American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Lani Gerson is librarian at the Cabot School in Newton, MA. She writes frequently about multicultural literature for children.
"An answer is always the stretch of road that's behind you. Only a question can point the way forward." This little nugget of wisdom is offered by Mika, the strange child from another planet who has just fallen from a spaceship. As luck would have it, he managed to land safely, if upside down, in the apple tree belonging to eight-year-old Joe.
Once Joe frees Mika from the tree and helps him figure out which way is UP on planet Earth, the two children engage in a wonderful dialogue about life's meaning. Hello? Is Anybody Out There? (FSG, 1997) by Jostein Gaarder, Scandinavian philosopher and author of Sophie's World is the late twentieth century's bow to St.Exupery's The Little Prince (1943). Even the whimsical illustrations of this short chapter book are reminiscent of that earlier classic.
The book might be a hard sell for children totally steeped in
the techno age, but read it with inquisitive children age 5 to
8 before they grow too old to be thrilled by hard-to-answer questions
like: "Where does the world come from?" Whether or not
adult readers believe the same answers of faith implied by the
author, they will likely be charmed by this book.
In two books of short stories by Canadian writer Tim Wynne-Jones, we find more children asking questions and searching for their place in the world: Some of the Kinder Planets and The Book of Changes (Puffin,1997 and 1996). It is not every kid who, like Harriet in "The Night of the Pomegranate," tastes pomegranates for the first time while gazing at the rust colored planet of Mars. At the same time most kids can relate to Harriet's dilemma when her model of the solar system falls apart just as she turns it in for a grade. The grape chewing gum holding the parts together has limited staying power.
Strange things do happen in many of these stories by Wynne-Jones, but they all seem perfectly and magically normal. In "Save the Moon for Kerdy Dickus," a rural teenage boy is given shelter during a Christmas ice storm by a Japanese-Canadian family who are celebrating the holiday in their high tech glass dome, wearing red pajamas, eating okonomiyaki and watching the movie It's a Wonderful Life. The confused lad later reports to the National Enquirer that he was abducted by small aliens dressed in red who fed him strange food and suggested that he "save the moon for Kerby Dickus"(save room for turkey dinner).
These stories are special in their easy, unstrained portrayal
of gritty but lovely ways of living just outside and beyond the
mass culture. We see families in a myriad of forms finding ways
to work as families; kids making friends across all sorts of traditional
boundaries, multi-racial friendships blossoming, and caring across
generational divides. Which is not to say there aren't problems
in the lives of the characters, but these stories for young people
8 to 14 years old offer hope while never denying the heavy stuff.
One of the most profound events all of us must face is, of course, death. In The Friends (FSG,1997) by Kazumi Yumoto three 12-year-old boys in a Tokyo neighborhood decide to watch an old man they think must be about ready to die. They are terrified by death but they are also curious to see what a dead person looks like. The boys befriend the old man and learn far more about living than about dying.
The novel recently won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award,
and in accepting the honor Ms. Yumoto spoke of the importance
of fiction for children who have "difficulty appreciating
life's worth because they are unable to conceive of the limitless
possibillities that each life offers." The "friends"
of her novel find that it is in valuing the old man's tragic life
that each of them begins to glimpse and imagine his own future.
It is a peaceful future they long for as they learn how World
War II scarred the old man. What he saw and did were terrible,
and the boys come to understand that "war stinks."
Allen Say, another writer born in Japan, began his journey as an "ink-keeper's apprentice" for a famous anti-war cartoonist in post-war Japan. Almost every book (and there are dozens) by Say touches upon the bitter sweet pull between cultures, and the importance of listening to one's heart. Despite the undertone of melancholy in many of Say's books there is always active love which provides hope for children. The honesty of the stories hold the youngest of readers, and they clamor for his books. Adults will appreciate both Say's stories and his beautiful art.
Tea With Milk (Houghton Mifflin,1999) is the most recent of Say's books. It is a lovely, understated story about the value of "home." It continues to tell in simple picture book format the story of the Say family's search for "home." This along with the earlier books, Tree of Cranes and Grandfather's Journey, depict three generations of a family who have been divided between two countries, two cultures.
In Tea With Milk May has grown up in California, the very
American daughter of Japanese parents. She suffers when her parents
uproot her and return to Japan, a country May has never known.
There she is Masako, and she is expected to become the obedient
daughter, well schooled in the traditional arts and graces of
Japan. She rebels at the idea of an arranged marriage, and moves
to the city, finds a job, and eventually marries a man of her
own choice. Together they drink their tea with milk and make a
home where both are not fully at home.
Great fiction, fine short stories, and picture books for children
allow them to imagine their futures in new ways, and help them
feel less lonely as they read of others' struggles to find their
place in the world. In Mika's words, "Traveling brings you
farther out into the world. Dreaming draws you farther inside
it." Which brings us to the question: "Can we travel
in more than one direction at once?
Michael Dorris' Guests (Hyperion, 1994) is the story of an Algonquin boy, Moss, who feels that nobody is listening to him and that when he asks people questions, they just say, "you'll understand later." He starts the day off wrong by breaking his grandfather's wampum belt. After that, Moss goes to his father and asks him the same question that he has been asking him all day, "Why do the guests have to come to our harvest feast?" To that his father answers that it is the right thing to do. So Moss decides to run into the forest.
On his way there he meets a girl named Trouble who asks him why he has left the village. Because he doesn't want to tell her that he's running away, he proudly announces that he's going on his away-time to become a man. He realizes that it was a stupid thing to do because he's not prepared, but he can't back down on his word, so he marches off into the forest. Once he is there he realizes that he is lost. He panics and runs, only going deeper into the woods.
When he stops running, he remembers a saying his older cousin Cloud told him when Cloud was on his away-time--open your mind and watch what you see. When he does that, he meets a porcupine and begins to converse with her. While they are talking, he realizes that to discover who he is he doesn't need to go away, he needs to go in. He has a feeling that is much more difficult. The porcupine tells him, "You are who you are, and no one but you can tell you the truth about that. Make yourself a man--when you are ready. Don't wait for someone to do it for you." After feeling comfortable in the forest, he now realizes that he is the forest's welcome guest.
A little later he finds Trouble in the forest disguised as a boy. Then comes a powerful part in the book where he and Trouble listen to each other's stories about feeling that either they are told to do things without asking questions or just to do things themselves. Then they go back to the village. When Moss gets home his family is very relieved and happy to see him, but when Trouble gets home her family responds differently.
I like other characters for what they have done, but I love Moss for who he is and how he really cares about everybody. When I first picked up Guests, I didn't want to read it, but when I started it I really enjoyed it. Before I read this book I felt somewhat bad about myself, and I thought I should be more mature than I felt I was. After I read this book I felt better about myself, because Moss and Trouble were saying the same things that I felt. I feel that I think somewhat like Moss so when Moss is strong at the end of the book, I feel strong too.
I like this book because Michael Dorris' writing is so poetic.
I don't usually like poems but I feel Michael Dorris has taken
the best of poetry and combined it with a story. This book, besides
being a lot of inner feelings, is also very funny in some parts,
especially the porcupine. Even though Guests isn't very
adventurous (and the types of stories I like usually are), it
is fascinating watching how Moss responds to what is going on.
This is probably the best book I've ever read.
The Story of Colors
A couple of weeks ago the two of us, Russell Weiss-Irwin, age 7, and Lynne Weiss, age 47, sat down together to look at and talk about The Story of Colors by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, illustrated by Domitila Dominguez, translated by Anne Bar Din (Cinco Puntos Press, 1999). It's a creation story, full of gods and beginnings, except that it's not really a creation story because the gods in this story are "not like the first ones, the ones who gave birth to the world." Russell liked these more approachable gods: clumsy and lazy and messy and even apathetic at times. Still, while these gods might be quarrelsome, they recognized--as the first gods, the perfect gods, did not--the need for color. The first gods may have created everything, but they created it in black and white, which led to lots of boredom as well as conflict, since everything was either black or white, either/or, yes or no. Lynne notices that people sometimes get into conflicts just because they're bored. Russell agrees. Since Russell is very interested in tropical birds, he was intrigued to learn that once these sloppy and forgetful gods made the colors, they decided to store them all in the feathers of the macaw so the colors wouldn't get lost--a surprising and yet satisfying ending.
Both of us appreciated the beautiful illustrations that start off black and white and grey and become rich and multicolored. Russell liked it that the pictures weren't very realistic because the story wasn't very realistic either. Lynne points out that both pictures and story possess a truth that is deeper than realism. Even though he doesn't read or understand very much Spanish, Russell liked it that the book was written in English and Spanish. Lynne thinks it's interesting to look at another language and try to figure out which words match the words you already know!
Was there a message or a moral to this book by the mysterious Subcomandante Marcos? Russell thinks not. He thinks the author "just wanted it to be a good story."
Lynne liked reading an illustrated folktale that included wholesome
references to people making love as a way of enjoying the world
as well as to colors making love as a way of making more and different
colors. Both Russell and Lynne were worried about the narrator,
however, because both he and the storyteller, whose story he relates,
smoke. One smokes a pipe and the other smokes a cigarette. Russell
thinks our article for Peacework should include this message:
Bobby Byrd is a poet and co-publisher of Cinco Puntos
Press (2709 Louisville, El Paso TX 79930).
On March 8, Julia Preston of the Mexico City Bureau of The New York Times interviewed me by phone about a bilingual storybook we had just published, The Story of Colors / La Historia de los Colores. She found it curious and delightful. Julia was very interested in the author--Subcomandante Marcos, the most well-known leader of the Zapatistas who walked out of the jungles of Chiapas on New Year's morning in 1994, and made war on the Mexican governement.
Preston was curious about the fact that Cinco Puntos had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for a book by a revolutionary. I told her that Cinco Puntos bought the rights from the Mexican publisher, Colectivo Callejero. The writings of Marcos, I reminded her, are in the public domain; he has given up copyright. I told her the NEA has a long and proud history of publishing important works in translation. Indeed, the NEA's purpose is to support and encourage diversity in the arts. There was nothing particularly unusual about this book.
So she called the NEA to verify facts and to ask several questions. The next day, Bill Ivey, the chairperson of the NEA, rescinded funding for The Story of Colors. Ignoring two review panels, he made the decision, as they say in Washington, "unilaterally." He was worried, he told the press, that NEA funds might end up in the hands of the Zapatistas. But Cherrie Simon, a public relations person at the NEA, told me that what the NEA was really worried about was the Washington Times, the newspaper owned by the Reverend Moon and which is oft-quoted by Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy. When Ivey informed Preston of his decision, she was upset and contrite. She called me to apologize. Cinco Puntos was out $7500. She asked me how I felt. Angry, I said. Ivey's decision was spineless and cowardly. He caved in before there was any pressure. The next day Cinco Puntos Press and The Story of Colors were on the front page of The New York Times.
The phone started ringing before the sun came up, and it didn't stop for three days. During that time, we sold out of the first printing of 5000 copies, and we started selling the second printing of 8000. The Lannan Foundation--the same organization that stepped forward to fund the Mapplethorpe exhibition after it too had lost funding--offered to reimburse us for the money lost. In fact, they doubled it. The story made the papers across the nation, and it also became big news in Mexico. It was a strange media frenzy, a true boon to Cinco Puntos. But real ideas and issues got lost in that frenzy, the most important of which is the indigenous struggle for autonomy and land in Chiapas.
Also not to be forgotten is the chilling message that Ivey's action sends to artists and arts organizations in the US. For the last 30 years the NEA has been a major player in a great flowering of literary expression in this country. For the first two-thirds of the century, our literature was dominated by a monolithic structure rooted in universities and New York City media. Then, poets and writers from all sorts of diverse communities--African American, women, Latino, Native American, Gay and Lesbian, geographically or ideologically isolated communities, etc.--started clamoring for national attention. With the new technologies at hand, people were up all night after their day jobs putting together important books.
Meanwhile, the Endowment made diversification of its peer review panels a basic tenet of its philosophy--a courageous and truly democratic endeavor. Alternative presses in supposedly backwater communities like El Paso began to receive funding, and readers throughout the US began to read and hear different voices. Then politicians from the right wing, those like William Bennett who staunchly believe in maintaining the purity of inherited European traditions and ideas, began to ask questions. They worried that the monolith was crumbling.
Indeed, it was.
The NEA and its supporters responded with their own simple question: Why not? This is America, this is a democracy. In the last few years, however, the NEA's critics have become more and more vociferous and powerful. The Republican Congress, apprehensive of multiculturalism and its political dissonance, began chopping away at the NEA's funding, threatening to dismantle the organization altogether. Clinton whimpered and let them do what they wanted. Ivey was hired in 1998 to chair the NEA, and immediately he began to hear demons in the hallways.
After telling me that he was rescinding funds for The Story
of Colors, Bill Ivey said it was not a censorship issue. But
he is wrong. His decision speaks to all persons and organizations
writing a grant to NEA. Their choices will be tainted by that
decision. Meanwhile, Cinco Puntos has prospered because Ivey was
afraid of those demons in the hallways. We sold a lot of books,
we received tremendous publicity. But not all writers or small
presses will have that same opportunity. Nor will the indigenous
communities of Chiapas, the place where the story for this beautiful
book was born. Nor will the Zapatistas who are still surrounded
by the Mexican Army which, of course, receives generous support
from the US government.
A Bunch of Dreck, and One Hip Mama
Baby books read, for the most part, as though they were written by babies, not just about them. If you are pregnant and experiencing constant nausea, I think these books may be the real cause of your troubles. My problem was that during my pregnancy, even when I suspected that this "literature" was doing me more harm than good, I felt guilty if I didn't read it--just like I felt guilty for not eating all that high-protein food that was so good for the developing baby but made me want to throw up.
But beware: the insipid often masks the truly harmful, and the baby book genre is no exception. In a hundred different ways, ranging from subtle to blatant, these authors weave into a few solid facts and some generally positive suggestions about good parenting, the following wrongheaded assumptions: Mothers are married to fathers, who have paying jobs; Mothers live in houses; Mothers never get really mad at their babies; Mothers have no other jobs or relationships that deserve attention or time.
This isn't stuff that's uniquely reserved for educating parents, of course. It's a conventional, culturally specific, upper-class world view, dressed up in fluffy pink blankets but still quite familiar to anyone who has reached child-bearing age. Nevertheless, baby books occupy an important niche in the overall socialization scheme. They serve to reinforce societal conventions for the adults who are just about to be responsible for passing them on to the next generation; and, more insidiously, they take advantage of a uniquely vulnerable moment in people's lives. I know how I want to live my life, and I give short shrift to prescriptive nonsense that tries to make me sell that life short. But I know nothing about taking care of a baby, and I want to do a good job! So I'll pay close attention to almost anything that sounds authoritative as I comb the pages looking for the infant dosage of children's Tylenol.
I have experienced no challenge more personal than the first six months of living with my baby son; and no challenge more political, either. Besides the scoop on Tylenol, what I could really use is some encouragement and advice as I deal with the powerful but difficult experience of incorporating motherhood into my life--by which I mean my writing life, my faith life, my life as a lover and a friend and a person with politics. In turn, how can all these parts of me help me raise my gorgeous baby boy to love himself, love freedom, and fight the power? Who will be there to cheer my family on as we make choices that anger the baby book world?
Fortunately for me, and for you too if you ever have to buy another shower present, Ariel Gore has written The Hip Mama Survival Guide (Hyperion, 1998). In contrast to standard new parent fare, the Survival Guide generally assumes that its readers are young, single, and broke, that they have dreams and plans beyond motherhood, and that they look for inspiration and good advice from other mamas, not just doctors and "experts." In a terrific section full of strategies and resources for dealing with raising kids on an inadequate budget ("Poverty without Despair"), Gore offers moral as well as practical support: "A lot of folks will judge you when you don't have any money--please don't join them. It is the economy, not your character, that is fundamentally flawed. I don't care how you got into this situation; in a decent society, it would be impossible." Gore places right up front those parents who are relegated in most baby books to hints and asides, in spite of the fact that they are far closer to typical than those wealthy nuclear families, and this in itself is a welcome new approach.
The Survival Guide is concise, down-to-earth, creative, and tremendously affirming of all kinds of families. It offers practical tips on gritty questions, like how to tell if a given bout of temporary insanity warrants professional attention, and how to juggle competing debts without worrying the kids. Also this book may make you laugh out loud, which is always a good thing and for parents is especially healthy. In chapters with names like "Your Body Becomes an Apartment," "You Can Nurse, Even After Nipple-Piercing," and "Work and School in the Land of Motherhood," Gore includes tidy summaries of current professional wisdom, illustrative tales from her own and other mothers' real life experiences, and a wonderful assortment of quizzes, charts, and "Rebel Mom" interviews.
I am a new mama who is neither single nor, as Ariel Gore was when she had her daughter, "too young." My son's father is truly my partner, and we have health insurance and a great support network. I am very lucky to have a lot of the things this book tries to help its readers to get, or to cope with not having. And yet, even with all these blessings, there was something I didn't even realize I was missing until I picked up The Hip Mama Survival Guide: a "baby book" to help me keep the faith--instead of losing my lunch.