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Diversity & Children’s Books

Diversity & Children’s Books

NPR ran a though provoking story this morning about the persistent lack of racial/cultural diversity in American children’s books, even though about half of the kids in the US are nonwhite.

I got to thinking about Baby Beez’ library.  Most of her books fall into two categories: books with animals/cartoon characters/muppets as the main character, or books about Judaism (we are PJ Library subscribers and my mom is also absurdly enthusiastic about sending books about Judiasm). Her library isn’t filled with representations of white kids because it just does not have a whole lot of representations of kids to begin with.  I was pleased to realize, though, that one of her favorite bedtime books, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes (which we call “the baby book” in our house), is incredibly diverse.  I think it’s also sweet when she points out kids from her daycare class in the characters of the book, and it’s neat to watch how her match-ups do not always align with race or appearance.

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Do you seek out representations of diversity in your child’s library? What are some of your favorite childrens’ stories with messages of inclusion?

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Sunday AM Musings and We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen (2012)

Sunday AM Musings and We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen (2012)

In the last several weeks, I’ve been having a rough time at work.  It’s not caused by anyone or anything in particular. It’s just been extremely busy for several months and I hit exhaustion. I spent plenty of time at work fighting to focus because I was so darn burned out, and it certainly didn’t help matters that I had a ton of things I needed to focus on.  I woke up this morning feeling so much better.  Maybe it was a couple days in the mountains, maybe it was the cumulative effect of spending a lot of the last two weeks not physically in the office, maybe it was because I took Baby Beez to the pool yesterday and we had so much fun, and then I crashed on the couch at 8pm so now I’m feeling extra well rested.  Ironically, now that I’m feeling ready to go back into the office and take names and kick butts, I actually leave for family vacation in about two weeks.   I do need this energy for that lead up time, because I’ve got a lot of big things on my plate that need to be resolved before we set sail, and I’m going to need a lot of focus to get that done.

I really enjoyed this BlogHer post titled “Please Don’t Declare Yourself an Expert on Your Blog.” It argues that “expertise” has been diluted because anyone can declare themselves an expert on the internet, and that there is value in being a student, learning from others thoughts and posts and experiences, instead of dictating what to do.  This perspective rang true with me.  I’m not shy about sharing my experiences or thoughts, but I am careful with disclaimers that what works so well for me may not work for everyone (this is particularly true with parenting issues).  I’ve found that the blogs I enjoy most take a “sharing” approach– here’s what we did and had a lovely time, or here’s what I think, what has been your experience?  There have been blogs that I find extremely off-putting, because the blogger puts herself on a pedestal and declares herself an expert.  I recall a series of posts by one blogger about “How to Have a Perfect Marriage,” and the only thing it inspired me to was some serious face-punching.  It’s a fine balance– no one will acknowledge your expertise unless you claim it, but if you trumpet it too loudly and insist on making every post a “how to” on how you do everything perfectly, well then that’s a recipe for reader hate.

On to the book!

This was my month to pick a book for book club.  I take this honor entirely too seriously, and have been racking my brain about WHAT TO PICK FOR THIS SACRED MONTH OF MY SELECTION!  I read a ton of magazines (seriously, like 10 subscriptions), and read with my phone in hand, so that I can immediately add recommendations from the “books” section into my Goodreads.  I’ve got almost 50 selections on my “To Read” list.  Picking a book to share and discuss with my friends is an opportunity I do not take lightly.

We’ve read a lot of fiction lately, so I opted to mix it up with a little nonfiction, and picked We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, by Yael Kohen.  The book is structured in documentary style, constructed in snippets of recollections from various key members of the comedy industry– comedians, managers, writers, club owners, etc.

we killedThe book progresses from the emergence of women on the comedic stage in the 1950s all the way through the 2000s, and explores key evolution points in style, trailblazers in content, and the challenges women faced along the way.  I learned about the comedic style of women I’ve heard of, but have not been familiar with.  Thanks to the book, I also learned the vocabulary to identify what kind of comedy I like and don’t like (I’m a huge fan of improv and sketch comedy, not such a fan of observational and most stand-up).  Before this book, I just lumped it all together as comedy, and could not articulate why I thought one comic’s approach was funny but another’s was not.

We Killed is not a book of comedy, it’s a book about comedy, so if you’re looking for lots of laughs, this isn’t quite the right place. But it certainly is fascinating, and gave me a much deeper appreciation for the work of comedy.  I admit, that I’ve fallen into the false assumption that comics just “are” funny, and they get up on stage and show off their stuff.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Comedy takes hard work and practice.  Jokes are written, re-written and re-written.  Delivery is fine-tuned and sometimes overhauled completely, and women have had a unique position in the comedy world, facing frequent hurdles and sometimes even the unfortunate misconception that women just aren’t funny.  This book was awesome and taught me so much, and is an ideal read for anyone with even an inkling of interest in the art of comedy.

To supplement my book club meeting, I put together a YouTube playlist featuring many of the women in the book. Enjoy!

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The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty (2012)

The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty (2012)

The Chaperone was this month’s selection for my book club, and the only explanation I really have of why I liked it is because it was a “nice story.”  In The Chaperone, Cora Carlisle, a Prohibition-era Kansas mother of two, agrees to chaperone Louise Brooks on her summer of intensive dance instruction in New York City.  (If you, like me, had no idea who Louise Brooks was, she was an immensely famous film and dance star in the 1930s.)

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 During her duties as chaperone,  Cora also takes the opportunity to explore her complicated past.  This job was perfect for her, as she has mysterious roots in New York City, and she spends the summer working to unravel that mystery.

The book is character driven.  It’s easy to relate to Cora’s struggles to control, or atleast mitigate the damages in the wake of, bratty and spoiled Louise.  Cora is so close and relatable.  The book brings a few surprises, but Cora is a positive figure throughout and it is easy to become closely endeared to her.  Although Louise is a key character in the book, Cora quickly becomes the reader’s primary interest.

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Cora is a good character, through and through.  Living in such our current bleak, depressing world, it’s nice to read a novel in which a good character stays good.  This book isn’t heavy or twists or turns, but it’s very relatable and easygoing.

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Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan (2012)

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan (2012)

13547180Susannah Cahalan wakes up in a hospital room, restrained to the bed, with electrodes all over her head. She doesn’t know why she’s there, how she got there, or what’s going on. She learns that she has spent over a month, none of which she can remember, descending rapidly into madness. She moves robotically, she has erratic outbursts, her speech makes no sense.

Susannah was a young and successful journalist for the New York Post. When she began acting strangely, her colleagues and family assumed she was having a tragic but not-so-unusual mental breakdown.  Susannah, however, is extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time– a prominent Philadelphia researcher recently published about women suffering similar afflictions to hers, and while test after test came back negative, he ultimately discovered an extremely rare kind of brain inflammation.

Her family worked together with her tireless and dedicated doctors, and ultimately Susannah recovers. Her memory of her month of madness is nonexistent, and she uses her skills as a journalist to investigate what happened to her and why it happened.

Brain on Fire deals with heavy material, but it’s not a downer.  There’s always a glimmer of hope for Susannah (after all, you know from the outset that her story has a happy ending).  I was drawn to this book because of I am interested in the interplay between personal memory and the story that can be reconstructed from outside evidence.  Cahalan takes care to research and recreate what she can from journals and medical records, but because she has absolutely no memory of most of her illness, that fascinating issue never really presents itself.  Because she has no memory, she is distant from her subject, and it’s like she’s researching someone else altogether.

Brain on Fire is full of medical terms and science, but it’s not dry.  Although you know the outcome, the journey to getting there is an engaging one.  It’s a bit too serious for me to recommend this as summer beachside reading, but it’s perfect for a long plane ride.

Sidenote:  If you’re interested in the interplay between memory and outside evidence of events, be sure to check out The Night of the Gun by David Carr.  He, too, was a journalist who uses his reporting skills to research some of the darkest nights of his life, in the depths of very desperate drug addiction.  He has memories of those dark nights, and it’s fascinating to see the comparison of what he remembers and what his investigation shows.