age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture (including the age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture of the reader)?
  • Whose perspectives does the book present? Whose perspectives does the book silence or ignore?

… and 6 more questions.

Oxford University Press iconOxford UP asked me to write the post to help promote Was the Cat in the Hat Black?  My own aspiration was also to write something that could be useful in evaluating books for young readers.  Here’s hoping that the questions can be of some help to educators, parents, publishers, and all who are involved with children’s literature.


REMINDER: Goodreads Giveaway of Was the Cat in the Hat Black? Giveaway details via the link below (and via the links in this sentence).

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Was the Cat in the Hat Black? by Philip Nel

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

by Philip Nel

Giveaway ends October 01, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway


If you’d like to learn more, Oxford University Press has created three short videos (featuring me) addressing some of the subjects in the book.

1. What do children’s books tell us about society? (90 seconds)

2. Literary Activism with Children’s Books (2 minutes, 50 seconds)

3. The Responsibility of Authors Writing Children’s Literature (2 minutes)


Historical context from Rudine Sims Bishop (3 minutes, 30 seconds)

Rudine Sims Bishop’s work is foundational (I mention Professor Bishop in the second video, above). My book builds upon the work of lots of smart scholars, including Bishop, Michelle Martin, Robin BernsteinKate Capshaw, and many others.  Was the Cat in the Hat Black? wouldn’t be possible without their groundbreaking work.


Related posts on this blog, including glimpses of the work in progress:

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Free Book: Goodreads Giveaway of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

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)Greetings, people who read books!  Thanks to Oxford University Press, there is — this month — a Goodreads giveaway of my new bookWas the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books.  10 copies will be given away.

Important restriction: the books can only be sent to addresses in the US and Canada.  (Sorry!  The distribution isn’t something I have control over!)

Giveaway details via the link below (and via the links in this sentence).

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Was the Cat in the Hat Black? by Philip Nel

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

by Philip Nel

Giveaway ends October 01, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

If you’d like to learn more, here is Oxford University Press’ 90-second video (featuring me) on racism in children’s literature:


Related posts on this blog, including glimpses of the work in progress:

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Happy Birthday, Ruth Krauss!

Ruth Krauss quotation on Los Angeles Public Library: photo by Cam Smith Ostrin

quotation from Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig (1952), on the L.A. Public Library.

If she were alive today, you would be wishing Ruth Krauss a very happy 106th birthday.  And yet Krauss was actually born 116 years ago, not 106 years ago.

Ruth Krauss's birth certificate

Look at the date in the upper-right-hand side of the document: July 25 1901.  Here, let’s zoom in on that date so that you can see it a bit better.

Ruth Krauss's birth date

Nonetheless, today, were Ruth still with us, you would be wishing her a happy 106th birthday.  Indeed, many reference sources list her birth year as 1911, instead of 1901. Why the discrepancy?

When she turned seventy, Ruth became acutely aware that people would see her as old. She felt young. So, she changed her birth year. As she would later tell a female friend, “You’re only as old as other people think you are, so always lie about your age—and preferably in increments of ten, because it’s easier to keep track of it.”

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953)That’s good birthday advice. And it’s an appropriate outlook for a writer best known for her understanding of young people.  She had a knack for listening to children, capturing their idiosyncratic, practical locutions and then turning them into art — most famously, A Hole Is to Dig (1952), the book that launched Maurice Sendak‘s career and the first of eight children’s books they created together.  Their next, The Happy Day (1953), won Sendak his first Caldecott Honor.  If you’re new to her work, you might also read The Carrot Seed (1945, art by Crockett Johnson [her husband]), The Happy Day (1949, art by Marc Simont), Is This You? (1954, a collaboration with Johnson), I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954, art by Sendak).  There are many more, but these — with the exception of Is This You? — are all in print, and thus should be readily available.

Ruth Krauss: Harper advertisement, 1954

Back to the birth certificate. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed something curious about that document.  Did you?  Scroll back up and take a look.  See anything odd there?

No? Check again.  I’ll wait.

.

.

.

Right. It was filed February 14, 1933 — 31 years and 9 months after she was born.   Why wait so long to file a birth certificate?  My theory is that the Great Baltimore Fire incinerated the original document in February 1904.  (Ruth was born and grew up in Baltimore.)  Why file a new one 1933?  I’m not sure.  In 1934, she married her first husband Lionel White — a true-crime writer.  Perhaps the impending marriage motivated her to seek this document.

Another question you may have is: Why trust this document, given its late filing date? Several people who knew her very well confirm the 1901 date. Notably, Betty Hahn — married to Ruth’s favorite cousin Richard Hahn — said she was born in 1901. Ruth was 12 years older than Richard. She couldn’t hide her birth date from her family.

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)For more on Krauss and her husband Crockett Johnson, you might enjoy my double biography Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012).  Or you might not.  I don’t know you, and I suppose I shouldn’t venture to predict.

Anyway…

Happy 106th birthday, Ruth Krauss!


Image credits: Cam Smith Ostrin for the photo of the quotation from Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig (1952, illus. by Sendak) on the Los Angeles Public Library (thanks, Cam!); Chris Ware for the cover of the biography (I will forever be grateful, Chris!).  The other credits are either obvious (Sendak did the cover for A Very Special House) or scans provided by yours truly.

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We Need Diverse Scholars

The most powerful panel at last year’s Children’s Literature Association conference was “Needs of Minority Scholars,” featuring Sarah Park Dahlen, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Laura M. Jiménez, and Marilisa Jiménez García.

  • If you are at the Children’s Literature Association conference right now, I encourage you to attend the follow-up session, “Beyond Diversity and Inclusion: Changing the Culture and Practices of the ChLA.” It will be held tomorrow (Thursday, 22 June) at 3:30 pm in Palma Ceia 3.

Beyond Diversity and Inclusion: Changing the Culture and Practices of the ChLA

  • Wherever you are, I encourage you to read last year’s panel, published in the latest issue of The Lion and the Unicorn (January 2017).  The panel’s papers published there, instead of in the organization’s own Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, because — as Michelle Martin points out in her contribution to the issue — “because the editors [of ChLAQ] didn’t consider these pieces research.” That fact proves the necessity of that panel, of tomorrow’s panel, and of the ChLA’s need to walk the walk — and not just talk the talk. As Kate Slater (the panel’s chair and editor of the special section) asks, “What if every marginalized scholar felt welcomed within the field of children’s and young adult literature studies? What if our community listened—truly listened—to their experiences, words, and perspectives, even when that experience of listening requires us to look uncomfortably at ourselves? And, perhaps most importantly: what now? How will we act together to make these ‘what ifs’ a reality?”

The Lion and the Unicorn (January 2017)

If you have any interest in children’s literature or in making your scholarly/professional organization (whatever its subject) a truly diverse one, I encourage you to read these essays.  (Note: Ebony Thomas’s piece is not included, but [as you will have guessed already] a new piece by Michelle Martin is included.  And the other three panelists are there.)

Need a brief summary of why?  I’ll offer succinct (and thus incomplete) highlights of each essay here.  ALSO: please access these via your institution because doing so helps underwrite the cost of the scholarly journal.  BUT if you cannot get behind the paywall, email me and I will send you pdfs.  My address is at right, under “A note on mp3s.”


Sarah Park Dahlen, A Step from Heaven: On Being a Woman of Color in Children’s Literature Studies

  • on the need for mirrors: on the experience of reading An Na’s A Step from Heaven for the first time, Dahlen writes, “I wasn’t alone. I saw for the first time that these things happened to other people too, other people who looked like me. Whose parents looked like mine. Whose mother suffered as mine did. Whose father was absent as mine was.”
  • on being the visible embodiment of racial identity: “I do not leave my personal history or identity at the door when I enter a classroom. As Ebony Elizabeth Thomas said at the Children’s Literature Association 2016 conference’s Minority Scholars panel, students read our bodies before we even open our mouths. How they treat us is based, first and largely, on how they read our racial identities. My Korean body disrupts assumptions about who is an authority in teaching children’s literature.”
  • on point: “We who are racially Other are fatigued by repeated distortions and erasure, and by exposure to micro- and macroaggressions in our daily lives and in spaces that masquerade as safe but actually exist to uphold the status quo. Racial battle fatigue is real. White fragility is entirely different. White fragility maintains power.”

Michelle Martin, Brown Girl Dreaming of a New ChLA

  • on the insufficiency of good intentions. I (and many others) are fond of quoting the organizations unofficial mantra: “We don’t eat our young,” which past president Roberta Trites likes to say.  It’s true: ChLA is welcoming.  But it also isn’t equally welcoming to everyone, as Martin reminds us: “when scholars come through the doctoral pipeline whose educational experiences have been rife with racial and gender microaggressions from more seasoned scholars (even well-meaning ones) and peers and when they, like Marilisa Jiménez García, constantly struggle to have their work acknowledged as (1) scholarship and (2) relevant, ‘we don’t eat our young’ is little comfort. Some of us feel that we’ve been eaten our entire careers.”
  • on how structural power magnifies microagressions; or, how the powerful forget the harm they do, but the less powerful remember.  Martin recounts a story shared by Tiffany Martínez — a Suffolk University undergraduate, McNair Scholar, and aspiring academic — who used the word “Hence” in a paper. Her professor circled the word, opined “This is not your word,” and accused her of plagiarism.  As Martin notes, “Although this incident was seismic for her, Martínez suspects that the professor might have already forgotten it.”
  • on the need for scholars from outside of minoritized communities to do the research and write what she terms “crossover scholarship”: “writing crossover scholarship should not be undertaken casually but with a commitment to excellence, with humility, and with a teachable spirit.”

Laura M. Jiménez, My Gay Agenda: Embodying Intersectionality in Children’s Literature Scholarship

  • on the need for an intersectional agenda: “it is not uncommon for me to be accused of having a “gay agenda.” I’ve read the phrase on student evaluations, reviewers’ comments, and heard colleagues use it to dismiss my arguments, assertions, and even my life experiences. Let me be clear, I have an agenda, and it is an out and proud agenda, but it probably isn’t the one most people assume. My agenda isn’t simply gay. My agenda is a race-class-gender-and- all-kinds-of-identities-that-make-people-uncomfortable-and-unsure agenda. In short, my agenda is an intersectional agenda.”
  • on importance of teachers making their own intersectionality visible: “At the same time they read these texts I provide an authentic model of intersectionality. I say the words that my students fear. The words that need to be said out loud and often. The words Black, White, Asian, Japanese, African American, Arab, Persian, race, racism, Latinx, Chicano, women, men, Native American and First Nations, cis-gender, able, disabled, neurotypical, gay, queer . . . all the words need to be said out loud. The words that need to be talked about so these teachers get to know the feeling of these words on their tongues. I come out to my students as a complex person by addressing my intertwined identities. I am performing myself in ways that most of my students have never seen a teacher do, have never had to do themselves, and will come to recognize as one way to normalize diversity.”
    • If I may, I would like to add here that it is especially important that a cisgendered straight, White, male teacher — like myself — take categories that are typically invisible (and thus normalized via their invisibility) and make them visible.  We must also acknowledge how the invisibly privileged among us may fail to acknowledge or even see the ways in which we are implicated in systems of privilege and oppression (typically without our active consent).  As Jiménez says, “The disruption of admitting to differences, by naming those differences and directly addressing them in a classroom, can be transformative and in that transformation, change is possible.”
  • on the need to make majority communities uncomfortable: “teacher education provides opportunities for them to learn to recognize the stories they are not a part of, are not native to, are not privileged by and to hear the voices that are unfamiliar, and believe the narratives that run counter to their lived experiences. Piaget’s concept of learning has helped me understand how to challenge preservice and practicing teachers. For Piaget, learning takes place when a person experiences disequilibrium, attempts to assimilate the new information into their existing schema, and finally must change that schema to accommodate the new knowledge. But for this to happen, the learner must first recognize what is unknown, must be aware of the disequilibrium and want to change it. Disequilibrium is by definition uncomfortable; this discomfort is often caused by the mere fact that the new knowledge is in direct opposition to the learner’s existing schema”

Marilisa Jiménez García, Side-by-Side: At the Intersections of Latinx Studies and ChYALit

  • on the need to dwell on intersections and contradictions. Citing Monica Brown’s Side by Side / Lado a Lado (2010) as a metaphor for this need, García writes, “The picture celebrates the coming together of Chavez and Huerta, yet we see that English and Spanish are also placed side-by-side: two languages with a violent history facing each other, but separated by a division on the page. Chavez and Huerta’s hands bridge the divide, yet that division between cultures and languages running side-by-side remains. U.S. children’s literature evidences these splits, switches, breaks, and unlikely pairings—these parallel stories and traditions greet us with a history of delight, violence, and contradiction. My research has demanded that I negotiate divisions both in the field of Latinx studies and children’s literature in order to exist in academia, and to dwell on the parallels, the intersections and the contradictions.”
  • on the need to displace English’s centrality to the field (citing Emer O’Sullivan): “Emer O’Sullivan writes in the ‘Preface’ to her study, Comparative Children’s Literature (2005), that ‘[c]hildren’s literature studies in English is mainly a monolingual phenomenon, mostly dealing with the wealth of children’s literature in English-speaking countries and referring to critical material written in English. Researchers who do not write in that language generally remain internationally unnoticed’ (x). She suggests that limiting inquiry to predominately Anglo children’s materials ‘neglect[s] to adequately describe and explain the crossing of linguistic and cultural borders’ (1)”
  • on the need to address diversity from more than one field: “scholars in Latinx studies rarely consider the position of literature for youth and writers for young audiences in the study of historically oppressed peoples. That is, in ethnic and postcolonial studies, literature for youth remains, for the most part, marginalized.” As she notes, “As a field, are we engaging in scholarship that values diverse communities and stories? What story does our scholarship tell about the communities and knowledges we value? Or is our scholarship centralizing only certain kinds of knowledge? I have argued in my research that you cannot know the story of American children’s and youth literature and culture without knowing the story of the Puerto Rican community in the United States; the same applies in reverse.”

 

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Laughter and Resistance: Humor as a Weapon in the Age of Trump (Horn Book)

The Horn Book, May-June 2017In its new issueThe Horn Book joins the resistance. If the previous statement is a slight overstatement (and it is, because the magazine’s values have opposed those of Trumpism since before it acquired that name), it is only a slight overstatement.  The May-June 2017 issue includes at least four pieces critical of the current regime: Raúl the Third’s “The Adventures of Baby D” (which imagines the tiny-fingered tyrant as a tiny-fingered tyke), Eugene Yelchin’s “Mocking Moscow” (Russian jokes, including some on Trumpy), an amusing anecdote by Molly Idle, and my contribution (named in the title of this blog post).

My article isn’t on-line, but UPDATE, MAY 2: My article went on-line today, and here’s the “thesis” paragraph:

Having a race-baiting, Muslim-banning, pussy-grabbing, narcissistic sociopath as president of the United States is not funny. But we can use humor as a weapon against him. As Mel Brooks famously said of a different real-life fascist clown who bullied his way into power, comedy can cut men like this down to size, robbing them of their “power and myths.”

In the piece, I discuss books by Michael Ian Black and Marc Rosenthal, Lewis Carroll, Norton Juster, Florence Parry Heide, Julius Lester, Rowboat Watkins, Toby Speed, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.  So, yes, the essay is in no way comprehensive.  It is instead suggestive, offering ways of thinking about humor and resistance.

Horn Book May-June 2017: photo

Back in the fall, Roger Sutton asked if I’d contribute to The Horn Book‘s upcoming special issue on humor.  I thought: sure, that might be fun.  After all, by the time my essay was due, the election would be over, Hillary Clinton would be president, and we’d all be in a better mood.  So, I agreed to write the piece.

Well, to paraphrase Mose Allison, it didn’t turn out that way. No matter what those pollsters said, it just didn’t turn out that way.

So, I wrote this instead.

If you pick up this issue of The Horn Book, you also get…

  • three Niblings in one issue!  Betsy Bird and Jules Danielson have a piece on their late friend and collaborator, Peter D. Sieruta.
  • Lisa Yee on the expectation of being funny, which you can also read on the Horn Book‘s website.
  • Lisa Brown, rewriting the classics to make them funny.
  • many articles by people not named Lisa.
  • jokes, sprinkled throughout the issue.
  • cover art by Jon Agee.

You can see a full table of contents here.

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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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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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MLA 2018 Call for Papers! Calling Dumbledore’s Army: Activist Children’s Literature

MLA NYC 2018 logoBooks can encourage children to question rather than accept the world as it is. Literature for young people can invite them to imagine a world where black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, poverty does not limit one’s life choices, LGBTQ youth know they are loved, indigenous peoples’ rights are respected, the disabled have equal rights and opportunities, refugees find refuge, and climate change does not imperil life on this planet.

Jenny Sowry's Woke BabyThis guaranteed session (sponsored by the Children’s Literature Forum) examines children’s literature as a vehicle for social change. Subjects panelists might consider include (but are not limited to): Children as activists, books aligned with social movements, satire or humor as catalyst for change, the repurposing of children’s culture as means of expressing or inspiring adults’ activism. Papers may cover any country or historical period.

The panel will convene at the Modern Language Association Convention in New York, which will be held from January 4 to 7, 2018.

Send 1-page abstract and 2-page CV by March 15, 2017 to Philip Nel <philnel@ksu.edu>.

scholarship on activist children's literature

Image credit: Photo is of Jenny Sowry’s “Woke Baby,” at the Women’s March, Jan. 2017. The image became a meme, and you can read more about it in this BuzzFeed article.

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