Saturday, October 16, 2021

Being Both “Teacher” and “Student”


Education has always been an essential part of my life, even at a young age. I’ve always looked forward to going to school, as it felt like a safe space for me. I also looked at my teachers and professors in absolute awe as I saw them as the pinnacle of knowledge, the holder of all truths, and I wanted to be that. 


This semester I had the remarkable opportunity to hold the title that I felt so fondly of. During my final year as a graduate student, I was offered a TA position, in which I built my schedule and syllabus from scratch to teach English 220: Introduction to English. I quickly learned that I now hold two titles: teacher and student. It’s a strange phenomenon because from eight in the morning until lunch I am the teacher. I make lesson plans, email students, grade assignments, and am front and center in the classroom to lecture with curious eyes on me. But then my role is reversed once I attend my grad seminar and make my way to my desk. Often, my roles may intertwine, such as when my students ask insightful questions and inform me of things I haven’t heard of or considered. 


Being a full-time graduate student while teaching my very first course is a constant rollercoaster of emotions. One moment, I love what I’m doing; I enjoy attending my classes and giving my students help and resources, but then the next, I feel burned out, overwhelmed, and frustrated because I put myself on the back burner. Finding a balance between work, school, family, friends, and yourself is difficult, but it’s mandatory. Otherwise, you’ll end up feeling like your work is burdensome, but it isn’t; it’s simply a lot, and that’s okay. Being honest with myself, my peers, professors, and even my students has been a huge relief for me, and it reminds you that this feeling of chaos and distraught isn’t just a “you” thing. Having those open and honest conversations reminds me of how far I have come and that I should be proud of the progress I have made. Whether I am the teacher or student, it is all a learning experience, and I’m thrilled that at least I am fortunate enough to have this significant memory in my lifetime. 


-LA


Friday, October 8, 2021

Interview with Professor Lashon Daley

 The NCSCL is honored to present an interview with Dr. Lashon Daley, the Department of English and Comparative Literature’s new assistant professor of children’s literature. The interview was conducted online by Natalie Alvarez and Lara Amin, graduate assistants for SDSU’s National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. We thank Professor Daley for taking the time out of her busy schedule to talk with us, and we’re proud of the opportunity to better acquaint our readers with our newest professor and her exciting work!


Tell us a bit about yourself: Where are you from? What were some of your favorite books as a child? How did you become interested in children’s literature and childhood studies, and what do you find particularly interesting about it?


I grew up in Miami, Florida, and spent most of my childhood climbing the mango tree in my backyard and the avocado tree in my front yard. As a result, I rarely read for leisure. Being outside and playing with my siblings brought me more joy than reading on my own. And to be honest, I hated reading. I preferred making up stories in my mind and telling them to my very attentive collection of stuffed animals. I did begin writing down my own stories when my mother gave me my first journal at the age of seven. I wrote my first children’s book shortly thereafter. It was about a blue rose that did not know how to bloom and had to learn on its own. 


When I eventually began to tolerate reading, I fell in love with serial collections like The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain, Clifford the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell, and Spot by Eric Hill. In addition, I’ll Fix Anthony by Judith Viorst was also a favorite because it mimicked my experience of being the youngest child and allowed me to feel seen.


As you can see, my love for children’s literature was a slow burn. It finally caught fire when I was working as a marketing assistant at the Louisiana Children’s Museum in New Orleans. I had the privilege of working with my colleagues to implement children’s educational programs, and childhood literacy was a major part of our core mission. I had a running knowledge of what was popular in the industry, what books were used to hit literacy goals, and essentially what made a good children’s picture book. So, I decided to write my own. My children’s book, Mr. Okra Sells Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, was published in 2016 by Pelican Publishing, and it launched me into the industry in a new way. Performing the text at festivals and in classrooms made me even more curious about children’s literature. When the book was released, I was in my first year of my doctoral studies at UC Berkeley. Through a series of research pursuits, children’s literature, especially children’s literature as it intersects with Black girlhood studies, eventually became one of my research fields.


Children’s literature is a fascinating field of study because of its depth and breath. Essentially everyone from children, to parents, to educators, to librarians, to the top 

scholars within the field, to the illustrators, to the writers themselves all, play a role in expanding this field of study. The infinite possibilities of where this field can go means that I am limitless in my research. And for me, that is a beautiful place to be. 


When you applied to SDSU, what aspects of the university and the Department of English and Comparative Literature did you find most attractive?


While my Ph.D. is in Performance Studies, my heart has always been based in English and Comparative Literature. I received my BA in English, my MA in Folklore, and my MFA in Writing. So applying to the department felt like a homecoming for me. I was extremely impressed by my colleagues Phillip Serrato and Joseph Thomas, whose research interests are so fascinating. I felt that I was going to be among scholars who also remained curious and limitless in their approach to the field and to their research. I felt a strong connection to so many of the professors in the department, who are not only top scholars, but also creatives as well. Plus, the opportunity to work with, teach, and mentor English majors and minors is an absolute dream. 


What were the most significant challenges or obstacles for you during or post-graduate school?


When I was pursuing my MFA in Writing at Sarah Lawrence College, I had a desire to pursue publishing after graduation. I did not. However, that desire manifested itself again while I was preparing for my qualifying exams in the third year of my doctoral program. I was feeling so overwhelmed by the requirements of becoming a top scholar that I considered leaving my program. I began to research the job market in publishing and even applied for a position at a children’s literary publisher. I never told my advisor because I knew that she would talk me out of it. Once I passed my exams, I did feel much more confident in my ability to complete my degree. I am grateful that I persevered because now I have the opportunity to continue my research and to be in conversation with those within the industry. 


What seminars would you like to teach? Tell us about them and how they relate to your research. 


I would love to teach a seminar on research methods for fiction writers. Since I pursued my MFA before pursuing my PhD, I feel like I missed out on some crucial knowledge on how to conduct research for my creative master’s thesis. Being taught the craft of writing is super important, but I believe that teaching research methods in MFA programs would be a game changer. I am a really great example of why this is important. For my MFA thesis, I was writing a young adult novel about a Black girl coming to terms with heartache and grief after the tragic passing of her father. Now as a scholar at the intersection of children’s literature and Black girlhood studies, I feel much more equipped to write and construct a world for my character that is based in real-world research.


Which of your current projects excites you the most?


I have some children’s picture book manuscripts that I put on hold in order to complete my dissertation. I am excited about returning to those manuscripts. And then, of course, I am excited about turning my dissertation into a book.


What advice would you give to a student starting graduate school in 2022? 


When you wake up in the middle of the night with the perfect word or sentence for your manuscript, write it down immediately. You will NOT remember it in the morning. 


**


Thank you so much to Dr. Daley! We’re grateful to have the opportunity to showcase SDSU’s brilliant new professor of children’s literature!


- (NA) & (LA)


Friday, October 1, 2021

Review of Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

Book cover for Safia Elhillo's Home is Not a Country

 

About two weeks ago, I looked at the Young People’s Literature nominees for the 2021 National Book Award. I wanted to see which books I had read and which to add to my ever-growing reading list. Since I had been on the lookout for novels-in-verse, Safia Elhilo’s Home is Not a Country particularly interested me. Then, while browsing the stacks at The National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, I noticed we had a copy of it. This felt like fate! I knew this had to be my first review for the semester. 


Home is Not a Country takes place in the early 2000s and follows the story of Nima as she navigates loneliness, family dynamics, friendship, and nostalgia for a home she’s never visited. These complex issues are explored in only 224 pages. 


My reading of this book was hybrid, meaning that I read both the book and listened to the audiobook. The author’s narration of the audiobook enhanced my experience of the book. I could feel the emotions Nima goes through and the loneliness she experiences. Nima attributes this loneliness to her mother. This is the introduction the reader gets to Nima and her mother’s relationship. The organization of the poems itself tells you what parent she values more and points to the complicated relationship she has with them. Nima’s relationship with her parents, especially the one with her mother, was my favorite aspect of the novel. Her mother is Nima’s sole caretaker, and a lot of the resentment Nima feels is directed towards her. Their relationship reminded me of how children of single parents tend to glorify the parent that is absent from their lives, and this is definitely present in Home is Not a Country. 


There’s an instance in which Nima contemplates what her mother must have sacrificed to come to America:


I can’t help but imagine
that her life was enormous before we came here

loud & crowded & lively as any party...(36)


Nima talks about how her mother’s life became smaller with her move to America. She recognizes that her mother is as lonely as she is. I loved this because it made me realize something about my own family. As my world expanded due to moving to a different country, my parent’s world shrank. In the name of progress and opportunity, parents sacrifice lives they’ve built-in their home countries and say goodbye to social relationships they may have. They give away their support systems for their children. I think this was so important to include in the book, for Nima to understand how living in a different country has affected her parents as 

well as her.


Image of Home is Not a Country’s backflap which includes a picture of the author, Safia Elhillo by Aris Theotokatos

The novel has a bit of magical realism, which I was not expecting. However, it was a welcomed surprise. This element takes the form of self-doubt and realizing where you belong. One of Nima’s desires is to see her homeland through the eyes of her family, to experience it as they did. When Nima wishes for such, she gets to live it but at a cost. These moments highlight how important it is for us to view the whole picture instead of what we believe to be true. Sometimes truth isn’t present because it can hurt us, but knowing that truth allows us to see the world clearly and appreciate the life we have. This is what Nima experiences in those instances of magical realism. They are absolutely beautiful and poignant. The book uses magical realism for its climax, which wonderfully brings together all the threads of the story. I had read books where magical realism was in the narrative from beginning to end, but not one like this. That’s one of the reasons why this book became such a memorable experience. 


The writing is gorgeous and lyrical. Here’s an example from one of my favorite poems in the book “A Single Possibility”:


she isn’t my sister    we are opposite ends of a single
possibility   an only child    forming in 
our mother’s belly   waiting to be shaped by a name
once & for all...(155)



One thing that stood out to me was the formatting of the poems, the spacing within them allows the reader to breathe and ponder the lines carefully. The blank spaces in this piece drive the meaning of the words and tell the reader which words deserve a closer look. My favorite part of this excerpt is the line “we are opposite ends of a single/possibility.” The line stood out because it shows how Nima thinks only one version of her is possible. Her lack of consideration for change is put beautifully and succinctly. Elhillo writes about complex contemplations of the self in such a distinct manner and I’m excited to read more of her work. In Home is Not a Country, Safia Elhillo presents a magical exploration of family bonds and how understanding ourselves brings upon an understanding of those who love us.

- (NA)

Friday, September 17, 2021

New Graduate Assistant



 Hello everyone!


My name is Lara Amin, and I am currently a second-year graduate student pursuing a master’s in English at SDSU! My specialization is in Children’s Literature, and I’m most interested in literary nonsense like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Other scholarly interests include gender and sexualities studies and feminist and queer theory.


This fall semester, I am also a TA for English 220: Introduction to Literature. In my course, I strive to help students understand literature on a deeper level, close read various texts using different mediums, and provide a safe space to learn and grow as critical thinkers. 


When I’m not in the classroom, I spend my free time studying astrology and tarot. Astrology has always been a particular interest of mine, and it’s essentially my love language. I utilize astrology with tarot readings to give advice and guidance to others, especially when they need it. To me, astrology and tarot are other forms of close reading, just like with literature. When I’m not studying astrology, I write poetry and post my photography on Instagram


All in all, I am grateful for the opportunity to be a Graduate Assistant at the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. ​​I can't wait to see what I will learn from this deep dive into the scholarly conversations surrounding children's literature!


-LA

Monday, May 10, 2021

Looking Back and Looking Forward at the End of my M.A. Experience

The title of “scholar” was one that intimidated me since before I began my graduate studies -- it felt as though I would never be able to achieve it. Yet the final question asked during the defense of my culminating project for this M.A. in English degree was “how do you feel now that you have joined the scholarly community with your own unique intervention?” To hear that question of recognition and welcome was truly an honor. I can honestly say that I achieved what I had hoped to over the course of my two years in this grad program. Along the way, I’ve learned that becoming a scholar is less about being inherently intelligent and more about learning scholarly conventions in order to make a contribution to the conversations that already exist. I can definitely attest to the fact that hard work, humility, and perseverance made it possible.


The Culminating Experience:

To provide some context for my journey, I thought it would be helpful to share a little bit about the M.A. process at San Diego State. I chose the portfolio option, meaning I revised my star paper to the point that I might feasibly submit it for publication. The portfolio workshop began in January. It was truly a rigorous and demanding process. I was able to engage with children’s literature seriously and had very high standards to meet regarding the quality of my research and writing. One of the biggest takeaways was certainly my development of endurance. While I hadn’t really ever had a problem with working hard, I was used to completing and then submitting assignments -- done. Though I taught revision in my composition classes, I didn’t actually have to do it myself as a student. In the workshop, however, I had to submit section after section of my paper for the weekly assignments, then go back and revise based on the feedback I received from my peers and professor while also preparing another section for the following week. It got to the point where I dreaded reading my own words, and did all of my other assignments to avoid having to revise.

My main support throughout this process was the peers who endured it with me. We were all on the same schedule, which meant that we had to meet the same deadlines. Even so, the chance to chat in casual breakout room conversations at the beginning of class allowed us to destress. It is easy to complain about the detriments of online learning, but I believe having to undergo the portfolio workshop on Zoom while still in a global pandemic gave us the opportunity to be more vocal about all of the other things that affect the writing process. We were able to be vulnerable about impostor’s syndrome, about the struggle of researching, and about losing sight of what we had loved about our papers. Through it all, we supported one another emotionally and intellectually so that we all had intensely revised portfolios to submit by the beginning of April.

The portfolio was comprised of the star paper, a secondary paper, and an annotated bibliography, all of which I had to be prepared to discuss during my defense. My advisor and an examiner read the portfolio two weeks in advance, during which time I prepared for the questions I would likely receive. We practiced answering questions aloud in the portfolio workshop, and all too soon, it was time for the defense. Upon beginning, I was immediately overwhelmed with gratitude for the generous, thoughtful engagement of my advisor and examiner with my work. They expressed their interest in my subject matter even though Asian American children’s literature is a niche in the field of children’s literature. Their questions were specific to the content of my paper, indicating that they had read it thoroughly and could see new directions in which my ideas could expand. They were also curious about my overall journey as a student throughout my two years in the program. The conversation was very enjoyable. Terrifying at first, but ultimately very fun. It was an experience I will always be grateful for, and I expressed that sentiment in response to that final question I was posed. I feel confident taking this paper to present at ChLA 2021 to test out its readiness for eventual publication. My scholarly journey has only just begun.

 

Graduate Assistantship:

The rigors of graduate-level literary study were certainly rewarding, but I also had other opportunities outside of the classroom for which I am thankful. The graduate assistantship that allows me to write these blog posts has been a fun, informal way to engage with the scholarly community. I had the chance to read and write on hot-off-the-press books, learn about the use of social media, correspond with leading intellectuals in the field via email and Twitter, attend a conference, join professional organizations, and be involved in lectures by notable scholars. More importantly, being a graduate assistant allowed me to see and validate passion for the study of children’s literature. I am forever grateful to Dr. Joseph Thomas, our Director, as well as my fellow graduate assistants, Sofia and Natalie, for sharing this space with me.

 

Teaching:

As I’ve written about before, SDSU gives graduate students the opportunity to teach first-year composition and literature courses. I won’t take up too much space reiterating it here, but thanks to those opportunities, I can pursue teaching as a career with confidence. I received extensive pedagogical training before and during the courses I taught, and professional development events were frequent and timely. I am certain that I can take all that I learned at my time at SDSU to whatever campuses I am at in the future!

 

A final word:

It’s hard to not get sentimental, as this is likely the last blog post I will write for the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. If even one person reads to the end, I will always be grateful that my words were worth your time. Thank you for this space, and I truly look forward to ongoing engagement with the study of children’s and young adult literature as a newly minted scholar.

 - (A.N.)

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, April 26, 2021

“We Have Always Dreamed of (Afro)Futures:” a Lecture by Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

 

On April 14, 2021, the NCSCL was delighted to host Dr Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’ for her fantastic talk “We Have Always Dreamed of (Afro)Futures: The Brownies’ Book and the Black Fantastic Storytelling Tradition.” With over 100 people registered, we were not the only ones who were so excited to have Dr. Thomas virtually visit SDSU.

Situating her talk in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and current anti-Black violence and racism, Dr. Thomas explores the portrayal of Black characters within children’s and young adult books and how these characters indicate a future for those who are represented. Dr. Thomas introduced the concept of “storying,” the ways in which Black writers have forged their own identities and freedom within these texts. This act is especially prominent since “we are in a cultural moment where speculative storytelling reigns supreme.”

As Dr. Thomas writes in her book The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, there is a lack of positive representation of people of color in speculative fiction. Although there have been excellent fantasy novels written by authors of color as of late, Dr. Thomas focuses her research on the presence of Black characters in texts authored by the majority population for two reasons: first, because some of today’s popular texts written by Black authors were not available at the time of she wrote The Dark Fantastic and second, because the texts written by the majority population are the ones that make up the mainstream, which is read across diverse populations. For those reasons, she examines characters such as Rue from The Hunger Games in order to identify what kind of portrayals frame Black characters, concluding that “our reading and imagination are as segregated as our lives.” Black characters are trapped in the “Dark Fantastic cycle,” which Dr. Thomas defines as a pattern of “spectacle, hesitation, violence, and haunting.” Black girl characters especially are seen as “monstrous, invisible, and always dying;” their stories mirror the high rate of Black deaths outside of literature. Despite the oppression and violence they face, Dr. Thomas reminds us Black people have always dreamed of (Afro)futures. She spotlights the act of “rememory,” using the example of Toni Morrison who creates an Afrofuturistic world in Beloved wherein the protagonist, Sethe, recalls memories of the past. Like Morrison’s Sethe, imagination creates a new world, an Afrofuture. 



The above graphic demonstrates that only 10% of characters are Black while 27% of characters are non-human as of 2018 according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Since that time, the diversity “renaissance” in children’s literature publishing has excited Dr. Thomas. She recognizes that she has been cautioned against too much optimism, but wants to give credit where it is due. Dr. Thomas acknowledges that quality is not guaranteed simply because representations are present. As Black storytellers forge their own identities and liberation, there is still much more to be done in the field to address the books -- and the experiences -- missing from bookshelves. These absent stories of the everyday experiences of Black readers are labeled “shadow books” for their invisibility among mainstream readership.

In light of the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic alongside the current trial of Derek Chauvin and the discussion of anti-Black violence in our country, Dr. Thomas reminds us, “the persistence of anti-Blackness in pandemic space-time cannot be overstated.” She recognizes that the rates of Black deaths in novels mirror the deaths of the COVID-19 pandemic; that is, they are disproportionately higher than majority population deaths. Future dreaming allows an escape for Black readers from this reality. Books written especially for Black audiences, like The Brownies Book, allow for a look into the life of a Black child, but these books are few and far between.

To repair for the lack of representation, Dr. Thomas offers the concept of “re-storying:” how marginalized readers can read themselves into the stories that have historically excluded them. Re-storying, Dr. Thomas says, is a way for underrepresented POC to feel seen. The rise in representation follows a period of time that has been called “The New Jim Crow.” In some of these texts, narratives of Black pain are the focus, creating a burden on young readers seeing their own identities being brutalized and murdered.

 

Some portrayals of enslavement create what Dr. Thomas calls a “sanitized view of slavery.” These books often position Black characters beside famous white figures for the comfort of white readers, like in the book Unspoken: A Story of the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole, a white author. Many of these books are written from a third person perspective, distancing the reader from slavery. Dr. Thomas labels this pattern “#slaverywithasmile” and argues that humanizing depictions of people in bondage can reshape the images that dominate Black historical fiction.

Dr. Thomas concludes with the following question: “If even Black authors of youth speculative fiction are haunted by the afterlife of slavery, what might it mean for our Afrofuturistic Dreams?”

 

We would like to turn, now, to the Question and Answer Section in which Dr. Thomas answered questions posted in the chat. Here are just a few of the thoughtful questions that were posed, as well as Dr. Thomas’s responses:

 

How do you see multicultural picture books fitting into this conversation?

Dr. Thomas responded that the territory is vast. She turns to friends doing work on multicultural texts, recognizing that there is much to be read and written on the works produced by members of the African diaspora, such as Black British, Caribbean, and African authors. She powerfully claims that “the Afrofuture should be an inclusive future” and advocates for cultivating scholars with deep insider knowledge and direct experience with the communities who are producing those books.

 

Are there any texts that are encouraging, enriching, and empowering Afrofuturist narratives out there at the moment?

Dr. Thomas points to resources compiled by colleagues such as ReadingBlackFutures.com and the work done by Dr. Rukmini Pande (in fan studies from India).

 

Do you think that the obstacles to honesty in children’s literature about black life in America (or abroad) is on both sides—the dangers of all books being about slavery and horror and trauma of racism, Jim Crow, etc., thus fetishizing pain and trauma, and leaving out more positive, nuanced tales. And the problem of too much utopianism without the realities of racism, trauma, and pain being there to treat black American (or African) life honestly? If so, how do the best works treat pain and hope both?

Dr, Thomas candidly admitted that she had “been wrestling with this.” She was frustrated by growing up being told the same Black history by authors, but now it is “what I breathe.” After studying such a complex issue for so long, she acknowledges that “it takes a genius to break the Dark Fantasy cycle, and that’s why so few of us publish.” She also made reference to texts such as NK Jemison’s The Broken Earth trilogy and Ty Frank’s The Expanse. Ultimately, there is a knife edge between Black pain and Black joy -- not just joy or pain. Black people have a range of emotions which should likewise be depicted in the texts that portray them.

 


We would like to extend our gratitude to Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas for making the time to present such a fascinating and thought-provoking lecture, and to all who were able to attend. Please follow the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to hear about the events to come!

 

Monday, April 19, 2021

Review of The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore

 


The Mirror Season is my second book by Anna-Marie McLemore even though I own all of their previous releases. This book made it very clear that McLemore’s writing is simply one of my favorites. Their writing is just pure magic! The Mirror Season had me hooked from its very first line: “When my bisabuela first came to this country, the most valuable thing she carried with her was something only she could see” (1). This is a story of survivors and learning to live in a body that doesn’t feel like yours anymore. The main character, Graciela Cristales, loses her confidence as a result of the assault and her journey centers around redefining who she is and living with the guilt of what happened.


The book follows Ciela’s perspective and the reader learns about the night of the assault through her. The unraveling of the narrative was amazing. We got bits and pieces which Ciela felt comfortable sharing with the reader. She was in control of the narrative, as a sexual assault survivor Ciela felt a loss of control over herself. Through the information she gives the reader she takes control of her story, signaling how SA survivors’ stories are theirs to share how they see fit. I enjoyed how information was revealed to us and so many things caught me by surprise. 


Moreover, the layers of her story interweave with Lock’s story. Lock was at the same party as Ciela and their assaults happened simultaneously. They meet once school begins and form a friendship. The dynamic between Ciela and Lock was great and filled with humor. One of the most memorable moments was when Ciela brought a puppet named “Valentina” to cheer up Lock during their time in detention (73-74). Humor is used as another way of taking control of their story. The jokes between the characters is what moves forward their relationship. In an interview with the Write or Die podcast, AM McLemore mentioned how The Mirror Season has the most humor out of all their books because it is something SA survivors do. They do so to contrast the traumatic experiences they’ve survived and again as a way to show their autonomy. McLemore’s use of humor shows that even with traumatic experiences there are ways to rediscover the self and that is done with expressions of joy like humor. 

 


Another aspect of Ciela’s journey means becoming La Bruja de los Pasteles once more. Ciela has a gift, inherited from her great-grandmother, which tells her what type of pan dulce someone needs or what pan dulce will soothe them. Losing herself causes Ciela to lose her ability to know about the needs of others. Her healing journey and the way back to her gift means finding herself. McLemore makes it clear with Ciela’s gift that caring for others and being there for them requires the ability to take care of the self first. Furthermore, Ciela’s gift is truly fascinating, and I’m looking to explore it more in an upcoming paper. Here’s an example of her magic in action as customers approach her bakery booth at a town festival: 


Las magdalenas de maíz to a woman finishing chemotherapy, because she needs something mild to keep but with enough flavor to remind her she can still taste. Cuernitos de crema to a couple who found each other again forty years after meeting in high school (269). 


Ciela’s magic has a healing quality to it which is reminiscent of curanderos. These are healers in Latin American who practice traditional medicine to treat various ailments, they can be physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual ailments. In the passage above Ciela aims to cure ailments with her abilities. She is attuned with whomever visits her booth and knows exactly what will soothe their being. Throughout the book the reader experiences her ability and how it is an essential part of her. Ciela’s magic is part of a familial tradition but it is but a small part of the connection she has with her family.

  

By the end of The Mirror Season, Ciela became one of my all-time favorite fictional characters. One of the things I loved most about her was the bond she had with her family. Family interactions in YA is something that I pay close attention to. A lack of family interaction makes the teenage character seem more adult and independent. This fictional emancipation rids the narrative of interactions with family members. Relations with families is an important aspect of identity formation since the family is part of people’s first social interactions. Ciela’s love for her family is found all over this narrative. They are in the stories she tells, her experiences, and as mentioned before in her magic. Throughout the novel, Ciela gives the reader many tidbits on her family and she seems to have a story fitting for many occasions. This is how her love for them comes through and it shows how a teen can have meaningful relationships with her family and be part of a novel. These relationships let the reader know of who Ciela is before the start of the narrative, it gives her a background story, and makes her a more well-rounded character. The Mirror Season depicts how these bonds have a place within YA. Ciela has not been emancipated, yet the journey is still hers.

  

Another topic McLemore explores is the way society sees and treats brown bodies. The author touches upon how brown bodies are so over-sexualized and seen as an open invitation when they are not. I found this extremely relatable, reminding me of my own experiences and how from a young age my body has been seen like that. Despite the over-sexualization Ciela is taught to love her body from a young age by the women in her family. She describes this experience in the following: “my mother is the one who told me my curvas were worth celebrating. Every day growing up, I came home to a family where hips and thighs meant health and beauty, and it saved me from thinking there was something immodest and shameful about my body” (105). Ciela’s experience with her body is something I also found relatable because it mirrored (I had to do it!) my own experience and journey with loving my body. I think it’s really important to encourage body acceptance from a young age. McLemore shows how we should celebrate bodies like Ciela’s and how doing so may have a big impact on self-esteem.

 

 In The Mirror Season the reader is taken on Ciela’s journey of regaining her confidence, finding love, and living as a survivor. The novel uses magical realism and elements of “The Snow Queen” fairytale to present the reader with a raw exploration of being a sexual assault survivor. Her friendship with Lock showed how survivors are not alone and that humor can be a useful tool for finding joy. The story has so many aspects to it that I loved: the fairy tale elements, Ciela’s character, self-love/body acceptance, and the magic are just a few of them. The Mirror Season is going to be one of my top recommendations for a while!


-NA


Sources:

McLemore, Anna-Marie. The Mirror Season. Feiwel & Friends, 2021. 

Valladolid, Fabian. “Who Is a Curandero?” Curanderismo, www.asu.edu/courses/css335/page3.htm.  

Sunday, April 4, 2021

"Unhappy Ever After: When fairytales end badly" a lecture by Neil Philip

 


On Thursday, March 18th, the NCSCL was delighted to virtually host Neil Philip for his talk, “Unhappy Ever After: When fairytales end badly.” Well over a hundred listeners joined us through Zoom from both sides of the pond.

The topic that drew so many people to join us was tragic endings. Although most people have come to associate fairytales with the lighter iterations found in Disney adaptations, many of these tales originally end in grief and disappointment. For example, Philip describes how the “greatest of wish fulfillment tale type, Cinderella,” has evolved into a version that ends sadly: in a Brazilian version, Maria’s sister-turned-snake Labismina helps her to escape marriage to her own father but is forgotten when Maria marries a prince. Philip claims that “it is the lonely fate of Labismina that sticks in the mind, not the happy one of Princess Maria,” and goes on to reference Zuni and Eastern Indian versions of this tale with their own tragic endings. He acknowledges that there are also tales that purposefully twist listeners’ expectations of a happy ending via comedy, such as the “English gypsy variant of The Water of Life” told by Taimi Boswell.


He then transitions into a text that is much more familiar to the audience -- that of Little Red Riding Hood. Perrault’s 1697 version is the one with the question-and-answer dialogue that we recall, but in the Brothers Grimm iteration, Red Riding Hood is eaten along with her grandmother and a woodsman cuts them free from the wolf’s belly. Even more gruesome, however, are the French versions, one of which can be found in Catherine Orenstein’s Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked. In this tale, the wolf serves the girl her own grandmother’s flesh, but the young girl manages to escape by claiming she needed to relieve herself. Philip adds a factual tidbit here about the standard three-volume book wherein one can find over 2,000 folktale types across cultures -- Little Red Riding Hood is listed at ATU-333. 


Philip notes that even the Grimm brothers’ darker fairytales are a result of altering the original tales to be lighter. Grimm adds what Philip calls a “literary flourish” to the juniper tree tale, which concludes with a happy ending after “a story that is relentlessly miserable.” Dark themes and other key elements carry on through the iterations of stories. Hans Christian Andersen, the author of the original tales of many fairytales we know today, often writes with themes of grief, suffering, and disillusion. Philip explains that Andersen was rarely one to write happy endings, instead the iterations are “infused with melancholy” and he was “merciless to the characters'' in his tales. Although these happier stories are more popular, Philip quotes Oscar Wilde, “there are times when sorrow seems to me to be the only truth.” Ultimately, Philip says, storytelling can be seen as an act of reparation for the world. 

Partway through the talk, an ill-intentioned attendee unmuted himself and interrupted with inappropriate comments. Thankfully, Natalie moved quickly to kick him out and reported him immediately. The lecture resumed without incident, though we were no longer able to admit latecomers. 

After Philip concluded his lecture, the chat was opened up for questions which came pouring in. A few of them, along with Philip’s responses, are listed here:

Q: Why do you think children are associated with fairy tales?

A: It started with the Grimm's; they called their collection “Children’s and Household Tales.” The children’s section was really quite short, but as they released newer editions, they realized children were being read these stories, so they softened quite a lot of the elements. Evil mothers become evil stepmothers, for instance. By the end of the 19th century, you get really influential series of books of fairy tales which are specifically aimed at children. The stories are made more acceptable for a child audience. So that’s the beginning of our assumption that fairy tales are expected to be enjoyed by children.

Q: What do you think is the appeal, aesthetic or psychological, of tragic fairy tales?

A: It’s the same as the appeal of horror films and gothic novels; it’s just part of human nature that people like sad things as well as happy things. It is fair to say that the majority of traditional fairy tales do end up with a happy ending, but they put the poor protagonists, both male and female, through the most terrible suffering and troubles along the way. So the happy ending, what Tolkien called the eucatastrophe, is won through suffering. 

Q: Why do you think people have edited the original fairy tales to something that can now be read to children?

A: The Victorians -- well, 19th century people; let’s not say Victorians since the Grimms’ first version came out in 1812 -- they were sort of prudish about what was suitable for children. It’s interesting what they thought was suitable, like terrible retributions at the end of fairy tales like Cinderella's sisters getting their eyes being pecked out by doves and people being made to dance in red hot shoes regarded as perfectly acceptable. But they tried to weed out the sexual elements. It’s just part of the transition of these stories from an inherited oral folkloric inheritance to a literary one. People like Angela Carter have tried to put back all the things that were taken out.

Q: It’s refreshing to hear a scholar identify ways their thinking has changed as you mention with the Fens tale or your conception of authenticity’s value or otherwise. Have you experienced any other major shifts in your thinking over the years, scholarly or otherwise?

A: That’s certainly an example when my mind has been changed by someone else’s scholarship. I’m very much more aware of the individual voice of the storyteller in the story and that’s what I value in any particular story, rather than having a more generic interest in Snow White stories, let’s say. That and an interest in all the other elements in a story: the language, cadence, intonation, pauses, gesticulations. The relation between the storyteller and the audience is a very potent, dynamic thing in storytelling. My thinking about folk and fairy tales has remained much the same, but deepened and widened. There are things such as Mrs. Balfour stories where I’ve had a change of heart and thought. I’ve just written, for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a biography of a woman called Ruth Tongue, who was a very famous storyteller in the second half of the twentieth century in England. My initial attitude was that Ruth Tongue was basically a fraud, which I thought since I heard recordings of her actual voice: very cut-glass, upper class English and her storytelling voice which is a very heavily accented Somerset dialect.  I thought that something is not right here. And learning more about Tongue, I’ve begun to think she is not correct in what she says about where she learned these stories and who she learned them from because it doesn’t stack up, but actually it makes her more interesting as a creative storyteller because she is basically making all this stuff up. Someone said she “collects from herself,” which I thought was a very polite way of putting it.


There were many other questions and answers which we were not able to fit in this blog, but it seemed that many people were able to enjoy the fruit of Philip’s scholarship! His clear expertise, thorough research, and insightful conclusions sparked ongoing conversation on this compelling topic. Even Philip’s cat had something to add! Thank you to those who attended our first virtual scholarly talk. We were delighted to have such an engaged audience.


For those who missed it, the lecture and Q&A were recorded and can be found here:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBzElceP2nE


Our next guest lecture will be in April; keep an eye out for the details! In the meantime, we hope you pick up a tale that ends unhappily ever after.