Month: August 2014

KidLit Goings-On in The City of Brotherly Love

My kids return to school next week, and so we head back to the city this weekend after a month away. The bittersweet that is the end of summer is fully upon me. As I gear up for more time for focus and work, I’ve discovered, happily, that a bounty of kidlit-related shows awaits in Philly to distract and, with luck, inspire.

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First, at the University of Pennsylvania, As the Ink Flows: Works from the Pen of William Steig opened August 22 and runs until December 19, 2014. In conjunction, a second show will be up from September 8 2014 to March 27 2015:  The School of Atha: Collaboration in the Making of Children’s Books.

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Steig is Steig, and seeing more of his sketches and work can only delight. Book designer and art director Atha Tehon (1926-2012) is new to me, and the exhibit promises to cover new territory as it explores her role in the creation of picture books by greats like Sendak, Steig and others.

Both shows revolve around bequests to the University’s libraries. Tehon’s papers, donated by her niece, landed at Penn likely because she was an alum, having studied Fine Arts at Penn/PAFA. Similarly, a cache of Steig’s drawings, sketches, papers etc. was gifted to Penn by his widow, Jeanne Steig. The exhibits draw from these donated works, as well as items loaned by the subjects’ families.

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In addition to the two gallery shows, an accompanying symposium on October 17 and 18 at Penn, Creating Children’s Books: Collaboration and Change (October 17 & 18), will feature kidlit historian Leonard Marcus, among others.

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Sendak’s opening illusrtation in Randall Jarrell’s THE BAT POET (NY: MacMillan, 1963)

Two more exhibtis are simultaneously up across the Schuylkill at the Rosenbach Museum and Library: Sendak in the 60’s and Bescribbled, Nibbled and Dog-Eared: Early American Children’s Books. I’ve seen the former, which runs through November 2 and provides a well-constructed look at Sendak’s most fertile period, kidlit-wise. The latter, which surveys early American picture books, is up until January 18 2015.

Why the focus on children’s books at the Rosenbach — and particularly on Sendak?

The Rosenbach is one of a special breed of quirky, unique-to-Philly, historic institutions (like The Wagner Free Science Institute, The Mutter Museum, Smith Playhouse, etc.). Housed in the former townhome of two brothers, Philip and Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, the base of its holdings come from the two men’s private collections of art and books. Both men dealt and traded in books, documents and art, from the late 1800’s until their deaths in the mid 1950’s, and were instrumental in helping to assemble various private and historic libraries around the country. Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach was one of the first great collector’s of children’s books, specifically, and his bibliography of Early American children’s literature was a standard reference in its time.

The Rosenbach/Sendak relationship was based on mutual interests: Sendak, for his part, loved many of the same writers and artists as the Rosenbachs, particularly Herman Melville (back to marine mammals again…). The Rosenbachs and Sendak developed a relationship around these shared passions, and ultimately Sendak bequeathed his documents to the museum. Perhaps as part of the arrangement, the Rosenbach maintains a committment to the continued study and display of Sendak’s work.

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Philadelphia’s LOVE PARK (from wikipedia).

The Penn and Rosenbach shows extend what has been a great run of attention to kidlit — especially picture books — in Philly over the course of the last year and a half. In the summer of 2013, exhibits on native son Jerry Pinkney hung at the PMA and the Free Library, and another on Ezra Jack Keats at the American Museum of Jewish History. Sendak was at the Rosenbach at that point, too, in a show called The Night Max Wore His Wolf Suit: 50 Years of Wild Things. Then in January, the Caldecott & Newbery Awards were announced right here in the City of Brotherly Love, with one of our favorite FLP librarians, Rahel Fryd, weighing in on the Caldecott decision.

Philly, a city of firsts (with this summer’s “firsts” revolving around the awesome Taney Dragons (google them if you don’t know their story!)), is no longer a center of publishing. And — though it can claim that David Wiesner lives here, that Kate di Camillo was born here, and that Jean Craighead George wrote at a desk that sits just 2 hours west — if there is a coordinated, organized community of writers-for-children, I have yet to find it.

So these shows feel like real, unexpected gifts. I cross my fingers that, moving forward, other venues will continue to join the Rosenbach (now operating under the umbrella of the Free Library of Philadelphia) in continuing to share the brotherly love.

Characters On the Spectrum in Middle Years Books

Purely by accident, my last few weeks of summer reading have been populated by middle years books featuring kids who either explicitly or seemingly dwell somewhere on the autism/Aspergers spectrum. I began with My Name is Mina (David Almond), moved on to Counting by 7’s (Holly Goldberg Sloan), and have just finished Mockingbird (Kathryn Erskine).

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Willow (from Counting by 7’s) and Caitlin (from Mockingbird) are explicitly said to be on the spectrum; Mina (from My Name is Mina) is not — though she definitely exhibits symptoms associated with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). In their respective stories, all three characters are also struggling with loss and with defining or redefining both “friendship” and “family”.
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A round-up on Nerdy Book Club a year or so ago pointed out that 1 in 88 kids are now categorized as having ASD, and so books like these become important and helpful to our — and our kids — developing stronger and more compassionate understanding for their classmates, siblings, relatives, friends — and themselves. Which is absolutely, positively true.

Coincidental with my reading I’ve been participating in Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Kami Kinard’s Nerdy Chicks Rule “Character Development” Summer School. Sudipta and Kami and their amazing crew are posting daily (for a month!) about different aspects of developing characters, offering myriad tips and exercises. And so, apropos of these three books and their three main characters, I’ve also been thinking about what else these characters who are on the spectrum offer — to both writers and readers — by virtue of their ASDs.

And it strikes me that kids who exhibit traits and behaviors associated with ASDs — and these three in particular — can make especially compelling protagonists.

Mina, Willow, and Caitlin — like many kids with Aspergers — are bright, insightful girls, with their mental wheels constantly spinning. Both Mockingbird and Mina are written in the first person — the latter as Mina’s diary. Counting By 7s uses first person for many chapters, from Willow’s POV, but Sloan also intersperses chapters in close third person from the perspective of each of the other key characters: Dell, Mai, Jairo, Willow’s parents, Pattie and Quang-ha (Sloan is a screen-writer too, and you definitely sense the cinematic in this approach as she jumps from one perspective to another; I found it to be quite effective). In all three books, the reflective observations and internal monologues that make up each narrative pull us right along.

In addition to their intelligence, and in keeping with the profile of many kids with ASDs, each character has unique aptitudes or perspectives or driving interests that shape their views of the world: Willow cultivates plants (in addition to finding comfort in counting by 7s, and obsessing over the human body and medical conditions); Caitlin draws, experiencing the world visually; and Mina writes. These particularities become their points of reference (which A.C. Gaughen talks about here — at Summer School), giving each a lens through which to organize and make sense of and connect with their worlds. Which, in turn, offers readers a unique way of seeing that world along with them.

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These idiosyncratic aptitudes and world views contribute to the sense that these characters march to their own drums or swim against the tide (see Counting By 7s‘ cover). But difficulties in making sense of social norms and rules is what really isolates each. Struggles in understanding figurative language and body language and facial expression — which are typical of spectrum kids — result in challenges with empathy, communication and social skills. This, in turn, contributes to behaviors that exacerbate misunderstanding with non-ASD peers and an overall sense of disconnection.

Wrestling with alienation defines Mina, Willow and Caitlin’s stories, and most readers can identify with this struggle. Though complicated by the specifics of each character’s biology and circumstances, the feeling of not belonging that each works to overcome is universal. The desire to connect and identify with others is a big part of what makes us human, a big part of why we read novels and — I think — a big part of what makes these characters and their stories so compelling.

Ultimately, of course, they are three very different books, about three very different characters, written by three very different authors. And all are quite wonderful and worth a read. Sloan, Almond and Erskine each does a great job of articulating the challenges their characters grapple with and offering us insight into them, while at the same time making so clear the great gifts that they possess — and share.