#Ferguson #FergusonDecision Listen

“The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.” James Baldwin. The Nation. July 11, 1966.

“As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.” Neil Gaiman. October 15, 2013

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Malcolm X

In several ways, I have seen on social media: “Dear white people, listen” [1]—coming in the wake of the failure to charge Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown.

Here, I want to catalogue those voices that speak to that need to listen.

Listen

Harlem, Lanston Hughes

Only Words, Roxane Gay

Ferguson isn’t about black rage against cops. It’s white rage against progress., Carol Anderson

As a police officer kills without consequence in Ferguson, let’s look at profiling, education’s silent serial killer for black kids, Andre Perry

Week 13: Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See, Jose Vilson

I am utterly undone: My struggle with Black rage and fear after Ferguson, Brittney Cooper

Ferguson is not a special case, Tony N. Brown

Why We Won’t Wait, Robin D.G. Kelley

Telling My Son About Ferguson, Michelle Alexander

Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid, Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Gospel of Rudy Giuliani, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ferguson, goddamn: No indictment for Darren Wilson is no surprise. This is why we protest, Syreeta McFadden

In America, black children don’t get to be children, Stacey Patton

Fury After Ferguson, Charles M. Blow

The Illipsis: Jay Smooth on Ferguson, Riots & Human Limits

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: White People Feel Targeted by the Ferguson Protests—Welcome to Our World

A Report from Occupied Territory, James Baldwin

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, Audre Lorde

“The truth is…” James Baldwin

“To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true…” Bayard Rustin

Toni Morrison, the White Gaze, Race, and Writing

“This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us” James Baldwin

From Baldwin to Coates: Denying Racism, Ignoring Evidence

James Baldwin (Aug. 2, 1924 – Dec. 1, 1987)

[1] Our Silence Means More Violence: An Open Letter to Fellow White People, Carl Gibson

Related

Race matters in school discipline and incarceration

Illinois School Bans Discussions of Michael Brown’s Death

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#NCTE14: Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

“Why do we need the things in books?”: The Enduring Power of Libraries and Literature

Panel presentation, 75 mins

Gaylord National Resort – Annapolis 1

11:00-12:15

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”*

P. L. Thomas, Furman University

Abstract

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” Lou LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy). Also, LaBrant (1949) identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16). This opening talk of the panel will focus on the importance of access to books and libraries as an antidote to “costume parties”—highlighting the work of LaBrant and Stephen Krashen as well as the speeches and writings of Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury as life-long proponents of libraries.

“It is 1956, and I am thirteen years old,” begins Louise DeSalvo’s memoir Vertigo.  The opening scene reveals DeSalvo’s teenage angst and her desire to flee:

I have begun my adolescence with a vengeance. I am not shaping up to be the young woman I am supposed to be. I am not docile. I am not sweet. I am certainly not quiet. And, as my father tells me dozens of times, I am not agreeable. If he says something is true, I am sure to respond that it is most certainly not true, and that I have the evidence to prove it. I look up at the ceiling and tap my foot when my father and I argue, and this makes him furious.

In the middle of one of our fights, the tears hot on my cheeks, I run out of the house, feeling that I am choking, feeling that if I don’t escape, I will pass out. It is nighttime. It is winter. I have no place to go. But I keep running.

There are welcoming lights a few blocks away. It is the local library. I run up the stairs. I run up to the reading room, sink into one of its comforting, engulfing brown leather chairs, pull an encyclopedia down from the shelf, hold it in front of my face so that no one can see me, so that no one will bother me, and pretend to read so that I won’t be kicked out. It is warm and it is quiet. My shuddering cries stop. My rage subsides. (Prologue, p. xiii)

Libraries, librarians, and teachers return often throughout DeSalvo’s life story that reads as a slightly revised version of Tennessee Williams’s fictional “kindness of strangers”—this a retelling of the kindness of teachers, and of the library as sanctuary.

“There is more than one way to burn a book” (p. 209), Ray Bradbury warns in the “Coda” included in the 60th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451—a comment that motivated a poem of mine, “The 451 App (22 August 2022),” a speculative poem about how the move to electronic books could lead to the dystopian end to books and reading.

Bradbury’s novel, of course, emphasizes the importance of books, and of reading, but Bradbury’s writing of the novel and life also present powerful messages about libraries.

Jonathan R. Eller explains, “Bradbury virtually lived in the public libraries of his time” (p. 168). Further, Bradbury drafted early versions and then Fahrenheit 451 itself in the UCLA Library, working at a dime-per-half-hour typewriter.

Bradbury explains as well in the audio introduction to Fahrenheit 451:

I’m a library-educated person; I’ve never made it to college. When I left high school, I began to go to the library every day of my life for five, ten, fifteen years. So the library was my nesting place, it was my birthing place, it was my growing place. And my books are full of libraries and librarians, and book people, and booksellers. (p. 196)

It makes a great deal of sense and offers some literary symmetry, then, that Neil Gaiman wrote the Introduction to Bradbury’s 60th anniversary edition—Gaiman who is the source of a mostly satiric piece I wrote calling for Gaiman to replace Arne Duncan as the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Gaiman, like, Bradbury is an advocate of books, of reading, of libraries, and then of children choosing what they read:

It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur….

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them….

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant….

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky….

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

As I am writing this, it is late in the year 2014. No dystopia like Bradbury envisioned has happened, and at least potentially, books are more abundant than ever—both in print and electronically.

But a much more insidious dystopia does exist, one that is little different than decades before us and one that comes in the form of policy and what former NCTE president Lou LaBrant called “adult weariness” (p. 276).

Reading and books—and children—have long been the victims of prescribed reading lists, reading programs, and reading legislation. By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

Nearly 65 years later, Common Core, the related high-stakes tests, and rebranded concepts such as “close reading” are poised to have the same chilling effect Bradbury dramatized in Fahrenheit 451, and directly warned about, again: “There is more than one way to burn a book.”

From LaBrant to Stephen Krashen, literacy teachers and scholars have called repeatedly for access to books in the home, well-funded public libraries, and children having choice in what they read.

Instead, we close libraries (and public schools), we defund and underfund what libraries (and schools) remain, and we invest in reading programs and reading tests. That is a very real and painful dystopia.

Like DeSalvo, Gaiman recalls the library as a safe haven:

Nobody is giving you a safe space. I used to love libraries at school. Because school libraries had an enforced quiet policy, which meant they tended to be bully-free zones. They were places where you could do your homework, you could do stuff, whether it was reading books, or getting on with things that you wanted to get on with, and know that you were safe there. And people responded to your enthusiasms. If you like a certain writer, or a certain genre, librarians love that. They love pointing you at things that you’ll also like. And that gets magical.

Here, Gaiman answers his question from his Introduction to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “Why do we need the things in books?” (p. xv).

Books as magic, libraries as sanctuaries—we must cast spells, then, to erase the dystopia before us in the form of yet more standards and test, yet more libraries closed, and then yet more children taught to hate the very things and the very places that have made life worth living for so many.

Books and libraries created Gaiman, spawned his belief: “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

Let’s hope so.

References

LaBrant, L. (1949, May). Analysis of clichés and abstractions. English Journal, 38(5), 275-278.

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

*Portions adapted from the following blog posts:

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

“Fahrenheit 451″ 60 Years Later: “Why do we need the things in books?”

Neil Gaiman Should Be U.S. Secretary of Education: “Things can be different”

See Also

Neil Gaiman: Libraries are cultural ‘seed corn’

It’s a Book, Lane Smith

NCTE 2014: “Why do we need the things in books?”: The Enduring Power of Libraries and Literature

[At the 2014 National Council of Teachers of English Annual convention—themed Story As the Landscape of Knowing and held November 20-23, 2014, in Washington DC—Renita Schmidt (University of Iowa), Sean Connors (University of Arkansas), and I will be presenting as detailed below; I offer our proposal as a preview and hope you can join us as we need to raise our voices for both libraries and literature.]

“Why do we need the things in books?”: The Enduring Power of Libraries and Literature

Panel presentation, 75 mins

2014 NCTE Annual Convention - Participant Announcement copy

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”*

P. L. Thomas, Furman University

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” Lou LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy). Also, LaBrant (1949) identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16). This opening talk of the panel will focus on the importance of access to books and libraries as an antidote to “costume parties”—highlighting the work of LaBrant and Stephen Krashen as well as the speeches and writings of Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury as life-long proponents of libraries.

The More Books the Better!: Library Books as Boundary Objects To Build Strong Girls

Nita Schmidt, University of Iowa

Libraries provide stories for helping us understand who we are and who we might become. Sometimes, those stories take us to places we cannot imagine and we need more stories to resolve the tension. Libraries provide the books that become boundary objects or, as Akkerman and Baker (2011) describe, artifacts that work as mediators during times of discontinuity. Drawing on sociocultural theories of learning (Gee, 1996; Wenger, 1998; Vygotsky, 1978), this paper will discuss the ways an after school book club works with 4th – 6th grade girls to consider new perspectives. Book club members visit the library every month, read books with strong female protagonists, discuss topics in the books that relate to the real lives of the girls, and help the girls start their own personal libraries to encourage girls to begin to see themselves as successful young women in a complex global world. A bibliography will be provided.

Speaking Back to Power: Teaching YA Literature in an Age of CCSS

Sean Connors, University of Arkansas

If, as the narrator of John Green’s (2009) Paper Towns suggests, imagination is the machine that kills fascists, then literature, as English teachers and librarians know, is the engine that drives it. Despite the current education reform movement’s insistence on reducing the study of literature to a set of narrowly defined, measurable skills, and arguments which associate “close reading” and “textual complexity” with canonical literature, educators who value Young Adult fiction know that, like literature for adults, it is capable of creating a space for readers to examine complex issues related to race, class, gender, etc. This presentation calls on educators to recast arguments for teaching YA fiction in an age of CCSS by foregrounding its ability to encourage critical thinking. The presenter will share examples of (and guidelines for producing) student created digital book trailers that, rather than promoting books, instead “speak back” to oppressive ideologies featured in them.

*Portions adapted from the following blog posts:

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

“Fahrenheit 451” 60 Years Later: “Why do we need the things in books?”

Neil Gaiman Should Be U.S. Secretary of Education: “Things can be different”

References

Akkerman, S.F. & Baker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 132-169.

Bradbury, R.  Fahrenheit 451, 60th anniversary edition.

Fahrenheit 451: 60th Anniversary Edition

Neil Gaiman lecture in full: Reading and obligation — http://readingagency.org.uk/news/blog/neil-gaiman-lecture-in-full.html

Gee, J.P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourse. New York: Routledge.

Green, J. (2009). Paper towns. New York: Speak.

Krashen, S. (2014, January 4). The Spectacular Role of Libraries in Protecting Students from the Effects of Poverty. http://skrashen.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-spectacular-role-of-libraries-in.html?m=1

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), pp. 289-291.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice, learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind and Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

“Fahrenheit 451” 60 Years Later: “Why do we need the things in books?”

“Sometimes writers write about a world that does not yet exist,” Neil Gaiman begins his Introduction to the 60th Anniversary Edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

This is a book of warning. It is a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted….

People think—wrongly—that speculative fiction is about predicting the future, but it isn’t; or if it is, it tends to do a rotten job of it….

What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future but the present—taking an aspect of it that troubles or is dangerous, and extending and extrapolating that aspect into something that allows the people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place. It’s cautionary.

Fahrenheit 451 is speculative fiction. It’s an “If this goes on…” story. Ray Bradbury was writing about his present, which is our past.

Like Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds, Gaiman’s clarification about the purposes of science fiction/speculative fiction builds a foundation for reading (or re-reading) Fahrenheit 451 as well as for considering why Bradbury’s novel on book burning endures.

Sixty years ago in October 1953, Fahrenheit 451 was published. In the fall of 2013, the novel reads as an eerie crystal ball—despite Gaiman’s caution: the pervasive Seashells like iPod earbuds, wall-sized monitors and reality TV.

Yet, upon re-reading this anniversary edition, I am less interested in Bradbury’s prescience about technology and its role in isolating humans from each other, and reminded—as Gaiman suggests—of what matters.

Fahrenheit 451: 60th Anniversary Edition

The enduring flame of Fahrenheit 451 is perfectly stoked by Gaiman, in fact:

A young reader finding this book today, or the day after tomorrow, is going to have to imagine first a past, and then a future that belongs to that past.

But still, the heart of the book remains untouched, and the questions Bradbury raises remain as valid and important.

Why do we need the things in books?…Why should we read them? Why should we care?…

Ideas—written ideas—are special….

This is a book about caring for things. It’s a love letter to books, but I think, just as much, it’s a love letter to people….

Yes, Gaiman is a writer’s writer so he is naturally suited to understand Bradbury as well as marvel at the magic of Fahrenheit 451. But there is more.

This anniversary edition includes not only Gaiman’s new Introduction but also a concluding section—History, Context, and Criticism. The opening piece by Jonathan R. Eller explains, “Bradbury virtually lived in the public libraries of his time.” And later in a transcript of an audio-introduction, Bradbury adds:

When I left high school, I began to go to the library every day of my life for five, ten, fifteen years. So the library was my nesting place, it was my birthing place, it was my growing place. And my books are full of libraries and librarians and book people, and booksellers. So my love of books is so intense that I finally have done—what? I have written a book about a man falling in love with books.

Here, I think, another important connection between Gaiman and Bradbury highlights why Fahrenheit 451 endures: Both men are readers, the type of readers who love the idea of books, love specific books, and recognize the human dignity represented by the free access to books.

Like Bradbury, then, Gaiman has a life-long love affair with libraries:

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books.

I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less and more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight year old.

But libraries are about Freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st Century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them.

For those of us who share this love of books and the “[f]reedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication,” then, that Fahrenheit 451 endures is both wonderful and chilling.

If the novel had been published October 2013, I suspect it could have just as easily been applauded as a stark mirror of our present disguised as a futuristic dystopia:

“Jesus God,” said Montag….Why doesn’t someone want to talk about it! We’ve started and won two atomic wars since 2022! Is it because we’re having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumors; the world is starving, but we’re well fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we’re hated so much?

And then Montag recalls a brief encounter with an old man:

The old man admitted to being a retired English professor who had been thrown out upon the world forty years ago when the last liberal arts college shut for lack of students and patronage.

Fahrenheit 451 ends with Montag as a criminal on the run who finds himself on the outskirts of the town among refugees, mostly outcast professors.

If a reader picks up Bradbury’s novel today, and then turns to her iPad to read the online blog The Answer Sheet at The Washington Post, she may read this:

The discussion of why the humanities matter has picked up steam since The New York Times published a piece last week suggesting that even some top institutions are increasingly anxious about the proliferation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors.

Meanwhile, they report a declining interest in topics like French literature.

Only eight percent of students now major in the humanities, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, down from a peak of more than 17 percent in 1967. The trend is worrisome, and plenty of college presidents have come to the defense of the humanities; views of all kinds have since been published….

Tolstoy endured. Will the liberal arts?

From Aldous Huxley to Ray Bradbury to Neil Gaiman—and countless authors and readers alike along the way—Fahrenheit 451 should leave us all with Shakespeare ringing in our ears:

Miranda: O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t. (William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I, ll. 203–206)

Fahrenheit 451 remains a warning we need to heed, but likely won’t—once again: Be careful what brave new world we allow to happen when we aren’t paying attention.

Gaiman, Prisons, Literacy, and the Problems with Satire

Regarding my recent blog about Neil Gaiman for Secretary of Education (and the edited version at The Answer Sheet), Ken Libby took me to task on Twitter for, among other things, Gaiman’s comment about prisons and literacy:

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

My immediate point after quoting Gaiman was: “Gaiman even understands the difference between causation and correlation—a dramatic advantage over Secretaries of Education in the past two administrations.”

I have also received a friendly and much appreciated email from Chris Boynick addressing the same issue, noting that it is an urban legend that prisons use child literacy to predict prison needs. See “Prisons don’t use reading scores to predict future inmate populations” and “Kathleen Ford says private prisons use third-grade data to plan for prison beds.”

Boynick sent that same information to Neil Gaiman who responded on Twitter with: “@CBoynick Interesting. The person who told me that was head of education for New York city.”

So let me make a few clarifications addressing all this:

  1. My Gaiman piece is satire (and to be honest, that should put all this to rest). I don’t really endorse or want Gaiman as Secretary of Education, although I think Gaiman is brilliant (as one Gaiman fan noted, we don’t want to detract from his life as a writer!). My real point is the calamity that is those who have served at Secretaries of Education—especially in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
  2. Nonetheless, Gaiman only relays a fact: He did hear this stated as a truth. So maybe we can level some blame at his believing this, but apparently a person with some authority who should have known the truth did state this in front of Gaiman.
  3. Has Gaiman, then, been a victim (like many of us) of an urban legend? It appears so.
  4. But, does Gaiman then make some outlandish or flawed claim based on misinformation? Not at all. In fact, I highlighted that Gaiman immediately made a nuanced claim: “It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.” And that claim helps him move into a series of powerful and valid points. I should emphasize that most politicians and political appointees start with misinformation and then make ridiculous and flawed proposals. On that comparison, Gaiman wins.

And for good measure, I suggest “Do prisons use third grade reading scores to predict the number of prison beds they’ll need?” by Joe Ventura, which addresses the urban legend, concluding with an important point relevant to this non-issue about Gaiman’s speech and my blog:

Perhaps it’s best to call this a distortion of the truth. While there isn’t evidence of State Departments of Corrections using third- (or second- or fourth-) grade reading scores to predict the number of prison beds they’ll need in the next decade (one spokesperson called the claim “crap”), there is an undeniable connection between literacy skills and incarceration rates.

You see, a student not reading at his or her grade level by the end of the third grade is four times less likely to graduate high school on time–six times less likely for students from low-income families. Take that and add to it a 2009 study by researchers at Northwestern University that found that high school dropouts were 63 times (!) more likely to be incarcerated than high school grads and you can start to see how many arrive at this conclusion.

But once incarcerated, not all hope is lost. In fact, literacy instruction can help on both ends of the correctional system; studies have shown that inmates enrolled in literacy and other education programs can substantially reduce recidivism rates. One study of 3,000 inmates in Virginia found that 20% of those receiving support in an education program were reincarcerated, while 49% not receiving additional support returned to prison after being released.

So, while prison planners do not use third grade reading scores to determine the number of prison beds they’ll need in the decade to come, there is a connection between literacy rates, high school dropout rates, and crime. While we should file this claim as an urban legend, let’s recognize why it resonates with us: it speaks to the important ways that poor reading skills are connected with unfavorable life outcomes [his emphasis].

With that, I rest my case: Gaiman’s speech is overwhelming on target, moving, and brilliant, and he deserves a bit of space for a small error of fact, and the current Secretary of Education is incompetent.

This leads me to wonder why so much concern about one detail in an author’s speech and my satirical blog, but so little concern for the incompetence of the Secretary of Education and the entire education agenda at the USDOE.

Neil Gaiman Should Be U.S. Secretary of Education: “Things can be different”

Some people view the world differently than others.

Some people view education and schools differently than others.

Some people view children, books, and libraries differently than others.

And then there is Neil Gaiman.

I have been a staunch defender of public education, writing often against the negative consequences of Common Core (especially as related to literacy instruction) and doggedly resisting non-educators as leaders of the education reform movement.

Despite my resistance to what I consider misguided reform as well as my skepticism about innovation and market forces, I have conceded a compromise on Common Core, along with a clarification about that compromise. The response to that compromise has been underwhelming.

However, I am now willing to offer another compromise; this time about the qualifications for who should be our leaders in education reform. While I still call for the removal of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, I am offering Neil Gaiman as the next Secretary of Education in the U.S.—and suggesting that this office be his for life.

I am basing this new compromise on a speech presented by Gaiman for the Reading Agency in London.

First, I must admit that it isn’t entirely fair to judge Gaiman on a speech he wrote himself as that compares to the speeches written for him Duncan delivers. It also isn’t quite fair to judge the positions of a beloved author against the panderings of a life-long political appointee. Certainly, Duncan is beholden to different constituencies than Gaiman.

But judge I have, and here are my conclusions.

Gaiman’s qualifications for Secretary of Education must begin with what his speech does not include: no discussion of “grit,” no chants of “no excuses,” no praising of innovation or bowing to the brave new world of technology, no calls for new standards, no urgency about new high-stakes tests.

Instead, Gaiman offers a genuine and compelling argument for the essential value in books, the power of fiction, and the sacred nature of libraries.

Unlike typical political discourse, Gaiman confesses upfront his prejudices:

And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I’m an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So I’m biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen*.

Immediately, Gaiman shows his political acuity by noting the importance of investing in literacy as one strategy for decreasing the rise in prisons in the U.S.:

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. [1] And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

Gaiman even understands the difference between causation and correlation—a dramatic advantage over Secretaries of Education in the past two administrations.

But Gaiman shines best when he speaks about and to the essential value in reading, recognizing what the field of literacy has know for a century, at least—children are drawn to reading by being offered an abundance of books and allowed to read by choice:

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

It’s tosh**. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different.

We may be able to imagine, also, how Gaiman would react to Common Core and their “architect,” David Coleman:

And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

After an impassioned and thoughtful argument about science fiction (SF)—even China is on board with SF!—Gaiman turns to the power of libraries:

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky….

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

No, it seems, education reform should not be about new standards or new high-stakes tests—but about preserving and expanding children’s access to books. Education reform, it seems, isn’t buried inside the promise of new technology either:

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

Gaiman, we must note, is not being merely fanciful; he acknowledges the role of literacy in the world economy and the value in preparing younger generations for that world economy. But his commitments are distinct from the current calls for market forces and innovation.

In fact, Gaiman celebrates a different “I” word:

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

Along with “imagination,” Gaiman also speaks about our commitment to beauty and our shared democratic responsibilities. Fostering literacy in our children, he argues, is an obligation: “This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.”

Ultimately, Gaiman’s speech has inspired me to move outside my previous commitments to demanding that education reform be led by educators only. He has inspired me to imagine, and now I can join him in this belief:

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

* Keep in mind, Gaiman lives in Minnesota and one of his best novels is American Gods. I think we could expect Gaiman to be as passionate about the good ol’ U.S. of A. if given the opportunity.

** As a side note, the U.S. would benefit greatly from having an appointed official who would occasionally say “tosh.”

[1] Please see this clarification of Gaiman’s claim and the point of this blog.

Gaiman’s Mythical Folding of Childhood into Adulthood

I stumbled into the novels (invariably identified with “for adults” by reviewers and critics) of Neil Gaiman in a way that, upon looking back, the intersection now seems inevitable, not stumbling at all.

Browsing as I often do along the center aisle of Barnes and Noble, over several visits I picked up American Gods, a hefty novel labeled by the publisher as the tenth anniversary edition. I have always tended to shun enormous novels, in part as a result of my teacher self recognizing how often students struggled with big books, but I also found myself both avoiding Gaiman’s most celebrated work and always taking it into my hands each time I saw it. In the way that books can, American Gods kept calling out to me (as the author’s preferred text did more recently).

The day I acquiesced to Gaiman the novelist (I had always known him as a comic book/graphic novel creator), I  experienced a second disorientation: The publisher labels American Gods “science fiction.” Not long after slipping with glee into Gaiman’s other worlds, I had a similar experience with Haruki Murakami, whose 1Q84 is also marked “science fiction.”

Before Gaiman and Murakami, I counted myself among those dedicated to science fiction but stubbornly opposed to fantasy. No Hobbits for me! And Harry Potter? No way.

Gaiman represents my crisis of genre that would carry through into Murakami’s universe(s). I could not find a thing in American Gods I would call science fiction, but I also felt “fantasy” failed the work. The best I could ever do was think of Gaiman’s narrative as “contemporary mythology”—not Leda and the swan, but the gods right now in my time of existence.

Regardless, of course, all that mattered for me was that I loved Gaiman’s novels “for adults” and joined millions awaiting his most recent, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Gaiman’s Mythical Folding of Childhood into Adulthood

The best works of fiction reach into my chest, grab my heart, and squeeze until I cry because I love the characters in ways that I often fail to satisfy in this real world.

In Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven,” I experience that feeling every time I read it aloud to my students, and the central moment when I love eleven-year-old Rachel the deepest is also the most harrowing: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

“Eleven” is a sad and wonderful narrative of school and childhood crashing into adulthood. And that story, especially that passage, lept to mind as I reached the middle of Gaiman’s Ocean:

Ursula Monkton smiled, and the lightnings wreathed and writhed about her. She was power incarnate, standing in the crackling air. She was the storm, she was the lightning, she was the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty….

Ursula Monkton was an adult. It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh. She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win. (pp. 86-87)

Gaiman’s slight of hand, his gift of contemporary mythology, achieves the sort of folding over into itself expressed by Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorian view of time:

The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the we way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another, like beads on a strong, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever. (p. 34)

Ocean explores many things, but for me, Gaiman folds childhood into adulthood with a craft and care that makes the short novel speak to the collective, and far too often closed, heart of being fully human.

Ursula Monkton as adulthood’s “foolish casual cruelty” chills me to the bone in the way that the insensitivity of the teacher in Cisneros’s story leaves me angry at adults.

The magic of Gaiman’s Ocean is the seamless alchemy of turning adulthood into childhood by creating a narrative in which an adult approaching middle age recalls (and narrates for the reader like an Ancient Mariner or Marlow’s journey into the heart of darkness or Harold Crick listening to his life as narration) his own childhood confrontation with adulthood.

Ocean is often adult as only a seven-year-old can express it: His father’s adultery signalled by his lifting Ursula’s skirt from behind is both essentially innocent and stunningly graphic: “I was not sure what I was looking at….He was hugging her from behind. Her midi skirt was hiked up around her waist” (p. 79).

There are many assorted terrors in this novel, ones that remain with me in a vividness unlike any terrors I have experienced in real life. But the most disturbing message Gaiman offers is about this real world.

Ursula Monkton is a twist on the Evil Stepmother or Wicked Witch archetype, and the Hempstock family—three females like generational Muses or fairies (Russian nesting dolls, of sorts, personified)—offer a triumphant message of the possibilities of kindness and other-world guardian angels.

While Gaiman doesn’t stoop to simplistic idealizing of females, men haunt the world of childhood throughout the novel—although I think more as the embodiment of a belittling human compulsion toward harshness aimed at children than any direct indictment of men (Ursula, the father, and the opal miner share the specter of “adulthood,” not gender).

Why, I am compelled to ask, are adults so angry and unforgiving with children, with childhood?

Like the teacher in “Eleven” and the adult world in Ocean, the assistant principal  in Uncle Buck represents not only adult antagonism for children, for childhood, but how that drives the schooling of children:

While Cisneros’s math teacher’s insensitivity to Rachel, John Hughs’s warted assistant principal, and Gaiman’s Ursula Monkton speak as vivid creations of the imagination, the terrors of childhood remain quite real—and too often those terrors are connected with adults, and far too often those terrors are connected with schools.

When I set down Ocean after finishing this wonderful journey that reached into my chest, grabbed my heart, and squeezed until I cried because I love the characters in ways that I often fail to satisfy in this real world, I found myself thinking of the political, media, and public fascination with a very real-world Evil Stepmother, Wicked Witch, Assistant Principal Anita Hogarth:

No child asks to be brought into this world, and there remains no excuse for adults looming in quick and relentless judgment and anger over children.

Why must a child look to the other world for a hand held in unwavering kindness? Shouldn’t the very real home, parents, and schools where children also never choose to be offer always a hand gesturing comfort and safety?

Gaiman knows the answer and offers Lettie, an eternal eleven-year-old embodying the kindness of strangers:

I said, “I’m sorry I let go of your hand, Lettie.”

“Oh, hush,” she said. “It’s always too late for sorries, but I appreciate the sentiment. And next time, you’ll keep hold of my hand no matter what she throws at us.”

I nodded. The ice chip in my heart seemed to warm then, and melt, and I began to feel whole and safe once more. (p. 103)

Thank you, Neil Gaiman, for bringing Lettie to my world because I now love her as I do eleven-year-old Rachel and Uncle Buck. As I love childhood as the one true thing we must cling to as humans:

children guessed(but only a few/and down they forgot as up they grew

Here’s to never forgetting that we all are children—and, thus, they are all out children.