A Word, Please

I wrote this poem several years ago. It bears repeating.

A Word, Please

In January 1942, fifteen men sit in a room,
discussing the “final solution” to a question

disguised as a people.

They compete to sound off to make the bigger splash
as they plan the best way to test out and up

through extermination.

Today, a theater Holocaust puppet sits silently
perched in a café window on our souls
while two folk talk

business as usual.

Sallow eyes fully void of life watch.
He’s all wood and paint chipped thin to crack
as his gears and joints creak beneath their weighty worth.
The daily litany patrols back and forth,

casual absurd

without notice for the watcher
marked for vigil in felt and papier maché,
his only armor a yellow star,

a ghost light

that shines brighter than the sun setting
beyond brick glass and wire.

If I trace the life lines from his making
to his playing, I can see him rise
hear him speak to tell his story in a whisper
a secret faint as the smell of cold coffee,
but it’s just for show. A masquerade
that everyone has been told

and should know.

Though somehow they don’t. seem. to.

No, this boy, this metonymy in spare parts
needs others to speak in order to be heard—
and not just for him, not just for his, because

he owns us all.

He appears, like the tree in the forest, to strike a chord,
displacing air, making waves,

without a word.

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Got Perspective?

I just made a general post on my personal FB page, and it occurs to me that it might be of use from the perspective of writing.

Here’s the original post: “Sometimes, it’s good to turn our preconceptions on their head. In case you need help with that, here’s an alternate perspective …” (with image below)

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Now apply to your work. Take a story you’re struggling with, and turn it on its head. What assumptions are you making? What happens when you look at it a different way? You might find that you’re missing a unique and wonderful perspective. Perspective matters, in fiction and nonfiction. Take the time to examine your story–as well as someone’s else story, history, government, religion–from another angle.

After all, headstands, handstands and other inversions are GREAT for circulation. Really.

Just a thought.

The Revolution Begins … in Books

I’m going a little out on a limb here. I think we have a problem with how we are approaching literature and English in our schools. Yes, yes, I know there are lots of problems to address, and this is not an attack on teachers and public schools, whom I support wholeheartedly. But this.

I was thinking about my son’s complaints about his freshman and sophomore reading material, and I was looking at standards and Common Core and at his reading lists and at recommended lists like this one. Most high school lit. classes pull from these titles, and honestly, some of my favorite books are on there. I want my kids to read 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies, but I have the same issue with these lists as I do with the predominantly white, male author mural in B&N bookstores. They’re out of step. They’re limited. They’re biased. They’re not enough.

Before we can get kids interested in traditional, classic, dated, old-school, whatever you want to call it literature, we need to get them reading. We need to get them involved and caring. We need them thinking. Why require modern students, really, to read a book about race relations written by a Southern white woman decades ago but not something by Walter Dean Myers, Jason Reynolds, Ta Nehisi Coates, Angie Thomas, Kwame Alexander? .If you skim enough high school reading lists you’ll get a few Jewish authors like Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel and you’ll get a few Black authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou. That’s about it. Possibly Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Alice Walker. You might read excerpts or samples from Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Phillis Wheatley, MLK and others in social studies courses. Great, and maybe history class is the place today for excerpts from some of the other most favored “classics.” Cross-curricular connections rock!

But the reading lists for English and American literature are grossly skewed, and it’s losing our kids. It does them, our society, and our culture a disservice. You have to teach kids to love reading first. At the least, our ELA courses should be a balance of contemporary and historic authors and certainly balanced across the various ethnic and racial experiences of our demographics. What about contemporary Muslim YA authors like Samira Ahmed, S.K. Ali, and Randa Abdel-Fattah? Hispanic authors like Meg Medina, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Matt De La Peña? There is such a breadth of titles and experiences out there, and having read many of them, I can tell you that they are books that speak to young people and that young people as well as old can sink their mental teeth into. Likewise, there are remarkable modern as well as historic Native American, East and South Asian, and white authors out there, covering a range of topics in a variety of ways.

The point of diverse reading is variety and inclusion. Honestly, I’m a firm believer in “it doesn’t matter what they read so long as they read,” but there are so many amazing contemporary novels, short stories and poems available, and I think, really, focusing on those rather than on the oldies but goodies, at the secondary school level, just might help revolutionize schools. Yes, teachers have limited hours and resources, I know, so why waste so many of them on books that many if not most students resist from page 1, if not from the cover and title? As much as I love those books, and realize their value, it just doesn’t make sense. You have a much better chance of engaging young people, generating discussion, encouraging them to seek out more, etc., if you hit on books written in contemporary voices, with issues relevant to their lives and communities, with characters reflective of them and their fellow students.

Just a thought. Not sure what to do with it yet.

Showing Diversity?

Recently, I picked up a picture book that disappointed me by its failed attempt to show social diversity. It features a different profession on each spread along with other assorted setting characters (people who populate the space like furniture). The worker is the focus (MC) of each spread. The book, produced by Scholastic, tries to sprinkle diversity in perceived race and gender across the book, largely through setting characters, but fails. Here’s why.

The breakdown of the MCs and their background cast on each spread:

  • Firefighter = white male, with four other male firefighters, two white, two ambiguous brown, in background
  • Police officer = white male, with two white kids, boy and girl, in background
  • Doctor = white female, with waiting room populated by four white men, one black woman, one white woman, one white boy, one black girl
  • Baseball player = ambiguous brown male, with white male umpire and an assortment of other players, mostly white, one black, all male, in background
  • Construction foreman = white male, with three male construction workers, two white and one black, in background
  • Astronaut = completely ambiguous, in spacesuit, no background characters
  • Server/waiter = black male, with a large white family at table demonstrably waiting for him, a white couple at another table, and a black boy with an ambiguous not-quite-brown male at another table
  • Railroad conductor and engineer = both white males
  • Zookeeper = ambiguous brown male, with three white kids in background

The illustrator and publisher obviously gave some thought to including diverse characters, but they did not take that thought far enough. The diverse characters are sprinkled in the background like furniture; they’re sparse; and most are ambiguous, meaning that they’re not pinky white but are some shade from darker ecru to light brown that could suggest a tan or any number of ethnic or mixed heritages.

So.

Why no women firefighters or women on the construction site? Why is the only MC that is unambiguously black a waiter with a large family of white people to serve? What about a black or Hispanic police officer and a nonwhite construction foreman? And more diversity in the setting characters since there are so many?

It’s not a matter of squeezing out white men. It’s a matter of including all people and giving all people, from various backgrounds, access to positions of leadership and exceptionalism. Yes, even in a picture book, perhaps especially in a picture book whose primary audience are young people, it matters. What does it say to a young black person when the only profession represented by a black man is a waiter? (I’ve been a server. I think everyone should be required to work in a restaurant sometime in his or her life. It’s hard work and requires a lot of skill to do well. I’m not denigrating the work but the implication, because in our society being a server is generally not perceived as admirable or as a leadership position.) Why are all the leadership positions held by white men? The only woman who dominates a spread has a professional job but it’s a caretaker job. Also, there are no persons with disabilities shown.

These are things people in publishing–writers, editors, illustrators, art researchers and designers, agents, etc.–need to think more about. Please.

Some might argue that when you look for racism, when you look for any problem, then you’re going to see it, even if it’s not “intended.” No, when you open your eyes and learn to pay attention, then you notice what is already there. You don’t create it, pull it out of a magician’s hat of progressive propaganda or whatever, by noticing it and calling attention to it. It’s there. It has been there. It will continue to be there until people make themselves active observers. Until more and more make themselves aware and notice and call it out and challenge it. Until we actively try to tell and show a more tolerant and inclusive story. Racism and other forms of discrimination don’t have to be “intended” to be present, pervasive and powerful.

Resource: Cultural Appropriation

I need to do more posts like this but I often forget to share things here. Mainstream social media like Twitter and FB tend to dominate. But just in case anyone stops by, this is an important read, especially for writers and teachers of literature. Take a few minutes to read it. Take a few longer to think about it.

“Exploring Cultural Appropriation in Children’s Literature”

http://thebookwars.ca/2015/10/a-cultural-conundrum-exploring-cultural-appropriation-in-childrens-literature/ 

why today

A day like today, of all the myriad days we celebrate and people and things that we honor, as Americans, is hard to quantify or even qualify in terms of its value. There is a day when we honor the achievements of a man (the guy with three ships) who has been proven a mass murderer, or at least the instigator of mass murder. We celebrate his “discovery” rather than the discovery made by the first people to cross over a land bridge from Asia,thousands of years before. As hard as it was to sail across an ocean, imagine the challenge in migrating by foot across arctic lands, through gaps between glaciers, and spreading out to people two continents. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll skip the other migration theories. They’d have been tough, too.)

But today, someone got it right. MLK was not and is not the only civil rights leader (not to mention pacifist) worthy of celebration, but that’s the point. I suspect that MLK himself would argue that this day is not about him alone but about the values and the principles and the dreams for which he fought. It takes courage to fight violence with nonviolence. It takes grit to speak your mind when everyone keeps telling you to sit down and shut up. It takes vision and faith to build a wall of arms linked together, marching in tandem across vast distances of land and thought, with voices raised in song, rather than a wall of brick and mortar and barbed wire and cement blocks, mounted with a very different kind of arms.

When I taught creative writing years ago, this was my favorite day/week/month, because it was the time when I could best bring together two passions–history and literature. My students had to write and submit a poetry or prose piece for the local MLK writing contest. Each year, when I introduced the project, I got a lot of moans and groans and rolled eyes, from a class full of students that was predominantly Black and 95% marginalized in one way or another. White males were a distinct minority in my classes. I was stunned and humbled each time that a group comprising students who had or would suffer higher levels of discrimination and perhaps even persecution could roll their eyes at discussing civil rights. Apparently, when I wasn’t looking, the civil rights movement had become cliche. My students, born circa 2000, were too distant from it perhaps, or had become too mired in the complacency and distraction of our age. (Pause: I know some of my former students might read this. I know it wasn’t every student so don’t bite my head off. Ahem.)

THAT reality, the eye rolls, the tendency to twitch a wrist over a smartphone beneath the desk (yeah, I noticed) rather than to listen up to what might save your life or what at least has helped shape it and what work you have left to do, is why today matters. It’s why today is one of the MOST American, one of the GREATEST, things we can pause to recognize. It’s why today must be more than a day but a way of life, a call to action, an ongoing movement that never becomes the stuff of moralistic idioms to be dispensed like chewing gum and spit out.

Seven years ago, I walked with my students, some other students and teachers, and a few parent volunteers from our school to the Dayton Peace Museum. The museum staff did a lovely job helping us break into groups and tour the exhibits and do writing activities to prepare for the writing assignment. We explored not only civil rights but the broader concept of human rights. I still remember some of the faces as we sat in the nuclear holocaust room, looking at images from Hiroshima. Paragraph anecdotes in textbooks had not done the stories and the very real people behind them justice. (As one who writes those books, I know better than most.) At any rate, the most important lesson of that day came not from the museum or from the student or from me or my fellow teachers. On the way there, one of my students, a young Black man, paused to pick up a rock. He was tossing it up and down in his hand, just passing the time as he walked. He wore a hoodie. I looked over my shoulder and saw flashing lights. The student had fallen perhaps ten paces behind, and a cop pulled over, suspecting that he was up to no good, perhaps planning to break a window with the rock or pelt another student. The student was shaken the rest of the day, as were his parents when I called to explain to them what had happened. Though we can’t really prove it, most of us doubted that if one of my white blonde students in a polo shirt had been dragging his feet and tossing a small rock in his hand casually, he or she would have been stopped. (Note: The kid in the hoodie actually had a polo on underneath his hoodie, too. He almost always wore nice jeans and khakis with a button shirt of some variety. But clothing shouldn’t matter, right?) We spent a lot of time in class talking about that experience, and as the Black Lives Matter movement has grown and the reports of police shootings have spread and gained more attention, I often wonder how many students think about that day–and other days like it. About how quickly things can go so terribly wrong, and why.

Why is why today matters. No more eye rolls. Be grateful if you are alive, if you have never experienced harassment or discrimination or persecution. In a way, I wish more people had, so that they might better appreciate how systemic discrimination and bigotry can be. Recently, I watched a video about the different between non-racist and anti-racist. Non- makes it possible, too. Non- can make you complicit. We all most be more than non-, and I’m guessing again, if MLK were alive today, he might change non-violence to anti-violence. After all, being antiviolent, antiracist, antinationalist, antixenophobic, antiwarmongering, antisexist, antiagist, antibigotry, being a pacifist, being a snowflake, being disobedient in a civic-minded way, dissenting, challenging, questioning, empathizing, these things are not weaknesses. They do not mean being inactive. Often, they are the strongest, smartest, most important actions we can take. When you want to know why, ask a young person. If he or she gives you an intelligent, well thought answer, awesome! That’s why. If he or she rolls the eyes, well, that’s exponentially why.

Write. Speak. March. Sing.

Listen. Learn. Connect.

Do.

not-a-blog

I keep meaning to start a blog, but I know I can’t keep up with it just yet.

But I might post a musing now and again. Let’s start with this.

Why does kid lit matter? It promotes language development and offers other educational boons, but perhaps more importantly, most of what you learn to value begins in childhood. It’s why so many of us, even as adults, don’t feel so very different, in our cores, than we felt when we were young. Wiser, more cynical, more complacent maybe, sure, but there is always that core, and kid lit can help shape that, not only through the moralistic (be kind, be thankful) and practical (don’t talk to the hungry wolf) lessons imbued in most stories but also through the inestimable encouragement to dream, to hope, to wonder, to question, and to connect. Through kid lit, we explore worlds, inner and outer. We also learn about ourselves as well as about “other.” Stories, and their many characters, can help readers develop empathy, understanding, tolerance and compassion as well as judgment and reason, qualities and skills so badly needed.

My thought for the day.