January 28, 2010

(+++) THE USES OF (RECENT) HISTORY

Shake Rattle & Turn That Noise Down: How Elvis Shook Up Music, Me and Mom. By Mark Alan Stamaty. Knopf. $17.99.

Child of the Civil Rights Movement. By Paula Young Shelton. Illustrated by Raul Colón. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

     The grand lessons of the past are not what these books for ages 4-8 are all about. Yes, there are major trends and occurrences invoked here – in music and in human rights – but both books take those big societal matters down to a personal level, in attempts to forge a stronger connection with young readers in the 21st century. Mark Alan Stamaty’s Shake Rattle & Turn That Noise Down is done in comic-strip style, taking readers back to the long-ago days of 1955, the year the author turned eight, when “lots of things we now take for granted did not even exist” and “television was black-and-white.” Stamaty talks about the music education he got in school and the way his birthday present – a radio of his very own – thoroughly upset the care and order of his life: “A howling thunder of sound exploded in my room, engulfing me in a hurricane of excitement.” In lovingly detailed drawings with text that runs all around the panels, in multiple sizes and colors, Stamaty goes on to show the influence that Elvis Presley and his music had on him, his friends and family, his school, his Cub Scout den, and even on his adult life: at the end of the book, he includes photos taken when we did an Elvis impersonation for then-President Clinton in 1993. Stamaty’s explanations of historical details, even though they are incidental to the story, are especially well done – for example, his drawing of a 45-rpm record and his discussion of how those vinyl disks had “the ‘good’ song, the one they played on the radio,” on one side, and “a crummy song just to fill up space” on the other side. There are also some wonderful illustrations of pop singers from and after Elvis’ early years, and of some musicians whose influence on rock ‘n’ roll was significant. And yet, despite the undoubted quality of the art and the sincerity of the narrative, Shake Rattle & Turn That Noise Down is more a period piece than anything else. It does not fully communicate to today’s young people just how revolutionary Elvis and his music were to an earlier generation – and perhaps there is no way to show that effectively, given the state of music today. This is a book that, despite its official target age range, may actually appeal more to adults of Stamaty’s own generation than to their children and (gasp!) grandchildren.

     Sincerity practically oozes from another period piece, Child of the Civil Rights Movement, whose author, Paula Young Shelton, is the daughter of civil-rights leader (and former United Nations ambassador) Andrew Young. The story opens in New York, where Shelton was born, and continues in short chapters as she and her family move to Atlanta to help with the civil-rights protests of the 1960s. There is a great deal here about “Uncle Martin” – Martin Luther King, Jr. – and his influence on the Youngs as well as on the civil-rights movement as a whole. Raul Colón provides carefully drawn, elegant illustrations of King, the Youngs, and many other leaders of the time: Hosea Williams, Ralph Abernathy, Dorothy Cotton, et al. And then comes the story of the Selma-to-Montgomery march and the momentous Voting Rights Act of 1965, the latter being handled almost dismissively: “we’d won just one battle and there were many more to come.” The entire book is about passing the torch of civil rights to a new generation – in fact, Shelton writes that “the baton would pass to us and we would march on.” Shelton now teaches first grade in Washington, D.C., and her book is clearly intended to have a specific educational purpose. Everyone she portrays in it is one-dimensional: the civil-rights marchers 100% good, the whites of the South 100% bad. This is perhaps understandable in a story for six-year-olds, but it does an injustice to the civil-rights struggle itself and to those real, three-dimensional human beings who pursued it. There is more to be learned from the successes of fallible and imperfect human beings than from the triumphs of godlike heroes. By making the civil-rights story such a straightforward tale of good vs. evil, Shelton limits its value to the children of today, who – even as first-graders – can surely handle more ambiguity and complexity than this enormously well-intentioned book provides.

1 comment:

Paula Young Shelton said...

Infodad,
Thank you for the review of my book, Child of the Civil Rights Movement. You are correct that, as a first grade teacher, it is my hope and intention that it will be used for educational purposes, both in schools and in homes. I was surprised to read that you saw "godlike heroes" in my book. By telling stories of Dr. King at the pool, hugging young children, and eating dinner (macaroni and cheese) I really tried to portray Dr. King as a human being that young children could relate to, rather than just the iconic figure he has become. I also worked to introduce other civil rights leaders I was privileged to know, such as James Orange, Hosea Williams, Randolph Blackwell, Dorothy Cotton and others, that most children have never even heard of. However, there are many restraints on the author of a children's picture book, mainly length. There's only so much detail or dimension you can add to stories you tell in a children's book aimed at 4-8 year olds and still hold their attention and interest. I agree with your inference that each of these heroes deserves their own story and so I provide brief biographies and resources in the back for the more curious.
As for your reference to the "whites of the south as 100% bad", I was very deliberate in identifying those that violently pulled "black and white" students from their seats on the buses and burning it as "racists" and highlighting the multi-racial diversity of the Selma to Montgomery marchers which included "Black and white" as well as "Jewish rabbis, Catholic priests". I hope you didn't assume they were all from the north because of course many were also from the south.
I certainly intend to tell more stories about this important chapter in American history and I hope you'll read them as well. I also hope that you will recognize the value in this book in allowing children to relate to a great historical figure on a personal and even comfortably familiar level, like an older and very lovable relative, telling the story of one child in one family going on an amazing adventure, an adventure in this case that also happens to be true.
Thank you for taking the time to read my first book and then writing about it. I'm working on the next installment now and look forward to your review.
Paula Young Shelton