Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir in verse by Jacqueline Woodson. Like Gary Soto and Sandra Cisneros, Woodson here works in a niche of narrative poetry that is accessible to wary readers. The poems lure the reader in with their openness and brevity, and do a lot of work in a few frank lines.

In one sequence of verses, she recounts living with her grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. Her family takes risks and makes sacrifices to support the marchers.

So there’s a war going on in South Carolina, 
and even as we play
and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.

Yet her mother forbids her from playing with certain children, and reprimands her brother for using “ain’t,” and worries about children born in the north being reclaimed by the south; the fight for equality is layered with elitism within the African American community. Woodson lays it out like a documentarian, for readers to digest and discuss. As I read it, my mind buzzed with interior discussion.

Their lives are sometimes subsumed by history; other times, history is subsumed by their lives. As Jackie’s grandfather gets sick and her grandmother becomes immersed in religion, the Civil Rights movement is forgotten. Jackie resumes normal childhood concerns like ribbons and swing sets, chaffing under the demands and restrictions of her family’s religion, and grappling with jealousy of a new baby brother. The family moves to New York, back to Greenville, back to New York. Woodson writes of simple pleasures and sudden tragedies in the same matter-of-fact style.

The uniting theme in Brown Girl Dreaming is stories themselves: Stories told from parent to child, grandparent to child, child to grandparent, sibling to sibling and neighbor to neighbor. Bible stories and family legend blend into gossip and town folklore. Stories are read aloud to while away long bus trips. A school teacher captivates a class with one of my own favorite poems. The girl Jackie loves to listen, and becomes a storyteller herself before she can write.

[. . . ] each new story 
I’m told becomes a thing
that happens,
In some other way
to me. . . !

I experience this with my own pre-literature son, who is not pre-narrative. We comb through photo albums and as we tell him about our lives before him, the places we’ve been and people he knew, he spins back his own stories about them. He’s been to Milwaukee, he tells us, with his not-imaginary ant friends Biggie and Buggy and they stayed in a big hotel inside the museum that looks like a bird. He remembers marmalade-colored Maxx, the kitty who died four years before he was born. Our stories become his stories, and who’s to say he’s wrong? Perhaps our lives imprint our DNA, and pass on to our children.

Later passages describe Woodson’s love for books, the facility of telling stories and the difficulty of writing them, but of course we know by then that Woodson grows up to be a great writer indeed. This is a remarkably ego-less memoir, one that is generous to family and friends, to teachers and to history, and especially to readers. It invites readers to do what Woodson has done: to compose a poem about first memories, to write what you know of your great-grandparents, to see yourself in the grand scheme of things, to recount the stories from your faith and your favorite fables, and fashion them into a story of yourself.

In the year of the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag, I have seen no more compelling a case for that principle than Ashley Ford’s lovely tribute to Maya Angelou.

The year I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, I was in the fourth grade, and I read the book from cover to cover in a near constant state of anxiety. I felt exposed, but for the first time in my life, I also felt seen, fully and without a way to cover myself. Back then, I didn’t think about the authors of what I read, just the stories they created. My books were sanctuaries. This Maya Angelou woman was inside my head, and she was telling on me.

It is hard to read Brown Girl Dreaming without thinking of that book, or thinking that this is that kind of book, one which will be around for decades and have a constant presence in classrooms around the country, and make its way into the hands of young readers who need it, and inspire them to take up writing and dreaming. It’s got a lot of award buzz, and deservedly so, but I honestly think it’s bigger than that.

On “the way I was raised”

I generally don’t write about topical events because (a) everybody else is doing it, (b) those articles age badly, and (c) it feels like exploiting tragedy for page views. And yet the story about [famous person] who took a switch to his child has been on my mind since I first heard the news. I was a fan of [famous person] and am reeling from the details, but it affects me on a deeper level than other weekly outrages.

This is what I would tell [famous person], who asserts that he was raised this way and feels obliged to do the same, to raise his kids right.

I might as well come clean and tell you all that I once swatted my son twice on the bottom after he threw a toy monster truck at his mother’s face from point-blank range. She yelped, I swept him up and gave him two raps on the hind quarters. He cried and went to his room, and his mother went to console him. They soothed each other, the two victims of sudden violence, while I fumed outside the room in exile, feeling like a monster.

I haven’t done it since, but I’ve fancied plenty of times that a spanking would bring climax and denouement to a rough evening, that it would instill a feeling of reverential fear in my child, that it is at least worth a try after everything else had failed. I don’t follow through because I don’t want to relive that aftermath, the shame of having failed my wife and my child, to feel like a fugitive in my own family.

I didn’t get that many spankings as a kid. I remember one for playing with matches, and that wasn’t the only one, but I don’t remember what provoked the others. However, my brothers and I did live in constant fear of our father’s temper. We were like villagers in the valley beneath a volcano, treading and speaking lightly, watching for signs of a pending  eruption. When our father yelled, he yelled loud and long. We would have to stand, listening, shifting our weight from one foot to the other, and maintain a look of grim shame. I had a bad habit of realizing the absurd humor of my own predicament and smirking, which would make my father double-down in his torrent of verbal abuse.

I know I am not a better person for that experience. I did “turn out OK,” as so many advocates for spanking insist they have. Every day I try to ignore the knot of shame that experience gave me. I live with the nervous fear that people will yell at me, that I will be chastised, that I will have to stand there and take it and try not to smile.

And yet I know the ease with which we become our own fathers, the quickness to which “the way I was raised” becomes a defense for our own weak moments, when we let the shame and anger and fury control us. I have totally lost my cool, harangued my son, and been egged on to more rage when he giggled or smirked at my ludicrous behavior. I know the temptation to re-invent our weakness as strategy, to frame it as “discipline,” to summon up the wraiths of the anarchists and narcissists our children will become if we spare the rod or hard words.

Humans are storytellers, and our first stories are about ourselves. We learn to boast about our scars, make bad experiences into humorous anecdotes. We forget the hurt and replace it with sentimentality, take shame and replace it with dignity. We recast our parents as tough loving saints, who blinked back tears while they took us behind the mythic toolshed. We pretend there was no anger in their actions, and that our suffering made us into better men and women.

But it does not make us better parents, no matter how much we kid ourselves. “The way we were raised,” is not a sacred obligation to raise our own children the same way. Because we “turned out OK,” putting our broken selves back together with spit and optimism, does not mean we were raised right and need to keep up the family tradition.

We tell stories about ourselves, but we get to choose what our stories are and how they will guide us. We can romanticize the past and relive it, or reimagine the future and create it.

Recent Reads

While re-reading the stories from Klickitat Street I also read — for the first time — Dear Mr. Henshaw, Beverly Cleary’s Newbery-Award winning book. I was never sure why that book, of her forty, was the one to win the big prize and suspected it was more randomly selected for someone who was long overdue. I think there must have been a little bit of that, but I see how Dear Mr. Henshaw is the most Newberyish of her books. Light humor tends not to be taken seriously, and this one has a lonelier, sadder boy than we find on Klickitat Street, a hero that feels transposed from a Betsy Byars novel. Mr. Henshaw doesn’t have much presence in the book; it’s just a setup for an epistolary novel with a few winks from an author who knows the kinds of letters authors get from kids. It is her only book (I think) in the first person, so it has quite a different voice for her, and is also a tad more serious. The raw and honest way this boy misses his dad is one of the best treatments I’ve seen of divorce in a children’s book (the other that comes to mind is Laurel Snyder’s Bigger than a Breadbox.) Divorce has become so commonplace that it is now treated matter-of-factly, even lightly, but Dear Mr. Henshaw shows the confusion and hurt a child feels, especially when one parent doesn’t really want to be a major part of the kid’s life.

I think of my own first book and how glibly I treat the mother’s absence in the book. Now, I think the relationship with the dad is one of the best things I’ve done as a writer, so I’m not selling my own book short, but I do not address the serious hole a missing parent leaves in a kid’s life until late in the book, and then very casually.

Anyway, Dear Mr. Henshaw is quite good, and when you think of how long a shadow Ms. Cleary cast over the era of children’s literature, a Newbery was definitely deserved. 

Coincidentally another book about a child’s friendship with an author fell into my lap at the same time, Beetle Boy  by Margaret Willey. Charlie is also from a “broken home,” as they used to call it, but his is more broken than others — his father is on the make, both for women and easy money, and includes Charlie in one of his schemes — self-publishing storybooks about a little boy beetle with Charlie as the purported author (the stories themselves stolen from the mother, a secret Charlie keeps to himself, and his father has a heavy hand in the writing). He promotes Charlie as the “world’s youngest author,” coaches him on upbeat answers to questions, and lines him up for school visits and author events. At these events Charlie strikes up a friendship with an award-winning author they call Mrs. M — despite her own coldness toward him and his father, and his father’s downright hostility towards her. Charlie doesn’t have any interest in Mrs. M’s books, but comes increasingly to rely on her. 

As a children’s book author it’s kind of amazing to see an author write about this world of school visits and author events, especially with a dose of cynicism about the whole enterprise. Given the regularity of viral stories about children doing amazing things, the story also has a kind of currency, to consider how such children may be exploited by parents, putting on a show they’d rather not be a part of. It essentially folds a middle grade story into a YA story, which I have not seen before, and the father is one of the most complete (if horrible) parental characters I’ve seen in a YA novel. I think the book turns for me on a scene where Charlie realizes that Mrs. M, too, is lonely and rather broken, that she has to find courage and stamina to go out in public. There’s also a lovely scene where she rescues him in the middle of one of those events, which I won’t describe, but it shows the kind of small-scale heroism and self-sacrifice that make up real lives but usually doesn’t figure into books. It is definitely a unique book. I don’t think you’ll find anything else quite like it.


Henry Huggins

henry hugginsIn the introduction to the fiftieth anniversary edition of Henry Huggins, Beverly Cleary describes sitting down to write what would be her first book. She remembered the boys who used to come into her library and ask, “Where are the books about kids like us?” That was the 1940s, and apparently not many had realistic and imperfect kids, but paragons of the Horatio Alger stamp or fearless adventurers like the Hardy Boys. Cleary decided to write a book about kids like them — city kids without much money — and Henry Huggins was born.

Henry is less developed than Ramona, at least in book one, and Cleary is a less developed writer: Henry doesn’t have the same fine-tuned wit as Ramona, his experiences don’t have the same poignancy, and the book is so much a novel as a collection of stories. Still, there is still a fine, minimalist style and buoyancy that any children’s book author can learn from. While reading I kept in mind that it was a revolutionary turn for a children’s book to have such benign realism, and admire how Cleary is able to give such stories urgency despite the lack of high stakes (to use the fiction-writer’s lingo).

Oh, how I miss books like these, and how I miss childhood like that experienced by the kids of Klickitat. Henry has a lot of autonomy for a city kid who is about nine in the first book, handles his own meager finances, and makes his own fun. His parents give advice and assistance but don’t manage his projects for him. In one chapter they even let him go out at night, unsupervised, to catch worms — this in an urban setting (Portland, Oregon). It’s striking to read about kids who are so independent, and parents who are so trusting. I enjoyed a childhood somewhat like Henry’s, and in fact was inspired by this book to attempt my own nightcrawler hunting business (I caught a lot, but well shy of Henry’s 1300).

I am also struck by the differences in the economics of kidhood. There’s nary a chapter where Henry is not counting pennies. He saves up for small things like footballs or guppies, and while his parents support these endeavors, they don’t buy him stuff willy nilly. The families in both the Henry and Ramona series are thrifty. Nobody would describe them as poor, but they save up for small pleasures and live on tight budgets. They economize and improvise: When Henry has fish, he keeps them in a gallon pickle jar and moves fish with a net made from his mother’s nylons. Even the pets are less spoiled. When he later has pet store credit, he doesn’t know how to use it — his dog has a collar, a leash, and a dish, and that’s everything he needs. Compare that to the pet beds, snacks, and pile of chew-toys of American doghood in the 21st Century.

So the “book about kids like us” may seem exotic to readers in the 20-teens. Based on reviews and gatekeeper feedback on my own books (which typically have Hugginsesque kids off doing stuff on their own), the idea has really taken hold that kids don’t do anything unsupervised (no sandlot ball, and no kids building robots on their own, I’m told). It also seems like even less well-off kids have a load of toys and routinely get for-no-reason presents that Henry would have had to save up for. Well, OK, those assumptions are informed by race and class, but it’s hard to deny that I had more freedom and less stuff than kids of the same middle-class white backgrounds do now. I think Cleary herself mentions that in her New York Times interview from a few years ago.

Wouldn’t kids trade the stuff for the liberty? I know I would have. In fact, as a child I rarely fantasized about things or organized activities. I fantasized about minor adventures like Henry’s, and friends like Henry’s. Even if the modern, pampered, plugged in, and helicoptered kid finds Henry less “relatable” (to use a contentious word) than kids of my era, I hope they’ll be enticed to hunt nightcrawlers or adopt a grubby stray dog on the spot.

A Postcript

Yesterday I listened to an interview with Beverly Cleary on NPR that appeared when the movie Ramona and Beezus came out a couple of years ago. I haven’t seen the movie, but it looks like they were pretty faithful to the source material, but there was an exchange with the director and the author I thought illuminated part of what I was trying to articulate.

Cleary asks the director what she thinks the theme of the books are, and the director replies that the stories are about a girl with a runaway imagination who has trouble getting into the little box the world has made for her. Cleary squints at her and says, they’re about a girl growing up.

Ramona is imaginative, but it’s not really what the books are about. And obviously the director has read them, but she’s speaking to the movie she wants to make, and the movie she thinks kids wants to see, and so picks up on an aspect of the Ramona series and plays it up as the main theme.

Now don’t get me wrong — it looks like a fine movie. Lord knows Disney doesn’t need any flak for making a realistic movie with a non-princess girl as its hero, a book made by a woman and adapted from a work by a woman. Hollywood needs those movies, and kids need those movies. (And really, my bigger question is the wisdom of making the entire series into one movie, because they end up with an eight-year-old doing things a five-year-old did in the books and it makes less sense.) I also get that they want to make movies a good cinematic experience so they’re going to throw in CGI sequences and make a much bigger deal of Ramona’s flights of fancy than they seem to be in the book, just as they did with Bridge over Terabithia (which is much truer to the book than the trailers pretend).

I just thought it illustrated what I was trying to say yesterday. The books show a normal kid with normal problems, but that doesn’t fly anymore so the director guesses it must be some extraordinary aspect of Ramona that makes the books special–a mark of magic on her forehead, so to speak. The story has to be about personal exceptionalism, right? Well, no, said Ms. Cleary. But she was sweet about it.

Homesick for Klickitat Street

When I was a kid there was no children’s writer bigger than Beverly Cleary. Everybody read her books, even the kids who didn’t read. And it was quite all right for boys to read the Ramona books because plenty of boys started with Henry Huggins and simply kept going as the series transitioned. Survey a class anywhere between second and sixth grade who their favorite writer was and half of them would say Beverly Cleary.

Yet, there was practically no merchandising. There were no toys or trapper keepers that I recall. I doubt there were midnight release parties. No movies were made from Cleary’s work until a few years ago, when Ramona and Beezus came out (reversing the names from the first book’s title, but loosely adapted from the entire series). There was a low-key Canadian TV series made of Ramona, but it was hardly a big attempt to cash in on a popular brand. Those were different days, pre-Harry-Potter and pre-Goosebumps, when children’s books were simply children’s books and not properties; readers were simply fans and didn’t comprise fandoms. Children’s books came out without much noise but had long lives. There was something dignified about writing children’s books but it was nobody’s get rich quick scheme.

I marvel that an author selling nearly a hundred million books would have left her reputation and her legacy largely in the body of her work, and that the publishers let her. Cleary says in her autobiography that she decided that she would never care about trends or money, so maybe there was pressure to do more and she declined, but the expectations of the public were also different. We let children’s books be children’s books back then.

Another thing I marvel at is that except for the whimsical Ralph S. Mouse series there is nothing high concept about Cleary’s work. They are simple books about realistic kids. The pitch, if there is one, was Cleary’s reputation for emotional honesty. Nobody needs to save the world, or even save Klickitat Street, but Cleary can make a crushed paper-bag owl feel like the end of the world. She’s funny, but she’s not off-the-wall talking burrito funny—her humor is character-centered and observational. There’s drama, but not melodrama—the cat dies, but not the mom.

Every year Beverly Cleary’s birthday is celebrated with growing reverence by the industry, partly due to her legacy and partly in wonder of her long life—she will be 99 on her next birthday—but there’s not much evidence the industry wants books like these anymore: books without a gimmick, that respect the minds of children, books that don’t do anything but get to the heart of the childhood experience. Books that are obviously for kids, and not geared to get buzzed up by bloggers and read by adults.

I meant this post be an appreciation for Cleary’s understanding of children, and how it serves me well as a father to re-read them, but the experience has made me sentimental. I keep tearing up, and I know it’s not just because of the way Cleary recalls the daily ups and downs of being a kid—which she does better than anyone, ever, I am sure—it is because I miss what children’s literature used to be. The hot market kid lit has become just isn’t the same world that welcomed me as a lonely ten year old in the child-sized shelves at the public library, and made me so happy I decided to spend the rest of my life there.

I’m homesick for Klickitat Street.

The Playgrind Part 2

I get to go to the playground every weekend so the kid can scream at me for not pushing him on the swing right (“Use both hands! Put your phone away!”). Playground time means trying to explain to other parents why my son just threw sand at their baby’s face or ordered their kid out of his favorite swing. Playground time means a barrage of why questions: why is that bug  dead, why is that boy on a bike, why it isn’t raining. Playground time means having public fights over things like whether or not Daddy’s shoes should be thrown in the pool. Playground time is tedious and exasperating.

But here’s why I say, “I get to go,” instead of, “I have to go.” I get to go because in between all the questions, the anxiety over his interactions with other kids, suffering through his bossiness and unreasonableness, there are moments of discovery.

Byron hasn’t learned there is anything that isn’t interesting. He can occupy himself with a copse of grass. He spent five minutes yesterday marvelling at a drowned beetle. He felt like the luckiest kid on earth because he found a penny, and when he found a second he left it there: with one, he had all the riches in the world, and the second penny should make another kid’s day.

I wish I could say it was as easy as being with a child to see the world through his eyes, to transcend my grown-up jaundice and worldly concerns, and to delight in a dragonfly, but it’s not that easy. But then, sometimes, it is. When you have tuned yourself to him, when you have allowed yourself to take an interest in his interests, you can suddenly be thrilled by the sight, in the sky, in the distance, of a man on a cherry picker fixing a wire. You can follow an ant for several minutes. You can watch a grasshopper with the same fascination as you watch an exotic zoo animal.

You can celebrate, with him, when he finally finds the right combination of shifting weight and leg pumps to make the swing swing on its own, to feel the same flush of pride, and be glad he stops a moment later and asks you to push him, with both hands.