February 21, 2019
(+++) TALK TIME
Say Something! By Peter H. Reynolds. Scholastic. $17.99.
The constant push for picture books to be inclusive, politically correct, self-esteem-lifting and generally upbeat is a genuine trend in publishing, and there are many positive elements to it. But there are negatives as well, as when books become overly preachy or so skewed in a particular direction that they turn into advocacy pamphlets for the “right” way to do things. That will be the problem for some families with Peter H. Reynolds’ extremely well-intentioned Say Something!
Take the cover, for example: it is replete with kids of all shapes and sizes, including, inevitably, one in a wheelchair; and it is skewed toward protest, with one child wearing a peace-symbol shirt, one a shirt that says “Be the Change,” and one a shirt with the words, “I Have a Dream.” So far, so good. But parents of children who are not African-American may wonder whether the book is for their families, since there are 12 kids on the cover and at least six are definitely African-American – 50%, when the African-American population of the United States is actually about 13% (so, for genuine balance, there should be no more than two African-American children shown). The cover clearly reaches out to a group usually labeled “under-represented,” and there are in fact multiple skin tones on display in Reynolds’ illustration; but does it really reach out to other races and ethnicities as well as to African-Americans?
Open the book to the inside front cover and the question of intent persists. There are no kids shown here, only word balloons with sayings including, “Let’s right the wrong,” “Justice,” “Peace,” “Let’s stand together,” “Together is better” (those two sounding like echoes of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential campaign), “Let’s make our world a more colorful place,” “Be the change you want to see happen,” and so forth. The sentiments are, by and large, admirable ones, but a number have been co-opted by people or groups with specific sociopolitical agendas (as in the Clinton examples), and that calls the orientation of the book as a whole into question.
The book’s central character, an African-American girl, is urged by the unseen narrator to speak “with words, with action, with creativity,” and Reynolds offers attractive visualizations of various ways to express oneself – using an empty canvas, for example, to create a boldly expressive paint spiral. But some of Reynolds’ ideas are not nearly as simple to implement as he suggests they are. See an empty lot and plant flowers on it, he says – but his illustration shows the “lot” surrounded by green space; an empty lot in a city is scarcely so easily reclaimed. “If you see someone being hurt,” Reynolds says, “say something by being brave” – and what if the bully, possibly someone much larger than you or someone with a weapon, then turns on you? Reynolds ignores consequences at his peril – or rather at the peril of the young readers who may take his words and illustrations to heart and try to do the right thing, or what Reynolds suggests is the right thing.
Interestingly, the best pages of the book are the least-precise ones, the ones least inclined to give readers specific things that Reynolds thinks they can or should say. “Sometimes you’ll say something and no one will be listening,” he writes on one page – a thought worth thinking, especially when Reynolds follows it up with the recommendation nevertheless to “keep saying what is in your heart.” Elsewhere, in an attractive, purple-hued nighttime scene, he writes, “If you are grateful for being alive, quietly say something to the stars, to the Universe.” That is a lovely sentiment, and one that families of all races, creeds, colors and political persuasions can surely appreciate. It is intriguing that when Reynolds appears to try hardest to urge action-focused statements, he is less effective than when he avoids exhorting kids to say specific, action-oriented things. Of course, quiet introspection is not the stated point of Say Something! The whole idea is to urge children to speak out loud. But what Reynolds does not say, and really should, is that it makes sense to consider one’s audience and the consequences of one’s words before making statements, especially ones that seem to flow from a specific worldview or political persuasion. Teaching kids of all shapes, sizes and colors to be grateful for whatever they have and to express that gratitude to those around them and “to the Universe” is ultimately more rewarding than insisting they become mouthpieces for grown-ups by uttering specified pronouncements designed to make stated changes that adults such as Reynolds believe it would be good to make.