Learning About Africa: Ishmael Beal Tells it True “Still, the ways in which Africans are portrayed as less human have not lost the power to shock. “

Ishmael Beah, in “The West ignores the stories of Africans in the middle of the Ebola outbreak” writes bluntly about much I’ve been thinking, but afraid to say.  He begins:

It wasn’t surprising that Western journalists would react with doom-and-gloom when the Ebola outbreak began in West Africa. Or that the crisis would not be treated as a problem confronting all humanity — a force majeure — but as one of “those diseases” that afflict “those people” over there in Africa. Most Western media immediately fell into fear-mongering. Rarely did they tell the stories of Africans who survived Ebola, or meaningfully explore what it means to see your child or parent or other family member or friend be stricken with the disease. Where are the stories of the wrenching decisions of families forced to abandon loved ones or the bravery required to simply live as a human in conditions where everyone walks on the edge of suspicion?

And then he writes some hard truths.

Given our interconnected world, it’s no longer possible to excuse such treatment as a lack of access to the facts. So what is the explanation? To borrow the words of Ni­ger­ian novelist Chinua Achebe, “Quite simply it is the desire — one might indeed say the need — in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.”

This thinking is so deeply entrenched in the minds of people in the West that it has become a reflex. Still, the ways in which Africans are portrayed as less human have not lost the power to shock. [b0ld is mine] Each new crisis, it seems, offers a platform for some to exercise their prejudices.

And

The hysteria is also fueling racism beyond the continent. In Germany, an African woman who recently traveled to Kenya — far from the affected countries — fell ill with a stomach virus at work; the entire building was locked down. In Brussels, an African man had a simple nosebleed at a shopping mall, and the store where it happened was sterilized. In Seoul, a bar put up a sign saying, “We apologize but due to the Ebola Virus we are not accepting Africans at the moment.” Here in the United States, each time I have been to a doctor’s office since the outbreak, I have noticed an anxious look on the faces of the assistants that dissipates only when I say that I haven’t been to my country recently.

And

For Western media, this is just another one of those stories about the “killer virus” and the “poor Africans” who must once again be saved and spoken for by Westerners. And, always, there is the most important question: Will the virus come to the United States or Europe?

And concludes:

If you are reading this and believe you do not think about us the ways I have described, ask yourself the following questions: When was the last time you saw, and took the time to read, a positive front-page article about an African country? Have you ever met someone from Africa and decided to tell her what you know about her country and her continent, even if you have never been there? Have you ever noticed yourself speaking slowly and using exaggerated gestures while talking to someone from Africa, assuming that he doesn’t understand English well?

 

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Some of My Right Words Celebrating Bryan and Sweet’s The Right Word

This is so cool. Thank you, Erdmans!

tumblr_nbsx6vyv7K1soarwno1_500

We thought we should mix Monica Edinger‘s great quote with an image

proving her point that:

“All in all, The Right Word is a

spectacular

brilliant

marvelous

superb

magnificent

dazzling

work of art.”

(Thanks for the love, Monica!)

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Thoughts on Newbery: Flaws, Fatal or Not?

Heavy Medal has started up again and some fascinating conversations are well underway.  One aspect of the conversation that has struck me is the idea of flawness (my made-up word). That is, are all books perfect? And if not, how do we grapple with perceived flaws? Can we reach consensus on the degree of their significance?

This came to mind when in her Heavy Medal post on Deborah Wiles’ Revolution, Nina noted that “There is a fatal flaw that I find in REVOLUTION, and that is that Raymond is not as fully realized a character as Sunny, not by a very long shot.” She goes on to thoughtfully articulate why she thinks this and others of us have been discussing this concern in the comments. Now I adore Revolution (you can read my review here) , but had noticed that Wiles had been able to write Sunny through her own personal experience while she couldn’t with Raymond resulting in a more cautious presentation. If I were on the Newbery Committee this is something I’d want to explore long and hard. I’d pester a huge range of people, those with different racial and regional backgrounds and historical experiences, to read the book and tell me what they think. I’d have to stand back from my first love of the book to honestly attempt to figure out if this is a flaw and if it isn’t, why not. And if it is, is it fatal? How would I argue that it was or was not when in my deliberations with the Committee?

Then there is Jonathan’s post on A Snicket of Magic which has generated a fabulous conversation about vernacular, about so-called folksy literature. By attempting to categorize a collection of titles as being this, Jonathan provoked a wonderful series of comments. For some, I know, this sort of voice is tough going. So when you are on the Committee, how do you distinguish a personal distaste from a flaw, much less a fatal one?

Thinking about this fatal flaw business caused me to head to my goodreads Newbery list and add a few more personal favorites, some of which also have flaws…er…blemishes…er..imperfections… (Roget, I need you!)… I’m wondering about. As a result, I’ve now got ten books there, three more than I’d be able to nominate if I were on the Committee.  I’ve added Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover as I thought it fabulous –except for the ending.  And I’ve added Cece Bell’s El Deafo even though I have no clue how to make a case for it as it is a graphic novel.  Similarly, despite not having figured out how interlaced the text is with the art, I’ve added Patricia Hruby Powell’s picture biography, Josephine.  This review of Rachel’s of Dana Alison Levy’s The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher reminded me of how I loved it (reviewed it for Horn Book) and so it is now on the list. Does it have a fatal flaw? Not so noticeably that I can figure out.  Finally, I added Jack Gantos’ series finale, The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza. While I don’t think it is flawed, I’m sure there will be some absolutely horrified by Joey’s circumstances as they were with the previous books.

Fatal. Flaws. Fascinating.

 

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Books for Incarcerated Teens

Many years ago I first heard Walter Dean Myers speak of his involvement with incarcerated teens. Later, when I found myself with an abundance of YA ARCs, I was pleased to hear that they were much needed for incarcerated teens and looked for a way to get them to them. After some struggles figuring this out (living in NYC I’m carless so getting lots of books places isn’t so easy) I discovered that Karlan Sick, who lives around the corner from me, is now chair of the board for Literacy for Incarcerated Teens. Karlan told me to bring the books to her and she’d get them to the teens.  And so for the last few years, I periodically load up my shopping cart with finished galleys and take them to her building.  For a time I was told they could only take galleys and paperbacks, but more recently I’ve been able to donate hardcovers as well.  It is fabulous program that I associate with Walter as he was so passionate about incarcerated teens and so I was delighted to see the SLJ feature, “Literacy for Incarcerated Teens” and urge you to read it to learn more about this wonderful program.

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Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus

I love words and I love art that plays with words. ABC books, abecedarian novels, lipograms, everything and anything that plays with the art of words is art right up my alley. And so having adored Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s glorious Caldecott Honor A River of Words, I was agog with anticipation waiting for their latest, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus.  And now that I’ve seen it, let me tell you — it was worth the wait.  Bryant again captures the essence of a complicated individual in spare and beautifully crafted text. Having now written a book about a real person myself, I’m all the more in awe of anyone who takes on a full biography for children, managing to economically pull out just what is needed about that person’s life for young readers to best appreciate his accomplishments. Roget was clearly one brilliant man who loved all sorts of things, words among them. Bryan elegantly presents Roget’s lifelong passion for word lists as well as much more. She communicates beautifully just why such lists are so worthwhile by having Roget answer his mother’s questions with a single word and then mull over what better ones there might be. She suggests the darker parts of his life, but mostly she shows readers a person who was a passionate learner, passionate creator of word lists, and someone who figured out how to put those passions together to create a unique and wonderful book, the thesaurus.

Words, words, letters and numbers and then more words float through this book. In the text, through the perfect design and, most wonderfully, through Melissa Sweet’s art. These marks of language are everywhere in this book, those of Roget’s lists dance across one page, march down another, and flit throughout in magical ways.  On every page, Sweet’s assemblages of paintings and collage are an exuberant delight; the realistic paintings celebrating different parts of Roget’s life are often layered one above another; here’s one with an elegant file folder border; there’s another with paper scraps of lists peeking out behind it. Page after page words drift through, around and in the paintings via speech bubbles, book covers, cards, signs, maps, labels, diagrams, and more. Color and texture are used to brilliant effect, at times repeating within and without an illustration. Most of all it is Sweet’s playful use of language through her lovely realistic watercolors of Roget and his experiences, her glorious assemblages of meaning, that bring Bryan’s words, Roget’s life, and this book to an ethereal place of pleasure.

All in all, The Right Word is a

spectacular

brilliant

marvelous

superb

magnificent

dazzling

work of art.

 

 

 

 

 

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In the Classroom: No Homework No Scieszka?

On the first day of school, my son and I made a deal. In three days, one of his favorite authors — Jon Scieszka, editor of the “Guys Read” short story collections — was coming to Nashville for a reading and signing downtown. If my son showed me that he could keep track of his early school assignments and bring home everything he needed for each of those first few nights of homework, he could go.

From Mary Laura Philpott’s Homework and Consequences.

I’m sorry, but as a teacher this is NOT a consequence I’d recommend for missed homework.  Makes me sick to my stomach that this poor kid — spoiler — didn’t get to see his favorite author.

 

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In the Classroom: Thoughts on Ice (Buckets)

I have been very appreciative of the occasional attention given to introversion in the classroom for students and teachers of late. It helps me to clarify what I know already — I’m very introverted. I need quiet, recovery time, and all those other things that are so often typical of introversion. And as I consider how I can be a good teacher given this and how I can also support my students, introverted or not, I have been considering something else. This is the pleasure so many get when a teacher performs. Those that happily dance on the stage during an assembly, who willingly wear a costume all day for a cause, who do the Ice Bucket challenge and other things of that sort. So often I see a video of such a teacher along with comment after comment about what an amazing teacher he or she is and I think, “There is just no way I can do this.” The very idea gets me all scrunched up.

It isn’t that I’m uncomfortable with all forms of public presentations. I enjoy public speaking about teaching and learning or Lewis Carroll or Alice or Sierra Leone or Africa is My Home or something else. What I don’t like at all, what makes me terribly uncomfortable, is having it focused on me. That the looking is at me and not about my work or something else. And I wonder — what is this? Is it introversion or something else? Social anxiety? (While I am very lively in social gatherings with people I know, I’m extremely shy in those where I don’t know anyone.) Comfortable as I am knowing this about myself,  I still feel horribly guilty when saying no to a request to do one of these public acts. I feel that I must appear really selfish for being so unwilling. Or that I’ve disappointed my students who watch other teachers happily dance and be silly.

So this isn’t about throwing ice on these sorts of public activities. Bravo to those who can do them. But what about those of us who appear perfectly able to do them and say no for the reasons that are not necessarily visible?  Teachers and students alike. How do those of us who have this aspect to our personalities navigate a world that so adores Ice Bucket challenges and similar sorts of things?

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