Jeannine Atkins: Radiance, Manure, and Children’s Literature
Even before we pay a swift homage to Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight, Moon, I try to point my students’ gazes toward the window, though we meet well before the sky turns dark. We read a passage from Eudora Welty’s memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, where she recalls being a child seeing the moon turn from flat to round. “The word “moon” came into my mouth as though fed to me out of a silver spoon. Held in my mouth the moon became a word. It had the roundness of a Concord grape Grandpa took off his vine and gave me to suck out its skin and swallow whole, in Ohio.”
All those o sounds get us ready for the circles of spider webs and seasons in Charlotte’s Web, with its many mentions of wonder, the shimmer of dew on a web, and Charlotte’s choice of the word radiance for Wilbur. On our way to see more sparkle in fairy tales, I introduce Faith Ringgold’s picture book, Tar Beach. The blacktop roof in Harlem offers a safe place to wonder, an urban equivalent of what the barn was to Fern, where, trusted because of her patience and reverence, she heard the voices of animals.
In Tar Beach, Cassie Louise Lightfoot can fly. I point out the repeated mention of stars, and how the George Washington Bridge, which the narrator’s father helped build, hoisting cables, is compared to a diamond necklace.
I spot a pair raised eyebrows among 24 others that seem in their ordinary place, and get a teacher’s glittery choice to decide whether to ask what that’s about, or ignore them. I chose to ask, since controversy can open up talk early in the semester, and I’d appreciated the way this student had spoken up for Templeton, who of course ferreted away the rotten egg that first saved Charlotte’s life and did a lot of necessary scurrying, including fetching newspapers as templates for the words Charlotte wove.
Now my student said, “I grew up near that bridge and it’s ugly and dirty. There’s nothing pretty or shiny about it.”
Well, I guess that’s true, too. Ringgold’s picture book features photographs of quilts, scraps turned into something bigger and maybe more beautiful, putting together memory and fantasy. The rooftop isn’t really much of a beach either. I hope not to hide truth with something shimmery, but to remember how E.B. White mentions manure, an important part of life, almost as often as radiance: for one thing, whatever you think of its smell, it helps seeds grow. There’s no day without night, and a book isn’t wholly a book until it has readers, and there will be all kinds.
We move onward to fairy tales, which Tolkien says let us “breathe a lie through silver.” There will be glimmering that suggests another world, more flying, and its lightness, but plenty of dark forests, too.
(Thanking my husband Peter, who took the moon photo in just the right light to show those craters. The photo of E.B.White’s barn and rope swing is from the New Yorker, and you can enjoy more on the link.)