Who the Dickens?

Totally unaware that it was happening, my dairy farmer grandfather introduced me to Charles Dickens as a child. An eavesdropper on adult conversations, I’d hear him say, “Well, he’s a lot like Mr. Micawber.” That usually ended a discussion drifting toward gossip. I assumed Mr. Micawber was someone they knew in Sturgis, Mississippi since the adults would murmur sympathetically and move to another topic. Imagine my surprise when I read David Copperfield as a high school senior and discovered Mr. Micawber in the book! Now I understood Papaw’s reminder that the party in question was a likeable ne’er-do-well with good intentions and a weak work ethic.

Dickens began his semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield with the words, “I was born.” That would be 200 years ago on February 7, 1812. Mr. Micawber’s character was based on his father, a likeable man who never managed the work ethic that would keep him out of debtor’s prison. Other Dickens characters have also become iconic. We know Scrooge, Miss Havisham, Fagan, Tiny Tim, and Sydney Carton. This week’s Word-A-Day from has gone so far as to do their vocabulary from words we use that are based on Dickens characters.

The current Smithsonian Magazine [February 2012] features tributes to him in England and the new biography that I just read by Claire Tomalin – Charles Dickens: A Life. I recommend reading the biography only if you are willing to have an idealized vision of Dickens tarnished. A telling quote rests on his love of acting and the theater as well as his writing, “…being himself was more exhausting than impersonating a stage character, who would run on predictable tracks, whereas Dickens did not always know where he was going next.”

The biography pictures a man with an obsession for work and making money. Perhaps this came from his early years of embarrassment by his father's stay in debtor’s prison and the deprivations of poverty. He made a lot of money from his writing as it was serialized, again when the work was bound into books, and added large fees for his popular public readings. That money supported his father and brother, his children – only one of whom managed to support himself, a number of widows and orphans of friends, and others he felt responsible for.

The book pictures a man with a social conscience in real life as well as in this writings. Underfed and unhappy children touched him. He said, “We should be devilishly sharp in what we do to children.” He engaged in a lifelong crusade against all forms of human trafficking from deprived children to women forced into prostitution. Claire Tomalin writes a well-researched book giving a balanced picture of a workaholic philanthropist who was a poor father and a worse husband.

Dickens was compulsively working on yet another novel when he died – perhaps having worn himself out at age 58. He left more words behind than many writers who lived much longer with a legacy that continues unabated. Coincidentally as I write this blog, my local paper has an account of second grade students at Petal Primary School who used a production of A Christmas Carol to raise $770 for a local children’s home. I think this would please Dickens more than with his burial at Westminster Abbey!

I found the biography almost as entertaining as his books and came away sympathetic toward this flawed man with high ideals. His imperfection has not changed my enjoyment of his work. If you read this blog often or know me well, you already know my penchant for reading A Christmas Carol every Christmas – preferably aloud with listeners. And should I be marooned on a desert island with but one book to read for pleasure, please make it A Tale of Two Cities.


50 Years of Snowy Days

The final in my series of blogs about 50 year children’s book anniversaries prompts a disclaimer in the interest of full disclosure. I was the researcher in the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection who sent an inventory from which the editor chose the pictures and wrote the commentary for the extra eight pages in the anniversary edition of The Snowy Day. The editor made excellent choices and the designers put together a book well worth adding to a collection.

By the late 1950s, Ezra Jack Keats* had begun to make a living wage and a name for himself with his paintings, adult book jackets, and illustrations for other authors’ children’s books. One snowy night as he walked home with friends, they began to reminisce about the things they did in the snow as children. Suddenly Ezra said, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll write a book about this and dedicate it to all of you.”

Back in his studio, he found an almost twenty-year-old Life Magazine clipping he had saved showing four frames of a little boy getting ready for a blood test for a malaria survey. This child he had loved would be Peter. He began to paint, cut paper, and play with collage. To save the publisher money, he planned to alternate colored pages with black and white, but his editor insisted the book should be in full color.

The finished book, dedicated to his friends, was significant as the first full-color picture book to feature an African American child as the protagonist in a non-stereotypical way. It brought further excitement when it won the Caldecott Award for 1962 although Ezra had never heard of this honor and didn’t know what it was. The award came with bad news. He had to make an acceptance speech in front of 1800 librarians! His many efforts to avoid this public speaking failed, but his speech did not. In fact, the official picture taken afterwards shows him looking quite proud of himself in his white dinner jacket with the taller elegant Madeleine L’Engle, winner of the Newbery Award.

By the time my children and students loved the book in the 70s and 80s, they took little notice that Peter was Black. It seemed normal for him to be there. They would have agreed with Ezra’s assessment, “He should have been there all along.” So would children around the world. The book was translated into at least ten languages.

After several more Peter books, Ezra followed with an abundance of other books. Thankfully, he also learned to enjoy public speaking as he traveled in the US and abroad sharing his stories with children, parents, and teachers.

50 years of Snowy Days! A snowy collage picture might be a good way to celebrate:
•    Construction paper – check
•    Scissors – check
•    Glue – check
•    White chalk – check

*Ezra Jack Keats was born Jacob Ezra Katz. His own experience with prejudice in the form of anti-Semitism brought on the name change. In school and as an adult, he was usually called “Jack.” His friends from childhood continued to call him “Ezra.”


And the Winner Is...

My children, grandchildren, students, friends, relatives – anyone who knows me at all will tell you that I love a good competition – and I am fond of winning. I have never “let” a child win a contest in my life, feeling that their pride will swell big time when they beat me honestly. [Just ask grandson Sam Butler who has now beat me at Scrabble or daughter Anna Lane who reminds us annually of the date she won at Trivial Pursuit.]

I don’t go quite as far as the mother who took me to look at the reading fair competition in a large cafeteria with back-to-back and side-to-side entries on every table. Her daughter won second place and her question was, “What’s wrong with my daughter’s board?” I wanted to say, “Gee, whilikers! With this many entries, why aren’t you jumping up and down for a second place win?” My father had a different attitude and was quite proud of the second place trophy in the picture. In 1981 he won it in the Choctaw County Mississippi domino tournament at an old timey county weekend festival. I, too, treasure it and keep it atop my office file.

I’m pulling for Eli Manning and the Giants to win the Super Bowl next Saturday. Quite honestly, I will be disappointed in a second place finish, but I can look at the large number of teams that didn’t get that far and know that second place isn’t a bad finish. [Feel free to remind me of this if they lose.]

This weekend I watched the US Figure Skating Finals and took pride that Army Brat Ashley Wagner took home first in the ladies’ competiton. [See my "Mardi Gras to Piper Reed" blog for the Army Brat significance.] But Alissa Czisny needn’t go home with her head down after an elegant second place program. Both advanced to the World’s Competition.

I could go on but I want to get to the competition that makes a difference for children. The American Library Association recently gave a series of awards to writers of children’s books. The most famous of these are the Newbery for outstanding contribution to children’s literature and the Caldecott for the most distinguished American picture book. I have followed a Newbery blog this year that seemed credible and did a lot of educated guessing about possible winners. Surprise! Surprise! Neither the ones they talked about, nor the one I was pulling for, was the winner. [For the complete list of winners, check the American Library Association website. You can add to your “To-Read List” as I am doing and enjoy!]

I know just a tad of how this works since one year I had a friend on the committee who asked me to read with her and pass along my opinions. [This is allowed. I just couldn’t know what the committee members were saying amongst themselves.] I read a lot of books – not nearly as many as she did – and chose my favorite. Wouldn’t you know it came in as an Honor Book? – not unlike a second place. I hold to my opinion that it was the best and will blog about it soon. It’s not the first time that I chose an Honor Book over the winner. By the time that cream gets to the top, and the committee is left with a few superb books, I would hate to be the one making that final choice. Instead, I give a big thank you to all those librarians who read carefully and discuss at length to find the very best in children’s literature. Children – and a few adults – look for those books with a gold or silver seal knowing they can trust them for a good read.

I will not mess up my blog with my other thoughts about the major networks who did not feel these book awards were worthy of mention on morning shows filled instead with celebrity marriages & divorces, recipes, weight losses or gains, the scandal of the week… You, truly, don’t want me to get started on that.


Still Wrinkling After 50 Years

Madeleine L’Engle begins A Wrinkle in Time, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and by page 6 has Meg looking at herself in the mirror to tell us what she looks like. So why do all the “experts” tell writers never to do either of these? Maybe because they’ve already been done so well and been copied so many times that they have become clichés*. And maybe it’s because we writers don’t follow those beginnings with such an intriguing tale.

A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery Award for books published in 1962 and has won the hearts of children and many adults ever since. [Just look how worn my library copy is!] Madeleine went on to write a Time Quintet of books using these characters – A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time. I just discovered Many Waters a couple of years ago and was intrigued with her way of weaving the biblical Noah story into her plot. And the quintet only begins her long list of well loved children’s books. Yet there is another dimension to her writing.

I like Madeleine’s philosophy quoted on her website, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” She wrote a number of “simpler” books for those adults in a “sit around the teapot and talk” style. My personal favorites are Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, a delightful family memoir, and Walking on Water, a must-read for those writers and other artists who want to connect their spiritual and creative sides in pursuing their art.

Wrinkle gave Madeleine a firm foothold in the writing world, and she used it to climb to the pinnacle. She lived up to her own quote from Mrs. Whatsit comparing life to a sonnet, “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”     

A very happy 50th anniversary to A Wrinkle in Time. May it long continue to bring its own pleasant twist to the minds of its readers.

* Speaking of clichés – Alice has already awakened to find that Wonderland is a dream so writers can skip this one, too. And if I never hear the now tired cliché that was fresh and new when Yogi Berra said it, “Déjà vu, all over again,” it will be okay with me.   


Meandering from Mardi Gras to Piper Reed

“Military Brat,” a term of endearment, is always accurate in its first word and seldom in its second. [I know this because I taught a gazillion of them.] It describes children who go wherever the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Coast Guard assign their parent(s) and is often made specific as in “Army Brat” which described our three. This enriching lifestyle allows them to pick up the culture of the local city, state, or country as they go, but leaves them with a dilemma when someone asks, “Where are you from?’ Most often, they have little memory of their place of birth and don’t consider themselves “from there.”
    My mind began to wander over this phenomenon as Mardi Gras season got into full swing, and I recalled our children picking up its customs with our move to Louisiana. Purple, green, and gold colors; dubloons; strings of cheap beads; and especially King Cake abounded between Epiphany and Mardi Gras.
    From that point, my mind meandered easily to a “Navy Brat” author who found some roots in  Louisiana because that’s where her grandparents lived. Kimberly Willis Holt used the home base of her grandparents in central Louisiana as she began her writing with Mister and Me and My Louisiana Sky and after a couple of excursions for books set in her eventual home state of Texas returned to Louisiana for my personal favorite of her books – Part of Me. She traveled back to another of her “homes” provided by the Navy in Guam for Keeper of the Night. She added a few picture books and a historical novel, The Water Seeker.
    But the books that showed up in my train of thought was her series beginning with Piper Reed, Navy Brat. True to the good, difficult, frustrating, and exciting life of a Military Brat, these five books – with another due out in late summer – give a genuine picture of that life from someone who lived it.
    I recommend Piper Reed books to:
•    Military Brats who would like to find themselves in a book,
•    people who want to know what life is really like for a “Military Brat,” and
•    anyone who likes to read a good story.

Side Effect Warning: By the time you finish the books, you may have picked up Piper’s pet phrase – “Get Off the Bus!”