Monday, July 20, 2015

Freedom Summer: A Review

Wiles, D. (2001).  Freedom Summer.  Aladdin Paperbacks, New York.  Illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue.

It's a bit sad that Freedom Summer came when it did.  I had requested from the El Paso Public Library around March, and it finally came in in July.  It took all that time after my request for a copy to be found, despite there being a few listed among the EPPL's collection.  In any case, we at last are able to look at Freedom Summer, the story of two boys and their friendship.  One is white, one is black, and that is what makes this friendship so unique in its time.

Joe, the narrator, talks about his best friend, John Henry Waddell.   He is the son of the family maid, Aunt Mae.  Joe and John Henry spend their days going to the local creek to swim, and then Joe gets ice cream for himself and John Henry, who being black, cannot go in.

One night at dinner, Joe learns that a new law will allow blacks to go to all public places.  That includes the local swimming pool.  Joe is so excited because now John Henry will be able to go there, and they can swim together at the pool.  When they get to the pool, however, they find that the pool was being filled in with tar.  The local government has decided to close the pool rather than allow blacks to swim.  John Henry and Joe can only sit at the diving board and look on the filled-in pool.  Joe tries to comfort John Henry by suggesting they go back to the creek, but John Henry makes it clear he wanted to go into the pool. 

With that, Joe decides to take John Henry to get ice cream, and to go in together.

Freedom Summer is a simple story told simply and sweetly.  It is easy for children to read, using simple words that they will understand.

The subject matter is hard for children today to understand.  We are long gone from the time of legal segregation, and Freedom Summer has an opening statement attempting to make clear what the laws were at the time desegregation took place.  Deborah Wiles mentions also that some businesses and locations closed, some permanently, rather than integrate.

I don't see a flaw with Freedom Summer, perhaps apart from the idea that Joe would want to see the world through John Henry's eyes.  Try as he might, Joe will never be able to see it with that vision because as a white boy, he has an advantage that John Henry will not have, at least until a generational change allows for it. I do find it a bit odd that Joe wouldn't see the difficulty of integration coming one day to the next. 

Again, children are not born with prejudices.  They are blessed with being free of preconceptions that plague the 'wiser' adults.  They see things from different eyes.  As such, Joe might not have understood that people would object to John Henry going to the pool.  He knew enough to know John Henry couldn't go into the ice cream shop with him.  He did understand how things work, but when it comes to the pool, he didn't.  I found that a bit odd.

On the whole though, Freedom Summer has a positive message to give and tells it in a way children will understand.  It ends on a positive note, with Joe inviting John Henry to go into the ice cream shop together.  It's a small step to racial equality, but they are small boys.  

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Looking For Alaska: A Review

Green, J. (2005). Looking For Alaska.  Penguin Random House, New York.

Has it really been only ten years since John Green's debut novel, Looking for Alaska, was published?  Ten years since the Illustrious Mr. Green sprouted his other works, like Paper Towns, An Abundance of Katherines, and the "Citizen Kane" of teen novels (at least to him), The Fault in Our Stars?  If you note a certain sarcasm about Green, it's because I have it.  I only saw the film version of The Fault in Our Stars, and to be honest, I found much fault in the film. Quoting Shakespeare doesn't mean BEING Shakespeare, even to a group of dimwitted teens.  Looking for Alaska, based partially on Green's own experiences at boarding school, is a book beloved by many: readers and critics alike. 

Sorry, I'm not in either group.

Miles Halter leaves his public high school in Florida to go the Culver Creek Preparatory High School in Alabama, which was his father's alma mater.  He goes seeking "the Great Perhaps", an answer to what is 'out there', beyond this mortal coil.  At CCPH, he rooms with Chip Martin, nicknamed "The Colonel".  The Colonel takes one look at skinny Miles Halter and instantly dubs him "Pudge".  Miles/Pudge also meets three other people who will be important: the Japanese student/beat-box impresario Takumi, the beautiful Romanian student Lara (who has an accent), and Alaska Young.

Ah, Alaska Young.  The beautiful, enigmatic, troubled, fascinating, erotic Alaska Young.  Pudge is instantly drawn to this figure who is hard to figure out.  She drinks, she smokes, she is someone Pudge finds desirable sexually and emotionally (despite her being a basketcase).  While she has a boyfriend, a college student named Jake, Alaska can be coy with our innocent narrator Miles.  Pudge has a fixation with people's last words, so much so that he only reads the ends of biographies to find what was the last thing they said.  Perhaps there are words of wisdom within them that he can draw from (his seeking "the Great Perhaps" comes from someone's last words).  Alaska, learning this, gives him what are reportedly Simon Bolivar's last words, "How can I ever get out of this labyrinth?"

This Collective as I call it is forever at war with The Weekday Warriors, those wealthy kids who leave Culver Creek on the weekends.  The group Pudge finds himself in performs pranks on the Weekday Warriors, especially after a couple of them, for retribution for something done last year, almost end up drowning poor Pudge (who just got there).  As time goes by, with Pudge introduced to the wonders of drinking, smoking, and near the middle part of the book, a blowjob (thanks, Romanian beauty queen), he still can't let go of his idea of Alaska.  Alaska: the girl with the tragic history, who watched her mother die and was so paralyzed with fear and shock she didn't call the police for help.  The Colonel, a short guy with a chip on his shoulder (get it, "Chip"), wants to show up his hoity-toity classmates. 

Then comes The Day.  A drunk Alaska finally grants Pudge what he's long longed for: a passionate make-out session.  She promises that this is 'to be continued', but later that night an even drunker Alaska comes in, hysterical and screaming.  Despite her being visibly intoxicated and highly emotional, Pudge and the Colonel help her drive out of Culver Creek by distracting The Eagle (the headmaster).  The last thing she says to them is "God oh God,  I'm so sorry."

The next day, the school learns that she was killed in a car accident, her having run headfirst into a police car that was investigating a jackknifed truck.  A group of flowers was found in her car.

The rest of Looking for Alaska involves the Colonel and Pudge attempting to investigate the real cause of death.  Was it perhaps suicide?  Why was Alaska so hysterical?  Miles' own questioning of where Alaska went (if she went anywhere, since Miles has no belief in the afterlife) as well as his own guilt about letting her drive off in that condition plague him.  He ignores Lara, who was something of a girlfriend to him.  The Investigation is about the only thing that keeps him going, that an a posthumous prank from Alaska Young involving a male stripper posing as a Professor of Psychology specializing in teenagers and sexuality.  He begins what sounds like a typical speech, but when Lara, preplanned, shouts for him to take his clothes off, Maxx the Stripper goes full Channing Tatum.  As no one can be specifically pointed out to be the mastermind, no one gets punished.

In the end, Takumi provides clues to The Investigation.  We discover that the night of Alaska's death was the anniversary of her mother's death.  She had always placed flowers on her mother's grave on the anniversary, but this year she forgot.  In her distraught state, she may have gone to try and place them now, or perhaps Alaska did really aim for the police car out of guilt.  In any case, Alaska is dead, as is Miles' idealization of her. He reconciles himself to that.

What I find hard about Young Adult novels in general is the idea that teens have greater insight and wisdom than everyone else despite their lack of actual life.  Green if anything, appears to be a master of encouraging teens to think they have special insight into the world.  In fact, Pudge's summing up of the whole matter in a letter to the Colonel before he leaves for home at term's end pretty much states so.
"And if Alaska took her own life, that is the hope I wish I could have given her.  Forgetting her mother, failing her mother and her friends and herself--those are awful things, but she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct.  Those awful things are survivable, because we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be.  When adults say, "Teenagers think they are invincible" with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don't know how right they are.  We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken, We think that we are invincible because we are.  We cannot be born, and we cannot die".

Gobbledygook, I says, and phooey on Green for pushing such ideas.  I'm tired of teens and the writers who love them too much pushing this narrative that the young know more than the old, and that somehow their own little world is the real world.  Teens are quite destructible.  Adults are quite destructible.  We can choose to be destroyed by the forces oppressing us, or we can accept that the world is something we can make into something beautiful or something awful.  We have the power of choice.  Alaska's choice was simple: to drink too much, smoke too much, tease Pudge, and then collapse when she remembered what she had forgotten.  Pudge and the Colonel, and Takumi's choices were also easy: they could have stopped Alaska from driving.  They all had a hand in Alaska's death, and they proved that Alaska was quite destructible.

I tire of teenagers who think they know all the answers to all the questions, and especially of those who coddle such notions.

In a sense, Alaska did kill herself, but not perhaps by deliberately running into the police car.  She killed herself long before getting behind the wheel, by drinking too much to drown the guilt she had over something she could not control.  It's interesting that Alaska's inability to call 911 when her mother died mirrors Ray Charles' inability to call for help when his younger brother drowned in the tub (the film Ray, which came out in 2004, came to mind for some reason).  Ray Charles not only carried the guilt about that, but he even went blind.  Yet, despite all that (and being black to boot), Ray Charles not only managed to survive, but thrive.  Alaska, a white girl who manages to go to a posh school which probably costs her father a pretty penny, can't.

We all suffer loss, we all suffer pain.  We can shoulder it in many ways: family, friends, faith.  Alaska had a few of the second, at least one of the first, but none of the third.  She did have the bottle and the smokes, which make for a poor substitute.

I never understood Pudge's idealization of Alaska. Yes, she must have been quite beautiful physically, but she was also openly troubled from the get-go.  He must be a particularly weak person to not say at one point that Alaska was trouble.  He never objected to any of the Colonel's stunts or in the drinking and smoking which he was introduced to (as a side note, I managed to go through high school without drinking or smoking, but then, I went to public high school).  Perhaps though, I should not be too hard on that subject.  We all have a tendency to romanticize the past, to idealize someone at some point.  Most of us though, get over it.

I find it interesting that Pudge is bothered by the fact that he will never know Alaska's final words.  Actually, let me field that question.  Pudge DOES know Alaska's final words.  They were, "God oh God, I'm so sorry".  As there was no one else to hear anything else she said, those would be the final recorded words of Alaska Young.  I don't understand why Green doesn't allow Pudge to accept that those were her final words.

What I found was that Pudge and Company were themselves a bit elitist.  They held contempt for the Weekday Warriors to where they were angered that they would cry at the news of Alaska's death.  I found that the Colonel's crew had no compassion themselves.  Why couldn't the Weekday Warriors cry?  They, and I am speculating on this, weren't crying specifically for Alaska.  They were crying for themselves, for the fact that death now had become something real, something they had to face.  They now knew they were quite destructible.  Also, there is something called empathy.  I have cried at the deaths of people I don't know (like those women stoned to death or gay men tossed off buildings by ISIS).  According to Green though, I cannot do such things as feel for others.  I can only cry for those I know.

OK, I'll grant that perhaps since this is told from Miles' perspective this would be a natural reaction to seeing his 'enemies' cry at the death of his friend.  Still, that bothered me, the idea that one could not empathize for someone else.

Looking for Alaska has what I think has become a template for modern YA books: insecure boy, enigmatic girl, offbeat friends fighting against the 'cool kids', some sex, good amount of booze and smokes (legal and otherwise), with occasional dead people thrown in.  Based on my memories of the film I don't find much difference between Looking for Alaska and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  There are differences, of course, between them.  However, in many respects they share similar traits.

I admit to not finding Catcher in the Rye all that great, primarily because I read it in my thirties, not my teens.  Perhaps if I had read Looking for Alaska when I was in high school, I would have been as enamored of it (and of John Green as the literary light he sees himself as) as the many teens who swoon over people their own age who know they are indestructible.  I can see the appeal of these kinds of books: with their 'wisdom' about the struggles of rich and middle-class white children (curious how Green has few if any minorities in his books, as far as I know.  White privilege, anyone?).  For myself, I found Pudge's search for The Great Perhaps dull and slightly narcissistic, as if he was the first to ever fall in love with an idea or know of death at a young age. I found it all a little smug, a little condescending, and frankly I can live with the idea that Alaska died because she drove drunk, not because of her own inward guilt.

Hey, Johnny...I have a few last words for you.  They are John Wilkes Booth's final words, as he looked on his hands as he lay dying. 

"Useless.  Useless".

Born 1977

Heaven help us if HE becomes 'the voice of our generation'.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee: A Review

Childs, C.J. (2008). I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee. Henry Holt & Co., New York.

As part of the recent Youth Literature class, as well as the fact that after fifty-plus years, Harper Lee is coming out with a second book (Go Set a Watchman), I think it would be nice to look over the life of this intensely private but pugnacious person: Miss Nelle Harper Lee, author of one of the Greatest Books of the Twentieth Century: To Kill a Mockingbird.   I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee, is the juvenile version of Charles J. Shields' adult biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, is an excellent read for the target audience.  It gives wonderful information and insight into the intensely private author but is written in such a way that it doesn't sensationalize or delve into generally unpleasant matters (the murder of the Clutter Family in Kansas which was the basis of her frenemy Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which Lee was instrumental in creating but which Capote downplayed her assistance).

Nelle Harper Lee's life is covered, beginning with her early years in Monroeville, Alabama.  She's the daughter of the South, but no Southern belle by any stretch.  Much like her main character in TKAM, she was a tomboy: willing to stand up and fight any boy, as well as play football like one.  She forced her way to a game once, and she didn't go down but instead knocked others down.  When the captain yelled that they were playing touch, she yelled back, "Y'all can play that sissy game if you want to, but I'm playing tackle!"

In what might be a contradiction, while she was rough-and-ready, she also had a deeply intellectual side.  In one of those fortuitous turns of literature, her next-door neighbor was another future American literary legend, Truman Capote (then known by his birth name of Truman Streckfus Persons).  He had essentially been dumped by his parents: the vain status-seeking Lillie May and the ne'er-do-well Archie, in the care of relatives.  They were neighbors to the Lee family, which couldn't be further from Capote's chaotic life. 

Lee's father, A.C. Lee, was a successful lawyer, Alabama state representative, and newspaper publisher.  His oldest daughter Alice followed her father's footsteps, and at first Nelle tried to do likewise.  However, her non-traditional ways in forms of dress and disinterest in being the embodiment of the proper lady (she smoked, she swore, and didn't have many if any real friendships/relationships) put her at odds with almost everyone around her.  She also had a great passion: to write.  The two came into conflict, and eventually, despite the misgivings of her family, she went to New York, where her old friend Truman, now known as Truman Capote (adopting his stepfather's surname), had made a big noise. 

Capote, who referred to themselves as 'apart people', was one of the few in her early years to be a kindred soul.  As children, they wrote together and were engulfed with books.  They would carry around a new typewriter almost everywhere (except to the treehouse, as it was too heavy).  As an adult, Lee started out as the prototypical struggling writer, finding a job with BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) ticket seller and trying to write.  A fortuitous friendship allowed her to quit her job thanks to a gift of money that would allow her to live while she devoted herself full-time to writing.

With revisions and editing, she cranked out To Kill a Mockingbird, which came at the same time that her old friend Capote came to her and asked her to be his "assistant researchist" (his term) on his 'nonfiction novel'.  Her quiet manner and Southern charm smoothed the way for her loud, flamboyant, egocentric friend, who frankly irritated and shocked the conservative Kansans, who were in shock over the Clutter killings.  She and Capote didn't record their interviews, relying on their memories which they shared in evenings.  Often, Capote would write "See NL's notes" for clarification.

While she helped Capote, she also turned her attention to her novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.  She expected it to 'die a merciful death at the hand of reviewers', but instead she appeared to hit the zeitgeist of the rising civil rights movement.   The book became an immediate success, eventually winning the Pulitzer, a rare honor for a first-time novelist who hadn't published before.  The book redeemed her in her eyes to not having pursued law, and the film version cemented the legend.

As time went on however, Harper Lee became irritated by all the attention she was getting because of TKAM.  She worked on a second novel, but with all the publicity for Mockingbird, time just slipped by.  Later on, she did declare she was working on a second book, to be titled The Reverend, in the style of Capote's In Cold Blood.  Perhaps this was a way to get back at her friend, who downplayed Lee's contribution to his work (and this genteel antagonism might have been mutual, as Capote never "went to any strenuous lengths to deny" having written part or all of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Lee's disillusionment with her friend, dislike to be connected with In Cold Blood, and general dislike of attention was such that she did not attend the legendary Black and White Ball Truman threw for Washington Post editor Katherine Graham.

As time went on though, the idea of publishing another book slipped.  She would not speak at presentations, and her relationship with Monroeville, which has capitalized on their 'golden goose', has been fraught with tension.  At one point, she threatened to sue the local historical society when it thought of publishing Calpurnia's Cookbook, basing it on own of the novel's characters.  The entire run of the book had to be destroyed.  Now in her 80s, she is at peace about her curious place in literature: one book (so far), yet a legend.  As Miss Lee wrote to a friend, "People who have made peace with themselves are the people I most admire in the world".

I Am Scout gives us really interesting information both about her and her legendary book; for example, her choice for Atticus Finch was Spencer Tracy, even writing to him to suggest he play the role.  The studio for its part, wanted Rock Hudson.  Even after Gregory Peck was cast, there were subtle problems.  Peck, who had a strong financial hand in the film, insisted on building up his part at the expense of the children's viewpoint (Peck insisted on removing a scene where Jem reads to a dying Mrs. DuBose because it again put the emphasis on the children and not on Atticus Finch, much to the director's sadness).  She also lived in New York for several years, but disliked the city itself (she wouldn't go to Manhattan), not living lavishly despite the wealth she probably accumulated through the book.   More curiously, though she lived close to friends she did not visit them or encourage visits.  It is as if she, like Greta Garbo, wants to be alone. 

Lee also has a curious hostility to Mary Badham, who played Scout in the film version.  "(Harper Lee) rebuffed attempts by (Badham) communicate with her. 'Mary acts like that book is the Bible', Nelle mentioned to Kathy McCoy, the former director of the Monroe County Heritage Museums.  According to a terse not in the museum's archives, '(Gregory Peck) told M.B. not to try to contact N.L.".  One gets the idea that Lee respects her work, but also thinks that it is simply too difficult to live up to the legend.  It is her Citizen Kane, but unlike Orson Welles, she quit while she was ahead.

Then again, she really didn't quit.  She had full intention of writing many books, of telling many stories.  However, the publicity, the notoriety, the passion Mockingbird was held by the public, in a way pushed Lee to not write.  Shields comments that the two essays she wrote for magazines post-Mockingbird had "a strong whiff of self-righteousness", calling them too self-conscious, as if she were trying to already live up to a legend she didn't want and couldn't carry.  

Harper Lee has pretty much resigned herself to both the praise and curse of To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that is good, that she knows is good, but that has also pretty much condemned her to endless comparisons, which might have frightened her from going into publishing another one...until now.  At age 89, a second Harper Lee book, Go Set a Watchman, is set for publication this July (I already have it on order, though it won't arrive until a few days after initial publication.  I'm not in that much of a hurry). It is called a sequel to her first book, though it apparently was written prior to Mockingbird and only recently rediscovered (even Lee apparently forgot all about it).

I Am Scout is perfect for the target audience, providing an interesting portrait of the author who has earned a place in history with only one book to her name (at least until July 2015), written in a simple tone that children will find easy. Adults can also enjoy I Am Scout as a fascinating portrait of the mostly-reclusive writer, who gave the world a wonderful story, then watched it overtaken by others whose intensions were both good and bad.        

Nelle Harper Lee
Born 1926

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Module 15--Daddy's Roommate: A Review

DADDY'S ROOMMATE by Michael Willhoite

Willhoite, M. (1991) Daddy's Roommate.  Alyson Book, New York.

Daddy's Roommate, almost fifteen years after publication, is still a source of controversy.  It is listed by the American Library Association as the second most challenged book between 1990 and 1991.  Despite all the gains of gays in America (including the eventual legalization of same-sex marriage throughout the country), the issue of homosexual relations is still touchy to a segment of the population.  The rightness or wrongness of a homosexual relationship is not the subject of Daddy's Roommate.  It is instead about one child's-eye view of the circumstances he finds himself in.

Told in a first-person voice, the boy (never named) tells us about his father (also never named, but simply referred to as "Daddy").  Mommy and Daddy got a divorce 'last year' The Boy tells us, and now Daddy is living with his 'roommate', Frank (oddly, despite being the title character, he's the only person who gets a name in Daddy's Roommate).  Daddy and Frank do all sorts of things together: work, eat. sleep, shave, and even fight together (but always make up).  Frank, The Boy reports, likes him, and Frank and The Boy spend time together (Frank reads to The Boy and makes "great peanut butter and jelly sandwiches", emphasis the book's).  On weekends, the three of them (Frank, The Boy, and Daddy) do all sorts of things together: go to baseball games, the zoo, the beach, work in the yard, and have sing-alongs by the piano.  Mommy tells The Boy that Daddy and Frank are gay.

"At first I didn't know what that meant.  So she explained it.  Being gay is just one more kind of love.  And love is the best kind of happiness.  Daddy and his roommate are very happy together.  And I'm happy too!"

While reading Daddy's Roommate, I played around with it.  I substituted Frank for Francine, and thought what if Daddy's roommate were a woman.  The mind boggles at the idea of Francine and Daddy 'shaving together', but apart from that, would it make much difference if Daddy's roommate were a woman?  I think yes, but perhaps not in the way people might imagine.

The connotation between a male-female living arrangement and a male-male living arrangement like the one presented in Daddy's Roommate surprisingly leaves much ambiguity in the latter.  I think children have a basic understanding that when a man and a woman sleep together, they know it involves something akin to romance.  When it comes to a man and a man (or a woman and a woman) sleeping together, not so much.  Personally, I think we give children far too much credit if we imagine that they automatically know that homosexual love is the same as heterosexual love.

If it were Francine and Daddy rather than Frank and Daddy in Daddy's Roommate, I think children would more quickly and easily grasp that the new relationship is a romantic one.   The way Frank and Daddy's relationship comes across, there isn't what I would call 'romance', just good buddies living together.  It's almost as if Willhoite, for all his intents, wanted to make a same-sex relationship palatable and understandable to elementary school children but instead almost hid the true nature and depth of the relationship.

The imagery of Daddy and Frank in Daddy's Roommate is to my mind almost comical in how innocuous it is.  Looking at the illustrations and text, what I saw in the relationship between Daddy and Frank was not romance, but just a very good friendship.  Apart from the next-to-last panel, where Frank and Daddy were watching television together, with Frank's arm over Daddy's shoulder in what is an intimate gesture, I have done pretty much everything Daddy and Frank did with my best friend.

Yes, I've even slept with my best friend (who is a man), if by 'sleeping' you mean 'shared the same bed'.  If by 'sleeping' you mean 'have sex', then no, I haven't 'slept' with my best friend.  Granted, I also haven't put lotion on his back at the beach, but minus that pretty much the relationship between Daddy and Frank is the same as mine with my best friend.  A child of a gay father who has come out (especially to his son) would understand what was going on in Daddy's Roommate.  A child of either a closeted gay father or a heterosexual father I think wouldn't get it, or get it so quickly. 

It does make me wonder who Willhoite's target audience is.  If he wrote Daddy's Roommate for children of gay fathers, more power to him.  If he wrote it for a more general audience, I think he missed the mark.

One aspect of Daddy's Roommate that I could never shake was just how easily everyone accepted things.  Despite being the primary guardian (The Boy mentions that he sees Daddy on weekend), Mommy has virtually nothing to do with The Boy apart from telling him Daddy and Frank are gay and that it's "just one more kind of love".  That may be true, but for myself I found the idea of an ex-spouse who took all this in stride extremely bizarre.  Here she was, marrying a man she loved, having a child with him, only to divorce due to her husband's homosexuality.

At least, I figure this was the reason for the divorce.  Whether he or she initiated it there's no way of knowing.  In any case, after what is suppose to be a mere year later, Mommy seems rather cool with the idea that her ex is now with Frank.  Maybe it's just the circle I roll with, but I've never met any divorcee, man or woman, who a mere year later was thrilled to see his/her ex with anyone new, let alone someone of the same gender.  It could also be the excessively detailed person in me, but I kept wondering about Mommy.  Has she found someone new?  How can she be so accepting of her ex-husband's new relationship regardless of gender? Yes, I figure there are many people who do accept the failure of their marriage due to their ex's acceptance of their sexuality, and even some that are happy for their exes.  However, for there not to be any sense of resentment, of regret, of sorrow, just doesn't ring true.

I also thought the same of The Boy.  Willhoite presents an idealized version of reality.  A divorce can be traumatic to a child.  A new stepparent can be difficult for a child.  Throw in that his new stepmother is a man and The Boy's casual acceptance of this again doesn't ring completely true.  Willhoite won't acknowledge that these changes may be difficult for a child.  He won't acknowledge that a child may not think it's Same Love as Macklemore thinks.  Rather than recognize that a child may find all or any of this hard to take (the divorce, the new relationship, the same-sex nature of the new relationship), or even entertain the idea that a child may not be happy about anything involving this not related to sexuality, Willhoite's Boy seems rather nonchalant.  Daddy loved a woman, now he loves a man, OK.  Yes, some children can take this easily, but some children cannot. 

Daddy's Roommate could have been a great book about helping kids deal or accept their father's new same-sex partner.  It could have helped children by guiding them through what could be traumatic experiences (divorce, a new partner for his/her father).  Instead, Daddy's Roommate idealizes what, regardless of sexual orientation, can be a difficult situation.  Divorce is hard on children, no matter what the circumstances.  How all the adults in Daddy's Roommate appear so casual about everything to me suggests that in this world, a child's questions about the various changes can be answered with a rather pat answer: "it's just one more kind of love."  That may be true, but even today, when seven-year-olds can be certain they are transgender (and as a side note, I admit that at age seven, I had no concept of transgender or any kind of sexual identity as straight or gay, only the difference in boys and girls), I think Daddy's Roommate is a little disingenuous.

Maybe Tolstoy is right.  Maybe ALL happy families are alike. 

Would I ban Daddy's Roommate?  ABSOLUTELY NOT!  I'm someone who loathes censorship and would not ban something unless it called for violence or was a deliberately racist/sexist/homophobic work (books that denied the Holocaust or supported ISIS for example).  I however, think the nonfiction section is the most appropriate area for Daddy's Roommate.  If it were placed in the Easy section, it would lead to a lot of questions that parents may not want to answer or have asked, because I think that the world outside Daddy's Roommate is more complicated than the one Willhoite created.

I personally don't find much to object to in Daddy's Roommate (apart from its rather simplistic text and view of the world).  I would carry it in the system, because same-sex partnerships are a real part of life.


As if that weren't enough, I think the Entertainment Weekly review of Daddy's Roommate, which earned a C+, is pretty accurate and one I agree with. 

The books’ clear goal is to show homosexual relationships as a real-world complement to the mom-and-dad model. Unfortunately, Daddy’s Roommate suffers from the same failing as the old Dick-and-Jane books: It’s so relentlessly blithe that it could almost be called Dick and Dick. As if divorce or re-coupling — especially when gay partners are involved — were ever so untroubled.  

I don't think Michelle Landsberg realized the unintentional double entendre of Dick and Dick with regards to Daddy's Roommate.  It's a little reminiscent of when ESPN's Anthony Federico used the term 'chink in the armor' to refer to Jeremy Lin's role in the New York Knick's loss at a game.  I believe Federico's version, that he was not aware that 'chink' was a racial slur regarding Chinese (I for one had never heard that slur used regarding Asians) and the term 'chink in the armor' is a common one.  Similarly, the Dick and Dick comment I think was not intended as anything other than a joke, not a bizarre comment on the subject matter.

I found the text rather simplistic, which is perfect for the target audience (very small children), though perhaps a bit too simplistic, even a bit condescending, to where it might be a bit boring for children (the Dick-and-Jane style being the best description for it).


This one is the hardest for me, because Daddy's Roommate-related programs will in my view inevitably bring confrontation between groups.  Pro-gay groups are not immune from being as vitriolic and confrontational as their counterparts.  I would suggest a Family Day celebration where all families are welcome and leave it as that.        

Michael Willhoite
Born 1946

Landsberg, M. (2015, January 17). Daddy's Roommate.  Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from

Friday, May 1, 2015

Module 14--October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard: A Review

by Leslea Newman

Newman, L. (2012). October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.  Candlewick.

There are certain facts not in dispute.  On October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man, was savagely beaten and left to die.  The next morning, he was found by a passing runner.  Matthew Shepard died five days after he was found, never having regained consciousness.

Matthew Shepard is now all but canonized, a secular martyr.  He is to the gay community what Emmett Till is to the African-American community: a young man murdered with such particular brutality and savagery that it shocked the nation and galvanized people to act against bigotry. There have been plays written about Matthew Shepard (The Laramie Project), songs written about Matthew Shepard (such as Melissa Etheridge's Scarecrow), whole choral works written about Matthew Shepard (Elegy for Matthew) .  The poem cycle October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, is thoroughly immersed in this canonization, presenting in verse various 'voices' on the Shepard case.  Some of the poems are moving, even beautiful.  Some fall flat and are heavy-handed.  Some work amazingly well despite what at first is an odd premise for some of them. The inside flap noted that Ms. Newman's poems "explores the impact of the vicious crime through fictitious monologues from various points of view, including the fence to which Matthew was tied...".

I read that and thought, "Seriously? The point of view of the fence?  How does one get the point of view of an inanimate object?"  Newman does it extremely well.  Whatever flaws in some of the sixty-eight poems in October Mourning (ranging from a mere 12 words to two pages), all of them come from the heart.

The poems are divided into four parts: Prologue, Part One, Part Two, and Epilogue, with an Introduction and Afterword by the poetess.  Each poem reflects a myriad of views on both Shepard and the two men convicted of his murder: Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.  The first poem, The Fence (before) is a brilliant piece of writing. 

It first appears the fence is talking about itself when it says, "the sun warms me/the wind soothes me", but then it shifts to what can be seen as what could be Shepard's own ideas (or that of any person): "will I always be out here/exposed and alone? will somebody someday stumble upon me? will anyone remember me after I'm gone?"  The transition is so smooth one barely notices it.

Another brilliant poem was The Armbands (yes, about armbands used in support of Shepard).  "Though we are worn/we are not weary...though we are yellow/we are not afraid...though we are tattered/we are not broken...though we are many/we are standing as one".  The double meaning within the poem is clear ('worn' as in wardrobe and 'worn' as in 'exhausted'), especially when put against 'weary'.  They 'wore' the armbands, but they themselves were not 'worn out'.

Of course, with sixty-eight poems, not all of them were as smooth or as clever or as gentle as others.  There is Thirteen Ways of Looking at Matthew.  It is divided into thirteen words, each punctuated with a Roman numeral.  When we get to X, we slip from respecting and honoring Matthew Shepard and slip into virtual worship.  X: Martyr.  XI: Hero. XII: Legend.  XIII: Star. 

Another poem that caused me concern was The Defense's Job, which is a companion piece to The Prosecutor's Job.  They mirror each other in style, but they also mirror each other in hatred towards Henderson and McKinney.

his job
his only job
his one and only job
is to protect
is to preserve
is to spare
the client's
the criminal's
the killer's
even if no one else thinks
even when no one else thinks
even though no one else thinks
the brute's
the bastard's
the son of a bitch's
is barely worth
is hardly worth
is just not worth
a damn

Perhaps it is my own background (one that firmly opposes the death penalty as I oppose abortion, seeing them as two sides of the same coin: namely, state-sanctioned killing not in defense of the country or self), but I am a firm believer in redemption for all.  It is not within my heart to say that even the most loathsome individual is beyond salvation (however he/she interprets that). What McKinney and Henderson were convicted of is evil, and the gruesome details are sickening.  However, unlike another poem, Jury Selection, I cannot condone killing one man for having killed another.

Jury Selection: the poem consists of the line, "No I would not hesitate to kill the killer in a heart beat  in a heart beat", with each line adding an extra word until it forms the complete sentence, then taking a word away after the sentence is formed.

Of course, this is what I think good poetry should do: affect us on a personal level.  There were many poems in October Mourning that did so.  A Chorus of Parents is like all the poems in the book, an imagined conversation, this time putting us in the minds of several parents who broke off relations with their gay sons and now wish to reestablish them in the wake of Shepard's murder.  So many stories collide ("I called my sixteen-year-old, eighteen-year-old, twenty-five-year old, thirty-seven-year old, fifty-six-year old son", "I called my son who came out when he was fourteen, fifteen, nineteen, twenty-two, thirty-two, fifty-two, a week ago, a month ago, a year ago, five years ago, half a century ago").

I placed myself in their shoes, thinking if I had a gay son who came out to me what would my reaction have been.  I personally know of no parent who danced in the streets when their son/daughter told them they were gay.  I don't know of any parent who said, "I'm thrilled that my son is gay.  It's a dream come true, everything I've always hoped he would be.  My greatest desire was to have a gay child."  I know parents who are very accepting of this news, but I also know that within every single parent I know who has faced this news, there has been at least a touch of sadness in the news.  To say that there isn't is to lie. 

We as a society have not progress to the point where a parent rejoices in the news that their child is gay/lesbian.  We have parents who accept it and love their children no matter what, but I have yet to hear one parent ever say they wanted their son/daughter to be gay.  Acceptance of a gay child is not the same as desiring to have a gay child.

Recently, there has been a whisper of a disparaging word against the Legend of Saint Matt.  Stephen Jimenez's The Book of Matt presents an alternate version of the motive in Shepard's murder.  Instead of being a monstrous hate crime due to Shepard's homosexuality, Jimenez (who himself is gay) argues that his murder was a result of the drug trade Shepard was alleged to be involved with.  IF Shepard's murder was not connected to his sexual orientation but to illegal activity, it more than changes the narrative.  It all but obliterates it.  The central premise of all the works on Shepard (including October Mourning) now become grist for a myth, perpetuating a false narrative if Jimenez's allegations are true.  It doesn't rob the good poems of their power, but it does undermine the premise that they are built on, the story of an innocent now becomes a darker tale, one where the truth is not as clear.  It also has the effect of making Matthew Shepard less a saint and more a sinner like you and me, with the same flaws, faults and failings as any other mortal.  It doesn't justify, rationalize, or condone his killing, but it does make Matthew Shepard less than the sum of his official story.

It brings to mind the famous quote from the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".  Does it really matter what the motive was in Shepard's murder?  If it wasn't homophobia gone wild but instead a sordid drug-related crime, does that take away from the important symbolism of Shepard?  It certainly doesn't justify the murder, but one has to ask, would there be works like October Mourning, Elegy for Matthew or The Laramie Project to lament someone killed in a sordid meth-related crime gone hideously wrong?   

I now have serious questions about both The Book of Matt and works like October Mourning.   Is the former true or a lie?  Is the latter perpetuating a myth or a passionate reaction against a monstrous evil?  I can't answer either  with total certainty.  As Newman stated, there are only three people who know for certain what happened: two in prison, one dead. 

However, I think we can get an idea of where Newman would stand on this if asked.  In The Prosecutor's Job, she writes of "a robbery/a kidnapping/a killing; which cannot be excused/which cannot be forgiven/which cannot be undone; the rest is irrelevant/the rest is history/the rest is baloney; he rests his case" (emphasis mine).  October Mourning was written long before The Book of Matt gave an alternate version of the story, and I'm only speculating, but perhaps Ms. Newman spoke for those who believe that even if Shepard was not the "Martyr/Hero/Legend/Star", in the end "the rest is irrelevant".

October Mourning comes from the heart, a true emotional outpouring of the author's feelings over her interpretation of the crime from various viewpoints.   No one has ever argued that Shepard's murder, whatever the motive, was right or justified.  It was a brutal, horrific crime.


In the Kirkus review for October Mourning, it was pointed out that "while the collection as a whole treats a difficult subject with sensitivity and directness, these poems are in no way nuanced or subtle." It also took Newman to task for being 'somewhat heavy-handed".  I find these observations to be highly accurate, but I also think that despite some stumbles (which shouldn't come as a surprise for a work that contains so many works), October Mourning, when it works, works extremely well.  October Mourning is itself a very moving Elegy for Matthew.

A great program would be to have a GLBT speaker talk about his/her experiences pre and post-Matthew Shepard.  A production of The Laramie Project would also be advisable if possible, and a display of the various social moments in America (suffragists, civil rights, gay rights) might also be good.  I also think the creation of a rainbow artwork with messages could be constructed.

Matthew Wayne Shepard:


Book Review: October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman (2012, July). Kirkus Reviews.  Retrieved from

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Module 13--American Born Chinese: A Review

by Gene Luen Yang

Yang, G. (2006).  American Born Chinese.  First Second Book, New York & London.

Integration can be a tough balancing act.  Sometimes one is pressured to conform to one's race/ethnicity to where you cannot be "American".  Other times, you want to move so far from your own heritage that you practically disown it.  American Born Chinese, a story based in part on author Gene Luen Yang's life, ties three seemingly separate stories together to form one large story about identity, stereotypes, and the importance of being 'you'.

The first story involves the traditional Chinese story of The Monkey King.  Having achieved deity status, the Monkey King leaves his domain to hobnob with the other gods.  However, because he is a monkey (and has no shoes) he is denied entry.  Infuriated, he attacks all the other deities and begins to cause such rampages through the various worlds of the other gods and goddesses, demons, and spirits that they all gather to seek out the Four Emissaries of Tze-Yo-Tzuh (He Who Is, THE God), begging for help.  Tze-Yo-Tzuh attempts to reason with the Monkey King, telling him that he is still a monkey and that He created him to be a monkey.  Despite the proof of Tze-Yo-Tzuh's power the Monkey King remains stubborn in his determination to show he isn't a monkey.  In near-desperation Tze-Yo-Tzuh buries the Monkey King under a rock, where he remains for five hundred years until the Monkey King realizes, through a monk, that he could have been freed if not for his own arrogance and pride.

The second story is that of Jin Wang, a second-generation Chinese-American who has moved from the confines of San Francisco's Chinatown to a predominantly white community.  As the only Chinese-American, he doesn't fit in, and somehow falls into a friendship with Wei-Chen Sun, recent émigré from Taiwan.  Over the course of their time, Jin falls for Amelia Harris, a nice white girl.  They do date, but her best friend Greg (whose hairstyle Jin has copied to be more 'Yankee' with curious results) asks him not to date her, telling Jin he's all wrong for her.  He never overtly says it's because he's Chinese, but Jin takes it as such.  Angry, he fights with Wei-Chen, who got him to lie for him about the date. 

The third is on Danny, a blonde, blue-eyed American whose life is constantly turned into a nightmare whenever "Cousin Chin-Kee" comes.  Chin-Kee is every Chinese stereotype imaginable (and I figure a few more): buck-toothed, heavily accented, always wearing traditional Chinese clothes and a queue.  He also eats cats and dogs, openly lusts after American women, and is boorish to boot, embarrassing him at every opportunity with his horrifying manners.  Danny has had to move every year whenever Chin-Kee comes around, and has finally had it with this walking stereotype.  Danny hits him, but is no match for Chin-Kee's martial arts skills.

It's at this point that American Born Chinese gets all three stories and brings them together.  Chin-Kee is not real.  He is actually the Monkey King in disguise.  The Monkey King then tells him that since he's revealed himself, it's time for Danny to do the same.  He then transforms Danny into whom we learned earlier he really was: Jin Wang.  We also discover that Wei-Chen is the Monkey King's son, who had like his father become a disciple of the monk who had helped the Monkey King find who he really was and accept it.  Having grown disillusioned with humans (and having lied), Wei-Chen has walked away from the path, becoming self-indulgent and angry.  Eventually, Jin finds Wei-Chen, with the chance for both reconciliation and acceptance of who they are.

American Born Chinese is extremely clever in how it ties all three stories together.  It isn't as if there aren't clues to the eventual resolution (one wonders how the very white Danny could be related to someone like Chin-Kee), though I would argue that perhaps there was a little bit of cheating.  We don't get indication that Amelia and Melanie (the girl Danny fancies) might be one and the same or in any way connected.  I figure this was done to if not throw the reader off the track at least to have us concentrate on the horror that was Chin-Kee than anything else.

I however, see an anger in American Born Chinese.  Jin is resentful and angry about being asked to conform to odd ideas others have about Chinese-Americans (like the idea that they eat dogs, to which his teacher says to the class the family must have stopped doing when they came to America, even though Jin has never lived in China).  The Monkey King similarly is angry that he is constantly dismissed as a 'monkey' (even though he is one) by others.  He goes out of his way to master all sorts of disciplines to show how strong and powerful he is, but he still is a monkey.

Yang's biggest anger is reserved towards the Chin-Kee character.  It was only afterwards that it was pointed out to me that the name "Chin-Kee" was meant to read as 'Chinky", as in the ethnic slur 'chink'.  I remember how the term 'chink in the armor' was used in an ESPN article about rising basketball star Jeremy Lin; there was an uproar that cost the writer his job and reputation. Whether the ESPN writer was even aware of the term 'chink' or not is still unclear, and I for one think the matter was completely overblown, Anthony Federico (the writer) having been sacrificed to the altar of political correctness due to a commonly used term that he in all likelihood wasn't aware of its double meaning.

I can speak only for myself, but I was not aware that 'chink' was a racial slur against Asians and Chinese in general.  I also am aware of the term "chink in the armor".  I don't think Federico meant to use a slur when describing Lin (who by all accounts is a very nice guy and Tim Tebow-esque in terms of his Christianity, who has forgiven Federico in a way many people refuse to).  In short, the entire 'chink in the armor' brouhaha was in my view a group of highly sensitive people who seek out offense and think saying that if one is having 'a gay time' that person should be prosecuted for a hate crime against homosexuals.

However, while the entire Jeremy Lin situation was in my view wildly overblown and ESPN was in my view cowardly for not standing up for an employee who made an unwitting pun, the case of William Hung is another matter.  There is a very clear reason why Yang selected the Ricky Martin song She Bangs for Chin-Kee to sing, accent and all, to a horrified group of students at the library.

Hung was a civil engineering student from Hong Kong when he auditioned for the singing contest show American Idol.  His rendition of She Bangs was a horror: totally out-of-tune, and with an accent that made things in turns more hilarious and cringe-inducing.  The judges could not contain their laughter as Hung, who was thoroughly unaware of how awful he sounded, belted out this hip-swinging number, throwing in uncoordinated dancing in the process.  IF all that weren't enough, Hung's genuine cluelessness about it all added a layer of the bizarre to the proceedings.

William Hung was genuinely not in on the joke, that joke being himself.  America, and the world, laughed profusely at Hung: both at his total lack of talent but at his complete inability to understand that people were laughing at him.  His thorough lack of guile was oddly endearing, but Yang (and I imagine, many Asians) saw in Hung every stereotype of Chinese: buck-toothed, heavily accented, and highly intelligent academically but thoroughly dumb in other ways.  The fiasco of She Bangs did give Hung an odd musical career, but my guess was that Hung didn't get that people weren't cheering him on because they thought he was good.  They were cheering him on to either laugh at him or pity his ignorance. 

Chin-Kee might not have been modeled on Hung per se, but I find it hard to believe that the walking stereotype picking that particular song was a mere coincidence.

I am a bit conflicted about American Born Chinese, though I'm not Asian myself.  I appreciate Yang's message that like the Monkey King, we can be only what we were created to be and that nothing can change who we are.  However, I am not comfortable with the idea that Yang might have that as someone from an Asian background (or black, or Hispanic) that a member of an ethnic/racial background pretty much has to 'stay in his/her place'.   Is Yang suggesting that Jin and his family would have been better off staying in Chinatown "among their own"?  Is Yang suggesting that those who are minorities should not want to join the majority culture, that somehow wanting to break away from the conventions of our distinct culture are on a fool's errand? 

I don't think he is, and I think the theme of becoming something we are not is important, but I have no problem accepting Jin or Wei-Chen as American.  I think it is because my mother has an accent, and she is American through and through.  One's accent, one's looks, are not impediments to being American, but perhaps to Yang, the idea of a Chinese American who has faced some foolish bigotry joining the dominant culture is somehow wrong or impossible.  I don't accept that. 

Granted, I may be reading too much into things, but one can't help bringing their own past when reading books that perhaps suggest that a monkey cannot aspire to be part of a world he wasn't born into regardless of how hard he works. 


In his review of American Born Chinese, Ned Vizzini states that Tze-Yo-Tzuh is Yang's own invention and not based on Chinese myth (unlike the Monkey King).  If that is so, then Yang is proving an unreliable narrator, taking advantage of Western ignorance to take a stab at his audience.  It would be no different than if I threw some 'Mexican' legend from my own creation and tossed it at an unsuspecting audience.  That disappoints me if this is true, because Yang then is being a bit deceptive himself. 

However, American Born Chinese is a well-written tale, that contrary to what Vizzini holds I think ties things together rather well.  The illustrations are quite excellent, and there is a lot of wit within the story (Jin's desire to be a 'transformer' having a wonderful double meaning).  It may not be strictly logical (again, how neither Danny/Jin's parents were unaware that Chin-Kee was not the other's sister's son, let alone how they would feel comfortable never attempting to modifiy Chin-Kee's boorish behavior doesn't make sense).  However, I don't think pure logic was what Yang was going for.  I'll take it as allegory, one with a very strong message.

I applaud the idea of being true to yourself.  I don't applaud the idea that being true to yourself locks one into their own stereotypes.


I would offer a program of playing traditional Chinese music, or having a puppet show or a storyteller tell of the Monkey King (whom I was exposed to thanks to the special Big Bird in China). As there are illustrations, perhaps an art contest or program about "Being True to Yourself" as the theme.      

Born 1973


Vizzini, N. (2007, May 13). High Anxiety.  New York Times Sunday Book Review. Retrieved from   

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Module 12--Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman: A Review

by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Ty Templeton

I feel the need to start with full disclosure.  I'm not into comic books.  Basically, my whole knowledge of figures like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man (among others) comes from the film and television adaptations.  Currently, the Batman television prequel Gotham is not just a hit, but is among one of my favorite television shows. Through the campy 1960s television show, the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher films, the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, up to Gotham, I took it as fact that Bob Kane had created Batman out of whole cloth on his own.  Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman brings us some shocking news: Kane was not alone.  Bill Finger, whom Kane has admitted was integral to the creation of this iconic figure, remains virtually unknown, even to Batman fans.  Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ty Templeton's book not only sets the record straight, but gives this hidden figure his due in a book I think Finger would be proud of. 

Milton Finger wanted a job, but in the Depression, his Jewish background (and first name) would probably keep him out of work.  He turned Milton into the more American "Bill", but work was still hard to come by.  He dreamed of being an artist and writer, but could only find work as a shoe salesman.  A chance encounter with another cartoonist, Bob Kane, soon started them on collaborating.  Inspired by the success of Superman, they worked to create another equally successful character.  Their character was different than the popular ones of the day. He would be a vigilante, human, with no superpowers.  Kane took the idea to their publisher, who liked it.  Finger agreed to write Batman stories without credit (a typical arrangement at the time).  Kane also hired other artists to serve as illustrators and ghostwriters, including one named Jerry Robinson.

Bob Kane

Finger not only wrote many Batman stories, but came up with much of the Batman mythos: his origin story of young Bruce Wayne, whose wealthy parents were murdered, Wayne's hometown of Gotham, the Batcave and Batmobile.  Finger also created the young Dick Grayson, the first Robin, and villains such as The Penguin and The Riddler.  Finger would jot down tidbits in a journal, using them for ideas, but was happy to share these notebooks with other writers.  In time, he married a woman named Portia, had only one son named Fred, and kept working on Batman.    That changed in 1964, when comics editor Julius Schwartz started talking openly about Finger's contributions.  Jerry Bails, a Batman fan, began investigating and interviewing Finger, publishing an article giving Finger co-credit.  Kane did not take this kindly, but neither Kane or Finger pushed on the issue of credit. 

On Friday, January 18, 1974, Bill Finger died.  Fred Finger scattered his ashes in the sea, but not before placing them in a Bat-Sign he made on the beach.  After Finger's death, Kane gave Finger credit...with his words, but never asked that he be given credit in print.  "But Bob didn't amend the part of his contract requiring that he always be listed as the sole creator of Batman", the book notes.  However, Finger's old protégé Jerry Robinson kept Bill Finger's legacy alive with the creation of the Bill Finger Awards for Excellence in Comic Book Writing. 

Bill the Boy Wonder is a fascinating portrait of a hidden figure to most if not almost all Batman fans.  Finger comes across as a pretty affable guy, perhaps too affable.  His lack of insistence in not asking for co-credit for creating one of the most iconic comic-book figures is puzzling to say the least.  With the success of Batman in various serials and the 1960s camp Batman show, Finger had plenty of time and opportunities to lay down the law if he so wished.  He had a strong case, but Finger never pushed or insisted on credit.  This despite the fact that Finger's contributions to the Batman storyline was an open secret among their colleagues.  Kane himself talked about how Finger did much to shape Batman to the figure we know him today, but just as Kane never pushed for Finger to get recognition, neither did Finger.

From Kane's perspective, it is understandable.  Batman is a major franchise that is still popular today.  From Finger's perspective, it is still puzzling.  Did Finger simply not care?  Did he think it wasn't worth the trouble to get a byline?  Did he think the work was reward enough? Bill the Boy Wonder never answers that question, I think because there is no answer possible.  Finger has been dead for forty years, as is his son Fred.  Bill Finger is so mysterious a figure that the book notes that the author was able to find only one known note in Finger's handwriting, and that was from around 1942. 

However, the book itself makes for a fascinating read.  The Author's Note which details more information about Finger as well as Nobleman's search for information is in itself fascinating read.  We learn that few pictures of Bill Finger exist, and that the search was drawing blanks because he had changed his name from Milton.  We also learn a far stranger story about what happened after Finger's death. 

His son Fred was gay, so it was believed Finger had no heir.  Fred Finger's belongings were given to a Charles Shaheen.  Shaheen had been receiving small royalty checks from DC Comics and it was thought the checks ended after Shaheen's own death.  However, DC Comics had been sending those royalties to a Jesse Maloney, a drifter.  In the course of Nobleman's investigation he discovered Finger's niece and nephew, who asked him why he didn't talk to Finger's granddaughter.  The fact that Finger had a grandchild was stunning given Fred Finger's open homosexuality, but Nobleman learned that Fred had been married briefly to a woman and had a daughter named Athena.  Athena was tracked down through MySpace, where she shared that her dog's name was Bruce Wayne.

Athena filled in the missing pieces.  Charles Shaheen had been her father's long-time partner, but the family didn't like Shaheen.  Maloney had claimed to be Fred Finger's brother (though Maloney's relationship to Shaheen, whether it was romantic or not, is not known).  Once Maloney was unmasked (no pun intended), DC began sending all of Bill Finger's royalties to Athena, which helped in raising her own son, Bill Finger's great-grandson and final heir. 

I imagine even Commissioner James Gordon would find this tale extremely bizarre.

Ty Templeton's illustrations capture the look of comic books, with their panels and split images.  A few illustrations, like the Wayne murders and the various figures Finger either created or co-created (such as Robin, The Joker, Catwoman, The Penguin and The Riddler) are so evocative of Kane's illustrations (no one disputes Kane did artwork for Batman, though he himself did not write the stories).  They are beautifully rendered.  A particularly poignant moment is when Fred Finger places his late father's ashes on the beach, having shaped the sand into a Bat shape.  "The tide crept in and swept them out to sea," the box says.  It's a beautiful moment.

From the serials to Gotham, all Batman fans bow in salute.


In the Kirkus Review of Bill the Boy Wonder, Nobleman gets enormous credit for the amount of research that went into rescuing this figure from near-oblivion.  Certainly Athena Finger is grateful for Nobleman's research, and not just in financial terms.  The grandfather she never knew (Bill Finger having died two years before her birth) is now assured of the legacy that came too late for him.  We now have the story of Bill Finger, the man who made Batman the man he is today.


I think there are a few good programs that can come from this.  One is to put Bob Kane "on trial" and discuss the ethics of crediting someone for their work (remembering that Finger never pushed or insisted on credit).  A comic-con is also plausible, as is a comic-book creation contest...with winners getting full credit.  A Batman exhibition, where we see the evolution of the character, is also worth considering.

Bill Finger


Book Review: Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman by Marc Tyler Nobleman (2012, April).  Kirkus Reviews.  Retrieved from

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Module 11--Ballet For Martha: Making Appalachian Spring: A Review

by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca

Greenberg, J. and Jordan, S. (2010).  Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. Roaring Book Press, New York. 

I figure making a book about the creation of an iconic American ballet is a tough sell.  You've got to be true to history and you have two subjects that don't lend themselves naturally to the written word: the art of dance and the art of music.  Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, does this efficiently, with beautiful illustrations and great text that together flow as easily and excellently as Aaron Copland's score and Martha Graham's choreography. 

Martha Graham:
We get a quick introduction to our three figures: Martha Graham, the choreographer (or creator of dance), Aaron Copland, the composer, and a generally unsung figure in the creation of the ballet Appalachian Spring, Isamu Noguchi, the artist (in this case, set designer). 

Each figure goes through a creative process and progress.  For Graham, it is coming up with both a scenario and with the dance movements.  She has to create a story that can be told in dance, and that can be both creative and one that can be performed by the dancers.  It isn't easy, as she keeps working and reworking her choreography.  Graham also has the added burden of finding her style not embraced by the times.

Aaron Copland
For Copland, it is in finding the right music to which to tell the story he's been given: a pioneer wedding.  He comes across a Shaker hymn, which inspires him.  He writes out the music, waits for it to be approved, and even doesn't mind when the score is rearranged to fit the dance.  For Noguchi, it is going beyond his usual sculptures and creating a minimalist set that can work with the dancers and their movements.

Finally, the big day comes: October 30, 1944, where Appalachian Spring (a title Graham found in a poem and which she liked despite having nothing to do with the ballet) premieres in Washington, D.C. at the Library of Congress.  Ballet for Martha then describes through words and illustrations the ballet itself and the great success Appalachian Spring had.  The book ends with the idea of a revival of Appalachian Spring, with new dancers coming to recreate this uniquely American story.  We know that it is a new interpretation, for we see a multicultural dance company performing the dance.  We also get a "Curtain Call" section, giving brief biographies of Graham, Copland, and Noguchi and the footnotes that credit the information.

Isamu Noguchi:
Ballet for Martha as I said has a very difficult task.  How exactly does one recreate on a page the freedom of movement or the sound of music?  Appalachian Spring is one of the seminal works of American culture: Copland's score, in particular his interpretation of the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts is among the greatest and most recognizable works in American music.  The choreography to Appalachian Spring was a landmark in American dance.  Therefore, how to show this physical work in a book?

A great deal of success to Ballet for Martha is due to Floca's illustrations.  They are simple but elegant.  In particular, Floca has a vitality when illustrating the leaping and movements of various dances.  We don't just see the illustrations to show how Appalachian Spring was, but also a previous Graham ballet, 1929's Heretic.  We don't get a description of what Heretic is about, but the fact that Floca's illustrations show Graham all in white facing a group of women towering over her all in black is a strong explanation of what Heretic entails.  We see this with Floca's illustration for Appalachian Spring as we see the exuberance and the quiet of the dancing.

Floca throughout Ballet for Martha shows us how the dancers told the story through movement.  The text by Greenberg and Jordan take great care to explain what is going on in the story.  Ballet can be a bit opaque to many people, especially children not involved in ballet.  As such, to see Greenberg and Jordan's text alongside with Floca's illustrations we get as much impact as possible for the page.

"The bridegroom leaps and bounds like an acrobat, strutting, swaggering, showing off for his bride." 

The text above is complimented with illustrations of the various athletic movements of the male lead, concluding with a full-page illustration of the Bridegroom posing in a powerful position, muscular arms thrust out, almost as if he were more prizefighter than ballet dancer.  They do the same when they describe the 'fiery' movements of the Preacher, almost as an avenging angel warning sinners of the wrath of an angry God.

Ballet for Martha also gives us not just the story of the creation of Appalachian Spring, but about the importance of collaboration.  Each figure (Graham, Copland, and Noguchi) worked together to create Appalachian Spring.  We don't read that any of them said it had to be done their way.  In fact, we read that Graham had to rewrite her scenario again and again, and that Copland didn't object when his music was rearranged.  Whether the last part was true is not in the notes, but we trust that if there was, it would have been mentioned.  As it stands, there is no sense that Appalachian Spring was anything other than three great artists collaborating and working in tandem to create a masterpiece.  

Above all else, Appalachian Spring is an AMERICAN creation: a piece that is about an American subject, drawing from American music, infused with the American spirit of freedom.  This is why it was extremely clever to end Ballet for Martha with a whole new group of dancers performing Appalachian Spring, one that featured minorities in the prominent roles.   It shows that dance companies around the world are able to perform Appalachian Spring as a work that celebrates America, or at least acknowledges that the United States has its own unique culture. 


In her review for Ballet for Martha, Jennifer McDonald observed that after reading it, "the book's earnestness may appeal to young dancers (and will undoubtedly send them to YouTube to see "Appalachian Spring" for themselves." I can testify that it wasn't just 'young dancers' who were intrigued to see what Appalachian Spring was all about.   I think readers will want to know more about Appalachian Spring, and fortunately, we have video of the ballet with Graham recreating her original performance. 


Obviously, a performance of a selection from Appalachian Spring would be an excellent program to have for Ballet for Martha.  We could also have either a band perform the score's most famous work, Copland's version of Simple Gifts, or have a choir sing this and other Shaker hymns.    


McDonald, J. (2011, January 14). Rhythms of a New Land. The New York Times Book Reviews.  Retrieved from