Friday, January 12, 2018

Rapid Review: Martin's Big Words

I. Rapid Review of Martin's Big Words, written by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by Bryan Collier

Martin's Big Words is an excellent book, from the narrative that moves from Martin as a child through adulthood, to the inclusion of Martin's actual words on each page, to the beautiful illustrations. Its focus age is likely elementary school, ages 7-10, but I shared this with children ages 2-6, and we all enjoyed the book and the satellite conversations it led to. The children who have learned to read had little trouble reading along when asked. We spent over an hour reading the book, talking, sharing questions and thoughts, and we made it only halfway through the book.

In sum, it's a wonderful book that, in spite of the ugliness, cruelty, and horror of the past and present, provides a way of learning about it that does not ignore these facts but helps create a dialogue with our children, ourselves, and history that is sometimes difficult to begin since language will suddenly fail us.

If your (grand)children's home, school, or community library does not yet have this book, please take the steps to rectify the situation--especially if you live in a place that is majority white. I do not have a single memory of books about, or by, MLK in my childhood home or the public library. And now, in reflecting on this, I feel cheated by that, not just in the knowledge and connection I could have had with history and its effect on a present that I could feel but could not name, but also cheated in the ways I was taught what beauty was, and I still do. You will be glad to have added this book to your shelves. I will be glad, too. Our community will be better for it, our childhoods, our art, our future poetry. Please.

II. Some thoughts on reading to children about topics that are not "pleasant" or may seem "impolite"

Now, I know that many parents have trouble approaching subjects that are uncomfortable, whatever uncomfortable is for their family, whether that's racism, religion, atheism, god, reproduction, sexuality, gender identity, death, war, hate--you name it. I know this discomfort exists not only because I grew up in a rural town whose way of relating to each other often seemed to necessitate avoiding anything considered "impolite", but also because I volunteered at the public library as a kid and encountered parents who censored their children's reading, and because I have taken, and taught, many children's literature courses and been privy to student concerns and debates about what children's books are "appropriate" for children and which books should be avoided, censored, or not even published.

Such discussions are, I think at the heart, about what kind of society we "should be" imagining. How will a particular book get us closer to utopia, or keep us in not-utopia? Should children read books that make them cry? Should children learn about poverty? What of children who are living poverty, and not in a place that is estranged from it? What of unhappy endings? What of only happy endings? What of books with parents who die? What of books that only represent disability when the book is about disability? Why does a family who lives racism and its effects daily have to discuss race every day while families who do not experience racism think they have a choice of when the appropriate time would be to discuss race?

These are important discussions to have, certainly, because these are discussions about what reality is, who we are, whether our experience of reality, or our perspectives on it, are created by what we learned or what we experienced or what is good or what is not "polite." They're also questions spurred by wondering what effects our parenting (and teaching and neighbor-ing and grandchild-ing) will have on our children, and what effects our own experiences of being parented have had on our lives today.

As a parent, I have found that I know so much more about my son, his thoughts, his interests, his concerns, and his way of approaching life, because of wonderful books and topics I've found difficult to initiate. I would not know him as well if I avoided wonderful books or avoided conversations that hurt my feelings, or conversations about issues that I don't feel fluent in, or conversations whose path I cannot imagine, or conversations on topics that I did not have as a child myself. I also would not know myself as a person or parent or community member if I avoided these discussions. I know this because every time my son and I speak openly and honestly about what troubles us, as we try to understand it together, I leave the conversation with new ways of finding myself and our family, friends, and neighbors in the world. And I wouldn't have otherwise.

But it hasn't been easy for me. How to explain reproduction to my three-year old who wants to know?
But then I say the word uterus and the word nest, and cup my hands to show him. And isn't there beauty in that?
How do I explain god when he asks? And I say some people believe, and some don't, but god is an idea that people have to explain who made everything. It is a beautiful idea, I realize, though I don't believe it.
How did Martin Luther King die? he asks one day and then another day and again at bedtime, and yesterday at the coffee shop. And I say, People killed him. A group of people decided to.
How? he says.
With a gun, I say.
What's a gun? he says, and I find myself holding my hand like a gun, my finger aimed away from him while he eats his blueberry muffin. I show him pictures of guns on my phone, explain to him what bullets are, how they work while behind us, the barista makes espresso drinks for people on their way to work.
Bullets put holes in people, I explain. And I think, Bullets put holes in people. What? How is this true?

We live in a world where we put holes in people. So do our children. And I need people to explain this fact to me as much as he needs me to try to explain this to him. So, I try.