Saturday, September 29, 2012

Can you picture that?

It's no secret that I love picture books and subject my 8th graders to them on occasion.   The truth is they aren't just for little ones anymore.   Sometimes a book's humor, topic, plot twists and word choice are really meant for an older audience.

This week I read a book to one of my classes in which the narrator, illustration style and word choice are geared towards a younger audience, but the subject matter is not.   It grates on your sensibilities like plaid pants with argyle socks.   We examined the book in...who is this book for?

Let me back up for a second.

I've been feeling overworked this year.   But haven't we all?   The days that I don't have a planning period are particularly taxing.   In addition to teaching 5 classes of language arts, I have another class that bookends lunch.   We had a bit of freedom in choosing a course of study for our kids, so I chose picture books, African American themed picture books.   Our minority population is small, but our students take civics this year.   I remember being captivated by the stories of the civil rights movement at their age.   Even so, I was dreading adding one more class and 19 kids I didn't teach to my plate.   Oddly enough, it's becoming a favorite part of my day.   Before lunch, we work on something of my choosing.   After lunch, they may read their own books, or borrow something from our classroom.

So far we've read Tar Beach and The People Could Fly and talked a little about the myth of flight in African American stories.   We listened to the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Hot 8 Brass Band perform "I'll Fly Away."

Although the song was written by a white man who was no stranger to picking cotton, it's a tune that's been embraced by black congregations as well.   (And doggone if the season premiere of Treme didn't launch right into that song last week.   Serendipity.)   We spent a few days making small collages entitled, "If I had wings..."   And I'm thinking of a way for us to dance the second line with umbrellas (and fairy wings?) around the parking lot.

But I digress.

Back to the story at hand.   I don't mean any disrespect, but Bessie Smith and the Night Riders will make your willing suspension of disbelief wear a little thin.   It's a children's book based on the evening that the KKK showed up at a Bessie Smith tent show and Ms. Smith told them where to go.

Yes, the KKK.   Hmmmm.

The author has a young girl sneaking to see the show, spying the Night Riders pulling up tent stakes and alerting Ms. Smith.   Sure, there's a happy ending, as there was during the real incident, but the KKK in a children's book is a little odd.   If you take a longer look at the cover, you will see those nasty Klansman with their torches framing the smiling Emmarene and Bessie.   Well, the kid does like the song "Tain't Nobody's Business," so she can't be a stranger to violence.   No word on if she knows the songs "Kitchen Man" and "Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer."

Of course, the 8th graders were spellbound by the truth behind the story and well aware of the multitude of unhappy endings that could have resulted in Ms. Smith's confrontation with the Night Riders.   They decided that the book should be read to children only after the subject of the KKK has been taught in school.   Otherwise, how would one explain the KKK to preschoolers, the usual picture book crowd?

For additional drama, the story of Ms. Smith's death is another real life nail-biter.   If you're ever in Clarksdale, Mississippi, make sure to take note of the Blues Marker at the Riverside Hotel.   It was once a hospital, the one where Bessie died.   You may read the text of the marker here.

I'm going to post a link to a clip from an A& E Biography on dear Bessie, but let me apologize in advance for someone's manners.   Someone couldn't miss the opportunity to call Ma Rainey "the ugliest woman in show business" before remarking on Bessie's beauty.   Not necessary to put one woman down to lift another woman up, and tain't nobody's business if she is.

Well, that's all for my not-quite-midnight-ramble.   Thank you and good night!

No comments:

Post a Comment