Race and Children’s Literature

By Hannah Lee

Do you remember the joy of finding a book that reflected your life, your family? As an immigrant living on the Lower East Side, I learned about American ways through the Girl Scout manual, and was puzzled by the young adult stories of Beverly Cleary, who wrote about teenage boys who played football, and girls who rallied them with cheers in formation. By the time I became a mother, books about Asian-American families had become available, and I still happily collect them.

Back in the mid-20th century, book publishers were not interested in reaching a wider audience beyond the mainstream culture. Ezra Jack Keats was a pioneer, who convinced Viking Press to allow depiction of a black boy, Peter, in his 1962 book, The Snowy Day. He also broke new literary ground in portraying an urban setting and using collage to illustrate his text. The book won the 1963 Caldecott Award for “most distinguished American picture book for children.”

Born in 1916 to Polish Jewish immigrants, Keats grew up poor in East New York, Brooklyn. His father discouraged his interest in writing, while simultaneously supporting his talent with tubes of paint. Keats changed his name from Jack Ezra Katz in 1947 in reaction to the anti-semitism in the country

The reaction to The Snowy Day ranged from outrage that Keats was not himself black to gratitude for expanding the racial profile of the book world. The poet and leader of the “Harlem Renaissance,” Langston Hughes, praised it as “a perfectly charming little book.” The writer Sherman Alexie read it as a child on an Indian reservation in the 1970s and reminisced:

It was the first time I looked at a book and saw a brown, black, beige character — a character who resembled me physically and spiritually in all his gorgeous loneliness and splendid isolation.

This summer we are treated with overlapping exhibits in our city’s institutions, with The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats at the National Museum of American Jewish History, a retrospective collection of the work of Jerry Pinkney at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and a companion exhibit on Pinkney’s body of work at the Free Library on Vine Street.

A native son of Germantown born in 1939, Pinkney struggled with dyslexia, but he soared through his talent in drawing. Whereas Keats’ black characters could have been anybody, Pinkey’s artwork explicitly incorporates African-American motifs. He won the 2010 Caldecott Medal for his illustration of The Lion & the Mouse, a version of Aesop’s fable that he also wrote. He also has five Caldecott Honors, among other awards. One of my favorite of his works is of Goin’ Someplace Special, written by Patricia McKissack. Set in the late 1950s in Nashville, it is about a time and place where the library was one of the few places that disregarded the segregationist Jim Crow laws and treated blacks with respect.

Books may not lead social movements, but they have lasting impacts in supporting individuals who live outside the mainstream. You are no longer fringe when there are books that reflect your life.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3427/race-and-childrens-literature

Talkback on “Slaying the Dragon”

By Hannah Lee

Teshuvah (repentance) is a prominent Jewish value, but what happens when a high Ku Klux Klan high official renounces his life?  The world premiere of the opera, Slaying the Dragon, was heralded by a Q&A session with a panel consisting of: Ellen Frankel, the librettist and managing director of Center City Opera Theater; Kathryn Watterson, author of Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman on which the opera is based; and Bob Wolfson, Associate National Director of Regional Operations for the Anti-Defamation League and formerly the local ADL officer in charge of Lincoln, Nebraska where the events took place.  The panel discussion took place on Sunday, June 3 at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

In her 1995 book, Watterson, a professor in the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania, chronicled the stranger-than-fiction narrative of Larry Trapp, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan’s Lincoln chapter who had a change of heart, renounced his life of hatred and violence, and embraced Judaism.

A double amputee and blind from the complications of diabetes, Trapp — a black-sheep, distant relation of the von Trapp family singers of The Sound of Music fame —  was inspired by the love and kindness offered by Michael and Julie Weisser.

A remarkable couple, Michael Weisser was then cantor and spiritual leader of the Reform Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, one of two synagogues in Lincoln, and Julie was herself a convert to Judaism.  Together they were raising five children, and they all welcomed Trapp into their home — with the teen sisters giving up their own room — and nursed him while he was dying from his illness.  When Trapp died at age 42, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery there.

There are still people in the Jewish community in Lincoln who doubt Trapp’s sincerity in his transformation.  Wolfson recounted the “surreal feeling” he had when Trapp, who’d previously threatened his family, rolled up to the ADL office in his wheelchair and asked to give Wolfson a hug.  This was the guy that he had to warn his children against, and the reason they had to monitor the in-coming mail to the house.

Wolfson thinks it was because the Angel of Death was at his back that Trapp personally apologized to every person he’d hurt in his campaign of hate.  However, it took courage to leave the KKK, because it was a public betrayal — by a Grand Dragon, no less!  The opera deviates from reality in that Trapp is portrayed as vulnerable, being mocked by his fellow Klansmen for his physical disabilities.  In actuality, he was a strong leader and was admired by his Klan, despite his inability to physically carry out the acts of evil and spite that he advocated.

Michael Weisser, now a rabbi in Flushing, New York, was a strong believer in redemption — he’d had his own tragedy to overcome.  Neither he nor his wife were punitive people; their preferred motto was: “Educate, not punish.”  When two college boys were on trial in Lincoln for defacing his synagogue, Weisser offered to lead educational classes for them both in lieu of jail time.  Watterson pointed out that society has surely gained more by the time these misguided youth spent at Weisser’s side than in prison.

Watterson noted that white supremacists are under-developed emotionally.  So much energy is expended on projecting hate that there is no room for personal growth.  Wolfson said that people often prefer to think of these people as “nuts.”  ”Some are, but not all are so.”  Larry Trapp was not intellectually impaired, he said, but it is harder to contemplate rational people who hate obsessively.

Could what had happened in Lincoln happen here?  Hatred can happen anywhere.  Wolfson said that Weisser was a radical, whose Reform temple had lost members.  The conservative Jewish community looked askance at him, whom he would describes as “to the left, politically, of Mao Zedong,” the late Communist dictator of China.

The Jews of Lincoln were Zionist and middle-of-the-road politically and they couldn’t understand Weisser who believed in the prophet-to-the-nation philosophy of Reform Judaism, stressing tikkun olam (repairing the world) and protesting injustice.  However, Weisser built up his congregation and brought life to the synagogue.

Watterson said that she focused on Trapp’s life as a white supremacist, because it was so similar to that of Timothy McVeigh, the man who detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and injuring more than 800 people, the deadliest act of terrorism within the United States prior to the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Frankel, the librettist, said that the composer, Michael Ching, urged her to make Larry Trapp and Michael and Julie Weisser–  re-named Grand Dragon Jerry Krieg and Rabbi Nathan and Vera Goodman in the opera — less black-and-white evil and goodness incarnate.  He wanted her to bring the characters closer together and find the commonality in them.

Are we in a post-racial world?  Wolfson noted that the world has moved to the right in recent times, citing hate crimes in France, Greece, and the United States.  Economic hardship and instability bring out the worst in human nature.  However, liberal-minded people tend not to regard this evidence of persistent racism as a motivation to keep the fight against bigotry at the top of their social action agenda, preferring to think that the issue has been resolved.

It’s most important, Watterson urged, “to get to know each other, beyond our comfort zone, and acknowledge each other’s humanity.”  She noted the spill-over of hate words into general society (e.g., “femini-Nazis”) and the public shaming and blaming tolerated in our communities.  We should foster more creativity, said she, not demonize “people of color.”

Herbert Levine, Frankel’s husband, asked from the audience about how the KKK was able to get away with its open acts of violence?  Where were the police, the FBI?  Wolfson said that in the case of the Asian immigrant community, the Laotian leadership told the police to let them handle acts of violence against their community in their own way.  Thus, after their community center was targeted by “Operation Gooks,” defaced and destroyed by Trapp’s minions, it was re-built by the Asian community anew, but this time behind barbed-wire fencing and patrolled by armed guards.

How strong is the KKK nowadays?  Watterson said they’re very organized — “the movement inspires action.”  One aborted example: Trapp himself had planned on assassinating Jesse Jackson, the black civil rights activist and Baptist minister, figuring that, in his weheelchair, he could get close to his targeted victim.

Of the white supremacists groups, White Aryan Nation is more powerful, but there are local KKK groups in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Wolfson pointed out that the Internet allows these groups to organize more efficiently, not announcing a public rally until “12 minutes before” — with the leaders texting one another — to avoid police intervention.  The ADL (and the FBI) used to infiltrate these groups, but they can now avoid unwanted scrutiny more easily.  Wolfson noted that the biggest problem is the lone wolf, one who operates outside of group sanctions.  Frankel added that the Philly chapter of ADL has a full-time staffer who monitors the communication of hate groups and who maintains an ongoing dialogue with the FBI.

Evening performances of Slaying the Dragon will take place on June 14 and 16, with a 2 pm final show on June 17  at the Helen Corning Warden Theater at the Academy of Vocal Arts, on 1920 Spruce Street.   Limited  seating is available.  For tickets, visit www.OperaTheater.org.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2241/talkback-on-slaying-the-dragon

In Memoriam: Maurice Sendak

By Hannah Lee

What is the measure of a man’s worth?  If it’s durable accomplishments, then Maurice Sendak has left a whoppingly large body of work: author of 18 books/anthologies, illustrator of 78 books by others (if I counted correctly); set designer of more than five ballets and operas, and author of one opera.  However, if we were to include the generations of children whose memories have been indelibly influenced by Sendak, then we’re heading into the stratosphere.

Our family’s favorite was not Where the Wild Things Are, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1964, nor In the Night Kitchen, his 1970 book of a naked young boy playing in his family’s kitchen after bedtime that has been banned in several states (including Illinois, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Texas).  In fact, our copy had a distinctively bad odor that everyone of us still recalls.  No, our favorite was Nutshell Library (Caldecott Collection) which included Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup with Rice, and Pierre. The oft-stated line by the rebellious Pierre was bandied about in our house, because “he didn’t care.”  Later, we were charmed by the animated televised production combining “The Nutshell Library” and “The Sign on Rosie’s Door” titled, Really Rosie, featuring the singing voice of Carole King.  My sister’s three boys also loved Sendak’s books, identifying with “what sometimes seemed like the hidden message in his books (when so many children’s books are saccharine sweet).”

Born in Brooklyn in 1928 to Polish Jewish immigrants, Sendak grew up in a sad, grim household, shadowed by the tragedy of World War II.  In one interview with Terry Gross of NPR, Sendak recalled often dropping in on his best-friend, Carmine, who lived in the apartment across the hall, because Carmine’s family featured laughter, hugs, and kisses.  And pasta!  He nurtured his love of books when confined to his bed during a childhood illness.  He’d said that he decided to become an illustrator after viewing Walt Disney’s film Fantasia at the age of twelve.

In another interview with Terry Gross, he stated that he never wrote for children, but we readers knew that he understood the complexities of childhood, with its attendant fears, anxieties, and jealousies.  Toward the end of his life, he declined all invitations to school assemblies, because he was appalled that the protocols and instructions by the adults in charge — teachers and principals — had turned him into the children’s enemies — “Behave or else!”  ”Ask good questions!”  Sendak preferred that children come to his books on their own, asking their own “terrible” questions.

Sendak died on Tuesday morning from complications of a stroke.  His final book, Bumble-Ardy, was published in September.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2172/in-memoriam-maurice-sendak

Talkback With The Band’s Visit Director

By Hannah Lee

An addition to this year’s Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia was a showing of the 2007 film, The Band’s Visit, followed by a Q&A with the director, Eran Kolirin.  It was held on April 15 at the new home of the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr.

The film is a bittersweet account of what happens when the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra mistakenly heads to the remote fictional desert town of Bet Hatikva, where there is no Arab Cultural Center (“no Arab Cultural Center, no Israeli culture, no culture”) to stage their concert performance. They are stranded there, with little Israeli money, until the inter-city bus arrives the next day.  Despite the tension between their two countries, they’re greeted with a range of generous and grudging hospitality.

The Band’s Visit won eight Israeli Ophir Prizes awarded by the Israeli Film Academy.  Rotten Tomatoes reported that 98% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 108 reviews, and gave it a golden tomato for best foreign film of 2008.

Deborah Baer Mozes, the cultural attaché for the Israeli embassy, started the Q&A by asking what was the director’s inspiration?  It was the character of the Egyptian “General” (Lieutenant-Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya, superbly played by the Iraqi Jew, Sasson Gabai) dealing with his inner turmoil, of “something underneath trying to escape.”  Another audience member asked about his inspiration from the Egyptian playwright, Ali Salem, whose “My Drive into Israel” was a memoir of his 1994 trip to Israel following the signing of the Oslo Accord.  Salem later described the trip as not “a love trip, but a serious attempt to get rid of hate.  Hatred prevents us from knowing reality as it is.”  His pro-peace sentiments were controversial and Salem was banned from publication in Egypt afterwards.

An audience member asked why could the characters make phone calls from the public telephone booths without any simonim (Israeli phone tokens)?  The director gave both a practical and a poetic reply: the “142″ number sequence allows one to make a collect call without simonim, but it’s far easier to make a phone call without money than to send an Egyptian band to Israel.

Another audience member noted that the filming was done in Yeruham (a desert town in the northern Negev, about 15 km from Dimona).  Kolirin has a fondness for these towns, which were planned to expand settlement into the desert, but which became dismal, forgotten places.  He expressed nostalgia for their architecture, which are gravestones to a grand idea.

How was The Band’s Visit received in the Arab world?  It was banned, of course, but it did get one screening in Cairo and Kolirin traveled there as the guest of the Israeli embassy.  It was a “schizophrenic feeling” for him, as it is a country so much like his own, but still foreign.

An audience member asked about the choice of having some characters being changed by the band’s visit, but Kolirin and other audience members disputed a change, as in whether the Egyptian character Simon completed his concerto overture.  The director said that he was more interested in a change in perspective (including that of the viewer, as in the phantom girlfriend who actually does make a phone connection) than for any external change.

Kolirin’s second film, The Exchange, was shown at the 68th Venice International Film Festival last September and will be released in the United States later this year.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2122/talkback-with-the-bands-visit-director