Book #50 Whistle for Willie

Whistle for Willie -- coverFifty books!  Hooray for me.  It’s been exhausting.  I quit.  Just kidding.

This project has proven much bigger than the idea of it, though, which is the way it goes when you try to turn any good idea into a finished project.  I’m always amazed at how simple an idea feels in the mind and how blood-curdlingly painful the execution (no pun intended) of that idea becomes. Reading a book every day to my son takes very little time.  Writing about a book a day takes forever.  I have to read and think and talk to librarians, research a little history, get lost in the endless sea of children’s literature blogs, eat several muffins, wonder when I will get to writing my own picture book (thus far it has only been chapter books, but I do wish to try my hand at this art form), and read and research some more.  The paths I traverse are always well worth it, but don’t have any illusions about these little blog posts.  They take a while.  I’m proud to have written fifty of them.

Today we read Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats.  I’m sorry I don’t have a copy of The Snowy Day in the house, but it doesn’t matter.  Any of these famous books will do — they are all wonderful.  Keats captures the small moments in a child’s life with a true eye for the child:

Peter tried and tried to whistle, but he couldn’t.
So instead he began to turn himself around —
around and around he whirled …
faster and faster

It’s such simple text, but I can imagine how many drafts it took to get there.  Isn’t that just what a little kid does, too; after attempting and failing to succeed  at something the next step is to just whirl  yourself around.  I love it.

On another note, I just read an editorial in The Horn Book, a bimonthly publication of some reputation that reviews children’s literature.  In his piece, the Editor in Chief, Roger Sutton talks about why we have seen very little increase in books about nonwhite children since the sixties, arguing that “…many books about people of color come with instructions from the top down, seeming to say, ‘I am a book your History demands you should read.’ That’s a lot to lay on a reader.  In fact, that’s a lot to lay on a book.”

He then goes on to write about how Keats’ books were questioned by critics for “Peter’s mother’s weight and dress and because Keats was white.”  He also says that in spite of this, children recognize themselves in Peter and take joy in his stories nonetheless.

Anytime gender and race comes up anywhere in art I find it fascinating, and I think Roger Sutton’s words here are loaded indeed. In the first place, I’ve always felt that just because a child likes a book doesn’t attest to its merit. Children like all sorts of crappy, poorly written or illustrated books. Just because children like The Snowy Day or Whistle for Willy doesn’t mean these are great books (although they are). And as far as the depictions of Peter’s mother?  Obesity is prevalent in the African-American community (and in the white community too).  Is it only a problem to invoke a stereotype if you aren’t a member of that subgroup? Perhaps not, if you’re willing to point out the same tendencies in the dominant group. In other words, would these illustrations be deemed acceptable if Keats were African American? Maybe.  If literature depicted African-Americans in all of their unique complexities as individuals.

The conversation continues.  I think Peter’s mom looks lovely in these illustrations. But that’s just one Jewish woman’s opinion. A woman with some extra padding herself.

Whistle for Willie -- dizzy

Whistle for Willie -- Mom & Dad

 Click here to read Book #51

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