The Little Prince

littleprinceOver the last few nights I read classic book The Little Prince to Byron. I had offered to read it numerous times and he always protested, but I wore him down. He listened patiently and quietly. He commented on the pictures but rarely the text. However, last night he didn’t want me to stop reading and we saw it through the end. When asked later how he liked it, he said “It was actually pretty good. I didn’t think it would be that good.” But how much the book’s profound truths affected him, I don’t know.

Maybe that’s a strange thing to say of a book that is explicitly about what children and understand and adults do not: the difference between a hat and a snake digesting an elephant, for instance. And the satire on various kinds of grown-up, like the businessman and the geographer, gets at how we self-important adults must seem to children. Yet The Little Prince is also a story about possessive love, and about loss, and about the devastating sadness of growing up. These are aspects that children must not grasp.

97ff5cd3bd35dcfdd6d49f39e0ec4c31One idea I have been turning over in my head for two days, and which eluded me as a child, is that The Little Prince is also about the very act of creating art for children. Just after meeting the narrator, the little prince orders him to draw a sheep. The narrator complies, though several in a row are rejected. And even when the prince finally accepts one, he voices concern that the sheep will eat his flower: an anthropomorphized being on his home planet whom he loves and cares for absolutely. So the narrator draws a muzzle.

c555fb43d65a5a0281c9d1f8b28983c4The narrator does not question that the sheep really exists and might do harm. Indeed, he worries at the end that he has not drawn the muzzle correctly, that the sheep will escape and eat the flower, and that the little prince will be bereft.

Over the past year I have followed the roiling debate about children’s books and the harm they might do; I have been skeptical at times at the insistence that books can do real  harm, like a blow to the head. And so it is revelatory to read this book. I marvel at how the child insists on a sheep despite the risks: children intuitively know what art they need. I marvel, too, at how the narrator accepts responsibility for the dangers his art poses, and worries later that his carelessness will lead to heartbreak and misery.

I have never had such conviction in the realness of my art, nor have I stared up at the stars and wondered if my sheep has eaten a flower. Perhaps if I had such convictions and concerns, I would have written a book as magical and timeless as The Little Prince.

 

Chanceless American Boys

I have been thinking about this tweet since I saw it a week ago.

boys

(I obscured the name and face because it is imitating a real person/celebrity who I’m sure wants nothing to do with it.)

This is a trollish tweet in a stream of invective, but revealing and seemingly autobiographical. We learn so much about this fellow from one angry tweet. We can guess at his family life and academic career. Nobody with a satisfying career or healthy relationships would brood over being “manipulated and humiliated.”

In the early 1990s there was a popular book by a very well-respected poet named Robert Bly called Iron John, that was rooted in the same anxiety; not just that women were moving into leadership roles both inside and outside the home (“managerial moms”) but that there is a lack of good fathering (whether “deadbeat dad” is simply not around or is so exhausted by life that he doesn’t know how to steer his sons into a happier manhood).

Like a lot of young men of my generation, I still felt like a boy in my mid-20s and was struggling feeling like a “grown up,” without a war or adventure to season my soft life. I didn’t have a great relationship with my dad and was never “one of the guys” in male-bonding rituals. The book echoed some of my anxieties, but I didn’t think ceremonial campouts with bonfires and fairytales would help. And it’s hard to argue that the book isn’t a branch of the same tree that bore the toxic fruit above; but in the tweet the central trope of Iron John is stripped of all poetry and reduced to its essence, like a snappish wounded animal.

The entire misogynistic enterprise of “men’s rights” both repudiates Bly’s book and validates it. This is where these fatherless, emasculate-feeling boys go if not treated: to packs of other wounded boys to contrive myths about feminism, to threaten and harass women, and to become dangerous to themselves and others. I do not think the feeling of chancelessness has anything to do with the chances given to girls, but blame is always attractive to people who feel like they are failing at life.

As a writer I am interested in this theme of boys becoming men, and the presence or absence of fathers, and the different modes of manhood that a boy might follow. It is one of those themes I discovered after having written several books and now attend to more consciously.

Iron John explores this theme through mythic archetype. I’ve also been inspired by the work of William Brozo, who seems to get inspiration from Iron John but considers multiple archetypes and connects them with novels for children and teens. Brozo led me to think more consciously of the men my literary boys are becoming, and I’ve thought about it more explicitly in my last few books, beginning with The Tanglewood Terror. 

For me, feeling more like a man came not through war or ceremony, but from becoming a parent and losing one. Taking care of others, and especially taking better care of myself. I came to understand that the rootlessness of young men comes not from feminism, but from the toxicity of masculinity, which tends to steer young men away from self-care and nurturing, and toward recklessness and the conquering of weaker things.

I dare say I have stumbled across an actual goal for writing for children that isn’t purely instinctive, I would like to reach these boys before they become this kind of man.

Locker Room Talk & Silence

Locker Room

The news broke Friday that a recording had been found from nearly ten years ago with a presidential candidate saying coarse things about women, basically admitting to sexual assault in the crudest of ways, and the journalist he was talking to (who was, absurdly, the nephew of the then sitting president) laughing and echoing the sentiments. It’s hard stuff to defend, but to the extent anyone tried to deflect it, it was dismissed as mere “guy talk,” the kind of banter you hear in locker rooms.

It’s not rare. I go to a gym, and encounter a lot of these older guys (heck, I’m practically one of them). The talk is more often veiled (or unveiled) racism than sexism, which probably has to do with my age group. But whether it is misogynistic or racist, locker rooms are apparently a “safe place” for men to be “themselves” and therefore not held accountable for anything they say.

The question is, when you’re in such a place, what is your responsibility? I rarely speak up. I listen uncomfortably, give milquetoast responses, and ease out of the situation as quickly as possible. My instincts are for “flight,” not for “fight.” I rationalize that anything I say will lead to defensive hostility rather than changing anyone’s mind. I can’t say I’m concerned about my physical safety, exactly, but I know I’ll be yelled at and called names, and that’s enough to dissuade me. Memories are triggered of middle school and high school and even college, when because of my size and frailty I wasn’t really one of the guys. I walk away with sickness in my stomach.

But is it OK to remain silent? I think without social proximity, it is unlikely to be an effective ally. At the same time, I know how weasly that sounds. As a person of privilege who is quickly taken into the confidence of other people of privilege, I have a power to speak up.

At the same time I think “calling out” strangers in this way simply sets rules of discourse: don’t talk like that. But social proximity gives someone the ability to address a friend’s inner toxicity: here’s why you shouldn’t think like that. That takes work, empathic listening, and thoughtful responses. So while there’s an importance to speaking up and even calling out, the real work is in having a conversation.

So I realize the real responsibility here is to actually get to know these guys and talk to them. I’ll try harder.

The Biggest Lie of the Election

This election has no shortage of lies and it’s not my job to dispel them, but I want to address one I think cuts to the very center of the election and the entire political enterprise. Donald Trump was accused of gaming the system to avoid taxes, and he said “that makes me smart,” a position he has since elaborated on, declaring himself a downright genius for avoiding taxes. No doubt lots of people believe him, and regard him with even more hero worship. Surely a genius who gets out of paying taxes (legally) is so super-smart on economics he’ll fix everything with genius magic, right?

Owl (Public Domain)

Wrong. Donald Trump didn’t use highly complicated tax trickery to get out of paying taxes. He simply took advantage of the system that is already built to help the rich and powerful. He played by the rules, but the rules are unfair in his favor.

Declaring himself “smart” is meant to reassure his voters that the rich and powerful deserve to be rich and powerful, and that this is a meritocracy; that those opportunities exist for everyone and the deserving smart discover them and take advantage.

Sorry, no. The loopholes he exploited aren’t available to you, only to the very rich. He didn’t cheat the system; the system is working exactly as it is supposed to and serving the people it was designed to serve.

 

One of 10,000 Takes

I started writing a longish blog entry about my son’s start at Kindergarten, but decided to send it to the Minneapolis Star Tribune for their 10,000 Takes series instead… and here it is.

About My Next Book and Cultural Appropriation

One of my first serious long literary endeavors was a novella, submitted as my undergraduate thesis in 1990. It was called Where the Buffalo Roamed and had intersecting stories of young adults in Grand Forks, North Dakota, including a young man named Delano who was half Native American and half African American. My thesis advisor was a writer named Annie Dawid, and she grilled me about this character. I don’t think she used the phrase “cultural appropriation,” but it was the first time I was exposed to the idea that white people ought not to write about other cultures, or that they at least better have a good reason for doing so.

I did not have a good reason, damned or otherwise, but I was defensive about it. I was pretty thin-skinned at the time. But over time I did understand where Dawid was coming from and, moreover, came to appreciate that the character’s racial identity wasn’t very well explained or described, just a passing description. I probably gave more narrative attention to the battered field jacket he wore, which was based on a jacket I wore myself at the time. It’s easier to write about a jacket you’ve lived in than a skin you have not.

I’m now grateful that Dawid mentored me that year on cultural sensitivity, because she pushed me in ways my advisor (who was on sabbatical), John Little, never would have. Creatively I had been doing a lot of that impulsively — writing inauthentic Chinese fairy tales, for example. And those stories tended to leave me the most satisfied at the time and earn the most praise. It was hard to let go but over time I was simply less moved to write in that vein and more aware of the issues behind mining other cultures for inspiration. By the time I was actually getting published my characters looked like me.

But a few years ago I became interested in the intense way kids play baseball in the Dominican Republic, the fervor that grips the country, and the sacrifices they make in pursuit of their dreams. I was casting about for a new story and since Mudville is my most successful book, thinking I really needed to get back to baseball. I imagined a boy who was ambitious even by D.R. standards, who made up for a lack of natural talent with sheer determination. I imagined a best friend who had a natural gift as a teammate and friend but not the same talent and ambition (in that regard, resurrecting a theme of Mudville). Usually the difference between an idea for a book and writing a book is the characters, and these kids stayed in my head.

So, I wrote that book.

Dominican boy with a baseball bat
Photo by Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons.

By virtue of the fact that they are Dominican, these boys are Latino and of African descent. I’m obviously neither of those things, and in fact have never been to the Dominican Republic. I know it was audacious, but sometimes writers have to go where the heat is. Unlike Delano, their identity is essential to the story and to their characters. I did a lot of research, and found readers from the D.R., and tried to be accurate. I probably made mistakes (I make mistakes writing about my own life), but I dare say I did no harm, reinforced no stereotypes, and exploited no tragedy. But as I plugged along with the book I kept wondering if Rafael’s story was my story to tell, and if people would declare that it wasn’t. I wondered if insult and harm would necessarily be visible to the author. I knew eventually I would have to answer questions about it. Why this story, or, put another way, why this author?

This was a big week for discussions about cultural appropriation so it was more on my mind than usual, as I was finishing up copy edits and retooling the ending and getting excited for cover art. I’ve posted a couple of times about facebook, and one invited a thoughtful response from Michael Kleber-Diggs.

There are two general but tall hurdles to clear in order to do so. First… you actually have to love those characters. Your motivations in writing about them have to be scrutinized thoughtfully (ideally by zealous and ‘woke’ first readers). You have to inhabit that experience as fully as you can. You have to convey a high degree of care. The characters need to be essential to the story. They need to exist on the page like they are essential.

Second, the writer has to be able to clear that first hurdle. They need to be able to answer the question Bill Cheng isolated so well [in this article] – why does the writer want to tell these stories?

It’s a good set of criteria, but ultimately the readers will have to decide if I’ve written with care, or needed to write this book… which readers do for every book. If it isn’t self-evident, then my protests and explanations are irrelevant. If it is, they aren’t needed.

 

 

Tall Mouse & Short Mouse

3833115430_c4dae9baacTonight I was reading Arnold Lobel’s Mouse Tales to Byron. There’s a story about Tall Mouse and Short Mouse; they talk a walk together and see different things. Like a lot of Lobel, it seems light but it also kinda runs deep.

Because there’s a simple truth to this story that so few people understand, and I myself frequently forget. People have different truths because they have different experiences. They may walk the same path and yet take — in every measurable way — completely different walks. They might arrive with different truths. If you’ve only seen the birds and the flowers, you simply don’t know how other people walk among the roots and beetles.

Also, the story has a nice message about privilege.When there’s a view only Very Tall Mouse can enjoy, he doesn’t hesitate to lift his friend to share it. Not only does it bring equity to the relationship, it allows Tall Mouse to share the experience.

Somebody has probably written a 100,000 word novel to arrive at the same truth that Lobel nailed in a few sentences. Heck, people live their whole lives without attaining that truth that Lobel reveals to children in a few sentences.