Sunday, October 21, 2007

Stories from Many Lands

Passionate as we might be about books and reading it is worthwhile remembering (and paraphrasing that wonderful old number from Casablanca), that a book is just a book. Yes it can be the door into thoughts, knowledge and experiences not otherwise accessible. But it is still a simple physical thing and as subject to misinterpretation, error, and misrepresentation as anything else we deal with in daily life.

In some respects books, a doorway into other times and places, are a little bit like those sci-fi stories where the spaceship has an errant warp drive that takes you someplace very quickly but you don't know where it is until you arrive (if then) or what you will find there.

Which books (i.e. which authors and illustrators) will take you someplace remote in time and distance and tell you something true about that destination? But first we need to answer (Philosophy Alert! Philosphy Alert!) - What is truth? This is verging on a set-up for a Monty Python skit. Bring out the Holy Hand Grenade.

Does a Disney version of Sleeping Beauty tell you much about Old Europe or does it tell you more about more about the middle-class tastes and desires of 1950's America? Is Little Black Sambo a virulent racist screed or an innocent child's story made up by a traveling colonial mother to entertain and distract her children on a long and uncomfortable train journey? Should all stories from the past be filtered and judged solely on our ever-shifting value-judgments of today? Deep waters these.

Waters made murkier and deeper by our seemingly ever-increasing sensitivity to perceived slights and insults. Which is not to say that there isn't much that can be offensive and distasteful about stories from the past or from countries with different traditions and values. But one of the wonderful elements of the adventure of reading is in the discovery of the new and different which, in turn, may be uncomfortable and disturbing. In fact, if it is comfortable, it probably isn't new or different.

I think it is the mark of a liberal mind (in the classic sense of the word) to have the capacity to read something and understand it in its context. I think it is more than worthwhile for our children to understand that knowledge, ideas, and judgments change over time. What was once acceptable in one context is now unacceptable and vice-versa. It is also worthwhile for them to put themselves into the context of a different place or time and understand how they might respond differently or not. Sometimes, if we were to put ourselves into the context of a different technology, a different economic system, a different values system, a different power structure, it becomes apparent that (as opposed to some non-existent ideal world), the choices were different, hard, and more limited. What would we have done?

And sometimes we are just left wondering. I have on a number of occasions read of Europeans massacring one another in the New World in the mid 1500s, as for example when the Spaniard Pedro Menendez de Aviles, massacred several hundred French Huguenot settlers in north-eastern Florida, in part because they were encroaching on land claimed by Spain and in part because, as Protestants, he viewed them as heretics. It just seems incomprehensible to me that these small numbers of Europeans, far from home, perched in a hostile situation on the edge of an unexplored and mysterious continent, subjected to an environment with which they were unfamiliar and unadapted and confronted by antagonistic locals, should have prioritized extermination of their fellow Europeans because of doctrinal differences as more important than all the other challenges they faced. But just because I don't understand doesn't change the fact that it happened and therefore exposes the poverty of my comprehension. But plus ca change.

Exposure to different countries and cultures is not an exercise in eating at a restaurant with foreign cuisine, or watching a foreign art movie. It is not just the exotic. It is about the fundamentals of life and death and living. Not of differences of habit with which we are unfamiliar but differences in a world-view that hovers beyond our grasp. As some say about the Sixties ('If you remember it, you weren't there'), so it might be said that truly understanding that which is different from you really means understanding how much you don't understand.

When we moved to Australia a number of years ago, I thought to myself that this would be an easy transition. I had lived in the US which shared a somewhat similar colonial, rural, and westward expansion ethos. I had also lived in the UK, from whence most of Australia's people came and with whom they had much shared history. Surely Australian culture would be some synthesis of these cultures with which I was so familiar.

It was a good lesson in not letting your thinking get ahead of your experience. Of course Australian culture was its own wonderfully unique thing and we spent five and a half years discovering its many facets and left feeling like we had but scratched the surface. Yes there were parallels to the US and to the UK but they were only that: parallels. Knowledge of the US and UK was of marginal benefit in understanding all the other influences that had melded and molded modern Australia.

Having lived in more than half a dozen countries on four continents and traveled and worked in many others, I know I don't have the answers. What I do know is that understanding and empathizing with those that are different from us, in whatever way, is hard work calling for much more than the throw-away slogans and inconsequential mantras that pass for insight into the other. Louise MacNeice captured this sense of both the wonderment and the frustration in trying to comprehend that which is so alien to ourselves.

Louise MacNeice
Autumn Journal

The Glory that was Greece: put it in a syllabus, grade it
Page by page
To train the mind or even to point a moral
For the present age:
Models of logic and lucidity, dignity, sanity,
The golden mean between opposing ills...

But I can do nothing so useful or so simple;
These dead are dead
And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.

And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

The other thing I know, and hope for and fear, is that our children will be ever more challenged to engage with those that are different from themselves. Technology, the boon and bane of our existence, is indeed making the world smaller, throwing people from all sorts of different backgrounds together in an exciting but sometimes unnerving goulash. The better grounded our children are in their own traditions while being made aware of those of others, the more likely they will be able to navigate these tricky waters.

So what are some good books to expose children to Stories from Many Lands? As someone once said in reference to translated poetry: if beautiful, not true; if true, not beautiful. So it can be with books attempting to introduce stories from one culture to another. Below are an assortment of folktales, travelers tales, and stories that expose children to different countries and ways of thinking. We have attempted to strike an impossible balance between those that hue close to an original source while rendering in a way comprehensible and enjoyable to someone unfamiliar with that culture. Let us know if there are other candidates you would recommend.

Picture Books

The Barefoot Book of Animal Tales by Naomi Adler and illustrated by Amanda Hall

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

Peter's Old House by Elsa Beskow

Snipp, Snapp, Snurr and the Red Shoes by Maj Lindman

The Race of the Birkebeiners by Lise Lunge-Larsen and illustrated by Mary Azarian

Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Norhwest by Gerald McDermott

The Stonecutter by Gerald McDermott

Indian Tales by Shenaaz Nanji and illustrated by Christopher Corr

Anatole by Eve Titus

Independent Reader

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and illustrated by Tasha Tudor

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson

The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Michael Chesworth

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

Young Adult

Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge

The Histories by Herodotus

Death in Venice and Other Tales by Thomas Mann

The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean

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