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

Parenting for the New World

In the July 2nd issue of The New Yorker, there’s an article by Elizabeth Kolbert on why American children are spoiled rotten.  I found it fascinating to read about other cultures that instill responsibility at an early age, such as the subsistence farmers of the Peruvian Amazon, where toddlers heat their own food, three-year-olds practice cutting wood and grass with machetes and knives, and children of six help their fathers with hunting fishing and mothers with cooking. By the time, they reach puberty, these Matsigenka children have mastered most of the skills necessary for survival.

We all know of spoiled American children but Kolbert cites case incidents from a study by Elinor Ochs and Carolina Izquierdo of middle-class families in Los Angeles.

In another representative encounter, an eight-year-old girl sat down at the dining table. Finding that no silverware had been laid out for her, she demanded, “How am I supposed to eat?” Although the girl clearly knew where the silverware was kept, her father got up to get it for her.

It later mentions that when American youth go off to college, they’re less worried about the academics than the “logistics of everyday life.” This got me wondering whether I’ve prepared my children for life in the 21st century.

Just as the children of the Amazon rain forest knew their place in their world, their parents knew what skills would be essential. We teach our children to tie their shoelaces, but sneakers are now being marketed without laces. We still teach our children cursive script, but how often do they have to hand write any assignment? In our turbulent and constantly changing times, the skills and job titles of yesteryear are obsolete once our children are ready to leave the family home. So, inevitably, both parents and their offspring delay the moment of separation and independence.

In China and India, there is a tremendous push for education, particularly in science and technology. Thomas Friedman has written often in The New York Times about this 21st century belonging to Asia. I concur with Friedman about America’s laxity about a rigorous education for our youth, however, I’m less sanguine about the model of a rigid curriculum that prizes conformity. Throughout its relatively young history, the United States have thrived on the creativity of immigrants. Furthermore, the iconoclastic thinking of entrepreneurs like Steve Job and Bill Gates as well as visionary artists like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have re-made the world in their image and their products.

The parenting style of our American peers may be less than ideal, but we’re doing our best in chaotic times, with much of everything that we used to take for granted is undergoing societal change. The Jewish ritual of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah milestone anchors our children in their religious and cultural heritage. The skills they would need to steer their course in the adult world is less obvious. So, I conclude with giving ourselves encouragement, if not a pat on the back. We do listen to our children and together we may manage to maintain our bearings in unstable waters.

Parenting Chat

By Hannah Lee

In the current issue of The New Yorker, there’s an article by Elizabeth Kolbert on why American children are spoiled rotten.

I found it fascinating to read about other cultures that instill responsibility at an early age, such as the subsistence farmers of the Peruvian Amazon, where toddlers heat their own food, three-year-olds practice cutting wood and grass with machetes and knives, and children of six help their fathers with hunting and fishing and mothers with cooking.  By the time, they reach puberty, these Matsigenka children have mastered most of the skills necessary for survival.We all know of spoiled American children but Kolbert cites case incidents from a study by Elinor Ochs and Carolina Izquierdo of middle-class families in Los Angeles.

In another representative encounter, an eight-year-old girl sat down at the dining table. Finding that no silverware had been laid out for her, she demanded, “How am I supposed to eat?” Although the girl clearly knew where the silverware was kept, her father got up to get it for her.

It later mentions that when American youth go off to college, they’re less worried about the academics than the “logistics of everyday life.”   Gave me much food for thought in wondering whether I’ve prepared my children for life in the 21st century.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2287/parenting-chat

How Green is Your Campus?

I returned home from a sojourn in California, engaged with sustainability issues, to receive the new issue of Sierra, the bimonthly publication of the Sierra Club.  The article that caught my eye was “Dig In,” its annual ranking of the environmental standing of  U.S. universities.  This year, they reached beyond the classrooms to assess “what lessons are learned when the classroom walls fall away.”

 

 

The top of the class this year is

  1. The University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. Its score on the Sierra survey was 81.2,

Where every building completed since 2006 has earned a Gold accreditation from the  Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification system.  All of its appliances are Energy-Star rated and the hydro-powered campus runs three farms, an extensive recycling program, and the “conservation-research hotbed Pack Forest.

The other top schools are, in order:

  1. Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont (score, 81.1);
  2. University of California, San Diego (score, 80.6);
  3. Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina (score, 76.8);
  4. Stanford University in Palo Alto, California (score, 76.6);
  5. University of California, Irvine (score, 74.8);
  6. University of California, Santa Cruz (score, 74.3);
  7. University of California, Davis (score, 73.2);
  8. Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington (score, 72);
  9. Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont (score, 71.8).

My alma mater, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, came in at number 33 (score, 64.1).
Accompanying articles focused on:

Also described are the non-conformist programs that are “miles from the mainstream” at:

  • Maharishi University of Management (built by the “giggling guru” in Fairfield, Iowa in which the curriculum balances “modern clean technology and 5.000-year-old Vedic philosophy based on Sanskrit texts”);
  • Deep Springs College, close by Yosemite, California (where students have mandatory farm labor requirements and the hydroelectric generator provides 80% of the school’s energy);
  • Gaia University with no real campus (“students earn degrees by documenting a project that involves any envy-inducing combination of world travel and social activism”); and
  • Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado (a curriculum grounded in Buddhism and which promotes compassion, including with the environmental movement).

Parents with younger children may be interested in the article on The Green School in Bali, Indonesia, a K-12 school that incorporates green philosophy from its open-air classrooms (like an inverted sukkah, with roofs but no walls) to its electives that include Global Perspectives, Environmental Management, and 21st Century Science.  I first heard of The Green School when my friend told me her daughter’s family was taking off to Bali for several months this past spring and I avidly followed their adventures on their blog (now taken down, since they’ve returned home).  This is a school where the children (and parents!) enthusiastically welcome the assignments, from a themed unit on water for the fifth-graders (as it relates to math, literature, and science), an aquaculture farm to raise tilapia; and sixth-graders calculate the school’s annual carbon footprint, “then plant enough bamboo to offset it.”  The Green School has yet to graduate its first class (due in 2013), but if one can afford the $10,000 tuition, it’s an adventure worth blogging about.

Finally, the issue included profiles of the staffers deemed most committed to sustainability as a social movement:

  • Howard Davis of the University of the District of Columbia;
  • Megan Zanella-Litke of the University of Richmond (Virginia);
  • Sid England of the University of California, Davis; and
  • Jeremy Friedman of New York University.  As Manager of Sustainability Initiatives for a student body of 40,000 (more than four times the number of people who live in my hometown),

Friedman views his mandate thus:
“The values that underlie my work are the same values that underlie my whole life.  It’s a holistic worldview, and for me the challenge of transforming our world is a very personal and political project.  I see my job as creating the capacity for real change and then allowing countless individuals who care to lend their sweat and knowledge to the enormous task of transforming the world around us.  We need to imbed sustainability across all levels of society more quickly than any social movement in history has ever done before.  It’s a time when some of the most important efforts aren’t the most glamorous ones.”

Among the reasons I went to California was to attend the Hazon Food Conference, held for the first time at the University of California, Davis campus.  What a thrill it was for me to celebrate Shabbat with 300 other people who were passionate about a sustainable future.  The marvel was how many young folks were in attendance and how many had stories of their own works-in-progress.  I feel so positive that my daughters’ generation would — no, will — undertake the task of managing our resources to ensure a renewable future.