Friday, May 29, 2009

More than Christian Bobbsey Twins

Sometime in the mid 1990s when I attended one of my first writers' conferences, the speaker in the children's track made a statement something like, "Christian children's books are now every bit as well-written as those found in the secular market."

My mouth fell open, and I had to bite my tongue not to ask, "What books are you reading, lady?"

To be fair, modern books for children in the Christian market are better written than the expanded evangelistic tracts that passed for fiction in my childhood. And the series books that filled the children's shelves of Christian bookstores in the 1990s probably were as well written as their secular counterparts. But Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins aren't exactly the highest standards of literature.

In 1999 the Christy Award was set up to honor the best in Christian fiction in a variety of categories. In 2007 the first award for a young adult novel was given to Cathy Gohlke for William Henry is a Fine Name (Moody).

Christian literature for children and young adults has indeed come a long way. This year's Christy finalists include I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires (Moody), Gohlke's sequel to William Henry; The Fruit of My Lipstick (Faithwords) by Shelly Adina; and On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (Waterbrook) by Andrew Petersen. The Newberry Award given by the American Library Association has been criticized for honoring only one type of book--introspective coming-of-age stories. These titles show that the Christy is at least looking at a broad range of styles.

I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires
, like William Henry is a Fine Name, is a "Newberry-type" book. Set during the American Civil War, it paints a powerful picture of tattered relationships and the painful results of hard choices. It is beautifully written with memorable characters and a plot that keeps you turning the pages to the tragic end. Robert is older now and must take his faith beyond salvation to full surrender. This traditional religious metaphor is given new power in the context of the devastation of war.

In contrast, Gillian Chang, protagonist of The Fruit of My Lipstick, is a brainy, twenty-first century student in a posh San Francisco boarding school. Strong voice is one of the first things a mainstream acquisitions editor looks for, and Gillian's voice bubbles over with enthusiasm and modern idioms. Her problems are typical teenage insecurities and the desire for a boyfriend. Readers will soon recognize, even though Gillian does not, that the boy in question is a jerk. Issues of emotional abuse are illustrated, but not explored in the depth expected in a secular novel. The tone stays light and centered on the mystery of who is selling exam answers carried by instant messaging between buyers and seller.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness
represents the fantasy genre of YA fiction made so popular by Harry Potter. Andrew Petersen, a gifted singer and song writer, has an incredible imagination. His place names, personal names and invented creatures are creative and highly amusing. He has a good story to tell in which all is not as it seems, but the telling feels disjointed to me. He jumps from one point-of-view character to another. (Some of them are adults, which is strongly discouraged in mainstream writing for children.) The tension of one event is allowed to drop instead of building on it with inevitable results. I am a great lover of fantasy, but in my opinion this talented writer needs to spend more time polishing his craft.

None of these books will be short-listed for the most prestigious secular awards, but they are all miles ahead of the Christian Bobbsey Twins that have dominated Christian juvenile publishing for so many years. We need to request them in our public libraries, get them for our church libraries, and buy them for our grandchildren--anything to convince Christian booksellers and publishers that the market can sustain more than a safe read without explicit sex and crude language.

Watchfires has been classed by some libraries as adult fiction, no doubt because it includes rape and incest, although not graphically described or inappropriate to showing the real horrors of one person being treated as the property of another. The book will be enjoyed as much by adults as by young people. It would unquestionably be my choice for the Christy Award. But the question is, would it be the choice of teens? After all, they are the ones we want to impact with our writing.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Value of Children’s Literature for Twenty-first Century Africa

[Someone recently asked me for a copy of this article, originally published in Today in Africa magazine, February 2005. I thought others might be interested in the motivation behind my work reading with African children.]

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. ” Jesus used stories to make his point--The Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep, The Prodigal Son. The story of the Good Samaritan takes six verses in Luke chapter ten. Six verses. And yet you can never look at strangers in quite the same way as you did before you heard it. Story has power.

Think of the role of traditional story telling in African culture. Stories are the way we pass on our values, our thinking about relationships and what is important in life, what kind of behavior is, or is not, acceptable. But story telling is declining in modern Africa. What will we give our children in its place? Television? Will we let their values be formed by MTV, cartoons and American shows with ‘attitude’? Providing our children with good books gives them an opportunity to see that the world has more to offer that the consumer goods and self-serving behaviors they see on the screen.

African children need stories about children like them—children who live in the townships, children going to school with a mixture of culture groups, children caught between the traditional world of their grandparents and modern urban Africa. A story about an adopted Canadian child will show a North American setting, and the value of being chosen and loved may well be missed by an African AIDS orphan in an adopted home.

Not all books for African children should be problem stories about the loss of dignity under apartheid or families torn apart by HIV disease. African children need stories that reflect the joy of the created world around them or that help them to laugh at life and the silly things people do.

Stories ask “what if.” They allow a child to get inside someone else’s skin. What if I lived in Soweto and my best friend had HIV disease? What if I lived in KwaZuluNatal and couldn’t go to school because I didn’t have a uniform? What if I lived in Zimbabwe and my family had a chance to own a piece of land? Or what if I lived in Zimbabwe and my family was being kicked off the land where we had lived for generations?

Story lets us see the world as other people see it. The point-of-view of a white child whose family farm is being broken up for settlement is completely different from the point-of-view of a black child whose family is getting their own land for the first time. What if these two children knew each other? What if they became friends and each had to deal with the pain and joys of the other’s life? That would make a good story.

Stories allow the child to ask ‘what if I did something I have been told not to do?’ In a story, a child can consider the consequences of stealing, of disrespecting elders, of putting his own desires ahead of God’s law. The story characters are stand-ins for the child himself, making bad decisions, taking risks, failing and growing. The reader learns through the story character’s mistakes without engaging in risky behavior himself. But be warned: Agenda driven stories with built-in moral lessons don’t ring true. Children see right through them as adult lies designed to manipulate them. The most effective stories wrestle seriously with questions and allow the child to discover truth rather than have the right answer handed to him.

Even when a story is made up—fiction—it can be true in other ways. My own novel, The Wooden Ox, is a made-up story about a family kidnapped by rebels during the Mozambican civil war of the 1980s. But everything in it happened to someone during those years, and the principle that God can be trusted even when you are tempted to doubt is true in the real world. Reading such stories aloud and talking about them as a group is a way of discussing issues without accusing anyone and making them feel defensive.

Not all books are fiction. There are stories of the lives of great men and women; there are stories of how the nations came to be; there are stories of how things work, both in nature and mechanics. These are called non-fiction. A lover of books is a lover of learning. The earlier we expose children to good books, the greater will be their love of learning. Laurence Darmani, author of four volumes of Stories from Africa, points out that children become readers when they see that the important adults in their lives, whether parents or others, value reading.

The development of African children’s literature has practical values. African children are growing up in a modern world where those who can’t read will be left behind. Reading is a skill that takes practice. The more you read, the more comfortable reading becomes and the better able you are to take on advanced study and jobs that require facility with written words and instructions. More interesting books that children want to read can result in better reading skills and greater success in confronting the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Democracy depends on informed citizens who can read the newspapers comfortably, getting multiple sides to issues and forming opinions about events that are happening outside their local community. Reading habits are formed in childhood. A strong literature for children will help to shape a strong democracy.

Good readers learn to use language effectively. Words communicate ideas that are much bigger than the letters on a page. The Nelson Mandelas and Martin Luther King, Juniors of the next generation--those who know how to make us see possibilities with the words they choose--will impact the way others think and feel, and change our world.

Books don’t require batteries or expensive equipment. Once children acquire the basic skills of reading, they don’t need the presence of a teacher for learning to go on. Books can bring learning to the most remote location.

Public libraries are a good way of sharing limited resources. Reading rooms can be effective if lending books is not practical in the local culture. The first children’s reading room in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, had 40,000 uses it’s first year.

Why spend our limited resources on books for children? Childhood is the time when character and habits are formed. Now is the time to create readers who will be life-long learners. The stories that are planted in their minds in the early years will shape the way they think of themselves and their world for a lifetime. They will bare fruit in time to come. “Train a child in the way he should go,” King Solomon said, “and when he is old he will not turn from it. ” When we invest in good books for children, we invest in the future of our communities.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Gaining Perspective

My husband had his gall bladder removed this week. He spent an evening in emergency a couple weeks ago in Madison, Wisconsin, halfway between home and board meetings in Chicago. Gall bladder symptoms look a lot like heart attack and within two minutes of walking into a local clinic they had him in an ambulance, dissolving nitroglycerin under his tongue.

He had had a similar attack the previous night after I served him waffles and sausage for breakfast, grilled brat-worst for lunch and pot roast with Yorkshire pudding and gravy for supper to welcome him home from his latest overseas trip. (This is the man who collects countries-in-which-he-has-eaten-pizza. Current count? 78) He got up long after jet-lag should have knocked him out and sat in front of a TV ball game I had recorded while he was gone. He would have liked to throw up and be done with it. I got up and made him mint and rosemary tea.

"I'll be fine," he said. "There's nothing you can do. Go back to bed."

I brought him a cup of tea and didn't mention our friend reading in bed while her husband died of congestive heart failure in front of the TV minutes after assuring her he was fine.

Eventually the emergency room doctors in Madison determined Steve was not having a heart attack, or other life-threatening problems and sent him on his way with instructions to see his family doctor. Due to my commitments in Indianapolis, he lived on oatmeal, un-buttered pancakes, grilled chicken and dry toast for a week before that could happen. They brought him a lovely vegetable platter at my $60-a-plate awards dinner.

Last Sunday I participated in the Race for a Cure with my daughter, grandchildren and a group of friends. For us it was less a race and more an amble among the strollers, wagons and 50,000 other people raising money to fight breast cancer. All around me were little groups with names like "Treasure Chests" or "Angie's Angels". They walked in celebration of a survivor (wearing a special pink T-shirt) or in memory of a loved one gone. Each of those 50,000 people had a story to tell. My cousin's daughter is fighting breast cancer right now. Her grandmother is a survivor.

Our pastor friend, Don Gerig, is blogging his journey with a brain tumor. A colleague from Africa recently retired to Australia only to find she has advanced pancreatic cancer. It all puts gall bladder surgery in perspective. In the future Steve may have to be a little more careful about the quantity of pizza he consumes.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

White Gowns and Roses

On a warm evening in early June thirty-four girls in white formals with armloads of red roses walked down the aisles of a neo-gothic church in Indianapolis, Indiana, and received our diplomas from Tudor Hall School. When the ceremony had ended and the last echoes of John 14:27 had faded beneath the vaulted stone ceiling, we tearfully handed out our long-stemmed roses, one by one, to family and friends who came to wish us well.

Forty years have passed. We are scattered from Maine to Honolulu. Somehow when we gathered last week to tour the old campus, the rivalries, resentments and insecurities of those long-ago days had fallen away. We were a miscellaneous dozen or so who had not been close then and hadn't stayed in touch, but you would never have known it to hear our chatter.

"Remember when we ..."

"Where is ...?"

"Mrs. Kuprion's room! Oh, those Friday afternoon math 'tea parties' to catch up and get extra help!"

Mr. Zimmer's room no longer smelled of pipe tobacco from his lunchtime walks in the grounds. The offices, once so foreboding, looked tiny and insignificant stripped of the commanding presence of Miss Whitford and her assistant head, Miss Smith. The stage where we performed "Carousel" and "Brigadoon" is positively primitive compared to the current facilities at Park Tudor, the school that merged Tudor Hall and near-by Park School.

Forty years is a long time. My classmates have grown and matured. How could we not? We have experienced life as we never imagined it on that June evening--joy and success, death and loss, personal weaknesses, failures and everyday plodding. Some have discovered a faith in God that wasn't there in high school. Or perhaps, in our grown-up confidence, we are just more willing to talk openly about it. Some I considered shallow then, have gained depth. Others burst with expansive hearts and enthusiasm I was too blind to appreciate at seventeen. Something in me wants to apologize for the self-confident know-it-all I must have seemed at the time.

Sharon lost many of her possessions in a flood last spring. We gathered around her to replace some of her beloved books. 'Perhaps the biggest lesson driven home to me since the flood,' she writes, 'has been that “things” are just that: things. When everything else is stripped away, the core of our lives is all about our relationships. With God. With friends. With family. With our pets… and sometimes with perfect strangers.'

"To the girls, we'll not forget them," said our school hymn, but I had forgotten. I'm sorry about that. There was treasure there I was too wrapped up in myself to notice. But then perhaps we all were. We were young after all.

At the end of May the seniors of Park Tudor School will receive their diplomas. There will be boys among them, the successors of those Park boys who handed us up the steps lest we trip on our long skirts. The Park Tudor girls will be wearing white formals and carrying red roses. They have the adventure of life ahead of them.
[My sister and I with our beloved music teacher, Elise Marshall, at the awards banquet. If you are wondering where I am in the group photo above, I am the one with her eyes closed on the right in the back row.]

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Nine Hundred is less than 12 million

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"This is the only time in the year when we have the whole school together," the alumni coordinator told me when she asked me to speak. "There will be students from age four through seniors in high school."

"How many?" I asked, wondering how I could handle the age span.

"About 900."

"900? 900 kids ages four to eighteen?"

She didn't tell me that I would come after several other speakers in the Founders Day program, that the little ones would be beginning to fidget and the older ones to yawn. Young people can't fathom what it is like to look back on these years after a lifetime.

I didn't try. I read them a story--Toto in Trouble (Shuter and Shooter, 2006). It's a funny little story that got the wiggles out of the little ones and drew laughs from the older ones. They sat still while I talked about Toto and children like him who live in child-headed households because AIDS has taken their parents. I challenged those who were oldest in their families to think about what it would be like to be responsible for their younger brothers and sisters--not just to babysit while their parents had an evening out--but to be responsible for what the family would eat tomorrow, for the clothes they would wear next year when their current wardrobe was worn out or out-grown. "What would you do if someone got sick?" I asked. "Would you make everyone go to school and do their homework, or would you just give up and let them do whatever they wanted?"

There are nearly twelve million orphans in Africa today--a lot more than the 900 students at Park Tudor. Twelve million is more than all the children in all the schools in the state of Indiana. In fact, it is about as many as all the children in all the schools in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan--all with no mother and no father.

I showed pictures of my kids in Tembisa, and talked about reading with them. I challenged the 900 young people (who weren't fidgeting anymore), "The founders of this school knew their students would be privileged. They knew you would be gifted young people. They wanted to prepare you to serve your community. Today with the Internet and global economy, that community is the whole world. You can't solve everyone's problems, but I want to challenge you to find something you can do that will make a difference."

At least some of them got the point.

[Excepts can be viewed on the Park Tudor Facebook page.]