March 03, 2016
(++++) WORDS’ POWERS
Lincoln Tells a Joke: How Laughter Saved the President (and the Country). By Kathleen Krull & Paul Brewer. Illustrated by Stacy Innerst. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
My Chinatown: One Year in Poems. By Kam Mak. Harper. $6.99.
This Is the Earth. By Diane Z. Shore and Jessica Alexander. Paintings by Wendell Minor. Harper. $17.99.
An Abe Lincoln biography focused on his words rather than his deeds, Lincoln Tells a Joke – originally published in 2010 and now available in paperback – strings together Lincoln comments, speech excerpts and, yes, jokes, some well attested to and some less so, in order to humanize the 16th President of the United States and show him to be more than the towering figurehead he tends to become in history books for children and adults alike. Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer certainly treat Lincoln with respect and even deference, but they also put him in context, explaining that his early life in a log cabin “was actually quite bleak” and his frontier existence “was almost all work. Backbreaking work.” To counter the everyday drudgery, Krull and Brewer explain, Lincoln’s otherwise strict father would tell jokes at night so the family could laugh together. Lincoln became fond of them himself, especially those in a book called Quinn’s Jests – which, in the best of the many very fine acrylic illustrations provided by Stacy Innerst, his Lincoln Memorial statue is shown reading (kids may need to be told that the statue does not really look like that!). Krull and Brewer trace Lincoln’s life from its difficult early start through his failures and successes in the political arena and eventually, inevitably, to the Civil War. But their continual (if not continuous) discussion of Lincoln’s propensity for jokes makes their history unusual: they mention a popular song that ridiculed Lincoln for joking in wartime, and they point out that the play at which he was assassinated was a comedy, so he might have been laughing just before he was killed. Lincoln was no great Mark-Twain-style humorist – a typical joke, told when he had a mild case of smallpox, was, “I’ve got something now that I can give to everybody!” But the fact that he did have a sense of humor and did retain it through some of the darkest times in United States history shows him to have been a real human being, one for whom 21st-century children who read this book can perhaps feel kinship rather than worship. Words, humorous or serious, can connect people in many ways, sometimes through the centuries. Lincoln Tells a Joke shows one way in which they do that.
My Chinatown shows another. Here the connection is across cultures rather than time – or, more accurately, it is across both. Kam Mak’s poems deal both with assimilation and with retention of one’s cultural identity. “But how can it ever be a good year/ thousands of miles away from home?” the young narrator asks as he walks around Chinatown and thinks of his grandmother back in Hong Kong. The book starts in winter, and Ma’s excellent illustrations, even more than his well-crafted free verse, carry the boy through the season. “But I don’t want to go to school,/ where the English words/ taste like metal in my mouth,” he says in spring, as he watches a cobbler mending shoes on the street. “So many things got left behind” when the family left Hong Kong, the boy laments; but one day, when his father brings him an animal chess game that he finds in a bookshop, for the first time something feels “just like home.” In summer, when windows are open but the air remains still, the narrator clearly perceives two cultures becoming one in some ways while remaining distinct in others, with “neighbors talking/ in Chinese and English.” Then, in fall, the Moon Festival is wonderful, but so are some American things, like the ability to buy items from shops or just look around and marvel and never be asked to purchase anything. And by the time winter returns, the boy is celebrating his new life by eating Hong Kong food bought from Chinatown street vendors: “I’m first in line for fish balls.” And he plays tic-tac-toe with an arcade chicken that gets food as a reward for winning. And finally it is New Year’s Day, with “lions in the street outside…leaping, pouncing,/ prancing, roaring,/ jumping, dancing,/ shaking their neon manes” – a Chinatown celebration that connects deeply to another time and another place, while affirming the boy’s new home and the ways in which he now belongs there. Without ever becoming a strident advocacy book – because it is not a strident advocacy book – My Chinatown serves as a moving testimony to the difficulties of immigration and the joys of finding oneself in an enclave that, although far from home, becomes home through the will and determination of the people living there.
The advocacy is far more overt, and for that reason perhaps less effective, in This Is the Earth, although the gentle cadence of the poetry and the beauty of Wendell Minor’s paintings make the book appealing and will perhaps help its well-intended message resonate, especially with children on the younger end of its target age range of 4-8. Diane Z. Shore and Jessica Alexander start by showing how beautiful are the things of our Earth and how gently and harmoniously people always lived in the past – a complete fabrication along “noble savage” lines, but important for the argument of the book, whose tone and illustrations change character significantly as industrialization progresses. Trains and steamboats spew black smoke into the sky as time progresses – and the population increases dramatically, a fact never mentioned in the book despite being deeply germane to Shore’s and Alexander’s presentation. Eventually, we arrive in modern times, “in this fast-moving, busy industrial age/ when we build, we expand, we invent, and we dare,/ and we change how we live on this Earth that we share.” The changes are immediately shown to be monstrously ugly: “garbage that steams/ on the sweltering ground” and a wastewater pipe spewing muck into the clean ocean, as the black smoke from factories becomes more prominent and even factory interiors are shown as bleak, dark, dim and dehumanizing. This is an Earth “polluted by greed,/ as we take what we want, which is more than we need.” And the answer, of course, is to do something about the gigantic population rise that necessitates ever-more-efficient production and use of natural resources and food growing and…no, not that; not in this book. The answer here – a pure First World answer – is to recycle bottles and cans and ride bikes: “This is the bicycle, racing to school;/ the pedaling rider provides all the fuel.” Releasing baby sea turtles helps, too, and ride sharing, and reducing water use, and “planting trees in the city to help it grow green,” and bringing reusable bags to the store, and so on. And these are good things to do, helpful and worthy and to be commended – even though they are the tiniest drops in the bucket when compared with the resource strain caused by explosive population growth and the completely reasonable demand of increasing numbers of Third World people for the comforts and possessions that the First World takes for granted. The words in This Is the Earth are lovely ones, and certainly the authors would argue that their hyper-simplistic message is age-appropriate and at least shows some things that very young readers and their families can do to rebalance Earth (although the notion of returning to some nonexistent former utopia really is over the top). What keeps this as a (+++) book, though, is not what it says but what it does not say. The authors never state that all the things they recommend are good but are not enough – that there are much bigger problems, ones that young readers will learn about as they grow older, ones they may be able to help solve because they will have learned the importance of conservation, reuse, recycling and respect for the Earth. This Is the Earth lacks context. Perhaps that is deliberate because of the book’s target age range – but it is a lack nevertheless, one that parents should be prepared to remedy after reading this book with their children.