On Earth Day: Poetry Embracing Science

earth-dayI was shocked—an editor had just told me that poetry had no place in science books!  This young man had been assigned by the publisher to shepherd my completed work-for-hire, about watersheds for middle school readers, into print.  The poetry in question was a line or two by contemporary author Gary Snyder, which I had included in the book’s introduction.   Although this exchange happened more than a decade ago, it led to the essay below, first drafted in 2009, I would like to share with you today.

Upcoming Earth Day—with its all its celebrations—has reminded of this essay, as has a brand-new book by local, award-winning poet Joyce Sidman, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science (2018).  (More on that book, I think, in the next Gone Graphic.)  Two of Sidman’s earlier books had figured in the extended written response I ultimately made to that editor’s ignorant remark.  I also cited books by two other established, highly-lauded poets; published poems by young authors; and comments about my own sometimes poetic science books for kids.  I could have cited many more works.  The young man was ignoring a wealth of literature, and underestimating young readers, too!  

hera_picI was unsure about how to focus my reply, though, until I saw a call for papers for an academic conference centered on “Nature and the Humanities.”   I drafted the following essay, which I presented at that Chicago conference in 2009.   This presentation dovetailed my work and interest in writing for young readers with my earlier training as a university researcher and teacher.  Although the conference program listed me as an “independent scholar,” meaning one without a current university affiliation, even then I preferred being known as a “writer.”

Read on to learn more about “Watershed Moments: Poems that Cross Generations and Genres.”  And have a wonderful Earth Day, 2018, however you pay tribute to Mother Earth. 

————————— 

As poet Gary Snyder notes, a “watershed is a marvelous thing to consider: this process of rain falling, streams flowing and oceans evaporating . . . .  The watershed is beyond the dichotomy of orderly/disorderly, for its forms are free, but somehow inevitable.”  A recent spate of poetry books inspired by Nature supports Snyder’s insights.  These books subvert conventional notions of artistic proficiency, distinct genres, and separate audiences.

517pdTQ0siL._SX466_BO1,204,203,200_ Young authors now contribute annually to published volumes titled River of Words.   This outpouring of talent often begins in classrooms focused on science or environmental  issues, or with community groups dedicated to watershed restoration.   The Library of Congress cosponsors the yearly writing and art contest which in 1995 began this deluge of creativity.  The impact of these poems—whether limpid haiku or cascading torrents of word play—belies the age of their authors.  These young people are wise as well as witty.

 Other poets writing for young readers recognize this.   In volumes such as The Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems and Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of  the Meadow, Joyce Sidman conflates genres.  The factual explanations she adds    after her polished poems do not jar but flow naturally.  Lisa Westburg Peters in Earthshake: Poems from the Ground Up  and J.Patrick Lewis in Swan Song similarly interpose nonfiction with poetry.   The ebb and flow of these illustrated volumes satisfies adult readers as well as children.   I will highlight these trends, and then conclude with a few instances of how, when I write “faction” for young readers, I too use poetry to convey scientific concepts.

The River of Words competition offers a teacher’s guide to help educators introduce poetic forms and tropes in relation to environmental issues.  There are many styles of poetry displayed in its volumes and on its website.  For the sake of brevity and because they reflect my own poetic taste, I will share some of the shorter gems with you today.   From the 2008 volume published by Milkweed Press, this is how 9 year-old Damia Lewis describes herself:

I AM

 

You may think

I am a shadow,

But inside

I am a sun.

 

A brief, visionary, and luminous statement of hopeful possibilities.

 

This is how 16 year-old Anna Dumont captures one memorable moment:                                                                                                

GEESE OVER MENDON POND

 

They came upon us

like I, as a small child,

was always afraid

that a tornado would,

a black mass in the sky,

roaring and cackling,

the occasional high-pitched squeal

like metal on bone.

There were thousands of them,

far more than was necessary,

as if, in the sparse winter,

nature was indulging a little.

 

Anna Dumont, age 16

A witty and sharp-eyed comment about Nature’s vagaries as well as childhood.

 

And, finally, in honor of our gathering together today near the shores of Lake Michigan, here is the winner of this year’s Grand Prize in the competition category for grades 7 – 9, now displayed on the River of Words website.  Thirteen year-old Patty Schlutt of Grand Rapids, Michigan writes about

Stories Told With Sand Whipping in Our Faces

I was three years old.
My father pulled a map
out of his backpack,
roads spilling across it
like languages I did not understand.

Later, seagulls scampered
through the dunes
as we climbed to a place
where roots laced like fingers over the earth
      and Lake Michigan lay before us,
as if it were a guardian.
We stood looking out over the place where
he was born, the hospital
where doctors waited in white shoes
while his throat burned
from tonsillitis. I could see him

a young boy darting through the streets
on his way to the dunes,
the closest thing to heaven
that we have while we live below the stars.

The driveway his father paved
by hand, bruised
from days of bricks
pulling him towards the earth.

His memories fell from his mouth
and I remember them all well
as if it was that morning
and I was standing tall
with his childhood looking back at me.

 I believe that these poems speak for themselves, for their creators who are poets first, young poets second.  Their vision and artistic proficiency are moving for adult readers as well as their peers. 

At the end of this of this paper, I have attached three other poems by young writers, including one written in both English and Spanish.  That kind of multiculturalism is typical of this competition, which is an international one, with entries so far from 16 countries.  Humanists will also be pleased by the competition’s inclusion of the visual arts, both as a separate award-winning event and in the way it pairs visuals with poems in the anthologies.  Another artistic symbiosis occurred in 2002, when     multifaceted composer Chris Brubeck, commissioned to create a piece for soprano Frederica von Stade, composed River of Song.  Its libretto contains poems by five River of Words young poets as well as e.e. cummings.  I have that CD here, and can play a bit at the end of this session or after it if any of you wish.

51I7QSBX71L._SX400_BO1,204,203,200_Joyce Sidman’s award-winning picture books contain poetry that is versatile and sophisticated, giving readers the sensations of Nature before presenting their scientific explanations.  In Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems, these lucid prose explanations appear on the same pages as the poems.  In Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow, each double spread of poems ends with the questions, “What am I?” and the answers are revealed only once the page is turned.  A double spread of limpid prose then appears.

In 2005’s Song of the River Boatman, one device Sidman uses is repetition.  Here is the beginning of her poem “Listen to Me”:

                                        Listen to me on a spring night,

on a wet night,

on a rainy night.

Listen for me on a still night

for in the night, I sing.

 

                                                    That is when my heart thaws,     

                                                                       my skin thaws, 

my hunger thaws.

That is when the world thaws,

and the air begins to ring.

 The prose paragraph that follows the complete poem contains facts about its speaker, the inch-long tree frog called a spring peeper.  Sidman later aptly uses a cumulative poem to present the food chain of creatures that feast upon one another in a summer pond.  She uses contrapuntal voices to capture the mirrored lives of two water bugs—the water boatman and its upside down twin, the backswimmer.   But I believe the synergy between the four quatrains of “The Season’s Campaign” and the prose explanation that floats alongside is a ready demonstration of how  Sidman sinks the ideas of distinct genres and of separate—adult vs. child—audiences in her works.   She writes

The Season’s Campaign

 

I.Spring                                                II. Summer                                      

We burst forth,                                    Brown velvet plumes                 

crisp green squads                               bob jauntily.  On command,

 bristling with spears.                          our slim, waving arrows

We encircle the pond.                          rush toward the sun.

 

III.  Fall                                                  IV.  Winter

All red-winged generals                       Our feet are full of ice.

desert us.  Courage                               Brown bones rattle in the wind.

clumps and fluffs                                  Sleeping, we dream of

like bursting pillows.                            seed-scouts, sent on ahead.

 

Sidman then adumbrates what illustrator Becky Prange has depicted in a flowing quadriptych.  In a paragraph titled “Cattails,” Sidman explains that

Cattails are plants called emergents, for they grow half in and half out of the water.  Their tall, spiky leaves spread around the edges of ponds and shelter many animals.  Red-winged blackbirds nest in them, muskrats build mounds with their leaves, and ducks paddle among them, hidden from predators.  The most distinctive part of the cattail is its brown “flower,” which looks like  sausage on a stick.  Soft as a cat’s tail, this flower becomes a fluffy mass of parachuting seeds, spreading with the wind.  When tiny cattail seeds fall on moist soil, they sprout and grow new cattails.               

Adult as well as younger readers will readily appreciate how cunningly Sidman has woven this information throughout the military parade of her poem.

61vTm0Q6LTL._SX427_BO1,204,203,200_In the 2006 volume Butterfly Eyes, Sidman continues to address a range of audiences.  This is evident in her identifying some of the poetic forms she uses in her titles, such as the poem  “We are Waiting (a pantoume).”  Turning the page, readers learn that this aptly repetitive poem– beginning and ending with the same line, as pantoums do—describes forest renewal or succession.  The added frisson of seeing how subtly the poet has aligned her form with its content  need not be present to savor these pieces; yet  this knowledge resonates for the informed  adult or young reader.  And readers mystified by the rather exotic word “pantoume”  may be inspired to look up its meaning.  Sidman does not talk down to her audience, purportedly elementary school aged readers.  Similarly, Sidman’s short poem “He” works on several levels:

                                              

He

trots

through

meadow-gold grass

in dawn sun

furred

mysterious

a word

          hunting

its own

meaning

 

Who is he?

When the next page reveals that this creature is a fox, the adult or sophisticated reader will gain added pleasure from knowing that “foxy” means clever or crafty, but one need not know this to appreciate the other visual and tactile images in this poem.  

61zXvXKUUiL._SX429_BO1,204,203,200_ Lisa Westberg Peters has a very different voice—wry, rollicking, and goodhumored—in her 2003 collection Earthshake: Poems from the Ground Up. She often uses puns and plays with conventional narrative forms to convey her joy in  geological facts.  Both are apparent in this earthy gem, which takes the form of a set of written directions:

 

 

Instructions for the Earth’s Dishwasher

Please set the

continental plates

gently on the

continental shelves.

No jostling or scraping.

 

Please stack the

basins right side up.

No tilting or turning

upside-down.

 

Please scrape the mud

out of the mud pots.

But watch out!

They’re still hot.

 

As for the forks

in the river,

                                                                 just let them soak.

 

Remember,

if anything breaks,

it’s your fault.

 

In the End Notes for this book. under this poem’s title, Peters explains that

Some complex geological features have simple, everyday names.  For example, a plate is a section of the earth’s outer layer, or crust.  A basin is a low area in the earth’s crust.  A shelf is an underwater platform on the edge of a continent.  Mud pots are formed when rising steam changes rock into clay.  A river is “forked” when it has more than one branch.  A fault is a crack in the earth’s crust.

Other fun-filled poems in this anthology take the forms of a love letter, an obituary,  want ads, a warning label, and recipes.  .  The title poem, “Earthshake,” is a recipe for a frothy beverage—akin to a milkshake!   In each instance, an End Note explains the science behind the poem.  I believe Peters’ inspired whimsy appeals to old as well as young and is an effective bridge linking poetry and prose. 

51DWuIlRF6L._SX356_BO1,204,203,200_J. Patrick Lewis takes a slightly-more more solemn tone in his 2003 collection, Swan Song, which befits its subtitle: Poems of Extinction. As he explains in his melodious and onamtopoeia-rich Foreward, 

This book is about the recently departed.  In Earth’s great forests and fields, they buzzed and chirped and bellowed through little incidents of sorrow from roughly 1627 to 2000.  Whether beautiful or homely, giant or dwarf, each species was its own drama in many disappearing acts, even if it was very far off the Broadway of the dinosaurs.

As you can see from the sophisticated language and sentence structure of this paragraph, Lewis’s audience encompasses both old and young readers.  The poet uses End Notes to explain the history of each vanished species, eulogized in a poem, such as this one which—bittersweetly—yields both the volume’s title and shorthand for extinction itself:

Chatham Island Swan

Chatham Island, rich and rare resort

For migratory marvels on the wind,

Is something of an empty royal court:

A paradise without a queen and king.

 

Exotic birds were commoners to those,

Who once, an age ago, could silhouette

In symmetry and S on S, and pose,

Or glorify a shoreline, dripping wet.

 

But beauty is handmaiden of the strong,

Or else we might have heard

          this Swan’s swan song.

 

Lewis’s graceful play upon “swan song” in the poem’s last line is as elegant as Christopher Wormell’s wood block illustration.  And the End Note which explains the extinction of this New Zealand bird is as sophisticated and rich in its prose as the poem itself:

Four hundred fifty miles from any other inhabited land, the group of ten Chatham Islands is a part of New Zealand.  Maoris, the first human settlers, populated them in 1000 A.D.  The Chatham Island Swan, lovely by being, innocent by nature, defenseless in its habitat, found its way to dinner tables—and to extinction—even before the British colonized the islands in 1791.

Lewis, perhaps even more than Sidman, writes prose that is poetically rhythmic.

51M0EJ+Bz4L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Finally, let me just point out a few instances in which I have used poetic language to make science memorable for young readers in picture books.  I completed the Amazing Science series, a collection of six books, in 2003 specifically for very young readers—children pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade.  Each book had an assigned topic, tailored to grade school curriculum.  But I wrapped science concepts in words children could savor and take with them as they grow.  For instance, in Dirt: The Scoop on Soil, readers learn that “Squiggling worms, trailing snails, slithering snakes, and burrowing rabbits loosen the soil as they crawl through it.”  I am pleased to say that this book is one of 22 that the Minnesota State Department of Agriculture distributes annually to classrooms statewide.  

Light: Shadows, Mirrors, and Rainbows  begins with a two page spread that reads:

Delightful Light

Shadows play on a sunny day.  Water glints and gleams.  At a storm’s end, a rainbow bends.  

Wherever you look, light dazzles and dances.  It makes wonderful shapes and colors.  Light is what lets you see things.

 

51-v0vop1JL._AC_UL115_Guidelines for this series called for no more than three sentences per page.  I concluded Light with this two page spread:

     All around, light is sparkling, swirling, blinking, bending, and bouncing.

Watch.  Wonder.  Investigate.  Our world is shining with colorful new things to explore.

 

9781404800151At times, in this series, guidelines and editorial concerns led me reluctantly towards more plodding prose, but my background in the humanities gave me strength and motivation to resist!  And so, in Rocks: Hard, Soft, Smooth, and Rough, readers learn that “Some sedimentary rocks tell stories about the past—stories of forgotten forests and vanished seas.  They tell tales of creatures that swam, slithered, or crept.”  This book concludes by asking readers to look closely at the rocks around them and asks, “What stories do these rocks tell?”  

It pleases me to think that—along with the extraordinary poetry of Sidman, Peters, and Lewis—some of the young authors entering the River of Words competition may have read my science picture books in their school classrooms or libraries.

Copyright 2009 Natalie M. Rosinsky

                                                                                        

Works Cited

Brubeck, Chris. “River of Song.” on Convergence (Music CD). NY: Koch Entertainment, 2002.

Lewis, J. Patrick.  Swan Song: Poems of Extinction.  Mankato, MN: Creative Editions, 2003.   

Michael, Barbara, ed.  River of Words: Young Poets and Artists on the Nature of Things.  Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2008.

Peters, Lisa Westerg.  Earthshake: Poems from the Ground Up.  NY: HarperCollins, 2003.

Rosinsky, Natalie M.  Dirt: The Scoop on Soil.  Minneapolis: Picture Window Books, 2003.

————————-.  Light: Shadows, Mirrors, and Rainbows.  Minneapolis: Picture Window Books, 2003.

————————-.  Rocks: Hard, Soft, Shiny, and Smooth.  Minneapolis:  Picture Window Books, 2003.

Sidman, Joyce. Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

——————.  Song of the River Boatman & Other Pond Poems.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Snyder, Gary.  A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds.    Berkeley, CA:  1995.

  

          More Poems from River of Words. Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2008:

 

WHEN I WAS SEARCHING FOR A POEM

 a fox stepped out of nowhere.

His long legs stretched across the stone wall.

He paused as we stared,

both wondering where the other was going,

although it was obvious each was wandering—

lost.

I paused as we stared,

both wondering why the other was

using it for direction—

lost.

He  wasn’t a sly fox—

At least I didn’t see it in his eyes.

He was frightenend.

I’d never seen a fox before.

I was frightened, too.

 

There.

A living poem—

A girl, a fox

connected

only by a stone wall

and a fear of the unknown.

 

Zoe Mason, age 13

 

PRAYER

 

Often have I come to you

In the fitful light of evening

Or the constant sheen of morning

And often have I sought your solace,

River.

Show me the secret of your solitude

That thing, that unknown certain thing

Which has brought you through a hundred shifting seasons

And will bring you through at least a thousand more.

Teach me to be alone through summer, autumn, winter, spring

And still to catch the gleaming sunset

And dance in golden eddies in the shadows of the islands.

Tell me all the secrets of those silent seasons

Or one thing only—

When spring comes, show me how to break the ice.

 

Alexandra Petri, Age 14

 

 

THERE IS A DARK RIVER                                  HAY UN RIO OSCURO

 

There is a dark river                                           En la alcantarilla de la calle

In the gutter of the street                                  En frente de mi escuela

In front of my school.                                                Nacio de la lluvia

It was born in the rain                                                  Y no corre mas.

And isn’t flowing any more.                                        Se quieda triste

It’s sort of sad                                                      Con goats de gasolina

With drops of gasoline                                      Y un papel rojo

And a red wrapper                                              Que tiro un nino

Some kid tossed                                                  Despues de comer un dulce.

After eating a candy.                                          Petro aun triste y sucio

But although it’s sad and filthy                       Lleva la sombra de mi cara

It carries the shadow of my face                      Las nubes andrajosas

The tattered clouds                                            Y en blanco y negro

And in white and black                                     Todo el cielo.

The whole sky.

 

                                                                      Michelle Diaz Garza, age 9

                                                                      & Rosa Baum, age 9

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Being Brave and Bold

march-lives_697Awkward middle schoolers gaining confidence and becoming brave— two great graphic novels about this transition are my focus today, inspired by current events.

How do young people learn to be brave and bold?  I have been thinking about this since last week’s March for Our Lives, helmed by students protesting gun violence in schools and elsewhere.  The 800 or so demonstrations here in the U.S. and world-wide showed how connected, committed, and bold young people can be.   A movement born in reaction to the recent Parkland, Florida school shooting is now nation-wide and even transcends borders.  Such tragic events calling out for change may spur boldness. 

29844341Knowing about the success of past protests may also be inspirational.   There were shout-outs to the civil rights movement in several U.S. demonstrations last Saturday.  Speakers at the Washington, D.C. march included not only survivors of gun violence but the 9 year-old granddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Yolanda Renee King.  Her own “dream . . . that this should be a gun-free world”  echoed Dr. King’s powerful words and vision.  In Atlanta, the civil rights hero Representative John Lewis spoke with authority when he told young demonstrators that, by never giving up or in, they were “going to have a victory.”   Some tweens and teens may have learned about Congressman Lewis and the civil rights movement through the award-winning graphic trilogy about his life, March, Books  1 -3  (2013 – 16), reviewed by me here and here.

61+37jJgn3L._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_Yet such historical examples of bravery, perhaps introduced in school, are just one way kids learn to be brave.  More immediate and sometimes painful lessons happen through everyday life, which for most Western tweens and teens centers on school.  With this in mind, today I want to spotlight two graphic novels that I read recently, after eagerly looking at the American Library Association’s 2018 Great Graphic Novels for Teens listBrave (2017), written and illustrated by Canadian Svetlana Chmakova, was one of that list’s top ten books.  It is a spin-off of Chmakova’s earlier Awkward (2015), which in 2016 was also a YALSA top ten graphic novel.  Minor characters in Awkward become the protagonists in Brave, which can be read as a stand-alone novel.

In Awkward, we follow the (mis)adventures of Peppi Torres, the new girl at Berrybrook Middle School.  Through her first-person account, we see how this shy, sometimes physically-awkward pre-teen acquires genuine friendships as she deals with other students and cliques at school.  Art-loving Peppi is surprised to learn download (4)how much she enjoys science, even though the Art Club kids are “at war” with the Science Club!  Peppi’s personal growth is accented by the one time that Awkward’s muted palette of mauve and soft browns or  blues effectively flares into vivid colors.  During a class trip to a science museum, as Peppi imagines herself visiting terrains around the globe, she “sees” them in bright greens, yellows, and shimmering white.  This color transformation parallels the strength of the friendship Peppi ultimately develops with equally shy Jaime, a science “nerd,” and the strong way she finally is able to literally shout down some bullies.

Yet Awkward is not a simple, linear work.  Its large cast of characters includes students and teachers of wide-ranging backgrounds and ethnicities.  With apt words and visual details, Chmakova gives us the attitudes and home lives of kids rich and awkward_preview6-copy (1)poor, of families which cope with disability and others which break apart due to self-centered anger.  We see teachers with lovable foibles and others with fearsome flair.  There are several subplots resolved in Awkward, even as we follow the main story about Peppi through the novel’s six chapters and 200 pages.  We see Peppi’s life over the course of several months, noting how her emotions trump ordinary clock time.  An anxious, sleepless night which feels endless occupies several pages, while the few minutes she spends nervously convincing the art and science clubs to work together to build an indoor planetarium feel  like “SEVERAL CENTURIES LATER.”  The planetarium is a success, returning both groups to officially approved school status.  Peppi learns to be brave by working with others in such efforts as well as speaking out by herself.   Or, as Peppi herself concludes, “BUILD THINGS.  BUILD FRIENDSHIPS. BUILD YOURSELF.”  

In Brave, Chmakova continues to use capital letters and different fonts for 61l8JZ2C8sL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)emphasis as well as to indicate actual changes in spoken volume.  Readers of both works will also note their similar, manga-inspired visual style, since both feature faces and some actions drawn unrealistically.  Chmakova’s earlier success as creator of manga  for publishers Tokyopop and Yen Press is evident in her depiction of  impossibly wide frowns and smiles, surprised eyes with pinpoint or no pupils, and doubling of arms and legs to indicate motion.  These techniques will delight lovers of manga and be accessible to other readers as this style so cleverly supports each work’s rich storyline and characterization.   

Brave’s protagonist and narrator is twelve year-old Jensen Graham.  This somewhat download (5)overweight boy, fixated on potential disasters caused by sunspots, was a minor character in Awkward, a member of the middle school Art Club.  In Brave, we see how Jensen is physically bullied and teased about his weight, obsessions, and trouble with math, even as some students he considers friends ignore him or make slyly mean jokes at his expense.  Jensen’s visualizing his school day as a video game, with a series of leveled obstacles to overcome, is both sad and funny!  Pages or panels depicting this game and Jensen’s comforting daydreams are the points at which Awkward’s subdued palette adds some brighter colors.

Jensen’s learning to recognize different forms of bullying and to speak up for 1himself are major points in the novel.  Its nuanced characterizations also have his thoughtless friends learning to recognize and change their verbal bullying, while one of the two physical bullies also begins to change.  These subplots enrich the 10 chapter novel, which also sees outer-space obsessed Jensen coming to appreciate school athletes, two of whom befriend and stand up for him.  As Jensen says to himself, “I guess sports are . . . kinda like their Star Trek.”   Such natural sounding thoughts and dialogue are one of the ways Chmakova  brings her many characters to life. 

These characters include newspaper editors Jenny and Akilah, longtime friends first introduced in Awkward.  Here, working on the school’s news video blog, the girls learn to acknowledge and overcome their different attitudes towards risk and anger.  Jenny has a hair-trigger temper, but she is more afraid of offending school authorities than mild-mannered, hajib-wearing Akilah.  Such richly-drawn figures and relationships are a fine, engaging substitute for the “tutoring for middle school life” that at one point is beleaguered Jensen’s wish.

444f2bdc-b7fe-412e-813e-ea23c16fd05bSvetlana Chmakova’s perceptive insights and engaging characters make us eager to read the illustrated autobiographical pieces at the end of each book.  She provides relevant details about her life in Russia and as a 15 year-old immigrant to Canada, as well as—in Brave—reassuring scientific facts about sunspots!  I believe readers will be happy to learn that a third volume about Berrybrook Middle School’s students, titled Crushwill be published in October, 2018. 

Before then, fans of Awkward and Brave who like spooky stories might want to check out the manga listed at Chmalkova’s website.  (I myself will be requesting the 61FJgSzab-L._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_first volume of Night School from the local library.)  Kids wanting to know more about 1960s civil rights battles would find The Silence of Our Friends, a graphic novel reviewed by me here, rewarding.  I am Alfonso Jones, highlighted here, is a stunning, gut-wrenching graphic novel linked to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.  And, for those brave and bold young people who choose to unite in protest, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has produced Be Heard!,  a a short comic detailing student protesters’ rights and suggested best practices. 

 

 

 

 

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Of Mice and Middle School

bm_curtsyBabymouse is growing up!   I recently learned that the perky heroine of twenty graphic novels for young kids started this school year as a middle schooler.   Yet the safe haven that school provides this fantasy character is not what students actually experience these days in our gun-riddled culture.

61mXgcWu7WL._SX394_BO1,204,203,200_Lights, Camera, Middle School! (2017) is the first in a new series about the wise-cracking, imaginative rodent, who daydreams in pink.   Her earlier (mis)adventures have ranged from  supposedly being Queen of the World (Babymouse # 1, 2005) to being an Olympic champion who Goes for the Gold (Babymouse # 20,  2016).  Along the way, these best-selling humorous books have won numerous awards, including a prestigious Eisner Award in 2013 for best graphic publication for early readers. 

51kzuE5aRpL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_In the new series, labelled “Babymouse Tales from the Locker,” Lights, Camera, Middle School! describes how Babymouse’s  joining Film Club is part of her adjustment to that new environment.  Her difficulties, while humorous, are very real.  As she says early on, “The hardest subject in middle school . . . was friendship.”  The second book in this series, Miss Communication, dealing with social media in middle school, will be published in July, 2018.   To distinguish these books, written  for older readers, from the first series,  the sister-brother  team of author Jennifer L. Holm and illustrator Matthew Holm has explained that “We switched up our procedure a bit . . .  [from] a traditional graphic novel.”  Matt Holm describes the new look as “more like an illustrated chapter book.”   Since this book includes graphic novel sequences, however,  I would call this work a hybrid novel.  I first discussed that graphic trend here in 2014, and recommended another hybrid novel here in 2016.  (Using the term “hybrid novel” in a search will help you and tween or teen readers find works which similarly mix pages of prose with graphic novel sequences.)

In the narrative of Lights, Camera, Action! Jennifer Holm displays the insights into character and command of dialogue that figure in her award-winning all-prose 7novels for tweens.  (I mention some of these Newberry Honor books in a review article here.)  Babymouse comes to understand how her outrageous demands as director of the Film Club’s movie epic “Au Revoir, Locker” have alienated the cast and crew.  We see her salvage her friendships even as we enjoyably witness how Club members translate her grandiose schemes (for the Eiffel Tower . . . and elephants, too!) into middle school “work-arounds.”  Babymouse’s interjecting bits of French into conversations  shows how she wishes to be sophisticated, while bold face type conveys the natural rhythms of her less affected speech.  Her kid brother Squeak and grandfather are also memorable characters in this Babymouse work, along with Wilson the weasel, George the giraffe, Lucy the bat, and catty Felicia Fuzzypaws. 

Illustrator Matt Holm’s graphic novel sequences in this book carry the storyline along with witty impact.  I particularly enjoyed the pages in which Babymouse imagines being attacked by a monster in her locker.  Small panels overlapping a 20larger one communicate her race to escape, while the use of dark background and a shift in perspective  show her terror as a horde of angry lockers pursue and surround her!  Then the school bell rings, and our heroine is back to safe reality.   At other points, single illustrations complement the author’s words tellingly.  For instance, a zombie-like teacher filling a blackboard with homework assignments humorously explains the words “And everywhere you turned, someone was trying to eat your brains.”  Despite Babymouse’s misgivings and some actual failures, her middle school really is a safe environment in which to learn and grow.   The Holm siblings do a great job of communicating this positive message in a way that engages readers of all ages, not just their targeted audience of 8 to 12 year-olds.

02And yet—while I definitely recommend the new Babymouse series, looking forward to its next volume—its wholesome portrayal of middle school contrasts so vividly with school images recently in the news.  I cannot get those out of my mind.  Schools today are not the safe environments portrayed by the Holms . . . but not because of any of the situations Babymouse fears.  This past Valentine’s Day saw the single-shooter slaughter of unarmed high school students and staff.  Parkland, Florida has now been added to the litany of school shootings which in recent decades has included WDICFmiddle and even elementary schools.  Without school guards, metal detectors, or police officers, Babymouse’s school settings resemble those of more innocent eras, not today’s wary fortresses.  The Mouseketeers of my own youth might have fit into Babymouse’s carefully framed and expertly crafted world.  I may bring this up to Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm when they visit the Twin Cities later this month.  The celebrated creators of Babymouse and other memorable characters will be here to accept their well-deserved Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota.

51DbIURoEuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Such thoughts led me to see if any graphic novels or comics have dealt with school shootings.  As a result, I am now waiting for mail delivery of the hybrid novel Jamie’s Got a Gun (2014).  Written by Canadian educator Gail Sidonie Sobat and illustrated by Spyder Yardley-Jones, it is told from the point-of-view of a teen as he plans a shooting.  Will that tragedy be averted?  I will need to read the book to find out and evaluate it overall.  I decided to pass on the DC Comics series Hard Time (2004 – 2005), as its treatment of a school shooting is framed for adult readers, ones especially interested in odd superpowers. 

41AOTY4hZbL._AC_US327_QL65_My literature search turned up many more all-prose novels focused on school shootings.  Some are already downloaded or now on my library request list.  Violent Ends: A Novel in Seventeen Points of View (2016), edited by Shaun David Hutchinson, sounds particularly interesting.  Its seventeen chapters, written by seventeen different authors including Hutchinson himself, deliberately exclude the viewpoint of its teen-age shooter.  Instead, the book portrays the views of the six people he killed 51wIBOX79UL._AC_US327_QL65_and the five he injured.   Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (2014), told in a single day as a teen prepares to shoot someone else and himself, is also now on my reading list.  It includes the would-be shooter’s meetings with four individuals who have shown him kindness, including a home-schooled girl and a teacher who himself survived the Holocaust. After finishing all these emotionally-intense books, I suspect I will be happy to return to the humor-filled, sharp-eyed  but warm-hearted school corridors of the Babymouse books!

 

 

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In War and Peace

africanWhat happens when peacetime resembles war?  I will be pondering this question in coming weeks as we celebrate Black History Month, also known as African-American History Month here in the U.S.A.

This year there will be a special focus on the experiences of Black combatants in wartime and its aftermath.  The centennial of World War I (1914 – 1918), once optimistically called “the War to End All Wars,” has spurred this focus.  Certainly, explosive graphic novels such as The Harlem Hellfighters (2014)  (discussed by me here in a bk_harlem-hellfighters2014 omnibus review of graphic literature about World War I) call dramatic attention to how U.S. discrimination against Blacks followed them onto the battlefields of France.  This work follows members of the all-Black 369th Battalion—real-life members and some fictionalized amalgams—before, during, and after the Army service for which they had volunteered.  A short video interview  of the novel’s author Max Brooks, showing documentary footage of the events he and illustrator Caanan White vividly bring to life in their book, is well worth seeing. 

I was pleased to learn, while updating my 2014 review, that in 2015 Sergeant Henry Johnson, one of the Hellfighters, was finally posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism.  France had ph_harlemhellfighters (1)acknowledged Johnson’s bravery with its Croix de Guerre, its highest military honor, back in 1919.  I was also interested to learn that Hollywood star Will Smith is again planning to produce a dramatized version of the Hellfighters’ saga, this time working with TV’s History Channel.  In 2014 Smith had previously  optioned Brooks’ book for a movie version, a failed plan.    

Similarly, just as World War I did not “end” all future conflicts, President Woodrow Wilson’s promise that winning the war would make the world “safe for democracy” was broken many times—particularly for Black soldiers who fought in that war and their descendants.  One has only, in some instances, to look out the window or 61FJgSzab-L._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_watch the news on TV or Facebook to see how wartime violence—with armed, uniformed officers often pitted against unarmed civilians—has become commonplace in today’s so-called peacetime.  Too often, these incidents feature White officials firing upon Black citizens, a reflection of U.S. society’s ongoing racism.  Today I spotlight an amazing new graphic novel that powerfully epitomizes and gives context to this epidemic of violence: I Am Alfonso Jones (2017), written by Tony Medina and illustrated by Stacey Robinson and John Jennings.  Their book also shows how and why the Black Lives Matter movement is a response to this epidemic.

Early in the novel, fifteen-year old Alfonso Jones—bright, funny, loving, and hard-working—is shot to death in a mid-town Manhattan department store.  The White off-duty police officer moonlighting there as a security guard says he thought the coat hanger Alfonso was holding was a pointed gun!  Pictures by illustration I_Am_Alfonso_Jones_Spread_2partners Robinson and Jennings show how such a mistake was visually impossible, while Medina’s insightful commentary explains how the officer’s stunted, racist outlook provoked him to a fatal, kneejerk reaction.   Believing all Black teens are dangerous, that Blacks are inferior “savages,” and hearing from another customer that there is a Black man with a gun, Officer Whitson in a fearful instant slays Alfonso.  This senseless tragedy could have been avoided.  As the boy’s grieving mother eloquently says, if Whitson’s schooling and “broader reality. . . movies, TV, whatever. . .”  had been different. . . “maybe he would have seen my son as a teenager, as a person, as a citizen, as an American, as a human. . . .”    

Medina, an award-winning author, creates such believable teen-age characters that Alfonso’s death, after only thirty pages, is profoundly moving and disturbing.  We see the humor and energy, the nervousness and affection that Alfonso brings to his bike messenger job, his school activities, and his crush on classmate Danetta even as he asks her to go with him to buy his first real suit.  There, while he is trying I_Am_Alfonso_Jones_Spread_3on coats for her, his life’s hopes end in a volley of bullets!   But that is not where the novel ends.  For another 130 pages, we follow the Harlem teen’s journey as a ghost—on an intangible subway train joining the spirits of  other, real-life Black victims of senseless violence.  Mrs. Eleanor Bumpurs, Amadou Diallo, Michael Stewart, Anthony Baez, and Henry Dumas were each slain in different recent decades in New York City history.  Now, as fictional characters, they join Alfonso to journey back and forward in time and place, visiting past injustices and following along as Alfonso’s friends, family, and community grieve and protest his death.  

This narrative framework—potentially unbelievable and melodramatic—remains grounded in human warmth and loss.   Medina’s wise words and savvy characterization and Robinson and Johnson’s powerful images keep the book real.  Ghost Alfonso responds with bewilderment and anger to his death and then poignantly returns to typical teen-age responses as he observes life going on without him.  We see through his envious eyes a school production of “Hamlet” he had hoped to join which now features a former rival. Instead of a traditional production, it is now a hip-hop version.  Shakespeare’s “to be or not be” is retold in the rhythms of “What is a life/What is a lie/When your dis-ease/Causes another to die?”  There, as elsewhere in the novel, animated facial features and gesturing, fluid figures enhance the written word.

DH7bgsVVYAEiqhZEntirely wordless pages also advance the story here.  As the book opens, before we really know who Alfonso is, we silently witness the first bullet to strike the teen.  We are “hooked” by this two page sequence, paced so deftly by Robinson and Jennings with techniques they then use throughout the book.  They move deftly between long distance and close-up views, breaking panel frames to great effect and sometimes eliminating panels altogether to create a sense of motion or time.  I Am Alfonso Jones deserves the many accolades it has already garnered from writers, graphic artists, and reviewers.   It is, I feel, a sure contender for awards in the coming year.   A teachers’ guide to the novel is also available at its publisher’s website.

51lcHAEqhdL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_What else will I be reading or rereading this coming Black History month?  Once I stop feeling devastated by I Am Alfonso Jones, I might 41SH-I-BHxL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_catch up with the all-prose looks at unwarranted White police  violence in All-American Boys (2015) by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely or The Hate U Give (2017) by Angie Thomas. (A movie adaptation of that best-seller will reach theaters later this year.)  I have already read and can recommend Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down (2015), dealing with similar issues.   

51mi3lieBWL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_First, though, the stand-out visual storytelling in Alfonso will have me catching up with the graphic novel adaptation of one of my favorite contemporary classics, Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979; 1988; 2004).  That haunting, award-winning novel about time travel to the slave-holding American South, illustrated by Alfonso’s John Jennings and adapted by Damian Duffy, just last year became an acclaimed best-seller as Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation (2017).   Both versions depict the cruel, warlike violence typical in the supposedly peaceful South.   

 

 

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Celebrating a New Year

download (2)Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

These words from a Tennyson poem are one traditional New Year’s refrain—but they are just wishful thinking this January 1.  For many of us, taxed by President Trump’s gross misstatements as well as his policies, it may well be November 6, 2020 before we can officially “ring out the false, ring in the true.”  But I believe that persistence between now and then is itself worth some celebratory bell-ringing, that there can be as much value in continuity as there is in change.  Reading a recently published chapter book, The River Bank: A Sequel to The Wind in the Willows (2017), foregrounded this idea for me.  Today I look at this charming illustrated work along with some comic book series, all for upper-elementary age and older readers.

61GhHbKyKjLAward-winning author Kij Johnson has written a wonderful sequel to Kenneth Grahame’s classic animal fable, The Wind in the Willows (1908), creating female characters Beryl Mole and Lottie Rabbit, who join his male protagonists–brave Water Rat, loyal Mole, wise Badger, and reckless Toad—in new adventures.  In The River Bank, Beryl and Lottie establish their own peaceful home and routines along that shore, and later also triumph over motor cycle accidents and kidnapping by criminal weasels!  Illustrator Kathleen Jennings provides delicate, character-rich line drawings in full-page and many spot illustrations that highlight the story, reinforcing and enriching its early 20th century setting.   

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I myself truly appreciated The Wind in the Willows only as an adult, with an adult son, as I have explained here.   Johnson, however, appreciated it as a child.  During her Iowa girlhood, as she recently said, Johnson imagined what female characters 1020023121might have done had they existed in some of the literary classics she loved.  The Far Bank and similar rewritten classics, she adds, “build a story that opens up the ignored, forgotten, or blocked-off passageways in the original.  It’s a mark of our affection for a work that we labor so hard to understand and, perhaps, to redeem it.”   Johnson’s pitch-perfect recreation of Kenneth Grahame’s poetic, high-flown language is one of the marvels of this sequel, which may be enjoyed on its own, without ever having read The Wind in the Willows.  But readers will experience more joy and meaning from such luminous phrases as “an animal lives in the long now of the world” if they have already read Grahame’s work.  I suspect that young readers who pick up Johnson’s book first will make their way soon to the original.

51kv+Ij95gL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_So, in a new year valuing continuity as well as change, I will point out the welcome, continued publication of comic book series with racially and culturally diverse heroines and heroes.  Kamala Khan, the Pakistani-American, Muslim Ms. Marvel, reviewed here , here, and here, had Volume 8: Mecca (2017) just published on December 27—in time for new year’s reading!  Volume 9 is scheduled for publication in July, 2018.  Lunella Lafayatte, the African-American pre-teen Moon Girl, reviewed here, has since appeared in Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Volume 3 517Uf3FBRXL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_(2017).  Volume 4 will be published in a few weeks and Volume 5 is set for July, 2018 publication.  Other characters in that Marvel comic book universe have called nine-year old, science-loving Lunella “one of the smartest people” in their world!  While its sales figures are not super high, a troubling trend, devoted fans of this comic book series are discussing ways it would make a great animated film or TV show.  Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino American Spiderman, also continues to be published, appearing in his own series and as a side character in other related titles. 

61Maubji3rLGraphic novel luminary Gene Luen Yang also continues to bring his talents to the inventive continuation of comic book heroes.  This congressionally-appointed National Ambassador for Children’s literature, working with Malaysian illustrator Sonny Liew,  first reclaimed and reinvented a minor 1940s comics figure  in the graphic novel The Shadow Hero (2016), reviewed here  and here.  This book pays tribute to the Chinese-American author’s background.  Now he is reinventing Superman!  Yang was first invited by DC Comics in 2014 to write a series about the traditional version of this iconic character.  This led to a nine-issue series (#41-50), illustrated by John Romita, in which Superman has lost many of his powers and his Clark Kent identity is no longer secret.    But it is Gene Yang’s more recent, ongoing creation of an alternate universe Superman in the New Super-Man series that I find inspirational.  In these years in which our president asserts that the U.S. is better off having less global involvement and fewer immigrants, Yang’s Superman is a Chinese teenager living in Shanghai! 

61Hr6dcxWMLSeventeen year old Kong Kenan is thrilled to receive Clark Kent’s superpowers.  He and all his acquaintances know all about those powers and other U.S. A. superheroes because, as Kenan remarks, “Everybody knows who Superman is.” Today we live in a globalized world, as is evident in the trans-national advertising, clothes, and activities in illustrator Viktor Bogdanovic’s detailed depiction of cosmopolitan Shanghai, a Chinese commercial hub.  This fusion of cultures is also evident in inker Richard Friend’s  lettering, which is color-coded to show how English is incorporated into the everyday speech of China.  We learn that characters’ black-lettered words here stand in for their Mandarin language, while the light-blue words are English words and phrases now current in China.

New Super-Man Volume 1 (2016- ): Made in China (2017)  and New Super-Man Volume 2 (2016-  ): Coming to America (2017), collecting issues 1 through 12,  are intriguing for a number of reasons. Kong Kenan at first is not likeable at all!  We watch how this boastful bully, quick to taunt as well as to grab, learns to be a kinder nsm33jpgand more thoughtful person, even as he deals with the political and physical battles linked to his new superpowers.  As a member of the new “Justice League of China,” Kenan becomes friends with its teenaged Bat Man, Wonder Woman, and female Flash only when he learns to control his verbal jabs as well as his impulsive actions.  As Kenan thinks to himself, “A numb lip is the price of friendship.”  Writer Yang’s dialogue here is fresh and fun—with fast retorts and interplay among the teens, with the slightly-older reporter Lan Laney (the Lois Lane of this series), and between the young superheroes and two sets of apparent supervillains.    We also wonder about the true motives of the government official, Dr. Omen, in charge of the League and about who is behind the mask of one head villain, Flying Dragon General.  How bad can he really be if he at one point saves Kenan and also often talks about “Truth, Justice, and Democracy”. . . the same words we have heard Kenan’s working class father say?  That mystery, and the mystery of Kenan’s mother’s possibly accidental death are subplots throughout these volumes.

Kenan’s difficult relationship with these authority figures extends to another one, Master I-Ching, the martial artist whose wisdom includes lessons about how to control and use superpowers.  Here author Yang brings in another China-specific 735fc1e4dc9f8d665e18d48c66c59fde9c154aed_hq (1)but also global element.  This teacher’s name refers to the Chinese classic Book of Changes, the I Ching, known and used world-wide as a mystical way to guide daily life and also see into the future.  Master I-Ching explains this system’s use of trigrams, an eightfold series of three lines in the shape of an octagon.  Careful readers will see that such octagons are also part of the symbols on costumes worn by the Justice League of China. In visuals as well as story lines, the New Super-Man comics being authored by Gene Luen Yang incorporate some diverse traditions which now unite people around the world.  I look forward to the June, 2018 publication of New Super-Man Volume 3: Equilibrium, collecting issues 13 through just issued #18 of this series.

NSM_Cv21_5a2b34dd345443.16597466Will the nationalistic anti-globalism of Donald Trump have a negative effect on the continued existence or growth of diverse and multi-cultural superheroes?  A market-place opinion piece just the other week raised this specter.  Yet I believe along with others that the audience for these well-written works, in which diversity is not merely cosmetic but is integral to the story and art, remains strong.  I am also heartened to see that issue 21 of the New Super-Man is already scheduled for publication in March, 2018.  It bodes well for the new year–particularly if parents, librarians, and teens continue to buy and order these works.

Happy 2018!  Enjoy our intriguing new superheroes and the new–as well as the original–versions of our literary classics.  We have a lot to celebrate and maintain, even as we work for change.

 

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States of Mind

Thinking and AwarenessWhat is your state of mind right now?  Festive . . .  as you think of upcoming winter holidays?  Fearful . . . as you contemplate current political events and crises?  Or are you calm and content because you enjoy a few minutes with book “news” such as this?

My mind recently has been in another state—literally as well as figuratively.  I spent the first part of October in New Mexico 956a74a8_original (1)and jelled some of my thoughts about that visit in an article posted here the other week.  So when I learned that some of this year’s best book lists featured sights and authors I had encountered in New Mexico I let that coincidence shape today’s Gone Graphic.  Here are some great new (as well as a few older) picture books for you to enjoy and share with the young people in your life.   All have that Southwestern connection. 

frida-kahlo-and-her-animalitos-9780735842694_lgFrida Kahlo and her Animalitos (2017), written by Monica Brown and illustrated by John Parra, is a wonderful addition to works about that Mexican painter.  Its vivid acrylic colors and flat, folk art style—typical of the tradition to which world-renowned Kahlo (1907 – 1954) brought her own vision—won this book two awards.  It is on both the New York Times and New York Public Library’s 2017 Best Illustrated Books for Children lists.  Brown’s gentle text communicates the facts of Kahlo’s life, including how important pets were to her, while Parra’s cheerful illustrations convey how these creatures inspired her.  Some of Animalito’s first pages, though, show young Frida with pets she famously had only as an adult, which surprised me.  Brown in her Author’s Note explains her debatable decision to emphasize insight into Kahlo’s spirit over the purely factual. 

10 07 Museum Hill a (2) (1)While I was in Santa Fe, its Museum of Spanish Colonial Art hosted a photography exhibit about Frida Kahlo as well as a gallery of works inspired by her paintings.  Along with Animalitos, its gift shop offered young readers the sumptuous Frida (2002), written by Jonah Winters and illustrated by Ana Juan.  Winters’ text is simpler than Brown’s and does not 51FmtZtJX8L._SY430_BO1,204,203,200_mention Frida Kahlo’s troubled marriage to artist Diego Rivera, alluded to in Animalitos.  Yet Frida is appropriate for young readers or listeners and is a visual treasure trove for all ages.  It is filled with Mexican folk motifs found in many of Kahlo’s own paintings—including the skeletal images detailed so well by author/illustrator Duncan Tonitiuh in his award-winning Funny Bones: Posada and his Day of the Dead Calaveras (2015), reviewed here last year.  

Other Santa Fe museum visits also yielded picture book treasures.  Gift shops associated with the Georgia O’Keefe Museum and that artist’s studio-home in nearby Abiquiu introduced me to author/illustrator Jeanette Winter’s My Name is 51hDTkfeBCL._SX404_BO1,204,203,200_Georgia:  A Portrait (1998; 2003).  I preferred Winter’s deft first-person text, sometimes using quotations from O’Keefe herself, over the ‘storytelling’ done in two other picture book biographies also for sale there.  With images extending past the borders of each page’s centered image, Winters intimately depicts O’Keefe’s life-long journey from Wisconsin to the Texas plains, to New York City and then to the New Mexico landscapes she found so imaginatively fertile.   I had delighted in Winters dual biography of two real-life heroes,  Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal: A Brave Boy from Pakistan (2014), and her award-winning Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afganistan (2009), both reviewed here last year, but I had not caught up with  her back list of books about famous artists.

51lgjx8c2kL._SX496_BO1,204,203,200_Now Winters has a new award-winner to add to that globe-spanning list.  The World is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid (2017) is already a Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2017. Winters’ swooping images on single and double-spread pages capture the curves and swirls of the nature-inspired, unconventional buildings designed by that successful Iraqi architect.  Sand dunes, sea shells, and even galaxies all stirred Zaha Hadid (1950 – 2016), who successfully battled cultural prejudice against professional women in her native country as well as general bias against women architects.  In an interview, Winter has said that she hopes this book will reach children who “want to make things and [the] hands of girls who think the odds are so overpowering.”  She is “writing for children with big dreams.”  Her simple, forceful text, sometimes employing Hadid’s own words in italics, supports Winter’s goals.  (An aside: Winter has been inspirational in her personal life, too.  Author/illustrator Jonah Winter is her son—what a talented family!)

downloadI myself found further picture book inspiration at Santa Fe’s Museum of Contemporary Native American Arts.  Surprisingly, it was not the display of wonderful contemporary books but the reissue of a 1942 classic that wowed me.   The Slim Butte Raccoon (1942), written by Ann Nolan Clark and illustrated by Andrew Standing Soldier, a Lakota tribal member, was one of four “Just for Fun” animal tales.  Its winsome black-and-white drawings of raccoons in rural garb, participating in human events, along with contemporaneous Lakota farmers, illustrate for me what reads as a fable about the dangers of assimilation.  The raccoon hero learns that it is better to be a raccoon than to try to be a human!  Despite Raccoon’s best intentions, misunderstandings and biases remain on both sides, erupting when he takes melons from a field.  Ann Clark’s simple text is powerful and subtly pointed. 

download (1)Yet I realize I am reading this book out of context and without much knowledge about the history of Native American picture books.  I am waiting for my library copy of  Rebecca C. Benes’ Native American Picture Books of Change (2005) and used copies of the other “Just-for Fun” books—about the Pine Ridge Porcupine, the Prairie Mouse, and the Wahpeton Hen—to increase my understanding here as well as provide reading satisfaction. 

513XDroSjGL._SX371_BO1,204,203,200_Meanwhile, as winter holidays approach, I take pleasure in recommending several other New Mexico-related books.  Picture book luminary Tomie De Paola’ s The Night of Las Posadas (1999; 2001), stems from Hispanic tradition as it details a miraculous Christmas pageant taking place just outside of Santa Fe.  Grandma’s Latkes (1996), written by Malka Drucker and illustrated by Eve 616Z1MWAT0L._SY473_BO1,204,203,200_Chwast, is a traditional retelling of the Hanukkah story within a warm-hearted, intimate family setting.  It even contains a recipe for those holiday potato pancakes or “latkes.”  Author Drucker was one of Santa Fe’s rabbis for more than fifteen years.  True Brit—Beatrice 1940 13087981(2011) by Santa Fe author Rosemary Zibart (whom I had the pleasure of meeting last month) is a middle grade novel, illustrated by George Lawrence,  rooted in local as well as global World War II history. 

Happy reading—and happy holidays!

 

 

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Holy Lands

956a74a8_original (1)

One Navajo, one Jew: two distinct “holy lands.”

Our recent ten day sojourn in Santa Fe, New Mexico reminded me of how culture and personal vision determine which particular portions of Mother Earth we hold sacred.  Writing from the small adobe house we were renting, I was also struck anew by how these views may clash.

10 06 Pecos kAt Pecos National Monument, only ruins remain of the large pueblo that once housed 2000 people, traders as well as foragers, farmers, and hunters.  These ruins include kivas, the circular and ancient Indian underground sites for religious ceremonies.  From the 16th century onward, invading Spanish soldiers—accompanied by proselytizing Catholic priests—did not care that this land was worshipped by generations of pueblo dwellers as well as the hogan-dwelling Navajo.  (The nearby “Four Corners” region, the intersection of present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, remains the site centrally sacred to the Navajo.)  Spain and its priests tore and twisted these ancient, sacred bonds—a rupture bitterly epitomized for me by one fact, repeated in local museum exhibits: Pueblo dwellers froze one winter for lack of firewood, while Catholic missionaries forced them to craft 600 wooden crosses. 

imagesEven as I reread Willa Cather’s achingly beautiful Death Comes for the Archibishop, with its depiction of the powerful faith and dedication of its central characters’ 19th century real-life inspirations, Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Bishop Joseph P. Marchebeauf, I could not forget the suffering inflicted by their proselytizing predecessors—cruelties that led Native peoples across the Southwest, in 1680 C.E., to rebel violently.  Even as I visited the cathedral Archibishop Lamy built, where colorful Penitente-style Stations of the Cross and a statue 10 05 sf kof Saint Kateria Tekawitha remind us how some Native peoples adopted and have upheld strong Christian beliefs, other Santa Fe sights and sounds counterbalanced that perspective.  On Indigenous Peoples Day (formerly Columbus Day), Santa Fe’s central plaza was filled with tribal leaders, dancers, and drummers—with prayers spoken, danced, and drummed for ancient, non-Christian gods.  Many local crafts also testified to those ancestral beliefs and traditions.

 

10 09 Indig Peoples Day c

As a Jew, I cannot escape the parallels here with modern Israel: the ways in which jerusalemthe Jewish state has taken and continues to usurp lands once owned by Palestinians.  Reclaiming its “holy land”—holy according to Judaism’s sacred books—Israel has exiled some Palestinians and shunts others into restricted areas even more tightly guarded than the “Indian reservations” of the U.S. old Wild West.  It is this volatile, toxic situation that today breeds suicide bombers and hair-trigger Israeli army guards, and brings weapons instead of worship to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, which is also sacred to Muslims.   

510iAbLLsHL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I am not alone in seeing these painful parallels between Israeli policies and the brutal, ethnocentric colonization of North America.  One notable commentary about this is Michael Chabon’s award-winning novel The Yiddish Policman’s Union (2007).  This speculative work is set in an alternate-history Alaska, where a Jewish state sanctioned by the U.S. government has displaced the Native Tinglit from their ancestral lands.  While the novel’s narrator, a Jewish detective, is able to solve its central murder mystery, with Biblical prophecies about Israel revealed to be part of the plot, the underlying tensions among Jews, Tinglits, and the powers-that-be remain unresolved.  At the novel’s end, as the Jews’ 60 year-long mandate in Alaska is set to expire, readers are left to wonder whether another diaspora, more armed conflict, or both will occur.  As in today’s real-life Israel, there are a plethora of possible outcomes to consider and negotiate—none of them easy or wholly satisfactory.

Can one’s personal vision transcend such earthly divisions and conflicts, reflecting an appreciation of Mother Earth’s sanctity not linked to any religion or culture?  Does one have to have ancestral connections to land to find it holy?  Our visits last images (1)month to Santa Fe’s Georgia O’Keefe Museum and to this artist’s former studio-home in nearby Abiquiu provided life-affirming, humanist answers.  We saw in intimate detail how this Wisconsin native, who also had found inspiration in city canyons, adopted New Mexico’s austere desert landscapes as her ultimate spiritual home.  O’Keefe’s secular art works are paeans of praise as sincere as any prayers. 

Yet this genius of abstract art was privileged by more than talent.  She had the wealth she and her husband, world-renowned photographer Alfred Stieglitz, had earned to secure her isolated comfort and privacy, purchasing and renovating a large adobe homestead.  And that comfort, though simple in lifestyle, was maintained throughout O’Keefe’s long life in New Mexico through the willing labor of her Pueblo neighbors and companions.  They, on the other hand, had and still keep control of their property only according to rigid, centuries-old Spanish land grants.  Ironically, as I learned on our tour, those documents require non-blood relatives to vacate their home if a lineal descendent no longer lives there.  Family feeling and history are not, according to New Mexico law, bonds holy enough to secure those plots of Mother Earth.

crane-petroglyph-josh-ewing-1920x1080_wide-f4117ba36b6977379cab7e1a004619232a6ac7ed-s2500-c85 (1)Nor is such legislated cruelty or the desecration of sacred sites confined to outdated laws or past events.  The looming crisis at Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, which contains burial and archeological sites sacred to the Navajo and other tribes, is just one example.  As recently as last month, President Trump threatened to remove  Bears Ears from the list of official national monuments, land protected by law from purchase and development.  Tribal leaders are prepared to fight such a decision in court and through on-site demonstrations as well.  They will agitate and demonstrate much as displaced Palestinians have in the past, when peaceful resolutions to such conflicts were still probable outcomes.  Of course, as seen on current newscasts, the possibility of violence at U.S. demonstrations is becoming a new “normal.”  U.S. citizens need to keep our own Native American challenges in mind, averting and mending wrongs, even as we question Israel’s policies on land use and access. 

61nvAR96seL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I am ruefully aware, though, that I reflect here as the privileged past   tenant of an unencumbered, “Airbnb” adobe house, luxurious by many standards.  I and my husband were tourists in this land holy to some people and underdeveloped according to others.  Similarly, as a diaspora Jew I do not live with the daily struggles and stresses of life in Israel, with the different challenges inhabitants face.  That in fact is one criticism that some Israelis have levelled at a new anthology I find moving and insightful about Israel’s largest internal conflict: Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation (2017).  Its editors, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, include Palestinian authors among other international voices, inviting first-hand accounts of sacrilege as well as the sacred.  Unfortunately, these experiences seem twinned, regardless of which holy land one venerates or visits.  Conflict continues to profane our better instincts and the beauty, if not the sanctity, of Mother Earth. 

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