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Journal 1

Dear Journal,

Alas, my dear Journal, I return to tell you my thoughts on Children’s Literature; the writings that hold in them the power to capture the imagination of the world’s young people. More than that, these stories bring children into the world of language. Language is so crucially important to humans, and we place great importance in the learning of whatever language a child is born into. Perhaps this is why I start this series of journals with the alphabet, the fundamental root of our English language. I remember learning the ABCs as a child, from watching Barney and Friends, and practicing them in kindergarten. I remember the first joke I ever learned went something like this:

A kid was sitting in class when he asked the teacher if he could use the hall pass to go to the bathroom. The teacher, being very strict, didn’t trust the kid even though he was hopping up and down. The teacher asked him to recite the alphabet and then he could go. So he sang;

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O _ Q R S T U V W X Y Z.

“What about the ‘P’?”, the teacher asked, and the kid responded, “It’s running down my pants.”

HornbookChildren have been learning the Alphabet similar to me for hundreds of years. I learned in the Norton Anthology about the Hornbook, seen on the right. I myself learned similarly, though with printed out sheets that had the letter of the alphabet I was learning, with lines, and I would repeatedly make the same motion on countless sheets of paper until I got it.

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Even as I was learning the alphabet, I began listening to stories read to me by my parents. These were generally very simple stories, and fairy tales. The most memorable to me was the tale of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Fairy Tales, which we will discuss further next week, are a great source for historical context and cultural information. Fairy tales, to me, are like the stories told by Native Americans to describe which plants were poisonous and which lakes were good for fishing. They are the root of small and large cultural mythologies. It is this that got me extremely interested in Mythology from all over the world when I was 7-8 years old. I read all of the ancient Egyptian stories about the gods and what all the Gods meant.

The story of Jack the Giant Killer obviously held some deep cultural significance, referencing King Arthur and other historical figures and events.

Posted in Journals by Preston C. Palmer on June 3rd, 2010

Journal 2

Dear Journal,

This week I read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and I’m not sure what to say. It was honest and it was true, even if it was fictional. It portrayed the world through the eyes of a child, but did not diminish the world or make it smaller. Instead, it reminded me of the vastness of human experience in the world, from Sally to Cathy Queen of Cats. My first jolt from the book came from the chapter on Cathy, who is clearly a white girl and is influenced by her parents who have stronger opinions of race and class.

I was reminded of White Flight, which was occurring around the 60s and 70s, as the cities became more diverse, black and Hispanic Americans were now allowed to move in to cities and towns that were predominantly white; as this happened, those white families picked up and left. The tragedy in this was not only that people seemed to naturally segregate, but also that as the white populations left, much of the town’s revenue and income left. Black and Hispanic people, still having to deal with racism, did not earn the same wages as their white neighbors and could not support the infrastructure of the communities where they lived. This likely had something to do with the way Esperanza described the change in her neighborhood.

This week, one of my questions was about just this, what is it like to have a neighborhood change after you join it? I, personally, have had something similar happen.

When my parents bought the house I was raised in, the neighborhood was mostly lower-middle income, property taxes were incredibly low, considering how close we are to two lakes. But in the last 5-6 years more and more upper-class people have been moving in and really changing the atmosphere of the community. Smaller houses are being torn down to create mini-mansions, fewer people are out doing their own yard-work, instead they have hired workers do it for them. A few neighbors who have been living on the block from before even we moved in have felt the changes. Fewer people want to talk with one another for fear of a class-conflict (we’re still in Minnesota, so there’s Minnesota Nice for you). As bigger houses are built and more money flows in to the neighborhood for beautification, the property taxes have risen and have been driving out a lot of middle-class folks for the last few years. So, in a way, I relate more to Cathy, I guess.

One of the greatest things about this book is the innocence and naïveté of Esperanza. She seems to take most of what is said to her at face value, and her recollection of the events in this book is off-the-cuff, in a childish way.

‘The Earl of Tennessee’ chapter especially struck me. Esperanza describes this great big man with a thick accent who lives next-door. We are informed again of the kind of people that live in this neighborhood. The Earl works nights, giving connotations about the kind of work he is able to find, and the line of work he is in. But, seeing this through Esperanza’s eyes, we share in her confusion when her parents tell her that he is married.

However Esperanza’s experience tells her that his “wife” seems to look different every time she sees her. Looking at this from an adult perspective, it is clear that the earl is hiring prostitutes, or some similar scenario. So while on the face value, this is a story about a strange man whose wife is a shape-shifter, it is actually a story about her parents trying to protect their daughter from knowing something about the world that is literally one door away. It gives us a perspective on the neighborhood, and it reminds us that kids can be smarter than we think they are.

I wish this week had a particular theme to it, perhaps I will give it one; for there was still a common thread in the Fairy Tales. Things that seem harmless and benevolent on the outside, especially in literature, can often be covering much darker and deeper truths.

Posted in Journals by Preston C. Palmer on June 10th, 2010

Journal 3

Dear Journal,

This week I learned about and read picture books and comics. I talked with my Mom about this subject this week, and reminisced on my favorite childhood picture book, Don’t Forget the Oatmeal, a supermarket wordbook. I loved the variety of characters on Sesame Street, but Bert and Ernie were my favorite. The relationship between the two never failed to delight me. This book was more than a wordbook when I was a kid, in fact the word learning was trivial. Yet I was learning it anyway. What also pulled me in was the detail of the images; every page held tons of different details to search for, like what the other characters were doing in the store (Cookie Monster was obviously in the cookie aisle, etc).

All of these are reasons why children love picture books; they make fun connections between what is in the book and what is in real life.

But picture books come in so many different varieties. And as consumerism increases I find myself wondering about the state of art in this field. This week, I was especially struck to find myself considering the history of the art world in modern society. Most picture books are illustrated. Photography had a rough time being considered an art form, it wasn’t really until the 40s and 50s that people began to accept it as an art medium. Images depicted in children’s books tend to be far less realistic than what photos provide. Though I would suspect illustration being considered a higher art form is what has led to most picture books being illustrated.

Nevertheless, illustration comes in all shapes and sizes. And much of it provides a connection to the art period during which the piece was produced. For instance, the first water color paintings of Peter Rabbit, to me, are iconic of the time period.

Ay, Art is a difficult topic to discuss; there are so many facets. I think about the intention of the artist. But sometimes that doesn’t matter. Sometimes what matters is who the artist is, or what the artist is creating. Take my Sesame Street book for example. Sesame street is a popular kids TV show, the book was made as a result of the TV show. Therefore many probably conclude the book has less value, since it does not stand-alone, it is taken directly from a concept, which already exists. In fact, many, including myself sometimes, claim that this is what defines art: the ability to standalone. Peter Rabbit was an original concept; the artwork was just as original.

I look at all of the Caldecott books that I have researched as part of the class project and not once did I find Scooby Doo, or Pokemon, or Sesame Street for that matter.

But I suppose, to an aficionado of Children’s Picture books, it is not so much the quality of the art that is important, but the impact it has on the reader. Despite this, Journal, I have to say that I disagree with this assertion. Yes, Pokemon, Scooby Doo, Bob the Builder, good for you. But I tend to feel like the increase in all of these popularized books/products, hurts modern art as a whole. Disneyification is the new devil, in my eyes. But I did not know this had been going on since 1939, and probably earlier.

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Moving quickly on with this business of Picture books, I was thinking about myself, a writer. Picture books are wonderful and terrible at the same time. They seem to be most wonderful when they challenge us to picture things in new ways, ways we might not have pictured them before. They are also wonderful when they can inspire a child to learn and investigate on his or her own. But they take a turn for the worse when they inhibit imagination. This is what we see happening with Films now. So many times a teacher would show us the Film version of a Shakespeare play before we begin our own discovery of it, only to discover that the process has been ruined. We see Leonardo Decaprio as Romeo and he is Romeo for the rest of our lives.

Books filled with words force young reader to imagine. Harry Potter for example, is accessible to younger reader, and what is so wonderful about it is that each kid sees the scene differently, this of course standing as probably the best argument against the movies. I myself read all of the books before the movies of them were made and still do not like what has happened to the adaptations.

But this is about Picture books. And I again am struggling to find an underlying meaning to this week. Picture books and comics despite not being around for so long, seem to have an immense history, and pose great questions on artists and on the culture of the modern world. Over time picture books have begun asking “racier” questions as society becomes more open. Comics as well have adjusted to cultural changes.

But what do I as a writer, as an artist have to learn? I’m not sure. I think I know an artistic Picture book when I see it. We all do. I do not see Don’t Forget the Oatmeal as being “artistic”, but it will stay with me. I will always remember how Bert ties a string around his finger so he won’t forget something. I will always remember the oatmeal. Perhaps, my dear Journal, this discussion on the lasting qualities of Picture books is hopeless. We are all free to marvel at new ideas and concepts that artists will continue to provide us with for the rest of our lives. I can still enjoy Flotsam, and the Incredible Book Eating Boy until I am old. But the books that we would keep pulling off the shelves as a kid, no matter how sick of them our parents were, those are our own books. And to each of us, they will never lose their greatness.

Posted in Journals by Preston C. Palmer on June 17th, 2010