Today’s Sail Away Story post is our third edition of “A Little Birdy Told Me…” in which we feature a guest writer who shares about her favorite cultural children’s books and ideas connected to them.
Meet Erin Conway–friend, teacher, writer, educational coach and weaver of both textiles and words–as she delves into the importance of “upbringings and imaginings” in children’s literature.
In her own words:
In my previous post, I wrote generally about the opportunity to read stories across reading/age levels within a particular geographical category that Amanda uses to organize her blog in a post titled Family Engagement. The focus of this blog post, Upbringings and Imaginings, is literary biography. In content, this includes traditional tales told to us across our lives and identity assigned texts of which we may or may not be aware. In form, I focus on the strength of shared literary biography created when authors write their narrative into multiple works aimed at varying ages, preschool to adult readers.
In my previous post, I provided conversation starter questions two of which were: What were your favorite books as a child? How? Or, why are they still relevant today? To these I add several more. This time they are common questions to ask an author: Is this story biographical? Which characters are based on people in your own life?
It isn’t difficult to find award winning examples of “Yes”:
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson discusses the author’s childhood as an African American growing up in the 1960s in South Carolina and New York (National Book Award winner and Newbery Honor).
Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle narrates her experiences growing up as a child of two cultures during the Cold War (Pura Belpré Author Award, YALSA Nonfiction Finalist, Walter Dean Myers Award Honoree).
Dreamers by Yuyi Morales traces the journey that she and her small son took in 1994, when they immigrated to the United States from Mexico. Almost working as a bridge to the focus of this post, the “My Story” section included after the text, supplies the details of Morales’ experience (Pura Belpré Illustrator Award).
While these are all books worth reading and discussion, my greater intent of Upbringings is to focus on examples of one author, one story, multiple expressions and decisions about details for all ages. I selected two authors previously recommended on Sailaway Story: Juno Diaz and Sherman Alexie.
Sherman Alexie’s writing first inspired my exploration. I immediately fell in love with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but I never asked the question which of the events in the novel were his own. Instead, I loved his writing and his unapologetic tone. My knowledge of him might have stopped there except for the recommendation by a colleague of his memoir You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. Again, I appreciated his matter of fact expression of even the most difficult aspects of his life. I let the poetry sift through the net of my attention and smiled at his references to indigenous language, language so close to my heart after my experience learning Kaqchikel in Guatemala. Then, memories of events from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian returned on the pages to cut a little deeper when he mentioned them in the context of his real life, for example the death of his sister in a fire. Some weeks later, I passed by the new books display in the Children’s Room. I found an image of a little boy on his father’s shoulders accompanied by the title Thunder Boy Jr and the name Sherman Alexie. I smiled remembering the number of pages spent in Alexie’s memoir around the common practice of the name “Junior” and his own internal reflection on identity. I saw the book listed on a storytime event centered on Native American literature, and I wondered what that conversation would be like if the adults were exposed to You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me at the same time the children read Thunder Boy Jr. For me the depth of understanding of any of those texts would have been much less without the other, and the strength of the author writing across ages allows conversation within families around the same author’s stories and how different members of the same family tell their own to themselves and each other.
My second encounter with this type of author crossover occurred through Juno Díaz’s picture book Islandborn. For a more detailed summary of this book, I refer you to a Sailaway Story post https://sailawaystory.com/category/central-america/. I was drawn to the main character, Lola, and the way she was able to construct her story through multiple stories in the community around her. When I realized Islandborn was Díaz’s first picture book, I wanted to read an adult novel with the hope of a similar kind of insight that Alexie’s memoir had provided into his children’s literature.
I selected The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and I was not disappointed. I will warn that this novel is not for the feint of ear. Díaz’s language is harsh and his description of discrimination in the Dominican Republic based on skin color and societal attitudes toward women are not easy to read. Teenage Oscar who lives in New Jersey with his mother and sister dreams of being the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkein. Oscar guided me from the first pages through the harsh realities of Trujillo’s dictatorship, also alluded to in Islandborn as simply “A monster fell upon our poor Island. . . It could destroy an entire town with a single word and made a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.” Set against the backdrop of the adult detailed narrative, the themes of history, memory and immigration explored by Lola are richer in opportunity for deeper conversation.
Individual groups name and have varying affinity for different types of traditional tales: fairy tales, faith based narratives, legends, myths, creation stories, to name a few. It makes me wonder, when authors are not telling about themselves in small or large ways, how often are they retelling their own favorite stories? My most recent example is Pride: A Pride and Prejudice Remix by Ibi Zoboi which I serendipitously read after Díaz’s works had provided me with context surrounding the Dominican Republic and Haiti and another young adult novel steeped in Yoruba religion, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi.
Documented research on mirror neurons details how stories shape who people see themselves as and who they want to become. This is also true when looking at the way in which stories are retold, who is in charge of the retelling and how variations are labelled: multicultural, fractured, feminist, to name a few. Moreover, discussions about diverse literature address the fact that the success of the retelling is very much dependent upon the author and his or her previous connection with the story itself. Amanda has created a community of education and storytelling that is not only geographical but generational. So, in order to explore this dynamic a little more, I consider not individuals, but families. From my own interactions, or lack of, with my parents, I pose that the discussion of upbringings makes the imaginings even more meaningful.
My father is the constant rewriter. My earliest memory is how he had changed the lyrics to children’s stories and songs we listened to on old 45s. While the retellings remained purely fiction, he wrote his life and himself into them. He does it so frequently that I keep my notebook nearby for use in my own novels. He does it so easily that he forgets the ideas he gives me. While he thinks I am the reader in the family, the repetition of particular titles mark those stories that made the greatest impact on him. Our most recent conversation was about the controversial picture book, Little Black Sambo. He was the first to admit, “I didn’t remember the story. Just the pancakes. I loved pancakes too.”
The first published version of this story was a rewrite built upon colonialist views, identity confusions, poorly assigned/considered character names, and prejudiced caricature. I shared Chrisopher Bing’s version with my father. This version illustrates Sambo as an African child in the country of India. This Handprint Books version with Christopher Franceschelli’s notes on the fluidity of setting as culture and geography is particularly interesting as well as articles like the one found at https://www.saada.org/tides/article/little-black-sambo.
I would encourage you both to seek out diverse and/or recently published retellings of the stories you remember affectionately as well as to read the back pages and author biography’s to understand more about the individual doing the telling. Sailaway Story recommends many selections to help you to begin.
My mother claimed not to be creative. Regardless of what she may or may not have come to imagine, she died before she could. This means that I rely on other author’s imaginings of womanhood and Judaism at the same time I seek to write characters with both of those identities. The novel in verse, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough is an interesting example of this kind of story. I knew that the narrative based upon the life of painter Artemisia Gentileschi would stress historically erased examples of strong women. Artemisia is more talented than her father but her life decisions are framed by the choice of either grinding his paint pigment’s for the rest of her life or becoming a nun. What I did not realize prior to reading was the embedded role that the Jewish heroine Judith would play. As fate would have it, I had also come upon Judith’s story when I was looking for a strong female heroine from the Jewish canon. Like McCullough, I had included her history in my novel. Still, the connection to Judith’s tale is relatively new for me, and McCullough’s imaginings made me feel a part of a community of storytellers that could validate my own.
There are a variety of questions to consider when selecting a story that you do not consider “your own”:
- Does the author share background or common experiences with the book’s content?
- How or where did the author conduct his or her research?
- Do the illustrations support diverse/multicultural book initiatives?
- How could you verify or who do you know that might verify the veracity of a particular book about a field in which you have little experience?
- Does the picture book authentically capture the nuances of a particular group or does it generalize or stereotype?
- Are you selecting a balanced collection between books that celebrate a group, honor their past and/or struggles, and reflect an everyday experience?
- How does the book positively frame identity development and self-esteem?
- Is the author or group the usual subject for this particular content? If so, who else might be a less known figure with a similar message?
In closing, I admit to an inclination for reading nonfiction about histories of storytelling as a narrative all on its own, how creation stories form identities, how stories have identities and the importance of story as history and memory. If you share this interest, I recommend the books below:
Bernheimer, Kate, ed. (1998). Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their
Favorite Fairy Tales. Anchor Books: New York.
Burger, Ariel. (2018). Witness: Lessons from Eli Wiesel’s Classroom. Houghton Mifflin
Conway, Jill Ker. (1998). When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography. Alfred A.
Knopf: New York.
Wall Kimmerer, Robin. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific
Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions: Canada.
For further information about my history collaborating with Amanda you can refer to my first post, On Family Engagement, in her “A Little Birdy Told Me” category. For more of my book critique or short essays/literary posts on diversity and identity, check out my blog at http://www.erinconway.com.