I, Too, Am America

I was at the Harvard Book Store on Sunday.  All right, being honest, I was there on Thursday, but completely lost my mind and forgot the presents I needed to get while I was there.  So I had to go back today and get the presents (two copies of Instructions for two little girls I’ll be seeing over Thanksgiving).  And here’s the thing: while I was there, I noticed they had a beautiful display of books by minority groups out there, including quite an extraordinary illustrated edition of Langston Hughes’ poem “I, Too.” And I am here to tell you that I, Too, Am America, poem by Langston Hughes, illustrations by Bryan Collier, is heart-wrenching and inspirational.

I, Too, Am America.jpg

I hesitated a lot over this post, because what can I tell you about Langston Hughes or his poetry?  Being perfectly frank here, does the world really need another earnest post by a rather privileged white person about a distinctly, famously black poem?  I’m too Canadian, too white, too Jewish, and too privileged to analyze Langston Hughes for you, so if you have any curiosity about him, then I’m just going to point you to this excellent, nuanced, and fascinating article and that should give you plenty to think about.  For myself, I’m not going to pretend I can tell you much about Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance, or the black experience in America.

What I do know something about, though, is the world of kids’ books; I know a good book when I see one, and this one is beautiful.  Two things surprised me about it: a) how very well Bryan Collier’s precise vision worked with the open-endedness of the poem; b) how much the Changeling liked it, even at age three.

Let’s take a look at the poem, shall we?  It never hurt anyone to pause and read a good poem, and it will help us to understand the story Bryan Collier tells with his images:

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.
Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

You see what I mean about “open-endedness”: this poem could tell any number of people’s stories, which, in fact, is one of its beauties.  It could (and this is as close as I’ll come to analyzing the poem itself) tell the literal story of someone sent to the kitchen, or it could tell the figurative story of someone sent to the kitchen; it could be speaking directly to you, to one person, or it could be speaking to a crowd, a group, a class of people.  Bryan Collier hears it speaking to, as he describes it, “the Pullman porters, African-American men who worked as caretakers to wealthy white passengers aboard luxury trains.  This practice began after legal slavery ended and lasted until the 1960s…”  And so our focus, as we flip through his illustrations, narrows from a story which could belong to many people to the story of the Pullman porters, catering to a white elite lifestyle which they could never reach.

And yet– as the poem tells us– they can and will break free from the unjust world in which they live.  Bryan Collier shows us in his beautiful and compelling mixed media illustrations the story moving through time and space with the train.  We begin with the train, just the train.  Then comes the porter’s face, veiled by an American flag.  We move, along with the poem, into the kitchen, seeing the black cooks hard at work.  And then, “I laugh, / And eat well” features a glowing image of the porter filling the foreground with his energy, while those he looks after sit muted in the background.  We then see the porters, and I quote Bryan Collier again from his Illustrator’s Note, “gathering newspapers, magazines, blues and jazz albums, and other items left behind by traveling passengers and then, from the back of the last train car, tossing this bundle in the air, acting as a conduit of culture, a distributor of knowledge to those who couldn’t afford these items on their own.”

In Collier’s illustrations, however, these cultural pieces don’t fall down, but flow outward, through time and space, all the way to the present, reaching audiences far and wide.  “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / When company comes.”  They flow from the old luxury trains to the modern subway train and, on that train, a boy peering through the same flag which had veiled the porter’s face at the opening of the book, looking and pushing through to a more hopeful future.

This book is both educational and inspirational: it taught me about Pullman porters, a story I’d never heard before.  My daughter, as she grows older and we continue to read this book together, will know their story.  I like to think that Langston Hughes would be a little bit proud of that, and that he’d be happy that children would learn to see a story through his words, and identify with it.  And, perhaps, reading this poem, seeing this story, they’ll learn that we are all America.

Altogether, this is a beautiful book.  I wasn’t sure how Langston Hughes’ poem could be rendered for children (and, well, I still am not sure what my three-year-old gets out of it!), but Bryan Collier has done a magnificent job.  He paints a story which flows with as much energy as Hughes’ words do, and together they are a powerhouse of warmth, understanding, and, I truly hope, empowerment.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t think I’m the right person to comment on the Harlem Renaissance or to analyze Langston Hughes’s poems, but I do know how to recognize a good picture book.

And this, too, is one.

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Shh! We Have a Plan

I was recently talking to my sister about ideas.  You see, when we were children, we both loved playing “make believe” or trying experiments or having adventures.  But all of these things need to be sparked by an idea– they need to be planned.  You can’t make believe without some spark of a plan.  My sister was the one with the ideas; I was along for the ride.  We still joke to this day that if my sister says, “I have an idea!”  Well.  You should hide under the table if you don’t have the stomach to go along for a wild ride.

This is a book about ideas, about plans, but it’s turned upside-down, right on its head:  Shh! We Have a Plan, by author-illustrator Chris Haughton.  (Can we digress for a little moment to discuss how cool I find it that Candlewick Press, which produced this book and so many other beauties, is located right in my neck of the woods?  Proud I am to breathe the same sweet air as Candlewick Press.)

Shh! We Have a Plan.jpg

Dear readers, this book exemplifies what Candlewick Press does so well: it’s fresh, it’s original, and it leaves you asking just a few questions at the end.  Meanwhile, the art (created digitally) is equally fresh and original, and yet it fits beautifully on a shelf beside such illustrators as Christian Robinson and Dan Yaccarino, for example, with its bold colours and blocky yet graceful shapes.

The story goes like this: There’s a group of four people (a family or friends, perhaps?) who are out on an adventure.  The three biggest are carrying nets; the smallest of the four is not.  As they walk along, they see a beautiful bird.  The smallest waves and says, “Hello, birdie!”  But the others say, “Shh!  We have a plan!”  They sneak up on the bird: Ready one, ready two, ready three… Go!  They pounce on the bird– but the bird gets away!  Over and over they try, until the fourth friend finally approaches the bird in his own way, according to his own plan: “Hello, birdie.  Would you like some bread?”  And what happens?  He ends up surrounded by a whole flock of beautiful, colourful birds!  When the other three creep up with their nets again, the birds chase them away, and then what do the three of them do?  “Look!  A squirrel!” and “Shh!  We have a plan!”

There is so much to enjoy in this simple story that I hardly know where to begin, but we have to start somewhere, so.  One of the most striking elements here is, as I mentioned above, that Chris Haughton leaves us with a lot of questions at the end: Who are these four people?  What’s their relationship?  Why are the bigger three hunting birds and squirrels?  And, by the end, do those three ever learn?

The answers to these questions aren’t evident from the story.  I’d call them “four friends,” but they might be a family, or they might be four Members of the Parliament of Blueville, for all that we really know for sure.  They have no specific background or gender or name or anything: they are, in effect, four little Everymen ready to receive whatever the reader of the story chooses to impose on them.  (I notice with interest that in my little summary I used the masculine pronoun to refer to the smallest of the four people; that was completely unconsciously done.)

Whatever we impose on them, however, there are still certain actions they take which might influence our perspective on these people.  I find myself automatically distrustful of anyone walking around carrying a net, for example, so my sympathies are immediately directed towards the smallest of the group, who cheerfully calls out, “Hello, birdie!” instead of chasing with a net.  And the story rewards this cheerful little fellow, bringing a whole flock of birds to surround him, whereas the original bird fled from the three fellows with nets.  And so we forge forward, looking forward to finding out how the three figures with nets will react: will they understand, will they join in on the party?

Nope!  First they spring at the birds with nets, and then, when they’re chased away, they pursue a squirrel in exactly the same way.  The smallest of the friends remains apart, scratching his head as the other three pursue the squirrel, and, once more, we’re completely sympathetic: “Why,” we wonder, “are they doing this again?”  And we’re back to questions.

What, in effect, do we know for sure about the story?  We know that there are four of these people and that they seem to be looking for some adventure together out in nature.  The bigger three want to possess it, and the smallest enjoys it on a face-to-face basis, leaving the birds free to do as they please.  Without ever being didactic, purely showing and never telling, then, Chris Haughton demonstrates to the reader the truth of an old adage: “If you love it, set it free.”  (Does anyone know the background of that saying?  I wonder where it came from.)  Those who try to trap the bird are left with nothing, but the one who came to the birds on their own terms was caught up in a moment of true beauty, and true happiness.  Maybe, we think, you don’t need a plan.  Maybe you just need to leave it to the birds.

What stands out to me from this book is how completely non-didactic it is.  It’s humorous, sweet, and very beautiful.  The message, too, is gentle and beautiful, but it in no fashion lectures children; it simply shows us the sympathetic small person, and asks us to love him.  And we do.

A Lion in Paris

Dear readers, I know that a lot of you are Americans, and I’m guessing, if so, that I’m not the only person sitting here today feeling as though she’d just been punched in the gut.  Even if you’re not American, you may well feel that way.  If you’re like me, you simply can’t stand looking at news sites, and you’re probably having a hard time getting used to the new picture for the next four years.

So today’s post goes out to all of you: Everyone who’s scared, everyone who’s shocked, everyone who had hoped for better for their children (or others’ children).  Today’s post is about a book which looks for better things, which takes someone sad and alone and helps him find his true place in the world.

A Lion in Parisby Beatrice Alemagna.

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This book is a large and tall book– if Mr. Collins wanted to read “one of the largest folios” in Mr. Bennet’s collection, he should have taken this one off the shelf.  It’s certainly an improving book, but probably more beautiful and uplifting than his preferred Fordyce’s sermons.

This is how it begins: “He was a big lion.  A young, curious and lonely lion.  He was bored at home on the grasslands, and so one day he set off to find a job, love and a future.”

How many of us leave home to find “a job, love and a future”?  I’m not a statistician, and I’m not here to give you precise numeric answers; there are lots of others out there who can do that better than I can.  I’m going to stick to saying: “a lot.”  I think that at some point in our lives, most of us stand up and say, “I have to find my path.”  And what do we have to guide us?  Ourselves.  And, as the lion in our book finds, leaving the grasslands for Paris with no luggage and only himself to guide him can be a little scary.

Being a lion, he wondered, too, whether he would scare anyone, whether anyone would attack him.  But no one did. The lion, who wanted to be noticed, roared for attention on the Metro, but no one paid any attention.  He wandered Paris through rain and through sun, watching the sunlight bounce off of all of the glass windows.  He visits the Seine, the lion reflected in its waters smiling back at him.  He visits the Mona Lisa, who also smiles at him, and climbs the Eiffel Tower.  And as he travels through the city, he begins to feel that Paris is now smiling at him from all its windows.

Finally, however, he comes to an empty plinth at a crossroads and, with a huge Roaaaaaaar! of joy, he leaps onto it and puts his paws together.  And there, having finally found the place that suited him, he decides to stay.

There are a few aspects of this book, which I tried to hint at in my summary.  First, there’s the travelogue.  The book even opens with the lion holding a little map of Paris on the end-paper.  As he goes from place to place, other visitors to Paris will enjoy seeing their favourite spots highlighted in Beatrice Alemagna’s beautiful illustrations.

But there’s a lot more.  A lonely traveller from another country comes to Paris hoping to find a job, love, and a future.  He searches everywhere, feeling lost and alone and ignored.  He roars for attention.  When he visits the Louvre, he finally feels glad to be noticed by the Mona Lisa, and, gradually, he goes on to win more attention from smiling Parisians.  At last, he finds the plinth on which he can sit (in the Place Denfert-Rochereau, in case you’re curious), happy, loved by visitors, for the rest of his life.  That story feels a lot like the story of a wanderer, maybe an immigrant, looking for his place in the world.

But there’s still more, something less tangible, more internal: the lion is lonely, and he needs to find his place in life.  Is there anyone out there who can’t identify with that loneliness, or with the desire for a dream to achieve?  Is there anyone who doesn’t nod along with the wish to have others tell us, “Yes, you’re here.  You’re alive, and I see you.”  I doubt very much that the lion is alone in his search for a job, love, and a future, whether you’re hunting physically or internally.

And, yes, in this miserable election there was a lot of talk about people’s hopes and dreams, and who has the right to pursue those hopes and dreams.  (There was also a lot of talk about immigrants, but I’ll let you suss out the connections to A Lion in Paris by yourself.)  I found, rereading this book, that our lion is a sympathetic figure: he’s on the side of those who believe that with a little soul-searching and hard work, we ought all to be able to achieve our hopes and dreams.  And, whatever the outcome of this one election, he encourages us to commit again to hoping and dreaming.  He encourages us to work towards achieving our dreams.  He encourages us not to sit at home, bored and unhappy, but to get out there and get doing, and to find others to love and help us, too.

So, disappointed and upset as I am, punched in the gut as I feel, I’m going to stand on the back of this lion and announce, “Onwards, friends!  Let’s hope, dream, and work.  Let’s find our jobs, our loves, and our futures.”

Just– maybe give me a few days to get there, OK?  This was sort of a hard election to face up to.  And, in the meantime, I recommend that you find your own copy of A Lion in Paris, and prepare yourself to pursue your own hopes and dreams.

Monthly Retrospective

This is going to be a fairly brief monthly roundup since I was otherwise occupied for much of the month of October.  That said, the books I talked about in October are definitely worth a look, especially if you’re into spooky books, whether picture books or novels.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to deal with very scary books.  Even Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which I giggled my way through during the day, cost me several nights’ rest after the moon rose and the lights were out.  I am terrible at scary books, is what I’m saying.  But I love the spooky, especially in October: Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is excellent for spooky but not too scary, for example.  So I made it my mission to find books which had slightly spooky elements but were fundamentally not-at-all-scary to share with my three-year-old this Hallowe’en, and I think we nailed it.  In the spotlights below you’ll find two mild-but-not-milky picture books and a slightly creepy novel.    All of these are books which are guaranteed not to keep you or your children up at night, but should make you glad that you’re in a nice cozy house, secure against whatever ghosts roam the world when the leaves are changing and the shadows seem just a little bit deeper…

Enjoy, and if you have any recommendations for spooky-but-not-terrifying books, please share them!

I Am a Witch's Cat.jpg I Am a Witch’s Cat: This book tells the story of a girl who is her mother-witch’s cat, and we watch as the cat-girl imagines various normal activities (grocery shopping and cooking) as a witch’s life, and herself as a witch’s familiar.  Just as you’re chuckling at her vivid imagination, you turn the page to see what her mother is up to on Friday evenings– and whoosh! she zooms by on a broom!  A beautiful tale of the warm and familiar with a very slightly spooky imaginative twist, this is a really ideal story for anyone, book-loving toddler and up, who’s got her head in the clouds.

Ghosts in the House.jpgGhosts in the House: Do you love ghosts?  The witch in this little story does!  When she moves into a haunted house, the little witch and her cat are thrilled to find a set of ghosts living there.  She catches them all, gives them a good wash, and puts them all to excellent use.  Perfect for toddlers and up, this story is right on the edge between “charming” and “uncanny.”  Without ever really being too spooky, you get a sense of the little witch’s power, and how she can do things no normal child her age can do.  The orange, black, and white illustrations perfectly complement the clever story.

Left-Handed Fate.jpgThe Left-Handed FateIf you have an older child looking for a slightly spooky novel, The Left-Handed Fate is absolutely ideal.  Set right at the outset of the War of 1812, it combines history with magic, all through the actions of a powerful cast of characters: Lucy, the honorary lieutenant of her father’s letter-of-marque; Max, the naturalist on a quest; and Oliver, the “prize-captain” of The Left-Handed Fate who has some of the most difficult decisions to make in the book as he balances his duty with the more nuanced situations staring him in the face.  Wartime pressures and excitement combine with a longing for peace and security, and all are overshadowed by whatever that mysterious black brig is off in the distance…  Whether you’re looking for a good historical novel or a mystery to make your spine creep just a little bit, or if you simply love a well-crafted book with well-developed characters, give this one a try.

For a comprehensive list of the books we looked at this past month:

  • Scary, Scary Halloween: One of the spookier books I’ve seen for children, and beautifully illustrated by Jan Brett. Ages 3 and up.
  • Ten Timid Ghosts: A charming counting book for toddlers and up.
  • Ghosts in the House: Toddlers and up, a slightly eerie story about a girl and her ghosts.
  • The Left-Handed Fate: A middle grade and up novel set during 1812, with courageous and clever characters.
  • Room on the Broom: A charming story for toddlers and up about a witch whose friends help her in a time of need.
  • I Am a Witch’s Cat: A daughter imagines herself as a witch’s cat, but readers will chuckle when they find out what the mother is really up to on Friday nights!

For a final note, check out my blog post over at Late Last Night Books for more on Cat Valente, the author of Fairyland!