Philip Pullman’s Ponytail

It is “moving towards the place where I think the end will be. I’ll be so glad to reach it so I can cut my hair.” He has promised not to do so until the book is done. “When I cut my ponytail off I shall put it in a zip-lock bag and give it to the Bodleian,” he says with a smile. In a tone of mock self-importance, he adds: “Present it to the nation.”

“The book is getting longer. But it is filling up with things that are all germane to what the story is becoming. Some of the themes I turned up in the course of His Dark Materials are going to be central to it.” One of these is to do with William Blake’s ideas about how we see things, as expressed in a little poem he wrote in a letter to a friend. Pullman wants to dramatise Blake’s idea that we should have twofold vision – and see with feeling and understanding, rather than a reductionist single vision, which is interested only in facts.

Tantalizing tease from Philip Pullman about The Book of Dust in this interview mostly about his terrific-sounding graphic novel, The Adventures of John Blake, out in the UK in May 2017.


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Winner of Hans Christian Andersen Award, Cao Wenxuan, in NYTimes

“The children went to school as usual, and read their books as usual, but the beautiful rise and fall of their voices as they read out loud got weaker and weaker until they were no longer capable of reading aloud,” reads one passage in the English translation by Helen Wang. “People were worried. They were sweating with anxiety. When the hunger was at its worst, they thought about gnawing on stones.”

That’s from Bronze and Sunflower, a venerated work of Chinese children’s literature by the newest Hans Christian Andersen award winner,  Cao Wenxuan, in Amy Qin’s New York Times piece today, “Little Sugarcoating in Cao Wenxuan’s Children’s Books“.  I’m really looking forward to seeing Candlewick’s US edition of this book, due out early next year. More about him and the book here.

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I Get to Select Someone Awesome

I don’t think I’ve mentioned here yet that I’m a member of the 2018 Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee. I was surprised and delighted when invited as I had thought ALA committees like this were out of bounds for me given my hope to have another book under contract one of these days. But there is no problem with this committee as far as that goes and so I’m on it! I’m very excited to be working with my fellow committee members: chair Betsy Bird, Timothy Capehart, Wendy Lukehart, and Sharon McKellar. Quite a group, right?

Our specific charge:

To choose annually an individual of distinction who shall prepare and present a paper which shall be a significant contribution to the field of children’s literature; to select a host institution and make appropriate arrangements for the presentation of the lecture; to arrange for publication of lecture in children and libraries.

I’ve been trying to think far and wide for potential speakers: people from all aspects of this world (creators, scholars, editors, and others), within and beyond our shores. If you have a suggestion go here to submit your nomination by June 20th. Our choice will be announced at Midwinter in January and then will come our second task — selecting the location for the speech.


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Social Media Misogyny Today

Trying to navigate through social media can be challenging at times. I struggle to figure out how representational of our country today are certain widely reported statements. For example, the disturbing statements directed toward women (often notable ones), because they are women. Are we really a nation full of people who think so poorly of women? Is it a small loud group harnessing Twitter and the like? Or is it a reality that there is indeed a significant portion of Americans who indeed harbor extraordinarily hostile opinions and feelings about women who break the mold, who in one way or another do not behave or act or present themselves in ways that may be more comfortable for this group. Or even just enjoy works by and about women.

One way this is playing out is in our current presidential campaign. But it is elsewhere constantly as well.  Say the reaction to the forthcoming new Ghostbuster movie. The beloved original came out in 1984 featuring some very prominent-at-the-time male comedians. I remember enjoying it tremendously. And so I was chuffed when it was announced that there would be a 2016 reboot featuring some very prominent female comedians.  I mean, what’s not to like?

Plenty, it seems, if you are on social media. When the movie was announced I vaguely recall some mentions of a negative response to the idea of female ghostbusters, but didn’t think much about it other than probably being a bit sympathetic to those who loved the original so much they didn’t want it touched. I hadn’t really considered that the reaction might be a form of misogyny even after learning that the trailer is the most hated youtube trailer ever. But then I read Kyle Buchanan’s “Why the Ghostbusters Trailer is the Most-Hated Movie Trailer on YouTube.”

A vocal contingent of the internet has been up in arms ever since Feig and Sony announced that the remake would star women like Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy instead of four men as in the original 1984 film, but the scope of the online vitriol — and the company the movie now finds itself in — is instructive. Sampson notes that the most disliked video on all of YouTube is Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” and female singers dominate the 100 most down-voted clips, including Taylor Swift, Madonna, Adele, Katy Perry, and Nicki Minaj. What do all these videos and the Ghostbusters trailer they now abut have in common? They star women or count women as a primary audience.

Reading this alongside political commentary about the woman card and other stomach churning reports of questionable behavior toward women and I really have to wonder. Is it just Trump?  The Bernie Bros? A limited small loud group that knows how to use social media to make a splash? Or something more? I’ve no answers at all, just questions.




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Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation?

“Just because you throw colored powder around, doesn’t mean you are celebrating Holi,” Priya Patel, a Bed-Stuy resident of Indian descent told us. She shared her own personal history with Holi as a counterpoint:

“My family used to go to a Hindu temple is Jersey City which was about a two and a half hour drive from our home. We had low key celebrations in the parking lot after service withdholaks and kirtans on blast. It was fun, [but] it was definitely a smaller scale operation. I never would have thought that 15 years later, hip white people would be jacking this very community-centered and meaningful holiday, sequestering themselves in an empty Williamsburg parking lot and raging out in the name of some vague sense of ‘oneness.’”

The above quote is from an insightful article on the Hindu festival of Holi being taken and reconfigured by a company of white Germans into a hipster event in Brooklyn and abroad: “Bushwick’s Holi Fest: Hippie Fun or Cultural Appropriation?.*”  (I came to it from this other article also considering the cultural appropriation question via Pooja Makhijani.)  I live in the Columbia University area and for the last few years have noticed young white students coming out of the subway covered in paint and did wondered where exactly they had been celebrating Holi. Now I know and, sorry, but it smacks to me of the seemingly never-ending appeal of the “exotic” that still shows up all over the place —- something I’ve been brooding about for a long time and want to write about when I get my thoughts in order (and have more time).

*ETA Debbie Reese makes a good point in “Why the Question ‘Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation’ is the Wrong One.


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The NeverEnding, Never Single Story Continued

In response to  the “Hannah and Allie Talk Jewishness and Whiteness” post over at the Reading While White blog last week I wrote the following comment:

I think daily of the importance of recognizing that there is no single story. Many of my students are multi-racial, multi-ethnic. The other day we were filling out answer grids for standardized tests and some of these students were understandably stymied and frustrated at the optional question regarding race and ethnicity. As for religion, we have students who are mixed with one side being Jewish and the other of another ethnicity and/or race — some being devote and some not.

I think of Julius Lester who was a prominent black activist during the Civil Rights era, a much-honored children’s book writer, and is a very devote converted Jew.

I think of the Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel and the racism they’ve experienced there. I think of others of color who have embraced aspects of Judaism or even all of it, yet are not necessarily considered Jews by other Jews.

I think (in respond to KT) of how uncomfortable I was with some of the discussion that occurred last year about Jews being part of We Need Diverse Books movement. While my German Jewish parents and relatives did indeed experience virulent anti-semitism in Nazi Germany, that is not something remotely true for white US Jews today. Observing the struggles some of my white Jewish colleagues had with this during a school equity training I wrote the following blog post:

I think of my own singular story as it has also made me who I am today. That while I am ethnically Jewish, I did not grow up in communities of Jews, did not practice any of the religion, nor was raised with the cultural markers that are often generalized as Jewish (e.g. lox:). Indeed, of any ethnicity mine was more German than anything else — we lived there for several years so we spoke German, my mother cooked bratwurst, and sauerbraten, we celebrated Christmas and Easter, my sister and I wore dirndls that my mother thought were great.

I think of how I hadn’t ever heard of Hanukkah until 4th grade when I went to some classes some MSU Jewish grad students gave, after pestering my parents to send me to Sunday school like my best friend (who I think was Presbyterian). There was I vaguely remember possibly one other Jewish kid in my class that year (and I only knew because of my sudden awareness that there was such a thing as religion).

I think of my first visit to a synagogue when I was in 6th grade and we had moved to St. Louis and my dad thought we should see what one was like. And I think of my incredible frustration when we moved to NYC when I was a teenager and was told forcefully by some classmates that as a Jew I was to act, behave, and believe a certain way. (Especially, infuriatingly to teen-me, about Israel.)

I give this all only to show how incredibly varied our stories are, be it Jewish of something else. And as a classroom teacher I see it daily as children response in such singular and varied ways to books. What works for one child of a particular background simply doesn’t for another child with a seemly similar one.

Thanks for the conversation.

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Whether or Not to Indicate Race

I’ve been thinking a lot about the identification of race in print, say in publications such as reviews as well as in the books themselves. Thoughtful posts and discussion about it (such as this one from my friend Roxanne Feldman, this Read Roger blog post, this from Kirkus editor Vicky Smith, and this episode of the Horn Book podcast with special guest Hannah Gómez) regarding how and when and if to identify race, not to mention the fraught possibility of misidentification, have certainly informed my thinking. So have conversations with friends, reviewers, readers, writers, editors, colleagues, and others concerned with this.

Say last summer when, excitedly telling a black friend about a new writing idea, I ended up showing her what little I’d written so far. (FYI She’s a close friend and, so far, the only one I’ve shown this to — I’m not comfortable by and large sharing work early on:) In the course of our discussion about various aspects of the project, I mentioned these conversations and how I’d been wondering if I should be explicit about the main character’s whiteness. Her response was that it was already evident to her due to a mention of the character’s cultural background.  That is, she didn’t seem to think more was necessary. I’m not so sure. After all, would a different reader with a different background/race/ethnicity/culture/age have that response? She brings to her reading a certain idea of that cultural group, which someone else might not have. I’m a spare writer —  I lean toward minimalism  —  preferring to leave lots of space for readers to fill in as they see fit. Yet in this case my lack of specificity feels a form of white privilege, an assumption regarding potential readers that I have had, previously an unconscious one.

I am far less unconscious now though, thanks to all the healthy discussion going on. For example, recently I read a forthcoming book and was impressed by how well the author tucked in race descriptions for various characters — until I came to one for which none was provided. The character’s name and attributes suggested a particular race and culture, but given that other characters did have race described, this stuck out for me in its absence. I wrote the publisher and would guess this will be rectified in the finished book, but it did make me notice that I have become a far more conscious reader as regards race description, trying to be aware of that problematic white privilege stance I have.

It comes up for me as a teacher too. In some cases I have students who appreciate my being explicit, but others who don’t want attention drawn to them. For instance, when teaching the Transatlantic Slave Trade this year my black students became much more active in conversation — it seemed they were indeed proud of what they knew of their history –terrible as it was — proud to be able to speak to it while others in the class listened. Yet, last year I had a different reaction from a sensitive child of Chinese descent who was distraught when first learning of the Chinese Exclusion Act. I feel I have to always walk a tight line, both wanting to honor my students, their background and heritage, yet also being respectful of their varying personalities.

This is an ongoing area of learning and growth for me.

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