Author Shel Silverstein and persona Uncle Shelby

Joseph T. Thomas Jr. has finally written the article I've been curious to read for ages.  Though it is certainly part celebrity gossip, Thomas' "A Speculative Account (with Notes) of the Development and Initial Deployment of Shel Silverstein's Persona, Uncle Shelby, with Special Care to Articulate the Relationship of Said Persona to the Question of Shel's Ambiguous Audience(s)" finally makes a coherent connection between Silverstein's work for Playboy magazine and his writing for children.  Thomas focuses extensively on the satirical (and very funny) book Uncle Shelby's ABZs, which is a spoof on alphabet books, where the joke is on the absent gullible child who would follow instructions like, for instance, giving daddy a haircut while he sleeps on the couch or eating the paper in the book because it claims to be made of candy.  But any present reader who would persist with the book and not simply abandon it in complete puzzlement would be a child sophisticated enough to laugh at the ways that adults routinely manipulate children.

And I bring this up because that sense of the savvy child reader is underemphasized in this article.  That said, the adult Playboy reader has not been taken enough into account.  Thomas makes a compelling argument that the persona of Uncle Shelby was a production in itself, and the deliberate obfuscation of Silverstein's own identity behind that person was part of the production not only of the author's celebrity, but of the books.  In famously difficult interviews with Silverstein, he responded to questions about why he shaved his head with statements like "I don't talk about my head."  Evasive, sly, humorous, the only thing that can be said for certain is that Uncle Shelby is subversive.  And yet his parody of sincere language is not entirely insincere either, as we see from his later books.

This piece focuses almost exclusively on Playboy and Silverstein's early books, ABZs and Lafcadio the Lion Who Shot Back.  I find it interesting to speculate about the persona of Silverstein/Uncle Shelby in or on the other books, jacket flap pictures and text, etc.  This is possibly because I was alternately disturbed and fascinated by the pictures of Silverstein as a child, sitting glowering, barefoot, and with the neck of what appeared to be a guitar propped in his hands.  He was as mysterious as one's childhood uncles often are, both affable and very remote.

I'd recommend the article, with the caveat that if you're a hardcore children's lit scholar, this falls somewhere between scholarship and an in-depth Playboy interview.  But it's worth it, so I'd say put aside stylistic issues on the writing (which you can infer from the title) and dig into an interesting analysis of how the author isn't dead after all.

from Children's Literature Association Quarterly  spring 2011, v36, n1, pp 25-46

collaboration, diversity, and metaphors of reading (in LIS)

Just finished reading two articles from JELIS and one from Library Trends:

1) "Finding that Special Someone:  Interdisciplinary Collaboration in an Academic Context" by Gunawardena, Weber, and (my wonderful colleague and ALISE Youth Services co-chair with me this year) Denise Agosto.  This exploration and literature review of models of collaboration is a good thought piece, with real highlights in the two tables.  The material here comes from several disciplines, and these authors synthesize it well.  The first table compares three kinds of connections along a spectrum:  coordination, cooperation, and collaboration, looking at how issues like authority and rewards vary along this spectrum.  True collaboration requires deep sharing, of authority and rewards, in mutually beneficial actions.  Table two lists types of research:  multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and trans-disciplinary, having to do with how the methods and perspectives of two or more disciplines come into play in a project.  This article won't tell you whether or not to collaborate, but it will suggest issues to consider if you do.  [Fall, October 2010, 51:4, 210]

2)  "Diversity and LIS Education:  Inclusion and the Age of Information" by Paul T. Jaeger (fellow New College alum) and Bertot is a call to action, with two specific exemplar program suggestions, for building diversity into the LIS curriculum.  The most significant point I read here was on p. 169, where they point out that diversity approaches have typically focused on the *people* (students, faculty) rather than on the content of the *curriculum*.  "...[E]ducational initiatives have focused on trying to increase the presence of underrepresented, disadvantaged, and underserved groups without changing the curriculum to better reflect the needs of these groups or to prepare all librarians to be culturally competent." (169)  This is true, and this is exactly what our school is working on at this very moment.  It's a strong and important call to arms, and one that I hope will be met.  I wished slightly that the authors had brought out more of the pressing intellectual reasons for including diversity in the curriculum, and I also think about the ways that Critical Race Theory poses significant challenges to "business as usual" in any academic context.  [summer, July 2011, v52 n3]

And the one from LT, by one of my all-time favorite LIS researchers and writers:

"Reader on Top:  Public Libraries, Pleasure Reading, and Models of Reading" by Catherine Sheldrick Ross.  What I love about Ross' work is that she's always seeing the underlying metaphors that guide the work of libraries and librarians.  Here she calls them "competing metaphors" (633) used to describe the reading experience.  From various fields, she identifies the following orientations to reading, each of which suggests a particular set of configurations of the "power of the text, the role of the reader, and the effect on the reader of what is read." They are:
  • "Reading with a Purpose" (the argument for public libraries as educational, popular from the 19th century to at least the 1930s, but still relevant today)
  • "Only the Best" (text-centered, related to children's reading in the 20th century, and eschewing series books)
  • "The Great Debate" (in education, between "code-emphasis" decoding skills and whole-language "meaning-emphasis" and implying competing research methodologies:  experiments vs. ethnographic observation)
  • The Reader as Dupe (from cultural studies, "An odd feature of this model is the way it silences the class whose interests it claims to promote." (p. 647))
  • The Reader as Poacher (from Michael de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life, emphasizing that "readers take back a degree of power from texts by finding nooks and crannies of resistance" (p. 648))
  • Blueprints for Living (from Oprah and many other who look to reading as personally transformative of the "mind and heart," "books as a source of models for living, examples to follow, or rules to live by" (p. 649))
  • The Reader as Game Player (from books like Johnson's recent Everything Bad is Good for You, which emphasizes that popular culture, from movies to games, is a "cognitive workout" involving complex codes that require practice to "play" effectively, and puts the reader entirely in charge)
With three citations and possibly a project idea emerging from this article, I feel both excited and mildly exhausted after reading it!  Like the best academic writing, this utterly stimulated my researcher brain with nearly every paragraph.  Oodles of notes to follow up on, and still one more article in this issue of Library Trends to read!  [this one:  Library Trends, issue title "Pleasurable Pursuits:  Leisure and LIS Research, editors Crystal Fulton and Ruth Vondracek, 57: 4, Spring 2009]

[p. 635 also has a list of "trashy" romances that might be worth reading on vacation.  hee hee.]

pomegranates and letting go

Mother Sue Monk Kidd (author of The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and The Secret Life of Bees) and daughter Ann Kidd Taylor team up in Traveling with Pomegranates.  It's odd to imagine a travel memoir about women's spirituality (and representations of women in spiritual traditions) being something that could come from two authors' viewpoints in alternating chapters, but it works beautifully.  Though occasionally I was distracted by imagining the editing to make it so, most of the time I was immersed in their two complementary journeys.  Sue is transitioning into an acceptance of old age as she turns 50, and Ann is transitioning into adulthood in her 20s.

As they travel to Greece and France and in their home lives as well, both are delving deep into what makes them who they are.  After college and breaking up with her fiance, Ann is discovering the triadic symbolism of Athena, Joan of Arc, and Mary as the iconic women who inspire her to be true to herself.  Sue is looking at images of Mary as not only the mother of Jesus, but also as the hag, the crone, the old woman who lived long past the famous manger scene and into old age.  Her reading of Picasso's Girl Before a Mirror is astonishing, seeing "The aging mother reaching for her own grown daughter.  The way she tries to make a lap for her younger self."  (p. 151)  She describes the "ricochet" of the feeling that deep knowledge of mortality brings (p. 163), and how "One day I will have to forgive life for ending." (p. 169)  She describes the feeling of sending off part of a novel:  "...I should lay down my ego and let happen what will happen.  It is just life.  It's time to settle more fully into my own condensed truth and find my strength and boldness in that." (p. 215)  She feels "the curse of my own introspective nature, and its obstinate demands, how it wants to be allowed, wants my unhurried and undivided attention, how the moments of life insist on being metabolized and given expression." (p. 218)

Sue Monk Kidd has gift of making the long arc of life seem like a dance, but Ann Kidd Taylor is pretty good herself at capturing the raw honesty of a 20-something in search of meaning.  Along the way, Sue further embraces her mother and the Hestia-like goddess of the hearth that she has always been, while coming to accept herself and her own ambitions as a writer.  And Ann finds her vocation as a writer, at least for now, though impending motherhood and all of life could change anything.  Here's hoping for more books from her.  She pointed me to this beautiful quotation from the poem Sweet Darkness by David Whyte:  "Give up all the other worlds/except the one to which you belong."  The poem continues and concludes:

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong. 

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

Mother-daughter relationships can be a fraught subject, and there are moments of tension.  But it's a joy to read about Sue refraining from invading Ann's private world, even when she knows something is wrong, out of respect for the young woman that Ann is becoming and needs to become on her own terms (p 118).  It's good to see Ann becoming herself while seeing her own mother more fully.  It's a delight to image the three-generation trip of grandmother, mother, daughter that ensues.

Ultimately, this is a book about peace between the generations.  One need not have experienced that joy in one's own family to appreciate it in written form.  In fact, I think there should be a special word for taking joy in someone else having what you cannot or have not chosen.  The opposite of jealousy.  Jealousy-free joy for someone else's delightful path.  That's what this book inspired, for me.

I spend longer than I wish to on the simple task of letting go of expectations about how I thought "now" would be, back when "now" was still "then," in the future.  It's hard to inhabit now when I'm doing this.  Yet, of course, that also is what's now, whenever it's happening.  So here I am, letting go of the true last of the summer memoirs...

Cherry by Mary Karr is a follow-up to The Liar's Club, and I know I want to read it sometime, because it's about her adolescence.  The Liar's Club was amazing.

The Stations of Solitude by Alice Koller looks good except for its insistence on stripping oneself of all social contact in order to achieve "real" solitude.  Her earlier memoir, An Unknown Woman, might be better, as it seems to be what brought her acclaim and is about post-phd uncertainty and wandering.

Too Late to Die Young by Harriet McBride Johnson is about a muscular dystrophy survivor who has, against the odds, lived to have a full adult life and become a renowned disabilities activist.  Her voice and spirit shine in the first chapter.

last of the summer memoirs

I'm sure these won't be the last memoirs I read, but they are for this summer, because school is starting!  With a fresh year before me, I'm planning to be back at semi-weekly meetings for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.  It's the first time back in several years, and I'm looking forward to being once again immersed in rowdy and highly informed (and opinionated!) conversations with my colleagues in academia and children's librarianship.  I first came to the Bulletin in 1997, so those review meetings at the big long tables are sort of like family dinners to me, with people who have become my dear friends as well as aunts I'm fond of and a new crop of cousins every year.  So all this is to say that, after the last of the summer memoirs, I expect I'll be back to full-on children's and young adult lit for many months to come. 

The memoir I'm Proud of You:  My Friendship with Mr. Rogers by Tim Madigan, Mr. Rogers makes a point that sounds a lot like my previous post about Brene Brown's work:  "anything mentionable is manageable."  When life is moving at breakneck speed, during times of crisis or transition, it can seem like there will never be time enough to manage it all nor even to mention it all.  Madigan shares a traditional Arabian proverb that Fred Rogers shared with him as their friendship developed in correspondence:
A friend is one to whom one may pour
Out all the contents of one's heart,
Chaff and grain together,
Knowing that the gentlest of hands
Will take and sift it,
Keep what is worth keeping and,
With a breath of kindness,
Blow the rest away. (p. 82)
That's what Madigan and Rogers create, as the real-life Mr. Rogers coaches and supports Madigan through a nearly devastating crisis in his marriage.  This is a tender story of a grown man coming to be in touch with his feelings.  It's also the story of the later years of Mr. Rogers, whose kindness was the real deal.

This next book is both silly and searingly honest.  I'm the One That I Want by Margaret Cho is her memoir of coming to be a successful comic, forged in the fires of painful stand-up flops and a failed t.v. show.  It's comedy, yes, but Cho's life has had its bleak moments.  She finds ways to laugh, and so the reader does as well, but it's an intensely emotional ride.  And I love this kind of raw honesty. She tells the story of failing out of high school twice.  She talks about the joys of being a "fag hag" and the gay men she has loved, in addition to harrowing tales of dungeons, drag queens, and a whole lotta drugs.  Cho also gets deep into struggles with Korean journalists whom she in equal parts expects to support her and despises when they don't, all through a lens of hard-won understanding that neither she nor they could be expected to "represent" an entire people to each other.  Favorite quotes include...

When she finally ditches the boyfriend who was just no good to her:
"I had, for once, stood up for myself and stuck to what I knew was best for me, even though I wanted to please Bob and not be the bad guy.  I did not stop laughing for a long time." (p. 62)

On trying to find love and acceptance outside of yourself first:
"I thought if I could get the job, get noticed, maybe even become a star, then I would stop hating myself, and adore me just like the rest of the world.  Self-love doesn't work like that.  Life doesn't work like that.  [...]  I think we all have our own messages, the tapes that play over and over in our minds, that weaken us, that desecrate the holines sof our lives, that come disguised as a way to motivate ourselves, when really they are all about self-sabotage. [...] Let's not hate ourselves.  We are all we have.  We cannot change anything until we accept that." (p. 90-91)

On people being stupid:
"People are stupid and will say what they say.  It's not just [physical] weight [issues] either.  It's everything.  The challenge is learning not to give them the power to dictate how I will feel about myself.  Learning how to love myself from within, to make my opinion count the most, knowing that no one and nothing is going to save me except myself--these are the lessons I have been forced to learn.  That is what my life now is all about." (p. 207)

Those are my favorites, but believe me when I tell you that much of the joy is in the more raw moments that the ones I've quoted here.  Strong women with fierce voices occupying the celebrity stage are still a rarity in our odd entertainment culture.  I hope Cho takes the stage over and over again.

The last couple of years I haven't posted as much as I before that stressful time.  But these days the reading energy and creativity are back!  Stay tuned for posts about recent articles related to gender issues in children's literature, the history of children as readers, great new resources for youth services librarians, and a smattering of general-interest LIS-related pieces.  It's going to be a great year.  Best wishes to all those who go back to school, as students or otherwise, in the next few weeks!

social work and authenticity

I read pretty widely, and, unless I'm honed in on investigating a research project, my tastes are free range.  Like the best chickens, my reading brain will at least peck at whatever looks tasty.  So a PBS special on "The Gifts of Imperfection" led me to Brene Brown's work (her blog is called Ordinary Courage), interesting in part because she has a Ph.D. in social work.  And, since I'm teaching a new class called Youth Services Community Engagement this fall and drawing on some social work research, it seemed right to pursue the threads a little further.  So I found the textbook, Contemporary Human Behavior Theory (2nd ed) that holds a summary of Brown's research work.   Which is based on interview after interview with women (though recently men have factored in as well) and is formalized as Shame Resilience Theory.

The theory goes a little something like this:  depending on your place in life, your social support, and a host of other internal and external factors, you are more or less resilient to an episode of shame.  This might be an internal overreaction or it might be a public humiliation, characterized by the burning sense of personal unworthiness, rejection, or lack of belonging.  Same things apply in any case to come out of it:  1) "ability to recognize and accept personal vulnerability," 2) "level of critical awareness regarding social-cultural expectations," 3) "ability to develop mutually empathic connections with others, and 4) "ability to 'speak shame'" by which Brown means the emotional vocabulary to name what's happening to us (emphasis added).  As another researcher notes, "women's sense of self and of worth is most often grounded in the ability to make and maintain relationships." (p. 230-232)  There are exceptions to the rule, of course, and some women thrive on work or on one deep relationship.  But many women--I'd guess many people, certainly many of the children we serve in libraries and other institutions--thrive when they can celebrate the network of long and short, deep and shallow, casual and serious relationships and their place in it as someone who, as Brown says, belongs

This is a social work textbook, and I'd ultimately recommend skimming Brown's blog over the few pages in this text, but there are a few books and articles cited and recommended in the back that I list here for future perusal.  Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a familiar title to me, but I'd like to re-read it in light of thinking about shame and the role it plays in adults and child lives.  Articles of interest by L. M. Guitierrez include: "Empowerment and the Latino community:  Does consciousness make a difference:" and "Working with women of color: An empowerment perspective" and finally "Understanding the empowerment process:  Does consciousness make a difference?"  I'm guessing these might explore the difference/relationship between thinking and acting, and I'm curious.  I'm also curious about bell hooks' article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about "Learning in the shadow of race and class."  And the book by J. B. Miller and I. P. Stiver from 1997, The healing connection:  How women form relationships in therapy and life.  

vacation reading

I don't know why I actively avoided reading Bossypants by Tina Fey for so long.  Maybe, like your average high-school-aged person, I shrank away because it just seemed too popular.  But it's a memoir!  And it's funny!  And Mean Girls remains one of my favorite ever movies (for whatever that does or doesn't reveal about my twisted mind).  So I read it, and it was worth it.  It's not the best organized memoir ever, but Fey's musings on growing up weird in summer theater programs are totally worth it.  (I've always wanted to do everything, usual at once, and so I read this wistfully wishing that I had been a summer theater program kid.  It's like my periodic longing to have been born Joni Mitchell instead of, well, you know, me with moderate guitar-playing abilities.)  And so are her feminist observations on the impossibilities of women's fashion, totally worth it.  I laughed out loud at her impeccable use of the word "asshat" and, frankly, have still been laughing for days.  I can't explain it, quotes won't do it justice, as comedy is never as funny the second time around.  So just go read it already!

Also read by beautiful Lake Michigan in Chicago this past week:  Radio Shangri-La:  What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli.  Interesting memoir about a woman who is a successful professional journalist for NPR, but is nonetheless harboring the usual mid-life doubts (did I take the right path?  do enough?  create the right family, or not?) and struggling to find what it means to her to be happy.  When she is asked to be a radio consultant in the country of Bhutan.  Bhutan is a tiny country of about 650,000 people right between India and China that has only recently modernized enough to embrace radio and other outside (read: Western) influences.  It's famous mostly for being the only Buddhist kingdom on earth, and for having a commitment to "Gross National Happiness" rather than the usual GNP.  So Napoli goes, almost on a whim, to help them "professionalize" the station, and her readers are taken on a tour of the country and culture from a slightly inside perspective.  Napoli's story reads like the tale of a hard-headed realist and so is of an entirely different flavor from Gilbert's more famous and more fable-ish Eat Pray Love.  Napoli deliberately eschews the happy romantic ending, but what she gives instead is lovely.  I've been recommending this to my media activist friends already.  My only hesitation was her rather knee-jerk negativity toward her young friend who wants to emigrate to the U.S.--why?  yes, it's tough to do, but why not at least support her curiousity?--and said young friend runs off and tries it anyway, landing back in Bhutan and pregnant a little while later.  Still.  Very fun beach read, and one that touches on life's meaning in ways that make you feel solid, in the hands of an author with both feet on the ground.