Friday, November 27, 2009

The Immigrant Story

The Lleshi family’s story in Katherine Paterson’s novel The Day of the Pelican seems especially appropriate at this Thanksgiving time, when so many of us think about our own families coming to this country as immigrants. Many families, like the Lleshis, could not speak the language or understand the subtleties of the culture when they first arrived here. What is it like for Baba, the head of his household, to have to rely on his children to translate for him, not only the language but also a gesture or custom? What is it like to watch your children set aside many of the things you’ve taught them in favor of new friends, new fads, new values?

As much as he wants his children to excel in their new surroundings, Baba also wants them to honor their family’s traditions, and these two desires are not always an easy fit. Assimilation often trumps tradition. In Pelican, Katherine Paterson explores the complexities of these competing influences. After the events of 9/11, Meli and Mehmet’s teammates lash out at them—verbally in Meli’s case, and physically in Mehmet’s case—because they are Muslim. Neither of them wishes to return to school, but Baba tells them they must. The teens’ coaches pay a call at the Lleshi home, apologize to Mr. and Mrs. Lleshi and tell them that they will remove the offending students from the team. But Baba tells the coaches that such a step would seed more hatred toward Meli and Mehmet. “My children are strong,” he says. “They have endured many hard things in their short lives. They can also endure this.” In her interview (below), Katherine Paterson discusses the importance of the scene between Baba and the coaches, and the respect these coaches gain for Mr. Lleshi.

It is the immigrant story. A family arrives in America to gain a better life for their children. Often the children adapt more readily to the language and ways of their new life. The challenge to the older generation is to keep the family together in the face of these other forces of influence, and the challenge to the new generation is to remember what is important even as they acquire knowledge and skills that will serve them well in their new homeland. The Lleshi family’s story reminds us of the great sacrifice all immigrant families make when they courageously arrive at our borders and on our shores.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Power of Silence

What you notice first about Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse is the beauty of this foreign land. The acacia trees, the many different-colored grasses, the vast sky. There are no words to tell us what to think or where to look. We simply take it in. We begin to notice the creatures that populate this stunning land, and a story begins to take shape in the quiet expanses of his wordless sun-filled watercolors.

Jerry Pinkney lives near a nature preserve, and in this book he recreates that experience of being alone with the quiet. The only sounds are the screech of an owl, the squeak of a mouse, and the growl and roar of the lion. There are so few places today where we can find quiet. We have to seek them out. With cell phones that ring and video games that bleep, and iPods turned up loud enough so that everyone nearby can hear what’s playing, there’s noise everywhere we turn. Even on the bus we’re privy to conversations we’d rather not overhear. The library, the subway, an airplane and driving alone in the car are among the scarce few sanctuaries.

The word sanctuary is sometimes used as an alternative to “nature preserve,” like a “bird sanctuary.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a holy place.” In the quiet, we can also quiet the mind and begin to forget about the office and the grocery store and other daily urgencies. We can begin to focus on the more important things. Ultimately, Jerry Pinkney’s book reminds us of how attentive we become in the quiet. We pay attention. We notice body language and facial expressions. We really see each other. When the lion holds the mouse in his paw, looks into her eyes, and truly sees the mouse, he does not wish to harm her. Her life is valuable, too. He lets her go. This kind of close attention is the greatest gift you can give a child. To truly see him or her, to engage, to be fully available and present when you’re together.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday: It’s for all Americans of every faith and culture, for families generations-old and immigrant-new; the emphasis is on preparing and sharing a meal together, and telling stories; the holiday itself is named for gratitude. May you and your family find some sanctuary this Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Developing a Sense of Humor

Children begin to take in a great deal of information very early on.

They know that if they eat all of the food that’s good for them, they will get dessert. They stretch the limits of bedtime by making acceptable requests, such as, "May I have a glass of water?" "Would you read one more story?" and "I need to go to the bathroom." Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jen Corace’s books are spot-on because they begin with the everyday routines that even youngest readers can recognize, and upend the logic. Little Pea hates sweets, Little Hoot loves bedtime, and Little Oink keeps his room spotless. It’s the adults who break the rules.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with Leonard S. Marcus, the renowned children's books scholar, who has been co-teaching a class with a child psychiatrist at New York University, and who recently wrote a book called Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy. We were talking about the age at which children start to understand certain kinds of humor, such as parody or satire. “With very very young children, they start off just wanting to know things, like the names for things,” Leonard said. “Once they get to the point where they’re starting to get the hang of that, there seems to be an impulse to go beyond it, and begin to play with the things they know. So they’re no longer cut-and-dry facts, but they’re things that can be manipulated, which implies a kind of mastery.”

What surprised me, but made perfect sense when Leonard explained it, was how early in a child’s development this occurs. “When a child is about a year and a half old, they might point to a dog and say, 'cat,' and that’s the beginning of humor and nonsense. And what a powerful statement that is for them. It’s designed to make the person listening--probably a parent--laugh, and to produce a smile on another person’s face. That’s a huge accomplishment for a little child, and it’s one of the best experiences you could ever have. You’ve given pleasure to the person who’s taking care of you. That’s wonderful. And once you’ve had that experience, you want to do it more.”

It seemed to me that what Leonard was describing also could explain, at least in part, a child wanting to read a book over and over again. That, too, would contribute to a sense of “mastery” of a favorite book, knowing what to expect and then playing with the things they know. The child wants to be in charge of the timing of the page turn, and the delivery of the punch line. And what a wonderful thing that is for all of us watching this child develop his or her own sense of humor, as he or she takes “the cut-and-dry facts” and begins to play.

Friday, November 6, 2009

War and Youth

In Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld takes a real situation—the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who advocated for peace—and follows its repercussions through the lives of two fictional 15-year-olds: the Archduke’s son, Alek, and Deryn Sharp, who disguises herself as a 16-year-old boy named Dylan in order to enlist in the Royal Air Service. Yes, elements of the book are fantastical (the giant armored Stormwalker; the living breathing hybrid Leviathan), but the atmosphere of war and the way that war makes everyone a suspect is real.

Young people have always fought our wars, from the Revolutionary War to the Great War to the Vietnam War right through today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Young men (and likely young women) have often lied about their age in order to enlist. Like Alek and Deryn, many of them are just teenagers, idealistic and invincible, when they risk their lives.

Westerfeld sweeps us up in his tale of an orphaned teenage boy—who may or may not be acknowledged as the heir to the Hapsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian throne—thrust into a war by forces outside his control. Deryn, seeking excitement and the chance to be airborne, winds up at the epicenter of what would become the Great War. But Alek and Deryn’s predicament shares a great deal in common with the situations of real young men and women who enlist: They don’t know what they’re in for until they get there. In one of the most powerful scenes in the novel, Alek must deal with an array of feelings after he kills a young soldier in hand-to-hand combat.

Leviathan is a grand adventure story with cool machinery and fascinating creatures, conflict and a whiff of romance. But Westerfeld’s genius—as he’s proven in many of his other novels—is that he uses story as a way into thinking about the deeper issues that haunt human beings: the need to be accepted (So Yesterday), to be beautiful (the Uglies series), to be patriotic (Leviathan). While he holds teens in the grip of his stories, he asks them to question prevailing societal attitudes and to think about whether these hold value or meaning for them as individuals.