ORIGIN early 17th cent.: via French from Italian gazzetta, originally gazeta de la novità (because the news-sheet sold for a gazeta, a Venetian coin of small value)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Complete Idiots

Wow. The SPX (Small Press Expo - an independent cartooning and arts festival), took place this weekend in Bethesda, and once again, it blew me away, just as it has done every year that I've attended. These people are not jaded! They are not blasé! Au contraire, they are fresh. They are alert. They are open-minded, hopeful, witty, fun, quirky, independant, eccentric (everything I dreamed of being when I was a little girl). The atmosphere is friendly, even cozy, it's like all the kids have gotten together with no repressive bosses or overprotective parents hovering over their shoulders. A breath of fresh air. I came away feeling playful.

In this vibrant ambiance of eclectic creativity, I met two idiots. I'm not kidding, these are real people: their names are Robbi and Matthew and they are the creative force and the elbow grease behind... Idiots'Books. After only 10 minutes chatting with them, I felt like we were partners in crime. What had first caught my eye (so many stands, so little time) was one of their collaborative creations, a small, almost tiny, book entitled The Baby Is Disappointing. I casually picked it up and to my utter delight, I discovered an irreverant work that is at once hilarious and totally true. Wait! Did they really, in this age of The Child We Must Fear, dare write and illustrate such realities as "The baby is disappointing. It lies about and yowls. There are moments of minor satisfaction, but frankly we had expected more." (And that is only page 1!) I laughed out loud. I howled out loud. Keep in mind that I am the mother of three children (all older than 21 and whom I adore) as well as a teacher of 6-, 7-, 8-, and 9-year olds.... and that I write for children. What I often find lacking in the world of children-adult relationships is a healthy dose of deprecation, a dash of satire, and a pinch of irony, ie, let's not (we adults) take ourselves and them (the kids) so seriously - they'll turn out OK, and no, it's not necessary to micro-manage every second of a child's life, and yes, it's OK not to be "in love" with your progentiure at every turn. It's also possible to continue being an adult even after becoming a parent.

The playful wickedness of Roald Dahl comes to mind, the radical snarkiness of Lemony Snicket comes to mind, Amélie Nothomb and her subversive childhood antics come to mind, the guilt-free practicality of French parents comes to mind!! (From the vantage of the American cultural landscape, Judith Warner's book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, warning of falling into the trap of "total parenthood" and becoming slaves to one's children, also comes to mind.)

The entire book is a hoot. The last two pages are very funny and recounts the moment when the baby is finally asleep... but only for so long. "...We cross our fingers and hold our breath and watch the clock as the baby sleeps. We count the seconds as they pass, bracing ourselves for decades to come."

Conclusion: Check out their Baby book and check out the others. I bought several (After Everafter, Ten Thousand Stories, and Nasty Chipmunk) and am planning to use them with my first graders who are more than capable of understanding the complexities of the human conditon, of discussing subjects we usually shy away from - subjects that these two idiots address in their funny and irreverant books.

Their logo, if it is indeed a take on "out of the frying pan into the fire," is competely à propos. You'll either hate these guys or adore them! So, here's to the idiots, to Robbi who draws the pictures, and to Matthew who writes the books. I believe they're on to something. Check out their website at www.idiotsbooks.com. Even though it is only a homeopathic dose of irony in a bland world of treacly sweetness, it may be enough to start a revolution.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Multicultural Children's Book Festival

The 14th annual Multicultual Children's Book Festival, sponsored by the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, is intent on celebrating diverse cultures. From the look of yesterday's enthusiastic throng of children, families, teachers, and children's book lovers, the festival was a huge success. Attendees met favorite and featured authors, participated in workshops, listened to readings, and saw illustration demonstrations. The cultures of African, African-American, Arab, Arab-American, Asian, Asian-American, Latin American, Latino, and Native American peoples were all represented. With my ties to all things French, I asked one of the organizers if next year, European countries, with their wide array of languages and cultures, might find a place at the table: Why not share with American children the literature of Denmark, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Spain, England, and more... wouldn't that make a fine addition to multiculturism?

I was lucky enough to hear Linda Sue Park read from her delightful picture book "Bee-bim Bop!," a poem about a dish every Korean child enjoys, consisting of rice, egg strips, vegetables, and meat. The joy expressed in her poem made me want to run out to my local market, buy the necessary ingredients, and whip myself up a batch of bee-bim bop. You can imagine how pleased I was when, later that evening, I discovered the recipe at the end of the book. She also presented "Yum! Yuk!," a fold-out book of people sounds expressing sentiments such as distaste, laughter, and surprise. As she pointed out, we say things one way in English, but in other parts of the world, the same human exclamations are voiced very differently. Her first presentation had the audience eating out of her hand while the second had them squealing with delight! I can't wait to share these two books with my new class of first graders at the lycée. When I finally got the chance to chat with her, she signed a copy of her work of a more serious nature for middle grade children, "The Single Shard," winner of the 2002 Newbery Prize. With its unforgettable characters, timeless theme, and vision of artistic endeavor, this quiet but forceful story is one of my favorites for young people.

If my encounter with Linda Sue Park was lighthearted and fun, meeting and speaking with Anne Sibley O'Brien, illustrator, writer, and peace activist was just as much a treat, but on a whole other level. Anne spent her childhood in Korea and has long been passionate about multiracial and multicultural subjects. I choose to purchase "The Legend of Hong Kil Dong, The Robin Hood of Korea," a picture book in graphic novel form, which I have now read and adored! Hopefully, my school will let me order 20 copies for my fourth graders. Stories such as this one are ageless and children need to read of other children whose courage is tried and tested.

Of all the beautiful books I saw on Saturday afternoon, the one that moved me the most was the book Anne has co-authored with her son, Perry Edmond O'Brien, "After Gandhi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance," published by Charlesbridge. This work contains profiles of fifteen activists and movements for social justice in the spirit of Gandhi's nonviolent resistance. In a presentation at the end of the day, she read to us the passages concerning César Chávez and Aung San Suu Kyi. In the book, we also find Mohandas Gandhi (of course) as well as Rosa Parks, Thich Nhat Hanh, Charles Perkins, Muhammad Ali, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Willams, Wangari Maathai, Nelson Mandela, Václav Hav, all of whom were inspired by Gandhi, his words, and his deeds, and all of whom have worked through peaceful ways, to fight injustice and better the world (and some of whom, I am not proud to say, I had never heard). The Madres de Plaza de Mayo and the Student Activists of Tiananmen Square are also presented. Most importantly, she raises the question of nonviolence in shaping our future. My questions now are: how do I share these profiles with my students? Beginning at what age? In what context? How does one learn tolerance? How does one teach tolerance?