le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tragedy & children

There is nothing of any comfort one can say to the families, friends, neighbors of those who were killed in Connecticut today. It is horror and sadness and grief and loss of an order that is beyond language, beyond understanding. I hope that those people directly affected, especially the families of the deceased, have good, wise, compassionate people around to listen and help and support them.

For the rest of us, who do not live in Newtown, Connecticut, (or even those who do, but were not directly involved in today's horrors), there is also not much that can be said to make sense of something so ultimately senseless. There may be explanations, most likely heartbreaking ones, but (as I think Dave Cullen's Columbine makes clear), even having an explanation does not make tragedy make sense.

How to talk to kids about this, though? I was angered to see a New Republic post that cries, "Don't Tell the Kids a Damn Thing About Newtown."
Written by a parent in a neighboring town (uninvolved, but of course not unaffected, by the shootings), it describes this particular father's dash to his child's school, to take aside her teacher, and ask her not to say a thing about what had happened. "“It’s just that you never know when a grown-up thinks they’re being helpful, and …” "
He concludes with the closest thing to an explanation of why the kids shouldn't be told:
Here’s what we can control: as long as our children are alive, we can refuse to terrorize them with worst-case scenarios. ... I understand that there are parents in the world who have to teach their children about bomb shelters. But I don’t, not yet. My daughter is just five years old, and her school is as safe as we can make it without imprisoning ourselves in our own fear. My heart breaks for what happened 25 miles away; I’ve cried twice already today. But I’ve done it far from my children, who are still very young and, yes, innocent. So please: Don’t tell them a goddamned thing.
I think this is the worst possible advice one can offer. I am not a child psychologist, or in any way expert on child-rearing. I am, however, human. I have also spent the last several years reading and watching and thinking about Mister Rogers, a man who was an expert on child-rearing and child psychology and the human condition. One of the songs that is regularly sung on the program is "I Like to Be Told." Kids do like to be told, because uncertainty is far more terrifying than even the scariest truth. Uncertainty - or deception - can be anything. A truth - well, you can process that. You can think about it, ask questions about it, find ways to live with it, hard as it may be.

The Fred Rogers Company (formerly FCI) has some advice for talking with children about tragedy, and I think it's as eloquent and useful a response to the New Republic's useless nostalgia and hand-wringing. Everyone wants children to live in a totally safe world, where nothing bad or scary or random or tragic ever happens. Everyone wants to live in that world themselves. But we don't, and because children live in the world that includes television and internet and smartphones and overhearing parents talking and playground chatter amongst children - because of that, trying to keep them hermetically sealed is impossible. Not only impossible, but quite possible harmful.

From the Fred Rogers Company's website: " You may be really surprised at how much your child has heard from others." It also mentions, at the very beginning, that children know when their parents are upset, or worried, or scared. Kids are small, not stupid or oblivious, and even after you've turned off the tv or closed the internet, it's very, very hard to keep your affect unaltered by shock, anger, grief, fear, anxiety, etc. If you pretend otherwise, you're lying to your kid and confusing her, and making it clear that scary feelings are not a topic of conversation. Kids' imaginations are, usually, quite boundless, and though they are not stupid, they don't have the experience to have the kind of sophisticated critical reasoning many adults have (or should have). One of the most chilling things I remember from the days immediately following September 11 - and those days were full of chilling things - was from someone either with Fred Rogers or Sesame Street, saying that little kids were seeing repeated footage of the towers falling - and thinking it was happening over and over again. They didn't realize that they were seeing reruns - for them, that terrifying event kept happening.

I do not think anyone wants their kid to feel like that for more than two seconds.
I do not think anyone wants their kid to think she is unprotected, unsafe, likely to have disaster occur at an moment, for more than half a second.
I do not think anyone wants their kid to worry that mom or dad or grandma can't/won't/doesn't want to protect or help them.
I do not think anyone wants their kid to feel alone and scared in a world that appears to be full of terrible things happening over and over again.

The reminder to look for the helpers is a good one. It isn't just moms and dads who want to take care of you; it's doctors and teachers and nurses and policepeople and firepeople and EMTs and pretty much 99.999% of the adult population. Even teenagers, even they want to help keep that pre-schooler from feeling sad and scared and worried, and even teenagers can and will help in an emergency.

Mister Rogers isn't going to lead you astray. He simply isn't. I have read hundreds of letters written to him, and dozens of responses from him and his staff of wonderful people who are very like him. The faith and trust people placed in him was not unfounded. The faith and trust and reassurance he gave them made a difference, in some cases a huge difference, to parents, grandparents, and children.

The link again to Fred Rogers Company's advice on speaking with kids about tragedy is here.

Friday, November 30, 2012

a wish: selfishly motivated and certain never to happen

A few days ago, I read Newbery-committee member fairrosa's post about Newbery Award criteria, which is a very smart and insightful post indeed. I scrolled down to the bottom of the post, of course, to read it in its entirety, and I could see the first few lines of the previous post, which begins with: "In the middle of book 112..."

BOOK 112!!!!

I suddenly remembered hearing about/seeing stacks of newbery contenders at committee members' homes. I thought about this same quantity of reading and books for the Printz.

And I had my selfishly motivated, destined to go unfulfilled wish, oddly enough the first time I'd ever even thought about this:

I wish I was on the Newbery committee! Or whoever selects the Printz. Or, OMG, both!

The thought of spending a year, or part of a year, reading dozens and dozens of children's/YA books with a certain goal, or set of criteria, as part of a small group of readers working with the same goals - this sounds like heaven to me.
I have no doubt it becomes tiresome, and stressful, to do one's normal life AND read 112+ books. I have no doubt it's a very, very, very difficult task, whittling down that tremendous list to just a handful of exceptional titles, with one book to rule them all.  
But it sounds like a task I would excel at.

I've been reading middle-grade fiction recently for a personal project, and I have zipped through quite a stack of books - which also includes The Raven Boys, because it's due back at the library - in a very short time. I'm already reading books in insane quantities. And I don't have a small group of similarly-reading comrades with whom to share opinions, lists, quibble and debate with over relative merits. This is the sad/bad part about no longer taking classes - you lose an automatic 'book club,' defined as a set of people reading the same work at the same time and meeting to discuss it.

But I admit I get shivers of excitement at the prospect of having parcels of books delivered to my house, books I have a duty to read in certain careful, specific ways, and that I then have a duty to "grade," to make my case to others, to listen to/read their choices. Being able to have an opinion that actually turns out to be quite important and weighty is just a side bonus (I always have an opinion, and rarely are my opinions called for, or effectual). Newbery winners stay in print, and this is a huge big deal. Writers get a bump in sales, they become temporarily (or permanently!) famous, they get better contracts for future books (I hope). So it is an important task, but it isn't really the importance and opinion of it that gets me.

It's being officially charged with reading all those books that makes me long for committee membership.

Monday, November 12, 2012

how do you say it?

A year or two ago, I discovered one of the best resources ever ever EVER: a directory of children's/YA authors pronouncing their own names (and occasionally explaining a bit about those names). Since I started teaching, I've been both paranoid and vigilant about making sure I know the correct pronunciations of everything, and there are an awful lot of names in the field - actually, just generally in the world - whose pronunciations are not immediately obvious. Scieszka? Stiefvater? Koertge?

Quite a few authors add some tidbit of information about the name's origin, variant pronunciations, etc - and those are strangely delightful to listen to. But I love the site mainly for the totally boring utilitarian value of hearing the authors themselves speaking their names out loud. No messing with pronunciation keys or phonetic alphabets, no fretting over where to lay the stress when you say "Marjane Satrapi."

No excuses now for mispronouncing author names!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Picture It

Sometime in the first year or two of my (apparently endless) PhD program, one of the children's lit professors offered a bit of advice culled from one of her own experiences on the job market. At an interview, she was asked to name three of her favorite current children's books - one picture book, one middle-grade, and one young adult. The advice she was offering was to stay current, or at least keep an eye on current trends.

I do a decent job of staying on top of what's happening in middle-grade and young adult fiction. I have a set of favorite authors who I follow, I discover new titles through the listserv and through a few select blogs (as well as the goodreads pages of some highly respected acquaintances and colleagues). I make a point of visiting the ALA awards pages, and I've been working my way through the Printz and Newbery honor lists, as well as a semi-random selection of other kinds of awards-winners.

But I realized a couple of weeks ago that I have fallen behind on picture books. When I worked at the bookstore, it was easy to keep up; the central display in the children's section was picture books, especially new and/or noteworthy picture books. I find that books, regardless of age or genre, act like breadcrumbs leading me to more books, and the picture book wall was no different: a book would lead me to look for others by that author, or by the illustrator - which in some cases, is even more fruitful, because most illustrators work on a variety of authors' books. I need to find some good picturebook blogs so I know what's happening; my other "idea" is to go wander the picture book section of the library, a section I both love and loathe - it's usually very noisy, and the shorter shelves mean that I end up crawling around the section on my knees to scan the shelves. This crawling - which I don't really mind in itself - attracts Looks from other patrons, though;  I suspect that the fact that I am conspicuously a grownup without a kid, literally on my knees in the children's picture book section, looks at least slightly odd. This makes me feel very sorry for any un-child'd guys who might want to examine the picturebooks - men around children, or children's stuff, is one of the few places where male privilege goes right out the window. [this is a topic for another post, but one I could discuss at length and feel strongly about].

Which leads me in a roundabout manner to the Exciting Discovery, a moment of serendipity, or maybe just coincidence. On my personal twitter account, I follow a variety of people of whom I am a fan; I made the personal account so I could fangirl out without crossing that particular nerdy stream with the bookish/academic nerdy stream. Anyway, Jonathan Coulton and John Roderick have a new christmas CD coming out, and they retweeted a photo of themselves with the CD and the illustrator of the cover.  I was curious, because I'm a fangirl, and clicked through, and discovered.....
Zack Rock!!**

He did the cover art for Coulton & Roderick's christmas album. AND - this is the exciting part - he's a children's book artist. Or intends to be. My opinion: should be, like immediately. Because I was immediately completely enchanted with his work.

Like this one, for instance, a commissioned piece that is cleverly tagged "cultured swine."

Look how warm and wonderful that bookshop is! Like you would walk in and unravel your scarf and pull off mittens in that lovely yellowy light, and it would have that Used Bookstore smell, and you could just daydream your way down the shelves while it got darker and colder outside. Maybe because of the pig, Zack Rock's work reminds me a bit of David Wiesner - that sort of dreamy watercolory look, I guess.

But there's also a not-exactly-surrealist-but-close thing going on with some of his work, which I also love. For instance, this image which combines two of my favorite things - hot-air balloons and windmills:
There's a nice little interview with him on Seven Impossible Things, which will tell you that he has an MA in Children's Book Illustration (a thing which I did not know existed), and that his MA thesis was about the other illustrator whose work Zack Rock's reminds me of: Shaun Tan). It's joyous to come across someone who very intentionally chooses to work in children's book illustration; so many artists seem to come to it by accident (happy accident or otherwise), and some, as with children's authors, still seem to need to distance themselves from being "merely" a children's book artist.

As I've mentioned - or at least implied - I'm not a picturebook specialist. I like them, I love some of them, and it's a genre that I am very happy to claim as one within my field.I have a small but respectable collection of picturebooks (highlights: Chris Van Allsburg, William Joyce, Maurice Sendak; I'm late to the Shaun Tan party but now that I'm there, I am there; I'm working on collecting his books). So while I don't have an arts degree, or even real picturebook expertise, I feel like I have enough knowledge and (I hope) taste to make a claim here and there about a picturebook or picturebook artist. And I will go right ahead and claim that Zack Rock's work is amazing - it's gorgeous and dreamy and evocative and clever and intelligent. It has that wonderful picturebook aesthetic that is as appealing on the page, in the context of a narrative, as it would be in a frame on the wall.

His website - because he is as yet unpublished (why? how? someone needs to change this) - displays an intelligence and wit that I really appreciate. I don't know about most people, but there's a cleverness that is right up my alley in, for instance, this description of Mel Goate and the Purple Velvet Tuxedo: "The tale of a musical young goat who yearns for the world's most sumptuous formalwear." Everything about that sentence delights me. I would read that book in a heartbeat.

Even more appealing to me is Homer Henry Hudson's Curio Museum, "brimming with mysterious artifacts and treasures, but its most curious inhabitant may prove to be its blind canine caretaker."  This painting (above), probably more than any other on his site, really caught and held my attention (and has kept it; I find my mind returning to the image and the idea at odd moments, like when I'm washing the dishes). I love the argyle socks and the plus-fours; I love the curiosities on display in the wall behind him; I love the filmy white eyes of the blind canine himself.  I have an intense curiosity to know what else is in that curio museum; I love a curio museum, fictional or factual, and this one looks especially good. I want this book to be made quite badly, because I want to see the museum.

This is good storytelling, and good art - on the strength of a single sentence and single image, I'm wondering about the rest of the story, and the rest of the pictures.

My incipient fangirling may be just because Zack Rock manages to hit all my aesthetic buttons - animals in clothes, windmills, hot-air balloons, books, Victorian curio museums, the cover of Coulton and Roderick's album - but I don't think so. I've read enough good picture books to feel semi-confident in my critical abilities, and I think Zack Rock's work is just flat-out good. I'm very keen to see what becomes of him and his fabulous art; I am hoping for very great things.

At the very least, he should be rewarded for using and spelling "piques" correctly on his website.

Postscript: Images posted/linked here are, of course, the sole and exclusive property of the artist, Zack Rock. But a few (too few!) prints by him are buyable through etsy. I think the Thoughtful Fox will be coming to my house before too much longer.

**For some reason, I seem unable to use anything but his two names at all times.

UPDATE: November is Picture Book Month!!!! How about that for synchronicity, or serendipity (which always sounds like the name of a sea monster), or coincidence?!  I'm slapping the Picture Book Month "ambassador" icon on the blog, not so much because I have passed the civil service exams and acquired diplomatic immunity, but because the icon is, um, really, really cute.
Now, go read some picture books. There are a ton of good ones out there.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Maurice Sendak was a great man

I've been terribly caught up in any number of things that have seriously cut into my book-reading and thinking time. I have been reading, just not as prodigiously as usual, and my thinking about what I've read has happened mainly in the interstices of busy busy days.

This interview with Maurice Sendak in the Believer is too good to not repost. Like everyone else on earth, I'm a fan of Sendak's work, but I am also a sincere admirer of him as a person, at least insofar as I can tell anything about him from interviews. I love his prickly curmudgeonliness. I love the things he says about children, and childhood, and parents. I love his love for art of many kinds. Along with being incredibly talented as an artist/illustrator and storyteller, Sendak was also a very, very smart person, and that intelligence is apparent in almost every sentence he speaks.

But it's the way he talks about children that gets me, every time; his attitude about and towards children seems very much in line with my own, and that isn't one I come across all that often (even within my own field of study). So to hear someone as important, intelligent, and talented as Maurice Sendak say things like "And now they have a child, and all they do is complain about not having time and having to get a job. Fuck you! Why didn’t you listen to me? We don’t need that baby." It's wonderful.
The best quote of all from this interview (and there are many good ones) makes me want to jump up and down with happiness, then go out and write it EVERYWHERE in the world, because it's true and smart and right.

I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.
Maurice Sendak: an honest, and great, man.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Coin flip!

I decided to flip a coin to pick which book to read first. Then, because it's a special occasion and I do enjoy being fancy, I decided to use one of my (many) coins from pre-Euro Europe. Except I can't remember where they are - the jar they used to be in is empty.

I knew there had to be an online coin-flipper, and there is. It lets you choose from any number of kinds of coins, and after some experimenting, I settled on Chinese 150 Yuan - Year of the Dragon.

Dragon side would be Fairyland (of course! too bad there's no coin with a wyverary on it); Great Wall side would be Necromancing the Stone.

I "flipped" .......................................................
and - ta-da!!!

I will be reading Necromancing the Stone first!

Monday, September 10, 2012

oh frabjous day!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an open letter to the universe, wishing that some very intensely anticipated new books would fall from the sky into my lap. Normally, when I make general requests to the universe, the universe gives me the silent treatment; I chalk this up to either an old family curse, or possibly some kind of ancient relic that I picked up in my travels, a dusty old object that has been cursed by a mummy or zombie or ancient pharaoh or some such.

But this time, the universe responded, in the form of a wonderful woman who emailed me and said "I can send you those books."

Once I got done recovering from whooping with joy, I sent off my mailing address and hoped I wasn't being scammed by a fake sub-saharan prince.

Today, a large parcel was waiting for me by my mailbox, after I came home from a rather discouraging meeting. I was a bit puzzled, because it was a large parcel, and two books are fairly small.
I opened the envelope to a very beautiful (and generous) sight:

I may have danced around my kitchen. I may have actually jumped for joy. I may even have gotten a little teary. I will neither confirm nor deny these things. I feel as if I should handle them while wearing spotless white cotton gloves, the kind museums and libraries insist upon when handling things like the Magna Carta.

BEHOLD!!! the shiny glory of Lish McBride's books!  I have a copy of Hold me Closer, Necromancer, but it's a different edition than the new one - now, having matching covers is unbelievably exciting. They are very hard to photograph - so shiny, so reflecting and refracting all over the place. But I LOVE these covers - they suit the book(s) so well [I am assuming Necromancing the Stone has at least a few things in common with Hold me Closer]. I re-read Hold me Closer this past spring, and when I finished I was, once again, feeling almost physical anticipation and eagerness to find out what happens next. [Yes. I am a huge, huge nerd about books. Very enthusiastic, as my student evaluations often mention].

And then the possibly even more beautiful covers of Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland books. The picture doesn't do justice to the gorgeous shade of violet on the cover of The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. It's an exquisite cover; the artist for these books (Ana Juan) does wonderful work. Thinking about what could be in this second Fairyland book gives me shivers.
Not only did I receive the new book, I was also sent a paperback copy (newly in paperback) of the first Fairyland book. I am thrilled about this; I have a hardback copy from teaching, but I've handled it rather gingerly, to keep it tidy. I have to say that, the more I think about it, the more I realize that Fairyland #1 is one of the best books to teach that I've ever taught. I enjoyed the book enormously the first two times I read it, but when I read it with my brain tuned for teaching - and then in actually discussing it in class - the book became almost overwhelmingly amazing and interesting and provocative. There is so much going on in it. I have a conference paper-length idea percolating about the book; we'll see if the second Fairyland alters things.

 Anyway, I'm very fussy about writing in my books. I had to train myself to write in my school books, and it still always hurts a little. Because I only had the one copy of Fairyland #1, I didn't want to mark it up at all - instead, I used sticky flags.

Lots and lots of sticky flags. I supplemented the sticky flags with handwritten reminders on a sheet of paper and some index cards, but the ideas were flying while I prepped for teaching this; really, I should have just flagged every single page. I got quite carried away teaching this book; it set off so many ideas, and made me realize so many things about stories and reading and fantasy and time and memory and nostalgia (some of which are things my dissertation thinks about). I was super-gratified to discover that my students also really enjoyed the book; many of them ended up choosing to write up it for various papers, as well, which made grading a bit less painful than usual.
 And now I have these two much-longed for, much-anticipated books, carefully resting on the cabinet in my study (which I cleaned and polished before setting the books on it, because, as noted above, I am a huge nerd about books). I have class tomorrow & thursday, which means my mind needs to be geared up for Hunger Games, and which also means I need to sleep, so I have to wait until Thursday after class to begin reading these. I know right now I won't do anything else once I begin.

The big problem, of course, the big decision that now faces me:

Which book do I read first?!?!?


Friday, September 07, 2012

Kiss me, Hardy

In 1805, much of Europe - and Great Britain - was embroiled in war - one phase of the Napoleonic wars. The combined fleets of France and its ally Spain were massed at Cadiz, and the British and their allies were growing nervous. Enter Horatio Nelson, Viscount of the Nile, with a scad of ships to command and some exceedingly clever, new battle tactics.
On 21 October 1805, the British met with French & Spanish fleet in battle - the Battle of Trafalgar, won by the British, and memorialized by the very famous Trafalgar Square and its statue of Nelson atop a column.
Nelson's rout of the Franco-Spanish fleet, whose losses included 18 ships, 6,000 killed or wounded, and over 20,000 taken prisoner, so stung Napoleon that he never initiated another naval campaign. The battle, and Nelson, became a large part of British national mythology. Nelson's death aboard the HMS Victory, captained by Thomas Hardy with whom Nelson had sailed since the mid-1790s, is a big part of that mythology; shot while on deck at the pitch of battle, Nelson hung on to life for three more hours, long enough to learn that a number of the enemy's ships had surrendered. Never under any illusions about the severity of his injury, Nelson prayed, asked to be remembered to friends and family, and, at the very end, said "Kiss me, Hardy," to his captain. Commonly believed to be his last words, "Kiss me, Hardy" was actually not the last thing Nelson said (it was the made-for-propaganda "god and my country"). But accuracy doesn't matter that much in national myths, and "Kiss me, Hardy," has resonance as the last words of one of the greatest British heroes.

"Kiss me, Hardy," has resonance throughout Elizabeth Wein's phenomenal Code Name Verity, as well. One of the brilliant but unusual aspects of Wein's book is that to discuss many details of it, even minor ones, is to destroy part of its effectiveness as a whole. Going into reading it, I knew nothing at all about the book except it was a WWII novel and people had said it was great.
I read it in about half a day; I forced myself to put it down for a few hours in the early evening, but by 10pm had picked it up again, and didn't stop until the very end. I cried my face off, almost continuously from about the midpoint to the end - but that's not giving anything away, either.
The main characters are young women (old teenagers, really) volunteering in the British War Effort around 1943. One is a pilot, supremely skilled at navigation and mechanical work; one is multi-lingual, exceedingly clever and quick on her feet, a great actress. Both become involved in secret operations - spy work, really - for the British. Wein makes wonderful use of Peter Pan, as well, something I always enjoy encountering, and in this case, enjoy even more, because Wein - unlike so many others - seems to get the tragedy at the heart of Peter Pan, the melancholy of it - and it's not that children have to grow up.

That's all I'll say, because again - to say more is to ruin the unfolding of the book, and its unfolding is a key part of the narrative. Wein's novel is one of those rare examples where the interdependent relationship of story and form is so great as to be absolutely unmistakable even to the least perceptive of readers. How the tale is told is always important, of course, but Code Name Verity takes that concept to glorious new heights.

It is not a short book, nor even a quick read, though I did run through it in a day (but I am a quick reader). Any passages that may feel too slow, too irrelevant, too random - they all pay off in the end, in quantity. You will turn back chapters to re-read passages, conversations, explanations, and you will get shivers down your spine as realization seeps in.

So far this year I haven't read as many great books as I would have liked (especially compared to last year's bumper crop). Railsea, this spring, was great, intellectually, creatively, imaginatively, literarily. Code Name Verity was great creatively, literarily, historically (Wein has clearly, clearly done her homework), but above all emotionally. Wein somehow manages to weave incredible depths of emotion - of all kinds, really - into her book; you get caught in the web almost instantly, and it only binds tighter as the novel progresses. It is a devastating read, and wonderful in its devastation.

I'll cast my vote now for Code Name Verity for every prize it could possibly receive. I don't think I've been so blasted, so pulled in and wrung out, by a novel since reading How to say goodbye in robot, and I think Code Name Verity has actually outdone even that. It's a far, far, far more meaningful meditation on famous last words than Looking for Alaska could ever hope to be.
Because in Wein's hands, those famous last words (that weren't, really, the last words at all) of Nelson's - that "Kiss me, Hardy" - take on an almost unbearable, haunting meaning, an emotional verity that outstrips almost anything else i can think of.

Kiss me, Hardy.
I'll leave a window open.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

the dead are very popular

I seem to be encountering a lot of (mostly ya) books about the dead. I just finished Charlie Price's Dead Connection, which I liked quite a lot, and which features a teenaged boy who can talk to the dead people in the cemetery he visits. After reading Sabriel earlier this summer (and being disappointed by it, unfortunately), I made a short list of books about the dead and/or necromancers, ones I've read fairly recently.

  • Daughter of Smoke & Bone
  • Sabriel
  • Hold me closer necromancer
  • Dead School
  • Adoration of Jenna Fox
  • Graveyard Book
  • Eva Ibbotson
  • If I stay (gayle forman)
  • Dead Connection
  • Lark - Tracey Porter
  • This is Not a Test - Courtney Summers
I was thinking about all these death-related stories, then realized - in one of those a-ha, oh DUH moments - that vampires and zombies are also dead. The undead count, in my reckoning of books about dead folks; to become a vampire or zombie, you have to die first, and you surely aren't alive in any normal sense once you've become zombified/vampire'd.
So what's with this? Why this massive surge of popularity in the dead/undead? Vampires have always been popular, it's true; Twilight is just the latest mode. But zombies have gotten very popular in the last few years, as well - and they have not always been popular. There have been a number of books concerned with necromancers, or their equivalents (people who can raise/interact with/alter the dead, even if they aren't explicitly named necromancer).
Can this be attributed to anything? Is there something about the current cultural moment that draws us more to the dead/undead than usual?
I'm not sure. It's perplexing, and vaguely disturbing (but not really that disturbing, because I am okay with stories about the dead and undead and necromancers). but it does seem to be a kind of trend, and thus worth thinking about.
What does having the dead/undead in your story get you? what do these kinds of characters and plots force us to think about? can we understand these kinds of beings - zombies, etc - as metaphors, or symbols? 
I wonder. I don't have any hypotheses at the moment; it's just that my attention has snagged on all these dead/undead themed books. Or maybe I'm seeing a pattern that doesn't exist - maybe I've been drawn to them because i encountered a few, and now I'm looking for a trend? Though it does seem worth noting the fairly recent publication dates of many of these books....

why the focus on the dead, the undead, and the necromancer?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

necromancing the swag

I love book-related swag. LOVE. IT.  And so I was really excited to see Lish McBride kicking around the idea of swag for the upcoming  Necromancing the Stone.

the hour of swag is almost upon us, and if you want in, there's a kickstarter.

I have contributed. Yes. Despite my deep suspicion of kickstarter projects, this is one I feel great supporting. I also happen to know, because she tweets about it, that Lish McBride has a day job in addition to writing, so this isn't just about making money for her to roll around on while she lights candles with hundred-dollar bills.

BOOK SWAG IS THE BEST.  If you have a few dollars and like Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (and you should, because it's amazing), pop over to kickstarter and drop some change in the piggybank. There are neato swag prizes for donating, in addition to generating product.

If only ALL my best-beloved books/writers would kickstart swag!! Just think - Philip Pullman swag? designs from those gorgeous 2002 Knopf editions of his Dark Materials?  Or awesome stuff based on Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland books? Diana Wynne Jones swag?

oh, the possibilities!
But the Necromancer swag is on the verge of becoming reality, and YOU can make it happen! go kickstart!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Open letter to the Universe, especially feiwel & friends and henry holt & co

Dear Universe (and especially the fine people at Feiwel&Friends and Henry Holt&Co publishing):

In a year that has been exceptionally filled with disappointment and not getting what I want, I make this plea, a true cri de coeur:

I want, I cryingly want, ARCs of The girl who fell beneath fairyland & led the revels there by Catherynne M. Valente and/or Necromancing the Stone by Lish McBride.

I loved the first book in each series, by each of these women who are fantastic storytellers, clever and witty word-players, and wonderful writers. I taught the first Fairyland book to my Introduction to literature classes, and they really liked it. I have every intention of teaching Hold Me Closer, Necromancer when I next get an opportunity. On my recommendation, a friend of mine read it and included it in her syllabus for The Gothic Imagination.

I do not have a megaphone or a large, well-attended platform from which to speak, but I do what I can to introduce as many people as possible to the books I really love - which include Valente's and McBride's.

I expect to have rather a grind of it this autumn, for a number of reasons, many having to do with the year filled with disappointment and not getting what I want. i understand these things happen to everyone, but they have been happening to me at a rather rapid rate in the last few years.

I am looking forward to the publication of both Valente's and McBride's books this fall (along with Lemony Snicket's newest!). Reading these books will be a very bright sunny spot in an overcast semester. And yet - I am seriously broke. I will be earning half of what I made last year, and that was below the poverty line. I make use of the library like a fiend, but these books I anticipate having to fight for - or rather, wait for. And being left out of the conversations, the blog posts, the interviews and articles (to protect myself from even the tiniest of spoilers) - well, that makes me deeply sad. It makes it harder for me to do my job of being informed, well-read, and engaged in my field (children's and YA literature).

I am trying to finish my dissertation this fall. It will be a slog. I am teaching more students for less money. I am having to take out more student loans than I have had to in quite a few years. None of this makes me special, of course; it just makes me unhappy (and broke). But books! oh books! Book people know how comforting and joyous new books are, especially ones by beloved authors or in beloved series. Reading a great new book is a relief of the spirit, the heart, and the mind.  Reading is not just what I do for pleasure or fun; it is also my job. My vocation, so to speak.

Thus the desire for ARCs.
Thus this pleading, probably desperate and pitiful, open letter.

I am willing to cast aside my pride and dignity in the cause of these books.

most sincerely,


Thursday, August 09, 2012

Context is key

A really interesting and smart post from David Haberstich, cataloguing editor/coordinator at the Smithsonian, about how to handle sensitive subjects, particularly focusing on race: "Confrontational Curator, Cowardly Cataloguer."

Haberstich's post seems particularly interesting and relevant to me when placed alongside Stephen Marche's essay in the NYTimes about reading racist materials to kids, which I discuss (at great length; I had a lot to say) in this post.

It seems clearer and clearer to me that - while outrage, disgust, anger about certain kinds of images and representations are totally legitimate - the solution is never to hide or conceal or deny those representations. Museums have the responsibility of providing context, which makes the jobs of curators, exhibit planners, etc, difficult, but it isn't too often that I've come across instances of recent exhibits in reputable institutions (creationist museums are not reputable, in my book) that seek to glorify, valorize, excuse, or justify racist representations on display. It's important to see some of this crap - the appalling racist cartoons and caricatures, the books, the scripts, the short films, whatever - because those things really happened, they really exist, and pretending racist history didn't happen is not going to make racism go away. Pretending slavery didn't occur, wasn't predicated on racism, pseudoscience, greed, a dozen other things - none of that is going to mean that slavery didn't happen.

Maybe there's a parallel with representations of the Holocaust. I'm not totally sure, but it does seem to me that a great many people work very hard to make sure the horrors of Nazism and genocidal anti-Semitism and the "Final Solution" stay in front of people's eyes. Yeah, it's awful to see rabbis scrubbing anti-Semitic graffiti from their own synagogues, using toothbrushes, while kicked and spit on by Nazis. The grotesque propaganda churned out by Hitler and his minions is ugly as anything - but it really happened. It's really real, and we need to know, all the time, that these things did happen, and can happen, and do happen. Hiding history behind complaints of insensitivity doesn't serve anyone's interests except deniers, racists, and fools. 

Monday, August 06, 2012

Owl Services

 The first time I read Alan Garner's The Owl Service, it was in this edition, to the left (and I quite love the design of the cover, as well as what I understand of the book, which frankly isn't all that much).

The Owl Service was inspired by this piece of dinnerware, below, which someone gave to Alan Garner, who saw Owls in it, and got obsessed/fascinated, and evidently learned Welsh along the way to writing his novel, which is - among other things - a kind of retelling of the Mabinogi story about Blodeuwedd and Lleu Llaw Gyffes.

Today, while poking around a Marshall's store, I spotted these bowls, and immediately had to have them. My bowl needs are not pressing at the moment, though I can always use another cereal bowl, but my need to have my very own Owl Service bowls was very strong indeed. 
Owls or flowers? Flowers or owls?

Sunday, August 05, 2012

O Canada

Since my fairly recent revelation that Australian YA is amazing (Margo Lanagan, Markus Zusak, Melina Marchetta, Simmone Howell, Gabrielle Williams, etc), I have been thinking about other non-British, non-American Anglophone literatures. I finally got it together and started creating a list of Canadian children's/YA books to read, primarily culled from Canadian literary awards sites like the Canadian Children's Book Centre.

My most recent trek to the library got me two titles by Catherine Austen, both of which I have now read. Walking Backward, Austen's debut middle-grade (MG) novel, was quite good, much better than its cover copy suggested it might be. The narrator of the book, Josh, is a 12-year-old whose mom has recently died in a car accident (she was distracted by a small snake in the car; she had an intense snake-phobia, and rammed her car into a tree at high speed); Josh has a four-and-a-half year old brother, Sammy, and a seemingly-absent(minded) father who is "coping" with his wife's death by building a time machine in the basement. Josh is a bright kid - his mom was a university professor of medieval literature who read him Beowulf and Grail myths when he was small - and his narrative is peppered with facts and information, often - but not solely - about religious practices surrounding death. Josh is not searching for faith, but he is cycling through the various practices, thinking about applying them to his own grieving process, while trying to take care of the house and all the "mom" things, along with consoling his little brother and himself.
Walking Backward isn't laugh-out-loud funny, but neither is it weepy-sad. Josh's sense of loss comes through loud and clear, but so do all his anger, confusion, irritation, at having lost not just the relationship with his mom, but the person in the family who ran the household. Josh's dad has always been useless, Josh reveals (he mentions, specifically, things like cleaning the cats' litterbox, and doing laundry and cooking, as well as things like scheduling Sammy's kindergarten orientation and buying new back-to-school clothes), and so Josh is picking up the slack.
Because the book is written journal-style (and is meant to be the journal "prescribed" by the psychiatrist the family is seeing), we have to do some reading between the lines to get a sense of how and what Josh really is, and those moments of revelation are particularly effective. For instance, when Josh blurts out to various people "Did you put the snake in my mom's car?" or when he notes that he wrote to the Darwin Awards people, asking (worrying) if his mom's death qualifies her for one.
Walking Backward is a fairly short book, but for all it's seemingly sad subject material, is very charming and enjoyable. Austen handles Josh's voice really well; he's smart, he's knowledgeable, but he's also 12, so he worries about his little brother being pegged as a weirdo, and whether Karen, who kissed him right before going off to summercamp, still likes him. There's a sense of humor, not exactly a lightheartedness, but something akin to it, underlying Josh's voice: he sees the odd and the interesting and the annoying and the sad and considers it all in his assessment of the world around him. There's also a great deal of serious thought about how to honor and remember the dead we love, and Josh's trial and error through the mourning practices of a number of religions until he and his brother and dad ultimately find ways to memorialize and memorize their mom that are entirely their own.

The other Austen book I read was the Canadian Children's Book Centre's 2012 Best YA - All Good Children. It's quite a good dystopic novel that manages to avoid some of the cliches and tropes we're seeing a lot of these days in the boom of YA dystopias. It wasn't until the very end of Austen's book, actually, that I realized that it's thematically (and even situationally) quite similar to Pam Bachorz's very good YA novel Candor. I'll say now that I really liked both All Good Children  and Candor, and thought they share a similar basic premise - controlling children's minds to ensure obedience and a certain kind of behavior - they handle it differently, and more importantly, contextualize it differently.

All Good Children has some good futuristic quirks - fuel is so expensive that not many people own cars anymore; cars have been largely converted to "housing" for the thousands of poor people of New Middletown, where Max, his mom, and his little sister Ally live. New Middletown, it turns out, is a company town: Chemrose, a company which - among other things - runs massive geriatric housing units, one of which employs Max's mom. New Middletown is racially interesting; Max's mom is dark-skinned, and his dad (who died a few years earlier) was white. Max and Ally are definitely dark but lighter than their mom, but what's especially interesting is that - narrated by Max - "white" ends up appearing as a kind of pejorative. Sometimes non-white skin colors are described or noted, but white always is; it's a small but nice touch of defamiliarization and rearrangement of contemporary racial/social practice.
Max is a bit of a jerk - he's not quite 16, he's a bit mouthy, he loves to screw around in class - pranks, jokes, making fun of people, tormenting substitutes, graffiti (including stealing art supplies from the school). He's also not above taking advantage of Ally's "slowness" - she's not severely mentally disabled, but she's definitely slow; she's also only six years old - early on there's a scene when Max messes with Ally to steal her bag of chips on a flight home. It's not until quite late in the novel that Max realizes that his actions may be negatively affecting people; Austen's smart and clever enough not to make this some huge life-changing revelation, more a moment of "wow, I never thought of that," accompanied by a sense of some unease and slightly guilt or regret. But that's not some huge Life Lesson Max needs to learn, because basically he's a good kid who does care about his little sister (he walks her to school every day, takes her to the park, humors her quirks) and his friends.
New Middletown has started something called Nesting, an acronym for a program that involves drugging the city's children into submissiveness. All the kids, from the little ones through the oldest high schoolers, receive the shot, which is still in early phases; there are a number of rather grotesque physical and mental reactions to the shot, especially in kids who already take prescriptions. Through sheer luck - being out of town to attend a funeral - Ally has missed the first week of school, when the kids her age received their shots. Max and Ally - through their own trickery and their mom's work as a nurse - are able to avoid getting the shots, remaining "unzombiefied."
All Good Children is quite an interesting setup - New Middletown is one large section in what appears to be a significantly reordered political and geographical world. The city is essentially locked down within itself, and though we don't get much detail, it seems to be owned and run by the Chemrose company. Gradually, shady bits of information about Chemrose make their way into the narrative, along with other things: curtailed civil rights, widespread surveillance, a variety of untruths about the outside world aimed at building up New Middletown's nationalism as well as enabling the surveillance and other restrictions - and ultimately, the drugging of the children.
The novel is a great examination about the early days of a major shift in politics and policing, and control of the populace; we see all the slow-to-catch-on folks, the disbelievers, the conspiracy theorists, the resisters, the collaborators in all their many forms. Max, who has always been a bit out of control, is a perfect candidate for narrator and resister against the ultimate scheme in discipline; he's also an artist, and one of his works becomes hugely important for a variety of reasons in a super-nice touch by Austen.
One of the other aspects of All Good Children that I loved is its relative lack of romance narrative. There's a girl who Max is interested in, but she's a fairly minor character and in fact vanishes from the text by the midpoint. Max's energies are focused around himself, his mom and sister, and his best friend Dallas (who is himself a fascinating character: he's an "ultimate," an expensive genetically engineered kid who by all rights should be a golden boy, but his repulsive father loathes him, and he's on the receiving end of a good deal of emotional, if not physical, abuse. Dallas has occasional episodes of blank red rage that frighten even emotionally-mercurial Max, but then he also has moments of Golden Boy glory. He's a pretty great character in a lot of ways).
Max isn't some perfect guy out to save the day; he's essentially selfish (as is our old pal Katniss Everdeen), protecting the people he cares about the most and not worrying so much about the rest. But he is made deeply uneasy by life in the zombie world of the "Nested" kids, which does give him a bit of a sense of understanding or empathy of the larger stakes at play. Max never loses his edge of jerkishness, either; he gets angry easily, he's pissed at his mom and the world for "allowing" the drugging, he gets snarky with Ally, with Dallas, with his neighbor Xavier. But rather than pitch his story as one of overcoming his juvenile jerkishness, or one where that jerkishness saves the day, Austen wisely allows it to be one component of Max's character, one aspect that is accompanied by many others. We don't like him in spite of, or because of his jerkishness; we like him because he has a whole host of likeable or interesting characteristics, which - as in real, non-ink-based humans - help make up for the jerky moments.

All Good Children makes for a very compelling and thought-provoking read, as well as being one that's simply enjoyable and gripping for all the reasons any good dystopia is enjoyable and gripping: a plot that moves, characters that are well-crafted and engaging, high stakes, a well-developed other world (ie, the world of the dystopia), a good balance of story and philosophizing or politicizing. It was a terrific read, and a book I'd like to own (which is pretty high recommendation from me, since my book-buying budget is miniscule).
Austen definitely ranks highly on my list of Good Contemporary Authors, and I will be looking out more of her books in the future.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

a gift on my birthday

My birthday is at the end of June, and this year happened to coincide with ALA. I was lucky enough to attend one ALA, years ago in Atlanta; I don't have the finances to go again, but maybe someday....
At any rate, on the day of my birthday, Little, Brown tweeted a contest - 25 sets of Why We Broke Up magnets to those who couldn't attend ALA.
Because I love Maira Kalman's art, and I quite enjoyed Why We Broke Up, I emailed as instructed, shamelessly referencing my birthday. To my absolutely delighted surprise, a few days later I got an email from Little, Brown, asking for my mailing address so they could send me the magnets.


They're lovely, of course, and I'm excited to have won something (I don't do a whole lot of winning). I LOVE having book-related things - tie-ins sounds so corporate and capitalistic, so I don't like using that phrase - and I love that the magnets highlight Kalman's art, which is half of why the book is so great. I'd love to see more book projects like that one (and more magnets to accompany them?)

So, many thanks to Little, Brown for publishing Why We Broke Up, for creating such a charming magnet set, and for choosing to send one of those sets to me.
I love them!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

now you've made me angry

Waiting in line at the grocery store, I saw this issue of Newsweek on the stand. I was trying to figure out who the woman playing soccer was, and then I noticed the smaller headline above her.
And I got angry. Really, really angry.


My very first coherent thought, once the bubbles of red rage subsided, was "What an awful thing to say!"

I keep coming back to this as I try to sort out just why I'm so angry and what to do about it - how to translate my anger into something like policy or philosophy or even just a personal opinion. And ultimately, it's that this is an awful thing to say.

How would you like to be told you were "Generation Screwed"? How would you like to be told that when you're 22, just finished college, struggling to find a job? Or when you're 26 and you've been out of school for several years and are working a menial job that barely pays the bills, because there's nothing else? How would you like to be told that your 18-year-old child, who you're about to pack off to school, is screwed?

The meanness of this is breathtaking. It's the exclamation point at the end that really does it, I think - there's something kind of gleeful about the declaration - you're screwed! ha!
Actually, what that assertion should mean is, if you're over 35, you need to take a good long look at what you've done to contribute to the screwing-over of the people coming up behind you. If you've done the kind of damage that leaves over 22% of the population "screwed," then you ought to be Generation Ashamed.

I won't bother finding examples of Bright Young People Making A Difference. Those stories are boring, and they distract us from real problems. You can always find instances of people succeeding when others are struggling, and usually the main keys to their success are luck, luck, luck, and privilege. Nor do I need to point out all the things working against this cohort - those statistics are easy enough to find (un/underemployment, etc etc etc).

What I will say is: telling 22%+ of the population that they're screwed is appallingly mean-spirited and irresponsible. It works to cast that cohort in a position either of despair or fault, neither of which is helpful to anyone. What kind of future can you imagine when you're told your entire generation is screwed? Especially when you've been raised, and lived your whole life, being told that You Can Achieve Anything, if you Just Work Hard Enough. Or if you've been told that Education Is The Key, so you take on student loans, only to be told after graduation that - you're screwed! (oh, that exclamation point is making my blood boil).

That headline ought to say: How we've screwed the 18-35 generation.
Or, even more productively, How to help 18-35 year olds

Mean-spiritedness aside, the you're screwed headline absolves anyone of responsibility - it isn't passive voice but it might as well be. It's wildly unproductive, too - when faced with a problem, pointing out the problem isn't helpful. It's like an onlooker standing on the sidewalk and saying: You're trapped in a burning building! when what he should be doing is calling 911, and looking for other ways to help.

The media's habit of crapping on teenagers has, I've noticed, been creeping upward in age. It's not just teenagers, it's early twentysomethings, it's "millennials," it's ages 18-35.  The rhetoric of reproach and scolding tone hasn't changed, though the fear is less prominent in the talk about post-teenaged young people. Now, the discourse is no longer about how dangerous and irresponsible the young people are, it's about how they're just hopeless and screwed and, maybe, just maybe, deserve it. Borrowing all that student loan money? Irresponsible! Not able to pay your bills? Well, why do you think you should live well? There's a misplaced recrimination here for a perceived sense of entitlement, I think - as if millions of un and underemployed young people are really just whining about not being able to borrow the car on Friday night.

The hell of this all is that the younger end of the 18-35 range don't know they're screwed, and won't believe it when they're told. I saw this with my (fairly privileged) freshmen last fall; they all dismissed the Occupy Wall Street concerns dealing with young people's issues (underemployment, low pay, crushing student debt), and confidently told me that all you had to do was work hard and want a job badly enough, and you'd get it.
They have no idea what's coming.

The real problems to be solved are large and bulky and systemic, just the kind that no one ever wants to deal with. These problems are also ones brought about by the policies and practices of our beloved blessed baby boomers, who appear to be a group of people unable to either accept blame or let someone else sit at the table to work things out.

In a way, though, 18-35 year-olds have always been generation screwed, because - as I have said before, and will continue to say - there is just about no one advocating for them. Once children stop being little, the children's advocacy groups lose interest in them, and then no one cares for a couple of decades, until you become a soccer mom or member of the AARP.
And in the meanwhile, you're screwed, while the very people who screwed you point fingers gleefully.

Friday, July 13, 2012

constructing The Adult

I want to try out an idea. I might be crazy, or this might already have been done - if so, I really, really hope someone will point it out to me. It's something I've been thinking about, in the back of my mind, for well over a year - since teaching Representing Adolescence, and even before then, in tiny embryonic form.
Where it goes is kind of a surprise to me, because I've always been very much of the belief that kids are an oppressed other, that the things we think about children are bad for children, etc. A child-centric view. It's also one that focuses almost entirely on the middle-class, or what passes it for it today; these things do not necessarily apply to those living in or near poverty. But then, our definition of The Child comes from the middle- and upper-classes; the factory worker child or climbing boy isn't the child we think of when we imagine The Child. So there's a huge class problem here, and I'm not trying to avoid it; it's just not part of the current equation of thinking.

So here it is: I think the way we've constructed adulthood against and alongside our construction of childhood is bad for adults. It's bad for children, too, but it's also bad for adults. In the same way that sexism is bad for women and men, so too is our adoration of The Child bad for the child and the grownup.

Disclaimer of sorts: Children, actual children, are still very much an oppressed group in most legal, economic, and political ways. To be a child is to be entirely at the mercy of the adults both local and national (and international, really), without a voice - and that is no good place to be.

But socially, culturally, we've made children into the repository of almost everything good in life. Think about it: when we talk about the way The Child is popularly constructed, we use words like innocent, carefree, playful, natural, free or unrestrained, curious, imaginative. These are all loaded terms, of course, but for the most part they are also positive terms. Who doesn't want to be carefree and unrestrained and imaginative? [okay - there are people who don't want these things. but I'm thinking about our mainstream cultural connotations here].  Even innocence is given positive value, it's seen as a virtue - it doesn't just mean unknowing or virginal, it also means something like trusting, uncynical, believing, unaware of, or protected from, the bad things of this world.

It's easy to see how these are bad things for children, and if you can't figure it out for yourself, there's a ton of writing on the subject for you to read (I recommend, as always, James Kincaid, particularly Erotic Innocence).
It's also been fairly easy to unravel the way that our adoration of youth and youth culture has been bad for women (Kincaid unpacks this very quickly and tidily, in talking about the infantilization of women as sex objects).

But we don't seem to talk much about the blowback these attitudes have for adults. When we're little, we all want to be older. But by college, or so it seems, no one's too eager to fast-forward the clock. Part of the crippling nostalgia we seem to indulge in more and more is provoked, I think, by the fact that we have established childhood as so ideal that adulthood looks like a misery by comparison.

One of the reasons we get freaked out by the toddlers in tiaras is that they are little girls staged as adult women. Yes, sexualized kids is creepy as all get-out; but we also talk about kids who have "grown up too soon," in a very tragic way, as if this is the worst thing that can happen to them.

There are positives to adulthood that adults can identify - you can drink, you can have sex, you can drive a car and set your own bedtime - but they are often counterweighted by some accompanying problem: you can have sex, but babies. diseases. relationships. cheating. You can drive, but fossil fuels and the cost of gas and car repairs and you mostly only drive to work. You can go to bed later, but you're so tired from your day at work and driving and paying bills and grocery shopping that those later hours are just glassy-eyed tv-watching.

Sex and drinking do have negatives, but both are a kind of play, and play is revoked once we pass out of childhood. Right now, Comic Con is going on - thousands of adults convening in san diego to dress up like steampunk gentlemen and anime girls and slave Leia and Batman and Pokemon. And it's become a huge big deal, and grown in popularity. It's a socially-sanctioned playspace for grownups, and not all of the play is about sex, either.
Videogames are another place where we can see play breaking through - gamers aren't just kids and teenagers and slackers in their early 20s. All the multiplayer games and create-your-own-character games and whatnot - those again are all forms of imaginative play. They invite the player to play on several different layers, and millions of adults are happily doing this, and receiving less and less censure from the culture at large.

But we still see adulthood as a fairly rigid, square space. It's all the things childhood isn't - it's restrained, it's not free, it's not innocent (it's knowing, it's experienced, it's jaded), it's artificial. The kind of artistic and playful imagination and curiosity we encourage in young children is not valued once it's being practiced by adults.

I think right now we're seeing some pushback from adults - Comic Con and videogames and the boom in popularity of children's & YA literature, the boom of people doing creative artsy things, even poorly, making their own steampunk hats and goggles and whatnot. There's a huge drive to play that we've repressed for a long time, and I think people are reaching out for that playspace. There's still a lot of resistance to the idea of grownups as play-full, though; play as we conceive of it for children is seen as frivolous. Adults need to be serious. This is a demand of capitalism - play doesn't generate money. Work, the "opposite" of play, does.

There's a lot more to be said here, but this is long enough, and I am really curious about anyone's thoughts on the subject. I may be way off, making things up to stretch a point in the dissertation, or to justify my own issues.

But I do think that, as with most binaries, the one we've constructed of The Child/The Adult needs to be complicated, broken down, made multiple and varied, queered.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Sequels, Crushes and Dalemark

I've been binge-reading Diana Wynne Jones again lately; I think it's because she's my go-to comfort reading, and in this dissertation/conference-heavy summer, I need some comforting. I've also been prompted by the DWJ2012 tumblr to think more about how her books work for me.

I just finished The Crown of Dalemark, the fourth book in the Dalemark quartet. The first time I tried a Dalemark book, I struggled with it, and felt disappointed. The fantasy of it felt wrong; I was expecting fantasy more in the lines of Chrestomanci or Howl. Of course I gave the books another go-round, and by the time I read The Crown of Dalemark for the first time, I was thoroughly smitten.

Diana Wynne Jones (I always think her full name, like Nick does with Maxwell Hyde) is a tricky one with sequels. At first I hated it; now, I'm come to admire and in most cases enjoy her sequel-making habits. The tricksy part is this: our hero/protagonist of the first book is very rarely the main character of the sequel. In fact, it can take chapters and chapters to find a meaningful connection between the first and second books. Chrestomanci is an exception; a perfect example is Deep Secret and The Merlin Conspiracy. Deep Secret ends in our own world, and is almost entirely narrated by Rupert Venables and Maree Mallory. The Merlin Conspiracy opens in another world entirely - Blest, which feels much like high-fantasy - following an entirely new set of characters, and is narrated by Roddy. We have to go in quite a ways before we encounter Nick, Maree's half-brother; he makes brief mention of Maree and Rupert, then we never hear of them again.
I've come to think of the way she structures her sequels as Related Worlds, rather than true sequels.

But Dalemark is a bit different; the first two books are building toward the fourth; the third is seriously deep history of Dalemark. Reading them in sequence, right after each other, can be a little frustrating; Moril is just setting off at the end of Cart & Cwidder, and then Drowned Ammet starts in an entirely new location with a whole new main character - and never even mentions Moril.
You have to work to get to the payoff, but when you get there, it's huge.

The Crown of Dalemark may be the book by Diana Wynne Jones I've found most personally affecting; I get all kinds of teary at the end, even on multiple re-reads. It's just such a gorgeously-written and emotionally honest book - as well as being structurally honest. Maewen's time-traveling doesn't pull punches; like Margaret Mahy's Maddigan's Fantasia, visitors from the future have to go back to their own time. There's no clever way around it. Thinking about it, I realize my reaction to the end of The Crown of Dalemark is very like my reaction to the end of The Amber Spyglass, a book I have had to stop rereading because of the buckets of tears it produces from me.

On the DWJ2012 tumblr, there has been more than one post quoting Diana on the subject of Howl:
And the procession of people, which was enormous already, has increased--doubled and tripled--of all the people who want to marry Howl. Now it seems to me that Howl would be one of the most dreadful husbands one could possibly imagine.
I was amused to read this; I've always had a crush on Howl, and it makes me happy to think of thousands of readers around the world similarly crushing on this fictional wizard from Wales. I've never particularly wanted to marry Howl, though; my fictional crushes are restricted to, well, being fictional. But reading this, and realizing I don't want to marry Howl, made me wonder: If I had to pick a Diana Wynne Jones character to marry, who would it be? 

And of course, the answer is: Mitt. He's an incredibly well-crafted character, and interestingly crafted, as well; he has all kinds of useful skills - fishing and sailing and finding directions by stars and eluding pursuers - but they're all hard-earned skills resulting from work. A childhood of labor makes Mitt the resourceful and handy person he is, not some kind of obnoxious inherent talent for everything. He's complicated; he's both emotional and rational; he's kind, even when he's trying to be nasty. He laughs and jokes, in earnest and to cover his real feelings. He has great ideas - big ideas - without even realizing he has them. And, though it's used against him in Drowned Ammet, he actually is a free spirit; Mitt does what Mitt thinks is right. And yes - Old Ammet and Libby Beer are pushing at him, but we're given the sense that Mitt could also walk away. He's given choices by the Undying (who themselves are limited by The One).

A few moments in the book stand out as particularly wonderful, either because of Diana Wynne Jones's genius for saying so much in a few words, or because of Mitt's awesomeness. For example: "Mitt slid his hand carefully down Maewen's arm and took hold of her hand. It was the most momentous and the most exciting thing he had ever done in his life."  Up until this point, we get small, almost businesslike, glimpses of Mitt's feelings about Maewen; he refers to it as "calf-love," and tries to shrug it off. It's not a major topic of conversation or exposition. But that line - "it was the most momentous and the most exciting thing he had ever done in his life" - tells us everything. And it somehow perfectly captures that feeling - strongest in adolescence, but not restricted to it by any means - of momentousness that comes with the first expression of love.

Maewen's grief after returning to her own time is also a masterpiece of writing: "Grief thundered down on her, hard and continuous as the waterfall at Dropwater. ... Even with both taps full on, the water did not pour as fiercely as grief poured on Maewen. ... She found she remembered things about Mitt she had not even known she had seen until now."

the water and the grief - it's a gorgeous mixing of the two, and feels even more significant because of the importance water plays in all four books. Water and rivers and the sea and the gods and the Undying and the One - all mixed in with Maewen's grief and loss. It's beautiful, and heartbreaking.

And then there's the message, the huge romantic sentiment, that reveals more of Mitt's feelings for her: "He named a whole palace after me, and I'll never be able to say thank you!"

Because of the time disjuncture, and Maewen's sense of grief at this point, Mitt's naming of the palace doesn't come off as corny or hokey or sentimental. We know he can't have built or named the palace for several years after Maewen returns to her own time; we know he's been thinking about her for years. The act of naming registers as important, as something physically tremendous and important to stand for something emotionally tremendous and important.

Everything Mitt does up until this point is, to me anyway, appealing and charming and crush-worthy, but the naming of the palace reveals an even greater depth of character and a new facet of his personality, and it is this, I think, that makes him my choice for most marriageable Diana Wynne Jones character.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

myths and the merlin conspiracy

I'm re-reading (for the zillionth time) The Merlin Conspiracy, because I don't have a to-read list going this summer. And I keep sighing over its wonderful complexity, and the huge range of myth and folklore Diana Wynne Jones manages to cram into that book.

I taught it in Myth & Folktale class, where it was either not read, or read and reviled by those philistines. It was crushing for me, because I always want my students to enjoy their readings; because I love DWJ and can't abide criticism of her books; and because it includes so many aspects of myth and folktale that we'd already talked about in class.

Some of the myth/folklore elements in the book, in no particular order:
  • Arthurian legend (The Merlin, the Count of Blest)
  • Welsh legend (Gwyn ap Nud)
  • British faerie beings (Little People, the invisible people, etc)
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth's Red and White Dragons myth (which, yes, is related to Arthurian legend, but is also its own thing)
  • flower lore (speedwell, mullein, purple vetch...)
  • city lore (Salisbury, Old Sarum, Manchester in a red dress)
  • totem or spirit animals
  • standard magic lore (earth magics, etc)
  • basic fairytale motifs (things happening in threes, especially the "rules" of the dark paths)
The abundance of magics and folklore in the book sometimes makes me think it's an even richer, more complex text than I already know it to be, as if perhaps somehow Diana Wynne Jones was able to work an actual spell into or with her book, that perhaps the combination of all those elements works like alchemy to produce something Else, something Other, something beyond the everyday alchemy of fiction and reading.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

NPR YA poll/survey

NPR is polling for best YA novels; leave your five top choices in comments (annoying login required; it's relatively quick and painless).

You can list an entire series as one choice (ie, Hunger Games trilogy), or just a single title from a series (Mockingjay).

I "voted" for Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness, My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak, and Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride. This is almost a random selection of the recent YA titles I love best; I couldn't pick an absolute top 5 of all time.

I think it would be awesome to do a bit of culture jamming and push some really fantastic titles through the poll, not just the most popular titles (ie, Twilight, Hunger Games). Chaos Walking would be my pick for culture-jamming title of choice, followed by I am the Messenger (based on personal preference and literary quality). But I'm curious to see the results of this survey, and I think everyone with an intelligent, informed opinion should vote.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Calm your nostalgia! Or, Aslan as giraffe

The always-brilliant Monica Edinger linked to this article in the Guardian today, yet another writer (Alison Flood) bemoaning the disappearance of (her) beloved childhood literature.
A new survey from the University of Worcester, conducted online on 500 children between the ages of seven and 14, has found that "classic children's literary heroes are dying out". Only 45% of the children questioned had heard of Alice in Wonderland and 8% of Mary Lennox. Nearly a fifth of the kids thought CS Lewis's wardrobe led to The Secret Garden, while 8% thought it led to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory; 10% thought Long John Silver was in Peter Pan and 18% thought Matilda lived in the Swiss Alps.
Actually, Long John Silver is in Peter Pan, at least referentially; he's referenced at least once, probably twice - as the Sea Cook. We also get a mention in PP of Flint, the old pirate captain of the Walrus, who terrorized everyone except Long John Silver. Then, of course, is the fact that Barrie was explicitly and cheerfully homage/imitating Stevenson's novel.

Alice, Treasure Island, the Secret Garden, Peter Pan are all well over 100 years old. What 100+ year-old novels are most adults still reading? Thomas Hardy fans, where are you?

According to the article, the survey reported that "18% of children thought Aslan was a giraffe," an idea which amuses Flood and delights me; Flood also writes that "I'm not going to worry that only 4% of the children had read Huckleberry Finn, and that the majority hadn't read Gulliver's Travels: those two books are classics, and just as suitable for adults."

Clutching my head and shrieking (silently) - WHEN will people learn that Gulliver's Travels was never a children's book? And that Huck Finn isn't one, either?  I know there are Junior Illustrated Classics of both littering up the dwindling children's section of bookstores; this doesn't mean Gulliver and Huck are for children. Gulliver in particular is a complex social/political satire - an 18th century satire, written in 1725, one of the earliest English novels - why should anyone aged 14 or younger have read it? Only a child prodigy, or a prodigious reader, should be reading either book at such young ages, and even then, the complexity of both texts demands a breadth of knowledge and experience (both social and literary) that most younger readers just don't have.
Flood doesn't mind that these "just as suitable for adults" books aren't being read by kids, because "they won't be forgotten," (as if that's the most important thing?) But she wallows in nostalgia, and drags us along with her, in the next paragraph:
More depressing, though, is that some of the novels that defined my childhood, by Arthur Ransome (Swallows and Amazons), E Nesbit (The Railway Children) and LM Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables) are, according to the survey, scarcely read these days. Heidi, too, is fading into obscurity, apparently, and it makes me sad that children aren't being mesmerised, like I was, by the thought of the wind in the fir trees outside the grandfather's house...
Again, these are books that are close to 100 years old. Ransome's was published in 1930; Anne showed up in 1908, and The Railway Children right around 1900. There's not a thing wrong with old books - I myself adore them - but when I was a kid, probably not too many years off from Flood's childhood, I certainly wasn't reading 100-year-old books; I'd never even heard of E. Nesbit until I was in college. And I turned out just fine, better than fine, in fact, since I've been collecting degrees in English literature focusing on 100-year-old children's books.

Flood does redeem herself by writing, at the end, that "my feeling is that you can encourage kids to read, you can wave the books you loved in front of them in the hope they'll love them too, but in the end they'll find their own favourites."
I wish this had been the highlight of the article, instead of buried in the final paragraph. We seem to have this idea that if children now aren't having the childhoods we nostalgically remember/imagine for ourselves, then somehow they aren't doing it right. But memory is notoriously  faulty, and anyway - children's childhoods now aren't about us. It's not about our nostalgia or our favorite books. I see this over and over, in popular writing about children's literature especially; adults, parents, can't seem to get over themselves and their own childhood nostalgia. It's horribly unfair to actual children, and it's narcissistic to a revolting extreme.

Yes, so kids aren't daydreaming away in the secret garden - so what? that place is appallingly rife with classism and sexism. And what American can read those Yorkshire accents, anyway? I love Nesbit's books, and I delight in teaching them - The Magic City always goes over well. But I also love Lemony Snicket and The Lightning Thief, and there are tons of kids being mesmerized by them, right now, in precisely the same way that Flood was mesmerized by Heidi.

The classics aren't going anywhere; there are enough nerds and bookworms and bibliophiles and graduate students to keep the classics alive for decades to come. We don't need to lament that 21st century kids aren't lounging about, lost in the books of the 19th century; better to celebrate the books they are reading, and make sure that publishers, booksellers, schools, and libraries have access to - and make available to everyone - truly great new books for younger readers.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

How (not) to Read Racist Books to Your Kids

On Friday, the New York Times magazine section published a “Riff” piece titled “How to Read a Racist Book to Your Kid,” by Stephen Marche. The link has been passed around a bit on facebook and twitter, at least in the children’s lit/booknerd circles I move in (electronically, at any rate). I haven’t seen much discussion of the content of the piece, though, which surprises me; when I read it the first time, it set off all of skepticism sensors.

Marche’s introductory example of an Asterix comic he’s reading to his six-year-old is, perhaps, a flawed one to begin with: Asterix is a comic and, in my admittedly limited knowledge of European comics (and comics in general), it’s a general audience series, not a specifically kid-oriented one. But we’ll grant him that, and regardless of source, the question Marche’s six-year-old asks is a good one: “Why do the pirates have a gorilla?”
The “gorilla” is, of course, a racist representation of an “African.” Marche immediately fumbles the entire situation – he enumerates his possible responses thus:
“1) Explain that the gorilla is supposed to be a black person.
2) Try to explain the history of French colonialism...
3) Say, “I don’t know why the pirates have a gorilla” and flip to the next page”
Marche chooses the third choice, the “cowardly” one. I would buy an argument of readerly expediency, actually, in passing over the question, partly because of  the demands of story, but also because talking about racism is pretty important, and midway through a story may not be the ideal time for it. It also might be; it would depend, I think, on the child, the parent, and the situation (is this the last page before bedtime? Is the kid overwrought because of something that happened at school that day? Will introducing the topic now freak everyone out and be counterproductive?).
Marche notes his need to develop some kind of response, because “much of the great old children’s material, like so much of the great old adult material, is either racist to the core or at least has seriously racist bits.” Yep; that’s true. It’s also true that a lot of the new adult and child literature is racist or has seriously racist bits (The Help? The Secret Life of Bees? Virtually any book featuring a Native American?). Lots of new and old material is deeply sexist, and classist, and homophobic, too. But these are problems for another day, it seems, and Marche never mentions them at all.
Then things get weird. Marche explains that “some decisions are easy,” like Little Black Sambo, and Tintin in the Congo. “As parents, we know what to do with this stuff: Certainly never show it to young kids.” This decision, Marche tells us, is made even easier by the fact that the texts are “lousy.” There’s no real loss in never reading either, according to Marche. I can’t speak to the Tintin book, having never read it, but I’ll accept that Little Black Sambo is maybe not the most riveting, life-changing text I’ve ever read. I’m uncomfortable though with both Marche’s claim that these texts should “never” be shown to young kids, and his classification of some texts as lousy, and some as good. Literary value judgements are never ideology-free; there’s no natural order of Great Literature and Crummy Books, and everyone can see the distinction for themselves. Canon formation isn’t much of a hot topic in literary circles these days (I hope, anyway), but it’s worth emphasizing that, like history, canons are created by the “victors.” There’s a reason why so many dead white men populate literary anthologies, and it may, just may, have something to do with the fact that for hundreds and hundreds of years, the people with power in Western culture have been white men.
Marche moves on to more complex texts: “material that is otherwise excellent but contains significant racist passages. Michael Chabon recently wrote about negotiating (and ultimately eliminating) the racial epithets while reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to his kids, following a painful and honest discussion about it with them. I admire his spirit of openness, but I have to admit I would never have had the stomach to imitate him — either in the willful alteration or the discussion about it.”
Michael Chabon, of whose books I have only read a few, is a good writer, but is also laboring under the misapprehension that he is the first person to have and raise children, and also has special wisdom related to having and raising children (hint: people have been successfully raising decent humans for literally thousands of years). I don’t know how old Chabon’s kids are, but I’m a smidge perplexed about reading Huck Finn out loud to them – if they are young enough that being read to is still acceptable practice (acceptable to them, I mean; it’s hard for me to picture teenagers willing to have their dad read to them), then they are probably too young to really get a grip on Huck Finn, which, despite having a child narrator/protagonist, is not a children’s book. It just isn’t. Twain is smart and sarcastic and speaks to a sophisticated reader; thematically, Huckleberry Finn requires a great deal of historical and social context of its modern reader, not to mention well-developed reading skills. It’s a hard book to read well, and part of reading well lies in understanding its complexity. So why Chabon chooses Huck Finn, when his local library is crammed with excellent fiction for children and young adults, is beyond me.
More disturbing is Marche’s admission that he couldn’t “stomach” the discussion and/or removal of the n-word from Huck. Really? You can’t stomach explaining to your child that this a word that has a very bad history, that means something not at all nice, and so you’re going to avoid saying it? Kids know the world is full of nastiness, and they also know there’s a huge list of things they’re not allowed to say; it’s why kids of a certain age glory in saying “poop!” and making butt jokes. But not being able to stomach explaining the racist history of a racist term – which can be done very simply – it’s a very bad word used to make black people feel terrible, and so we don’t say it – that is pathetic. Is it easier to stomach racism itself? 
After giving some more examples – the excised black centaur-slave in the “Pastoral” sequence of Disney’s Fantasia, Pippi Longstocking, the Oompa-Loompas – Marche drops this staggering set of ideas: 
We rewrite the past to serve the needs of the present. The clarity of history is its great advantage.”
“The clarity of history”?  Whose history is so clear? History is deeply muddy, murky, and endlessly complex.  Perhaps Marche means something more like “hindsight” than “history,” though frankly that’s problematic too.  Equally troubling is his blithe statement that we rewrite the past to serve the needs of the present. I’m not at all comfortable with this; we’re already a culture that can’t seem to remember more than a few years back. I am continually appalled by my students’ (and lots of other people’s) lack of historical knowledge. It isn’t just dates and names and facts; history is context. It’s being able to look at a set of historical events, and make connections, and relate those to the present moment – to say, because that happened, and had those effects, we have this idea/institution/etc now. My students, when I ask them why we should know history, default to that gross cliché about not repeating history’s mistakes. This is faulty thinking, and whoever came up with that truism should be placed inside permanent weaselpants. Removing racist images from children’s books doesn’t remove racism; it removes the memory of racism. It removes the context for a whole slew of practices and problems we deal with every day now. 
Marche moves on, pointing out the discussions about the colonialism inherent in the Babar books (which books I loved as a kid; what stuck with me about them was their French-ness, not their colonialist elephant policies). For Marche, the Babar books are boring, and also, “My son won’t be turned into a more effective colonist by stories of elephants riding elevators.” Again, he picks and chooses with his examples. Racism – cartoons of “gorilla” Africans – is Bad; quiet colonialism isn’t a problem. To be fair to Marche, his child will be made a more effective colonist by the endless repetition of American exceptionalism that one encounters virtually everywhere in the United States; but the problems of Babar are still there.
Star Wars is more interesting than dull old Babar, but also alarming for Marche, who is clearly a weak man: “The conundrum is how to explain to your kids that Jar Jar and Watto are stereotypes without first introducing the stereotypes that you are hoping to negate.”
If Marche thinks that somehow he’s going to be able to avoid introducing stereotypes to his kids, he’s going to be a very sad and surprised man. Those stereotypes are everywhere. They are a part of history, and erasing them from kids’ movies and books isn’t going to mean they never happened and don’t have effects today.  Far better to explain the problems of the stereotypes at the moment the child discovers those stereotypes exist, then to come years after the fact to trying to explain why those things are problematic. Some you can let go, for expediency’s sake – the example of the “Italian” grocer-monster in Monsters Inc; he’s a walk-on (or squelch on, since he’s tantacular) character who only appears that one time, very very briefly. If the kid questions it, explain. If the kid starts using that mock Italian accent, put an end to it right away. Simple as that.
“Stereotypes are part of what children want from stories, which of course connects to what we all want from stories: simplification.”
Oh lord. Where to start with this? Marche offers no support for his assertion about stereotypes and simplification, and simultaneously reveals the narrowness of his own thinking. Simplification is what he wants from stories? Well, have at it, Mr. Marche. I myself prefer my stories to be knotty and complex and perplexing and troubling. A simplified world is a false world, whether it’s in comic books or novels or film. There are types, as in archetypes, and tropes, in fiction all over the place, and those are useful placeholders for general experiences (I don’t say universal, because what can that even mean? ). These don’t need to be stereotypes – the princess in the tower can be anyone or anything – she can be an Ogre or a boy or a fancy blonde who loves pretty things.  
To assume that children – and everyone else – want both stereotypes and simplification is  to do a huge disservice to people everywhere.  
But Marche is already a lost cause, I suspect; he winds down with:
 “That familiar and insoluble knot of moral difficulty is infinitely complicated by the fact that I’m sharing it with a child. I don’t want to explain the human gorilla and all the chains of horror that went into that caricature because I’m afraid of the follow-up questions. Recently as I was laying down ant traps against the annual spring invasion, my son asked me, “Do ants have souls?” I didn’t have a good answer for that. What is he going to ask when I explain that for 400 years, white people took black people from their homes in Africa, carried them across the ocean in chains, beat them to death as they worked to produce sugar and cotton, separated them from their children and felt entitled to do so because of the difference in the color of their skin? Whatever he asks next, I’m pretty sure I won’t have an adequate reply.”
Does Marche have any beliefs or ideas of his own? Does he have his own set of values? Why doesn’t he have answers to these questions, which he should have in some form anyway, simply as a human in the world. DO ants have souls? Well, do you believe in God? What kind? Do you want your kid believing that? Why not tell the truth – “I don’t know” ? Being able to say you don’t know something is hugely meaningful; it is okay to say I don’t know. It’s okay to not have made up your mind. It’s okay to say: Well, a lot of people have been wondering that same thing for a really long time. No one has really come to a conclusion. Or you could do this: Gosh, kiddo, that’s an interesting question – what do YOU think? Or: Why do you ask that? 
Marche’s inability to face up to the reality of history, in the form of slavery and systemic racism, is a shocking failure, and he should be embarrassed to admit it. Yes: it’s a brutal history. It’s appalling. Even a small kid will see that it’s not nice to take people away from their home and work them to death. You don’t need to do a whole lot of explaining there, because many kids, provided they’ve been raised in halfway decent homes, will see the obvious, glaring injustice of it all. You don’t need to give all the details; you don’t need to explain the southern economy, the demands of cotton-growing, the clamor for sugar that drove the West Indian slave trade. What do you say to your kid when Martin Luther King Junior day comes around? Or Christmas, or Passover, or whatever you celebrate? You face up to history, the good and the bad. You say: well, you know how for a long time black people weren’t treated very well? Dr. King worked very very hard with a lot of other people to make sure that black people were treated better. There – you get both the grim and the glory of history, in one short response. 
Finally, Marche cops out completely – this essay never does tell us how to read racist books to kids. It dithers around Marche’s pathetic feelings about passively reading racist books to his kid without intervening (perhaps we’re meant to intuit the how-to from Marche’s total failure to handle the situation).  His big conclusion is as appalling as the rest of the article: “I want to shelter the past too. I’m embarrassed for humanity at all this nonsense, and I don’t want to submit the world to the complete and perfect judgment of an innocent.
We all need to grow up, I know. Me, the moviemakers, the audience. The only person who seems mature enough for the situation is the 6-year old. All he sees is a gorilla with some pirates.
Again, where to start? Who wants to shelter the past? Yeah, humanity has been one big embarrassment to itself since it began. It’s also had a few successes – Beethoven, and Shakespeare, and whoever invented the printing press in China, and the Indian mathematicians and astronomers, and the Muslim leaders of the translation movement. But being embarrassed by history and therefore sticking your head in the sand is just about the most irresponsible thing you can do, whether as a parent or as a plain old human being. 
Leaving aside my eye-rolling over Marche’s use of “an innocent” to describe his six-year-old, his dismissal of racism, colonialism, sexism, oppression, power disparity, war, violence, anger, hatred as “all this nonsense” is in itself an act of oppression and racism. The nonsense is in pretending that we can all smile and sing Kumbaya as if all of history hadn’t happened. It’s a staggeringly white response, as well – Marche identifies himself as such with his admission of “white liberal guilt” – and, I venture, a male response as well. People speaking from positions of privilege can dismiss centuries of oppression of others as “nonsense.” It’s not nonsense for the kids who get shot because of walking down the street while being black; it’s not nonsense for the women who get blamed for being raped; it’s not nonsense for the people being surveilled and suspected simply because they are brown. 
Taking the kid’s seeing the pirates and gorilla as a sign of “maturity” is a false move, as well, and a dangerous one that smacks of the deeply flawed idea that we all just need to grow up and get over this race business. Perhaps Marche is one of these people who doesn’t “see” race. I wouldn’t be surprised; he seems committed to willful obliviousness. What the kid is seeing is the 20th century relics of centuries of colonialism and racism. Pretending he isn’t seeing that is a lie. Pretending you don’t need to address it is also a lie. Marche says that Asterix is too much a part of his own childhood for him to not pass it on to his son (because, of course, your kid’s childhood is really all about you, and your nostalgia). He’s also passing on willful oblivion.
One of the mottos of the producers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – modeled after  Margaret McFarland’s saying – is that attitudes are caught, not taught. If you’ve been modeling nonracist behavior and attitudes around your kid, she will catch them. She doesn’t need to know the date of the first slave ship’s arrival in the new world, or a lesson/sermon on racism; she will have already acquired sensitivity and antiracist ideas from you. She’ll continue to acquire those ideas – children aren’t dumb, they just haven’t had as much education and experience as adults – and she will figure out that the gorilla is a black man. If you’ve done your job right – outside of book-reading time – she will be appalled by the realization. And she’ll know – because, if you’ve done your job right, she’ll have a sense of history – that this is one way white people used to think about black people, that it’s wrong, that people are working now to make sure no one treats anyone like that ever again. 
But to pretend you don’t know, to hedge, to lie, to “shield” your child from reality – that perpetuates privilege and ignorance in the worst possible way. No black child gets to be shielded from racism; why should Marche’s white son be any different?