Friday, September 30, 2005

Mead Halls: The "Cheers" of the Dark Ages

Or: What Librarians Talk About At Night

RW and I had this lovely literary discussion late last night when we should have been going to sleep, about all kinds of things, historical fiction whose purpose is to document a time and place (Like All-of-a-Kind Family and Betsy Tacy and Little House on the Prairie) vs. plot- or character-driven fiction that just happens to be set in a particular time and place (Like Anne of Green Gables and Little Wimmen) and how these women writers—Sydney Taylor and Laura Ingalls Wilder (or her daughter, who really wrote the books) and Maud Hart Lovelace felt this need to record their childhoods, a time that seemed so long ago and far away even by the time they were middle-aged, much more so than our childhoods were different from Mermaid Girl’s.

And how the American Girls books don’t go any later than WWII, and imagining a 60’s era American Girls series: “Meet Sunrise, a spunky girl living in a commune with her parents and their friends in the midst of the exciting hippie era!”

At one point, I forget why--something about Canadian versions of American Girls-type books and the Canadian need to Document Canadian-ness in a sort of didactic way--RW mentioned that under Library of Congress Subject Headings Robertson Davies books are classified as “Didactic Fiction.” And for some reason, that just cracked me up. “What is
Fifth Business supposed to be teaching us? ‘Don’t throw snowballs with rocks in them’?”

Here are some didactic rationales for other famous books:

Catcher in the Rye: Don’t Leave the Fencing Equipment on the Subway

Little Women: Stay Away from Hummels with Scarlet Fever

To the Lighthouse: Home Maintenance Counts!

Harriet the Spy: If you Hear a Funny Noise, Check the Dumbwaiter

Ethan Frome: Use Caution When Sledding

The Little Prince: If You Can Draw a Snake, You Can Draw a Hat

My very favorite literary moral is courtesy of Anne Lamott, though. In one of her books, a character observes that you have to wonder, when reading Beowulf: If the monster attacks the mead hall every night, why do the men keep going back to the mead hall?

Maybe they just wanted to go where everybody knew their naaames, and were always glad they came. I guess that monster was glad they came, anyway.

If you think about it, there are worse mottos for living than "Don't Go Back to the Mead Hall."

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Girly books and leisured moms

Badger wrote a great post at Othermag about "bad," nasty, irreverent girl characters that's been making me think about girly books.

RW and I have been reading lots of girly chapter books to Mermaid Girl in the past year or so. None with the kind of subversive heroines Badger's talking about, though. We were reading the Betsy-Tacy books for a while this summer, and we were all into them, but they started to wear when Betsy hit high school and got all boy-crazy and the books got to be 300 pages long. RW and I were exhausted just reading a chapter a night.

So we've switched to the All-of-a-Kind Family series. Shorter, less teenage-y, and the chapters are just right for a bedtime story while brushing MG's hair. Our girl is fascinated by the family of 5 girls each two years apart, recognizes a lot of the Jewish customs, and likes hearing about all the long-ago (turn-of-the-last-century) stuff.

I'm fascinated too. It's been at least twenty years since I last read the books, and this time around I got curious about the author, Sydney Taylor, who modeled the series on her own family and the middle girl, Sarah, on herself as a child. Aha! I thought. Maybe I can write a children's biography of her! The books have been in print for 50 years, there must be some interest. And a biography has the sort of pre-set structure that even an indecisive and distractible writer like me (or "like I", I guess, but that sounds dumb) can deal with.

Being a librarian, I tried the super-sophisticated (not) research method of Googling "Sydney Taylor," and got tons of hits on the Sydney Taylor Book Award given each year for a children's book with Jewish content, but nothing on the woman herself.

When I poked around in some databases through the public library, I did find a few articles (can't link to them here b/c they're subscription, but if your library has the Gale Biography
Resource you can find them there). The good news is that Sydney Taylor sounds like she was a genuinely cool person. Aside from writing the series based on her childhood, she worked in theater and was a socialist and basically lived the kind of long, interesting life that would be fun to write about.

The bad news--for me, anyway--is that someone else, June Cummins, a big kidlit person, is already doing it. Her biography of Taylor, the first one ever, should be out in the next year or so.

Yup. That's me, one step behind the zeitgeist. I'll be first in line to read it, though.

The other thing that fascinates me about the books is the amount of free time the mom of the family appears to have, considering that she was a working-poor immigrant (the dad has a junk store and there are many references to the scarcity of money) with five kids ages 4 to 12, living on the Lower East Side of New York before the invention of time-saving conveniences like washer-dryers and Trader Joe's.

There are little references in the books like, "Bedtime came early for Mama's meant that Mama could have a few quiet hours for reading or knitting or even just chatting with Papa without being disturbed by her little ones." Not to whine, and I know we have lots of other things that the books' characters (not to mention many people now) don't have, but when RW and I stay up after MG's in bed, we're either cleaning the kitchen, making lunch, and/or folding laundry. We do indulge in the occasional weeknight DVD binge, but we're always wiped out the next morning. If we have to talk a lot about logistics, that cuts into our sleep time too.

Or this one, that made both of us laugh ruefully when I read it aloud: "After the lunch dishes had been washed, Mama had a few leisure hours, and unless it was raining, she and Gertie [the 4-year-old, the only child not yet in school] would go out together for a walk." A few leisure hours every afternoon! And then a few more when the five girls are in bed! It makes immigrant poverty on the Lower East Side sound pretty darned good to us.

Of course, I have to consider:
  • The girls are 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12 in the first book, so this is probably the first time in 12 years that Mama's had nobody in diapers and only one child at home during the day. The previous eleven years wouldn't have been so restful.
  • The book is autobiographical fiction written from the point of view of the middle daughter, who when you get right down to it had no idea what her mom did while she was at school or in bed. In real life, the mom might well have been scrubbing laundry for hours most afternoons while Gertie did her best to amuse herself, and darning clothes late into the night.
  • Also, it is fiction. It might be that actually the mom was doing piecework at home to supplement the family income, and Taylor just left that part out to make it rosier.
  • [Spoiler alert]: Since the girls get a new baby brother in the last chapter, we can gather that, unbeknownst to them (or the reader), Mama is pregnant for most of the book. So it makes sense that she might need to take it easy.
  • Though the family doesn't have much money, they must have been doing better than most: they have two bedrooms and a front room, as well as a small yard. If you ever get a chance to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum either in person or via their fantastic online virtual tour, you can see what conditions were like for most immigrants in the neighborhood at that time. Not so good, to say the least.
Still, based on the articles I found, Taylor had genuinely fond memories of her childhood, so even allowing for fictionalization it couldn't have been all drudgery and artificial flowers on the kitchen table. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has a similar setting (though Brooklyn Irish rather than Lower East Side Jewish), and is far grimmer.

If we keep on at this rate, the series will see us into the winter, so I'll have plenty more chances to ponder the mystery of Mama's free time.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Life is a Journey, Not a Destination

I can only tell this story second-hand, because I wasn't there. I was at work. It's the curse of all parents who are also teachers that your kid's first week of school is also your first week of school, and while all this was happening I was over at my school wrangling the library class schedule and tackling passing parents so I could beg them to volunteer.

Fortunately, the Renaissance Woman and my mom are extremely reliable witnesses and also took lots of pictures (which will have to wait because they're all downloaded to RW's computer, which I am forbidden to touch because every time I use it, it mysteriously breaks).

So, the first day of school.

The Mermaid Girl was up early, ready, dressed in the new (pink) dress with matching hairband that she picked out of the Lands End catalog, toting her new (pink) backpack that matches her friend Jessie's new pink backpack*, with her initials lovingly painted in silver fabric paint by Jessie's mom. Inside the backpack were:
  • New pink lunch bag with lunch lovingly packed by me, including a little note using as few words as possible since she can't actually read yet
  • Pink and white water bottle with Hello Kitty stickers on it
  • Regulation Pocket Folder Labeled With Her Name (purple on the outside, orange on the inside)
  • Regulation Communal Classroom Supplies, including glue sticks, markers, tissues, ziplock bags, and a box of crackers (we never had to bring communal school supplies in my day. Taxes were enough! But, of course, we also didn't have ziplock bags, or glue sticks, so there you go).
She also wore the poncho that RW has been lovingly crocheting for her over the past several months out of the softest, most beautiful deep blue yarn you can imagine. RW will be the first to tell you that she's a somewhat inexperienced crochet-er, so the poncho is charmingly lopsided. Also quite big. When she wears it, Mermaid Girl resembles a cavegirl enveloped in the skins of a large blue animal, like maybe the Snuffaluffagus (isn't he blue?). But in a very sweet way.

So, the Cavegirl and RW and my mom trot down to the corner bright and early to wait for the school bus. Now, to say that MG has been eagerly anticipating riding the bus is to understate the case considerably. As far as I can make out, for MG, the yellow bus is the whole point of kindergarten: the fact that you actually go to a classroom with a teacher and other kids at the end of the ride, and, hey, maybe even learn something, is a minor detail.

The plan--that day and afterwards--is that RW will see the Girl off on the bus every morning and then will bike to work, set free at last from the tyranny of Daycare Drop-off (which I could never do instead of her, since I have to leave for work too early). Since my mom was there the first day, she would follow the bus in our car and make sure MG got to her class okay.

So the three of them stand there for a while, MG vibrating with excitement, RW and my mom taking pictures of her and each other at the bus stop. The appointed moment of 8:32 arrives, but the bus does not. 8:40 comes and goes, with no yellow bus in sight. At 8:50 or so, my mom suggests that if the bus doesn't come soon, she'll just drive MG to school.

A couple minutes later, the bus pulls up, manned by a cheery old guy, as my mom says, right out of Norman Rockwell. It was his first day, too, and he'd gotten a little lost along the route.

At this point, our girl suddenly lost it, clinging to RW and crying that she didn't want to go on the bus, she wanted Mama to take her to school, no, no, no, no bus! RW, already 20 minutes late for work, shoved her up the stairs, whereupon MG caught sight of her preschool friend Ginger sitting in the back, and zipped down the aisle without a backward look. (This precious parenting moment is captured for posterity on my mom's blog here: note the blonde blur just to the right of RW's bike helmet.)

My mom set out to follow the bus, which was more complicated than anyone had thought. Turns out, MG's school shares that bus route with another school that's further north, and the bus went to the other school first. My mom gamely followed it for a while, up and down, in and out, all the way to the other school, where it massed with all the other buses serving that school, disgorged a bunch of kids, and headed back southward.

But when the bus looked like it was about to cross a bridge and go into another part of the city entirely, my mom panicked: this wasn't the way to MG's school! Maybe she was following the wrong bus! She peeled off and headed directly to the school, hoping she hadn't missed MG.

When she got there, she saw a flock of helpful parent volunteers waiting to help the bus riders to their classroom, but no bus: none of the buses had arrived yet, even though the first bell had rung.

A couple minutes later, a big yellow bus pulled up. Aside from Bus Driver Bill at the wheel, the bus appeared to be unoccupied.

My mom panicked again--oh, no! Had MG gotten off at the wrong school?-- but this time, she wasn't alone; all the parent volunteers buzzed around, peering in the windows, muttering to each other. Where were the children? Was the bus empty? What was going on?

In the midst of all this, Bus Driver Bill pulled the lever, the door opened, and two tiny kindergarten girls-- MG and Ginger--emerged. They'd been sitting in the back seat, and it took them a while to walk all the way up to the front.

They were the only kids on the bus; everyone else went to the first school on the route.

("Did she look happy? Excited?" I asked my mom that night. "Oh, no," she said, "She had on her Worried Look. But she was fine.")

Both girls were immediately surrounded by volunteers, who whisked them off to their respective kindergarten classes.

As for the rest of the day... I think it went well. Who knows? MG is clamlike on the subject of school. She did have library the very first day. And Spanish.

And a few days later I found a first-day-of-kindergarten picture in her folder, snapped by yet another volunteer. Her teacher is beaming energetically; MG is snarling at the camera.

I think we'll save it for her wedding.

*In case you're wondering, Jessie's going to a different school. In fact, Jessie's going to the Only Public-School Language Immersion Program in the City. Long story. Short pier.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Soon! Soon!

Honestly, soon. As soon as I have half an hour or so.

In the meantime...Renaissance Woman, a/k/a the Blog Widow, has gone over to the dark side and started a blog forum of her own, under her own name, yet. She even gets to count it as part of her job (We should all be so lucky), since it's part of her library's participation in the September Project.

So go, read My Democracy. You have to have a Corrnish Colege account to post or comment, but anyone can read. (You could always comment over here-- I'll make sure she sees it.)

This post is one of my favorite stories from RW's days at Molson High School.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Excuses and links.

I'm embarrassed at how long it's been since I posted last. Blame it on the back-to-school season, which is kicking my butt, along with an advanced and prolonged case of how-can-I-blog-about-my-trivial-life-in-the-face-of-such-a-disaster-itis.

In the meantime, check out two bloggers who've taken the opposite tack: Grace, also known as Dr. Laura's Worst Nightmare, now better known as Ground Control's Dream Come True, is coordinating supplies and volunteers for supermom Victoria in Mississippi through the Hurricane Katrina Direct Relief Blog. And Badger, who just spent the past week in Houston helping people at the Astrodome find their families and loved ones. In the post she just wrote, she asks people not to praise her, so I will limit myself to saying that I've been riveted to her blog ever since she left last week, and that her writing has helped me understand what's going on there as nothing else has. If I had any dancing girls on hand, I'd ship them over to her posthaste.

That's all. Back soon with belated first day of kindergarten report and suchlike.