Blurring the Lines
by Kathi Appelt
It is autumn, 1977—I am twenty-two, living in east Texas, in the very heart of the piney woods, with my younger sister B.J. I’ve only recently escaped a misbegotten marriage that has made me sad and uneasy. Divorce runs through my family like a dominant gene. My mother, my sister, my grandmother, my aunt. Marriage eludes us.
So I run. I leave Houston and head for a tiny house in deep East Texas. It’s a refuge with its red dirt and its trees that tend to shut out the sky. Our small cabin has a porch that looks out over an acre of grass hedged by a small creek and surrounded by pines. At night the coyotes howl and we make sure that the cats are inside with us, curled into circles of fur and dust. In the meantime, there’s a tall man who lives three hours away in College Station. He’s soft spoken and sweet. The weeks here are lonesome. But it’s the weekend and he has brought his guitar. Together we sit on the front porch and he sings this song by Stephen Fromholz. The refrain goes like this:
Blue lines on white linen is all that I write you,
And I pray will they find you,
And I hope they delight you
Blue lines on white linen is all that I write you,
How I wish I was with you tonight.
I marry this man. Despite the failure of that first marriage, and the many people who doubt that one of my maiden tribe can make it stick, I cross that line again. I jump the broom. For thirty years, he has sung to me. And the song has been there all along.
Blue lines on white linen. It sits in my mind, settles on my tongue. I love the song and the man too.
It’s fall, 1985—my little sons are one and three, toddlers, both still in diapers. I’m having lunch with one of my former professors from Texas A&M, and she asks, as people do, “What are you reading these days?”
At first I hesitate. I’d like to say Toni Morrison or Thom Wolfe or someone else important like them. But the truth is, I’m immersed in children’s books and my young-mother attention span seems to be about the right length for them.
I glance at my plate and murmur, “Ferdinand the Bull.” I fully expect her to laugh at me, or say something like, “How sweet.” Instead she smiles and says, “Don’t you just love children’s books?”
And I do. I love them. I especially love Ferdinand, the bull who loved to smell flowers and who refused to fight. Every child, I think, should have Ferdinand.
It’s May 6, 2008—this is the pub date for The Underneath. After publishing over thirty picture books, collections of poetry, short stories, and even a memoir, my first novel arrives on bookstore shelves. It has taken me three years and over twenty drafts to complete.
For the most part, the reviews are good. But then there is this one by Anonymous: “Kathi Appelt’s prose is overly conscious.” This comment continues to show up in a number of places, sometimes Anonymous calls the prose “self-conscious.” And it is always followed by Anonymous’s twin sibling, Anonymous2, who states: “The Underneath is really more of a kids’ book for adults who like to read kids’ books. Anyone who thinks it’s appropriate for elementary school aged children, hasn’t worked with them in a while!”
Trust me, these are not the rudest or nastiest comments that the book garners, not by a long shot. Reviews, good or bad, are part of the territory of publishing.
Having your book reviewed is part of the deal. I know this. However, the mere fact that Anonymity is anonymous, while it should discount any further serious thought, gnaws at me. It feels like guerilla warfare, as if there were snipers in the trees.
And despite the cowardice of the critics for not putting their names on the line, these particular complaints bear further examination, not only because they’ve been aimed at my book, but because we keep seeing them over and over again in our field: (a) this book is overly conscious; and (b) this is one of those books that is more for adults than kids.
Let’s look first at (a), the one about the prose being overly conscious.
It’s August 1980—I’ve been married to Ken for a year and half and we have driven the 100 miles from our house in College Station to Weimar, TX where we are sitting on the patio in the back of his grandmother Emma’s house. It’s hot, the mercury is cracking a hundred, but the patio is in the shade and there’s a dry breeze floating across it.
The sun is making its slow descent toward the hills to the west of us and the evening moves in. The glass of iced tea in my right hand is now a misnomer because there is only tea now and no ice. It doesn’t matter. It’s so sweet it makes my teeth hurt.
Emma is old, born in the previous century, 1890. Her face is a map of all the roads she’s taken, most of them within a hundred mile radius of this very porch.
We are quiet except for the distinct whirring of a hummingbird that suddenly dips down right in front of us to tap the bright yellow lantana Emma has growing in pots. Then just as quickly the bird vanishes. A tiny trace of the hum lingers.
“I know all the nursery rhymes in German,” Emma tells me, then adds, “It was my first language.”
“Do you still speak German?” I ask.
“Only in nursery rhymes,” is her response.
Then she sings, in her whispery voice, “I see the moon and the moon sees me; God bless the moon and God bless me.”
No rhyme has ever sounded as pure as this one, something of a song, something of a prayer.
“It’s the oldest thing I remember,” she says. She takes a sip of her iceless iced tea.
“It’s not in German,” I say.
Then she tells me that she never speaks German out loud. She only dreams the rhymes that way. It turns out that when she was a child in the one-room schoolhouse in New Beulah, TX, where she and her sister and brother traveled by horse and wagon every day, the teacher rapped the knuckles of any student who spoke German in her presence.
Emma rubs the knuckles of her right hand, as if they remember the sharp sting of the wooden ruler. Her fingers are bent with age, but her hands are wide and open and the skin of them is as soft as butter, so soft.
“Not out loud,” she says again. “Only in dreams.” The hummingbird returns, glimmers in the day’s fading light.
Yes, my prose is overly conscious. I am conscious of every damn word, every phrase, every sound. I want each one to be read out loud.
It is Winter, 1983—my little son, Jacob, my first born, sits on my hip as we travel through the house. It’s winter in Iowa and so cold outside that to wander out without fifteen layers of clothing is to invite frostbite within five minutes. We are going crazy from boredom. Any other day, we would take a walk outdoors.
But the temperature has crawled down to minus thirty and this southern girl is not game for the deep freeze.
I want warmth. I want humidity. I want a day full of the salty air of the Gulf Coast. I want the heat of my grandmother’s upstairs, where only an attic fan stirs the air.
The only way I know to conjure my own grandmother is to conjure her songs. I take a deep breath and at last I can hear her in my ear: We’ll ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross, she sings. The rhyme goes on: She’ll have rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, and she shall have music wherever she goes.
Jacob rides side-saddle against me. Snugged up on my hip, it feels as though he was born to ride there, such a perfect fit. And so we embark upon our trail of names.
In his bedroom I point to things one at a time. “Bed,” I say as I show him his beautiful crib, made of blonde maple, the same color as his hair. He nods. I point to his stuffed lamb. “Lambie,” I say. He reaches for it and hugs it.
We carry on. There are curtains, a blankie, a rocking chair, the yellow cat who has followed us from room to room. “Pounce,” I say, which is the name for the cat.
Our naming game is a ritual that mothers and fathers have been playing with their babies since time began. The sacred naming of objects.
Name it and it becomes.
I am the cockhorse and my little son is the prince. Winter is a distant country.
Yes, I am conscious of my prose. For house-bound mothers and their side-saddle babies.
I have thirty picture books that echo the voices of the writers of nursery rhymes passed along by grandmothers who speak both German and not.
But what else? The notion that prose is overly conscious seems to insinuate that we must write as though we were not conscious, as if we should tap out the story in our sleep. And as odd that sounds, I believe there is actually a kernel of truth to it, but perhaps not in the way that the critic intended.
I’m reminded of Eudora Welty who claims that we should write consciously with the subconscious voices of the writers who came before us.
The comment from Anonymous makes me stop and consider, who came before me? What is it that Eudora means?
In School Library Journal’s review, the critic called The Underneath, “southern gothic for the middle grade set.” Beyond that opening stab, the rest of the review was not unappreciative. Still, let me return to Eudora Welty: write consciously, she states boldly, with the subconscious voices of the writers who came before us.
So, even though Anonymous complains about the conscious, the conscious cannot exist without the subconscious.
It is spring, 1971—I am sliding toward the end of my junior year in high school. There is a prom, there is a boy with eyes so brown I can’t see the bottom of them, there is a new language I have learned that has no words at all. After all, who can speak when your mouth is connected to someone else’s mouth?
My English teacher, Mrs. Franco, decides that the slide I’m taking is too steep. She has noticed that every day I have come into her classroom with a different shade of eye shadow and that my skirts have gotten shorter and shorter. She’s noticed that the boy with those brown eyes is on the other side of her classroom noticing too. She’s not happy with me and has told me so. We have one last project to finish before the end of school. Choose a book from the Junior Reading List, read it and write a report. The list is long. I have already read most of the titles, so I think this should be a snap, no effort needed. “No effort is the problem,” she tells me. She calls me up to her desk after class and says this: “mediocrity is too pale for you” and hands me a copy of The Sound and the Fury. It’s not on the list.
I have to read it with a dictionary by my side. I am not happy. The book is defeating me, wearing me out. I can’t tell time by it. I can’t keep the characters straight. My mind drifts. I have to re-read each page. Page after page. Just when I think I’ve got a hold on it, it eludes me. I’m frustrated. It’s the first book I’ve ever wanted to burn.
But then I remember Mrs. Franco telling me “mediocrity is too pale for you,” and I turn another page and another until I feel as though I am inside the paper, as if the letters themselves have become living cells, as if the pages are the very skin of the words.
To read Faulkner is to read the pulsating beat of a heart, both the human heart and the heart of something older, something ancient, something that lies between the breath and the tongue. It is to race and to sidle, to hurry and to slow down. Faulkner’s sentences run on like breathing runs on. A period lands somewhere in a paragraph, the heart skips a beat. He repeats repeats repeats, drives the words into dense smoky clumps that run from margin to margin without a breath, then suddenly pulls them apart and crowds them along the left hand side of the page. After pages and pages of density, the white space blinds me.
I am forced to read this book out loud or else I can’t keep up with the racing words. My voice holds them to their spot in the line. When I come to Quentin, my voice is his voice and I’m captured by his anxiety over his sister, by his inability to help her, by his complete inadequacy and I feel as if my mouth is drawing in the water of the icy Charles River as he falls over the side of the bridge into its currents, his pockets weighted down with flatirons.
In his descent into despair, I hear his thoughts echoing in his brain as they pulsate on the page, my senses are heightened. In Faulkner’s hand, Quentin says this remarkable line:
“Honeysuckle was the saddest odor of all…” and my heart snaps in two. In fact, the pages of The Sound and the Fury are filled with the cloying sweetness of honeysuckle, and wisteria, and magnolia and pine. The landscape of Mississippi is so similar to the landscape of East Texas that I cannot deny its appearance, cannot scrape the thick wet air off of my own skin or keep the red dirt out of my mouth.
Yes, I write consciously, but subconsciously Faulkner is whispering in my ear. The reviewer is right. Just as I got my blue eyes from my great grandmother Fanny, I got my southern gothic from William Faulkner. He’s as much my grandfather as my grandfather, also named William.
But unlike Faulkner’s Quentin, who couldn’t save his sister Caddy, my kitten Puck can save his sister Sabine.
We use our words, our language, both consciously and subconsciously to draw the connections on our own maps, maps that can either tie us together or draw borders between us. In our conscious prose, we are reminded of our humanity. In our deep subconscious, we hold the strings of our individual human teleologies. I am tired of the lines between races, between the red states and the blue states, between adults and children, between who gets to be married and who doesn’t. I want to write something that speaks to the human heart regardless of the body that bears it.
It is 1958—I am four. In my father’s lap is a red volume of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, a gift on the night he graduated from high school. In my father’s voice Kipling fills my ears. I hear the steady, predictable cadence of the stanzas as they march down the tissue thin paper. My dad loved the hard rhymes at the ends of the lines and the ways that they scanned. His favorite poem was “Mandalay,” and as he tossed back a shot of gin before bedtime, he made up his own tune to fit the lines. Now, when I write, regardless of where I find myself, I am, to a certain extent always “on the road to Mandalay where the flying fishes play and the sun comes up like thunder out of China across the bay.”
My childhood is full of Kipling. Oh best beloveds, I can’t deny it.
In our family, to this day, when one of us, regardless of gender, has done something well or good, we state unequivocally: “you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”
But, you might say, Kipling is no Southerner; he’s not even an American. But those are small differences when looking at him more broadly. His racist past in colonial India is not so far removed from my racist relatives in Houston. He couldn’t shed his Imperial skin, sadly—maybe he didn’t try hard enough—but I recognize him.
If Faulkner is my grandfather, then Kipling is my uncle, the one you hate to invite to backyard parties because he’s likely to offend, but are secretly glad when he shows up because he sings such beautiful songs.
And speaking of songs . . .
It is summer, 1999—it’s a Saturday morning, and I’m driving our Chrysler minivan to Austin. My younger son Cooper, 15 by now, is in the passenger’s seat, unhappy that I am driving and he is not, even though he has a learner’s permit. For the past three years we have made this drive every week. I am taking him to his bass lesson at the University of Texas, two hours away. We’re running late. I’m angry. The night before he missed his curfew by an hour. Neither of us has had enough sleep. There is steam rising between us.
While most of the road is open highway, there’s a freeway in Austin that I’m not ready to ride on with Cooper behind the wheel, especially if he can’t follow the rules.
All of this is just one more in a thousand injustices that he feels I’ve flung his way. One more in a thousand pissy moments, with more to come.
In a conciliatory move, I let him choose the music for the drive. Just as I thought he might, he selects The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ newest CD “Californication.” I’m having a hard time not being offended by the title, but I keep my comments to myself.
Since both of my sons are bass players, I have learned more than I ever thought possible about basses and bass players. As it turns out, I know something about Flea, the impressive bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, with his green hair and his penchant for wearing only a tube sock, only not on his foot as tube socks were intended. I can’t bear to think about either of my sons performing in public wearing only a tube sock. I’m sorry for Flea’s mom and I secretly pray I’ll never have to go there.
Nevertheless Flea is playing his heart out in our Chrysler minivan. The music takes some of the edge off of Cooper’s feelings even though I haven’t magically changed my mind about letting him drive.
Without those feelings taking up so much room in the car, there is space for us to listen. Have I mentioned that Cooper’s hair is turquoise? One song after another, we make our way toward Austin, but before we do, the CD is done and replaced by Primus whose bassist is the remarkable Les Claypool. I don’t remember the names of any of the other players, but I do know about Les Claypool, and as far as I’ve heard he wears more than a single sock on stage.
Still, I’m only in listening mode, not discussion mode. Then, from out of the speakers I hear, or at least I think I hear, a song about . . . could it be? No. Wait. This isn’t country music we’re listening to. I’m not sure what to call it exactly. But yes, there it is.
“Is he singing about Bodacious?” I ask Cooper, incredulous. The lyrics tumble out of the CD player. “Who’s gonna ride Bodacious? Who’s gonna . . .”
I know Bodacious. There was only one bull in the whole wide world named Bodacious. Only a handful of cowboys rode Bodacious for the full 8 seconds, and at least a few cowboys got their faces seriously smashed to smithereens by the bull called “The Yellow Whale.”
As far as I know, he’s the only bull that was actually retired because the cowboys refused to ride him, declaring him too dangerous. He made appearances in GQ and Penthouse, and more of us remember Bodacious than any of the men who rode him.
Cooper is tapping his fingers to the music, and I tell him what I know about Bodacious. A girl doesn’t grow up in Texas, after all, without knowing a little something about rodeos and bucking bulls.
I have transformed in Cooper’s eyes, despite the fact that he’s not driving. Our opposing worlds are not so oppositional for at least a few moments.
We’ve blurred the imaginary line that hung between us, thank goodness. A bull that I hadn’t thought of in ages is right here in our minivan, a story. Two thousand pounds of twisting, spinning beef meets up with the pounding rhythm of Les Claypool, a mother and a son have something to say to each other.
And what do you think happens in the course of the conversation? Cooper says, “I guess Bodacious wasn’t Ferdinand.” We can finally laugh together.
Cooper was fifteen, but Ferdinand was still with him. Remember this when you’re writing: We carry these stories with us all of our lives. There is no delineation. We don’t become fifteen and set aside the stories that we grew up with. We don’t become forty-five and forget the rodeo.
Often I’m asked, “Do you get ideas from your sons?” My answer, “Yes, I do. But I cannot write their stories. Only they can do that. I can only write my own story . . . as deep and true as I can.” But I can’t leave behind, I won’t leave behind, Emma with her slight German dialect, my grandmother and her rhymes, the yellow cat, Faulkner, Kipling, and Ferdinand.
I can’t write my sons’ stories. But I can write about a kitten who doesn’t follow the rules and the mother cat who still loves him, who would give her whole life to him if she had to.
Bodacious. I can write Bodacious.
Cooper? He will pick up where I left off, but we will overlap. He will take Ferdinand and all of the books I read to him as a child, but he will also take Flea and Les Claypool and Stanley Clark and Charles Mingus. He will play the bass part.
By now, I want to send a letter to Anonymous. “Guilty,” I want to say. “I do write consciously.” But I would add that I write subconsciously too. Always in the back of my mind are my own ancestors, my own tilts and lilts of my native tongue. They’re part of the package.
But what about Anonymous2 who, behind his or her veil, claims that my book is “not for children, but rather for adults who like books for kids.”
It is Spring 1994—my older son Jacob is in the fourth grade. Lois Lowry’s ground-breaking book, The Giver, has won the Newbery. Like Anonymous2, I remember feeling that the book was too much for him, that in fact the book was more for adults than kids. But when I give it to him, he tells me, “It’s just like me, Mom. All these people pouring stuff into my head.” It was a startling thing to think of my son in those terms, as the passive recipient of history. At the same time, I thought, thank God for Lowry’s main character, who uses the information he’s been given to make his own good choices. My Jacob will certainly need to make choices based upon what he knows. Don’t we all?
In the course of my writing career for children, I have always been abundantly aware of what I call the “invisible wall” that stands between our work and our audience. Before our text can get to our child readers, it must first pass through a phalanx of adults, those adults being editors, marketing committees, reviewers, librarians, teachers, bookstore owners, grandparents, and parents. I think it’s safe to say that every children’s book has to make its way past this group or a subcommittee of this group before it ever finds its way into the hands of a child. So, before a child can make the claim that “this book was written just for me,” it has to pass through a battery of adults who make a pre-decision about it first.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. I think it’s important for adults to be aware of the materials that are ending up in our children’s possession. Guidance is required and if we don’t provide guidance, then we’re not doing our jobs as good parents and teachers.
At the most superficial level, before an adult can enthusiastically recommend a book to a child, or to hand a book to a student, there has to be something, even if it’s something small, that speaks to that adult. After all, we are the ones making the investment, whether it’s the investment in publishing and manufacturing or the investment in building a child’s private library, there has to be something that encourages that adult to invest.
A book is like an ember in the story campfire that we’ve been celebrating forever. Whether we are gifting a copy of Goodnight Moon to our little niece upon her birth or Eternal, by Cynthia Leitich Smith to that same niece 15 years later, we are not only giving her something tangible, the physical book itself, but we are also giving her that shared experience of story that only humans can give.
Adult appeal. I think it’s necessary. This wasn’t, I’m sure, the effect that Anonymous2 intended. Rather, I imagine that this critic meant that if a book appeals to adults, then it stands to reason that it has no appeal for children. The innuendo here is that the book is too sophisticated, too dark, too violent, whatever, all those too’s.
But the deeper, graver innuendo suggests to me something alarming—that we have lost the sense that each reader, regardless of age brings his or her own individuality and sensibility to a book.
No book is for every reader, and no two readers will love the same book equally.
But who does Anonymous2 speak for? Why the belief in children’s literature that just because a children’s book is marketed for children then it must appeal to everyone within that age range? Or that if it appeals to adults, then it’s clearly not a children’s book?
My fear is that Anonymous2 is at least a partial result of the movement in our schools toward standardization, beginning with standardized tests, those instruments that call for every child of a certain age to be reading, writing and doing math at a certain level by a certain time. Standardization: it’s the ugly sister of conformity and uniformity. Standardization. Ironic, isn’t it? That a country that has always valued individuality, indeed a country that prizes “rugged individuality,” has bought so thoroughly into standardization when it comes to our children?
Am I against a child learning to read or to be reading at an appropriate level? Of course not.
But we are kidding ourselves if we can’t see that worksheets and software programs that promise to raise test scores are replacing books in our classrooms. We, as practitioners, are kidding ourselves if we think that the gatekeepers aren’t looking for books that are predictable, manageable, and that fit into prescribed units or fall into a quantitative category.
It is Spring 1996—Cooper comes home from school with a note in his hand from his teacher that goes something like this: “Cooper has not kept up with his reading. He will not be allowed to go to the basketball game.” I have no idea what this means. Cooper keeps his nose in a book. We have thousands of books in our home; we go to the library regularly. He is rarely without a book. He’s a fluent reader.
I call the teacher. “He hasn’t read the books on the A.R. list,” she tells me, “so he doesn’t have enough points for the tickets.”
What, I want to know, is A.R.
“Accelerated Reader,” says his teacher. It’s a computerized program wherein kids read a book, then take a computerized test. If they get enough points from all of this, they get to go to the basketball game. When I ask Cooper why he has fallen behind, he looks at me and claims: “None of the books I wanted to read were on the list.”
So, let me get this straight. My son, who reads constantly, is punished because he refuses to read the books that have a test attached? I shrug.
Whose idea was it to test kids over everything they read? Whatever happened to reading for pleasure? To reading for the pure joy of reading? At the time, Cooper was in the sixth grade. That year he read everything he could find by Michael Crichton. He also read Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey and several Hank the Cowdog books by John Erickson.
To hell with A.R. My husband and I take him to the Space Museum at NASA, far more interesting to him than the college basketball game.
Cooper, at twenty-five, is still an avid reader. But I worry that his ilk is diminishing. If all a child reads in school is worksheets and tests, it shouldn’t surprise us that in 2007, in a survey done by USA Today they discovered that 27% of adults in our country did not read a single book in a year. It’s shocking isn’t it?
Knowing this, it becomes easier to see why a book that challenges the status quo, something like Octavian Nothing, by M.T. Anderson or Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or Rules of Survival, by Nancy Werlin or The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak, anything that doesn’t fit neatly into what feels like a prescription, will, trust me, be dubbed “for adults.”
But what does all of this have to do with us? If you think that we can participate in this industry without becoming advocates for children, then that is a mistaken notion. It’s our job to write for all of our citizens, not just children, but especially for children. Moreover, it our job to give our young audience a range of books, books that delight, books that touch, books that inform, books that challenge. We need to give them a taste of the literary as well as a taste of the ridiculous. But we also have to stand up and declare that while humans may learn to decode words on the page by mastering worksheets, they do not learn to read without books. We have to be like the teacher in Ft. Worth, Donalyn Miller, and become “book whisperers.” Let’s not leave any child behind when it comes to books. And when someone says your book is more for adults, then remind them that in 2007 27% of adults in our country did not read a single book, and if your book is more for adults than kids, good! Maybe someone in that 27% will read it.
I personally am tired of the segregation between adults and our kids. I fear we’ve become a society that is less and less tolerant, less and less interested in age-mixing. We put our elders in nursing homes. We put our babies in day care facilities. Our schools are separated by grade and age levels. We are standardizing ourselves into oblivion.
But sisters and brothers, a book, ahhh, a book.
Even when they are not read together or out loud, but passed from one person to another, a shared book has this capacity for desegregation between all of us, adults and children. It has the ability to soften, yes, to blur, some of the rigid lines that we’ve drawn around ourselves, including the lines between books for kids and books for adults.
By now, you must be wondering if I am going to address the whole issue of appropriateness. Embedded in any criticism that states, “this is for adults,” is the insinuation that it’s not appropriate for children.
Of course, I am not suggesting that any of us give young readers material that they are not cognitively or emotionally ready for. It’s our jobs as caring and hopefully wise adults to lead our kids to books that we feel they can handle, but there is also a fine line between this and outright censorship. Without going into a long or detailed discussion, let me say that always, and I mean always, at the bottom of the urge to censor is a profound fear over what our children are capable of handling and understanding. Let me just say that our own fears deeply underestimate our children’s capabilities.
Should we give a fourth grader a book about rape or incest? That is not at all what I’m calling for. But can we give a fourth grader a book that is written in verse? Can we, for example, give her a book that examines the death of a beloved pet, something like Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog?
A book is a safe place for all of us to experience what Kelly Gallagher in his amazing book Readicide, calls “imaginative rehearsals.” Without having to experience first hand the loss of a loved one, a book gives the reader room to feel deeply, to empathize with another person, even if that person is a fictive character.
I love this notion of imaginative rehearsing.
Naturally, none of us want our children to suffer. And so we protect them, or we try to protect them, from anything that might cause distress. We even make the mistake of chanting, “you’re okay, you’re okay” to them when they experience any sort of pain or anger or grief. Even though it’s clear that they’re not okay, we tell them that they are. We should instead acknowledge their woes. But instead we become human band-aids, unable to name their true feelings because we can’t bear to believe that they’re hurt.
A book is a safe place for a child to be sad. A non-threatening place for them to explore the landscape of sorrow or loneliness or anger or even terror. Do we want to intentionally make them sad? No, but on the other hand, to deny our children their feelings does them a grave disservice. It’s okay for them to not be okay. Our children can bear more than we give them credit for.
Black Beauty was my favorite book as a child. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it. In fact, my grandmother read it to me first, before I was old enough to read it myself. And each time I get to the part about Ginger and the terrible treatment she receives at the hand of her owner, I cry. It never fails.
Can I say definitively that my experience reading that book has made me less likely to abuse animals? Who can say? But it surely made its mark on my psyche.
Will the horrible treatment that my villain Gar Face visits upon my good dog Ranger give my readers some understanding of the pain of abuse? This is my hope. This is what an imaginative rehearsal offers up, the potential for being a stronger, better person.
In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryann Wolf notes:
It is not a matter of the number of words unheard and unlearned. When words are not heard, concepts are not learned. When syntactic forms are never encountered, there is less knowledge about the relationship of events in story. When story forms are never known, there is less ability to infer and predict. When cultural traditions and the feelings of others are never experienced, there is less understanding of what other people feel.
Let me repeat that last line: “when cultural traditions and the feelings of others are never experienced, there is less understanding of what other people feel.”
This is what a good, solid book offers. Understanding of what other people feel, even if the other person is an old hound dog.
In Nancy Willard’s wonderful book of essays, The Left-Handed Story, she discusses fairy tales and the ways they appear when we experience them as children first and then later as adults. “You cannot step into the same story twice,” she says. I love that, don’t you? “You cannot step into the same story twice.”
Shouldn’t our children be allowed stories that are rich enough to bear revisiting? The child who reads The Giver in the fourth grade will not step back into the same story when he or she is my age. For me, there are twenty different versions of Black Beauty.
Of course, there are those who will claim that by reading about abuse, a person will become an abuser, just like reading about sex will make a person a sex maniac. Let me just say that whenever you take a risk, someone is going to twist it for their own purposes. Always.
Again, it is our responsibility to choose books for our kids that are appropriate. That is our job. We’re part of the invisible wall in this regard. Yes, we are. But we also have to allow our children the freedom to explore these deep places, so that when true sorrow finds them, they will have some experience with it, they’ll be able to name it for what it is, call it by its true name. I have an image of a brilliant campfire, and all of us are sitting around it, along with our own parents and our children, the whole village is there. It is dusk, the sun has set. The stories begin and as the fire dies down and the darkness deepens, one by one the little ones doze off and as they do, the stories get scarier or darker or more risqué. The point is, the children may fall asleep, but they’re still there. The adults and older children don’t forget them at their sides. They’re still in the circle of the campfire’s flame. I like this, the notion that the story community is intact, even though some of them are snoozing. And as they are ready to hear the darker stories, they’ll keep their eyes open a little longer.
So I want to say to Anonymous2, “You’re right! The Underneath is not wholly a children’s book, but neither is it entirely an adult’s book. I claim it as a person’s book. One that not everyone will love or like and judging from at least a couple of e-mails, some will hate.”
I want the anonymozati, as Jane Kurtz has so aptly named them, to know that I’m worried. I’m worried that our children, expert test takers by the time they reach fifteen where every answer is true or false, will not have Ferdinand or the little old woman eating mush or beautiful Ginger because tests have taken over and the language of their childhood will always be age appropriate and standardized. It will be too conscious and not conscious enough. And someone whom we could drink a beer with will stand in front of the world and say, “bring it on,” without the ability to imagine the ramifications or the feelings of others, someone who forgot Ferdinand.
So hear this, both of you, I’m done with the hard, fast, and sharp lines, with the conformity and worksheets and standardization. With multiple choice tests that do nothing to expand our ability to learn, that challenge only what we know, and not what we imagine. I’m not okay with those who would claim that just because a book is not suitable for one child, it must not be suitable for another. I’m sick of generalizations. Be specific for Christ’s sake.
Recently I got to hear Naomi Shihab Nye give a reading in San Antonio, and she read a poem about Paul Robeson, the great singer and civil rights activist of the first half of the 20th century.
This from Wikipedia: “In 1950 the State Department denied Robeson a passport, effectively confining him to the United States.
“In a symbolic act of defiance against the travel ban, labor unions in the U.S. and Canada organized a concert at the International Peace Arch on the border between Washington State and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Paul Robeson stood on the back of a flat bed truck on the American side of the U.S.-Canada border and performed a concert for a crowd on the Canadian side, variously estimated at between 20,000 and 40,000 people.”
So here is Naomi’s poem, serendipitously titled “Cross that Line”:
Paul Robeson stood
on the northern border
of the USA
and sang into Canada
where a vast audience
sat on folding chairs
waiting to hear him.
He sang into Canada.
His voice left the USA
when his body was
not allowed to cross
Remind us again,
What countries may we
What lines should we all
What songs travel toward us
from far away
to deepen our days?
Is there a point to all this, you must be asking? In this meandering between my past and my present, there is. It is my hope for new authors everywhere that you will take the criticism that comes your way and use it to remind yourselves about what is true for you and what is not. In each comment and complaint about my own work, I have learned that there is something important for me discover or to remember. What that will be for you is only for you to decide.
Anonymous and Anonymous2 reminded me of things I care about, things I wanted you to know. And there’s this too: I also want to encourage you to listen to those who came before you and pay attention.
Over the years, I’ve seen way too many stories that all sound alike, that all seem to be told by the same person. Recently the loudest voice is a sarcastic teenager who spends a lot of time paraphrasing “as if.” Teenspeak. It’s so common now that too often I can’t tell where one author ends and another begins. Our language is at risk of becoming generic, standardized. Warning, Will Robinson—we did not come here to sound like each other or to imitate the voices of whatever is popular at the moment. It’s our job to listen to our own voices. Like Naomi said, “ask what songs came toward you from far away, to deepen your days.”
So I say, come with me, my sisters and brothers, let’s sing into other countries. At the end of the day, all we have are those blue lines on white linen, that’s all, but that’s enough too. Let us use our own blue lines to write ourselves from yesterday to today, from Baloo to William Faulkner to those of you reading this whose stories are still to come, let us marry our truest loves even when others doubt and decry and rail against us, even when we’re scared, so scared, let us ride a cock horse between the light and shadow of our grandmother’s campfires, let us whisper into the ears of the babies on our hips, and call out the true names of our hearts even when they are sorrow and fear.
And, oh best beloveds, may all those cold, hard lines that we draw between ourselves, real and imaginary, become so blurred that someday they’ll disappear all together.