This post is written by member Evelyn Begody.
Writing for Children, the Middlebury College course taught by Sam Swope and Michele Stepto, has changed my personal reading. Now I find myself at the local Gallup, New Mexico children’s library or in one of the other nearby libraries, hunting new releases or literature featuring children of color. Mainly I’m looking for great books. When I find a book I like, I reread it. Sometimes I find willing audiences, usually my daughters, or I retell the stories to my friends and students. In all instances, I love to give away details that tickled me. FaceTime is very useful in these readings and retellings.
Children’s books have come a long way. Groundwood Books recently released The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem “Pangur Ban” by Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrated by Sydney Smith. Before the text begins, five gorgeous pages feature the Pangur Ban patrolling and exploring its setting. The monochromatic spliced pictures, set in comic book sections, mesmerize and haunt. Color is used judiciously. One illustration is the monastery text art that features images of the Pangur Ban hunting and killing. Placed right in the middle of the book, it adds shock value, but does not take away from the simplicity of the art. Clean shapes and color trick me because when I try to copy the shapes and lines in my notebook, I find that they are not as easy as I thought. Therein is the trick: the illustrations have an innocence that misleads. A long time ago, my brother and I used to return from the Phoenix Public Library, I with books and my brother with a painting that we strapped to his back as we bicycled home. I observed the constant study he took once he hung his borrowed painting on the wall. I can’t say that I have my brother’s eye, but I definitely think of him when I return to the illustrations of this newly released book that jars, haunts, and captures the essence of the aloneness of personal study.
Another haunting read is The Mouse and the Moon, written and illustrated by Gabriel Alborozo and published by Henry Holt. Imagine a person deciding that she loves someone, so she searches for this love, but in the process discovers another love interest. It sounds like a romantic comedy, but this basic story also alludes to crossing the race barrier because the friendship is between a mouse and a fish. The art is simple, but unlike the even, precise lines that Sidney Smith uses in The White Cat and the Monk, Alborozo’s pen-and-ink lines vary. He also includes watercolor that has been digitally mastered (art technology has come a long way). In monochromatic style, the first pages feature a faint yellow blessed moon that the brown mouse gazes on as it’s perched on the root of a fallen tree deep, deep in the forest. It’s another lonely setting and story beginning. I love when the Mouse mistakes the voice of the Fish for the Moon; that marks an important discovery. So dear. So sweet. And the beginning of a real friendship, like literally walking through the stacks in a library and lifting your hand to guide your attention when a title jumps out at you and you pull it out and walk to the nearest seat to open and read. Treasuring moments of discovery. That’s this story. This is the ache that we sometimes have that we store in the deepest recess of our psyche. I might be overanalyzing, but this is one of those special books because it’s not funny but sad.
My next recent find is by Jean Leroy: A Well-Mannered Young Wolf. Leroy and Matthieu Maudet have teamed up before, but Maudet’s note on the dedication page—“Thank you to Jean L., an author with manners”—predicts the humor. Translated from French, this story works because it’s real, kind but edgy. So what does a well-mannered young wolf do before he eats his prey? Asks and honors the prey’s final wish, of course. Because none of the prey the young wolf catches want to die, they escape by lying. Leroy did not write about a smart young wolf but one who is honorable and has a shelf full of books and plays a violin. One of my favorite lines is, “Liars!” Think of the times we have all uttered this out of frustration, feeling disappointed with the world. This is a real story that captures our lives. The last page demonstrates how people can embrace art or generosity while being unaware of others’ struggles. As the last prey of the young wolf turns to hang an art work, right behind his back are his two dishonest friends who tricked the young wolf. This reminds me that just a few miles from Disneyland or a Cancun resort live people who struggle in poverty. Or that thanks to the ones who collect our favorite tea leaves or coffee beans faraway, we enjoy our exotic brewed drinks. This complex story invites thought. Everyone I have shared this story with has laughed at the lines and the repetitive artistic language of the young wolf striving to honor the prey’s last wish. This fun story definitely has lasting qualities.
I am always searching for Native stories. Sherman Alexie’s Thunder Boy, Jr. is dear and quite popular. One new and unique story is Canadian Native Tomson Highway’s Dragonfly Kites Pimithaagansa, published this year by Fifth House. In case, you can’t say or recognize the last word, it’s Cree for ‘dragonfly kites.’ How cool is that? I now want to find a Cree reader who can read these sections to me. I want to hear what the language sounds like. Supported by the Canadian Ontarian Arts Council, this book plays a critical role in language preservation and cultural and Native support and portrayal, but it also demonstrates the creative but humble play of two Native boys. Many of us collected fireflies in glass jars but probably very few felt the isolated pain of being roughly handled in the pursuit of play. The story does take readers to the great summery outdoors with meadows, animals, and wonderful freedom. Artist Julie Flett features nondescript faces of the Cree boys, but the wings of the dragonflies are delicate, translucent, and seen in super detail, making the boys’ play delicate on fragile creatures. I am partial to these publications because so few books are circulated about Natives in a contemporary setting. Many books about Natives are set back with the buffaloes ranging on the prairie and Natives living in teepees, in tune with Nature. Those are fine romantic tales, but many Natives may not identify with that stereotype, and we know that as long as we encourage such stereotypes, none of the Native peoples’ current struggles can be addressed. Maybe, and this makes me afraid sometimes, publishers do not want to address our issues because of the overwhelming sadness.
Maybe someone should write an edgy children’s story with great monochromatic illustrations about a mouse who cannot visit her friend Fish because of a pipeline that divides them.
Evelyn Begody, in her 22nd year of teaching high school English on the Navajo Nation, devotes much time to reading and writing. She loves hiking, Greek salads, her four children, her husband, and reading—but not in that order, of course.