Law and Conversation

May 27, 2011

Book illustrations, art, and story

Earlier this week I highlighted some beautiful sites and works of artists Lynda Barry, Kerry Dennehy, and Alyssa Sherwood and again mentioned Sue Symons‘s intricate and gorgeous Bath Abbey Diptychs. Over on the right hand side of this page, you’ll see some links to some art sites I really like. One of those sites is Old Book Illustrations, dedicated to illustrations scanned from old books.

Illustrations not only can capture and maintain a reader’s interest but also can help tell a story. I suppose that’s why they’re used so much in children’s books; kids who haven’t yet learned to read as well as they might can still get something out of the story by looking at the pictures, and those who read OK but who might not see reading as a really fun way to pass some time might stick with it longer if the book has some good pictures that they enjoy. Trial lawyers and other presenters understand this principle and employ it to good effect by using exhibits and PowerPoint presentations during trials and presentations.

But even apart from business or reading to our children, we grown-ups can still love pictures and illustrated books. I’d love to see publishers work with artists to provide more illustrated books for the adult market.  The Folio Society in London does; though its books are far more expensive than even the hardback editions of other publishers, they’re still an affordable choice (operative word being “choice”) if one of your priorities is to have beautiful copies of books you want to read and reread on your shelves. (Full disclosure: Alas, the Folio Society pays me nothing and gives me no discounts for my telling people how much I love their editions 😦 .)

Some writers have used pictures as the bases for stories. One of the best known recent examples is Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring,” inspired by a Vermeer painting. (Chevalier describes the moment of her inspiration on her website.) And Oscar Wilde‘s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” has at the heart of its story a fictional portrait that changes with the soul of the title character, who remains outwardly forever young and beautiful–in contrast to his deplorable behavior and inner life. (Though the picture of that story is fictional, a 20th century artist, Ivan Albright, painted a real one that hangs in The Art Institute of Chicago.) And, of course, the growing graphic novel genre, in which the art is at least as important as the text to the story, has really come into its own over the past 30 years or so.

Have you read any books that featured memorable illustrations?

October 8, 2010

Everyone needs stories

The sad tale of the teenage Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, who killed himself last week by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and another student posted a video they’d clandestinely shot of him in an intimate encounter with another male, together with the attempted banning of Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel, “Speak,” in Missouri a couple of weeks ago, has me thinking about how everyone needs stories. 

Author Cheryl Rainfield wrote of her own childhood abuse and in support of Halse Anderson’s book:

“[A]llowing children and teens to find reflections for their own experiences; being able to read about those experiences in safety while gaining knowledge to arm themselves; or encouraging readers to speak out and find healing themselves because of what they’ve read is SO important.”

The suicide of another young gay person, reportedly after intense bullying based on his sexual orientation, inspired Chicago native and writer Dan Savage to start a story video project to let young gay people know that It Gets BetterIn Savage’s words, “I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”   He’s asking other gay adults to make videos of aspects of their life stories, hoping that young people who watch them will realize that tough times don’t last forever.  As Chicagoist reports, only 11 states, including Illinois, currently specify LGBT students as a protected class in anti-bullying and harassment legislation.

Bullying for any reason, of course, is shameful, as is discrimination on grounds unrelated to people’s ability to do their jobs, or afford housing, or other matters.  But drafting a law that prohibits bullying without being overbroad is not an easy task.  Though many look to the law above all for power, story can sometimes be an even more powerful and enduring bulwark against evil, as the responses to “Speak” and the “It Gets Better” project show.

Difficult real-world subjects that many young people have to deal with include not only sexual abuse and coming to terms with sexuality but also poverty, parents’ unemployment, war, racial prejudice, divorce, substance abuse, and eating disorders.  Here are some books with great stories that portray young people coming to terms with some of those issues:

“Ramona And Her Mother,” by Beverly Cleary (parents’ job difficulties, family tensions)

“Houseboat Girl” and “Cotton In My Sack,” as well as others in the American regional series by Lois Lenski (poverty)

“Wintergirls,” by Laurie Halse Anderson and “Perfect,” by Natasha Friend (eating disorders)

“Lush,” by Natasha Friend (parent’s alcoholism)

“Where The Lilies Bloom,” by Vera and Bill Cleaver (poverty, loss of parents)

“Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry,” “The Gold Cadillac,” and many other books and stories by Mildred Taylor (racial prejudice)

“The Ark,” by Margot Benary-Isbert (war)

“A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” Betty Smith (poverty, parent’s alcoholism)

“Veronica Ganz,” by Marilyn Sachs (divorce, family tensions, bullying)

“Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” by John Green and David Levithan (sexual identity)

“Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank (ethnic prejudice, war)

Traditional folk and fairy tales, “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott, and the “Little House” books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, may not readily come to mind when thinking about children’s or YA books with edgy subjects.  But fairy tales often include poverty and wicked stepmothers, Marmee and her brood are struggling with the absence of the girls’ father due to war, and the “Little House” books depict a family living hand to mouth and clawing themselves up through a series of unremitting disasters that weren’t unusual for their time.

Are there any books or stories that have helped you through a difficult time in your life?

August 30, 2010

Read This!

Mondays are Read This! days on which I write about books that I really, really want everyone in the world to read.  With so many great books in the world, I can’t imagine ever running out of material!

Today’s recommendation is a classic:  Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”  I first read it as a 4th grader and loved the passionate story, told so well in a young woman’s voice.  Since then, I’ve reread it many times and branched out to read the rest of the Bronte sisters’ writings.  It’s now been many years since my last rereading of “Jane Eyre,” so I think it’s time to move it up on my list. 

I’m always interested to find out how I feel as an adult about a book that I loved as a child or teenager.  Generally, as in the case of Beverly Cleary’s and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, I find them every bit as good as, if not even better than, I did forty years ago.  I have no doubt that “Jane Eyre” will stand the test of time for me as it has for the rest of the world.

Many well-told stories that are classics, though, including the “Little House” books (which I passionately love), reflect widely held attitudes and prejudices of their times and places that we now rightly find unacceptable.  And, indeed, parents sometimes have problems with their children’s reading books that challenge their ideas of what’s right and proper.  The May 19, 2010 edition of CBC radio’s Q program had an interesting discussion on what to do with children’s books that reflect racism.  But the participants didn’t address the possibility that some books being published today may reflect attitudes that our great-grandchildren will consider unacceptable 100 or more years from now.  They also didn’t seem to recognize that characters in great stories, like real people, are imperfect and multifaceted.  How is it even possible to have a good story–which we all love, from childhood to old age–without different points of view and conflicts?  A great work of literature might even be told from the point of view of a frankly repellent character–and that might be a big part of what makes it great, as Azar Nafisi explains so well in “Reading Lolita In Tehran.”  Indeed, “Jane Eyre” underwent a firestorm of criticism when it was published:  reviewers called Jane herself  “the personification of the unregenerate and undisciplined spirit” and said she had “detestable morality.”  More than 150 years later, we generally love Jane and identify with her passions and morals!  Thinking about whether and why we like or dislike a story’s characters is part of reading critically, a valuable skill that children can begin learning, with the help of parents and good teachers, while still very young.

The Bronte Blog is a comprehensive resource, updated at least daily, for all things Bronte, all the time.  It recently referenced two fun articles on Jane Eyre.  The first, by Edan Lepucki, trashes Mr. Rochester and also swipes at Charlotte and Emily as “deeply weird.”  The latter criticism, IMO, is quite unjustified, so I was delighted to find that the second article agrees with me on that point.  It also rips up the other arguments of the first in a deliciously snarky fashion.

I have some more thoughts on “Jane Eyre” and other literature and the law of that period regarding women and the mentally ill that I’ll be posting later this week.  In the meantime, what books would you like everyone in the world to read?

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