Problematic Classics and Contemporary Solutions

 You ever go back to a book or a movie that you loved as a kid, and just as you’re getting into it again, suddenly you’re sideswiped by something that makes you cringe? I’m not talking about convoluted plots or lackluster acting. I’m talking about the moment you realize that this thing you loved so much is racist. Or contains any number of outdated and harmful perspectives towards people of different faith, ability, skin gender, sex, orientation, or level of income.
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Many of us have warm fuzzy feelings associated with classics that are deeply problematic. And listen: that is fine. Every reader has the right to read and enjoy the books of their choosing. And I’m certainly not advocating that we should ditch these items from our home collections or our public shelves. That would be censorship, and librarians aren’t cool with that.  However, once we as readers become aware that something is potentially harmful, we then have the responsibility to remove or mitigate that harm. That’s why we have big bold warnings on cigarette packaging, and why our normal lives ground to a halt a few months ago in the face of a deadly pandemic. So, how do we handle problematic books? To read, or not to read? There are strong arguments for both sides, and there’s no one right way.  It’s a challenge to provide an age-appropriate context to our kids when we adults are still trying to educate ourselves about our country’s history.
And  if we do want to include some of these books with outdated perspectives in our reading,  it might be helpful to choose additional books to read as a “counterbalance”, to better reflect the world in which our young readers currently live. To help with these decisions, here are some problematic classics and contemporary solutions.
One more note before we delve in: the idea of a Classic Book or any canon of literature, is a construct. We made it up. Classics were decided by people with loud voices: people with access to good education, good jobs, stable finances, and influential social circles. (And yes, this usually means white men, as well as folks who received the endorsement of white men.) Now, in 2020, we have the unprecedented ability to not only hear those voices that have been historically quiet, but also to amplify them to a level that they deserve. We get to determine for ourselves what books, movies, and other artifacts of culture are truly important enough to wear the label of “classic” and pass on to our children.
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The Classic: Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Problem: Wilder’s unsympathetic portrayal of Native Americans. A character says at one point, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” I’m not sure if that’s before or after Pa participates in a minstrel show, but oh yeah, that’s in there, too.
The Solution: The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
The first book in the five-book series following Omakayas through her daily life as an Ojibwa girl near present-day Lake Superior in the 1840s. Voracious readers who love strong female leads, history, and slice-of-life stories will devour these books with enthusiasm.
Another Solution: Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
Park loved the Little House books as a child, and this story of a half-Chinese girl who settles with her family in the Dakota territory reflects the spirit of those pioneer tales while addressing their shortcomings.
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The Classic: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Problem: While the story of Atticus Finch fighting against injustice and racism is a much-loved classic for adults and kids alike, it filters the story of a black man through a white lens. Black characters, who are often portrayed with negative stereotypes, don’t get to tell their own story.
The Solution: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
A contemporary story of racism, violence, and injustice from the perspective of those who live it. Starr, a teenage girl with a strong family guiding her way, discovers her own power and her own voice. (Sound familiar?) With a story of police brutality and protests, it’s also a setting that will resonate with teens who are seeing it in their news feeds on a daily basis.
Another Solution: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
This Newbery Medal winner also centers on a young black female protagonist and explores racism and injustice, but like Mockingbird, it’s set in mid-1930s Jim Crow deep south.
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The Classic: If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss

The Problem: Stereotyped portrayals of African and Asian ethnicities, plus it includes the idea that a non-white person could be on display in a zoo. There are plenty of other subtle and not-so-subtle instances of racist caricatures in the Seuss lineup.
The Solution: Ada Twist, Scientist written by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
Ada Twist is a curious little girl bound to become a scientist, and this book takes readers slyly through the scientific process, leading them along with a strong rhyming structure and a distinctive illustration style. It’s fun and funny, and when you’re done with Ada, there’s Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect.
Another Solution: Last Stop on Market Street written by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson
This picture book revolves around a boy, a grandmother, and a bus ride. It’s simply told and simply illustrated, but this winner of the Newbery Award, Caldecott Honor, and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor has already become a new classic. And don’t make this your last stop: also check out de la Peña’s tear-jerker Love, and Robinson’s wordless reality-bender Another.
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The Classic: The Berenstain Bears series by Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Problem: The Berenstain Bears mirror a stereotypical homogeneous nuclear family: one boy, one girl, one stay-at-home mom who rules the house with an iron claw and dispenses moral proclamations while wearing a housedress, and a bumbling dad who needs more parenting than the kids. All the same species/color, I might add. Maybe some families looked like this, once upon a time in a land far away, but this is not what they look like now. Women have jobs, men contribute more to housework and parenting, and families are more diverse than ever with blended families, single parents, same-sex parents, and mixed-race  families. Speaking of race, children’s publishing has a huge problem with diversity, and a sobering report from 2018 showed that bears, rabbits, and other anthropomorphized critters were depicted in children’s books more than all non-white races combined. The beloved bears aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re not really relevant, either.
The Solution: Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall
Jabari is a little boy whose dad takes care of him and his sister, and Dad offers light but steady support as his son learns how to face his fears on his own. And keep your eye our for Jabari’s return in a second book slated for release this fall!
Another Solution: Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems
Okay, okay, so you want your beginning reader to sink their teeth into a massive series of books, and they’re a sucker for animals. Best friends Elephant and Piggie explore the nuances of patience, sharing, including friends of differing abilities, and generally being a good friend, but they’re more fun and way less heavy-handed than the bear family.

Women Who Rock

Veterinarian. Astronaut. Paleontologist. Actress. President. Everyone dreams up at least one career for themselves when they’re a kid or a teenager and the future stretches out in front of them like a vast, unending ocean. Me? You couldn’t tell from the basic Gap jeans and the guitars that lived mostly in the darkness of their cases, but I wanted to be a rock star.
I never ended up getting a record deal (big surprise), but I still enjoy music immensely. And lately, I find myself reading about music and thinking about the culture around music. It’s got me wondering where all the women are. Why are we so severely underrepresented in rock bands, and when we’re there, why are we only lead vocals or playing bass? Why do we often dress up in skirts and heels, but guys can throw on a black t-shirt and call it a day? Why aren’t more of us in the wake of #MeToo taking our anger to microphones and drum kits, screaming louder than those floppy-haired skinny emo boys whose photos plastered our bedroom walls before their predatory conduct towards underage female fans plastered the news? Or, perhaps more disturbingly, are we already screaming out to be heard, but the world just isn’t listening because a man hasn’t come along and validated our efforts yet?
On that distortion-pedaled, dropped-down-a-half-step note, here’s some titles to stoke your inner riot grrrl:
Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
Noise rockers Sonic Youth might be a tough listen for some folks (coughs, averts eyes), but this memoir by bassist Kim Gordon is not. She details her time in the band, her life as an artist in New York, and her marriage to frontman Thurston Moore.
Did you know that the title for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came from Bikini Kill’s lead singer, Kathleen Hanna? Never heard of Bikini Kill? Then give a listen to this history of riot grrrl, the radical feminist punk uprising in the 1990s, the waves of which can still be felt today.
You might go, “Oh, that’s the woman from Portlandia,” but before her foray into comedy, Carrie Brownstein was best known as the lead guitarist for punk band Sleater-Kinney. (IMHO, their 2005 album The Woods is one of the best rock albums of the oughts.) Her memoir presents a candid and deeply personal assessment of life in the rock-and-roll industry that reveals her struggles with rock’s double standards.
If you don’t know Amanda Palmer from the dark cabaret duo the Dresden Dolls, or her solo albums, or as a crowdfunding pioneer, you’ll know her as the wife of Neil Gaiman. (How I wish I could eavesdrop and hear the bedtime stories they tell their child!) Part manifesto, part revelation, this is the story of an artist struggling with the new rules of exchange in the twenty-first century, both on and off the Internet, meant to inspire readers to rethink their own ideas about asking, giving, art, and love. Available from us in print and audiobook formats.

 

Get Informed, Take Action: The CT State Budget

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It’s no secret that our country has seen a surge in political awareness and activism after the last election, and we’ve been getting reference questions about how to get more involved on national, state, and local issues. Some of the biggest rumblings lately deal with Governor Dannel Malloy’s state budget for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, which is under review right now and contains millions of dollars’ worth of cuts for many municipalities, local and state agencies, and state-funded programs. If you’d like to get informed and take some action on the proposed budget, read on!

GET INFORMED

If you only have time to read one article on the new budget, though, the CT Mirror wrote an informative overview last month that hits some of the big parts of the budget.

TAKE ACTION

You can also send letters to the editors of local newspapers like the New Haven Register, Cheshire Herald, Hartford Courant, and Meriden’s Record-Journal.

Reading about Race: Books from the African-American Experience

The highly divisive election 2016 is over, and the Internet has been blowing up ever since. Some of us are feeling victorious and hopeful, and some of us are feeling frightened and hopeless. If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, the usual pictures of babies and cats are scattered among condemnations of riots and also calls for solidarity with those who have felt targeted by the political rhetoric this past election season.

Here in our rural-ish town, it’s no secret that we are not as diverse – ethnically, culturally, religiously, economically – as the cities to the north and south of us. It’s possible to not understand why our friends and neighbors are fearful, or why the news articles dissecting the election keep bringing up the uncomfortable topic of “privilege.” And that’s where the Cheshire Library comes in. We have memoirs, novels, and studies by and about African Americans, Latinos/as, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQs, persons with disabilities, documented and undocumented immigrants, and other minority voices which we can’t always hear in our daily lives. Today, we’re listing titles that explore the African American experience in particular. (Not all of us can sit down with print books, so where possible, the links will direct you to a list of the multiple formats in our catalog in our title.)

Let’s start with nonfiction picks:

 

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward first came to our attention with Salvage the Bones, which won the National Book Award in 2011. Her 2014 memoir Men We Reaped explores growing up poor and Black in Mississippi, with her story framed by five men she knew who died too young. Make sure you’ve got tissues handy.

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay
A culture critic with a Twitter absolutely worth following, Gay’s funny and entertaining essays touch on race, feminism, and politics as she dissects Sweet Valley High, The Help, and Chris Brown.

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore
Two young men, both named Wes Moore, both growing up fatherless in Baltimore. One is a Rhodes scholar, and the other is serving a life sentence for murder. Why did they end up with such different paths, and how close did each Wes Moore come to having the other’s path?

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Another National Book Award-winning author, Coates delivers his thoughts on race, history, and identity in the form of letters to his adolescent son. He dives into the Black Lives Matter movement, his childhood in Baltimore and college years at Howard University, and his views on the concept of race itself.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Racism in America, Alexander argues, hasn’t been eliminated, but redesigned. Her book examines the impact of the War on Drugs on African American communities, and how the election of Barack Obama and the resulting “colorblindness” has prevented us from acknowledging the full extent of that impact.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Since its publication in 2010, this has become required reading in high schools and book clubs alike. (In fact, we have a book group in town currently reading this!) Henrietta Lacks’ cancerous cells were taken without her consent over 60 years ago, and they’ve been used for important medical discoveries like the polio vaccine and in vitro fertilization. Yet, Henrietta’s living family members cannot afford health insurance. It’s a great book that explores bioethics and the intersections of race, poverty, and medical research.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Angelou’s autobiography is another required read in many school, and in it she shows her transformation from a young girl subjected to racism, sexism, and violence, to a confident and capable young mother.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois
Essays from one of the most influential African American activists and writers. DuBois wrote it in 1903 as a reflection on racism pervading the U.S. since Emancipation, and it influenced future civil rights movements.

 

And now for you fiction lovers:

 

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
For fans of the classics, look no further than Invisible Man. Ellison is a master writer who draws upon influences like T.S. Eliot and Dostoevsky, while telling a story of a nameless young man’s journey through America in the middle of the 20th century.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
You might know Adichie from her TED Talks on “The Danger of a Single Story” (a compelling argument for reading diverse literature) or “We Should All Be Feminists,” with the latter being featured in Beyonce’s song “Flawless.” This 2013 novel focuses on a Nigerian-born young woman who emigrates to America, and it takes a look at race and immigration in contemporary Nigeria, the UK, and the US.

Jubilee by Margaret Walker
Described as Gone With the Wind through the eyes of an emancipated slave, this novel is based on the life of Walker’s great-grandmother, who was the child of a slave and a plantation owner, and her experiences during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker
A Pulitzer Prize-winning story that still holds up decades after its publication, it’s told through letters exchanged by two sisters over the course of their very different lives.

Native Son by Richard Wright
Wright’s novel, a bestseller when it came out in 1940 and a frequently-challenged book in schools, shows the systemic poverty and hopelessness experienced in Chicago’s South Side.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Morrison is a prolific writer, and Song of Solomon is considered one of her best works. This particular novel tells the story of a rich Black family in the Midwest, from the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance to the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement.

 

Further reading:

8 Reasons to Love Audiobooks (Or Give Them a Try)

Ever notice how your list of books to read never seems to get any shorter? For every title I cross off my list, three more appear, and at this rate it’ll take me at least 20 years to completely finish (I know because I’ve calculated it). I lose precious reading time to obligations like commuting, feeding myself, and keeping my living space somewhat clean. But I recently started listening to audiobooks, and I was able to turn those obligations into perfect opportunities to whittle down my list. I can now go through a book in one day and still get the laundry done!

We have a bunch of books on CD here at the library, but I prefer downloading audiobooks with the OverDrive app on my smartphone. I hook up my phone to my car stereo and don’t have to fumble with CDs while I’m on the highway, and I can keep listening indoors without having to drag a pile of discs with me. Another upside to downloading: no fees! Digital items disappear automatically when the loan period expires so you’ll never get hit with late charges, plus you can’t scratch them up or lose them under a car seat.

Here are some more reasons to love audio:

1) Multitask like a boss. Start up an audiobook and chores will suddenly become much more enjoyable. You can spend an afternoon reorganizing your closets while also tackling titles on your to-read list, like Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair read by Colin Firth. You may even find yourself actually seeking out more chores so you can continue listening!

2) Cut your screen time. After a long workday in front of a computer screen, do you really want to veg out in front of another glowing blue screen? Light mysteries like the books in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series (A is for Alibi, B is for Body, etc.) offer nice background noise without disrupting your sleep.

3) A good narrator enhances your experience of the book. Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is a funny book, but it’s even better when you hear her narration. An adept narrator enhances humor, drama, and other emotions in ways that you can’t replicate when your eyes are zooming across the page. Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Dry had me laughing hysterically one minute, then weeping the next.

4) Long drives seem shorter. It’s tough to stay alert when you’re driving alone, at night, on a really boring road (I’m thinking of you, New Jersey interstate). Picking up something long like The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak will keep your brain engaged and will make any long drive more endurable. Similarly, long workouts on the treadmill are less arduous when you have a plot to engage your mind.

5) Audiobooks are interactive. Have you been on the waitlist for the print copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo? You can download it right now through Hoopla and experience the magic by listening to the audio – while simultaneously tidying up! I’ve also found myself talking out loud to characters in suspenseful audiobooks like Tana French’s The Secret Place.

6) Long, difficult books can be less daunting in audio. Everyone has those “I’d like to read it, but I probably will never get around to it” books. I would never realistically have finished the 917-page behemoth of Roots, but it only took me a couple weeks to reach the end of disc 24.

7) You might actually retain more. There’s a theory that you retain more information when listening because your brain doesn’t have to work as hard at creating imagery. I used to think I would have a problem remembering what happened in audiobooks, but then I remembered all the times I’d looked up from reading a printed book and realized I didn’t remember any of the last six pages. It’s just bound to happen, I think (no pun intended).

8) You’ll realize you’ve been pronouncing a word wrong your entire life. Interminable. Prerogative. Indefatigable. Cache. Aluminum has five syllables?! Oh wait, nevermind, the narrator is British.

Now here’s how to get the audiobooks mentioned:

Do you currently listen to audio books? If not, do you think you’ll give them a try?