Looking Back on 2018 Books

Literature, whether for adults or young readers, often reflects its time. Each year at awards time, along with such perennial debates as popularity versus literary quality, subjectivity, and age appropriateness, critics often focus on thematic treatments that are on the general public’s minds. Recent times have been challenging for many, with societal concerns such as human rights, gender issues, racism, gun violence, civil rights, and equity dominating our national conversation. Notable in 2017 was the passionate response by children’s book creators to these issues, intertwined with that of identity and representation. Whose story gets told, and who gets to tell it?

That is the start of Roxanne Feldman and my Horn Book Magazine article “2017 in Review: The Year in Words.” It is in the magazine’s award issue, alongside speeches such as Erin Entrada Kelly‘s Newbery one (as those who followed my druthers for this award, you won’t be surprised that I was delighted with it).  We explore what the awards suggest in terms of diversity and #ownvoices as well as other interesting aspects to last year. Hope you check it out!

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Gail Herman’s What Was the Holocaust?

My fourth grade students are big fans of the Who Was? book series. Strong readers, by and large, they can gulp one down in a day. I haven’t read many of them, just those that feature outliers of particular interest to me, say  Who Was Charlie Chaplin? by Patricia Brennan Demuth and Who Was Lewis Carroll? by Pam Pollack and Meg Belviso. While I was dubious that it would be possible to present these complicated men in such a format, I found both titles to be solidly researched, informative, and appropriate for the intended audience.  And that has been it until What Was the Holocaust? by Gail Herman.

Now some context to what follows. I’m the child of German Jews on both sides, some were murdered, some survived camps, some managed to get out. All were persecuted while living in Nazi Germany. You can read more about them here. As for me, having grown up in a family that did not practice any form of Judaism (only identifying via ethnicity) nor lived in Jewish communities (I grew up in southern and midwestern towns and cities) and with a strong connection to Germany, the Holocaust was a pretty vague idea to me. In fact I can only recall two instances during my elementary school years.  One was a woman with a tattooed number on her arm at a summer vacation colony my mother’s parents went to and being aware that it had been done at concentration camps. Another was sneaking into my father’s study to look at a book full of the skeletal people in the camps in the same way, to be brutally honest, I looked through National Geographic. Strange was strange be they people of my own ethnicity close to death or people from far away with practices that fascinated me. I was somewhat aware that my father’s father had been killed in such a camp, but it seemed so far away in the past as to have no emotional resonance for me.  It was when I was ten and heading off for a year in Germany (we’d done one when I was seven too as my father was an academic) that a gift from my father’s mother spurred sudden interest. This was The Diary of Anne Frank along with a diary for me. I figured out that the diary she gave me was of the same manufacturer that Anne’s was. Unsurprising since my father and grandmother had come from Frankfurt and lived there when the Franks had. At that point I became pretty obsessed with Anne and more curious about the Holocaust.

As a result of my own experience, I’m pretty clear-eyed, I think, about kids interested in the Holocaust. This past year, as always, I showed a bunch of Charlie Chaplin movies, ending with The Great Dictator. A savage satire of Hitler and his cohorts, it came out in 1940, before the horror of the Holocaust was known. (In fact, Chaplin said he wouldn’t have made the film had he known. But it is wonderful, especially the moving final speech.)  In order for my 4th grade students to understand the satire and irony I had to give them some background on Hitler and the Holocaust. The range in what was known was vast— kids who went to Hebrew School knew a certain amount while those of other religions and ethnic backgrounds sometimes knew very little. I’m guessing that in other communities around the country, especially those where there are no Jews (the sort I grew up in), 10 year olds today probably know almost nothing.

And for those who know nothing, for whom the Holocaust is a very vague concept, this book is a success. (ETA: I’m not seeing this as a book that would be used by an adult in teaching about the Holocaust, but as a book kids would encounter independently and read on their own.) It provides an overview of what lead up to it, the camps, etc. Written in the familiar style of all of the books in the series. I commend the series editors for their sensitivity and awareness of the topic.  Not only is there a letter from editor Jane O’Connor on the decision to make the book, but also another one from Ilyse Shainbrown, a Holocaust educator. My only quibble about the content is the lack of any explanation of what Jews are. Chapter I: Anti-Semitism begins, “Anti-Semitism is the hatred of the Jews” and goes on to the various examples of this hatred from Roman times on. I just wondered if there might have been a way to define who and what Jews were. Perhaps that is too complicated, but I’m sure there will be readers of this book who will have no clue.

Now, let me get to the elephant in the room: the book’s cover. Here it is:

I admit, it shocked me. Now the big-heads are standard for the covers of all of the series, so they kept with it for this one. Did they have to? I showed the book to my colleagues who wondered if perhaps a different format (including a different type face) might work better for such serious topics. Looking through other books in the series, I can some that some could do with a serious overhauling cover-wise, The Boston Tea Party one most of all.

Next I reached out to Penguin, wondering about their thoughts and was very appreciative to hear back from the series publisher, Francesco Sedita who wrote:

As I’m sure you could imagine, we did not come to this cover easily—or even the decision to include the subject in the WhoHQ.  When thinking about this cover, we started with photo research, as we always do, and made a decision originally to not treat the cover with our typical style.  But every sketch that I saw felt wrong.  I realized as I reviewed pass after pass of coves that to treat this title differently—in a different way than titles like What Was D-Day?Who Was Anne Frank?, our upcoming What Was Stonewall?Who Was Helen Keller?, What Were the Twin Towers?, felt disingenuous and like we were purposefully making a statement around What Was the Holocaust?

We sat back for a while, had some discussions with a major account that we took to heart, and worked on the cover once again.  The end product, what you see now, is what we feel is the best way forward.  There were children in many of the photos that we had researched, and we obviously we thought they should not be included in the cover.  We did not make the heads of the men that you see too exaggerated, as we often do on our lighter-topic books, and we chose to keep their eyes away from the camera.

Because we understand that this title in our series is a very difficult one, we included a letter from the editor in, as well as a letter from an educator, in this case. Ilyse Shainbrown.

Again, this was a complex process for us and we believe we are bringing a very thoughtful account of this tragedy to a population of readers that not only love our books (and even collect them) but also need to be introduced to this subject matter in the smart way that the WhoHQ can provide.

While I appreciate the careful thought expressed here, I’m still unnerved by the cover. Having looking through all the series’ covers this one seems different —as does the topic. I understand the need to attract young readers who are unfamiliar with the topic and don’t see the cover is exploitive. That said, I still wonder if there might have been a way to show one figure (as is true for most of the other covers) rather than the column. I don’t know….I think kids will pick it up and read it and that surely is important. So I’m on the fence about it. Anyone else have thoughts about it?

Also, if this is genocide, how about books on other ones?

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Season Two of ‘Anne With An E’ is Nie

Hate-watchers alert! It is almost here. (For the record, I liked it:)

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Teaching and Learning About Slavery: Plantations Near the Whitney

Yesterday I posted about my visit to the Whitney Plantation Museum , the only one in this country to the best of my knowledge, focused exclusively on the enslaved. On the way back, our tour guide Joyce stopped outside the gates of Oak Alley Plantation, a few actual miles from the Whitney and a million metaphoric ones from it. This is because, in contrast to Whitney, it still focuses on the owners’ lives of opulence and lavishness with barely a mention of the enslaved who made that happen. Joyce told us of the galas and weddings that regularly take place on its grounds, seemingly all too typical of most other plantations today.

Poking around I came upon the following video that makes Joyce’s point as vividly and disturbingly as possible. Hopefully, these places will do the necessary work to change and tell a more accurate story. (As is, I gather, Monticello, the one other plantation I now recall  I did visit many years ago, is starting to do.)

In contrast, here is a far more historically honest video (from the New York Times) featuring the Whitney Plantation:

 

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Teaching and Learning About Slavery: The Whitney Plantation

I first learned of The Whitney Plantation via this New York Times article. Opened a few years now, it is one of the most important memorials of enslavement that exists in our country and I knew when I got the chance I’d go. And so when I made my travel arrangements to go to New Orleans for the American Library Association’s annual convention, I arranged to go a day early so as to visit the museum. I then researched tours and found Let’s Just Ride LLC.  Joyce picked us up at our various hotels, gave us a remarkable and fascinating tour as she drove us to and from the Whitney, elegantly bringing her own family history, Katrina, and older history. I cannot recommend her enough.

We spent two hours at the Whitney in an outstanding, carefully designed tour. The thought, research, and more done for this experience is simply outstanding. During the rest of my time in New Orleans, others who had also visited the site felt the same. I have consciously avoided other plantation tours due to their privileged white/owner perspective, but this one turned that on its head.  The viewpoint is completely that of the enslaved starting with the 40 statues of enslaved children by artist Woodrow Nash set throughout the plantation, each honoring one of those interviewed by the Federal Writers Project — young when enslaved.

There are several memorials:

  • The Wall of Honor is dedicated all the people who were enslaved on Whitney Plantation. The names and the information related to them (origin, age, skills) were retrieved from original archives and engraved on granite slabs. (from the Whitney Plantation site)
  • The Field of Angels is a section of the slave memorial dedicated to 2,200 Louisiana slave children who died in St. John the Baptist Parish. These names are documented in the Sacramental Records of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Their names are engraved on granite slabs along with quotes describing their everyday life. A bronze sculpture depicting a black angel carrying a baby to Heaven is installed in the middle of the field. Rod Moorhead of Mississippi is the sculptor. (from the Whitney Plantation site)

  •  The 1811 Slave Revolt Memorial. Please read about this intentionally disturbing and necessary memorial here.

You are taken through a series of spaces, starting with The Antioch Baptist Church which was donated and then relocated to the plantation. There are seven slave cabins, two of which are original to the plantation, kitchens, barns, and more. Lastly, you come to the Big House from the back and the guide informs you about the harsh lives of the domestic enslaved who maintained the comfortable lifestyle of the owners and their families.

The Whitney’s website is a wealth of information I’ve been using when teaching about this to my fourth graders, but, of course, best is going in person and so urge everyone who can to visit this important place.

 

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Teaching the Transatlantic Slave Trade to Fourth Graders

I spent much of last week with my colleagues and administrators examining our teaching of this difficult topic. The work was challenging, uncomfortable at times, but also exciting. I am so grateful to my IPOC colleagues who pushed us to think hard and helped us to change what we were doing for the betterment of our students. I also so appreciate my white colleagues who were open and willing to change even when it meant dropping beloved pieces of curriculum. I look forward to our teaching this coming year and working closely to assess what works and what doesn’t and how to keep doing better.

 

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Remembering Harry: A Comic Experience

It being the twenty year anniversary of the Harry Potter books, I’ve been invited to be part of a panel at ALA featuring Brian Selznick (Sunday at 12 at the Pop Stage). This made me look back at my many HP posts. Here’s a favorite (click on the images to see better versions of them) done shortly before the final book came out:

educating alice

I just got a new computer and spent the last week at school playing with some software I hadn’t tried before including the very fun Comic Life. Of course, I’m still playing! (Pardon the cut-off lines and at least one very awkward line — too hard to edit these once they’ve been exported.)

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