Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History – Vashti Harrison (2017)

I happened to catch this title in a display for Black History Month at the library, and curious, picked it up. My own knowledge of notable African-American women was limited, shamefully, but I knew that there were loads of inspiring and not-quite-so-famous women role models out there. Who would be included in this title? Let’s see…

Among the forty or so trailblazing women, there was Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895). In 1860, she applied to the all-white New England Female Medical College where she was accepted and graduated in 1864. Out of a total of approx. 500,000 physicians across the country, only 300 were female physicians, and out of that number, Crumpler was the only African-American woman. In. The. Whole. Country. (Can you imagine how hard she had to work in this world?)

Crumpler focused on women’s and children’s health, and published her own textbook, A Book of Medical Discourses, in 1883. (View the book here, and view my review of it here.) Wowee.

…There was Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978) who was a junior high school teacher for 35 years, as well as an artist (at a time when African-American people did not have many rights). She was a leader in the Color Field Movement which created paintings using bright blocks of color and was an important influencer in art. (Rothko was influenced by Thomas.)

Apollo 12 – Splashdown – Alma Thomas (1970).

—There was Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), whose poetry I had heard of but whose personal life I was unaware. She published her first poem when she was just 13. After publishing books of poetry, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first African-American ever to earn that honor.

—There was Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983) who was a social psychologist and counselor. Educated at Howard University (where quite a few of these forward-thinking leaders were educated at different times), Phipps Clark is notable for designing some research on children and how they see the world.

Called the Doll Test, researchers would give children, both black and white, dolls from which to choose in answer to some questions. After being asked questions along the lines of “which doll would be nice?”, Phipps Clark’s research showed that African-American kids who attended segregated schools would choose the white dolls for the positive characteristics that the questions asked, and the African-American dolls for questions as “Which doll is mean?” 😦

Unsurprisingly, these kids had really poor self-esteem of themselves and of others of the same race. This research became the basis for the 1954 legal case that changed America: Brown vs. Board of Education, where the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional.

And the list goes on and on of notable and extraordinary African-American women who are just not talked about when they should be household names. Every page introduced me to someone who either I’ve never heard of or didn’t know much about, and one of the best things was the Harrison has drawn each of these figures with the same face, to allow young readers to imagine their own faces in a similar position.

This was such a lovely book, and I hope it’s widely available in school libraries across the US. I learned so many new names to learn more about. I bet you will as well.

Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome (1930)

As a child growing up in England, this was a title that I frequently heard about, but I can’t remember if I ever read it or not. If I didn’t, then I should have as it’s one that I would have probably enjoyed: siblings going to camp on a “deserted” island unaccompanied by parental units all having some harmless adventures without any major repercussions. Yes please.

Whether I had read it or not, this time around the read seemed brand new to me. Published in 1930, it’s clearly written in a more innocent time when children go off and have harmless adventures without supervision and if you take it in that spirit, you’ll enjoy this.

It’s a kid’s novel along the same lines as the Adventures of Mallory Towers/Blyton (and their ilk), but this is a slightly more grown up version of life. Set in the Lake District, the narrative revolves around the Swallow family having their holiday on the shores of the lake in Conistan (a real place).

uk-mapFour siblings (very gender-stereotyped but them were the times) find an “uninhabited island” in the middle of the lake and claim it for themselves in a world of Make-Believe. The adults left on shore are “natives” and play a peripheral role for the most part, the oldest boy bosses everyone around, the oldest girl cooks and cleans (!!) and it’s all rather jolly hockey sticks and ginger beer.

The adventure ensues when another family’s kids also end up “discovering and claiming” the island – they of the Amazon clan in the title – and so it turns into a very tame gang war complete with a potential pirate in the mix. It’s a fairly straight-forward goodies/baddies set up, although the two rival groups of kids do end up collaborating against a common enemy (who isn’t that bad in the end), and it runs along the lines of a Scooby Doo episode but with more kids.

One thing that I was impressed with was how familiar Ransome assumed his readers would be with the sailing terms. It’s packed with these suckers, and since I have less-than-zero sailing experience myself, it was a bit mystifying at the start. However, sailing or no sailing, you can still keep up with the story itself and it all sorts itself out in the end. Just know that there are a LOT of nautical terms to keep up with.

I made a list of the ones that I remember, just to give you the scope of things:

  • “careen” the boat
  • Ballast
  • Aft/fore
  • Stern
  • Painter (something that was attached to the boat and was fastened to a tree)
  • Gunwale
  • Thwarts (a thing on the boat, not a verb)
  • Starboard
  • Foredeck
  • Let out a “reef in sail”
  • Broadside
  • Windward side
  • Sailing “close-hauled”
  • Halyards
  • On the “port tack”
  • Yaw
  • “Following wind”
  • Boat’s “forefoot”
  • Lee of an island

I have a passing knowledge of some of these terms (thanks to Star Trek mostly :-)), but it’s interesting to me that Ransome could assume that most of his readers would already have this sailing knowledge. Perhaps kids did back then? I’ll have to check with my mum.

So, a fun read and a journey back to simpler times (at least it seems to me).

Bedknobs and Broomsticks – Mary Norton (1943)

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Browsing through the shelves, both on-line and in real life, I was searching for a quick read for the Century of Books project, and saw that the old kid classic, Bedknobs and Broomsticks by Mary Norton would fit rather nicely for 1943. So – happily snatched it up and had a pleasant little read. (The U.S. title is singular, though, for reasons unknown, but probably linked with copyright or similar.)

Any time you read a book from long ago, there are going to be differences in how you remember things, and there were a few things about this read that I had (mis-)remembered, but perhaps it’s because I only saw the movie back then….

There’s a big difference, for example, on content and what used to be thought suitable for children (and for the times) can be somewhat jarring. This narrative includes some rather questionable descriptions of cannibalistic “savages” from which one of the characters needs rescuing – it’s amazing to see what was (British culturally) acceptable at the time sometimes. These characters had “kinky hair” and “thick full lips” – the starring characters, naturellement, were white – and so I’m curious if these sort of books are still given to children to read any more in great numbers.

little-black-sambo

(For example, my brother had a little book called “Little Black Sambo” by Helen Bannerman (1899) given to him for a b-day present at some point, and we children all adored the book. But looking back at it, regardless of the narrative itself, the illustrations are iffy at best. But them were the times.)

So, back to Bedknobs and Broomsticks….

The edition that I had combined two books, The Magic Bedknob and Bonfires and Broomsticks, both concerning three kids who move from their home to stay with an old aunt who lives in a small village in Bedfordshire. (Well, blow me over. That’s my home county!! Who would know?) The kids go outside to play and happen to see a woman flying by them on a broomstick who then crashes and they run over to make sure she is ok.

Thus begins the story of how these three city kids become enmeshed in the life of a novice witch who has sworn them to secrecy in exchange for a magic bedknob (corner decoration on the old brass beds) that can time travel. I was prepared for loads and loads of inappropriate cultural references, but the only patch (apart from the previously mentioned one) was when someone gets rather singed when he’s being burned at the stake…

But it seems to have aged rather well. I have no idea if kids today are still exposed to the film or the book, but it’s pretty good and I think the questionable references could be “teachable” moments overall. I am glad to have read this one, and was surprised to learn that actually it’s two stories inside: The Magic Bedknob (where the kids are first given the bedknob) and also Bonfires and Broomsticks (where the kids use the bedknob to time-travel back to the time of King Charles).

So not bad, not good. Just so-so. Norton was also the author of The Borrowers series of books that I adored. Perhaps I should track those down as well…

Peter Pan – Rough Kid Lit…!

Happened upon the title of classic children’s lit, Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie (1904), and thought I would read it and see how it was. Having grown up (along with thousands of others) on the Disney version, I was surprised by how dark and violent the original story really was. It’s still classified as children’s literature, but wow – it’s a bit rough around the edges.

Some of the new information for me that differed from the Disney version:

  • Captain Hook was “black”
  • The crocodile who bit off Cap’n Hook’s hand (and thus gave him the moniker) was a female and had eaten a clock. So long as Captain Hook could hear the ticking of the clock, he would know where this murderous crocodile was, but the minute it stopped ticking… “Ay…That’s the fear that haunts me…”
  • Peter was the cause of Captain Hook’s hook hand and it was he (Peter) who gave the bitten-off hand to the crocodile. (Not sure why it was bitten off in the first place though… And why did the crocodile swallow a clock?…)
  • Tinker Bell is actually really mean, jealous and spiteful – none of this little gentle flickering light of kindness fluttering around….
  • The “Pan” mentioned in the title refers (I think) to the Pan, the god of Nature etc., he who played the pipes and danced around. This god was a common image in lit for about the fifty years between late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In fact, one of the chapter titles in “The Wind in the Willows” is called something to do with Pan…

 (Left: Image of Pan from Keightley’s Mythology (pub: 1852).) Assuming you know the basic story, I was really intrigued by all the details of the story and how the characters behaved. The group of Lost Boys who follow (and worship) Peter Pan have some serious psychological issues with regard to mothers (and thus Wendy), and the boys rely far too much on Peter’s direction when it is actually a case of “the blind leading the blind”… They are all a case of extremely arrested development, and can only remember snippets of their lives before Neverland, so using this spotty knowledge only gets them into more trouble.

There is a lot of violent murder on the island: at least a murder a day (done by the Lost Boys or the Indian tribe on the island, the pirates or maybe a mermaid or two), but the population doesn’t seem to shrink – ever. They never seem to run out of people to kill.

The fairies are over-indulgent and greedy, limping home after having an orgy (presumably with the definition of “eating/drinking too much” as opposed to otherwise, although who knows with this book?)… Mermaids, who always before had a pretty benign reputation with me, were actually rude and bullies, especially for poor old Wendy. (Wendy regretted that she “had never had a civil word from one of them” the entire time she was on the island.)

And speaking of Wendy, I had no idea that the English phrase of “Wendy House” (referring to a child’s play house) was related to this (although it seems obvious in hindsight). The Lost Boys built a house around Wendy when she arrived and was unconscious, so it was a Wendy House. I even think the play school my siblings and I attended was called the Wendy House, but that might be wrong.

And the misery doesn’t even end when the Darling/human children return home to their parents. Mother agrees to let Wendy go back with Peter for one week a year to do his Spring Cleaning. (Yeah for parenting skills!)  And then, years later, when Peter comes back, un-aged as he is, he sweeps up Wendy’s kids and future kids “as long as children are gay and innocent and heartless”…  And apparently this is ok with everyone.

Hmm.

So – the author J. M. Barrie (Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet). Who was the guy with this twisted imagination? (Or is it me looking with unreasonable 21st century eyes?)  He lived from 1860-1937 and was a playwright and author. He wrote Peter Pan, Or the Boy who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904, calling it a “fairy play” and although he had other work, this was the play that made him famous. (It also popularized the name Wendy as that was unusual before this play was published.)

Barrie’s childhood was not an easy one, being the ninth of ten children, and on the accidental death of his next oldest brother, Barrie tried to help his mother’s grief by wearing the dead brother’s clothing and whistling like he used to. (Psychological problem #1.) Along with this came the idea of a boy who would never get old (a la Peter Pan) as the brother who died was only 14 when the accident occurred. (Psychological problem #2.)  This dead big brother’s influence would continue on for years, even affecting the career choice his parents wanted for Barrie. He wanted to be a writer, but his parents told him that his dead brother would have been a minister and so that’s what he should do as well. They eventually reached a compromise.(Psychological problem #3.)

Additionally, Barrie was exceptionally small in stature for his family reaching only about five feet tall at adulthood. This led to other problems for him. However, as an adult and writer, he moved in elite literary circles: Robert Louis Stephenson, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, Jerome K. Jerome… He told stories to the young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Barrie also made friends with Antarctica explorer Robert Falcon Scott, and Scott, when his expedition was falling apart, wrote one of his last letters to Barrie asking him to look after his wife and son if he could not get home…

Linked with friendship is the fact that in 1897, Barrie was in London’s Kensington Gardens when he came across five young boys, all brothers and called the Llewelyn Davies family. “Uncle Jim” (as Barrie became known to the family) was a frequent visitor to the boys’ home and would entertain them with stories during his visits, and it is thought that he based the story of Peter Pan on these young boys. The boys’ father died in 1907 and their mother in 1910, Barrie (in a somewhat bizarre manner) ended up being the boys’ guardian for the rest of their lives (though most of them wouldn’t live too long). It’s all rather strange and Wiki has the details here (as true as Wiki can be).

Before Barrie’s death, he gave the rights to the Peter Pan works to Great Ormond Street Hospital, the children’s hospital, which, if you saw the London Olympic Games opening ceremony the other day, was referenced frequently (sometimes as GOSH). This was the first hospital in the English-speaking world to provide in-patient beds for children and was supported by several royals, including Queen Victoria and Princess Diana (who acted as President for a while) – obviously not at the same time… 🙂

It seems that Barrie was basically a good guy, but any good psychologist would have had a field day with him. (But then who is to say who is normal and who is not? :-))