Category Archives: books

Falling Dormant, Waking Up

Note to readers (if this blog still has readers, that is):

Never, ever start a two-part blog post about race and children’s books when you are lost in the tunnels of your very real, very adult racial mid-life crisis. When the school bus driver’s confused stare, just a few seconds long, starts to stay in your mind’s eye for hours. When a row of maple trees might as well be a row of metal bars. When the path you’ve made with another person — every piece you snapped in place together, every willing compromise and good intention — obscures itself. And two things that never stood in the path before, blackness and whiteness, look so big you can’t see if the path continues on the other side.

My intention back in November was to blog about Hazel the Hedgehog, a vintage children’s book in which a brown and spikey hedgehog is banished from the barnyard by a posse of strangely blond farm animals. At a certain point, the mere act of picking up this book used to make Brian and I laugh out loud.

That was part I. Part II was to share a book that is Hazel’s antithesis: Spork, the uplifting tale of a mixed kitchen utensil.

I am going to share it now, here, because it’s a beautiful parable with beautiful pictures, and because Kyo Maclear, the book’s half-Japanese, half-British author, has her own beautiful story to tell about how this book came into being. (You can read about Maclear’s and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault’s upcoming book, Virginia Wolf, which addresses depression, here).

But as I look at this adorable spork of a child, searching for identity in the silverware drawer, I realize how drawn I am to his parents: the fork father and spoon mother “who thought he was perfect just the way he was.” They look so happy.

Do they argue about balancing Spork’s spoon heritage and fork heritage? If you are made of prongs, can you truly understand a round hollow? And if these utensils are a family, where can they all happily live? Because like much of America (still), drawer organizers tend to be segregated.

When you’ve written a children’s book that has been used as an allegory for everything from transgender identity to the Middle Way in Buddhism, and that educators use to introduce kids to philosophy, you have done something worthwhile. In an interview, Maclear said it took a common camping implement to get at the deeply personal messages she wanted to convey.

“When I conceived of this story, I knew I didn’t want the protagonist to be distinctly human . . . I wanted to avoid the ‘social studies’ approach to talking about these issues, which can become ponderous and joyless,” says Maclear, who lives in Canada with her husband and young daughter. “I definitely didn’t want to make my character purple or some arbitrary mixed color, because I find this trivializes the real historical and cultural experiences of being a person of color.”

When readers meet Spork, Maclear says, they are disarmed. I have no idea if Sky and Rose consciously see their mixed selves when I read this book to them. But I know they root for Spork, and I know more than anything they love how it all ends.

Removed from anxieties about race, class, ethnicity, sexuality or any number of other dividing lines, Maclear says, adults and children suddenly find themselves able to explore what it means to be different, and what it means to belong. “Sometimes,” she says, “we need a new language, and fresh words.”

If there is a better guiding principle when it comes to race, I can’t think of one. Yes, there are deep injustices to battle. There are presidential candidates who have figured out how to divide across color and culture, and there are families still trying to figure out how to love across color and culture . But so many of these things hinge on the stories we tell ourselves, or have told ourselves for too long. Sometimes we need a new language. And fresh words.


Hazel the Hedgehog (part 1)

On the edge of town, beyond the family-run orchard and soccer fields and the house painted the color of candied yams, lies our town dump.

To a city girl, a town dump is a revelation. For years, I lined barrels and blue square bins along the curb of my building for the garbage truck. Here, despite paying some of the highest taxes in the state, people find it second nature to load up the car, decamp from their wooded estates, and haul their trash to a transfer station. They also bond there — with old neighbors; with the newcomers to town; with Billy, the war veteran who lets kids push the hydraulic compactor button and whose late father ran the dump for years. Billy is the historian and long-haired king of this place; my kids love seeing him at the top of the drop-off hill and so do I. Although, since the day a woman stopped to ask me if I knew any other good nannies in the area, I mostly keep to myself.

The dump isn’t just the place where the town brings its garbage. It is also the home of the town swap shop, where people who no longer want their pine dressers or perfectly functioning deluxe gas grills can leave them for others to claim. Furniture, toys, books. At one point, about half of our baby book collection was made up of selections from the swap shop.

That is how Hazel the Hedgehog came into our lives.

Hazel the Hedgehog is one of a series of baby animal board books I scored at the swap shop years ago. By series I mean Bobby the Bunny, Cathy the Calf, Danny the Duck, etc. At the time they seemed like real finds, with a Dick-and-Jane cuteness that would not be denied: Each book was cut in the profile of a particular animal’s shape. I couldn’t wait to bring them home to Sky, who was just 2 then. As it turns out, Hazel the Hedgehog had more in store for us than a bedtime story.

A hedgehog will roll itself into a ball to protect itself against potential predators

Amazon describes Hazel as a book about “recognizing that being different makes one special.” I would describe it as colorstruck and creepy. Picture a bizarrely Aryan collection of animals — white dog, white sheep, white-ish goat and a thoroughly blonde horse — cavorting on a farm. Now picture dark, brown Hazel entering stage left from behind a bush. “Hello, everyone. May I play, too?”

Oh, Hazel. I’m sorry sweetheart, but no, you can’t play with everyone. I’m not sure why your  parents didn’t break that news to you — although I feel your pain, because my parents never broke the news to me.

It’s quite the scene, as the farm animals pull away and huddle on one side of the grass. They turn, look over their shoulders and throw Hazel a collective evil eye I’ve yet to see in another board book meant for infants. In a clear blue sky, the sun suddenly stops smiling.  Here is what the animals say:  “No way, you’re too spikey. We’ll prick ourselves.” Too spikey, Hazel realizes about herself for the first time, and on the next page she wanders into isolation and cries big fat hedgehog tears. Brian and I had a good sick laugh over the plot. Then we quietly took Hazel out of circulation.

Hazel the Hedgehog isn’t a book about race or color. But it is a book that shows the incredible power of color to convey meaning and reinforce meaning. All hedgehogs are spikey. But not all hedgehogs are dark and not all horses are blonde. In case there was any confusion about spikeyness or softness, the colors were there to make the message clearer. Babies get that message, and they keep getting it. This is why psychology studies 50 years ago and psychology studies today show black girls all reaching for the white doll. This is why, for example, I have a very hard time explaining to my daughter that in her book about the Haitian Revolution, the band of dark-skinned slaves are the heroes and the white emporer with the funny hat named Napoleon is not.

Over the years, Hazel the Hedgehog has come to occupy a special place in the Maple Street imagination. Not to be confused with actual hedgehogs  —  which sometimes invade our garden and send my husband flying up the stairs for his rifle — Hazel has become a perfect little shorthand. She stands for any situation in which something racial or racist is happening, but no one will acknowledge it for what it is. Hazel was too spikey the same way the black kid people inch away from on the sidewalk is too scary. The same way a Michelle Obama new to the campaign trail was too angry. The same way that, in the preschool circles of my childhood, my hair was too woolly and strange. Playing Duck Duck Goose, sandy-haired girls and boys skipped around patting each other’s heads, but they hovered over mine. Instinct tells hedgehogs to roll into a ball when they feel threatened. The instincts of a 4-year-old are less clear than that.

At the end of the book, a turtle discovers Hazel crying and instantly recognizes her pain: The animals won’t play with him because he is too slow. The spikey one and the slow one become friends and the sun breaks into a new smile. Which is great. But it would be so much more satisfying if all the fluffy white animals were banished from the barnyard.

I have another friend for Hazel. His name is Spork. A spork is a common camping utensil, half-spoon, half-fork. Spork is also a book, and it’s pretty popular in this house. So popular and intriguing, in fact, that I went looking for its author. Our brief, warm connection was of the hedgehog-meets-turtle variety. More about that in Hazel the Hedgehog Part 2.

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