Friday, March 10, 2006

While Cathy Adores the Minuet

Richard has gone to the movies tonight with our friend Pam. They're seeing "Tristram Shandy." I stayed home and watched a rerun of "Will and Grace," the one about the hydro-bra. I'm interested in how children's book people negotiate differences in taste--not just with their loved ones, but with their colleagues and with the young people they serve, either as individuals or in the aggregate, in a day to day situation or in the abstract or at a remove.

Although I'm only sporadically (or subliminally!) aware of this negotiation, it's going on all the time. Magazine exec. editor Martha or Kitty, her opposite number at the Guide, and I regularly disagree about books: how do we decide what the "Horn Book opinion" will be? Similarly, all our reviewers have their own considered opinions. And the result? It seems to go a different way with each book, which is good.

While this kind of book debate goes on in many contexts, I think what's most interesting about the children's books community is that we are having our debates on behalf of someone else: the child reader, either on the other side of the desk at our teacher and librarian jobs, across the dinner table at home, or as an imagined or projected audience. We're always negotiating the difference between what we like and what they like (or in the happy instance where professional and child audience are in agreement, between how we like a book and how it is enjoyed by the young.)

Maybe, though, we are only ostensibly mediating the distinction between children and ourselves. Maybe we are always reading (or writing) for ourselves. The child-as-other idea, God knows, is fraught with problems literary, educational, and political. I believe that children read for the same reasons adults do (and both groups, of course, are made up of distinct individuals). But woe betide us (meaning those who take part in bringing children and books together) if we forget the stewardly nature of our work.

33 comments:

rindambyers said...

Yes, it coes come to that point, it is a stewardship, willy nilly.

I think we all, as adults if we are involved in some way with books for children, whether we have children or not, we could profit by dialoguing more with children already in our own lives about books and ideas and issues, whether in volunteer work with them or with children who family members or neighbors. I'm grateful for just being able to visit with the neighbor children who ocsaaionlly interrupt my busy professional life. It's wonderful to listen to them, talk with them, dialogue with them. I learn a lot. I hope they learn a bit from me. I also have many years of volunteer work with children behind me, and it has SO enriched my life to have had those dialogues with children during those activities. It keeps me humble, gets my hands dirty in a way, makes me less able to shut myself safely up into chaste ivory towers of purely intelletual reasoning. It gives me a lot of joy, when a child is going through a rough spot, to be able, because I have their trust by listening to them, talking with them, to be able to put a book or a story into their hands that I know will help sustain and support them through that bad time, to be able to discuss the story with them. Hmmm. Interesting, deep thoughts in your blog to ponder...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Roger, for providing me with something on par with my usual procrastination device, child_lit.

Louise Rosenblatt, a wonderful reader response theorist, once wrote about "the dance of the stances." Her stances were aesthetic and efferent, the former being reading for emotional/artistic reasons and the latter for informational reasons. The dance she referred to related to the weaving in and out we do as we read, some times for both information and aesthetic reasons to varying degrees.

I think we children's book readers/gatekeepers do a similar dance as we move back and forth and around ourselves as readers today, ourselves as readers in our childhoods, and ourselves as we try to put ourselves in the shoes of current child readers and so consider what works for them.

Taste is such a hard thing for those of who mediate between children and their books so much of the time. I do read books I love aloud, I do teach books I love and not others, but I do allow time and space for my students to read what they like too and encourage them whether I like it or not. It is hard for some of them when I don't love a book that they do. I'm their teacher, they admire me, they want us to love the same things!

Tricky business this dance.

Monica

PS Loved Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, the movie. Much easier to sit through than the book (which I've tried to read more than once, but only managed bits).

Monica said...

I'm NOT anonymous.

Andy Laties said...

Sometimes people do ask me:"What's your favorite book?" I long ago learned to answer it by saying approximately these words:

"Sometimes people do ask me: What's your favorite book? but I don't know how to answer because I love so many completely different kinds of books, and I only carry books that I think are great for some reason or another, or for one kind of reader or another."

Giving this stock answer NEVER works though, because the customer/friend is either trying to get to know me better (and my stock answer amounts to a shove-off), or wonders if I know a secret that will solve all their questions in life (I'm clearly some kind of expert as a buyer for a children's bookstore, which they don't understand as a profession).

So I have several possible follow-ups to someone's refusal to accept my attempts at evasion. I will for instance try to simply do a Reader Interview and sell them books they themselves might like! But -- the particularly focused and persistent customer CAN finally force me to start showing them books that for irrational reasons particularly ring true with me in some profound way. I give in. And almost always this is a real mistake. Because my personal favorites -- the books I actually might drift back to perusing when I'm alone in the store -- are TOTALLY uninteresting to this customer. (For instance I find myself with FOUR UNPOSTED LETTERS TO CATHERINE by Laura Riding (do I measure up to a post-anarchist ethic?). Or THE ANNOTATED ALICE by Lewis Carroll and Martin Gardner (a shocking large number of people have never read ALICE). Or CAPTAIN SLAUGHTERBOARD DROPS ANCHOR by Mervyn Peake (one of the most secretive of children's books: may the censors never understand it).

I have real difficulty selling these books, under any circumstances, and usually the customer who demanded to know my personal favorite is actually turned off to figure out that this Children's Bookstore Guy is kind of a weirdo.

Andy

Roger Sutton said...

I remember, from my first librarian job, an eleven-year-old boy who read and loved I Am the Cheese. He told me his analysis of what was going on in the story, an interpretation completely at odds with the book. (I know Je suis le fromage is famously tricky and ambiguous, but his reading was wacky in some way I don't remember, but at distinct odds with the book.) I didn't step on him but it was frustrating as I realized I shouldn't go mano a mano with a child, a reservation I wouldn't necessarily have had with an adult patron.

Someone with a talent for it should research books and movies in which a child character plays chess or a board game with a parent or other authority figure, and give us a score card. Child wins? Adult wins? Adult LETS child win? Vice versa? Or child knows adult is trying to lose, but . . . .

Jane said...

My favorite child take on a book was the first grader who declared that PETER RABBIT was a very sad story because Mr. McGregor lost all his cabbages.

All of us who read cart along a trainload of baggage to each book we read. Which may or may not have anything to do with the book at hand. Frustrating indeed to those of us who are writers. I mean, lookie here, folks, we poured our OWN baggage into the book!

But book reviewers have the tightrope job of understanding the book and their own baggage. Not to mention what the author is trying to do and if she succeeds. I think the child's response to the book is way down the line after that. Should it be? Hell if I know.

Jane

Anonymous said...

Of course everyone brings their own baggage. Nothing would infuriate me more than someone being either the steward or gatekeeper of my reading. The implications are positively frightening. I love that child seeing that the Peter Rabbit story was sad because Mr. MacGregor lost his cabbages. Everyone should remember that when they are tempted to tell someone else what a book is. All we can tell anyone else is what we saw when we read the book. Opinions are fine when they are formed so that we make sense of the world and where we are in it at the time and what we are trying to see or move beyond to see. When things get sticky is when we believe our opinions are necessary to someone else's understanding. That is a very sticky thing indeed and not just presumptious but the ultimate censorship because it is the censorship of not the book but the mind. I don't mind discussion but gatekeeping ought to be abandoned. Books should go on the shelves and children should be let alone to read and explore and cry tears for Mr. MacGregor. If you can wangle a job telling other people what to think because your opinions create external order of your own internal chaos, bravo for you, but don't mistake your internal chaos for someone else's or your opinions as being helpful for them to make sense of theirs.

Anonymous said...

And anyone who thinks they know what the author is trying to do, including the author, is barking up the wrong tree.

Roger Sutton said...

Book stewards and gatekeepers are everywhere, which I can't see as a problem per se. Editors, publishers, reviewers, librarians, parents--certainly, each can use stewardship or gatekeepering for evil ends but those functions at their best serve to bring readers and books together. Books don't "go on the shelves" all by themselves. If we don't believe "our opinions are necessary to someone else's understanding," then neither reading or writing have much relevance for anyone.

Anonymous said...

Writing and reading have a good deal of relevance. I believe I said that opinions and discussion had their place as well. Gatekeeping and stewardship imply barriers between writer and reader. I see no difference between keeping a book out of a library because it contains homosexuals and telling readers that the story of Peter Rabbit is about the bunnies when someone else finds pathos in the plight of the farmer. In both cases stewardship means believing that you are only acting upon your own better judgement for the sake of others. And that is frightening.

Anonymous said...

There is a wonderful play and I wish I could remember who wrote it but maybe someone here reading this will know; it's about a kindly old doctor who goes around his small town quietly euthanizing the people who seem to need it. His grandson who is now a grown man begans to suspect with growing horror what his grandfather is doing and finally gets him to admit it but the grandfather is able to give every good reason why he is only killing people whose lives are so wretched or who are doomed medically speaking - helping out so to speak. And the grandson understands the kindly place is grandfather is coming from while knowing he has to stop it somehow but being unable to turn his grandfather in. One day the grandfather has a heart attack (or something) and the grandson runs for the nitro and he is holding it, ready to give it to him and as he is about to, you can see the wheels turning in his head and he withholds it, and just looks down at his grandfather and the grandfather suddenly realizes what is going on in his grandson's head, that this is after all, the easiest and most humane way out and maybe best for the grandfather, and the grandfathr says, "Oh, Peter, you see how it all starts?"

Andy Laties said...

Awww--sounds to me like a parable of today's neo-con Americans taking over the (old-time) British role of Helpful Imperialists in Iraq. (Don't you dare telling me I'm wrong with my interpretation. Suddenly I understand today's news in a whole new way!)

Anonymous said...

I would never tell you you were wrong. That's what happens to writers all the time and it's a good thing. You write something and you put it out there and someone uses it to interpret the news. What could be more splendid than all of us doing this to each other? Of course, that only happens if you get a chance to read it to begin with.

Andy Laties said...

Thanks. I do agree. I was teasing. I'm very much the New Critic myself (whatever I mean by that...)

Andy Laties said...

On interpretations of Peter Rabbit however: speaking as a retailer who's therefore regularly called upon to enforce anti-shoplifting morals on little children, I do point out to parents periodically that Peter Rabbit is the ONLY book on the subject. Peter is a shoplifter. Unfortunately for bottom-line-conscious retailers: Peter gets away with his theft (and the harsh punishment meted out pre-book to his father had no deterrent impact!). Not until Benjamin Bunny is there any proper Adult Enforcement for theft (recall that Benjamin's dad whacks Benjamin).

Now -- in Ginger And Pickles, we do have a reversal. The beleaguered retailers are taken advantage of by their customers (who do not pay their bills) to the point of shop closure -- after which the retailers' natural predatory natures are permitted to express themselves against those very former customers. Many retailers' secret desire: revenge on customers. We do our best not to show it.

Subtextual fun for those who will see it (or, impose it).

Anonymous said...

No, no, Andy, the subtext is the moral ambiguity of the right who shut down social programs to feed the poor while sanctioning school children to pray for them. Or as Bertolt Brecht wrote:

You gentlemen who think you have a mission
To purge us of the seven deadly sins
Should first sort out the basic food position
Then start your preaching, tht's where it begins
You lot, who preach restraint and watch your waist as well
Should learn for once the way the world is run
However much you twist or whatever lies that you tell
Food is the first thing, morals follow on
So first make sure that those who now are starving
Get propers helps when we all start carving
What keeps mankind alive?
What keeps mankind alive? the fact that millions are daily tortured, stifled, punished, silenced, oppressed
Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance in keeping its humanity repressed
For once you must try not to shirk the facts
Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts

Peter was just hungry. Beatrix Potter would have written it like Brecht except she was, well, Beatrix Potter.

Anonymous said...

I'll tell you something else; that little boy who felt for Mr. Macgregor is going to make one hell of a republican some day.

Jane said...

It was a girl and I suspect she came from a farm family.

Jane

Anonymous said...

Republicans farm. But I was just playing with Andy, Jane. I love that story. What a great kid. And it is the best argument I've ever heard for not getting your knickers in a twist about what people read into your work. Like putting food out and letting people eat the olives under the table even though you're pretty sure you didn't serve olives. Oh no, I mentioned food and as we know this is the blog that isn't not for sheep but for a particular flock with Roger and his flock control.

Andy Laties said...

Knock knock. Who's there? Olive. Olive who? I love you too.

Roger Sutton said...

that's FLACK control, She.

Anonymous said...

Really? i thought that was my job.

Anonymous said...

I am insightful. You're opinionated. He's critical. She's flackful.

Jane said...

Flaky?

Anonymous said...

Sheeplike?

Anonymous said...

This is beginning to get ugly and that was not my intention. I'm sorry if the question of stewardship was construed as a personal attack. it wasn't. It was a legitimate question and if you can explain to me why your stewardship is different from the stewardship of the librarian in Scaredsville, Texas who is keeping the books with gay characters out of the library or the Surrey school library that banned books with mythical creatures (I'm not kidding) than I would be happy to listen. You know very well they believe that their stewardship is for the children's good and that they are guiding them. Do I think that they are idiots - well, duh. Do I think you're not - well duh. But do I think that you have a greater right to claim stewardship? No, because that is a slippery slope as I illustrated above. All I want to do is say, yeah, but look at it this way... I don't believe you're going to do anything differently but if you can't explore alternate points of view then I don't think it's a very courageous blog.

Roger Sutton said...

I don't believe I have any greater claim to stewardship than anybody else in our field. But the difference between my point of view (shared, I'm guessing, by most librarians) and that of the stewards of Scaredsville (I love that name) is that I don't believe we should restrict a child from reading anything he or she wants to. Really. I wonder if we're parting company because of the use of the word "stewardship," which I was meaning descriptively, not as a badge of right or pride or something. Reviewers and librarians, teachers and parents, assess books on behalf of children. This can be liberating for children's imaginations, or it can be stultifying or it can be irrelevant (as in the case of the Gossip Girls, for example, bought without adult intervention). If the Horn Book can call attention to some fabulous new books for children, and a librarian can take the cue and try some of those out with her library patrons, what's wrong?

Anonymous said...

I admit to a certain knee jerk reaction to the word stewardship because good stewards and the language cops have written me scathing letters about why they are keeping my splendid book out of their library, more in sorrow, although really, why in the world did I....yada yada yada.
And i also admit to getting carried away with passionate absolutes in these discussions and wanting to take things here and there that have nothing to do with the reality of the situation. Of course, I think you do good getting good books into libraries.
But, man, do I think we have to be careful when we think our right thinking ways should guide others because we all know how many times we have seen that in action in ways that curdle our blood.

Andy Laties said...

"Seven years later took place the dramatic conference of Byron's relatives and executors, at which, after Moore and Hobhouse had nearly come to blows, the manuscript of the unpublished MEMOIRS of the poet was irrevocably burnt. The very fireplace remains today in which the book was destroyed. Tom Moore had to borrow L2000 from Longmans to refund the sum which Murray had given him for the manuscript--Byron having made him a present of the copyright--but four years later Murray not only paid off Moore's debt, amounting, with interest, to over L3000, but gave him, in addition, L1600 for his life of the poet."--Frank Mumby, PUBLISHING AND BOOKSELLING, 1954.

So -- in this case, the Stewards had pre-emptive power, and they used it to substitute their own version of the author's work for his own! I think the key to Roger's argument is importantly that between critics/librarians/booksellers/teachers/parents and, on the other hand, publishers. Critics' activity presumes the pre-existence of a published book. Hurrah! Their stewardship is by nature suggestive. But -- when publishers stand in the way of authors' work -- admittedly, the burning of Byron's memoirs, after his death, is about the most extreme example around -- now, that's were you get irresponsible stewardship. Prior restraint is the evil.

Andy

Anonymous said...

Andy, I know you're just trying to lighten the moment but if we all don't stop using the word stewardship like it's a real thing, I'm going to fall over like lalaliloo.

Andy Laties said...

All right: Stewardkeitanshaung.

Anonymous said...

Much better.

Anonymous said...

I don't think we do part company, Roger. I think if I were burning on a stake defending free speech, you'd be on the next stake (maybe not totally willingly, who wants to be burned?) but you'd be there. I think when we wrangle, we wrangle essentially small points. And food. Or playfulness on what is, admittedly, your blog.