Gloriously Gloomy Books for the Very Young

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Life can be operatic for the kinder-set. There is brooding and bewilderment, anxiety and injustice. Hearts are shattered on a regular basis. Is it any wonder young children cry lavishly several times a day?

As a children’s writer, I believe there is a time to be pleasant and optimistic but there is also a time to affirm the emotional wilderness and Sartrean mindset of the young. In the spirit of the latter, I made a list of books for and about the wondrously woeful and willful. I called it “7 Gloriously Gloomy Books for the Very Young” and you can read it in the newly revised THE BOOK OF LISTS.

(From Aldo by John Burningham)

Fall Events

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Aug 29-Sept 5: Melbourne Writers Festival

Sept 6-11: Brisbane Writers Festival

Sept 19: City of Toronto Book Club, Assembly Hall

Sept 24: Word on the Street, Toronto

Sept 25-26: Winnipeg Writers Fest

Sept 27-28: Kingston Writers Festival

Oct 11: Read for the Cure, Toronto

Oct 12-15: Calgary Wordfest

Oct 16-22: Vancouver International Writers Festival

Oct 21: 11AM Another Story Bookshop, Toronto

Oct 21: 7-9PM Orillia’s Big Read 2017

Oct 19-29: International Festival of Authors, Toronto

Nov 1: 7:30PM IFOA Panel

Nov 7:
Writers Trust Gala

Nov 23: 6:30PM EH List! Toronto Public Library (with David Waltner-Toews)

Pleasure

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I walked through the city. I walked past garbage bins and the bones of last year’s flowers. I courted oak trees.

My ears opened, and opened again.

I walked to the lake where I sat for a while watching an episode of gulls.

A man on the boardwalk wore a well-cut coat and walked with his hands clasped behind his back, each step weighted like a stamp. An old woman fed the pigeons little cakes until they were pleasured and fat.

It was so cold my breath became a picture.

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The songs closed over me; I disappeared.

A windy power and beautiful incantatory spell travels through Feist’s new album PLEASURE. The unison voices and open endings. The ancient-modern corral of chant, spoken word, room sound, rushing footsteps, tough guitar, living world timbre, and doo-wop sway. I followed Feist’s voice on the trajectory of the swerve, streaking toward the sky, touching outer space, crossing dimensions.

At some point, the air warmed and I dissolved.

Everything was vapor.

I had escaped the momentum of the clock. Listening had become truancy. I realized I might not graduate from my day.

Pleasure is wild and elemental, a little heartsore, a little hungry. It sails between meticulous songcraft and abstract composition. It is full of sudden colours and tiny angles and luxurious canopies of sound.

I’ve listened to this album a dozen times now: on a stalled streetcar at rush hour; alone in a crowd of trees; sitting at the kitchen table with my freshly shampooed son; late at night at the peak of a house, writing this. The lush force, the sense of delicate inner workings, have stayed with me—gratifying and emboldening. I needed this.

Sometimes life is gridlock. And then a song pulls you outward, gives you a way toward walking. Some songs move out of black holes and into the sun.

Write Here

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The following is reposted from the 4th Estate blog to coincide with the UK release of Birds Art Life (Death)

A few years ago, I became an air writer. I was not bereft of ideas. I was simply unable to commit any of them to paper. Instead, I wrote paragraphs in my head. This may have been interesting in a conceptual John Cage sort of way, but it was more than a little frustrating.

There were reasons for this stoppage. My father had recently suffered two strokes, and even when the pressures of emergency care subsided into a quieter form of durational care, I found myself in a permanent state of vigil and anxiety. I had grown so accustomed to being interrupted by emergency calls and hospital news, I began interrupting myself whenever I sat down to work.

Unable to write in any sustained fashion, my desk had become a place of grim wriggling.

There are many things to hamper creativity. We know something of the effects on the mind of living in a sped-up digital culture, of having our attention minced and sautéed by news and social media, but there is also the effect on the mind of receiving bad news, of simply being spread too thin. Sometimes we cannot edit out the distractions because the distractions are actually pressing and essential and maybe it is our project in life is to be decent and loving humans as much as good writers. This is hardly news. As Virginia Woolf noted in A Room of One’s Own, the books we write are “not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.”

I know of very few writers or artists who can claim the privilege of ideal writing conditions. A perfect writing day comes around so rarely. Our days are the really just the sum of the time we “waste” meaninglessly and or “give away” meaningfully.

Eventually I decided to leave the solitude of my own room. I began taking ‘bird walks’ with a local musician (as I recount in my book).

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I also began walking to local cafes to write in the company of others. The ambient din quieted the noise in my brain. On warm days my favorite café opened its door to house sparrows. They would hop about my feet as I worked.

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I am back to working at home. I write in a tiny area at the peak of our Victorian house. (If you want to know why, listen to “Little Room” by The White Stripes and/or read my chapter on “Smallness”.) There is just enough room in my attic office for a long desk. My cats are usually underfoot. My desk is cluttered with pencils, photos, bird objects and, right now, a cover design for a picture book I did with the wonderful Barcelona-based illustrator Júlia Sardà. The best thing about my attic nook is that all the windows on our top floor are single paned so I am always accompanied by the sound of birds calling from the trees.

home study

“What will we do with our fear?”

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I don’t want to pin this all on fear. I don’t want to see (or portray) fear as an all-enveloping miasma that swaddles voters in a cartoon fog, stripping away any possibility of clarity or agency. But fear is certainly a factor. (So are: white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, climate denial, austerity, growing debt, precarity, and quotidian self-interest; all bolstered, bounded and bundled up with—ta da!—fear.)

So, today, as I try to metabolize the results of last night’s election, as my mind ricochets about the room, as I attempt to lower my shoulders from their now-alarmingly raised position, I find myself reflecting on FEAR. Specifically, I find myself returning to a passage from Eula Biss’s book On Immunity:

“What has been done to us seems to be, among other things, that we have been made fearful. What will we do with our fear? This strikes me as a central question of both citizenship and motherhood.”

I won’t get into the intricacies of Biss’s stunning and meandering exploration (I recommend you read it yourself) but what stays with me today is Biss’s call to examine the political nature of fear. How does fear cleave and shrink our collective imaginations?  In the face of monstrous scaremongering, how do we countervail? Can we (those of relative power and privilege) avoid the urge to withdraw? Can we fend off the urge to indulge in our own fear impulses, e.g. fortressing ourselves and our kin from the threats and horror of the world—a survivalist approach that can be marshaled to rationalize THE MOST privileged and anti-communal actions?  Can we heed the need for communal care and responsibility—cultivating a more generative and generous survivalism? How on earth (in these unevenly threatening times) do we frame our interactions with the world?

“What will we do with our fear?”

I don’t have the answer. But I do have a good picture book. It’s called The Moomins and The Great Flood. It was originally published in Finland in 1945 by Tove Jansson and I think it offers one possible scenario—or, even, a revolutionary retort to fear. Briefly: the Moomins are refugees from human civilization and their father Moominpappa has disappeared. Loaded with fear and worry, Moominmamma and Moomintroll set off to look for him.

The Moomins and the Great Flood

The family bond that unites the Moomin pair is intensely loving, but it is also open-ended. Disparate creatures, estranged from the world and brought together by the devastation of a great flood, are welcomed into the fold. Sniff joins the family. Tulippa finds a home in a lighthouse, guiding other lost creatures to safety. The Hemulens and Hattifatteners are also represented as kindred spirits in the Moomin world.

Given the tumultuous setting, I was not surprised to learn that the idea for the Moomins came to Tove Jansson during World War II. “It was the winter of war, in 1939,” she writes in the books’ introduction, “my work stood still; it felt completely pointless to try to create pictures. Perhaps it was understandable that I suddenly felt an urge to write down something that was to begin with ‘Once upon a time’. What followed had to be a fairytale – that was inevitable – but I excused myself by avoiding princes, princesses and small children.”

In other words, the Moomins—creatures forced to flee their homes—were born of Jansson’s anxiety and distress at the state of the world (a world, not incidentally, in the grip of racial hatred and far-right populism.) What feels significant to me today is how she found solace and hope in imagining a multifarious community. What feels emboldening is the idea that art can be a way forward through despair. The Moomins and the Great Flood may be a story about a terrible disaster but it is also a story about the formation of an extended family where misfits and orphans are always welcome, where “making kin and making kind,” in the sense Donna Haraway has proposed, can “stretch the imagination and can change the story.”

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In a climate of fear and grief, when a sense of safety feels most precarious, Tove Jansson shows that there are moments of refuge to be found in generosity, in the willingness to make homes and open them to those who need them—i.e. those most targeted, those most vulnerable. This is the sort of anti-isolationist message Rebecca Solnit shared on her Facebook page last night when she spoke of the need to pitch “a large tent.”

If there is a ‘take-away’ from the Moomin stories it is that closed system thinking cannot help us. Rather than retreat into a private world of grief or flummoxed passivity, we need to find ways of treating our  vulnerability as an open window. Faced with ecological disasters, brutal wars, and the threat of destruction looming over the future of their world, the Moomins practice an insistent openness. We must too.

I’m heartened by all the positive, action-focused messaging on social media today. I know the picture book world is abuzz with good thoughts about the role of children’s books in cultivating a kinder, more compassionate world-to-come. (Solnit: “Half the five-year-olds in the USA are nonwhite; the future they make will be beautiful; we just have to hold onto what matters until they take the wheel and steer us onto a better road.”)

I have great faith in my community of co-creators. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of art to reenvision the possible. To conceive of the world “as if it were other than it is,” Amitav Ghosh reminds us, is the great project of fiction. It is also the great project of reaching toward a common world (one with proper shelter, healthcare, food security, education, and climate stabilization for all!) As writers we have the opportunity to fashion new scenarios and fresh pathways. We have the power to to enter the dark woods of a reimagined community, a community that constantly tests and reconfigures the range of ‘us’.

moomins

I’m going to keep the Moomins close at hand. I want to surround myself with stories (and movements) that model interdependence; that nurture human and non-human diversity; that foster a sense of welfare beyond biological kinship and self-interest.

“What will we do with our fear?” Where will we go? How will we enact our hope? We’re implicated in this mess differently, but we can choose to be in it, fighting and flourishing, together.

Go! Go! Go!

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With a magical wave of her Bolex, Marie Menken (1905-1970) takes us from morning to nightfall through a comically sped-up day. As a city portrait of busyness and informational onslaught, the film is timely and familiar. But to me, its more eternal theme is collectivity – all the ways we come together (or sabotage coming together) in the name of going places, self-improving, goal-chasing, social climbing, creating and cavorting. I love the joyful invitation to notice what and who is swirling around you – that kaleidoscope of people going, going, going, as if being a human among humans could be a graceful thing.

(Text I wrote for the “Outsiders: American Photography and Film” exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. March 11 – May 27, 2016.)

What We Talk About When We Talk About Diversity

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As ‘diversity’ is set to become the next big publishing phenomenon, I have been thinking increasingly about what diversity means, what it desires, what it demands. I have noticed (alongside many, many, many others), how easily the language of diversity has been superficially and cosmetically adopted, often replacing or displacing other ways of talking about social justice, power, and institutional exclusion.

I have noticed how the inclusion of certain kinds of diversity can act as a form of appeasement—forestalling  often necessary conversation and, yes, conflict. (Note: we are fairly conflict-averse in the kidslit world. Every one is so damn nice! As one children’s author put it to me: “It’s a bunny eat bunny world out there.”)

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I don’t know how to get at all the questions and concerns I have about the way these conversations are unfolding but I think it would be helpful to clarify what we mean when we say “diversity” because, good intentions and inclusive rhetorics aside, I don’t think we always mean the same thing. In fact, I think there are many disparate models of diversity at play in the world of picture books.

Here are a few I’ve noted:

‘Realistic’/Sociological Diversity

These books tend to focus on a community with realistic characters facing contemporary scenarios (often dealing with explicit ‘problems’ such as poverty, urban blight, migration and resettlement and often featuring descriptive language/illustration.)

Biographical/Historical Diversity

These books are what Christopher Myers calls the traditional “townships” for characters of colour. They sometimes intertwine a historical perspective with personal experience (again, they often feature descriptive language/illustration.)

Allegorical/Parable Diversity

These books tend to tackle “prejudice” by taking a disarmingly whimsical and/or symbolic approach. Animals, objects (sporks!), colours may stand in for humans in an attempt to represent difference in a non-threatening way.

Rooted but Expressive Diversity

These books feature racially specific characters and contexts but often involve fanciful flights of adventure, imagination or personal growth (usually using expressive illustration.) Christopher Myers notes that many children “see books less as mirrors and more as maps. They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.”

Casual Diversity

These are books in which the characters’ minority status is not central to the plot. Some call these stories “culturally neutral.”  Often there is a blanding of cultural and historical specificity and a strong tendency to fall back on eternal and universal values like “using your imagination” or “loving animals.”  I’ve noticed that casual diversity is a growing (and dominant?) diversity trend. (Note: this approach, while visually and even emotionally appealing, makes me nervous because it is so easy and so effacing of conflict and history. One of the challenges in the kidslit world is that liberal humanism is so entrenched, it can be difficult to challenge the “we are all the same” narrative without coming across as a complete killjoy. For writers and readers of color, there may also be a politics of gratitude at work. We are so grateful to be accepted at the proverbial literary table that we cease to question who is doing the accepting and on what terms.)

Backdrop Diversity

An extension of casual diversity, these books tend to feature an array of cultures/races as background characters. Again, difference is portrayed as non-threatening and universal. (I struggle with casual and backdrop diversity  because I think this approach may allow for gentle, age-appropriate conversations about inclusion—providing a ‘mirror’ for younger children—but I wonder if it’s also appealing to adults who find it more sellable.)

Encyclopedic Diversity

These books tend to show a glorious array of costume, décor, landscape, homes, to represent worldliness and/or cosmopolitanism. The problem with encyclopedic diversity is that the form itself is limiting. Curt text combined with metonymic images have a tendency to become stereotypical and feel weirdly anthropological. This is generally not an approach that well-serves the historically ‘othered.’ How, after all, do we explore and address race and difference, if the race and cultural identity of characters aren’t developed? (Note: in many ways, this is a challenge intrinsic to any 200-800 word text! This is my struggle as a writer too.)

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What I am proposing in all of this is that one can have a robust display of differences without at all challenging norms or structures of dominant identity.

The strategy of erasing historical and cultural specificity in favor of visual pluralism, for example, stops us at the surface of the image. It is cosmetic. Moreover, it presents difference in a palatable, eminently marketable way. (Lest we forget the lessons of 1980s Benetton-style globalization: difference is a commodity fetish.)

As writers, editors, publishers, reviewers, bloggers, teachers… as book people, I think we need to be aware of the moments when our ‘diversifying’ efforts become tokenizing, essentializing, or aestheticizing. I think we also need to be mindful of how certain characters ‘of colour’ are played off others or turned into ‘model’ picture book minorities. (i.e. Maybe it’s not enough to ‘pop an Asian character’ into your story. As Paula Young Lee recently noted: “Asians are now also 21st century versions of your ‘one Black friend,’ a kind of moral cloak protecting white people against accusations of racism.”)

In all of this I want to emphasize that inviting a critical conversation about diversity is not about calling out or shaming individual books, authors, illustrators, or publishers. It’s about the subtler, knottier work of changing institutions and attitudes that enforce dubious conventions and defaults that acquire the lustre of “tradition” or “popular taste.” It’s about ensuring that we move beyond representational inclusion towards systemic inclusion, which would include a long-term commitment to diverse writers, editors, publishers, reviewers (through mentorships, grants and paid internships.) It’s about nurturing stories that may be more specific and less broadly sellable. And it’s about respecting children and not underestimating their willingness to take on thorny, thought-provoking subjects or their openness in approaching the complicated and unfamiliar–especially if the stories are beautiful, funny, dramatic and non-medicinal!

Which brings me to another model of diversity, what some have called:

Critical Diversity

These books are not about creating symbols or markers out of difference. They are not about finding models of successful or paradigmatic blackness (or indigenousness, Asianness, Hispanicness, etc.) that can (in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates) be “singled out, made examples of, transfigured into parables of diversity.” Critical diversity allows us to see “how broad  the black normal is” (Coates). Critical diversity moves beyond superficial inclusion to highlights differences within communities, accounting for class position, disability, gender, religion, etc. In scholar Rinaldo Walcott‘s words, if we are to get at “the depth and texture of how blackness is experienced and lived out in both its extra and intra-black differences” it cannot “only be framed and understood in relationship to race and racism. Thus critical diversity seeks to not just populate our various arenas with one-dimensional encounters. It seeks to provide encounters that strike deeply at the core of what it means to be human.”

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The current dialogue about diversity is a wonderful and welcome starting point and there are so many thoughtful and inspiring initiatives, including these recent ones by  Simon and Schuster and the trailblazing Groundwood Books .

My final point, if I have one, is that perhaps we need to be both fast and slow in our speed of change, both expeditious yet reflective as we move forward. I do feel that in a scramble to fill the vacuum, we may rush towards a ‘panicked diversity’ (again, ‘toss an Asian character in there and be done with it’). Let’s remember that this is a generations’ old conversation. Let’s make this conversation lasting and systemically meaningful so that it continues well past the current marketing and media moment.

Thank you. xx

(With special thanks to Professor Cheryl Cowdy at York University who invited me to speak to her undergraduate class today, thus inciting many of the thoughts shared here. Note: all illustrations are by Gyo Fujikawa and date back to the 1960s.)

When we were very young

Childhood Books

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When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne

When I was six and visiting family in England, my Grandpa Hugh gave this book to me and it has remained on my bookshelf ever since. Milne’s use of repetition and beat make it a perfect read aloud. Also perfect: Milne’s blend of melodrama and humor that manages to both respect and send-up childhood fears. When I was little I often felt an acute sense of responsibility for the wayward adults around me so I particularly loved James James Morrison Morrison who was all finger-wagging, laying down the law, and searching for control in an uncontrollable universe.

The wonderful Danielle Davis of This Picture Book Life invited me to write about three books that I liked as a child that continue to shape me as a picture book writer. This is a new feature on her blog and I can’t wait to read what other writer’s say. You can see my full list here. (With thanks to Sara O’Leary)

Thinking about Mentors

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One of the lovely students I mentor sent me this article yesterday, which felt especially timely because I have been thinking lately about the mentor-protégé relationship and the question of how older artists care for the more emergent. How important is mentorship to an art practice? To thinking? To life?

I’ve had/have many mentors. (GH. MNP. BM. EK. RS …) I have enjoyed being a mentor. I think there is value in this sort of relationship for some people. My own work certainly seems to benefit from a push-pull between assistance and independence, inspiration and defiance. At the same time, the traditional model of mentorship as a hierarchical bestowal of insight makes me uneasy. I tend to agree with scholar-poet-essayist Maggie Nelson that the “transmission of (knowledge, experience, wisdom, power)” is—at its productive best—more horizontal. I know in my own experience that professional and personal friendships—i.e. relationships less-marred by a conventional posture of deference—have been my most sustaining, fruitfully frustrating, emboldening (offering, in this sense, everything one might want from a mentorship.)

Of course, sometimes a mentor-protégé relationship will morph as was the case with Russian-born writer, intellectual, and psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé and Rainer Maria Rilke who eventually became lovers and literary comrades in what Maria Popova calls “a kaleidoscope of love” that irradiated “across the romantic, the platonic, the creative, the spiritual, the intellectual, and just about everything in between.”

But the reigning idea of mentorship has tended to elevate the authority of The One over The Other. While this picture might be institutionally practical, it’s really a skewed portrait and does not even begin to capture the criss-cross movement of ideas, hopes, affection and dreams incited whenever two creative/thoughtful people get together.

As an alternative, Maggie Nelson has taken to referring to her writing workshops as a space for making “casual affidamentos.” She claims to have borrowed the term affidamentos from poet Eileen Myles who claims to have borrowed it from “Italian feminists” who use it to describe “a relationship of trust between two women, in which the younger asks the elder to help her obtain something she desires.” In this essay, the word affidamento is translated as “entrustment” and implies something more mutual and radical than traditional mentorship.

A relationship of affidamento, in other words, is less about waiting to soak up the timeless wisdom of an elder, less about finding a master explainer or fixed navigation device, and more about finding an assistant dream weaver.

Our affidamentos are there to pull for us and put our struggles in perspective, there to encourage us to continue, offer a beneficent but not uncritical presence. I believe one can find affidamentos across time and geography, even beyond the grave. The books I keep close at hand, the ones by writers I have adored and admired are also affidamentos—forever radiating magic, urging me onwards.

New Year’s Resolutions

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Go forward.
“Every day, you have the feeling you are on the wrong track. This creates a
strong urge to go back and follow a different path. It is important not
to give in to this urge, but to keep going. It is a little like driving a car
at night, in winter, on ice, with zero visibility.”
—Patrick Modiano (Nobel Lecture)

Have confidence.
“Tell your own story, and you will be interesting. Don’t get the green disease of envy. Don’t be fooled by success and money. Don’t let anything come between you and your work.”
—Louise Bourgeois

Be forgiving.
“Let us forgive ourselves for writing poems that aren’t better than every other poem that has ever been written.”
—Dean Young

Proceed lightly.
“Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply… There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk so lightly. Lightly my darling…”
—Aldous Huxley

Read more poetry etc.
“Blockbusters are only / blockbusters if we / go see them, so let’s / go, let’s make them / what they are…”
—Maggie Nelson

Do write in the world.
“The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”
—Ursula Le Guin

Happy New Year. Akemashite omedetou.

(Image sources: Gerda Kay, Louise Bourgeois’s “Ode à l’oubli,” Cy Twombly’s “Poems to the Sea,” Jen Gotch, Weegee, Can U Not.)