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Black History Month, day 21
I love children’s literature. If I didn’t have a child to read to, I’d just have to sit in the children’s section of the library without one. And of course, we have a large bookshelf full of the books we loved as kids.
The characters and the authors of these books are overwhelmingly white. Most of them were written before 1975, many long before, and few publishers then sought out people of color, or encouraged them when they came along. For that matter, as of 2001, one editor writes here, there were still very few African-American writers and illustrators in the field, and a 2007 book by an education professor observes the same thing. And yet, John Steptoe, who wrote and illustrated the gorgeous Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters during his sadly short career, said plainly: “I am not an exception to the rule among my race of people. I am the rule. By that I mean there are a great many others like me where I come from.”
When children read, they need to see people who look like them. This truism, once doubtful in my mind, has become a rock-solid fact since I began spending my days with a small child. The munchkin identifies strongly with people in the books she reads, and most of all with people like herself. To illustrate: she frequently, even obsessively, points to a character on each page and says “I want to be that person.” It is almost never an animal, and it is almost never a boy: it’s a girl. If the girls are only minor characters, she identifies with one of them, putting herself on the margin of the story (thank you, J. K. Rowling, for Hermione Granger–your wizarding world is still male-dominated, but you did put one smart, brave, complex girl in the marquee). If there are no girls in the story, she chooses no one. Fortunately, things have come a long way since A. A. Milne and J. R. R. Tolkien, and female characters are no longer merely a token presence in children’s books. But whom would she see who looked like her if she were black?
I would love to hear about your favorite children’s books that are by African-American authors and illustrators, and/or feature black characters.
Here are some of mine. An * means they have prominent characters who are black, an @ means they’re by a black author or illustrator, though of course I often don’t know anything about them but their name. In some cases, like Bette Greene and Ezra Jack Keats, I know they aren’t African-American, but I might be missing some who are.
* Island Counting 1 2 3 by Frané Lessac. Our favorite counting book, with terrific illustrations of an unnamed Caribbean island, and lots of fun things to find (e.g., on the “four” page there are four vanes on the windmill, four donkeys, four leaves on each plant, etc.).
@ Everywhere Babies, a board book I love for many reasons, but one of them is that families of all types and colors are featured without any comment, just as if families just come in all gender combinations, age combinations, and colors! Imagine!
* ABC A Family Alphabet Book, written by Bobbie Combs, illustrated by Desiree Keane and Brian Kappa. All of the parents are same-sex couples, and many are black.
* The Snowy Day, A Letter to Amy (naturally a childhood favorite), and the others about Peter and friends by Ezra Jack Keats
* Bear on a Bike, written Stella Gladstone and illustrated by Debbie Harter
* @ Lift Every Voice and Sing, words by James Weldon Johnson, illustrations by Elizabeth Catlett
* @ I Want To Be, written by Thylias Moss, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.
@ for that matter, anything illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
@ Freight Train and anything else by Donald Crews
* Chicken Sunday, Patricia Polacco (Polacco, who is white, has several books with prominent African-American characters–this is the only one of them I’ve read)
* the Max and Kate stories that are featured in each issue of Ladybug.
Moving on to books for older kids:
* Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe, Bette Greene
* Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, Louise Fitzhugh
And the best African-American picture book we haven’t seen:
A Little Bit of Soul Food, Amy Wilson Sanger. As far as I know, Sanger isn’t black, and if this book is like the others of hers we have, it shows no people, but they are such great portrayals of one aspect of a culture–its food. Yum Yum Dim Sum and My First Book of Sushi are perennial favorites in our house.
I bought for Munchkin, but haven’t read with/listened to with her yet, Hip Hop Speaks to Children. She seldom wants to listen to music, preferring audiobooks in the car. It looks great, though.
My figure drawing time resumed on Monday after a month away. It felt great to be drawing again. I spread them out on the kitchen floor after dinner and the munchkin and I looked them over. She said this was the best one “because it looks like a person.” It didn’t look much like the person I was drawing, so it was nice to see it through the eyes of someone who couldn’t compare the two.
She also liked this one, which is the one I like best,
She wanted to know why I draw all in black, white, and gray, instead of in color the way she does. I told her the truth, which is that it’s hard enough for me to manage black and white and I’m not up for the challenge of color right now. She also asked why I draw people naked instead of in their clothes. I said because that way I can see a lot of the beautiful parts that clothes cover up. She looked unconvinced. I think for her, clothes are more interesting and probably more beautiful.
When I told Munchkin I had been working on the veins of hands and feet, she jumped up to point them all out on the drawings. I explained what I found difficult and interesting about them, leading to a question from M: “What does subtle mean?”
The other subtle thing I decided to tackle today is the highlight that runs right along some places, like the muscles of calf and thigh here. I have never paid it enough attention and it comes out looking streaky, obvious (not subtle!), or nonexistent. Monday I really tried to look at it and see what its edge looks like. It was so absorbing that in twenty minutes, I never really got to any other part of the drawing, not even the knee, which looks kind of flat as a result.
Yesterday evening’s service was about control and letting go. I played everyone a song by Suzzy Roche about being in a plane in a lightning storm, and repeated my favorite line: “There’s a whole lot, baby, you can’t control, so put your seat back and roll, Mag, roll”–”Mag” is her sister, I’m guessing. (At that point E. said, “Were you thinking about today’s windstorm?” I hadn’t heard about it. Turned out there were 100-m.p.h. Santa Ana winds in Southern California, a historic storm.)
We meditated on the song and on a couple of quotes such as Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known “serenity prayer,” and I led a meditation in which we literally made fists as we envisioned gripping tightly whatever we seek to control, then relaxed and let go so it could float.
The hardest thing I could have chosen would have been my daughter. I focused on something a little easier, but then I got to my final words, introducing a song we often sing in this service, “Ubi Caritas”–
The words of our song mean, “where there is love, there God is.” It doesn’t say holiness lies in control, or certainty, or permanence. It lies in love, which is sometimes about holding on and sometimes about letting go, and usually about both
–and I choked up, and thought of a passage I’d just read, in the speech Neil Gaiman gave when he accepted the Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book. He’s speaking of writing the last couple of pages.
And my eyes stung, momentarily. It was then, and only then, that I saw clearly for the first time what I was writing. I had set out to write a book about a childhood–it was Bod’s childhood, and it was in a graveyard, but still, it was a childhood like any other; I was now writing about being a parent, and the fundamental most comical tragedy of parenthood: that if you do your job properly, if you, as a parent, raise your children well, they won’t need you anymore. If you did it properly, they go away. And they have lives and they have families and they have futures.
It is a happy book, and a happy thought that our daughter will go on to have a life and a family and a future beyond us, but my eyes stung, too, reading this paragraph. It’s hard to imagine that I will be ready when she is.
“We are challenged on every hand to work untiringly to achieve excellence in our lifework. Not all men are called to specialized or professional jobs; even fewer rise to the heights of genius in the arts and sciences; many are called to be laborers in factories, fields, and streets. But no work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence. If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”
My daughter (age 4 1/2), this afternoon, on seeing a street sweeper:
“That man is being good to the earth. He’s picking up the garbage . . . his mind is like our minds. He says the earth is for walking on, not the earth is just a garbage can.”
To a mind free of prejudice, heroes are everywhere.
In my “43 goals for year 43″ I promised myself I’d fly a kite this year. I bought one, ostensibly for the munchkin, almost two years ago; Joy and I were enjoying a lovely couple-alone weekend in Bodega Bay, freed by our dear friend Wendy’s taking our daughter into her home for a couple of days, and of course we mostly talked about Munchkin and bought her a couple of presents. She was really too young for a kite, but I picked out one I thought she’d like–a ladybug–and explained to her what it was. We brought it to the beach on one glorious day several weeks ago, but it was so glorious that there wasn’t enough wind to raise a kite. Yesterday we took a trip to Venice Beach, in Half Moon Bay, and this time the kite flew.
It was so simple, so unthrilling, really. The munchkin gave it a single smile and then went on with the more exciting business of writing in the sand. Joy said, “Yep, it’s a kite.” I’d deliberately bought a very simple kite, fearing that a two-string trick jobbie would be beyond us. Once it was flying and I’d admired it for a moment, there was nothing to do but tie up the string and read my book or look at the ocean (which meant turning my back on the kite, since of course the wind was coming from the water).
But I kept looking up at it, feeling very moved, and it wasn’t until then that I realized why I had even cared about flying a kite, and why I’d thought of it as a difficult thing to accomplish. It has to do with the kite that hung in the back of my closet through all of my growing up. I have no recollection of ever flying that or any kite in my life. Maybe I did at some point and have forgotten, but what I chiefly remember about kites is frustration. We bought it and tried it at a local park; it didn’t fly; it came back home and sat in the closet for the next umpteen years, a silent reminder of a bit of fun that, literally, didn’t get off the ground. At some point a friend and I made another one of paper and string, but of course that had even less of a chance of working. We probably only had bad luck at that day at the park, but kite-flying stuck in my mind as something tricky and elusive.
It wasn’t a big deal; I haven’t borne a kite-shaped scar on my soul for 35 years; but clearly it was a little piece of unfinished business. Yesterday it was finished, and a small sorrow was replaced with a small, sweet blessing. A lot of my life with my wife and daughter is like that.
The Putting America to Work Act has been putting people to work in our town, or so say the signs alongside the barriers on our street, where they’ve been fixing sidewalks for the past few weeks. This week they got to the sidewalk outside our house. One square of sidewalk had risen up (we think due to a tree root) so that you’d trip over a three-inch immovable block of concrete if you weren’t looking at the ground. At some point the city jerry-built a kind of ramp between the adjacent square and the raised edge, which was an improvement but still left a section of sidewalk uneven enough to be a trip hazard. I have no idea how this new crew handled it–not through cutting down the tree, since I’m happy to say it’s still there–but there is now a nice fresh, perfectly even sidewalk in that spot. If Barack Obama accomplished nothing else in these four years, we could still point to our sidewalk, on which the munchkin, exercising a new skill, has inscribed her name.
There’s a lot about San Miguel that makes it a good place for small children: the frequent fiestas, the great playground at Parque Juarez, the annual puppet festival, religious celebrations that involve confetti or blowing things up, sheer architectural detail (Munchkin’s fond of the cobbles in the streets), the atmosphere at the Jardin (town square) that’s an equal mix of family gathering and birthday party. Beyond and through all that is something even more important: children are a part of things here, welcomed as if they’re actually members of the human tribe.
Lots of tiles here, including those covering the downstairs of our house, are made of a kind of terracotta and, when they are made, are left to dry out in the sun, where animals can step on them.
The sharp-eyed munchkin found this one under our table:
And the other day, when we were in the living room (which we seldom use), she came over to me and said, “Mama, close your eyes.” I did. “Come here.” I took her hand and followed her to the corner. “Look!” And this is what I saw:
And then I looked at her. I took photos of the tiles (we’re going to see if we can identify them using our book on tracking), but I couldn’t capture in a photograph her face in that moment, lit from within at the delight of being able to share delight. Fortunately, that’s something I’ll always have with me.
The attentive find that the universe has scattered gifts for them everywhere, and that’s something I hope she’ll always have.
(#7 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)
Our neighborhood, Colonia San Antonio, is pretty working-class, and residences and businesses are all mixed together. (Actually, this mix is typical throughout the city; only some new, built-for-gringos neighborhoods follow the pattern of US suburbs, with tracts of housing uninterrupted by anything as useful as a grocery store.) Add to these factors a relaxed attitude toward time and a welcoming attitude toward children, and you get a walk home from school that is utterly fascinating to a three-year-old who loves to watch people making things.
Her favorite stop is a carpentry/cabinetmaking shop two blocks from school, where the whine of machinery tells us we’re getting close, and then the smell of pine tells us we’re there. Munchkin wants to know everything: What are they making? What is he doing? What are these curly things on the floor? The man who seems to be the chief carpenter always stops his saw when he sees her and squats down to talk to her, and to give her some of the wood shavings.
A few doors up from the wood shop is some kind of metalworking shop; we haven’t seen it open that often, but one time someone was welding inside, throwing exciting sparks, and we always hope to see it again.
If we take a different route home from school, we pass a mechanic who is just as willing as the cabinetmaker to stop and explain what he’s doing, and whose work is just as fascinating to the munchkin. She thinks it’s very cool that he can put cars together. I tell her maybe one day she’ll be able to do it herself, and she’s pleased by that idea. It will probably still be a useful skill in 20 years–or, if we dare to hope that private cars will be rarer than today, there will still be some kind of engines to repair.
On the street just by the San Antonio church, another mechanic shop seems to be right out in the street. It first caught our notice when there was a taxi out front in a sad state. We walked by it a few times, not realizing it was there to be repaired (I thought it looked like a car by the side of a New York City highway after the chop shop has gotten to it), and then one day a man was working on it and we realized that the whole street is the extension of a mechanic’s yard on the same block. Munchkin wanted to watch him work on the taxi, so we sat up on a wall next to the sidewalk for a long time and talked about what he was doing, which was soldering new parts onto the inside of the hood. He didn’t mind at all. The munchkin was very interested in all the things wrong with the taxi; I was impressed that with broken windows, no wheels, and a devastated front end, it was still going to be fixed up and put on the road again. It has long since left the mechanic street, so who knows, maybe we’ve ridden in it since.
We pass two tortillerias on the way home, one of which is right around the corner from our house. There are plenty of places where you can see women making tortillas by hand, or more often, gorditas (thick tortillas that are cooked, cut in half, and filled like a pita), but the tortilleria has a machine. If it’s running, we’ll stop and watch the tortillas come out of the machine onto a neat stack, just like the kids in a book the munchkin loves from the San Miguel Biblioteca, Sip, Slurp, Soup, Soup – Caldo, Caldo, Caldo. I think it looks like a big improvement over making each one by hand, but still a really hot place to work on a June day. The lady at the counter always gives the munchkin a warm rolled-up tortilla, even though we’re no one’s dream customers, the way we buy tortillas by the paltry quarter-kilo.
Munchkin loves to watch people work. So do I. Usually I’m shy about it except in the few situations where the workers expect an audience, such as at a crafts fair where someone is throwing pots on the wheel, or a factory tour. When I was a little girl, a big attraction of going to Pepe’s Pizza was how I’d spend the time waiting for the pizza to come: I’d watch the guys in the big open kitchen ladling sauce onto the dough, slapping down the mozzarella like they were dealing cards, and then sliding the pizzas in and out of the brick oven on their enormous wooden spatulas. When I went back as an adult and stood there watching, the nearest cook kept looking up in a disgruntled way. I hope he isn’t like that with kids, just with adults. Maybe the people in our colonia wouldn’t be so comfortable with my standing there if I didn’t have a three-year-old holding my hand, but all I know is they always seem happy to see Munchkin and to take a moment to chat.
Most of the places we’ve lived, this kind of work takes place behind closed doors and we don’t get to see it in action. Walking through this colonia makes me feel a little like Shevek, in one of my favorite chapters in one of my favorite books, The Dispossessed, when he first comes to Abbenay, and walks through the courtyards where people are building, dyeing, and doing all the other work of a city: “nothing is hidden.”
(#3 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)