Unspeakably Angry

I haven’t entered in on the current rising wave of book bannings and challenges in the USA for a few reasons. First, I’m hardly the best person to speak about it, and I’m learning enormously from those who are, including excellent (though sobering and infuriating) speeches recorded in The Horn Book in their recent awards issues. Second, I’m still being slow to write while my brain continues to recover from the aftermath of Covid. The cognitive effects are no joke, and it’s taking me longer periods of time to write cogently.

But one very recent case struck me with inescapable force and I wanted to tell you why.

Recently, I’ve written about a few classics of the American picture book world, both of which were challenging books for adults to grasp, and, indeed, Sendak continues to be hard for adults of my acquaintance to stomach, while Margaret Wise Brown is often profoundly misunderstood. What I attempted to highlight in writing about them, though whether I succeeded was another story, was their profound trust for the children they addressed. Adults, seeing Mickey pop out and cheerfully challenge the adult bakers by proudly announcing and then experimenting with his own identity, got fits of the vapours.

That wasn’t the first time and they’ve never stopped, often with greater precision and nastiness, as this recent wave highlights all too bitterly.

The most recent story was that certain school libraries in San Antonio, Texas have refused to add Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford with art by Floyd Cooper, which is a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee, to their holdings, even when free copies were offered by a local shop (link to account on Twitter by Nowhere Bookshop). So what we are observing in this case is a deliberate obfuscation of the book which, in itself, was a forthright attempt to uncover a story which had been deliberately obscured. And this all broke during Banned Books Week. (My purchase link is to Nowhere Bookshop which is donating copies of the book to classes in their school district.)

One further aspect, to my mind, takes this story from grim to offensive and hurtful: Floyd Cooper died on July 15, 2021 at age 65, too early to see the accolades Unspeakable received, but not too early to explain, as quoted in the linked article, how important this project was to him in that it communicated a story and told children the truth about a piece of history rarely communicated in schools, and which he only knew about from his grandfather, who lived through it. The accolades, nominations, and awards mean only so much while schools and libraries remove it from lists and ban it from shelves, refusing to trust children with what Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper trust them enough to tell them.

I focused initially on Floyd Cooper for the simple reasons that a) this feels like a slap to his memory, and I’m furious about that, and b) you may remember I’ve talked about Carole Boston Weatherford before already, though I welcome any chance to do so again.

And, in fact, my experiences sharing her work with students in a school library are a key reason I’m writing this at all. When I was so briefly working in a school library as the sole librarian with barely any hours to assist kids and next to no budget for books, one of the books I made absolutely sure I catalogued immediately was Box, which I reviewed a while ago. I had a spare copy since I’d been sent a review copy, and I knew the students needed it, so I brought it in and catalogued it right away.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it as often as is necessary: much of the best poetry being written in the 21st century is being written for children. Carole Boston Weatherford is one of the most direct and powerful of these poets today. She has the skill of writing completely unpretentious yet beautiful poems which are direct and clear to read (or be read by) children without pandering to them, but in language which is both accessible (not flauntingly high and hard) and juicy (she knows to trust and challenge them to pay attention).

That last point is hard and not to be underestimated. Sometimes I trust a teacher’s knowledge of what will be good for a class, sometimes not. I absolutely had a teacher who glanced at a book I was reading and talking to the kids about and she chuckled: “you’ll lose them, they’ll never get that.” They loved it. Other times, I wasn’t so lucky. You have to have the knack to know, and you have to choose the day and time.

But Carole Boston Weatherford never failed me.

Her book Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library was one of the most meaningful experiences I had reading to one of my hardest classes. I carefully pre-selected poems, expecting only to get through maybe two. I got through all five I’d bookmarked, I remember, with conversation that built from poem to poem. For each one, I would pause and say “Imagine…” and relate it to these Jewish kids’ backgrounds. “Imagine you were in a class and a teacher straight-up told you that there was no Jewish culture, no contribution to culture by Jews. You were little in that room, she was big, and she told you there was nothing, it didn’t happen.” There was a susurration of anger. “Well, listen.” They did. I read about Schomburg at school, belittled not just personally– his whole heritage insulted. One of the girls fired up, angry, “The teacher was lying and mean! She shouldn’t have been a teacher if she didn’t say it right!” She was, of course, correct– it was bad teaching.

Sort of like how if you’re, for example, getting holdings for your library and have a list of award nominees and deliberately refuse to get one book for teaching history you don’t want kids to know…

You’re lying to them. You’re omitting information. You’re withholding truth, and you’re not trusting children to grow and do better than you’re doing.

Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper did their parts. They shared the truth, beautifully.

It’s time we did our part. I encourage you to buy a copy of Unspeakable, or Box or Schomburg, or maybe Floyd Cooper’s Juneteenth for Mazie, from Nowhere Bookshop (they ship!).

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