‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself,’ said Alice, ‘a great girl like you,’ (she might well say this), ‘to go on crying in this way! Stop this moment, I tell you!’ But she went on all the same, shedding gallons of tears, until there was a large pool all round her, about four inches deep and reaching half down the hall.
That’s Alice using “great” as the British do to mean “big.” An American child would say she was too big to be crying so much. It has absolutely nothing to do with Alice being some sort of awesome individual. I write because I am fed-up with the tedious speechifying around this word, used to argue about returning to some sort of mythic greatness or awesomeness. If Alice was great in that Trumpian awesome sense, Carroll’s cutting her (literally) down to size. Here’s a brief twitter exchange I just had on this. Thanks, Philip.
This past week, through the kindness of Walden Pond Press, I was able to attend a screening of the Steven Spielberg adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG. I went into it knowing little, as it is one of the few Dahl titles I have not read, attributable to my working full time, doing a part-time graduate degree, running competitively (did my second NYC marathon that year), and slowly giving up on my dream of becoming a children’s book illustrator the year it came out. When I heard about the movie last year I started reading the book, but soon gave up — I found the BFG’s made-up vocabulary highly irritating. However, knowing how much others love the book, the positive responses to the movie so far, and the impressive people involved made me eager to see it.
And now I am here to report that it is delightful. I don’t know if it is a great departure from the book (I now intend to give it another try), but it worked for me. Early on the BFG explains his difficulties with language and so it didn’t bother me. Overall, it is funny, sweet, mournful, and highly satisfying at the end. There are some fabulous scenes — the BFG’s home, his dream-work, and those in the palace. The latter, in particular the one involving frobscottle (here I am using that whimsical language myself:), provoked the biggest laughs-out-loud from me and others in the audience, some of whom were very, very young. I enjoyed what appeared to be a few subtle references to Spielberg’s iconic E.T. — at least so they seemed to me. But what really makes the movie is Mark Rylance’s BFG. The man is brilliant. I’ve seen him in a variety of productions — notably the farce Boing-Boing, his fabulous turn as Olivia in the RSC’s Twelfth Night , and the Wolf Hall television series — and think he is truly one of the great actors of our time. In this, for all the make-up and digital enhancements, the marvelous actor comes through in spades. I’d go see it again just for him if nothing else.
On Thursday I will head off to Orlando for ALA’s Annual Convention. And I will, like the other attendees, be thinking about those who lost their lives a week ago in that vibrant city. I am heartsick for them and for all those who knew them, for their communities, for everyone impacted by this dreadful loss. I am furious that yet again lives were cut short. Enraged that it happens over and over and over in this country. Disgusted that it seems never ending. Sickened that we have to prepare ourselves for the next one. Unable to comprehend that we in the US cannot keep assault weapons out of the hands of dangerous and disturbed people. That said I try to be optimistic and to hope that things will change for that better. That there will not be another one. That this from Anne Frank who would have been 87 last Sunday is true:
In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.
Words to hold close in these dark times.
Recently someone told me they didn’t like the lack of mention of Africa in Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia. Since the continent is mentioned in the opening (“Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa.”), my guess is the complaint was really about the lack of specification of a country. Yet, this is how (to the best of my knowledge) all of Atinuke’s Anna Hibiscus books begin. It is a storyteller’s trope, a purposeful and lyrical story introduction. Indeed, the author is a professional storyteller as well as someone with a similar background to Anna, a biracial individual who spent her early years in amazing Africa, more specifically Nigeria. I am a huge, huge fan of these books — they are full of simple yet rich stories of Anna’s life with her white Canadian mother and her black Nigerian father, mostly in their urban African home. While Nigeria isn’t specified in the books, the food, the experiences, and so forth are coming from Atinuke’s personal experience and thoughtfully and accurately visualized by white illustrator Tobias.
What I’ve been brooding about is why it would be necessary to identify the country in these books. Are they windows into a different culture, mirrors for children of that culture, or are they simply stories that happen to be set somewhere else? For me, the chapter books do indeed provide a delightful, authentic, and real view of one small piece of Africa — both windows and mirrors for young readers. Windows for those far from Nigeria, for whom this is a somewhat different way of living. I’ve enthusiastically recommended them for those looking for good books set in Africa. But they are also mirrors, both for children of Anna’s background as well as other children her age who are experiencing the same sorts of ups and downs of life that she is in different environments.
Earlier this year I was teaching my annual unit on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I read aloud the initial chapters from the first Anna Hibiscus chapter book as well as some picture books by other authors set in present day Africa, wanting my students to have a sense of the continent today, not just historical in terms of our studies. However, Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus! wasn’t among them as I considered it not a book about Nigeria or Africa, but a book about a little girl coping with twin baby brothers. That the situation happens to take place in Africa, that it is resolved by extended family, is secondary. The pleasure is in the relatable experience of being a single older sister to some rambunctious baby twin brothers.
This has me thinking — when is a reading a window? When is it a mirror? When is it one or the other or both depending on the reader’s circumstances?
Is there a celebrity (past or present) left who hasn’t or isn’t writing a children’s book because, as the latest (Simon Cowell) evidently feels, “…all children’s books are boring – at least the ones that he’s reading to his two-year-old.”? I vaguely recall Madonna making a similar claim a few years ago. Doing a bit of internet research I came across this entertaining quiz from, what else?, Entertainment Weekly. Here’s another list.
I’m trying to think of my favorites in this oeuvre, either the most horrifying or those that are actually good. Of the later, I really liked B. J. Novak’s The Book With No Pictures. (ETA — just thought of an example of one that was really, really, REALLY bad — Tyra Bank’s Modelland.) Betsy Bird had a few thoughts about some adult writers turning their hand at writing for kids. Like them, but they aren’t really by and large the sort of media celebs Madonna, Cowell, or Novak are. So what about all of you? Any thoughts?
Yesterday Debbie Reese and I had an interesting twitter conversation about the odd American Indian obsession that so many German-speakers still seem to have. Debbie has now followed up with the blog post, “Stereotypes of native peoples, in children’s books, in Switzerland” and here is mine.
It fascinates me that the German writer Karl May and his legacy still have such a hold in German-speaking countries. While unfamiliar in the US, this prolific 19th century German writer wrote a series of adventure novels set in a mythical American West that he never visited. His popularity was vast in my parents’ German childhoods as is evident from these excerpts from my father’s memoir:
As I was so rotund and it suited my mother’s pacifism at the time, I was mortified when I was surprised with a Dr. Doolittle costume for my birthday and not the Indian outfit I so badly wanted to play with the kids who read Karl May….
I was encouraged to read the “good” literature in my parents vast library and kept away from “trash.” Instead of reading and acting out, like other kids, the highly popular fantasies of Karl May, I was directed to James Fenimore Cooper’s more edifying stories about American Indians.
While today we are likely to flinch at the idea of Dr. Dolittle and Fenimore Cooper’s works being worthy reading material (I’ve written about Dr. Dolittle and its like here), in 1931 Germany it was all about literary snobbery — the racism and stereotyping in these books were not on my grandparents’ radar at that time. And while Lofting and Cooper’s original works no longer have the clout they had in my parents’ childhood, Karl May endures. I well remember, while living in Germany in the mid 1960s, my best friend’s obsession with his books and how she dressed up as Winnetou for Fasching (the German Carnival). And it still goes on. You can get a taste from these articles:
Curious to see what sort of recent books were coming out on the topic in Germany I did a search on the German Amazon site. Going in to seeing the variety of books on the topic in Germany is quite a wormhole and I learned that a new Winnetou movie is in the works. A little more poking around and I found this 2015 Hollywood Reporter article, “Germany Reviving “Winnetou” Westerns for TV” and this trailer. Seems Karl May love is loud and clear still in Germany. Will be curious if the commentary in Germany around this movie considers its problematic nature.
I really like Gene Luen Yang‘s book challenge. He asks readers to step out of their comfort zones. It is about no-walls rather than walls-so-high-we-can’t-see-over-them. It is about opening and expanding world views rather than limiting oneself to one’s own. My students’ school year is now an intense dash-to-the-last-day, but I want to figure out a way to get them to do this. If not now, next fall for sure.
Gene asks on his blog that:
When you finish, take a photo of you and the book (or just the book if you’re shy) and post it on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #ReadingWithoutWalls. You’ll inspire others to do the same!
If you are a teacher, librarian, or bookseller, you can challenge your students, patrons, and customers to read without walls, too! Check out what San Francisco’s Live Oak School did this past school year!
Read without walls and see what happens. I bet it’ll be something amazing!