Nov 12, 2017

In Daddy's Arms... a Mirror for ALL of Us

I'm nearly ready to post a series about some of the picture book poetry nominees I'm reviewing as a CYBILS panelist this season. Winnowing is no easy process, but one that I enjoy. For today, though, I want to spotlight three picture books that aren't among the nominees for 2017. I haven't posted in a couple of weeks, so I found myself running long on this one, and also sending readers to multiple cross-links. Please consider following my leads.

Veterans Day had me thinking about my dad, a WWII German-American soldier who was fighting on his grandparent's homeland. Earlier this year I reviewed JABARI JUMPS, by Gaia Cornwall.  If you missed it, I hope you'll take a moment to click the title above and read about the book, about the way it connected me to memories of Dad. Not only will it mean you'll get to know a bit about him, but also about  a book that continues to win praise from far-more-influential reviewers than I am. Look for this title to float to the top during end-of-year awards season. 

One of the most enjoyable things about having this blog is that it allows me to explore inner connections and reactions, (okay, emotions), that might otherwise get only passing attention from me while reading. Warm, sometimes worrisome, responses triggered by words and images on the page are essential to being "a reader". When the process of engaging with discreet text and pictures reveals a whole world in your hands, a world that vibrates through you and awakens memories, emotions, and connections, you know you are really reading.

Lee & Low Books, 2001
It's fun to read and review a newly released picture book like Jabari Jumps and celebrate it here, even before a tidal wave of praise and support arrived via social media. It's also fun to make a quiet discovery, to share it year after year and see its effects on young readers, only to learn much later that it had been awarded accolades that I was too busy teaching to notice at the time. 
IN DADDY'S ARMS I AM TALL: AFRICAN AMERICANS CELEBRATING FATHERS, an anthology edited by Javaka Steptoe, is such a book. My classroom copy of this book was worn-thin and replaced several times in the span of a few years. This long-time favorite collection of poems foreshadowed, in a sense, the current wave of anthologies (both poetry and prose) by  long-successful and newly minted diverse authors. It's loaded with poems kids love to memorize, to use as mentor text or forms, and to internalize- regardless the readers' ethnicities. My classroom students, though diverse, were primarily as "white" as I am, but the love within the pages transcended the images and settings to connect with the truth of each poem. 
What truth?
Just read that title.
There is no larger truth than that- IN DADDY'S ARMS I AM TALL. 

Pair this with a more recent release, CROWN: AN ODE TO THE FRESH CUT, written by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. Hayes
I found this to be a brilliant blend of text and illustration, inviting readers through the door of a black barbershop, into the cultural experience of transformation and observation, to the process of growing into yourself and into your community. It's a celebration in concept and images, each with rhythm and depth, both with shimmer and shine, delivered with swagger and smiles. 
The afterward was particularly moving, to me, after recently hearing an interview with Gary Younge, author of ANOTHER DAY IN THE DEATH OF AMERICA, on my local NPR station, WUWM. I encourage you to listen to the full interview linked above.
Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, and I'd give it one, if I had one to give. But I disagree with three words in their note:
"One of the best reads for young black boys in years, it should be in every library, media center, and, yes, barbershop." 
Their statement is true, as far as it goes. I fear, though, that it will be seen as a book for YOUNG BLACK BOYS (which it is) but ONLY for them. Worse yet, only during February.
The only kinks I had in my hair were at Easter, the day after Mom sat me on a stool in the kitchen and gave me a "TONETTE". It fried my hair to frizz and kept my Easter bonnet from fitting. Even so, as I did with Jabari Jumps, as I and my students did with In My Daddy's Arms I AM Tall in this book, I found connection. It was easy to sense the truth underlying both common and different experiences. 
One of my earliest posts, written just weeks after launching this blog, was titled, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. Reading that might make what I say next more understandable. 
I recently heard a woman interviewed, a member of a white-nationalist group. She claimed to be one of the "fine" people taking part in recent protests throughout the country. She insisted that she didn't hate anyone or any race, she was just so tired of having everything "in her face". Why couldn't we go back to the way things were? (Paraphrasing, except for the quote.) She specified, when asked, that "everything" meant media displaying mixed couples, LGBTQIA individuals and couples, and "so many blacks" in every kind of program.
I feel certain that, if she read this post or even scanned the book covers, she would ask me, "Why?" Why would I feature THREE books with black characters when there are so many good books out there with whites. WHY would I want to erase her and her race from discussion? It's not even FEBRUARY!
My answer would be too long to include here, but this is the gist of it: 
These books are about HER, about her sons, their fathers, her community. 
She just sin't willing to find those connections, to look into the books and see herself reflected there. To recognize that the distinctions are important but the similarities are even greater.
After all, that's what those "many good books" about "whites" would say to any people of color or difference, right? That's the "in your face" reality, still, for 95+% of the books that people of color and difference encounter on most library, classroom, and bookstore shelves.  We  ask "others" to find themselves and their truths within  the words and pages  of "white" books NOW nearly as often as we have for centuries. Let's realize that they are provided NO CHOICE but to succeed in that "in your face" effort. Shouldn't we do the same? If we fail to see ourselves in these works, to connect at a visceral level with experiences and identities that are not our own, isn't it our own failure? 
Until we can do that, spontaneously, naturally, eagerly, our society will continue to see surface differences as barriers rather than mirrors. 
And we'll miss opportunities to find our own truths and emotions in everyone we meet.

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.