October 15, 2005 § Leave a Comment
Author Jane Yolen has made literacy her number one priority and she does her part by writing the best books she can and speaking with parents and educators about the issue. Yolen has written more than 200 books in her 40-year career, including the Caldecott Medal-winner, “Owl Moon,” and the acclaimed young adult novel, “Devil’s Arithmetic.” The first piece of writing she ever sold was an article about kites, which ran in Popular Mechanics. Currently, Yolen writes the successful “How Do Dinosaurs” series.
As Yolen sees it, literacy is in a state of crisis and it is a particular frustration that this message is difficult to pass on beyond the parents whose kids are reading anyhow.
“I’m always preaching to the choir,” said Yolen. “These days, people who are involved in reading literature are an endangered species, Harry Potter notwithstanding — which is a phenomenon that has nothing to do with the long run what’s going to happen to literature. I mean, it’s a mammoth blip, but a blip nonetheless and we can’t count on Harry Potter readers to go on to be other kinds of readers.”
It’s no surprise to Yolen that series books have boomed with young readers — not only Harry Potter, but others like Lemony Snicket and Spiderwick. To Yolen, these represent a kind of comfort literature that, once started, makes it easier for kids to step up the reading, at least in terms of quantity.
“They don’t necessarily challenge you in any way,” said Yolen, “but it’s comfortable because you are revisiting old friends over and over again. Just like we watch the same television shows over and over again. We like series. We don’t want the same plot, perhaps, but what we do want is ‘Oh, I know these characters and I can count on them.’”
Book series ape television
The series books are also easier to produce, especially for the author, who doesn’t have to spend time establishing new scenarios and dynamics in the pages of the books, as Yolen learned first-hand working on her own series, the “How Do Dinosaurs” books.
“I don’t have to, as a writer, reinvent the format,” said Yolen, “because I already know it, I don’t have to reinvent the rhyme scheme, because it’s already in place, it takes away the invention, it starts me on a higher place, I don’t have to start at the very ground level, I’m building a second story.”
In many ways, book series are aping television, though the opposite movement — book to film — can serve as a modern time lapse example of the process by which myths and legends, Yolen’s great passions, are modified and passed down. Films map the movement of a story from one place to the other and reveal how the specifics of the medium dictate how the story is told.
Yolen points to the movie based on her book, “Devil’s Arithmetic,” as a good example of using the original text as source material rather than canon for adaptation.
“It was brilliant, but it wasn’t the book,” said Yolen. “They dropped characters, they put characters together, the ending was slightly different, but they managed to keep the sense of the book, the thematic underpinnings were really there. I have too many friends who had movies made of their books and they’ve just been butchered.”
Myths and legends function not only as blueprints for process, but as story source material as well. Yolen fears that today’s kids are lacking a certain cultural literacy that could give these new versions of old tales a richer flavor.
“We’re doing a lot of fractured fairy tales, fractured myths,” said Yolen, “but if you don’t know what they are to begin with, how do you understand when they are fractured? Are they funny because Eddie Murphy is a voice or are they funny because there’s a background there that you are missing? You’re missing half the joke.”
Not only does cultural literacy involve a knowledge of the actual stories, it also means understanding how the stories have passed through time and culture and how stories can link societies.
“It’s all about the cultural shorthand,” said Yolen. “If you understand other people’s myths you can understand who they are, they cannot be strangers to you, you can also see how much mythological and folk stories have passed through various cultures, taking on a coloration of that culture but still being at its core the same story.”
A knowledge of the path of stories can reveal to the reader the roads that storytellers can take in their own minds while crafting a tale, as well as the way stories are compiled, edited, and modified, and what forms storytelling can take.
“Stories follow all kinds of routes,” said Yolen. “They follow the slave route, they follow explorers, they follow trade routes, they follow marriage routes. You might get, for example, an escaped African slave who had been brought over to America and has been taken in by a Native American tribe, becomes one of them but tells his own stories, which become part of the tribal stories.”
Started as a journalist
Yolen began her official writing career as a journalist intern telling a different type of story — hard news. Reporting taught her a level of immediacy, as well as the importance of concise clarity. Her first assignment, to go out and interview people on welfare, taught her more than a few lessons about looking at all the angles when telling a story.
“I tried to write this story and I was sobbing,” said Yolen. “I couldn’t ask the hard questions because I was so affected by the people, it was impossible for me to do the kind of job that you really need to do to be a journalist. They told me any kind of story they wanted to and I believed them because they were in such bad circumstances. So I made a lousy journalist but a great fantasy writer.”
Equally, a later job as a caption writer honed her ability to compress the words she wrote without simplifying the ideas they represent — a talent that doesn’t seem to come naturally to a new generation.
“With computers now, I think one of the things that kids are learning is to say things not briefly,” said Yolen, “that they’re just to go on and on and on and on because it’s easy, it’s a very plastic tool. You can just keep going with the thought perhaps that you’ll fix it later, but nobody ever does.”
Yolen thinks its the logical result of a medium that allows for endless pages.
“You don’t have to erase it, you don’t have to white out, you don’t have to retype the whole thing because you made a mistake,” said Yolen.
The goal for young writers is to learn the power of one word and one of the best ways to achieve this knowledge is through poetry. It’s difficult to measure the magnitude of a single word in a large prose, but in context of a poem, one word can make or break it. It’s a delicate exercise that Yolen believes can bring great power to the future of storytelling and literacy.
“It’s taking coal and pressing it and pressing it and pressing it until you end up with a diamond,” said Yolen.
October 10, 2005 § Leave a Comment
As the years have passed, I have become less and less acquainted with the actual reasoning behind celebrating Columbus Day. I use the term “celebrate” in a loose way, since I don’t know anyone who really takes part in such an activity, barring grade school kids working on a project. I’m given to understand that Columbus Day is big among Italian Americans and, as a not even slightly Italian American, I guess I can understand this celebration of a famed Italian in history and his brush with their new homeland. Except, as we all know, the legend of Columbus isn’t all it cracked up to be. Certainly, one cannot dispute the man’s bravery at thrusting into the unknown, but other things, like the credit he gets for discovering America and a dubious attitude towards the natives who lived in the lands he did “discover,” are fair game.
“Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 14 hundred 92,” the rhyme begins, and I can still remember the image of Mr. Ed reciting it during a dream sequence with Wilbur behind the wheel of either the Nina, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria. The little poem doesn’t address things like the time when Columbus tried to coerce the natives into bringing him more gold, so he told him he would chop their hands off if they failed to bring in their quota each day.
Let’s just say, there were a lot of stubby Cicao Indians on what is now Haiti that year.
The poem also doesn’t mention the part about Columbus trying to convince the king and queen to enslave the Indians and the king and queen actually being the ones to put the kibosh on that idea. That didn’t stop Columbus himself, though; he personally enslaved 1,600 Arawaks anyhow and kept most of them for himself. Very graciously, he sent 550 to Spain even though they didn’t want them. Lucky for Spain, half of them died on the voyage and most of them were sick when they got there, so they didn’t have to worry too much about it.
As for the slaves that Columbus did keep, his journal talks about he and his men using them for sex — the poem really doesn’t mention that!
It also doesn’t bring up the fact that by 1489, even the Spanish couldn’t stand him anymore. The people he brought to settle rebelled against him, rightfully accusing him of being a big liar who misled them into settling. Columbus went home in shackles after being arrested, and though he eventually got his freedom back, he could kiss his good reputation so long until about 1869, when San Francisco Italians first celebrated the day.
As for Columbus, he died crazy and rich. He took to wearing a Franciscan habit and claimed that his journeys to the New World were part of God’s plan and would directly lead to the Final Day of Judgment, which in his view was coming darn soon. He also advocated for a new crusade to take back Jerusalem. And he was able to exist happily as an apocalyptic religious crank because of the mass of gold he got while chopping off Native American hands. Still that wasn’t enough for Columbus, who demanded that the Spanish government give him a percentage of their profits from the New World.
Besides, regardless of the fact that Columbus was apparently an opportunistic sour puss, Viking he-man Leif Erickson beat him to the discovery of an already occupied land.
Surely, there are better men for Italian Americans to celebrate as a symbol of Italian achievement? Or perhaps there is someone who better represents the inclination to create celebratory holidays for almost everything, regardless of the truth of the situation.
In this spirit, I nominate Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, from whom America takes its name. Vespucci is mired in controversy, his claims are disputed, he is accused of lying about his trips to America, and his most important contribution to history — the letters he wrote about his journeys — may not even have been written by him at all. Sounds like the perfect inspiration for an American holiday to me.
October 6, 2005 § Leave a Comment
Werner Herzog’s brilliant new film “Grizzly Man” could be glibly described as “King of Comedy” by way of “Grizzly Adams” and it wouldn’t be far off. Herzog mines the currently vogue territory that has also been explored in such documentaries as “Capturing the Friedmans” and “Tarnation,” where very personal film footage is restructured to reveal the story behind the visuals. In Herzog’s hands, the film footage itself is held up to scrutiny as the audience is asked to examine the relationship between myth and reality and how stories can end up as a swirl of both and a creature of neither.
Timothy Treadwell, an amateur bear researcher who fancied himself a preservationist, lived among Alaskan grizzly bears for 13 years during the warm months before he was mauled in October of 2003. The last five years of his visits, Treadwell documented his experience on video and Herzog utilizes this footage to create a poetic, respectful, and disturbing examination not merely of man’s clumsy interaction with nature, but also of the bravery and beauty that can arise from innocence in the form of stupidity.
Early in the film, Herzog includes a clip of Treadwell on the Letterman show talking about his life with the bears.
“Is it going to happen that one we read a news article about you being eaten by one of these bears?” Letterman asks him. The audience laughs, as does Treadwell, but the scene is uncomfortable. Though poised as the jokester, Letterman has broken the boundaries of show business — and, therefore, illusion — by pointing out that it is surely a very bad idea to get so close to grizzlies for such a protracted period of time.
The laughter provides a meth-od for everyone to shrug off something so horrific, so inevitable — and as we learn from the film, Treadwell is not quite as adept as Letterman at dismissing illusions. In fact, the illusion of his life as he presented it may be his single driving force, much more than the grizzlies that constantly surround him.
“I smell death all over my fingers,” Treadwell proclaims in one of his many monologues, which segue between explanations of what a dangerous situation he has put himself in and various forms of self analysis. Explaining the multitude of ways a bear could kill him — not as any form of realistic contemplation, but as bravado to pepper his image as naturalist — becomes a mantra for Treadwell. With a hysterical style that seems to be his clumsy take on a nature show host, Treadwell believes he is providing an important context for his pretend audience, mostly in contrast to much of his interaction with the animals, which consists of oblivious, lovey dovey baby talk. He comes off like a surfer boy Mr. Rogers or, perhaps, the real life personification of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka.
The film doesn’t quite present Treadwell the Fool, however. The fact remains that the man lived on and off 13 years with grizzly bears, certainly a dangerous venture, and he managed to get some astounding footage and only met his end under some extenuating circumstances. Instead, Herzog focuses on Tread-well the Film-maker and, if you consider Treadwell as the ultimate in personal kamikaze film making, it is no surprise he wins Herzog’s admiration.
Herzog also is busy providing the context that Treadwell could not see clear enough and certainly chooses some footage that Treadwell probably never would have in order to make his point. There are two kinds of knowledge to be gleaned from filmed images — the intended and the underlying — and the land in between might be the actual revelation. With Herzog as the caretaker of the raw footage, the image that Treadwell so carefully attempted to craft for himself slips away even as he sheds his feel good, fairy tale persona for that of a angry, partially hysterical, foul mouthed, egotistical paranoiac, a signpost that there is far more going on here than even Treadwell or any of his old friends, interviewed by Herzog, could have imagined.
Filmmaker to the end, Treadwell turned his camera on during the bear attack that took his life and his girlfriend’s — the lens cap was still on but the moment was captured in sound. In one haunting and riveting scene, Herzog presents the coroner on the case reenacting the final recording as he heard it. Later, Herzog listens to the actual footage in headphones while sitting with Jewel, Treadwell’s old girlfriend and associate. His voice is noticeably disturbed when he asks Jewel to turn the recording off, and more so when he begs her to never listen to the recording herself, In fact, he demands that she destroy the tape so that no one can ever hear it.
The scene is as much a testament to Herzog’s artistry as it is to his humanity. No tale of Treadwell would be served by any audience hearing that recording and Herzog knows this. It diverts all possible truths of Treadwell’s story into one horrifying moment that could define it with a useless, sensational message. Herzog is aware that it is not Treadwell’s death that is important, but the 13 years that lead up to it, and there is no certainly no myth-making possible from the finality of such sounds as his excruciating death.
At this point, Her-zog turns to deconstruction, delving into Tread-well the Man and an examination of how his life was expressed through these films. Herzog learns, among other things, that the bears encompass a mirror that Treadwell held up to himself as he attempted to control realities and perceptions whether he was in the world of bears or humans. If one is talking in terms of art, then this becomes the consistent thread through Treadwell’s creative work.
Herzog seizes the broad themes from the odd story of Timothy Treadwell and directs them towards an examination the the mechanics of mythology.
I do wonder if, in another era, Timothy Treadwell might have fallen into the same realm of tall tales and legends with the likes of Johnny Appleseed and others who exist through a chamber of myth that renders the real circumstances of their lives at such a distance that the person is no longer as resonant as the stories that surround him.
We have no live footage of Johnny Appleseed to taint the myth or to help us understand him better, so Timothy Treadwell will have to do.
October 5, 2005 § Leave a Comment
With the month of October upon us, the supernatural becomes the center of celebration for many and in Massachusetts, the Salem Witch Trials serves as a legendary example of more localized terror. The issues of 1692 that involved the manipulation of religious fervor and superstition in the seizure of women and their property — as well as their subsequent incarceration and executions — have been supplanted in the popular imagination by less important supernatural ambiance. It might be prudent, however, to point out that such things still happen in the world 300 years later and for many of the same reasons. As the documentary “Witches in Exile” makes painfully clear, the nightmare continues.
Filmmaker Allison Berg takes her camera to Ghana to examine with surprising candor the women of the Kukuo Witch Camp, where accused witches are taken to be put through a “de-witching” ceremony and live out the rest of their lives in exile and shame — that is, after being brutally beaten in their home villages and forced to watch the destruction of their homes.
It’s actually not very hard to be accused of being a witch. All that you need is a typical sort of disaster in Africa— say, the death of a family member through mysterious illness or a famine — and the superstitious desire for a scapegoat, usually an older woman no longer able to have children and, therefore, of little use to the men. As one commentator points out, “witchcraft is a means to social control,” and it is one that is built on thousands of years of an oral tradition passing on old legends that, too often, spur irrational fear in the minds of the people raised on them.
It is in this arena that witchcraft and possession are taught as matters of fact and much like other bogeymen through history — vampires, Germans in zeppelins, mad gassers, child molesters and terrorists — are used to bolster some kind of natural vigilantism that humans seem pre-disposed to. When a respected voice of authority within a community can legitimize the irrational, as the local priests in Ghana do by proclaiming that all women are evil, bad things are destined to happen to the scapegoats and any voice of reason can often be scandalized as being deceived or just soft on evil.
Berg’s access to the women in these camps is remarkable and the presentation of their daily lives in the detestable conditions they must trudge through is sure to elicit sympathy, but this is obviously about more than poverty, it’s about the attitudes that sent them into that state. When Berg’s camera takes to the streets to ask people what should be done with a witch, answers are given such as “they should chop off her head” and “they should be stoned to death.” The real horror is that these opinions belong to women and children and Berg’s film skillfully documents a society that has managed to get the victims to move in on themselves. No unity means no rebellion.
Berg gives time to the accusers as well as the victims and does not fall into the trap of portraying them as raw evil. Instead, they come off as afraid of forces beyond their control, what we understand as nature and economics, but they can only explain in otherworldly terms and use this knowledge to seize control of their circumstances.
Such worldviews are not isolated to Ghana, but spread throughout Africa and the rest of the world. In the Republic of Congo, it is believed that almost 20,000 kids are homeless after being accused of witchcraft, which means that there are four youths there for every Ghanian witch in a camp, every dismissed woman trying to maintain her dignity against the judgment of her kin.
If you think this is merely a result of the ancient beliefs of backwards people half a world away, think again. The American Library Association recently revealed that there were 3,000 attempts in a five year period to ban the Harry Potter books, entirely because, it is claimed, they promote witchcraft – one Georgia mother who recently attempted a ban referred to them as an “evil” conspiracy to indoctrinate children. Certainly, book banning is a far cry from abuse and torture, but they are symptoms of the same disease.