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A couple of weeks ago, Joy went to explore the big Chadraui, one of a supermarket chain around here. A smaller (though by no means small) one is a few blocks from us; the big one is on the other side of town. She came back with marvelous treats, such as real maple syrup and plain Cheerios–we’d only been able to find sweetened ones. The plain ones contain plenty of sugar, too, but something in my parenting sensibilities draws the line at the Honey-Nut variety, and faints dead away at Chocolate Cheerios. Munchkin has been missing her favorite cereal.

Joy described the store to us: “It’s the size of a small moon.” watermelondeathstar3

“That’s no moon,” I quipped nerdily, and so we have called the store the Death Star Chadraui ever since. Today, all three of us went there for the first time. Munchkin was excited. “Are we going to see the Death Star?” she said. At that point I thought we might have gone too far. At this rate, we were going to be in for some serious disappointment when we got there. I was hoping TIE fighters would come spinning out to meet us. “Yeah,” Munchkin said. “All the checkout people ought to be stormtroopers . . . ”

As it turned out, we didn’t see any TIE fighters or stormtroopers, nor was Darth Vader stalking through the dairy section, but we did enjoy ourselves, especially on the moving ramp, a kind of cross between a moving sidewalk and an escalator. The Empire ought to consider installing one of its own. And the store is the size of a small moon. Later, not really thinking about my choice of words, I told Joy that the store was “impressive.” She said, “Most impressive.”

 

(Death Star watermelon by SilverisDead, (c) 2009)

The light on my daughter’s face, and the face, were so beautiful that I said “I wish I could draw you,” and to my surprise she volunteered to hold still for 10-15 minutes.

image

It’s not a bad impression. It has that faraway look she has when she’s thinking. Naturally, it’s not as beautiful as the original.

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.

Your nominees?

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,

and this.

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.

A sanitation worker in downtown Lima. Photo by Manfredwinslow (public domain)

Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968:

“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.

photo by Joy Morgenstern

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.

I did draw on Monday as I promised myself, though not as intensively as I do when I’m face to face with a model and surrounded by other artists hard at work.  At home, there are the siren temptations of the kitchen (I’ve been drawing for ten minutes!  I deserve a pot of chai!) and Perry v. Schwarzenegger (no, I can’t just listen to the radio and draw–I have to leap up and argue with the attorneys!).  And this model does not sit still very long, so it was largely an exercise in 10-second gesture drawings.  However, she finally slept in one position long enough for me to draw the one on the bottom right.  Using the broad edge of a charcoal stick instead of a pencil was the key to showing fur in a way I’ve never managed before.  Joy really likes this, so I’m going to dig out the fixative and give it to her for her office.

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.

My daughter the munchkin, age three, has begun to sort out the world into boys and girls. “I a girl,” she explains, and asks other people, “Are you a girl?” We do let her know that there are people who don’t fall into either category, but as everyone who’s been asked so far has responded as expected, she might not grasp that concept yet. She is starting to assign her stuffed animals fixed sexes. We ask her sometimes about one or another of them, and get answers that are charmingly clueless about the linguistic implications:

“What’s Doggie?”
“He’s a girl.”

(She has also been known to tell us that she has a husband and that “She’s”–the husband’s–“sick. She has to go to the doctor.”)

You can almost see her drawing conclusions about all the possibilities open to her as she watches movies and notices that Coraline of Coraline* is a girl, as is Violet of The Incredibles–both with blue hair, so that she has already declared the intention to have blue hair too; I think she sees it as a badge of big-girlhood. And we pay attention to what she watches, trying to ensure that what she’s seeing doesn’t narrow down her world while it should be opening it up. Coraline and Violet are smart, brave, and eminently capable. The princess model is everywhere–to Munchkin, the basic requirements, and benefits, are that you have long hair and wear swirly dresses–but she doesn’t balk when I tell her a story about her taking a hot air balloon to a castle in the clouds and being shown around by, not the Princess, but the President. (I specified that the President had long hair. I didn’t comment on what she was wearing, and the munchkin didn’t ask.)

Things have definitely improved in the media since the days of Bambi and Winnie the Pooh, in which the only female characters are introduced in order to be someone’s mother or girlfriend. Not wanting to deprive her of the classics nor give her the message that the world is populated entirely by boys and men, with books I freely change the pronouns sometimes. It’s quite easy to turn Pooh and Piglet into girls if you just pay attention as you read aloud. But you can’t do this with movies, and I’m dismayed to observe that Hollywood is stuck at the tokenism stage.

Here are several movies we’ve watched recently, all of which I’ve enjoyed very much, but that collectively tell my daughter, who loves them too, that she lives in a world where almost everything interesting is done by the boys and the men.

Madagascar: Four main characters. So what do you figure the breakdown is–two male, two female? Nope. Three female, one male? Don’t make me laugh. Naturally, one is female and the other three are male. Gloria the Hippo is also the least important of the four, the sidekick’s sidekick. All of the other major players–the penguins, the lemurs–are male. I’m not sure about the bush baby.

Madagascar Escape 2 Africa: Gloria the hippo gets a plotline! Naturally, it’s about her love life.

Monsters, Inc.: Great movie! And the little kid is a little girl! She’s supercute, too, and brave. Plus, as in Madagascar II, a small juicy part goes to a woman. But the characters we spend the most time with are all male. (It’s a kind of buddy movie, and one of moviedom’s rules is that two women can’t be buddies, at least not without committing suicide by the closing credits.)

Shrek: Another buddy movie, another pack of writers who seem to think that if you create one spunky female character, you’re done paying attention to girls and women. My daughter loves this movie. How I wish I could show her a version where the hero is a girl. Or the hero’s sidekick is a girl. Or half the minor characters are girls.

Robots: Male robot (not sure how that works) goes off to land of male robot hero to redeem male robot dad, teams up with male robot friend, defeats male robot villain. This one has a slightly larger sprinkling of female characters than the above, but the central story is once again about one-half of the, um, species.

Ratatouille: Has a great female character, Colette. She really holds her own–which she has to do, because every other named character is male. Naturally, her main role is Love Interest.

The Incredibles (or, as Munchkin calls it without intentional humor, The ‘Credibles): This one actually has four significant female characters (and a black one! Hallelujah!), and everyone in the family regardless of sex has superpowers, but I’m putting it on the poop list for two reasons: Although Mom and Dad are both superheroes, the story isn’t Elastagirl’s, it’s Mr. Incredible’s. (Of course she becomes Mrs. Incredible when she gets married.) And when they have three kids, of course two are boys and one is a girl, because the rule is that the girls may never, ever outnumber the boys, except in the real world we’re all actually trying to live in.

None of these would ring alarm bells on its own, but looked at as a trend, they make a depressing one. Who is making these movies? As young as they are–as much as they grew up in a world where women weren’t just nurses, secretaries, moms and girlfriends–they seem to bring to writing and directing a worldview no different than the male writers a generation or more older, like Ray Bradbury or J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom I also adore, but who write about worlds almost exclusively male. (Don’t tell me about Eowyn. I’ve read the book and I know all about Eowyn. And about Arwen, Galadriel, Goldberry, Sam’s girlfriend Rosie, and Shelob. There you have it, the complete list of named female characters in a book of 1400 pages. It takes even less time to list the ones in The Hobbit, since there are none whatsoever.)

Does no one in the entire production process look at the cast list and say “There’s something odd about this picture”? Do any of them imagine watching it with their daughters? I wish that before the script moves on past its first draft or casting begins, everyone involved would consider whether it would pass the Bechdel test: the story has two named female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man. It doesn’t sound like that onerous a requirement, but it would be a huge leap forward.

Our little girl is just becoming aware of the fact that she is a girl, and as she sorts out what that might mean, the message she gets from almost all of the movies we show her–when they don’t just stare past her as if she doesn’t exist–is that it means her role in life is Minor, or at best Secondary, Character. I feel as if we are doing her a terrible disservice.

*A movie that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, and more

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