Category: Writing

How Should Children’s Books Deal with the Holocaust?

 

Illustration by Gerard DuBois

Ruth Franklin writes:

As a child, I was obsessed with Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.” Like Anne, I wanted to grow up to be a writer; like her, I kept a diary (though less faithfully), which for a time I addressed, following her model, as Kitty; like her, I agonized over how little my mother understood me and longed to swoon in a boy’s arms. My obsession peaked at the age of eight with a visit to the Secret Annexe, in Amsterdam—the warren of rooms where the Frank family hid from the Nazis. I had imagined it countless times and had the floor plan memorized, but seeing it was a shock: it was so much smaller than I had pictured.

That may have been the moment I began to understand how great was the distance between Anne’s world and my own. As a girl from a family of survivors, coming of age in nineteen-eighties America, I felt the Holocaust as a tangible presence, simultaneously inescapable and unknowable. My grandparents, Jews from Lodz who fled east when the Nazis began their advance into Poland, had better luck than many: taken prisoner by the Soviets, they spent much of the war in a Siberian labor camp. Some of their family had already made it to Palestine, but most of those who remained behind were sent first to the Lodz ghetto and then to Auschwitz. My great-grandmother died there, but my great-aunt survived.

The enormity of the losses my relatives had suffered was palpable in the deep lines around their mouths, the tremors in their hands, the sighs they heaved every time the war years came up. Once, my great-aunt, who had Alzheimer’s disease by the time I came to know her, even grabbed my arm in search of the tattoo that she thought she would find there. But they didn’t often talk in detail about their experiences. When they did, the stories they told were confusing and full of gaps, and I’d complain at having to hear them. I was terrified of my relatives’ emotion and of the crushing responsibility it inflicted on me: the paradox of being charged with remembering something I hadn’t experienced.

Reading about the Holocaust was my way of trying to fulfill that obligation. But the gaps remained. I pored over the final pages of my edition of Anne’s diary, where the facts of what happened after the police raided the Secret Annexe were stated tersely: deportation to Westerbork, Auschwitz, and, finally, Bergen-Belsen. Searching for more, I came upon a book in which Hanneli Goslar, a childhood friend of Anne’s who was interned in another section of Bergen-Belsen, recalled having caught a glimpse of her, almost unrecognizable, through a fence. She returned a few days later with a package of food, but when she threw it over the fence another woman caught it and ran away as Anne screamed. The chatty, cheerful girl had become a person I couldn’t identify with at all: skeletal, desperate, scrabbling for food. She had gone to a place I couldn’t follow, not even in my imagination.

Glasgow, not Edinburgh, should be City of Literature

David J Black writes:

GLASGOW is certainly not flourishing as far as its diminishing architectural heritage is concerned (Glasgow‘s urban decay risks squandering 30 years of progress; August 6) but in one respect at least it steals a march on its east coast rival.

The Mitchell Library has had several extensions since it was built on its present site in 1911 – indeed by 1981 it was believed to be the largest local reference library in Europe. Contrast this approach with that of Edinburgh, the world’s first Unesco City of Literature, where the city council has been both neglecting and asset stripping its once-great Carnegie library, the Central Library, selling off adjacent buildings including the children’s and music annexes, and disposing of common good land long reserved for the library’s expansion for a Virgin hotel development on a hopelessly cramped site which will engulf the original 1890 A listed building in gloom. Some even suspect there are moves afoot to dispose of the Carnegie building altogether.

The Publisher’s Association recently announced that 2017 was a record-breaking year for UK book sales, but for Edinburgh the fact that books are now “downloadable” means that library assets can be pillaged and sold off to build yet another oversized hotel for his Old Town theme park. For good measure, a report from the council’s own environmental health officers that consent be refused because another high building on the Cowgate would only exacerbate the decline in air quality which already breaches WHO standards was studiously ignored.

Edinburgh gained its City of Literature status on the back of ambitious proposals to develop the library and its adjacent land as a “literary hub” – proposals which have since been junked, rather suggesting that Unesco’s award was gained on the basis of a false prospectus.

We should of course take pride in the fact that the world’s first City of Literature is Scottish, but given Edinburgh’s abysmal record and Glasgow’s manifest appreciation of the written word, could it possibly be that the wrong city was selected?

“¿Fueron amantes las dos escritoras argentinas más importantes del siglo XX?”

Silvina Ocampo

Lucia Lijtmaer escribe:

¿Fueron amantes dos de las escritoras argentinas más reconocidas del siglo XX? Es posible. Pizarnik no era tímida ni hermética, todo lo contrario. De ella conocemos sus amores, narrados en diarios y cartas, su quehacer poético iluminado, su querencia por la autodestrucción.

Pero, ¿le gustaban a Silvina Ocampo las mujeres? Enriquez explica la naturaleza del primer rumor que recorrió la boda de Bioy Casares y Silvina, diez años mayor que él: que fue Marta Ignacia Casares, la madre de Bioy, la que estaba enamorada de Silvina, y que el matrimonio fue simplemente una manera de disimular la relación entre dos mujeres. Se cita, anecdóticamente, que la madre de Bioy lloró amargamente cuando se produjo el enlace, en 1940. Esta idea ha sido rebatida por biógrafos y allegados, que narran como Ocampo y Bioy se quisieron y permanecieron juntos, simbióticamente, pese a los escarceos amorosos de ambos, hasta que murió Ocampo en 1993.

Pero la carta de Pizarnik fue la que desató la idea de una posible relación que nunca ha sido aclarada del todo. Sin duda, las escritoras se conocieron. Hubo más cartas aparte de esta última, y los Bioy, como se llamaba a la pareja Ocampo-Bioy Casares, tuvieron relación con Pizarnik. Adolfo –Adolfito– había ido a visitar a Pizarnik al sanatorio en el que estuvo internada en una de sus crisis, no así Silvina. Eso sí, ella le dedicó su libro Los días de la nochea Pizarnik. “A Alejandra en agradecimiento por un cuadro que me encanta. Con cariño”.

Silvina, conocida por su capacidad tanto para la seducción como para la crueldad, podía dar una de cal y una de arena. Con lo hermético de su círculo, ¿cuánto penetró Pizarnik en él? Enriquez duda.
Solamente un testimonio, el del poeta Fernando Noy confirma ese amor como algo carnal.

EL DESPRECIO DE LA ARISTÓCRATA

La editora de la Correspondencia de Pizarnik, Ivonne Bordelois, es prudente en sus respuestas a Vanity Fair: “es muy difícil reconstruir los términos de una relación como la sostenida entre Alejandra y Silvina cuando los testimonios de terceros, por el carácter mismo de la relación, son tan intangibles. También parece imprudente atribuir a la muerte de Alejandra el fracaso de esa relación, ya que hubo otras relaciones que rodearon su fin igualmente frustrantes y apasionadas”.

Eso sí, introduce un elemento importante en la fascinación de Pizarnik, de la que da buena cuenta en sus cartas. La de aquello inalcanzable, atravesado por la clase social. Pizarnik era de origen humilde. “No era sólo la persona de Silvina lo que encandilaba a Alejandra, sino su mundo aristocrático de belleza y de esa suerte de irrealidad que rodea a los más afortunados.”explica Bordelois. “En las últimas páginas de sus diarios se observa muy bien el descenso en el infierno de una desgarrada autoestima que caracteriza la vida de Alejandra en esa época, y su necesidad de apoyos que ahuyentaran la enorme inseguridad que la poseía. No sólo el amor o la pasión física distinguen la célebre carta final de Alejandra a Silvina: hay también en sus escritos explosiones de rencor y desesperación que muestran su necesidad de aferrarse a una atmósfera de aprecio y cariño de la que creía carecer”.

Las cartas son, sin lugar a dudas, desesperadas, y se intuye un claro desapego por parte de Ocampo en una anécdota que sí explica el libro de Enríquez. Poco antes de morir, Pizarnik llamó a Ocampo a su casa, y ella no atendió el teléfono, ocupada en un viaje a Europa que estaba preparando. Pizarnik sabe que Ocampo está en casa, y se queja de la falta de atención a la empleada que recoge el mensaje. Se suicidaría a los pocos días.

“Shoddiness of juvenile fiction has bugged me ever since I learned to read”: Joseph Dobrian

Joseph Dobrian

Joseph Dobrian writes:

Mind you, there’s not a novel out there — from any time, in any language, geared to any reader — that’s immune to reasoned criticism. But the general shoddiness of juvenile fiction has bugged me ever since I learned to read. So has the tendency among adults to ignore flaws in the “best” juvenile fiction — and to not know or care that intelligent children are rolling their eyes and groaning, “Oh, come on, now.”

Moreover, adults who claim authority over what children and adolescents should read often stigmatize books that would benefit young readers.

• Consider A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle: every adult’s favorite book for children. We’re supposed to believe that a five-year-old has such sophisticated reasoning powers or such a large vocabulary? That Aunt Beast speaks English? That an undefined concept called Love is a super-weapon that will vanquish It? We’re supposed to not notice that the tesseract isn’t explained scientifically, but requires a “leap of faith”? This is not science fiction: it’s simplistic religious allegory.

• The “Freddy” novels, by Walter R. Brooks, are grand fun, and a talking pig is somehow more plausible than an English-speaking space alien. However, the books’ moralistic tone conflicts with the author’s apparent belief that it’s OK to behave immorally if you’re one of the “good guys.”

• To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, is a children’s book whether or not we like to admit it. Stylistically, much of it is excellent. But it’s inconsistent. One particular exchange made me writhe — even as a seventh-grader: “Did she die free?” asked Jem. “As the mountain air,” said Atticus.

Toward the end of the book, Jem and Atticus seem to agree that only eyewitness evidence — not mere circumstantial evidence — ought to be conclusive in capital cases. The author forgets that Tom Robinson was convicted on eyewitness evidence! It was circumstantial evidence that pointed to Robinson’s almost certain innocence.

• The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, should be called The Rationalizing Boy. It revolted me: this guy pretending that he had a personal relationship with this tree, pretending to love it, then pretending that the tree was giving him permission to mutilate and kill it. I am horrified, to this day, by the message of that Godforsaken book.

• Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” novels are literary treasures. I still have the full collection in my house. But Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) recently decided to remove the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder from its lifetime achievement award for children’s authors, because one of the books says, in so many words, “Ma hated Indians.” And Pa once wore blackface to entertain the children.

I have often written about my high regard for Indians. But, Ma hated them. There it is. Wilder explains why Ma hated Indians. I am not going to downgrade Wilder’s contribution to children’s literature because she chronicled that her mother hated Indians. It was an indispensable part of the story. Wilder doesn’t condemn her mother for it, because Wilder at least saw her mother’s viewpoint. Reading that Ma hated Indians, when I was seven, did not change my attitude toward them.

• When I read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, at age eight, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a couple of years later, I was aware that certain words used in the book were socially unacceptable in modern America. Nobody had to tell me that slavery was wrong. I did not go out a-slaving because I read those books. Jim, the runaway slave, noses out Mary Jane Wilks as the noblest character in Huckleberry Finn. The book is anti-slavery, anti-racist. In Tom Sawyer, Tom asserts that black folks are smarter than whites in some ways. But these books are supposedly dangerous to children because they contain The Word.

My bottom line: I wish adults would apply as critical an eye to children’s fiction as their children do.

About Joseph Dobrian