In 2008, I gave a talk at the California Reading Association entitled “Achieving the Honorable in Children’s Literature.” I find myself today needing to think about my words again. I need to remember why I’m writing, especially in today’s world of out-spoken social media, of naughty tweets, of sharing our most private thoughts and experiences on the Internet. I’ve rearranged part of the talk below, with a few new thoughts interspersed. At the end, I ask you to share your thoughts about the importance of honorable children’s books and some of your favorites.
The title for my talk came from Worcester Academy, a secondary school in Massachusetts. Achieve the Honorable is its motto, coined by Daniel Webster Abercrombie, the principal beginning in 1882. He hoped to motivate the spirit of the students and to demonstrate that the academy’s graduates had a fine moral purpose. The motto really struck me at a time when my son was searching for places to continue his education, his search for honor. It's a value not discussed much today, but isn’t that what we want for all our children – a happy, honorable life?
I began my talk at CRA by playing a bit of Stephen Sondheim’s Children Will Listen from Into The Woods.
“Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn”
Yes, children will listen. That’s why the stories we share with them are of utmost importance. They should be books filled with wonder, inspiration, hope, sustenance, and goodness.
When I wrote the speech, I’d been traveling a lot and looking at children’s books in airports and storefronts. They were decidedly different from the books my children grew up with, books like Winnie the Pooh, Miss Rumphius, Goodnight Moon, and Bill Peet’s and Steven Kellogg's classics.
The titles I saw contained words I didn’t allow spoken in my home. Some of the words were coyly disguised with asterisks and symbols. Some of the words were bawdy or downright vulgar. Some of the books expressed a mean spirit in the title.
There was one particular book at this time that was marketed for adults, but was sold in a picture book format. (This type of books continues in its popularity.) The book was a commercial success and praised by many. Few were brave enough to share their disgust.
Long time book reviewer and literary journalist Chauncey Mabe was one of them. He wrote that the book was a “naked attempt to cash in”. Mabe makes a point that this book and books like it show “a growing acceptance of profanity and vulgarity in all realms of our culture" and when the use of dirty words becomes so common that it’s cute to see them in parodies of children’s books, the shock value is gone. He makes the point that the excessive use of “adult” language is an expression of the increasing infantilization of American culture.
I’m all for fun in picture books and love it when kids laugh out loud when I share my stories, but we need to be aware of inappropriate behavior and unsuitable humor in the stories we write.
When we use profanity, the value of our language deteriorates. It’s not only used for shock value, but it’s used when the speaker or writer can’t express himself through more accurate words.
The majority of children’s books are golden examples of best efforts by writers, but all that glitters is not gold. To me, it’s distressing when the main reason for writing a book for children (or regarding children) is more about making money, getting attention, or the author’s ego than about the reader’s well-being.
Much of the meanness of the world comes from one-up-man-ship, which involves the ego. Just look at the ego of the characters in some children’s books today. There’s quite a bit.
Some wonder why our children are acting over-the-top-silly, naughty, and rebellious. Some ask why they use crude language and act in vulgar ways. If we adults offer media, including books, that is over-the-top-silly, naughty, and rebellious, filled with crude language and vulgar ways, should we be surprised? Repeat the Children Will Listen lyrics.
Our society seems to believe that significance and value are directly proportionate to getting noticed. So the person who gets noticed the most is the winner. Is that what we want in our society? Is that what we want for our children?
The real world often gives us bullying, hopelessness, and fear. Books should give more. They should broaden the view. A story needs heroes and models for rising above the bullies and meanness. There’s an art to sharing the dark side of life, particularly with children.
In the past we had the Tribe’s Storyteller, the Keeper of the Stories. It was a position of great honor and responsibility.
Today anyone can be a storyteller, the media, a publisher of one. Storytellers inundate us. That can be a good thing because each of us has our stories to tell and they are important stories. The problem is that not all the storytellers shouting for our attention take the job as seriously as the Storytellers of old did.
Jane Yolen is an icon in children’s literature who gives much to aspiring writers. Jane says, “If stories are lacking that bit of 'inner truth,' if they do not make a 'serious statement' then they are of no value. Storytelling is our oldest form of remembering the promises we have made to one another. Whoever dares to tell a story must bear in mind that the story is an essential part of our humanness.”
Storytellers are those who tell the story of our planet and all that lives on it. They have the power to affect lives. Today, more than ever, we need storytellers who don’t follow the crowd, but who stand outside of it, courageously. Storytellers that don’t just mimic their readers, but relate to them on a deeper and higher level.
Who do we trust to be the Keeper of our Stories?
Who do we trust to be our Tribe’s Storytellers?
Next month I’ll return to share my 2008 list of characteristics for honorable stories, some of the books from that list, plus a current list. Please share what characteristics you see in honorable stories and also your top honorable books. I will share some of these next month along with mine.
Marsha Diane Arnold is an multi-award-winning author with over a million books sold. Her most recent book, Waiting for Snow, illustrated by Renata Liwska, launched Nov 1st.
by Bryan Patrick Avery
I’ve always believed that many of the best magic tricks are those which get us out of our comfort zone. We squirm and want to look away but we just can’t. And once it’s over, we’re better for the experience. One of my favorite tricks to perform when I was younger was the finger guillotine. It was fun to watch my friends jump and scream as I shoved the sharp blade through my finger. Only once I pulled my finger out and showed it be still intact could they breathe again. And then, everyone wanted to see it again.
Books can have the same effect. Take, for example, Ellen Hopkins incredible YA novel in verse, Crank. It tells the story of drug addict Kristina, and her relationship with the Monster better known as meth. Under the influence of the Monster, Kristina morphs into an alter ego, Bree. Bree is willing to do all the things that Kristina won’t and quickly finds her way into trouble. It can be un unsettling read, but Crank grabs the reader with the first verse and doesn’t let go.
Another incredible story which pushes readers out of their comfort zones is Walter Dean Myers’ award-winning novel, Monster. When teenager Steve Harmon is arrested and tried for the murder of a convenience store owner, he resorts to collecting his thoughts and experiences in the form of a screenplay. Labeled a “monster” by the prosecutor, Steve must figure out who and what he is. As readers, we follow along on his journey, which includes journal entries detailing his time in prison. The horrific descriptions of life in prison are gripping and Steve’s own description of himself and his actions invoke by sympathy and disdain. In all, it’s an extraordinary tale of a journey of towards redemption.
Books that take us out of our comfort zones aren’t just for older kids. There are many picture books aimed at helping children deal with issues like trauma, grief or fear. One example is A Terrible Thing Happened, written by Margaret M. Holmes and illustrated by Cary Pillo. When Sherman Smith witnesses something terrible, he isn’t sure what to do. He tries to forget about it but, as time goes on, he finds that he cannot escape the bad feelings it has caused. He’s nervous all the time and begins to have bad dreams. It’s only once he meets someone who helps him talk about what happened, and how he feels about it, that things start to get better.
Like my friends watching me pretend to sever my finger, readers are given a glimpse into some very uncomfortable situations in these books. In each case, though, there is something to be gained by making the journey. One of the benefits of a good magic trick is to expand the mind of the spectator by showing them something they didn’t believe was possible (like passing a solid blade through a finger without cutting the finger) but revealing that things are still okay after the trick is done. For many kids, and adults too, the first exposure to many uncomfortable subjects like crime, drugs, and bullying is through books. This exposure may help prepare them to deal with these issues in the real world, and that’s pretty magical.
Meet the Friday Blogonauts
First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
Second Fridays will feature awesome multi-award winning author Marsha Diane Arnold who will be writing about character-driven and/or nature-based books and/or anything she likes :)
Third Fridays will feature independent Aladdin/Simon & Shuster editor Emma Sector who has helped bring many books into the world.
Fourth Fridays will feature the great Christine Taylor-Butler who has published over 70 award-winning fiction and non-fiction and nonfiction books including the acclaimed new middle grade series - The Lost Tribes.
Fifth Fridays will feature the fabulous Carl Angel award-winning multi-published Illustrator and graphic designer.
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