Sunday, January 13, 2008

In Praise of Bad Books

I did not intend to start out the year with this particular essay but there is a wonderful discussion going on in one of the children's literature listservs to which I belong that touches on a set of issues which often arise in children's literature and which will be relevant to a number of essays and book lists we will be creating this year. Perhaps best to grab the bull by the horns early and set the issue to the side.

Unfortunately, the issue is neither easily stated nor easily addressed.

Part of the challenge is lack of specificity. The general charge is that authors and illustrators should be more sensitive and respectful of all cultures, particularly those that are in some context deemed minority cultures. The charge is usually in the context of race or ethnicity, though occasionally extending to culture and religion. However, the nature of the charge often shifts in debate as does the claimed damage done. Even more ambiguous are the appropriate actions proposed to be taken which range from a general admonition to be nice, all the way to strong statements to the effect that outsiders have no rights to tell stories and with almost every imaginable permutation in between

Fundamentally the discussion comes down to this - what rights do self-identified groups of people have to control access to and dissemination of "their" stories. The discussion though, is often broadened into who is allowed to discuss other people's stories. A common complaint is when a non-member of a group presents a tale as if it were part of another's folklore when in fact it is not. To give a specific example - Is there anything wrong with a non-Native American writing a story in the form of a Native American folktale which is not in fact a traditional folktale at all.

I think most people would agree that in this scenario at least, a deceit has been committed by the author on his audience. But what is the obligation of the author to his audience? If he simply indicates that the tale was inspired by Native American myths, which it very well might have been, does that rectify the impression that it is in fact a Native American story? When does a retelling become a completely new story? And what is the damage, if any, to an undefined Native American community?

You can start playing with the variables in this scenario to see how tangled it quickly becomes. What happens if a member of the community (rather than a non-Native American) writes a story in a folktale format which is "inspired" by the traditional tales?

Being a keen First Amendment fan my instinct is, outside the legal context of copyright ownership, to say that anything goes, short of direct and targeted calls for violent action. I viscerally reject the position that any group "controls" a story and yet there are elements of their position with which I empathize. The discussion has been going on in the listserv for two or three weeks now and I at first pretty much ignored it as I get fairly riled by self-appointed commissars of taste and values.

However, the issue is not just about the First Amendment, and when you reflect on it there are many valid concerns. I cannot ignore the fact that I sympathize with some of the issues raised, but I need to reconcile that sympathy with that visceral commitment to free speech. Many of the discussions go around and around with people speaking at cross purposes to one another and not ever really communicating. This essay is an attempt to answer two questions; "Can stories be owned and controlled by a people?" and "What obligation does the author of a story have to anybody?", and to answer them in a way that breaks the wall of confusion down into manageable pieces.

I will frame this around a central metaphor, illuminated by four analogies and underpinned by a long list of axioms.

The metaphor is that of a bridge. Whenever self-identified groups of people interact, there will be a greater or lesser exchange of a variety of things - genes, language, religion, trade goods, services, customs, stories, etc. The nature of that exchange may differ dramatically depending upon the intentions of the parties, the cohesiveness of those groups, the relative power of the groups one to the other and the duration of interaction.

The exchange, to the extent that it happens, happens on a metaphorical bridge. It might be a wide bridge or narrow one; much may go on there or little, people might pass freely back and forth or simply meet to exchange at the bridge, exchanges might occur individually or between groups, individuals on the bridge might be appointed ambassadors of their people, simple traders, charlatans or self-designated representatives, interaction may be frequent and voluminous or infrequent and niggardly. And of course some of the transaction on the bridge is of a non-voluntary sort. The Mongol hordes had a pretty straight-forward approach to exchanges - You give, we take, (and maybe you live.)

If there is a bridge, there is always a context that also needs to be taken into account. Is this a bridge between two large singular entities (think the US and China), is it one large to one small (think the US and Liberia), is it one large to many small (the US and the many distinctive Native American groups), is it many small to many small (the Balkans)?

Each of these scenarios carries different implications. After following the discussions for a while and noting the points made by the protectionists, one of the conclusions I have reached is that often the resentment and anger on the part of the advocates of the small group is really not an anger at some specific action or book (what someone said that was accurate or not, how they are represented, etc.) but rather at the fact of being the small group and the change arising from interaction with a large neighbor.

The analogies I will use are four-fold; with food, with language, with movie adaptations and with the market-place. I will call them into play as I go along.

Ownership of stories is an emotive issue analogous to the issue of language death. There are literally thousands of distinct languages around the world with a large number in imminent danger of extinction. Each such death of a language usually also represents the death of a distinctive culture, history and body of stories. While we may all be the poorer with each extinction of a language, who is responsible for maintaining a language? It can only, in the end, be the collective decision of some functioning minimum number of people that they are willing to invest the time and resources on their part to sustain a language. This is not an inconsequential investment. It has to be made at the individual level because the benefits are diffuse, philosophical and scarcely quantifiable which makes it a hard sell to people outside the community. While simply documenting existing languages is a huge effort, it is interesting to note that there have been a number of linguistic rescue operations in the past fifty years which have revivified a number of languages: Hebrew, Gaelic, Welsh, etc.

The analogy with food is extensive. Some would argue that, like food to the body, stories are critical for cultural survival. Like food, there are some stories which have their adherents and fans but have little healthy substance - the twinkies of the story world. Like food, a well read mind is fed by a variety of stories in some sort of balance, not the gorging on a single type of story. And like food, there is no accounting for taste in stories. Everyone has their preferences based on their unique experiences and context (all food is sumptuous to the starving man).

Movie adaptations are analogous to books in this context as well from the perspective of how to judge them. A movie adaptation is a translation from one medium to another, the respective media requiring different capabilities on the part of the audience, imposing a different experience and eliciting a different response. Movies are effectively a downhill skiing medium; everything rushes at you, you respond instinctively and without conscious consideration and the outcome is an emotional thrill on one extreme or another ("Wow, I made it", or, "Ouch, I think I broke my leg!") Books on the other hand are a cross-country skiing experience; it requires focus and endurance, there is the opportunity to stop and examine things or even take a digression, and the final response to the experience tends to be a longer lasting charge whether positive (physical exhilaration) or negative ("Oh, my aching muscles").

When a favorite book has been translated from its native medium to that of a movie you will encounter long impassioned discussions. These often do not have an outcome but are enjoyed as a process. What scenes were left out? What was added? How closely did the screen character match your imagination of the character? Was the director effective in catching the spirit of the book? and on and on. Since everyone created their own unique experience when they read the book in the first-place, their critique of the adaptation of the movie will be similarly unique - you have ended up with everyone praising or criticizing an experience that none of them share. This is similar to the process that goes on with adaptations of a story from one culture to another.

Is there a difference between what goes on in the storytelling interaction between large/cohesive groups and smaller less cohesive groups and that which occurs between two large cohesive groups? I don't think so. Each tells stories of the other. Members from one group attempt to interpret their people to the other group. No one agrees on how to define the quality of the storytelling. Some people tell stories for personal gain. Others do it for a variety of other, perhaps more altruistic reasons (often by intention but not necessarily by outcome).

The dynamic is not particularly different as to what happens on the bridge. That does not really change depending on relative sizes, strength, etc. It is not the action that differs. It is the feeling and response. If I am a member of the larger, stronger more cohesive group and I visit another large, strong cohesive group and study their stories and come back and tell those stories to my own community, does anyone from the other group care? Usually not. In fact, most often, it is not even noticed. And when it is noticed, and if there is controversy, it is usually on many other grounds rather than the right to tell the story.

For example, when Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson produced their wonderful The Story of Ferdinand in 1936, no one complained that they had no right to tell a story since they weren't Spanish or that they were factually mis-representing the cultural integrity of Spain. The controversy was whether they were making a political point. Interestingly, both the Right (Franco's Nationalists) and the Left (the Republicans) saw the story as an attack upon themselves.

Similarly, no one (credibly) attacks The Story About Ping's cultural sensitivity even though it is written by a Westerner. Many would hold that it is a useful story for introducing China (or a particular element of China at a particular time in history) to children. The Five Chinese Brothers, however, is more often critiqued. Sometimes the issue is whether it really is based on a Chinese folktale or whether Bishop just made it up. Sometimes the issue is about cultural stereotypes, but I don't believe anyone has questioned whether it should have been written at all or whether Bishop had a right to tell the tale as she did.

So why is it different when the interaction is between large and small? The interaction is not different at all but the potential consequences of that interaction could very well be. See Axiom 9.

Following are a series of axioms or maxims through which I am attempting to break out the various ideas inherent in this topic and frame them in a way that allows one to navigate through the debate to an end conclusion.

Axiom 1 - There is no singular entity such as a "people". There are of course governments representing nations to which people belong. Different governments may be representative of a more or less homogenous people. Below the governmental level though, people organize their lives along many vectors including religion, education, income, ethnicity, employment, cultural background, political beliefs, etc. Only as a citizen of a nation or some other polity do all those vectors come together. Very typically a single individual might self-identify with any one or more of these vectors. It is the fragmentation of identification which obviates the idea of "people".

Any individual at any point in time may self-identify more with one vector than with another and we often do not realize what our own priority of identification is. This shifting sense of what constitutes self is captured well in James Baldwin's essay The Discovery of What it Means To Be an American. On the one hand he states "I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem here." To his surprise he later found:
In my necessity to find the terms on which my experience could be related to that of others, Negroes and whites, writers and non-writers, I proved, to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I. And I found my experience was shared by every American writer I knew in Paris. Like me, they had been divorced from their origins and it turned out to make very little difference that the origins of white Americans were European and mine were African - they were no more at home in Europe than I was.

Context becomes critical for our own self-identification - Baldwin was both an excluded and dissociated Negro in America and yet still an American in Europe. Which took precedence? It depends on the circumstances and the context.

Axiom 2 - There is no legal position to this discussion of who owns a story. By which I mean that most countries grant copyright to individuals or companies. I am unaware of any country that grants ownership of an idea or story to a group by right of precedent or original habitation. In these discussions the term "cultural copyright" sometimes comes up and is thrown around. There is no cultural copyright. Cultural copyright is a made up term representing a wish on the part of some people for a power which does not exist. Until such time as a government that actually represents its citizens creates such a thing, this idea is a red herring.

Axiom 3 - Good intentions are sometimes our worst enemies. The desire to prevent hurt feelings and misrepresentation is not inherently a bad desire. It is the translation of that desire into some sort of action that becomes the problem.

There are plenty of governments and countries which have elected to restrict the free flow of ideas (by restricting the articulation of those ideas). In fact, it usually can be assumed that the self-serving nature of most governmental interests are predisposed to protect their privileges by restricting the information available to its governed population and the capacity of that population to discuss, evaluate and synthesize information (free speech). That is not intended to be an accusation or pejorative statement but rather simply a matter of observation and logic.

Germany and Austria, for example, have made it illegal to deny the Holocaust. That is a comprehensible law given their particular history. Understanding the reasons why they have chosen to impose that law on themselves does not necessarily make it right though.

Every inch of ground given up on the freedom of speech seems to immediately translate into miles of encroachment on liberty as evidenced by the travesty going on north of our borders where, despite freedom of speech being in their constitution as well as in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, to which they are a signatory (and which reads "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers"), Canada has implemented a series of unaccountable Human Rights Commissions entitled to levy fines and restorative actions on anyone deemed to have said something insulting to specified protected groups.

To be fair to governments, it is not only governments that elect to restrict free speech. It is also uniformly customary for societies to create their own, non-legislative restrictions on speech, usually under the auspices of politeness and reducing conflict. In traditional Southern society, one does not discuss among strangers and acquaintances; religion, sex, money, politics, or anything else that might make a guest uncomfortable. Whether these are appropriate, useful, or desirable restrictions (and the goal of making people feel welcome and reducing conflict is a good one), is a value judgment many people might dispute and which any one person might agree or disagree with depending on the time and the circumstances.

Axiom 4 - All people, most of the time, desire predictability and the absence of change. Change represents a risk and a threat. When two cultures intersect, one is likely to be more affected than the other depending on circumstances of history, social cohesiveness, intention, power, etc. It is inherent, then, that one group will bear a greater burden of change or effort to resist change and, will therefore, be more vocal about the nature of the interaction.

Axiom 5 - Often-times our desire to protect the status-quo of the past and present blinds us to the beneficial future. Progress is a function which is only poorly defined and even less well understood. There have been many societies in which material progress took a back seat to cultural progress or intellectual progress. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, The Lever of Riches, etc. are wonderful books exploring how we might define and measure progress and the mechanisms by which it occurs, but we are still merely scratching the surface.

Since all progress involves the changing of material circumstances or cultural norms, someone will always be inconvenienced by change, not to say disappointed or even disadvantaged. King John, I am sure, was not well-pleased to accept restrictions on his powers from the barons at Runnymede, but it would be usually accepted by most that this was one step in a long path of beneficial progress.

Axiom 6 - No one wants to expend the effort or suffer the consequences of change, but everyone wants to enjoy the benefits that that change might bring.

Axiom 7 - For any smaller culture interacting with a large one, they are typically more affected by the exchange, and being more affected, will likely have more people more vocally resisting that change.

Axiom 8 - The smaller the community, the more likely there are to be multiple and irreconcilable views about the propriety of sharing stories and other items which shape a culture's identity and the more likely that each position will be held with great intensity. There are no wars as brutal as civil wars and this is the fate of many encounters between large and/or powerful cultures with small and/or weak cultures. Some people wish to assimilate, some wish to strike a position where they can wrest the best of both worlds, and some wish to isolate themselves, to burn the bridge. Without internal cohesion or agreement, individuals end up presenting themselves to the dominant culture as the voice of the people, as representative, as the conscience, etc. The members of the dominant culture are left trying to determine just who speaks for whom. Regardless of the passion and fine intentions of those individuals, they can only speak for themselves.

Axiom 9 - Purity (racial, religious, ethnic, etc.) cannot be the basis for making decisions. In its extreme, a position is often taken that only approved members from within a minority culture are allowed to tell the stories of the group. This position is undermined by Axiom 1. Who is ethnically pure enough to serve as a teller of stories? Even if they are ethnically pure, are they culturally pure? I find this line of questions to be abhorrent, divisive and self-destructive.

As an extreme example, in Australia, there is a whole continuum of ethnic and cultural purity which includes Aborigines who elect to live in reserves held solely for them (to which other citizens are prohibited from entry withour permission), effectively leading lives relatively close to those of their ancestors. There are those that live a half-way life, usually in the cities, between the traditional norms and those of the majority culture. Finally there are those that have chosen to integrate completely into the majority culture; often proud of their heritage but determined to be successful in a new environment. All might be ethnically of one people, but usually each has rather different views as to whether and how to present their heritage. Which person can speak for the whole?

Axiom 10 - While the dynamics between large and small cultures may not differ at all from those between two large cultures, I think it is fair to say that there is an element of the bull in the china shop. The small culture may introduce ideas into the larger culture but as a function of size, cohesiveness, and strength those ideas may take longer to assimilate into the larger culture and may be modified in a way that makes the assimilation easier.

This series of events would be in contradistinction to the experience of the smaller, weaker, less cohesive culture where they may be exposed to a greater range of unfamiliar knowledge and where the impact and change, though unintentional, can be far more consequential.

Many years ago I read an interesting account of this process occurring entirely unintentionally. I do not recollect the anthropology text I was reading, but the circumstances were something along the following lines.

Sometime around the late 1800's a group of anthropologists and linguists, interested in trying to parse out the migratory patterns of the settlement of the Pacific by the Micronesians and Melanesians, mounted an expedition to study the languages of the region (and how they were related) as well as the myths and folklore. The anthropologists were convinced that migration had occurred from northwest to southeast. They had some evidence from some of the main island chains of folktales that related tales of people coming from the west.

As they explored the further reaches of the Pacific and among minor and more isolated island chains, they asked not only about local folktales but specifically about any tales speaking of people coming from the West. They were disappointed to find a complete absence of such tales but dutifully returned to their universities and wrote up all the tales and languages they had collected.

A couple or three decades on, a later anthropologist decided to spend time doing field studies on one of the remote island chains that had been earlier visited by the other group. Residing on the island, he also collected information about their language and folktales. Among these stories were ones concerning ancestors coming from the west. Being familiar with the earlier reports he was puzzled about the discrepancy. What he discovered was that the direct questions from the earlier expedition and the sample stories they had related, had osmotically been absorbed and local folktales had morphed to incorporate the assumption of the outsiders that ancestors had come from the west.

Axiom 11 - Time is limited and you can't know everything. This is obvious but undermines an often central position of those who want to protect stories from the depredations of unqualified interlopers. The position taken is that only those very sympathetic to and well versed in a particular culture should be permitted to tell stories of that culture. What they are doing though, is imposing a further burden on parents, teachers and librarians to invest time and effort to investigate the "validity" of such folktales.

If I am a parent committed to exposing my child to folktales from a dozen or so cultures, I already have my work cut out for me in finding good, representative folktales from each culture. If I am then asked to explore the minutiae of who is authentic, the barrier to cultural entry can become inordinate. I only have so much time. Navigating the ethnic validity swamp is akin to that scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian where Brian is trying to figure out whether he has joined Judean People's Front, the People's Front of Judea, the Judean Popular People's Front, or the People's Front.

Surely it is better for a child to be exposed to a folktale outside of their ken (even if its rendering falls short of ideal), than for them not to be exposed at all.

Axiom 12 - Stories handed down are as subject to being hijacked generationally as they are to being hijacked culturally. A story that my grandparents told among themselves and handed down to my parents and then to me, may - by the time it reaches me - be completely different.

In fact, the appropriation and misappropriation of stories goes back at least to Homer and Herodotus. If there was ever a real Homer, the story which he told around some distant campfire will probably have taken many twists and turns through the mouths of subsequent story-tellers, each placing their mark. Once written down, we, as a collective global community, have been treated to telling and retellings innumerable. Which of these stories are true? None and all of them. Who owns them, no-one and all of us.

Were some better than others? Certainly there are those that have preferences. But all have probably served a purpose and been remembered fondly by someone. With each retelling though, the story will have drifted further from that which someone earlier was most attached to and will be roundly condemned as inferior.

Axiom 13 - Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Words Will Never Hurt Me - This childhood adage seems to have departed from its moorings among some adult critics. It is not a irreconcilable position to believe both that stories are very consequential and need to be judged appropriately and harshly and at the same time believe that words are simply words - it is the discussion and coaching from parent to child that surrounds those words that matter most.

Axiom 14 - Feelings are an inadequate basis for making decisions. Just because one or more people feel insulted by a particular portrayal is no basis for not writing or for believing the book is poorly written or that there is any intentional or unintentional malice. Everyone can feel insulted some of the time. A few people feel insulted all of the time. Regardless of individual sensitivities, and the desire for everyone to be happy and un-insulted, the cure of trying to restrict story-telling, well-motivated (and impractical) though it might be, is worse than the perceived injury.

Axiom 15 - Occam's Razor (often paraphrased as, all other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best) has a social corollary. The Social Occam's Razor would be: All other things being equal, always assume a hurtful statement is made in ignorance rather than malice. The cure for ignorance is more exposure, not less.

Axiom 16 - Some people are more interested in condemning than in creating. And as every revolution ends up devouring its own, often times those that work the hardest to adhere to some putative standards of sensitivity are those most condemned. This dynamic is particularly destructive; those that are in a position to create new works effectively allow themselves to be held hostage by self-appointed standards police.

I would advocate that those who are already capable and predisposed to create new works do so. Yes, mistakes will be made but better to try and tell the tales well and make a mistake than to not to try at all. Those who object are then free to create alternates themselves that meet the standards they have set. Whether the resulting work is appealing to others is then subject to determination.

Axiom 17 - If true, not beautiful. If beautiful, not true. So someone once said about translated poetry. And really it could be said for any translation.

Axiom 18 - Every experience of a book is necessarily unique. The response to any story is a function of three inputs; those of the author and illustrator as the creators of the story, the context in which the story is being read, and the entire weltanschauung of the person reading the story.

We can critique the author and illustrator on a whole laundry list of criteria ranging from technical versatility, to plot structure, to character development etc. However, and fortunately for the employment of editors and publishers, there is no formula to predict which books will be well received by whom because context and weltanschauung are unpredictable variables.

Axiom 19 - No one agrees on what constitutes a great book, a good book or even a bad book. There are books critically assessed as poorly written and/or illustrated that sell in the millions and there are beautifully illustrated and well written books that do not sell enough to even recoup the costs of printing. There are books that have many factual errors, misrepresent groups, mischaracterize history, use archaic and potentially demeaning language and/or ethnic terms, and yet have held the attention, wonder and love of book readers over many generations. Where would we be without Doctor Dolittle, Little Black Sambo, Uncle Remus, TinTin, etc. And I would be willing to wager that those that love these books, grow up better informed despite the factual errors, more open despite the stereotyping, more constructively critical despite the historical characterizations, and less disposed to linguistic insults than the general population.

Virtually every book has a friend and who is to know where that friendship will lead. One of the books criticized from a Native American perspective was How the Moon Regained Her Shape. The criticism is that it seems to present itself as a Native American legend when in fact it is made up from whole-cloth. In our TTMD review, I also criticized the text of the book but more from a gender stereotype perspective. Despite being written by a professor of women's studies, the book reinforces a stereotype of females being pathetically dependent upon nice words from others to bolster their own self-esteem. So the text is open to pretty stark criticism.

The illustrations, however, are very distinctive, unusual and attention grabbing. Is it possible that some young child might be so fascinated by the illustrations that it sparks her interest sufficiently to want another book involving Native Americans? I think there is every chance of that happening. So on the one hand I consider this a bad book (the message of the text). I would not give it to my children to read on their own. But I would consider reading it to them as the basis to discuss unintentional stereotypes. On the other hand, I consider this a reasonable book for discussing its illustrations and the techniques used by the artist.

So, is it a "good" book? I would answer, No!
Is it possibly a useful book? Yes!
Would I recommend it to a general audience? No, not really.
Could it lead a child on to other books about Native Americans? Certainly!

Axiom 20 - Restricting people to write about that which they know would mean that much of our literary heritage would never have been created. It is the process of imagining, thinking and experiencing beyond the boundaries of own direct experience that adds to our cultural treasure and ultimately expands our fellow-feeling with those whom we might not at first see any connection.

Axiom 21 - Just as in a commercial marketplace, so it is in the marketplace of ideas; no-one gets everything they want but everyone gets more than they had. Any restriction on the free flow of knowledge and ideas (other than the proverbial "Fire" in a crowded theater examples), represents a diminution of intellectual health and benefit.

Axiom 22 - The act of designating or qualifying who might write what about whom is effectively a restraint in trade of ideas.

Axiom 23 - Any restraint in trade impoverishes all parties.

Axiom 24 - For all the charges of malicious bigotry or prejudice, (as justification for restricting the free flow of ideas), there is little evidence of that actually being a problem. It can be theoretically, but in practice, in most OECD countries you would be hard pressed to find, other than grubby self-published or photo-copied screeds and wretched anonymous comments in blogs, any sort of materials, particularly those targeted towards children, which demonstrate much in the way of directed maliciousness.

Rather, more commonly, the issue is an accusation of unintended bigotry and prejudice that might potentially, in the future, possibly have some detrimental effect on the thought processes of children.

Axiom 25 - Any relating of a story from one context to another (from one culture to another, from one language to another, from one social group to another) is both an act of linguistic translation and an act of cultural translation.

When we lived in Australia and traveled in the Outback we often visited Aboriginal communities. We purchased many children's books of Aboriginal folktales, most written in conjunction with someone from the Aboriginal community or illustrated by the same. The first step of translation had already occurred, i.e. all the stories were in English and not the native language (of which there are some hundreds). What was particularly notable was the impact of cultural adaptation. In some stories, the translation was almost literal which would not normally be much of an issue except that the various Aboriginal belief systems are so dramatically different than those of northwestern Europe that the embedded assumptions and background knowledge almost made the stories incomprehensible. In other instances, the authors had made some clear effort to either explain the hidden assumptions or to retell it in a fashion that that knowledge was not required. So the more comprehensible stories tended to be those least adherent to the original; those hewing the closest to the original had the least impact on us as outsiders because they were the most incomprehensible.

Which approach was the more true? You might as well debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. For our children, at that time, at their ages, with their upbringing and life experiences, the modified stories were what they responded to and remembered best. Change any one of the variables though and the answer might have been different.

Axiom 26 - The act of linguistic translation is, in itself, rife with land mines and the potential for offense. Language is such an integral part of cultural self-identity that it can hardly avoid being a source of potential sensitivity.

In fact, you don't even need to go to the extent of translation. Accent on its own can be a barrier. Our first few months in Sydney, Australia were a source of immense frustration to Sally, this being her first assignment abroad. Sydney is your quintessential emigrant city - it seems every next person is from somewhere else. Sally was trying to acclimate her ear to the Australian accent and yet every second person with whom she spoke in those first few months seemed to have an accent designed to confuse her. Was that an Australian accent? No, they're from New Zealand. How about that one? No, South African. And that one? Birmingham. Etc.

Being from the South, Sally was perfectly aware of her own accent which to her ear is pretty clearly and unmistakably Southern. Imagine her surprise when new Australian acquaintances would ask, Are you Canadian? Now what was happening was that the Australians were recognizing a North American accent but were not familiar with the cadences of a Southern accent and their best guess was Canadian. Sally's surprise that they did not recognize a Southern accent was compounded by her amazement that anybody, anybody could confuse a Southern accent with a Canadian accent. Could she have been insulted? Well, we do have some red-blooded Southern friends that I suspect might take offense at being confused with a Canadian. But not Sally. No malice was intended and, in fact, the mere inquiry was evidence of those small micro-steps toward relationship building which should always be viewed in the most positive light possible.

Axiom 27 - A story told poorly is better than a story untold. As an enthusiastic amateur historian, I can guarantee that I never regret having a fragmentary record of things past or even having badly opinionated or factually wrong stories from the past. My only regret is that we have too little. I can make allowances for errors and opinions and hedge my conclusions appropriately; I can do nothing when I have no information at all.

Take the contrast between the Egyptians and the Carthaginians. We have lots of material for the Egyptian period, much of which they produced themselves, some of which was produced by others. The Greek historian Herodotus traveled through Egypt collecting stories that intrigued him, some of which matched those that we have from the Egyptians, some of which took the mickey out of the Egyptians' own tales, some of which were local gossip dressed up as history, and some of which it is clear either Herodotus was not understanding what he was hearing or his local guides were pulling his gullible leg.

In contrast, we have virtually no historical record for the Carthaginians other than the little the Romans wrote of them and the material record of buildings, temples, etc. that they left behind. The footprint of their history is large and momentous and yet we have scarcely any detail by which to understand them. The absence of their own record and stories makes them not just an historical enigma, but a tragedy.

So at the end of this long discussion - and I apologize for its length - I am in the debt of those who have made the case for some special treatment of stories from other cultures particularly small communities. It has forced me to think through some of the many elements at play in this issue and to re-examine my own assumptions. In doing so, I think I have sorted out a few of my own inconsistencies, though I may not have articulated them particularly well.

My conclusion is that, like Churchill's observation on democracy (the worst form of government except for all the others), I still come down on the side of an unfettered freedom of speech. It may be damaging, there may be people whose feelings are hurt, there may be misperceptions created and factual errors made. But unfettered speech, while the worst form of communication except for all the others, is also the fastest way to rectify the problems that it does create. It is a self-healing process, and while uncontrollable and prone to error, it will, in the long run, most likely lead to an outcome most acceptable to the largest group possible.

So, moving away from some of the fields of contention, and despite TTMD being premised on identifying great books for children, I am forced to conclude that we should praise bad books. If we want more children to experience the pleasure of reading, it is not for us to tell them which books they ought to enjoy, but rather release to them the full flowering of story-telling from the good to the bad. Let us now praise bad books.

Picture Books

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson Highly Recommended

The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack Highly Recommended

The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese Highly Recommended

The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman Recommended

How The Moon Regained Her Shape by Janet Ruth Heller and illustrated by Ben Hodson

Independent Reader

The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting and illustrated by Michael Hague Highly Recommended

Favorite Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris Recommended

Adventures of Tintin by Herge Recommended

Young Adult

Collected Essays by James Baldwin Suggested

The Histories by Herodotus Suggested

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