Recently, my 2 ½ year old son became very attached to a certain pair of pajamas. I suppose it had something to do with the fact that we always asked him, “Are you a racing champion?” whenever he wore them. The front bears a legend claiming “Race Champ” and a number, and the entire pajama outfit mimics a racing car driver’s uniform.
We had several tearful nights when these pajamas were too dirty to wear (admittedly, we sprayed them with Febreeze and let him wear them, smelly and stained) until my husband figured out that he would wear any pair of pajamas as long as we created a story around them.
“Do you want to be a Soldier Man?” we ask now, pulling out a pair of camouflage pajamas.
“Do you want to be a Zookeeper?” (pulling out a pair of pajamas with pictures of penguins on it).
“You want to be Rocket Man?” (pulling out a pair of pajamas with spaceships and aliens on it).
“You want to be a Rock Star?”
You get the picture. He still prefers to be a Racing Champion but he’s willing to be something else if he knows his Racing Champion pajamas are dirty and as long as there’s a story attached to the pajamas he’s forced to wear instead.
Two weeks ago, we were visiting my brother. One night, we came into his 4-year-old daughter’s room at bedtime, and my brother said, “Hey! Look at the Snow Princess!” His daughter came out preening, showing off her pajamas. In an aside, he told me, “I took a page out of your book. She never wants to wear those pajamas!” She was thrilled to wear them when they made her the Snow Princess!
I told my mom about my strategy and she laughed and told me we were mentoring our kids in narrative and storytelling. And I realized she’s right. I’m a writer—it’s only natural that I’ll use story to inspire my son. And I hope that narrative is a lifelong gift I give him, not just to wear his pajamas every night but to understand the way the world works and the people around him. He’ll be better off if he sees the world through the prism of story.
A couple weeks ago, I was on several panels in Las Vegas, first for NCTE (National Councile of Teachers of English), then for the Children’s Literature Assembly, and last for ALAN (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents). Over a few blog posts, I thought I’d offer some of my answers to the questions that panel organizers posed. These were my written answers, in advance of the actual session, so my live answers would have differed in part from these answers as I did not read my answers. But some of what appears here actually came out of my mouth, but maybe not sounding quite so smart.
This first question was from a session that seemed to have several different titles. This is the title I remember: The Place of Race: Where ‘Black Books’ Fit in a ‘White Curriculum’ . Rita Williams-Garcia and Sharon G. Flake were my co-conspirators er, um, I mean co-panelists. Lynne Alvine chaired.
Question: Although many very well-written books for young readers have been published during the past 4-5 decades, research by Arthur Appleby and others has shown that the English language arts curriculum in many American middle and high schools still relies on traditional canonized works of literature for students’ classroom reading and discussion. That means students are reading classic works from mostly male and mostly American or British writers.
And my response?
I’m an educator so I always want to know, Who are we benefitting when we ignore the many thoughtful books that don’t emerge out of the American or British canon? Are we benefiting our white students? Are we benefiting our students of color? On a purely practical level, the answer to both questions is no. If our students exclusively or primarily read books and engage in ideas that emerge from the United States or Great Britain, or from the predominantly white culture in those countries, we are not benefitting our students and we are not benefitting our country as a whole. Instead, we are deliberately cultivating a parochial outlook that will hurt us in all areas—business, science, politics, and the arts.
Recently, I heard an interview on NPR with a telecommunications businessman who said, “Look, we Europeans and Americans missed the boat. The Chinese saw the continent of Africa as a business opportunity and we didn’t. Now there are hundreds of millions of cell phone users across the continent of Africa and they are predominantly using Chinese cell phone technology.”
Why didn’t American businessmen see the continent of Africa as an opportunity? I think it’s because by and large, U.S. media presents Africa as a failure. We hear only about famine, war, and disease. And educators aren’t combating this in the classroom by introducing students to African literature, art, music, and history. At a party recently, I ended up talking with a fairly well-educated man who works in the medical field. He couldn’t understand why I would be interested in Africa. “But why?” he kept saying. “Africans are so backward! What have they ever done?” Among other things, I asked him if he knew that Africans had pioneered the technology for mobile banking. No. Nor did he care. He was more interested in reinforcing his negative perceptions about the continent.
We live in a global society. American kids can no longer afford to assume that knowledge of American culture, history, politics, and business practice is the end all be in terms of knowledge that they need to absorb in order to succeed when they finish their education and begin their careers. And the arts—books, music, theatre, and art—are the easiest way to introduce students to other ideas, other ways of life, and alternative ways of understanding the world and being in the world. So despite budget cuts suggesting that the arts are the least important aspect of education, we are still one of the most important aspects of education. The arts introduce children to cultural, political, and, yes, moral concerns that we can’t afford to neglect.
But beyond the practical reasons to expose students to the ideas, experiences, and beliefs outside of western civilization, there are compelling humanistic reasons as well.
In the early 17th century, almost four hundred years ago, John Donne wrote his famous poem, “No Man is an Island.”
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Students need to be exposed to people outside of their small circles of culture, family, and friends in order to create empathy and the ability to transcend difference. Our society is diverse—we have to educate students to welcome an increasingly diverse world, whether that diverse world includes Africans, Asians, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, or others outside of the dominant cultural paradigm in the U.S.
A number of years ago, I was interviewing Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. I was writing an article about its then 30th anniversary. Now in its 37th year, Annunciation House has provided hospitality for almost four decades to immigrants coming to the U.S. from Central America and Mexico. Ruben was describing the changes he had seen in immigration patterns as well as American attitudes towards immigrants. In the 1980s, he said, there was a lot of sympathy toward the Salvadorans and Guatamalans who were fleeing war in their countries. Though officially, the U.S. didn’t offer these immigrants sanctuary, we did turn a blind eye, recognizing that they were political refugees. But in 1993, the Zapatista movement erupted in Chiapas, Mexico—and that changed everything. Mexican authorities worried about what it might mean if hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans joined the Zapatistas in rebellion against the government. So they started to police their southern border. As Mexico patrolled its southern border, and the refugees stopped trickling in to the U.S., the migrant worker situation in the U.S. changed as well. Mexicans, who had always crossed looking for seasonal work, began to dominate the scene. Support for the Sanctuary Movement slowly trickled away: the new immigrants weren’t fleeing war—they were fleeing hunger. So politicians in the United States created new policies to police the border. When Mexican migrants were first coming through, Garcia told me, they would come up and work for ten months and then return home for Christmas, to see the family, to make repairs on their house. As security initiatives like Operation Hold the Line made that more difficult, migrant workers made the decision to send for their families.
So starting in the 1990s, Mexican migrant workers stopped being “migrant” workers and became permanent residents, though undocumented. And with their wives and children, settlements of Latinos soon also became permanent fixtures across the southern U.S. and the Midwest. Suddenly, it wasn’t just urban areas on the coasts or border states like Texas that were faced with how to educate non-native English speakers, and people from diverse backgrounds. Now it was folks in Georgia, and Tennessee, and Michigan, and Iowa, and even as far north as Alaska, where many Mexican immigrants work the oil fields. The influx of Latino families in the United States, the ones who have settled here permanently, are due in large part to the new border policies we put in place.
This is just one example of how American demographics have changed in the last twenty years. Latinos are influencing American culture in enormous ways, notably, just recently, by voting for President Obama. Latinos are now shaping the way our country will look ten years from now, twenty years from now. This influence will only increase. The cultural paradigm which dominates the books that we tend to teach in our classroom no longer fit the current reality. We educators need to catch up. During the 20th century colonization of Africa, France transported French education in its entirety to its colonies. This meant that teachers often led their Senegalese or Algerian school children in discussions about “our forefathers” who embarked on the French Revolution. If we don’t recognize the changing cultural paradigm in the U.S., our own educational efforts may become as absurd.
Literature shows students the truth found in John Donne’s poem: No man is an island. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe (or America) is the less. Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.
I had an email from Amazon today about their new feature for authors, author ranking. While I’m not in love with being ranked (maybe I’d love it more if I were higher in the list!), I *love* *love* *love* their new geographic feature, which lets you know how many books have sold by region. I love knowing that I have a little following in Houston, Texas, for example, or that my highest sales records are in the Bay Area. (Thank you, friends in the Bay Area, and also my beloved students!)
But I’m sort of curious what other writers think about this new feature and how they plan to use it (if at all)?
Hey, JL! When writing a novel, have you ever had a character go rogue on you and do something you didn’t expect? –Cynthia
Cynthia, great question.
One time, in the middle of writing a novel, I realized that a character was trying to poison her sister and it was a total surprise to me. However, in general, this doesn’t happen. I like the fact that there is at least one facet of my life—that is, my writing—where I can control what happens.
This is certainly not true of my real life.
For example, I recently thought I would try to control the non-existent spider and ant problem in my house. We (my husband and I) decided to take a visiting pesticides control company up on their “great deal” to eliminate spiders and ants in a quarterly non-toxic spraying program around the perimeter of our house. They sold us on their product because we have a 2-year-old and the idea of combining “poisonous spiders” with “young, curious son who likes small moving bugs especially if they have eight-legs” didn’t sit well with me.
Four months into the spraying program, we have a humongous spider and ant problem that didn’t exist before we started spraying. It’s almost as though the spraying has contributed to the problem, not that I’m accusing anybody of false advertising or of creating a bug problem or anything.
Or maybe I might be.
In fact, part of the appeal of writing, to be honest, is the fact that I decide what happens when—even if that means things get more and more awful for the hero or the heroine, at least I’m the one deciding how far to let things go. That is, I’m the God of my novels.
It is perhaps predictable, but arguably positive, that I have to admit that I am not the God of my own life.
Speaking of surprises: I am currently writing a novel that feels completely different than any other novel I’ve ever written. The publisher, who requested the book from me for a series, asked me to write a chapter by chapter outline. If you can believe it, I’ve never done that before. The great thing about writing this way is that you know what happens in each chapter—you just have to make the writing effective. The surprises in that novel are small and few, but they do add up. It’s part of what makes writing fun.
I loved gymnastics when I was a little. Doing cartwheels, somersaults, and handstands were a source of both fun and pride for me. I swung on the trapeze bars so much that I literally got an infected blister on the palms of my hands and had to go to the doctor for treatment.
Of course I loved the balance beam. It took awhile but soon I learned how to focus on an object ahead of me to keep my balance. Once I got the hang of that, there were balance beams everywhere you looked–the neighbor’s low wall, the curb, the plank that separated the lawn from the garden, the brick wall surrounding the tall tree in the back yard. I spent hours learning to steady myself, learning to look straight ahead, discovering one day that I no longer needed to hold my arms straight on either side of my body in order to stay on whatever I was trying to stay on.
That was years ago. The other day, I tried to do a cartwheel for my son. It was a half cartwheel, nothing like the glorious ones I used to be able to do. Still, he loved it, laughing and asking for me. I had to say no. It hurt my hands to put that much weight on them! No wonder gymnasts are all so short and small.
Anyway, these days, I’m re-learning the art of the balance beam. We women are supposed to be experts at multi-tasking. I am learning that when I multi-task, I do nothing well, and my focus is so scattered, I have trouble completing the job. I’m learning to do one thing at a time. I’m learning to put one foot in front of the other, to steady myself by holding out my arms if I have to. I’m learning to focus on the object ahead, the one thing I want, the one thing I need to do, to complete, in order to keep my balance and my sanity.
Note: I posted this at www.motherwritermentor.com two weeks ago, so it’s dated–I’ve already been to Jamaica and am now back. But I think the essence of the message is timeless and thought I’d post it here for my readers that come here and don’t go to the other website. Jessica
Last Saturday, I lay awake until 3 in the morning, my mind whirling with all that I needed to do and all that was preventing me from getting it done. Some of this was writing related but most of it was not, unfortunately. When I cross one thing off the list of things to do, another thing is added. There is no “Wow, I’m done” moment these days, only the endless list. And most of what I need to do prevents me from writing.
Of course I realize the problem. I can’t say no. I get asked to do a lot of things—this author event, or that writerly thing there, or something else. All of them are good things to do. Some of them even help pay the bills, though actually that is rare. People expect artists of all kinds to do a lot of free events—to give back to the community. (I’ve been giving a lot back to the community these days and to be perfectly honest, it’s made it hard to pay the bills!)
The real problem is that all of these good things to do prevent me from doing the most important things—namely, spending time with my son and writing my next book.
By the time you read this, I will be taking the first real vacation I’ve had as an adult. I’ve travelled a lot but it’s always been for things—business trips, to attend a conference, to do research, to go to a wedding. And sure, I’ve packed a lot of tourist stuff into those trips, but I’ve also always taken along my laptop and worked in every spare moment. This trip, I’m leaving my computer home (*gasp*). And one of the things I’m going to do as I lie there on the beach in the sun drinking beer is to let some of the dross fall away. I’m going to find the courage to come back and say no to some people.
No, I can’t help you write your novel (though I would love to) because I need to write mine.
No, I can’t come to your daughter’s classroom (for free) (though I really would love to) because I need to grade my student’s papers.
I can already feel the stress lifting.
Of course, I will say yes to a lot of things too. Yes. Yes yes yes! I am a big believer in Carl Sandburg’s “The People Who Say Yes,” that when you say yes, more opportunities follow, and when you say no, doors close.
But sometimes, you need doors to close. Sometimes, there are too many open doors and you simply can’t go through all of them.
This past weekend, I went to AWP in Chicago. I took my 17-month-old son with me. He amused and, perhaps, annoyed people on the plane, on the train, and in taxis with his insistent “HI!” and “BYE!” repeated many times over. He likes to look over the back of the airplane seat and blow bubbles at the people sitting behind us. In airports, he insists on walking by himself (the stroller is at least useful for wheeling around the luggage, diaper bag, and jackets) and he doesn’t want to hold my hand, either, so this trip, I made him wear a little doggy backpack with a tail that functioned as a leash. He doesn’t want to sit around in the hotel coffee shop talking to my friends, certainly won’t let me sit through any panels, and would rather ride up and down the escalators at the hotel where the conference was held. During lunch, he amused some of the staid and academic writers by discovering the joys of ice. (Actually my friend Denise popped an icecube in his mouth and I about had a heart attack wondering if he could choke on it before I decided to relax.) He banged the table and smiled winningly at the man sitting across from us as icy water dribbled down his chin and pooled all over the table in front of him.
Starting at 3 months, my son has gone with me all over the country to library and literary conferences. I’ve felt like it was important not to let the fact that I was the mother of a baby interfere with my professional writing career. And if anybody faults me for bringing a baby along, I thought, screw ‘em. Most people love babies so it worked out just fine while he was very young, and I took care not to let him be fussy in the wrong place at the wrong time. The screw ‘em thought didn’t keep me from being very conscious not to let him interfere with other people’s ability to work or to listen or to enjoy what they had come for.
Nevertheless, starting at 7 months, it was clear that although I still needed to bring him with me on trips, I needed childcare while I was doing my writerly things. So the real reason it’s worked is because there are some really good people in my life. My in-laws drove to Tucson to watch Nesta for me when he was five months old. In New York, my husband’s cousin watched my son and her baby in my hotel room while I signed books at the BEA. In New Orleans, my good friend Holly drove down from Alabama and took Nesta all over the French Quarter or swimming while I signed books and gave a short talk at a breakfast that my publishers had arranged for me. At a booksigning in Austin, a friend Lindsey held him for me while he slept. At a booksigning in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, a friend Jason took him outside into the sweltering Louisiana night while I read and talked and chatted with the people who came. Jason sang him to sleep until the mosquitoes came out. My mother flew out to Chicago for an entire week of babysitting while I sat on panels, gave talks, and signed books. And this past week in Chicago, my friend Ann watched Nesta while I read on a panel. No, I didn’t go to any other panels this particular trip but I was grateful for the time I was given. It was enough.
I’m probably forgetting somebody somewhere who helped me, but I certainly wouldn’t want to forget mentioning how fabulous my publishers have been about letting me bring my son along to all my publicity events. (Remember this, moms, when arranging your book deals! How friendly is your publisher to the fact that you aren’t a single entity but there are some small people literally attached to your hip?)
Being a writer seems like such a solitary act. We sit in front of the computer alone. We work with words and characters and plots and rhyme and language and metaphor and symbol all alone. We think and we walk and we observe and we bumble our way through the tensions of relationships and people and our mixed desires and our fears and, for the most part, as writers, we do it alone.
Except we aren’t alone and we should never forget that.
The truth is–and I think this is true for all writers, not just writing moms–I wouldn’t be able to write at all if it weren’t for the good support system I have, starting with the most important person of all, my husband, but then continuting to all the people who, in big and small ways, do the necessary things to make it all possible. That includes my agent and editors and publicists. But it also really really really includes my friends and family. Most of my support system isn’t local. It would be so nice to be able to pop on over to my mom’s and leave Nesta for the day so I could write without paying for childcare. But the good part of that support system not being local has come in handy this past year when I travelled all over the country and people came to my rescue.
A big Texas-sized thank you to all the many people who have supported me and my writing, not just since my son was born but for the last fifteen years. I couldn’t do it without you.
Many a lot of you didn’t hear about Anthony Horton’s death. Probably most of you don’t know who he is.
Anthony Horton spent the last thirty years living underground in New York City’s subway tunnels. Sunday he died in a fire in the subway tunnels and investigators found his body in a couple of rooms which he had turned into an apartment of sorts, with a living room and a bedroom and bookshelves on the walls (and books!). He was an artist who had painted murals and other artwork in the tunnels, art that very few people ever saw.
Anthony Horton is also co-author of a young adult graphic novel, Pitch Black, by Youme Landowne and Anthony Horton. It is the true story of Anthony’s life as a homeless man and an underground artist. As such, he is part of the young adult writer world. So Iwanted to write a short tribute to him, and to his work as a writer and artist, and to making others aware of the plight of the homeless. May he rest in peace.