From the Children's Shelf
By Avi Chomsky
Jane Resh Thomas, Lights on the River. Illustrated by Michael Dooling. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1994. ISBN 0-7868-2003-9.
Allan Baillie, Rebel. Illustrated by Di Wu. New York: Ticknor and Fields Books for Young Readers (Houghton Mifflin), 1994. 0-395-69250-4.
Naomi Shihab Nye, Sitti's Secrets. Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. New York: Four Winds Press, 1994. 0-02-76840-1.
Unfortunately for those of us who spend a lot of time reading picture books (aloud), political awareness in the genre rarely goes beyond of a message like "girls can do interesting things, too" or "people of all races can get along." While I would rather my kids absorb this than Disney's violence, racism and sexism, it is also frustratingly shallow for those of us who had hoped to raise red-diaper babies in the 1990s. Aside from the old Seuss classics, like ~~Yertle the Turtle, where little Mack protests that "down at the bottom we, too, should have rights" as he topples the pond's social hierarchy, where are the voices of social justice in children's literature?
Although you won't find them on your local chainstore bookshelf--in fact Waldenbooks denied that Sitti's Secrets existed until I provided them with the ISBN number--the three books listed here are welcome additions to a radical parent's bookshelf.
In Sitti's Secrets, a Palestinian-American girl travels to the West Bank with her father to visit her grandmother and cousins in an unnamed village there. Full-color, full-page illustrations in mixed media provide an air of magical realism as Mona learns to communicate with her Arabic-speaking grandmother, and the two watch kaffiya-clad men pick lentils in the field, and women carry water from the spring in jugs on their heads; they drink lemonade with mint; Mona plays marbles wordlessly with her cousins. Mona's goodbyes bring me close to tears every time we read it, and when she gets home, she listens to the news on TV and worries, and decides to write a letter to the president, telling him "if the people of the United States could meet Sitti, they'd like her, for sure." That's all: the book is about love and distance, it does not hit you over the head with a political message. In fact, nowhere in the book are the words "Palestine" or "West Bank" mentioned, though the setting is clear if you pay close attention. But its subtlety is powerful.
Rebel takes place in Burma, but in a context which is cultural rather than historical: it is not clear when the action is taking place, the General who drives his tanks into the village has no obvious government behind him, and the plot requires and provides no discussion of Burmese politics. The children hide terrified in the schoolhouse as the tanks flatten the playground and the General orders the villagers into the street, with his medals flashing, and tells them "Your are my people now. I have the tanks and the soldiers, and you have nothing... at school the children will learn only of my heroic battles and my glorious victories..." Then a single thong flies from the school window and hits the General, knocking his hat off. "Bring all the children outside," he orders, enraged. "Find the child wearing only one thong and drag him to me!" After several suspenseful pages, the children are marched out of the school, and we see their feet: they have all removed their shoes. Amidst the villagers' barely-suppressed smiles, the general silently turns and marches his troops away; the pencil-and-watercolor illustrations, with their vivid depiction of body language and his facial expressions, tell you why. The author claims that the story is based on a real event, though the General's retreat perhaps stretches credulity. I found the pictures somewhat scary, but my three-year-old did not, and keeps demanding "the one where the little boy threw the shoe."
Lights on the River is still a picture book, but for slightly older children. Teresa, a nine- or ten-year-old, leaves her Mexican village and beloved grandmother to cross the border with her parents, who are going to follow seasonal crops across the U.S. The action takes place over the course of a few days (interspersed with flashbacks to the people and places Teresa left behind in Mexico), as they leave a cucumber farm and move north to pick peaches, packing their belongings, including Teresa's doll, and the box of river sand her grandmother sent with her, into their old station wagon. While her parents and aunt and uncle pick, Teresa takes care of the babies at the edge of the field. Some of the "Anglo people" try to be nice to them, but their condescension is palpable: when the "woman farmer" invites Teresa to her kitchen for a fresh-baked cookie, all Teresa can see is the bathroom on the other side of the kitchen, with its pretty curtains, in stark contrast to the old chicken coop and outhouse where the farmers have housed her and her family. The love and warmth in the family is another theme, as they lie on the grass together after work, listening to Papi's guitar, and Mami sees Teresa's homesickness and pulls her daughter into her lap, "the place that was always home." Beautiful, realistically painted illustrations provide a childs-eye view of events and people.
All of these books are works of art as well as politics, and all have genuine child-appeal. I was astonished to find them on the shelves of my local library; I hope other readers will be as lucky.