Month: September 2014


Nothing says “READ ME” like a hot pink “BANNED” label slapped onto the cover of a book.


This particular bookshelf sits in the children’s department of my local library, the Free Library of Philadelphia Parkway Central Branch, and is typically home to a changing collection books that fall into a particular category or theme (think “Summer!”, “New Releases” or “Chanukkah”). I have only ever seen one person at a time standing in front of it, but when I passed by this Tuesday there were a full four, browsing books and chatting with a nearby librarian — not counting the toddler who was busy de-shelfing the lower half of the display, book by censored book.

We are nearing the end of BANNED BOOKS WEEK 2014 (September 21-27, 2014). The American Library Association, one organizer, offers gobs of information and background on the contemporary state of censorship in the U.S., and The Huffington Post’s BOOKS section is full of discussion about “the value of unhindered expression”, including this handy little infographic post on the what’s, where’s, why’s and who’s of current banned and challenged books.

For this collection, the FLP Children’s Department librarians culled through their collection for any titles that appeared on the frequently challenged or banned list.

Of the ones they pulled out, And Tango Makes Three is perhaps the most obvious: we can’t have it seems like there could possibly be anything good or right or even ok about two males — of any species — rasing young. Right?

Ban-Newberry Ban-tango

My recollection of the details of Julie of the Wolves was foggy, but as it turns out, in the key interaction that compels young Miyax/Julie to run away (to the wolves), her husband, Daniel, pushes her to the floor and tears her dress. That scene has been construed as “rape”, and therefore age-inappropriate. Author Jean Craighead George — delighted to be on a list with the likes of Mark Twain — refuted that interpretation.

No matter that that simple act of violence provides a great entry point for a conversation with kids about the very real issue of violence against girls and women.

The objections to A Wrinkle in Time seem to have been varied and multiple, but almost all are religion-based. At the same time that the book is criticized for being too Christian by some, others take issue with the nature of its Christianity, with claims of sorcery, black magic, new-age-ism and the belittling of J.C. (Madeline L’Engle was the writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan for a stretch, so it is no surprise that religious themes emerge in her work.)

Most surprising of all: Where’s Waldo?. Seriously? Waldo?!


Turns out that among the umpteen bjillion tiny figures that Martin Handford used to hide Waldo, is a woman sunbathing topless, on a beach. Facedown, originally, she has been surprised into exposing herself by an ice-cream wielding young boy. No need to waste your time searching for the titillating little tidbit; here it is:

Sadly, after controversy bubbled up over this image in the original, 1987 edition of Where’s Waldo, illustrations were modified to eliminate the bather (I just checked my kids’ copy which, amazingly, is from 1987, and she is still there in all her glory). Not to worry though: the would-be censors overlooked various other savory tidbits in Handford’s various Waldo books, from human sacrifice to tranvestitism to torture-as-entertainment, all highlighted in this Toplessrobot blog post from a few years back. Unchallenged, it would seem that none of these offenses is quite as dangerous or subversive as a breast, though. Go figure.

Behind The Scenes

Last Friday night was one of our favorite annual Philly events: MEMBERS’ NIGHT at the Academy of Natural Sciences (now of Drexel University). Every year for one night in September, the Museum stays open late. From 5pm to 9pm, they invite members in, and scientists and researchers and students and volunteers stay for the evening. They unlock the doors to their back offices and labs and storage rooms, and visitors get to to stroll “Behind the Scenes” and dig in to a whole range of cool science demonstrations and activities.

ANSP diorama

Our favorites this year ranged from the lighter — climbing into a diorama and dusting dinosaur skeletons (a perennial favorite among the younger set) — to the more serious: making microscope slides of water samples from nearby creeks and searching for diatoms; watching the dissection of a giant chiton; talking birds with a team of scientists as they taxidermied new specimens; and chatting with Curator-Entymologist Greg Cowper about a species of island-dwelling walking stick once thought to be extinct that — thanks to a bunch of super-zealous rock climbers trying to summit another island outcrop in the region — was later rediscovered.


A diatom from the Monoshone Creek in NW Philly.

If you’re accustomed to going to the Academy on a regular day, and are familiar with the front of the house, Members’ Night reminds you that what you see out there is just the tip of the iceberg, collections-wise. And, you develop this sense that the exhibits are really a freeze-frame of the living, growing, evolving hotbed of research and study that exists both behind and beyond. The generations of boxes and jars and shelves, filled with endless specimens and marked with handwritten labels in unimaginably beautiful script, remind you of the institution’s history too.  (The ANSP was the first Institution of its sort in the US; founded in 1812, it was formed more than 50 years before the AMNH in New York and almost 100 years before the Smithsonian’s NMNH in D.C.)

Each Members’ Night, Academy Fisheries Scientist Paul Overbeck is posted out front with a boat and a collection of creatures pulled from nearby waterways, and Museum Director and CEO George W. Gephart stands right inside, greeting visitors personally. And I think they actually remember us! 

One year, we were visiting with Ichthyologists, looking at jar upon jar of preserved sea creatures, and we asked a question about the dwindling population of sturgeon in the nearby Delaware River. We ended up being led through a warren of back hallways and stairs, turning on lights as we went, and down into a basement room where across from a sailfish (that my kids remember fondly), sat a dusty, taxidermied sturgeon that had been pulled from the Delaware sometime in the 1800’s. That jaunt became legend in our house, and was dubbed ‘The Behind the Behind the Scenes’ tour.

The whole experience reminds me of From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (by E.L. Konigsburg) or Dogs Night (by Meredith Hooper) or The Night at the Museum (by Milan Trenc — yes, it was a book first). All these books trade in ideas of off-hours, secret goings-on in esteemed museums, and their stories let kids in on those unexpected worlds. ANSP’s Members’ Night shares the magic of those fictional stories. And on top of that, the narratives that kids discover and tap into at Members’ Night involve both real, tangible work and the adventures and discovery and wonders of the natural world. And, honestly, things don’t get much more magical than that. (And apropos of that magic: check out Richard Conniff’s lovely Opinionator piece from last Sunday’s NYTimes, “Useless Creatures“.)

Sudipta is at it Again…


Remember that great, on-line, month-long “Character Building” workshop I did this summer? Well, one of its co-organizers, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, is at it again. This time, with PICTURE BOOK A to Z’s: PLOTTING IN PICTURE BOOKS (class starts October 6).

Sudipta is accomplished, sharp, high-energy and — one of my favorite of her qualities — has a nice edge.

Register before Sept 20 get a free 20 minute critique with Sudipta plus a chance to win a free critique from her agent!




Sendak Recalled



Sendak’s final illustration in Else Holmelund Minarik’s FATHER BEAR COMES HOME

So, having babbled  here a couple of weeks ago about the Rosenbach Museum & Sendak, I am so sad to pass along this headline from yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Bulk of Sendak collection leaving Rosenbach”

It seems that Sendak’s bequest to the Rosenbach was not a bequest at all — but just a loan.

His estate is recalling most of the Sendak papers, drawings and other documents currently in the Rosenbach’s possession, as it works out plans to convert Sendak’s former Connecticut home into a still-being-fleshed out study center/museum.

There are new, fantastic gifts arriving from the Sendak estate for the Rosenbach: rare Melvilles and Blakes and more from Sendak’s own collections. And there is a stipulation in Sendak’s will that the Rosenbach and the estate continue to work together, so hopefully some of Sendak’s own work will continue to travel the I-95 corridor, on loan.

Meanwhile: all the more reason to get to the Rosenbach and check out Sendak in the 60’s — while it’s still hanging. (until November 2)


Last Saturday morning, before anyone else in the house was up, I made a quick run out to the garden to pick some sorrel and lemon verbena. (Sorrel for sorrel soup — a total summer favorite around here — and lemon verbena for iced tea.) “The garden” is Corinthian Gardens, a community garden 3 blocks from my house that I’ve been helping start with a bunch of other neighbors over the past several years. We’ve designed it as a public, “edible forest garden” — with permaculture beds full of edibles and native perennial and woody plants that are publicly accessible, as well as private, individual plots for 70 households to tend in exchange for maintaining the entire space. We’ve included a giant sandbox and nature play area, seating, and nice patches of lawn. The process of getting Corinthian Gardens up and running (this spring was our first official season) has been amazing.

Corinthian Gardens, 4/22/2014 (photo by Rosemarie diAlba)

Corinthian Gardens, 4/22/2014 (photo: Rosemarie d’Alba)


Corinthian Gardens 9/7/2014 (photo: Paul Nestor)

The garden’s .66 acre is a long wedge; it sits on a plinth about 4 feet above the adjacent sidewalk and runs alongside the massive stone wall of the amazing and historic Eastern State Penitentiary. Two times a year the sidewalks around Eastern State and the garden become a flea market, and Saturday was once of those times. After I collected my bounty I had no choice but to troll a few blocks of wares.

It was early, and many vendors were still unloading their trucks, so the press of goods and people was not too overwhelming. At one relatively empty table along the way a guy was laying out three shallow baskets filled with paper ephemera — items that looked as if they’d been harvested from photo albums and scrapbooks. I paused, thinking I might poke around for some tall tale postcards, but quickly saw that his collection was more photo-heavy. Then this photo caught my eye.


I’m not sure what it was about this trio that grabbed me. It may have been the way that all three are responding — in their body language — so differently to one another and/or the camera: the man, almost puppydog-ish in attention, mouth open and hands pressed between gangly knees, his body facing front but his head turned ninety degrees; the middle woman sitting up straight, arms stiff and supporting, legs stuck straight out in front, looking directly across the pool — maybe at the camera — her ankles rolled out in a gesture that I always associate with nervousness; and the other woman, Gatsby-esque and so full of ease with legs crossed and dress draped, facing the first too with full body and gesticulating as she speaks. Clearly she is the one — at this moment — who is in control, is the center of attention.

At first I took the water they were sitting by to be a pool, but the coping is so substantial — maybe it is a public fountain. No matter though: as I studied the image, questions about relationships and ideas about details started bubbling up in my mind. And I was reminded of an exercise that a writing friend, Christine, once told me she had done at a workshop.

In the exercise, Christine and the other workshop participants were each handed a photo and simply told to write, based on the photo. There may have been more direction than that — I’m not sure. But her photo was of a young boy and, as she tells it, the child who emerged on her paper that day has stayed with her in her work to this day.

With my summer’s focus on character development, and Christine’s story in mind, I began to troll through the trays with more purpose, looking especially for potential characters. The photos seemed like great things to have around when at a loss during daily free writing.

I went through the baskets on gut — not forcing myself to know outright why I liked any particular image, but just setting aside the ones that grabbed me. When I finished sorting I had a pile of 26 photos: most of them of people, usually (but not always) posed, all of them black and white, and most from the 1940’s and 50’s. All for just $2 — a bargain.

Yesterday I spent a half an hour with these two: one, of a lilac tree and a falling down shed, the other of two young women — sisters maybe — posing and laughing in a landscape that is cleared and tiered — with a built-but-unlit campfire set up behind them. From these two photos came a sketch about a pair of sisters sent to live, for the summer, on a family farm in a house now full of quirky-personalitied great-aunts and uncles… We’ll see if it goes anywhere. But in any case, it was fun.

 SCN_0007 SCN_0005

My kids have taken to the photo pile too. Their favorite so far is this girl, who they have dubbed — no wonder — “Harry Potter’s sister.”

The Morals of the Stories

This summer I read Little Women out loud to my two daughters. With its occasional mention of a higher power, and regular discussion of how to treat others and what  should and should not matter in life, it felt dated — like something of a time capsule. But, to my surprise, I felt a sense of relief reading it too, like some weight had been moved from my shoulders onto the book’s.


Louisa May Alcott published Little Women in 1868/1869. The expectations and norms for women in that period make it a no brainer that bookish, reform-minded, marriage-resistant Jo would become modern readers’ favorite. The political-correct-itude (or lack thereof) of the book notwithstanding, its moralizing and lesson-teaching hit a nerve. A notion runs through the book that one should always be trying to do and be better. And this is something that you don’t see much in kids fiction these days, to the degree and in the manner that it is present here.

It’s not that morality is dead: values and morality are there in modern fiction at all levels — they’re just usually more implicit. Thankfully, contemporary fiction enters complex social and political territory that it never would have years ago. Head-on discussion and directives about what it means to be a “good” person and how to behave are way out of fashion though: in our more secular age, you find conversation of that sort relegated to explicitly religious books.

There are still books around that address behavior — like Aliki’s Manners or Jane Yolen’s How Do Dinosaurs… books — but they are about manners, not morals, and the questions they raise tend to be strictly rhetorical. (There is a developmental piece here, to be sure: Little Women is aimed at an older audience and you can’t expect a solid debate about self-sacrifice among the 3 year old set. Discussion of dinosaur eating habits is much more on target.)


I am a huge believer in progressive, constructivist approaches to learning — in not simply thwunking people over the head with information or ideas. So I was surprised to find this more didactic approach to moral thinking appealing. It seems so old school.

The musings of Mrs. March, the little women, and the narrator regularly refer back to various ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’. A typical admonishment from Mrs. March reads:

Have regular hours for work and play, make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you undertand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will be delightful, old age will bring few regrets, and life become a beautiful success, in spite of poverty.


In reading, I found that such directives of Mrs. March’s, as well as her daughters’ discussions, focused our attention in ways that the morality implicit in characters’ actions or decisions which we are more familiar with does not — and so led us into different sorts of conversations. My progressive leanings aside, I also know from my own experience as a learner that a clear, articulate set of rules or codes is a great thing to bounce your own thoughts off  and to use to help figure out what you actually believe.

In the midst of mulling these questions of morality in kidlit I happened to hear an episode of WBUR Boston’s On Point, about morals (or lack thereof) in US football. Guests Steve Almond (author of Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto), David Steele (columnist for Sporting News), and Nate Jackon (former NFL player and author of Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile) talked about myriad ways that the sport and its culture exhibit values that are questionable at best — all driving home the fact that in our consumer culture, concerns about the morality of football take a backseat to consumer desire and market interests. The show reminded: morality is not sexy, is not fun and does not sell. (Except maybe in the land of the televangelist.)

What’s so refreshing about Little Women is not so much the specific values and morals that the books professes, but the fact that it engages in this sort of conversation at all. And while I don’t have plans to rush out to read Pilgrim’s Progress (the Christian allegory is a reference point for the first book of Little Women), it was a nice change to have someone else — some fictional someones — starting these conversations so directly with my kids.