Tag Archive for Gotham Writers

Rudine Sims Bishop — Windows, Mirrors, Sliding Glass Doors — and Mike Curato’s “Flamer”

A librarian friend recently passed on a link to a landmark article by Rudine Sims Bishop. The article, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” was first published in 1990. While I was well aware of the ideas in the article, I had never read the original source. 

Bishop is credited with being the first to discuss children’s literature within the context of windows and doors. Most of the concepts are now familiar to anyone who has been paying attention. To quote the opening paragraph:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

Skipping down, she later writes:

When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part. Our classrooms need to be places where all the children from all the cultures that make up the salad bowl of American society can find their mirrors.

Those are profound and important points, widely recognized in the children’s literature community (finally), after decades of neglect. We are now witnessing a sometimes awkward but wholly necessary Diversity Movement in children’s literature.

There’s another concept from Bishop’s article that has been somewhat slower to be absorbed. Maybe it’s less obvious. Sure, many of us can easily accept the importance for nonwhites to see themselves reflected in books. But in the absence of those diverse books — an absence that has long haunted American culture — the damage is also felt by the dominant social groups who have always found their mirrors in books.

Writes Bishop:

They, too, have suffered from the lack of availability of books about others. They need the books as windows onto reality, not just on imaginary worlds. They need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans. In this country, where racism is still one of the major unresolved social problems, books may be one of the few places where children who are socially isolated and insulated from the larger world may meet people unlike themselves. If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world — a dangerous ethnocentrism.

Go ahead, read that last sentence again.

Here, I’ll help you out:

If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world — a dangerous ethnocentrism.

I believe that we experience a perilous echo of that limited ethnocentrism in the “Great Replacement” theory espoused by Tucker Carlson on FOX News and the white supremacist movement. These fearful, narrow people probably didn’t read enough diverse books when they children.

Along these lines, I now teach an online class for Gotham Writers, “Writing Children’s Books: Level 1.” I began our last session by sharing Bishop’s article and discussing it. The truth is, if I hope to assist less-experienced writers, it can’t only be about encouragement and the development of writing skills. They need to know this information, too. 


Yesterday I sat down to read Flamer, a 2020 graphic novel by Mike Curato. Not strictly a memoir, the book is based on Curato’s experiences as a young gay male struggling with his own confusing feelings, an uncertain sense of identity and place in the world. The book is unflinching in its honesty and directness, including the portrayal of bullies and personal anguish, to the point of suicidal ideation.

Curato’s book is an act of courage and compassion. A triumph in every respect. He writes in the book’s afterward:

Although living is scary when we continue to suffer, I would do it all over again to be able to write this book for you. To hope. To dream. To want love. These are dangerous acts. Fear and hope are bound up together inside of us, alongside our flaws and our divinity. In this darkness, we can find an inner light to guide us. And there is light in you, even if you can’t see it.

Of course, in our often dark world, some folks will rouse themselves to challenge and ban such a book. We can’t have that in our schools. It is currently happening all around us. An act of erasure. The book-banners final solution? To make people like Mike Curato disappear from our bookshelves and our lives.

Returning to Rudine Sims Bishop, she rounds off her essay by recognizing the limits of literature. It cannot feed the hungry or wipe out the scourge of drugs. But, she concludes:

It could, however, help us to understand each other better by helping to change our attitudes towards difference. When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what make us all human.

Here’s to that better world.

Here’s to books, and diversity, and mirrors and doors, and to librarians who fight the good fight, and the bright light that burns within each and every one of us.

Shine on, my good people. Shine on. Our world desperately needs your light.

 

 

The Blessed Unrest: On Teaching, Writing, Ted Williams, and Martha Graham’s Splendid Advice to Agnes de Mille

I’ve tried something new recently. I’m teaching an online class for Gotham Writers, “Writing Children’s Books: Level 1.”

I’m enjoying the experience, mostly because of the students. I find myself thinking about them a lot, how to structure a lesson, how best to respond to a wide variety of writing and ambitions. I suspect that if I calculated the pay per hour, I’d be making below minimum wage. But payment isn’t just about money, as we know. I’m getting things out of it, too. Inspiration, engagement, clarity, connection.

But how best to respond to student writing? I mean, sure, say something positive, say something constructive, be encouraging. That’s all pretty obvious & within my nature. My friend, a far more experienced teacher, told me that every writing student wants to get published. That’s the dream, the aspiration. Maybe I’ll write a book one day. Lots of people have that thought, and certainly most anyone taking a writing class. I don’t know why, but the notion surprised me. Could it be true? Probably yes, I guess. 

In life, we receive when our antenna is up; we absorb when we make ourselves spongey, receptive. When I came across an amazing quote by Martha Graham, I was ready to hear it. Her words clarified so much for me. The excerpt comes from Agnes de Mille’s 1991 biography, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. At the time, de Mille was experiencing great uncertainty and dissatisfaction with her work, both in her own sense of it and how it was received by others. 

 

I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly, “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and (will) be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours. Clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself and your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open . . .  No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

 

Beautiful, right? 

And in so many different ways. 

I’ve decided, for my class, that there are essentially two paths open for me when responding to someone’s work. The first might be to address it from a publishing point of view. Discuss the marketplace, the types of things that are published, the “proper” length & format, things that are typically frowned upon by editors today, etc. All to help them realize the great & noble dream of publication. And I have pretty much zero interest in that type of instruction. I mean, there’s a whole cottage industry out there making promises to unpublished authors, “The 7 keys to becoming a bestselling author,” etc. I can’t help but suspect there’s a degree of flimflam to all that, snake oil salespersons preying on the innocent. Maybe that’s unfair. It’s surely good information to have at some point along the journey. But I’m not that guy.

As for the second path, yes, I can align myself with that. If I can encourage someone to express themselves, to tap that vein of creativity and authentic feeling, it seems worthwhile. One true thing. Help them in some small way to become better artists and writers. Because if you can do that, the “author” part just might follow. Eventually.

When the class started, I mentioned baseball legend Ted Williams. When asked about his goals for the upcoming season — Did he hope to bat for a .350 average? Mash 40 homers? — Williams replied, simply, that his goal was to put a good swing on the ball. Process over result.  

Here’s to putting a good swing the ball, folks. The rest will be what it will be. But somehow in the process you’ll express something of yourselves, get in touch with some meaningful memories, awaken the sleeping spirits that reside deep within, experience Martha Graham’s “blessed unrest” and possibly become a little more alive as you move through the days.

Oh, one line that I especially love in that whole thing?

It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda.

I admire the simplicity and directness of that sentence. In a passage full of spoken words and abstractions, that simple line grounds us in the reality of the scene. Two women talking in as ordinary setting as one could imagine. It is not easy for writers to leave a sentence like that alone: It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. It seems too artless, too plain: the clever writer all too invisible. Of course, that’s the point. De Mille gets out of the way. She disappears. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. It’s all the reader needs.

So that’s the last thought bubbling up the straw. Companionship. Connection. Conversation. Two women, two artists, sitting together and supporting each other. Just talking. Maybe that’s the biggest lesson of all. Be there for each other.

Maybe it’s time to give that friend a call.