Charleston, Family History, & White Responsibility

In response to concerns expressed by some members of my family, I have removed this blog post. This marks the first time that I’ve removed or changed something for reasons other than finding an error or a typo.

This post will not reappear here.  But nor will it completely disappear.  I plan to revise and expand it, with the aim of publishing it somewhere else in the future. If I can initiate a dialogue with family members, I want also to incorporate their critique into a new and better essay.  As I said in the original piece, I refuse to deny the truths about racism’s legacy.  But I also want to do a better job at expressing those truths.

As James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time (1963), white people “are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (8).

[The links that accompanied the original post remain.]

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The Archive of Childhood, Part 2: The Golliwog

The second in my “Archive of Childhood” series. Trigger warning: images of a racist doll appear below. I’ve included it because this post is about racism, and I didn’t feel I could talk about the racism without displaying the doll in question.


I did not call them “stuffed animals.” I called them “fellows,” allegedly because, seeing my stuffed animals lined up along the foot of my bed, my mother remarked, “That’s a funny-looking bunch of fellows you have there.” So, stuffed animals became fellows.

The author, Teddy, and Panda, c. 1972It’s a curiously appropriate term. I was a shy child, and these fellows were my confederates. They were my friends, each with a unique personality. Except for Golly. Nutty Squirrel (who, oddly, was bright red) was bouncy, friendly, slightly unhinged. Gary (a dog whose name was an anagram of his gray color) was friendly, and a little boisterous in a dog-like way. Teddy and Panda were my close friends and confidants. In contrast, Golly was none of the above. To me, Golly’s face was a blank mask, its gender indeterminate, and its humanity doubtful.

That I saw this racist doll as unconnected to race or even human beings specifically is telling. It’s a great example of how racial ideologies can hide in plain sight, but it also offers some insight into what children see or don’t see. As an adult, I look at Golly, and the racial caricature makes me feel queasy; I feel ashamed at having grown up with a racist doll. As a child, I looked at Golly and saw only Golly — a claim that illustrates the efficient invisibility of ideology. The idea that I “saw only Golly” neatly conceals the fact that I was, unawares, absorbing messages about race and power, and, that in its otherness, this doll was affirming my own whiteness as normal. Then, I had no sense that this doll was derived from minstrelsy, or something that I should not be harboring. Golly was just Golly. When I got a second Golly, which (like the first) was a handmade gift from a South African relative, I remember thinking: Oh. Now I have two of my least favorite fellows.

The author and Golly, c. 1972

As these photographs suggest, I had a warmer, more emotionally intimate relationship with Teddy and Panda, but a cooler, distant relationship with Golly. Aged 3, I hold Teddy and Panda close, shyly peering out over their heads. Contrast that full and loving embrace with my casual, almost careless hold on Golly. One hand cannot bring itself to close around his bow-tie; two fingers from the other hand consent to touch his hair. I regularly hugged and cuddled Panda and Teddy. They slept by my side each night. I tolerated the Gollies. If all the fellows were invited to a party, then the Gollies would of course be included. It would have been rude to omit them. But that’s it. They were invited out of obligation, not affection. With their black faces, bright red lips and manic grins, the Gollies lived in internal exile among the better-loved fellows. They were more things than friends.

Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011)Their thingness, however, may explain why I responded as I did. Distinguishing between objects and things, Robin Bernstein writes in Racial Innocence, “An object becomes a thing when it invites people to dance” (73). If, as Bernstein suggests, a doll is a “scriptive thing,” then my Golly prompted certain “meaningful bodily behaviors” (71), revealing a “a script for a performance” (72). This does not mean that all who played with a Golly would interact in precisely the same way, but rather that the doll invites certain kinds of play, and that children can accept, reject, or revise those invitations. For me, my Gollies largely elicited polite indifference. I didn’t play with either Golly much. I never even gave the second Golly a name of its own. Though soft, my Gollies didn’t inspire me to cuddle them. However, my mother (who grew up in 1940s South Africa) remembered that she did cuddle her childhood Golly. As a soft doll, the Golly does script cuddling.

Growing up in Massachusetts in the 1970s, I resisted that script because I found the dolls a bit creepy, even grotesque. On one level, I may have been — unconsciously — responding to the ugliness of the racial caricature. Golly is short for “Golliwog,” whose history dates to Florence Kate Upton’s children’s book The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg (1895). Upton was born in Flushing, New York, but at age 14 — after her father’s death — moved with her mother and sisters back to England. Her parents were English. The character was based on a “blackface minstrel doll” she had played with as a child in the U.S. (Bernstein 159). As Upton would later recall, “Seated upon a flowerpot in the garden, his kindly face was a target for rubber balls… the game being to knock him over backwards. It pains me now to think of those little rag legs flying ignominiously over his head, yet that was a long time ago, and before he had become a personality…. We knew he was ugly!” (Pilgrim).

Florence Kate Upton, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg (1895)

The book and the dolls were very popular in the U.K., which (I suspect) is how they got to South Africa. In the U.S., the Golliwog is not as widely recognized. As the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia tells us, it’s “the least known of the major anti-black caricatures in the United States” (Pilgrim).

Golliwog (from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia)Given the doll’s relative obscurity in the U.S., blaming my cool response to the Gollies entirely on some unconscious awareness of their racist content is far too neat an answer. The Gollies were not only other because they were grotesque; they were also other because they were Black. Growing up in an all-white Massachusetts town, I had no friends or even acquaintances of color. Though there were then public policies promoting desegregation, America in the 1970s was — as it is now — a highly segregated place. I lacked friends of color until high school, a Connecticut prep school that made some effort to attract non-white students. My experience was and is not unusual. The Public Research Institute recently reported that a full 75% of whites have “entirely white social networks without any minority presence” (Ingram).

The Golly is not an anomalous artifact of the South African influence on my childhood. (My parents grew up in South Africa.) It’s not an isolated example of how racist culture crosses borders. It embodies the cultural pervasiveness of racism. A book from my childhood library, Walt Disney’s Story Land (Golden Press, 1974) includes Joel Chandler Harris’s “De Tar Baby,” “Adapted from the Motion Picture ‘Song of the South’” (172), featuring characters talking in “black” dialect. Of books that remain in print today, the Asterix comics, by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (1959-1979) and Uderzo solo (1980-2009), feature racial caricatures of most non-white characters: Native Americans in Asterix and the Great Crossing (1975), and Africans in Asterix and Cleopatra (1965). Random House’s Yearling imprint not only keeps Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard series (1980-1998) in print, but in 2010 relaunched them with new cover designs. More subtly, the influence of blackface minstrelsy lingers on in Raggedy Ann, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and the Cat in the Hat. Racism’s legacy is everywhere, and it’s particularly tenacious in children’s literature and culture.

Walt Disney's Story Land: 55 favorite stories adapted from Walt Disney films (Golden Press, 1974)

When I’ve brought my Gollies into class for discussions of racist children’s culture, I’ve half-jokingly described the experience as “a visit to the island of racist toys.” But they’re not an island. They’re the ocean. PLAYMOBIL SuperSet Native American CampThough now called “Native Americans” instead of “Indians” (as they were in my youth), Playmobil’s depiction of non-white peoples traffics in stereotypes: in its toys, Native Americans all live in tepees and wear headdresses, and the sole “African / African American” family comes with a basketball. Or came with one. Playmobil recently discontinued this family. Very often, even imperfect representations of non-white people can be scarce. The “Black” version of the toy is either hard to find or simply doesn’t exist.

Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014)None of this is to deny the significant progress in the past 40 years. From Diana Ross and Michael Jackson in The Wiz (1978) to Quvenzhané Wallis in Annie (2014), from Virginia Hamilton’s M.C. Higgins, the Great (1975) to Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), children’s culture has developed more and better representations people of color. But improvement is not parity. Progress is not the same as equality.

And that’s what whites who deny — or, to put it more kindly, fail to see — the persistence of structural racism need to learn. The petulant New York cops who turn their backs on Mayor de Blasio fail to understand that, just because they may not intend to be racist, the NYPD’s history of murdering unarmed people of color can not be dismissed as a statistical anomaly.

For those who find it far-fetched to fault racism in children’s culture (and popular culture more broadly) for the persistence of racist attitudes, I would argue that these images — especially those we encounter as children — have staying power. As Christopher Myers wrote, such images “linger in our hearts, vast ‘image libraries’ that color our actions and ideas, even if we don’t recognize them on a conscious level. The plethora of threatening images of young black people has real-life effects.”

Keats, The Snowy Day (1962): coverWriting those words just after Trayvon Martin’s murderer was found not guilty, Myers added, “I wondered: if the man who killed Trayvon Martin had read The Snowy Day as a kid, would it have been as easy for him to see a seventeen-year-old in a hoodie, pockets full of rainbow candies and sweet tea, as a threat? What might have been different if images of round-headed Peter and his red hood and his snow angels were already dancing in his head?”

That is precisely why #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and why we need a wider range of toys, movies, and video games featuring protagonists of color. We need to counter the Gollies, the Uncle Remuses, and all the rest. What we learn as children shapes our world view more profoundly because, when we are small, we are still in the process of figuring out who we are and what we believe. For this reason, children’s toys, books, and culture are some of the most important influences on who we become — and on what biases we harbor.

Confronting those biases is hard and necessary work, but it’s nowhere near as hard as the psychic toll paid by those who endure the daily experience of racism. Indeed, it’s much easier for those of us not on the receiving end of racism to fail to see it, and to minimize its presence in our own lives. But exercising the privilege of choosing not to see leads to irresponsibility, to micro-aggressions, to unwittingly becoming part of a racist system.

The casual ignorance of well-intentioned people does more to sustain structural inequality than, say, those expressions of racism that get more media coverage — former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling telling his mistress not to bring Black people to the games, or media mogul Rupert Murdoch alleging that all Muslims bear responsibility for the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo.

As Catherine R. Squires writes, “We pretend to our peril that racism is safely in our past” (16). Golly is an atypical feature of Caucasian-American childhoods, but racism is not. It’s in films, playground taunts, dolls, books, relatives’ remarks. It’s everywhere.


Works Cited

Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Ingram, Christopher. “Three quarters of whites don’t have any non-white friends.” Washington Post 25 Aug. 2014: <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/08/25/three-quarters-of-whites-dont-have-any-non-white-friends/>.

Keats, Ezra Jack. The Snowy Day. 1962. New York: Puffin Books, 1976.

Myers, Christopher. “Young Dreamers.” Horn Book 6 Aug. 2013: <http://www.hbook.com/2013/08/opinion/young-dreamers/>

Pilgrim, David. “The Golliwog Caricature.” 2000, rev. 2012. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. <http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/golliwog/>. Date of access: 4 Jan. 2014.

Squires, Catherine R. The Post-Racial Mystique: Media and Race in the Twenty-First Century. New York University Press, 2014.

Walt Disney’s Story Land: 55 favorite stories adapted from Walt Disney films. Racine, WI: Golden Press, 1974.


Related links on this site:


I plan to include a much shorter excerpt of this piece in the introduction to my book, currently titled Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Structures of Racism in Children’s Literature. Indeed, I wrote this personal essay to help me write the introduction. Criticisms, comments, suggestions for improvement and for further reading are all welcome. For that matter, if you’ve any suggestions on how much (if any) of this should be included, I’d welcome opinions there, too.


Image sources: two photos of author and dolls (Philip Nel), Racial Innocence (NYU Press), The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg (Lusenberg.com), Golliwog doll (Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia), Walt Disney’s Story Land (Philip Nel), Playmobile (Amazon.com).

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The Archive of Childhood, Part 1: Crayons

John Tenniel, illus. of Mock Turtle, Alice, & Gryphon from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)We tend to imagine the self as an unbroken whole, but it might better be described as plural, a series of selves that, though temporally contiguous (and often overlapping) are not always the “same” self.  That’s one of the conclusions suggested by Robert Krulwich in “Who Am I?,” a Radiolab podcast from 2007.  It is also a central theme of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), whose protagonist answers the Caterpillar’s question, “Who are you?” like this: “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then” (35). Later, she offers to tell the Gryphon “my adventures—beginning from this morning,” adding, “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” (81).

The ever-changing self is one reason that encounters with the past can be surprising.  They remind us of earlier versions of ourselves — discarded, forgotten selves. They remind us of parts of our current selves that we no longer recall. They tell us who we were, who we are, and — perhaps — who we have yet to become.

"Madeleines with tea" by Lulu Durand PhotographyThis blog post launches an occasional series of excursions into my past, each one motivated by a particular thing. This first one is Proustian. As he had a cup of tea and a madeleine, Marcel Proust experienced a “shudder,” as his senses transported him to his childhood, when he would wish his aunt Léonie a good morning, and she would give him a madeleine, “dipping it first in her own cup of tea.”

For Proust, it was the taste of madeleines and tea.  For me, it was the smell of crayons.

In the process, this past September, of helping my mother move, I had to face the vast archive of my childhood — well over a dozen boxes, some containing items I’d not seen in 30 years. I needed months to sort through it all, but I had only days. She was moving at month’s end, and I couldn’t ship everything from her house to mine. I made snap decisions, some of which I regret. The saddest item to throw out was a cigar box full of crayons, most of them well-worn, some of them broken.

My cigar box of crayons (photo taken Sept. 2014)

The smell of those crayons transported me to my many childhood hours spent drawing. Then, the boundary between the real world and imagined ones was literally paper-thin. The crayon was the key that opened the door.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverAs a child, I knew that my art was only lines on paper (to paraphrase R. Crumb), but it did not feel that way. Drawing was an emotionally immersive experience. While I was moving those crayons across the paper, I was in the drawing, part of it. I realize that this is one reason that Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon resonates on such a deep level. Harold enters his drawing because that’s what childhood art-making feels like.

Before I threw out the box of crayons, I first photographed it, then dumped the crayons out onto the floor, and ran my fingers through them. So I could retain just a little, I decided to save the purple ones. As Crockett Johnson’s biographer, that choice seemed a reasonable compromise.

my purple crayons

But it’s hard to make reasoned compromises about irreplaceable things. My mother had saved my childhood drawings, in recycled manila envelopes, each labeled by year. I thought: well, I can’t save all of this — so, I’ll save representative samples. I put out most for recycling, but saved a few pieces of art created by me at 5 and 6 years old. Later, I thought: why not save more of these? I even went out to retrieve one drawing I’d thrown into the recycling bin. Now, I think: why not save them all?  Had I kept them, these drawings would have taken up the space of a large art book. Maybe two.

In that moment, having no idea what I’d uncover, I was conscious mostly of limited time at mom’s house and limited space at home. So, I thought: better to be ruthless about this.

So many lost things. So few saved. But I’m grateful for these glimpses into the past, traces of that crayon line that extends from my childhood bedroom floor to my adult career. I’m also surprised by how much of what interested me then still interests me now. I’m four decades removed from that small boy who made those drawings. Yet I am also still that boy, dreaming that art can transform the world.

Image sources: Tenniel from “Literary Snapshot: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Madeleines with Tea” from Fine Art America, photos of crayons and scan of Johnson’s book from yours truly.

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Dallas 1963, New York 1980, Washington 1981

Zapruder film, frame 312

On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, I happen to be staying at the Washington Hilton — the hotel in front of which President Reagan was not assassinated 32 and a half years ago.

Don DeLillo called the Kennedy assassination, “The seven seconds that broke the back of the American century.” But I had not yet been born on November 22, 1963.

Newsweek: attempted assassination of the Pope, 1981The murders and attempted murders that color my childhood are John Lennon (killed December 1980), Reagan (shot in March 1981), the Pope (shot in May 1981), and Anwar Sadat (killed October 1981). I saved the issues of Newsweek magazine that covered each event. The cover for the Pope issue featured a black-and-white photo, moments after the assassination attempt.  The caption, in bright letters, was: “Again.”

Kennedy’s assassination reached me via popular culture, in collections of Life magazine photographs, or the Kinks’ “Give the People What They Want” (1981), which includes the line: “When Oswald shot Kennedy, he was insane / But still we watch the re-runs again and again. / We all sit there glued while the killer takes aim…. / ‘Hey, mom! There goes a piece of the president’s brain!’”

That last line neatly encapsulates my 11-year-old self’s experience of the Reagan assassination attempt. Television news played the clip so frequently that it began playing on an endless loop in my head, too. My friends and I began re-enacting the event on the playground. The person playing Reagan would wave, and then duck into an imaginary car, pushed by the person portraying a Secret Service agent. The person acting the role of Press Secretary James Brady (shot in the head), would fall to the ground. The person playing DC policeman Thomas Delahanty (shot in the neck) would fall forward.

The attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981

Yes, we were aware on some level that our recess re-enactments of the Reagan assassination attempt were not “appropriate.” These were real people, wounded by real bullets. It was not something that we should be play-acting for fun.

So, why did we do it? Play is a way of understanding the world. Though horrific, the event was also so unreal (televised, rewound, repeated) that our improvised absurdist performances helped us make it real for ourselves. We were not merely making light of the darkness (though we were doing that, too); rather, our silliness was a way of understanding the seriousness.

Newsweek: John Lennon (1940-1980)My reaction to the murder of John Lennon was, I think, much closer to how people responded to President Kennedy’s murder. Neither of these were televised murders. (Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald happened on live TV, but the Zapruder film was not broadcast until the 1970s. While Lennon’s and Kennedy’s murder were both covered on TV, there was at the time no footage of the murders themselves.) The absence of the televisual made me feel Lennon’s murder more personally, more deeply — as did the fact that I was a fan of the Beatles. That was truly sad. The Reagan assassination attempt felt more surreal.

The highly mediated world in which we now live affords us little time to actually feel the pain, much less think about it. In public places (at a school, in a movie theatre, in a store), the gunman — it is nearly always a man — fires. People flee, get maimed, die of their injuries. Survivors tell their stories to the media. Our legislators assure us that these murders are a byproduct of living in a free society; regulating guns would somehow make us (well, those of us not murdered by guns) less free. The sad inevitability of gun violence, offered up for our infotainment, impedes our ability to make sense of it.

But it’s not just media. Experience also dulls the senses. I felt more acutely Lennon’s murder precisely because I had no memory of the murders of Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Its newness made its impact sharper.

Perhaps, then, that is one legacy of the Kennedy assassination. There were political murders before November 22 1963 (Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were all assassinated), but in the years since that afternoon in Dallas, they seem to have become commonplace. And, as DeLillo has observed, “Our grip on reality has felt a little threatened.”

Above: Steinski’s “The Motorcade Sped On” (1986); video by Coldcut (2008).

Images: Zapruder film from Fans in a Flashbulb; Reagan assassination attempt from L.A. TimesNewsweek cover of Pope from eBayNewsweek cover of John Lennon from The Pop History Dig.

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Professors Get Summers Off; or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Being a college professor would be a great job! You do a little teaching, and get the summers off!

— frequently expressed misunderstanding

To be clear: being a professor is a great job. Since I elect not to teach during the summer, I can devote more — though not all — of my time to research and writing. But the main thing I get “off” during the summer is a paycheck. Kansas State University last paid me on May 24th, and my next check arrives on September 13th. (Classes begin tomorrow — Monday, August 26th.)

As part of my continuing efforts to dispel the surprisingly pervasive myth that academics lounge by the poolside all summer, here is how I spent my “summer vacation” this year.

Conferences. I gave two conference presentations, gave two invited talks, and co-chaired (and co-organized) one panel.  All were different, and but one all were new material.  So, I also wrote these.

  1. “Manifesto for a Comics-Children’s Literature Alliance” at the 40th Annual Children’s Literature Association Conference in Biloxi, Mississippi, on June 14th.
  2. “How, Where, and Why to Publish Your Book” (invited talk) at University of Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) on June 24th.  This was a longer and revised version of “How to Publish Your Book,” which I first gave on a professional development panel at a Children’s Literature Association conference some years ago.
  3. Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): cover“‘He came up thinking fast’; or, How does Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon work?” (also invited) at the University of Winnipeg’s Visual/Verbal Texts Symposium on June 25th. This was a labor of love for me. It aims to be a tour de force close-reading of Harold and the Purple Crayon, revealing just how complex such an apparently “simple” book really is. I look forward to expanding it for publication.
  4. “Whiteness, Nostalgia, and Fantastic Flying Books: The Disappearance of Race in William Joyce” at the Biennial Conference of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature in Maastricht, Netherlands, on August 12th. This will form part of a book called Erasing Race in Children’s Literature.
  5. “Keywords for Children’s Literature: A Roundtable Discussion,” co-chaired with Lissa Paul, at the Biennial Conference of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature, on August 13th. As I note in my previous blog post, this panel was devoted to conceiving a second edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature (2011) — should sales of the current edition warrant — that better takes into account the broader, international world of children’s books.

Cost. I picked up maybe 40%-45% of the expenses for conferences. In addition to the three conferences where I presented (mentioned above), I also attended a fourth.  Here’s how it breaks down. (Dates include travel.)

  1. Children’s Literature Association Conference in Biloxi, Mississippi, June 12-16. Not covered by the university or sponsor of event. Kansas State University provides funds for less than one conference each year. So, at this point in the year, such conferences are always self-funded.
  2. Visual/Verbal Texts Symposium in Winnipeg, Manitoba, June 24-28. All expenses covered by organizers of event. Canada makes available far more public funds for the Humanities than the U.S. does, and the organizers won financial support for the conference.
  3. Comic-Con 2013Comic-Con in San Diego, California, July 17-22. As an Eisner nominee, I paid no registration fee. But the plane tickets, hotel, and food (except for the Eisner Awards banquet, which was covered) were all self-funded. For what I did and learned there, see my reports on Comic-Con 2013.
  4. Biennial Conference of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature in Maastricht, Netherlands, August 10-14.  Kansas State University has a fund to which one can apply (once a year) to fund international conferences. I got lucky this year, and over 90% of the expenses for this were covered! (I will this week submit my receipts for reimbursement.) For a report on the conference, see “Dutch Treat.”

Writing. I wrote two new essays, successfully expanded a third, and completed a failed revision on a fourth.  (What do I mean by “completed a failed revision”? I’ll explain in a moment.)  I also wrote — or, really, co-wrote — a fellowship proposal.

  1. “Children and Comics” was the sole piece connected to any of the conference presentations. It’s a radially recast “Manifesto for a Comics-Children’s Literature Alliance,” and will — if editors Bart Beatty and Charles Hatfield like it — appear in The Cambridge Companion to Comics next year.
  2. “Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood.” It would have helped if I’d paid attention to the email inviting me to contribute this piece to a special section on Sendak. I’d thought the journal asked for a 4000-word piece, and so I wrote nearly 6000 words with the aim of trimming it down to 4000. Then I checked the email, and learned that the request was in fact for a 1500-word piece. Oops. With the assistance of Karin and of editors at the journal, I managed to get it down under 2000 words. maurice Sendak: two Wild Things and Max
  3. “A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teen-Ager” is a revised and expanded version of the blog post by the same name. A journal’s editor read it and asked me to work up a longer version of it. I’ve really enjoyed working on it because it’s more autobiographical than what I usually write, and because it allows me to articulate more fully a vision of why children’s literature matters to people of all ages.
  4. Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hat“Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Seuss and Race in the 1950s” continues to trudge along, though is currently stranded by the side of a lonely highway, hoping a tow truck shows up soon. (I’ve written previously about this ill-fated piece.) One reader asked for some revisions. I addressed those. No problem. The other reader said revise and resubmit, and that… has me stumped. On the one hand, I feel that the other reader may miss the point (which, of course, means I need to be clearer). On the other hand, I feel that I am missing the point and am hopelessly out of my depth. I’ve done all I can, and am now turning to others for assistance. Happily, a brilliant scholar and gifted writer has very kindly agreed to take a look and offer some guidance. (Not sure if that person would want to be named in this blog, but if you’re reading this, I’m grateful!  Dinner’s on me at ASA!)
  5. Marie Curie Fellowship. I frankly think I’m a long shot for this. But, Mick Gowar and Zoe Jaques kindly invited me to apply. Thanks to their efforts and the efforts of others at Anglia Ruskin University, it’s submitted. If I get it, it will help fund my sabbatical year and relocate me to England. Note to non-academics: Every seven years, we can apply for a sabbatical: you get either one semester at full pay or a full year at half pay. I’m going for the full year and trying to make up the difference.

Another note to non-academics reading this: I don’t think I get paid for any of the essays. I may receive compensation for the Cambridge Companion piece (I’ve yet to see that contract), but academic publications typically do not pay. At best, you get a copy of the publication.

Also, while I’m calling the above “writing,” there is of course also research involved. Most of this I did myself, though I also employed Shaun Baker to seek articles for me. And I consulted him and Mark Newgarden on the “Children and Comics” piece, since they know comics better than I do. Thanks, Mark and Shaun! And thanks to Michelle Martin and Erica Hateley for sharing unpublished work that I cited in the William Joyce paper. Indeed, thanks to everyone else who has offered ideas or assistance! (As I write these words, I reflect upon how much I’ve learned from others — and, while I strive to acknowledge that in each work, I am also aware that a list of credits would impede readers of this post.)

Ernie Bushmiller, Nancy

Teaching. I choose not teach in the summer, but I do have to plan future classes. Speaking of assistance, I’m grateful to the experts I’ve consulted with questions about the graduate-level African American Children’s Literature course I’m teaching in the Spring of 2014. This is the first time I’ll be teaching this. Some courses we teach because we’re experts; others we teach because we want to become experts. For me, this course is definitely the latter. So, thanks to Gerald Early, Michelle Martin, Kate Capshaw Smith, and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas for sharing their knowledge.

Kristin Cashore, GracelingThe Fall 2013 courses are both ones that I’ve taught before. I changed some of the books on the Literature for Adolescents class, adding: Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Francisco X. Stork’s The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, and this year’s “K-State First Book,” Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. The Harry Potter’s Library course remains roughly as it did the last time I taught it (2011). I say “roughly” because this time we’ll actually get to use Pottermore, which was still in beta in the fall of ’11.

Reviewing and editing manuscripts.  As editor for Routledge’s Children’s Literature and Culture series, I edited four books, reviewed two manuscripts, and responded to five book proposals. I also reviewed a manuscript for a children’s literature journal.

Only one committee meeting!  For an internal grant administered by Kansas State University.  I had to review the grant proposals beforehand, but still — only one meeting is unusual for an academic. I doubt any of my peers had just one committee meeting this summer.

Other writing.  There’s correspondence with editors, authors I’m editing, my agent (who is also a friend), friends, other scholars, students, former students, future students, and people who kindly invite me to come and give talks.  I wrote one letter of recommendation for a colleague applying for a fellowship.  And things I’m forgetting, I’m sure.

Barnaby, Volume 1Barnaby! In May, while visiting friends and family in New England (more on that in a moment), I visited the Ruth Krauss Papers at the University of Connecticut to seek scans of a bonus item we’ll include in Crockett Johnson‘s Barnaby Volume Five: 1950-1952 (Fantagraphics, 2017). In Cambridge, I  stopped by Harvard’s archives for some reconnaissance on strips for Barnaby Volume Two: 1944-1945 (coming from Fantagraphics next year). There were several email exchanges on this, and I’m still working to hunt down a few rogue strips. I edited one of the essays that will appear in Volume Two, talked to a journalist or two about Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (published earlier this summer), and am currently in conversation about having a book party in October in NYC. There are other Barnaby-related developments that I’ll wait for Fantagraphics to announce.

Seuss TV. Also during that trip east, I taped an interview on Dr. Seuss with A&E Biography in NYC. I have no idea whether they’ll use the footage, but I had fun doing it.

headless blue musician, AmsterdamYes, I had fun. In May, I attended my twenty-fifth high-school reunion in Connecticut, and visited friends in New York City, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. That was great. In August, I went hiking with family in Switzerland (en route to the conference in Maastricht). While there, I also played with my niece (the subject of the Emily’s Library series). We read stories, played with a jar of buttons, and with Matchbox cars. I pushed her on the swing, and she served me many imaginary breakfasts, warning me each time “Be careful. It’s hot.” I also spent time with Emily’s mommy and daddy, my mother, her second cousin, and my cousin.  In Amsterdam, I also got to hang out with him and his partner.  He (my cousin) and I became reacquainted last summer after a 29-year gap. My family is spread out across the globe, and as we age I appreciate more and more the remaining time we have together.

My friends are also spread out around the planet. Since many are also academics or connected to publishing (comics, children’s books), conferences are not only learning experiences but a chance to catch up with people I care about.

They are of course learning experiences (see previous post), as are all of my travels. I visit museums and bookshops, walk along trails and through city streets, listen to and talk with people. While I sit in planes and trains, I read books, I read book proposals, I edit books, I write emails, and I write whatever the next thing is — the talk, the essay, the book.

It’s a great job, being able to learn and share what you learn. I’m fortunate to have work from which I derive meaning. Heck, part of my job this year was going to Comic-Con. Sure, it wasn’t free — but still!  AND I traveled to five US states and three other countries.*

I love my job.

But I don’t get summers off.

___________________

*  One of those countries and one of those states were strictly personal, not business. But that’s still a fair bit of travel.

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25 Years After; or, 10 Things I Learned at My High School Reunion

Philip Nel, fall 1987.I am not nostalgic for my high school years.  As a teen, I was acutely self-conscious, chronically insecure, often depressed.  Yes, I also experienced a wider range of emotions (including joy and laughter) during those years, but my dominant impression of teen-age-hood is gratitude at having survived it.

But I returned for my 25th reunion last week. After all, I did have a few close friends, and (via Facebook) have connected with a few others. How many more opportunities will I have to see them? So, I returned. Here are ten observations.

1. As adolescents, lots of people were insecure, full of doubt, consumed by self-loathing. This is not news, but it is affirming to hear others admit this. “I was so angry then,” one classmate told me.  Adolescence can be a confusing, volatile time.

2. Memory inheres in places. Many glimpses of the past. At the edge of an athletic field, I vividly remembered a conversation, one evening during the spring of my senior year. I know who I was talking to, can remember what we both were wearing, but have no idea what we were discussing. Walking past the Arts Center’s cement cavern, I remember its echo chamber where, we — the male a cappella group — sang earlier that same year, also in an evening. Standing almost anywhere on campus revived memories.

3. I can’t believe I once attended school here. Choate is an extraordinary place. It has an Arts Center, a Science Center, a Humanities Center, athletic buildings, classrooms, and dorms — all of which rival or surpass those in the best universities. I was a student here because my mother taught here, and children of faculty can attend for free. My parents otherwise could never have afforded such an education for my sister and me.

4. That most children lack access to such high quality education is morally wrong.  In addition to the school’s extraordinary facilities, the ratio of faculty to students at Choate is 6:1.  Most public high schools are at least 12:1, and some are as high as 22:1. In the past few decades, Choate made the decision to admit fewer students, in part (so I understand) so that it could achieve such favorable ratios. In contrast, at the national and state levels, government has been cutting funds to public schools, resulting in larger class sizes and worse ratios.

5. The Reunion Industrial Complex.  I suspect this is a phenomenon of elite private schools (and universities), but the reunion was a very swanky, very professional affair. There were huge tents on the Great Lawn (I’d no idea that lawn even had a name), catered meals beneath those tents, bartenders serving (free) drinks at all events, live music, and lots of waitstaff on hand. OK, it lacked ice sculptures, but the reunion otherwise had all the trimmings of a fancy wedding. It must have been very expensive. As one classmate remarked, “If they get a big donation, the reunion will pay for itself.”

6. Teachers made a big difference outside of class. This is a reminder to me, as a professor: often we help our students more as mentors than we do in the classroom. In another blog post, I talked about how the late Terry Ortwein’s decision to cast me in a minor role in Our Town allowed me to glimpse a different self: acting showed me how to shed my shyness and become more outgoing, confident, competent.

Of all my Choate teachers, my mother had the greatest influence on me. I had been languishing in public school until she began teaching in private schools (thus enabling me to attend gratis). Having arrived in kindergarten able to read and write, I found public school boring, never learned to study, and just coasted along — daydreaming, paying scant attention. This strategy worked well, … until it stopped working well, and my grades slipped. Public school culture emphasized getting by; private school culture emphasized not only doing the work but striving for excellence. Had my mother’s job not enabled me to attend private school, I doubt I’d have gone to college, much less graduate school.

The lessons of private school did not take immediately. Fortunately, John Ford, then a dean, allowed me to repeat my junior year at Choate. Doing so granted me the time to get my act together. (1) I was unlikely to pass three years of Russian, which I’d chosen as my foreign language. So, I switched to Spanish, completing three years’ worth in two years’ time — thanks to a semester in Spain. (2) I also started paying attention consistently, worked harder, and improved my grades to the point that I was able to get into a good college.

I’d forgotten that my Choate classmates sometimes wondered whether my sister and I were twins. We’re in the same graduating class because she started school a year early and I repeated a year. For many years, when people would ask me if Linda (who speaks five languages and runs marathons competitively) were older, I would reply: “Only in terms of accomplishments. In terms of age, I’m actually two years older.”

7. Professionally, many people have found their niche in life. It may not have been the job they imagined themselves doing, but they find it’s a good fit for who they are. Lobbyist, teacher, IT professional, intellectual-property lawyer, stay-at-home mom, personal trainer, actor, director of community relations for Google, Oscar-winning screenwriter, executive producer of The Life of Pi. Yes, those last few are more exceptional than typical. But a number of my classmates are quite high-powered people. It’s very impressive!

8. No one works 9-to-5 anymore. I often think that my 60-hour weeks, in which I work during evenings & weekends, are typical for an academic, but unusual in the rest of the working world. However, such a “flexible” work schedule (in which work expands to fill any available time) is normal in most careers. This is one reason that it’s hard for us to describe what we do. We are all of us multi-tasking, juggling life and work, constantly in motion.

9. Only connect. . . (yes, I’m quoting E.M. Forster). I of course enjoyed catching up with people who I knew, but I also enjoyed catching up with those I did not know. During the weekend, I actually made a few new friends — which, as we grow older, is too rare an occurrence.

10. As the song says, “The years go by, as quickly as a wink. / Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself (it’s later than you think).” I don’t mean embrace hedonism, but rather we are here now, and then we are gone. Several times during the weekend, I found myself thinking: It is good to be here, right now, in this moment.

I hope all of you fare well over the years to come, though I know not all of you will. I hope to see everyone in the future, though I know some of us will not cross paths again. I hope that you find meaning and purpose in your life, that you nurture your friendships and relationships, that you love and are loved.

*  *  *  *  *

The day after the reunion, I visited a friend whose job prevented her from attending. She was on call that weekend — she’s an M.D. who specializes in geriatrics. Or, as her spouse (an M.D. in pediatrics) puts it, “She has a 100% mortality rate.” Though that can be hard, it’s also very fulfilling. She (and sometimes her children) get to meet people in their 80s, 90s, 100s — people who’ve lived long lives and have stories to tell.

Except for one. She told me of a man, very accomplished in his field. I forget the precise job, and (for reasons of confidentiality) should alter the specifics anyway. But he was the president of a major insurance company or corporation, a very wealthy man. In devoting time to his career, he neglected his friendships and relationships. At the end, he lay there dying, not surrounded by friends and family — but quite alone. He turned to my friend, and asked “Is that it?” Then he died.

My wish for everyone is this. Live well so that, before you face that final curtain, you have something more to say.


Choate Rosemary Hall Facebook 1987-1988Image source: Choate Rosemary Hall Facebook 1987-1988.  Yes, back before the social media phenomenon of Facebook, the school each fall published a Facebook — for each student, a photo, name, address (both on and off-campus), and class year (or academic speciality, in the case of faculty).  The photo above comes from the Facebook of my final year at Choate.

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A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teenager

Those of us who read, create, study, or teach children’s literature sometimes face skepticism from other alleged adults.  Why would adults take children’s books seriously?  Shouldn’t adults be reading adult books?

There are many responses to these questions:

  1. Children’s books are the most important books we read because they’re potentially the most influential books we read. Children’s books reach a young audience still very much in the process of becoming. They stand to make a deeper impression because their readers are much more impressionable.
  2. Adults who dismiss children’s literature neglect their responsibilities as parents, educators, and citizens. What future parents, teachers, doctors, construction workers, soldiers, leaders, and neighbors read is of the utmost importance, if for no other reason than some of us will continue to live in the world they inherit. If books leave such a powerful impression on young minds, then giving them good books is vital.
  3. Almost no children’s literature is written, illustrated, edited, marketed, sold, or taught by children. Adults — and adults’ idea of “children” — create children’s books. It’s profoundly hypocritical for an adult to suggest children’s literature as unworthy of adult attention. Indeed, adults who make such claims are either hypocrites, fools, or both.
  4. Children are as heterogeneous a group as adults are. There is no universal child, just as there is no universal adult. Defining the readership of any work of “children’s literature” is a tricky, sticky, complex task. Paradoxically and as the term itself indicates, “children’s literature” is defined by its audience — it’s for children. It thus a literature for an audience whose tastes, reading ability, socio-economic status, hobbies, health, culture, interests, gender, home life, and race varies widely. Children’s literature is literature for an unknowable, unquantifiable group. The very term “children’s literature” is a problem. Only someone who has never thought about children or what they read could argue that children’s literature does not merit serious consideration.
  5. Children’s literature has aesthetic value. Good children’s books are literature. Good picture books are portable art galleries. If we don’t take children’s literature seriously, then we diminish an entire art form and those who read it. We also prevent ourselves from being able to distinguish quality works from inferior ones — thus neglecting our responsibilities outlined in no. 2, above. This is not to suggest that we can or should all agree on what is a great children’s book. We can’t and we shouldn’t. What we can and should do is care about what makes children’s books bad or good, average or classic, banal or beautiful.

But my focus in this post is less on those preceding five points (or the many other points that could be added) and more on a sixth point: that children’s books have much to give those of us who are no longer children. There are levels of meaning we may have missed when we read the book as a child. There are experiences adults have that grant us interpretations unavailable to less experienced readers — just as children may arrive at interpretations unavailable to adults who have forgotten their own childhoods. In children’s books, there is art, wisdom, beauty, melancholy, hope, and insight for readers of all ages.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverWhat inspires me to make this sixth claim is that I have no memory of reading Harold and the Purple Crayon as a child. As an adult, I created a website devoted to the book’s creator, Crockett Johnson, and wrote a biography of Johnson and his wife, fellow-children’s book writer Ruth Krauss. But the book that inspired both website and biography is completely absent from my memories of early childhood.

The book does appear in memories of those memories. In eighth grade, when I had long since “graduated” into reading chapter books, my mother got a job teaching at a private school, thus enabling my sister and I to attend the school for free. Once a week (or was it once a month?), there was a faculty meeting after the end of the school day. During that meeting, my sister and I were left alone in the school library to do our homework. She did her homework. I did not. Instead, I wandered over to the picture books and began reading them. There, I rediscovered Harold and the Purple Crayon, a book I then remembered fondly from my pre-school days. I also realized that there were other books about Harold — Harold’s Trip to the Sky, Harold’s ABC. Had I read these other Harold stories when I was younger? I wasn’t sure. But I knew they were just as enchanting as the first Harold book.

So, at the age of 14 — an age when you might expect a person to be reading Young Adult novels — I began to collect paperbacks of Crockett Johnson’s Harold books.

I don’t know what needs were fulfilled by those particular words and pictures. Perhaps it was the books’ presentation of the imagination as a source of power and possibility. Maybe Harold’s iconic, clear-line style better enabled me to identify with him as he, and his crayon, navigated an uncertain, emerging landscape.

For that matter, I don’t know why, as a freshman in college, I adopted as my bedtime reading A. A. Milne’s The World of Pooh and The World of Christopher Robin. (The former contains both Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner; the latter collects all the verse from When We Were Very Young and Now We are Six.)

My point is that books “for children” can speak to people of all ages and backgrounds — if we are ready to listen. It’s hard to predict when or why we will be ready to listen. It is indeed dangerous to assume that recommended age-ranges on the backs of books will tell us anything about who may read those books. When I read and re-read the Harold stories at age 14, the books did not then have age ranges on them, though I note that a more recent copy of Harold’s Fairy Tale claims it’s for “Ages 3 to 8.” As Philip Pullman has said of his own work,

I did not intend the book for this age, and not that; for one class of reader, and not others. I wrote it for anyone who wants to read it, and I want as many readers as I can get, and I want to meet them honestly…. For a book to claim “This was written for children of 11+”, when it simply wasn’t, is to tell an untruth.

Exactly.

Books “for children” or “for teenagers” are books for all who are ready to listen to them. They are for all who recognize that art cannot be confined within such narrow labels.

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Moomin Merchandise

Occasionally, publishers and authors send me children’s books. When time and interest coincide (alas, too infrequently), I review them and post my reviews here. More often, I write reviews of books I’ve bought. I do not review children’s-book-related tie-ins. I view such products with some skepticism, and have written critically about merchandising that targets children.

But I really like the Moomin products that Chronicle Books sent me — sent each of us Niblings, in fact — to congratulate us on the launch of our new blogging group. They’re adorable. Tasteful. Nicely produced. And, yes, they’re an appropriate gift for a group of bloggers who have named themselves after a minor character in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books.

If you do not know the Moomin books, you will want to read this post before reading further.  Take your time.  I’ll wait.

Moomin Notecards (Chronicle Books)Back? Well, to continue: I find myself puzzled at why I feel more comfortable admiring my new Moomin notecards than I would, say, a package of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. Why does it feel “OK” to blog about these Moomin goodies but not the latest Potter merchandise?

One could argue that it’s because Moomin marketing is less ubiquitous than Harry Potter marketing. There may be something to that argument, but the Moomins are hardly obscure.  Sure, people in the U.S. are less Moomin-literate than the rest of the world, but Jansson’s characters are globally recognized. There are books, animated cartoons, stores of merchandise, and even an amusement park (in their creator’s native Finland). So, I don’t think it’s just fetishizing a pop cultural obscurity. Moomins are world famous.

Nostalgia, then? As Julie Sinn Cassidy argues in “Transporting Nostalgia: Little Golden Books as Souvenirs of Childhood” (2008), the Little Golden Books “function as snapshots, souvenirs, or relics of an imagined ideal of childhood,” and are often marketed to adult readers as such (148). While nostalgia also underwrites Moomins’ marketability, I never read Jansson’s books when I was a child. I first read them in my mid-20s. My wife grew up on them, and — as my scholarly interests shifted to children’s literature — she introduced me to the Moomin stories.  So, for me at least, childhood nostalgia falls short as an explanation.

Moomin journal (Chronicle Books)To say that these items have been tastefully made moves us into highly subjective aesthetic areas, but the designers have created products with an aesthetic that closely matches Tove Jansson’s.  I’m sure that good design is one reason for their appeal, but it feels insufficient.

The answer comes, as it often does, from Henry Jenkins. My relationship to Jansson’s Moomin characters is that of what he calls the “aca-fan,” a “hybrid creature which is part fan and part academic.” I simply like the Moomin characters and stories. They make me happy, in the way that the Mills Brothers’ recording of “Funiculi Funicula” does, or Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon does. And Chronicle Books’ Moomin products are kinda cool.  If you’re a Moomin fan, you’ll probably enjoy these, too.

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A Brief Inquiry Into the Paradoxes of Academic Achievement

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)When I started writing what was then a biography of Crockett Johnson (back in the late 1990s), I thought: When I finish this, I really will have achieved something. Even as I wrote other books, I continued to think of the biography — which became a double biography of Johnson and Krauss — as The Big Achievement. Sure, Dr. Seuss: American Icon (my third book, published 2004) was OK, and, yes, the media attention it received was certainly flattering. But the biography would be the Truly Important Work.

So, you might (or might not) be asking: (1) Why make this distinction between the biography and my other work? (2) Do I still make this distinction? (3) And, now that the biography is published, does it feel as “Truly Important” as I thought it would?

1. Why make this distinction?

The degree of original research required far surpassed that needed for my other books. I interviewed over 80 people, investigated over three dozen archives and special collections, read everything written by or about Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, and consulted additional hundreds of articles and books. I looked at birth certificates, marriage certificates, census data, property deeds, wills, century-old insurance company maps, and Johnson’s FBI file. If I hadn’t gathered (some of) this information, it would be lost forever. Coping with the mortality of one’s sources is a big challenge for the biographer. Maurice Sendak, Remy Charlip, Syd Hoff, Mischa Richter, Else Frank (Johnson’s sister), Mary Elting Folsom (author who knew Johnson in the 1930s), Gene Searchinger (filmmaker who knew them both), and so many others taught me much about Johnson and Krauss. They have since passed away. If I hadn’t recorded their stories, that information would be gone.

The biography has been more challenging than any other project I’ve tackled, bar none. As I’ve observed before (probably on this blog, and certainly in the talk I gave last month at the New York Public Library), a biography is a jigsaw puzzle, but this puzzle has no box, missing pieces, and no sense of how many pieces you’ll need. There are also the challenges of creating character, knowing which details to omit, and finding a narrative structure. Life has no narrative, but biography has to have a narrative. I have no training in creative writing, but — for this book — I had to try to think like a creative writer.

In sum, there are reasons that a biography takes so long to write….

2. Do I still make this distinction?

Dr. Seuss: American IconSort of. The distinction reflects a tendency to devalue the discipline in which I was trained — the sense that Dr. Seuss: American Icon, though it does draw on considerable original research, is ultimately “just interpreting texts.” In contrast, rigorous historical research, actually uncovering new information, is much more important work. But I say “sort of” because of course there are truly insightful ways of interpreting texts, illuminating formal strategies, transformative critical approaches — Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence is one such book. It’s a paradigm-shifter. As I’ve noted before, I don’t have the kind of mind that writes a paradigm-shifting book.

My strength is that I work hard. A biography plays to that particular strength — and perhaps this is one reason that it interests me. It interests me for other reasons, too (the “detective work” part, for example). But it is one intellectual arena where I can do something well: work really hard. Superior intelligence may elude me, but I can put in the hours! So, in some ways I still make the distinction (the amount of research, the box-less puzzle, etc.), but in other ways I do not.

3. Now that it’s published, does it feel like such a Big Achievement?

The response (mostly positive) has been a good feeling. In addition to nice reviews from Anita Silvey, Roger Sutton, Maria Tatar, Kirkus, and the Wall Street Journal, other Notable People Whose Work I Admire have been very complimentary. With apologies for the name-dropping, those people include Chris Ware (who also created the beautiful cover), Dan Clowes, Mark Newgarden, Paul Karasik, Lane Smith, Susan Hirschman, George Nicholson, and Michael Patrick Hearn. Given that Maurice Sendak even responded positively to an early, detail-clogged, incomplete draft, it is of course possible that these folks are simply being kind, and forgiving the book’s many infelicities (as I expect Maurice was). But I’m accepting their kind assessments as genuine because, well, it makes me happy to do so!

That said, as I’ve documented on this blog, the editing process was not entirely harmonious. Some cuts were good ones; others were not. My copy-editor was an historian by training; I needed a writer of fiction. My changes to her edits resulted in some errors, including (as one audience member pointed out at the NYPL last month) a typo in the first sentence. The press refused to change some errors I found in the page proofs (though it did change others). The paperback is priced not at $27, as I had originally been told it would be, but at $40 — this makes it harder to schedule signings because who buys a $40 paperback? These problems make me not want to think about the book at all.

I realize that I should let this go. Publishers introduce errors into manuscripts. Bureaucracies do not always function smoothly. Humans are prone to error, fatigue, and failures of judgment.

Fortunately, despite my irritations, the book does feel like an achievement. Given how long it took to write (I started in 1999), it is thus far my life’s work. It is a big deal.

But there is little time to dwell upon one’s achievements. There are new projects (such as The Complete Barnaby, volume 1 of which is due out early next year), tenure-and-promotion letters to write, letters of recommendation to write, (other people’s) book proposals to review and manuscript to edit, (my) conference abstracts to create and talks to write, planes to catch, meetings to attend, syllabi to revise, syllabi to invent, papers to grade, classes to teach, students to meet. Being an academic is a great job, the work is rewarding, and I feel privileged to do it — even though I rarely have the time to notice those rewards or recognize that privilege. It’s one of the paradoxes of being a professor.

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Stayin’ Alive

Yield to bicycle (sign)While riding my bike last Tuesday morning, a car hit me.  It was 7:45 am, I was cycling uphill and due west.  A car coming due east — blinded by the sun, the driver later told me — took a left turn and hit my bicycle on its (and my) left side.  Fortunately, neither of us were moving quickly.  She had slowed for her turn, and I can’t go as fast up a hill.  It’s also fortunate that I was standing up on the pedals.  I don’t know precisely what happened at the moment of impact.  I remember thinking: “Oh, #@$!! I can’t believe this car is going to hit me!” Next, I was getting up off the pavement, left knee bloody and right knee bruised.  My bicycle lay to my left, wheels and crankshaft bent, and left pedal broken.  I say it’s fortunate that I was standing up because I deduce that the car must have knocked me off my bike — when standing up, pedaling, less body is intertwined with bike than would be in the sitting-down-pedaling position. Thus, I found myself getting up off the pavement, and not from under bike or car.  More importantly, my bicycle absorbed the impact of the car.  My body’s (minimal) injuries derived from the pavement more than the car.

After realizing that I was only a little scraped and bruised, and (alas) cursing at the driver (whose remorse quickly shamed me into apologizing for my rudeness), my next thought was: “Hey, I should be able to exercise again in a couple of days!  Excellent!”  (And I was able to.)  It took an hour or so for “Hey, I’m really lucky to be alive!” to sink in.

I mention this because, in reading Jesse Goldberg’s “Injuries and my fears of aging,” I realize my primary response to aging has been to exercise more and with greater regularity.  In my 40s, I exercise more than I did in my 30s; in my 30s, I exercised more than I did in my 20s. Why? The older you get, the harder it is to start exercising again.  I know that, if I were to stop, I would quickly lose a lot of ground.  As a cross-country runner in high school, I could take the summer off and, within a week, get back into shape.  I can’t do that now.

To be clear, I was not and have never been a great athlete: I got a varsity letter in cross-country my senior year only because I kept showing up (I never once placed in a varsity race). But, as an adult, if I exercise regularly, I feel healthier, I can do my job better, and I sleep better — well, inasmuch as a neurotic person like myself ever sleeps better (I have a hard time “turning off” at the end of the day.  Too much on my mind). The “life of the mind” — writing, teaching, research, service — isn’t designed for one’s health. We spend far too much time sitting at a computer, in meetings, in archives, at conferences, and on planes.  We spend far too much time sitting. One can even sit while teaching, although I generally do not.

Though keeping in shape allows me to function in the ways that I did when I was younger, it also doesn’t.  As I age, my body becomes more prone to injury.  My “exercise more!” response to aging also requires me to pay greater attention to my body.  For the last year, I’ve been seeing a chiropractor regularly, and — since my mid-30s — have had to go to physical therapy for the occasional injury.  I’ve had to adjust the way I run (calf-muscle troubles), and adjust the way I sit at the computer (neck troubles).  Before bed each night, I am now obliged to go through a sequence of stretches so that my body can continue to function as I would like it to.

Unlike Mr. Goldberg, I do not fear aging. I fear Alzheimer’s. I fear living in a permanent vegetative state. And, yes, I’m not looking forward to death. I’ve always liked Woody Allen’s line: “It’s not that I’m afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  But aging itself?  As long as I have my health (or most of it), aging is fine. To paraphrase the cliché, aging is far better than the alternative.

In addition to leaving me very happily not-dead, the car inflicted no lasting damage. The driver kindly took me to the emergency room, where medical professionals examined me, treated the open wound, made sure I was OK.  Since then, my left knee has scabbed over nicely, and skin is growing back. The bruised muscle above my right knee (lower thigh muscle, really) is nearly 100%, and the post-accident muscle stiffness has receded.  The driver’s insurance paid for the damage to my bicycle, and Pathfinder (great local bike shop) has already repaired the bike. This was, without question, the best possible outcome of a car striking a bicycle.  I’m very fortunate.  (In sum: do not worry.  I am fine.)

In any case, this post is less about the accident and more about my (ultimately futile) attempts to slow the inevitable decline and fall of my body.  It’s about fighting aging via exercise.  I know will eventually lose this fight, but it’s a battle worth waging.

(And, yes, this blog will return to its more typical — i.e., not autobiographical — posts very soon.)


But first,… a few thematically related songs.

Abdominal‘s “Pedal Pusher” (2007) may be the greatest bicycling song ever.  Love this.

For another great exercising song, let’s turn to Darrow Fletcher‘s funky gem from 1977, “Improve.”

Since I took the post’s title from their song, let’s give a listen to the Brothers Gibb (two of whom are no longer staying alive, I’m sorry to say).  Here’s “Stayin’ Alive,” which was also released in 1977.

What’s that you say?  You’ve never heard the heavy-metal cover of “Stayin’ Alive”?  We’ll have to fix that now.  Here’s… Tragedy!

Wyclef Jean also did a great tribute / cover in “We Trying to Stay Alive” (1997) — which in the video, also has a nice homage to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”

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