This is an unusual piece for me, as it gets very directly into politics by the route of scrutiny of authority, misinformation, and mistakes in children’s literature. I’m dividing this into three parts, to be posted serially. The first part will be on “Authorship,” the second will be on “Use of Language,” the third on “Writing Responsibly.” The most direct audience I’m speaking to is my own natural group, Jews of North America. However, I do think what I have to say should resonate outside, especially into the more liberal-minded readers of literature in North America.
The goal is not to determine “rightness” and “wrongness.” Instead, I’m discussing how to communicate with authenticity, precision, and in the most helpful way possible to achieve a goal. Why me? Because I read kids’ lit, and as we give children the best of ourselves (or should) this is the best area to look for clear, honest communication that helps build trust. I’m not looking at kids’ lit about the conflict– I’m looking at how we communicate and achieve goals. With that said, you’ve been warned, read on.
Part 1: Authorship
One of my favourite authors as I entered my early teenager years was Madeleine L’Engle. As is customary, I read A Wrinkle in Time first, but it wasn’t my favourite. I love the rest of the series, but I fell, hard, for A Ring of Endless Light. And Madeleine L’Engle was probably my first introduction to loving an imperfect author. Now, one of the things I loved in L’Engle was her love of poetry—I have always loved poetry and she quotes so much of it, so enthusiastically! Like this poem:
If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,
And say — “This is not dead,” —
And fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou,
And hast such shrewd activity,
That, when He comes, He says — “This is enow
Unto itself — ‘Twere better let it be:
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me.”
She attributes the poem to Sir Thomas Browne, a not particularly brilliant seventeenth-century poet. In fact, it is a poem by T.E. Brown (Thomas Edward Brown), who wrote in the late nineteenth century. Back in the era when I read it first, I had no idea. Google cleared it up for me more recently.
That was an obvious issue. When people today croak about the falling standards in publishing and the lack of fact-checking today? Oh my friends. It’s been this way for a while.
L’Engle did introduce me to Henry Vaughan, whom I’ve loved ever since, and she was really responsible for getting me into the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. That’s also the book where she quotes from Messengers of God by Elie Wiesel, a truly extraordinary book I was glad to find because I wasn’t able to cope with Wiesel’s more direct accounts of the Holocaust but I did want to read his work. Messengers of God was a wonderful book for me.
And then there are the other, more nuanced issues. I had a very hard time with passages from her other books. In her book Dragons in the Waters (1976), a thoughtful and intelligent character discusses “the passion to bring past crimes to judgment” and reminds his interlocutor, “Don’t forget that there are at this moment Israelis in Argentina tracking down Nazis.” The interlocutor concedes, “Yes. That, too, is a long time to hold hate.”
There’s also a passage in A Ring of Endless Light, the very part where Vicky’s grandfather quotes Wiesel. He says of Messengers of God: “It’s a fascinating book, though there are some sections I’d love to argue with him, especially when he writes about what Christians think, which by and large is far from what I think.”
I always struggled with that pair of passages. How could Madeleine L’Engle recognize that Elie Wiesel, for all of his deep humanity and clarity of vision, couldn’t speak authoritatively for Christians, and yet she has these two thoughtful characters in a book published a mere 31 years after the end of WWII critiquing the Israelis capturing unrepentant Nazi war criminals in Argentina? Consider that Adolf Eichmann was captured in Argentina in 1960. It was a question I grappled with, returning to it over and over again as I reread these books for years. You could say that I, like Vicky’s grandfather, think her books are fascinating, but want to argue with her voice of authority.
And I did reread them, because they’re good, if imperfect, books. My copies are the kind of battered old paperbacks in multiple pieces that authors grin over in delighted dismay because they’re gross but obviously loved.
This matters, ever so strongly, right now. You see, Madeleine L’Engle was writing her truth, earnestly, and she wrote well and worked very hard to get herself into others’ minds, try to understand others’ perspectives—but she wrote Noble Savage type Indigenous characters, she wrote White Saviour narratives, and, at least in these two characters she seemed to think it was acceptable to tell Jewish survivors of the Holocaust that they needed to relinquish their “hate” instead of bringing criminals to justice.
And yet? I keep her books on my shelves, imperfect as they are, good as they are. She inspired me. She gave me so much. I like to think, given the nature of her work, that she, like Grandfather, would have been open to a conversation with me. (There are other authors who sure don’t make me feel that way, and that’s a different story for another day.)
I’m seeing an awful lot in the kids’ lit world these days of very unilateral discourse about what’s good and bad in books and authorship. I’m not ideological about this, by the way. So long as it’s a good book, I’m really ok with a lot.
I’ve seen discussions of #OwnVoices authorship—a well-intentioned initiative that has turned out pretty badly after, for example, authors were forced to “out” themselves when they weren’t ready to because they were attacked for writing queer voices without (apparently) being queer. That’s extreme, of course, and really not ok… It was also predictable.
I can’t tell an author who and what they can or should write. Diana Wynne Jones said (I paraphrase) she agreed you should write what you know and that’s why she writes about dragons.
The best recent Holocaust-related book for kids I’ve ever read just came out. Peter Sís’s Nicky and Vera. He’s not Jewish. He didn’t usurp a Jewish voice or perspective. He also didn’t force young kids to live through trauma they’d never experienced, or push them into confused anxiety and guilt. His approach was emphasis of the value of each individual life saved. Thus he prepares kids to draw their own conclusions, as they grow, regarding the Nazi crimes and murders, once they have established as a foundation a clear vision of every life as valuable, every death as a tragedy. It’s not #OwnVoices, but it’s intensely valuable. On the other hand, I also welcomed Nimbus’s picture books from Rita Joe and Rebecca Thomas, and I lament the relative paucity of picture storybooks from Indigenous authors of their tribes’ histories and narratives in the kids’ lit world. I recall old picture books by white authors of First Nations stories—but I want the narratives directly from the source. Stories matter, and honesty matters. I want to have that experience, I want it from the source, and I want it in all honesty.
ISRAEL AND PALESTINE, HOW THIS CONNECTS
Why do I write this today?
I’ve been watching as everyone talks and talks about Israel and Palestine this past month or two—not to mention all my life, I guess. Being a Jew in North America is simply a whole THING about being whatever-your-country-of-origin-is plus being defensive about Israel. That’s just the way it is, and I’ve probably just pissed off every Jew in North America. I’m sorry, but I’m about to get worse.
This time around, I’ve been watching with genuine pain as friends in Israel go from grieving the familiar spiral down into violence to, once again, getting frustrated as they attempt to justify their very existence. At the same time, I listen with genuine and familiar frustration as friends and organizations in North America pontificate, once again, about supporting Israel against the attempts to eradicate it. I turn around and watch with similarly familiar frustration as activist friends go from decrying “apartheid” to deploying the word “genocide.” It’s such a familiar pattern, it’s everywhere, it’s incredibly counterproductive, and I very rarely speak about it, but I kind of want to talk, so I’m writing it down. Because it’s the same story as in the kids’ lit community.
Most everyone has no clue what they’re talking about, they’re unclear about the precise story, they claim one voice is The Real Voice to listen to, not others, and they get a lot wrong but the wrongness gets repeated ad nauseam and the irrational is spinning out of control… Sort of like spouting a poem as being from Sir Thomas Browne and then it kind of becomes that way and poor T.E. Brown loses his voice. Who even are they? Do most readers of Madeleine L’Engle know? They don’t. But the name “Browne” has won over “Brown.”
So I’m feeling puzzlement, frustration, and irritation of my own that has precisely nothing to do with “supporting” or “denouncing” anything.
I want to break a few things down about what we know, how we know it, and how we talk about it. I want to talk about setting goals and doing things that will achieve those goals. I want to talk about using the good brains we have in useful ways—and yes, all of that has to do with kids’ lit. Because one of the things about kids’ lit is the level of expertise that goes into few words. Peter Sís wrote and drew with such care and precision, with perfect use of language and deeply responsible and judicious understanding of what he had to say that others could note, that he captured a great deal; Madeleine L’Engle, unfortunately, was less precise, misattributed authorship of a poem, and gave a valuable lesson on not usurping authority—while, herself, usurping authority over another issue, which kind of undercut her authority on authority. It’s so important to know when not to speak.
And so, for today, I want you to think about who’s telling a story, and what story, and why. But when I next post, we’ll be talking about language and precision in storytelling, whether for kids or in journalism or, honestly, in any conversation, anywhere. It will be technical, and it will be uncomfortable. It will also be worth it.