Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


Sublimated Outrage at the Adult World

I think I may have just encountered an articulation of something I hadn't realized about my calling to be a librarian for children in particular and my love for many of the books written for them:

I wonder if the truer unity among children’s-book authors is sublimated outrage at the adult world. If they’re going to serve someone, it’s going to be children.

The quote comes near the end of a New Yorker article by Rivka Galchen about author-illustrator Mo Willems: Mo Willems's Funny Failures; with the subhead, How the author teaches young readers to confront problems and be resilient.

The quote reminds me of one from The Little Prince:
I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them.
The subhead reminds me of something I've previously quoted from Neil Gaiman about writing dark stories:
I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids — and, in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back, tell them you can win. Because you can — but you have to know that.

And for me, the thing that is so big and so important about the darkness is [that] it’s like in an inoculation… You are giving somebody darkness in a form that is not overwhelming — it’s understandable, they can envelop it, they can take it into themselves, they can cope with it.

And, it’s okay, it’s safe to tell you that story — as long as you tell them that you can be smart, and you can be brave, and you can be tricky, and you can be plucky, and you can keep going.
And, together, something I've previously quoted by Neil Gaiman about Terry Pratchett:
There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing . . . The anger is always there, an engine that drives. . . . And that anger, it seems to me, is about Terry’s underlying sense of what is fair and what is not. It is that sense of fairness that underlies Terry’s work and his writing.

He will rage, as he leaves, against so many things: stupidity, injustice, human foolishness and shortsightedness, not just the dying of the light. And, hand in hand with the anger, like an angel and a demon walking into the sunset, there is love: for human beings, in all our fallibility; for treasured objects; for stories; and ultimately and in all things, love for human dignity.
Children are rarely given the credit they deserve. Are rarely given equal status as fully feeling, thinking, capable human beings. The best children's-book authors know this, understand it at an instinctive level, and their writing addresses those parts of children most often ignored by the adult world. They speak to children in a way that most others don't. They fully see and respect children.

Or, as Maurice Sendak has put it in a series of different quotes:
You cannot write for children . . . They're much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them.
In plain terms, a child is a complicated creature who can drive you crazy. There's a cruelty to childhood, there's an anger.
From their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can.
Children are willing to expose themselves to experiences. We aren't. Grownups always say they protect their children, but they're really protecting themselves. Besides, you can't protect children. They know everything.
The fuller context of the quote above, by the way:
I used to have a patchwork theory about the makers of children’s literature: that they were not so much people who spent a lot of time with kids as people who were still kids themselves. Among the evidence was that Beatrix Potter had no children, Maurice Sendak had no children, Margaret Wise Brown had no children, Tove Jansson had no children, and Dr. Seuss had no children. Even Willems began writing for children before he had a child. But what makes these adults so in touch with the distinct color and scale of the emotions of children?

I now have a new theory: Tove Jansson began her Moomin series during the Nazi occupation of Finland; Paddington Bear was modelled on the Jewish refugee children turning up alone in London train stations. Arnold Lobel, the creator of the Frog and Toad books, came out to his children as gay and died relatively young, from aids. I wonder if the truer unity among children’s-book authors is sublimated outrage at the adult world. If they’re going to serve someone, it’s going to be children.
Anyway, the article is about Mo Willems, and I learned a few things that make me like him all the more.

I was one of those people who immediately loved his first book, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. I've used it--and many of his other books--in storytime many times. For one storytime session a few years ago I included a different Elephant and Piggie book each week. Now that my kids are getting old enough, they're falling in love with his books, too (the three-year-old especially loves the "turnip-head" chant mentioned in the article). Willems has a particular talent for expressing emotion in simple, relatable terms.

About that Pigeon, by the way:
When the Willemses returned to New York, Cher began working as an assistant librarian at a school on the Upper East Side. She read the pigeon sketchbook to the kids there. (The pigeon petitions the reader directly—alternately with charm, with rage, with desperation, with bargaining—to let him do the thing that he never gets to do.) They loved it. “Cher said to me, ‘I think this is a kids’ book,’ ” Willems told me. “I said, ‘No, definitely not.’ ” But his agent, Marcia Wernick, eventually shopped it around. For two years, he said, “it was turned down everywhere. But the editors did say, again and again, that it was ‘unusual.’ ” (Wernick has saved some of the rejections, which include comments like “We’ve got a great character, but what does he do besides give quips?” and “I’d really like to see that pigeon drive the bus.”) “Finally, there was an editor who agreed that it was unusual, but she thought that was a good thing.” Alessandra Balzer, who acquired the book for Hyperion, now runs her own imprint, Balzer & Bray. “I loved it immediately,” she told me. “I loved the direct address to the kids, I loved the humor.” She bought it for what she describes as a “modest sum.”
“Honestly, I don’t think I could write another Pigeon book now.”


“He’s a monster! His wants are unbounded, he finds everything unjust, everything against him, he’s moody, he’s selfish. Of course, I identify with that—we all have some of that—but I’m glad that I can’t imagine writing him now. I’m happy to be less him. I’ve mellowed out. I’m merely pessimistic.”
The article is ultimately about the recent completion of his wildly popular series of books about Elephant and Piggie. I recently heard a colleague disparage them as entirely plotless, flat jokes that are a bunch of filler and a punchline. I was flabbergasted. She must not be reading the same books I am, because each story, while funny, is full of vivid expression and emotional resonance. Kids can relate to them. And, to the theme of this post, so can the author:
In the beginning, Gerald was either sad or anxious or discouraging, but he eventually developed some emotional resilience, which gave Piggie some space to be less than perennially sunny. Willems’s friends and family say that he is Gerald, and that Piggie represents his friends, his daughter, his wife—all the people around him who say that maybe things are better than they seem.
And yet, "What sets Willems’s books apart from most other children’s books is that they are very funny." Just as Terry Pratchett's books are full of humor. As children's author Sid Fleischman wrote in his biography of Mark Twain: “Joy was not the raw material of humor . . . The dark source was sorrow.” Willems, like the best of writers for children, isn't afraid to go to those dark places and draw from them. Because, by acknowledging them, he honors the basic injustice and outrage that is childhood.

From the Willems book I've used most in storytime, Leonardo, The Terrible Monster


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