Young Adult Fiction About Migration, Immigration, and Refuge(es), I

A little more than a month ago, an American hopped up on xenophobia shot up two men from India and another man who tried to stop him, killing one. Anti-refugee rhetoric continues to swirl, and hate groups are at a horrifying high. Books can help bring us together; fiction may acually make us better people. It makes sense, then, to me, to turn to books during times like these; to seek out, and suggest, those books which may help us better understand immigrants, and refugees, and those who migrate, even within the same country.

I first read Pam Muñoz Ryan‘s middle grade novel Esperanza Rising shortly after it was published, in the early 2000s. It has stuck with me, powerfully, ever since. It’s set during the Great Depression, in Aguascalientes and then in the San Joaquín Valley in California, and readers follow Esperanza Ortega from her life as a spoiled child of privilege in Aguascalientes through a desperate flight to the United States following her father’s murder. Readers go into the camps where Mexican agricultural laborers live and watch la migra—today’s ICE—as they raid, harass, and bully the laborers. Perhaps the most incredible element of Esperanza Rising? It is told through a child’s eyes (Esperanza is only 15 at book’s end), and, as I remember it, at least, it really does read like a child’s perspective on immigration. It is also a Pura Belpré Award Winner, for those interested in reading up on diverse award winners.

Just because.

You may well have heard Nicola Yoon‘s name: her first book, Everything, Everythingis being made into a movie, and her second, The Sun Is Also a Star, won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award For New Talent. It is about The Sun Is Also a Star that I am going to write today. You see, it brings us multiple angles on this theme of migration and immigration and Americanness, and many of them are rarely, if ever, really discussed. The hero, Daniel, is Korean-American; his parents want him to be a doctor, but he’s a poet at heart. The heroine, Natasha, is Jamaican-American; she came young to this country, and is a brilliant student, aiming for the stars, or at least the sun. But she is also, through no fault of her own, undocumented. The Sun Is Also a Star is the story of the luminous, terrifying day during which Natasha and Daniel fall in love, while Natasha is trying desperately to save herself from deportation. (You’re going to cry. And also laugh. And wince.) There’s an added layer of realism to this story: in the words of interviewer Ibi Zoboi (this name will come up again, fyi): “You share a letter to the reader at the beginning of the book about how you and your husband first met. Your name is Nicola and you are Jamaican American, just like Natasha in your novel. Your husband’s name is David and he is Korean American, just like Daniel in your novel.” Zoboi goes on to ask if the novel is autobiographical; Ms. Yoon says that “all evidence to the contrary, the novel is not autobiographical,” but that it “was definitely inspired by the spirit of our relationship.” Ms. Yoon’s books have an almost ethereal, luminous quality—one which I am hoping translates to the screen—and, true to form, The Sun Is Also a Star is beautiful, heartbreaking, and, ultimately, hopeful. It’s also an amazing window into what young Americans like the DREAMers must feel. (And, for those who like to know these things: it has starred reviews from KirkusBooklist, and Publishers Weekly.)

Melissa De La Cruz‘s novel Something In Between is, in a way, very similar to Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star. Like Natasha, Jasmine de los Santos is an exemplary American girl, smart and college-bound. She is, in the words of one of the quotes De La Cruz uses to preface her novel, almost “more American than people born here.” She is also an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, although she, like Natasha, does not at first know this. Unlike Natasha, Jasmine learns about her status during the course of the novel. Adding to her angst, she falls in love with the wrong guy: a dude whose father happens to be a congressman who doesn’t believe in immigration reform (and, indeed, works against it). This is very much a romance; Booklist says that “At its gooey heart, this is a love story suited for romance-thirsty teens,” but reviews from Booklist to Publishers’ Weekly to Kirkus all mention that one will probably learn something from it, too, even if Kirkus thinks it’s way too optimistic. This one is very much a happy ending; it will likely make for a satisfying read, and will provide another window into the life of a young American without papers.

Remember Ibi Zoboi, who interviewed Nicola Yoon about The Sun Is Also a Star? Well, she’s back: she wrote the intense American Street, a novel about a young Haitian woman, Fabiola (or Fab) Toussaint, who comes to the United States with her mother to live with her aunt and cousins in Detroit. But there is a sudden, horrible catch: Fabiola has the proper documentation, and is sent ahead to Detroit—but, somehow, Manman does not, and is detained, thrusting Fabiola alone into a brave and frightening new world. American Street reminds me of some of the contemporary Latin American novels I’ve read; I would call parts of it magical realism, except I think back to what a professor once said—how can it be magical realism if it is one’s belief?—and am hesitant to do so, as Zoboi, through Fabiola, calls up Haitian spirits and traditional beliefs to help her survive Detroit. American Street actually has some similarities with The Hate U Give—it, too, touches on the horrors of structural racism and police brutality. It is rather a tour de force. It has also been reviewed well: Publishers WeeklyKirkusand Booklist all accord it starred reviews.

I have not read Alexandra Diaz‘s The Only Road; it is, however, a Pura Belpré Honor Book, and, while Kirkus calls it “A deft, harrowing, yet formulaic sketch of a complex subject,” the blog Latinos in Kidlit gave it a positive review, while it garnered a starred one from BooklistThe Only Road takes its middle-grade readers on a journey from Guatemala to the United States, as young Jaime must escape violence at home before it kills him, too. It is a timely book—think of the children fleeing violence in Central America who have come to the U.S.—and will offer readers a window into a world with which they probably are not particularly familiar. Another Pura Belpré winner, the translated I Lived on Butterfly Hill, by Chilean-American academic and writer Marjorie Agosín, offers its readers a look at Chile during the years of the dictatorship, and follows its young heroine to the United States as well. Its reviews mention that it may be intimidating, but Publishers WeeklyKirkus, and the Jewish Book Council all give it strong reviews.

Lithuanian-American Ruta Sepetys calls herself, on her website, a “seeker of lost stories.” Certainly her novels about the human costs of World War II, Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea, are such lost stories, sought and remembered. I’ll slide away from objectivity here: I loved both Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea. They shattered my heart, and I learned a lot from them. Between Shades of Gray follows a young Lithuanian girl, Lina Vilkas, after her father, a math professor, is detained by the Soviet secret police and her mother and brother are sent to Siberia. (My middle name comes in part from a Polish resistance fighter who happened to be a family friend, which might make these stories more intense for me.) It is a story of horror and depravity, but also of humanity and, surprising in those shades of gray, of hope.

Salt to the Sea, meanwhile, showcases several different people—Joana, Lina’s cousin and a nurse; German resistor Florian, fleeing for his life; Polish Emilia, fighting for her life and struggling against the crimes committed against her; and Alfred, a sadistic young Nazi—as they struggle through the end of the war in Prussia. They will all embark upon the Wilhelm Gustloff—and anyone who knows maritime history will know what comes next. (I cried my eyes out anyway, but, because this is Sepetys’ gift, there is still hope.) Both Between Shades of Gray (which definitely isn’t 50 Shades, sorry not sorry) and Salt to the Sea offer a glimpse into the darkness that drives people from their homes. Between Shades of Gray gets starred reviews from Publishers WeeklyKirkusand BooklistKirkus gives Salt to the Sea a strong review, Publishers Weekly and Booklist starred ones. Though both are set in the 1940s, and in Europe, both are a pretty stark reminder of the dangerous facing refugees, and of the reasons why people leave.

I think Warsan Shire has probably written the ultimate contemporary explanation of why one would leave home; there is a reason her poem “Home,” with its reminder that “you only leave home / when home won’t let you stay” has been spoken at protests and held up by asylum seekers. The novels I’ve suggested here are not, to be sure, Shire’s “Home”—but they are strong works, pieces that can help us to better understand the lives of others,1 and the realities of our world. And, of course, there are more out there.

1 By the way there’s an amazing German movie called The Lives of Others. It is very much worth watching.

Art & Politics: An Introduction

Periodically, things go the rounds on social media, promising to break up the monotony of our dinners, or bad dates, or, now, our political postings, with art and music! Because who doesn’t want to see art and music in their timeline, amirite?! I mean, how could I argue with this? Art is beautiful! I have a degree in art history! I love early modern and colonial literature because the visual is so important!

But I can totally argue with it. Part of it, of course, is just that I’m a fighter, apparently, and arm myself with facts and data and critical theories to tilt at the windmills of bad and misleading information. (I often feel rather a lot like this and this, to be frank.) But the other part? It’s quite simple, actually: this is a bullshit theory. The arts are always political. Continue reading

Silence Against the Day

… I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” 30 April 1967

I have thought a great deal, of late, about the Moors and the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, and about their expulsion from their own countries, the lands where they were born and where they had lived for, in many cases, generations. I’ve often wondered what I’d do, in a similar position. After all, the ancestors I can trace—most of them, given my brother S’s diligence—came to this continent in the 17th and 18th centuries, nearly all arriving prior to the Revolution (in which, of course, they fought). As far as I know, there are no cousins left abroad, no family members with whom to seek temporary shelter. Continue reading

Beyond the Caldecott (and the Nobel)

There are a number of very famous literary awards out there, from the Caldecotts and Newberys of children’s literature fame to the Man Bookers, the Hugos, and the Pulitzers—not to mention the Nobels—of adult literature. They award many great authors; they sometimes make incredibly bizarre choices (see the Nobel award for “literature,” 2016). They often do not, however, do a grand job of selecting representative fiction—which is to say, of course, that, despite problems in the industry, far more than men (often of one race, writing about other men) write great literary works. (There are some bright spots: Paul Beatty won the 2016 Man Booker prize for a novel about race in America! The National Book Awards celebrated diverse voices!)

However, there are also literary prizes out there which seek to recognize everything from literature celebrating the Arab-American experience to literature offering strong representations of characters with disabilities. I have tried to pull together as many of these diverse literary award winners in one space as I could; perhaps they can be among your 2017 reading challenges. The awards here include those specifically focusing upon adult’s and children’s literature, as well as awards which celebrate both.

I will edit the list with additional awards as I find them.

Continue reading

Christmas 2016 for Depressed Grinches

I’m dubious about the Christmas season, which might be why I really like “Nicholas Was,” the adaption of a Neil Gaiman poem, above, from 39 Degrees North. Holidays are really weird when you’re a musician’s kid: they are your bread and butter, after all, but they’re also definitely not “days off.” (To wit: my mother’s currently performing at a midnight mass; I, obviously, am sitting up, as I’ve done since I was maybe six months old. Since it’s midnight I am no longer watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, since that doesn’t seem quite appropriate, but I am considering Troll Hunters. One must do something, after all.)

From link.

I also never believed in Santa Claus. There are, after all, zero peer-reviewed sources to back up his existence. 😛

Victorian Christmas Card

So I actually like this one. Image from Nova Scotia Archives on Flickr.

Did you know that old-timey Christmas cards were gloriously, well, disturbing? They’re pretty amazing, actually. Hyperallergic has helpfully compiled numerous examples in “Have a Creepy Little Christmas with these Unsettling Victorian Cards,” which are well and truly unsettling. I definitely recommend a look, particularly if you like Victorian oddities (I do) and if you have a slightly warped sense of humor. (And definitely check out the originating links! Many, like this one, have all sorts of awesome images.)

Image from the Lily Library, Indiana University.

Want even more bizarre Christmas greetings? Check out Hyperallergic’s compilation of Victorian dead birds on Christmas cards. Because of course the Victorians put dead birds on Christmas cards. The cards at this compilation are often tamer; after all, they’re looking at cards as “aesthetic objects,” per the article’s title.

A 20th-Century Krampus with a bunch of babies who Just Don’t Care. Wikimedia Commons.

Are you in the mood for an evil Santa? Look no further than Krampus, who is apparently out to get you! And Krampus is definitely creepy, as demonstrated in these amazing photos from—you guessed it—a series of Krampus parades.Want more on Krampus? Here’s a National Geographic article from 2015, and a book, published just this year.

The Mari Lwyd is watching you! 2011 photo by Wikipedian R. fiend. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Considering that the deeply horrifying Mari Lwyd is still very much a part of Welsh celebrations, even though it is clearly delineated as evilevilevil in Silver on the Tree, the clear expert in all such matters, this sort of parade makes a weird kind of sense. Also! The Mari Lwyd is itself a horrifying Christmas tradition! (It is likely someone’s favorite tradition; unfortunately, as someone with an amazing imagination and a fear of the dark, as well as an excellent memory for novels, it scares the daylights out of me.)

One cannot forget the medieval artists who were apparently often trippin’ while they were creating their masterpieces. Luckily, sources such as Marginalia and Discarding Images help out with a steady stream of fabulously bizarre blasts from the past.

Truly horrified mother and infant, anyone?

I have so many thoughts about this one, but I’ll leave it at this: what fascinating syncretism we have on display here!

Here’s another absolutely glorious old illumination, courtesy of Marginalia. I am amazed, and know not what to say. (Also, the anatomy is definitely not right.)

As a musician’s kid, I intensely dislike the piped carols with which stores assault our ears starting in October or November. However! I do like some holiday music!

I’ve probably mentioned Apollo’s Fire before. They’re an amazing Baroque orchestra; their theatricality and musicality make for a spectacle in the truest sense of the word.

“Kuando El Rey” has zero to do with Hanukkah, which started Christmas Eve; however, it’s really pretty, and it’s old Sephardic music, which we don’t often hear. And I’m a colonialist, and a medievalist, and I can’t resist this sort of music. Incidentally, it has an interesting history; the lyrics are written in Ladino, and the song itself dates to…sometime or other, before the expulsion or after. Different sites have different ideas. Also, for those interested: it’s performed by different groups here, here, and here, among others.)

From link.

Gifs are an excellent way to celebrate anything, are they not?

From link.

From link.

This isn’t exactly “holiday,” but so what! From link.

(I mean, my cat actually takes ornaments off the tree, which is why we have none until like three feet up, but.)

From link.

And, finally, for all your holiday questions: here is Geoffrey Chaucer offering sound advice, courtesy of NPR!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Festivus for the Restivus, and happy day off (if you have one) regardless of what you celebrate. And, on a different note, the Thorne Rooms are decorated for the season, and they’re charming as ever—a wonderful respite from an unhappy world.

Merry Socially Conscious Winter Holidays!

It’s almost the end of this trash-fire year! Which means we get to embark on a whole new trash fire, far, far too soon. So, this burning year from hell is about to end (and merge into more hell, unless there’s a miracle). But, if you are here, you presumably care about human rights, and about people who might not look like you. You might even want to have young folks in your life read about great moments in American history, such as the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement and the recently gutted Voting Rights Act, which was, while we had it, a shining testament to what we could be as a country.

Interested in last-minute, socially conscious reads that are also fun and engaging? Have no fear! There are booklists aplenty to help with your selection. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center—the very place where my grandmother long did cataloging—has compiled an incredible list of “50 Books About Peace and Social Justice.” They range from picture books for munchkins to early and middle grades, on up to high school. Many—maybe even most—of the books on the list are real, actual award winners, too. And many deal with histories, often dark ones, in which young people took a stand. Sometimes it cost them a lot—think of the White Rose. Sometimes it cost them liberty, at least for a time, but not life (see the young folks behind the Churchill Club). And, often, they were the only people to take such a stand, and, by their daring, helped sway the course of history. And did you know that before Brown v. Board of Education there was Mendez v. Westminster? Sylvia Mendez was only eight years old when she became the face of that early step on the fight for integrated schools, yet another reminder of the incredible bravery of young children in this ongoing fight for equality.

Working with really young kids? A lot of the books on the CCBC list, ranging from Last Stop on Market Street and Drum Dream Girl to What Does Peace Feel Like? and Each Kindness, are definitely for the wee ones—just check the suggested age ranges, which the CCBC, naturally, includes. But are you interested in even more suggestions for the picture-book set? Well, no worries. Despite part of its machinery clanging to appeasement, ALA is a vast creature of many parts. One of said parts, the Association for Library Service to Children, or ALSC, has released its own booklist, called “Unity. Kindness. Peace.” It’s available as either a webpage or a pdf, and, from what I can tell, all the included books both encourage empathy and are geared towards the young. We none of us, I think, want to see an uptick in bullying—yet are very much seeing such an uptick. Need I remind anyone, as someone who still has scars from bullying, that it is profoundly damaging? That its scars sink deep and last forever?1

Teens and Up (Or, the Bulk of This Document)

Looking for books for teens and adult people? Again, the CCBC has some really amazing suggestions. I have additional suggestions. Many of the authors listed—those I know best include Matt de la Peña, Margarita Engle, Jacqueline Woodson, Sherman Alexie, Sharon Creech, Randa Abdel-Fattah, Sharon Flake, Walter Dean Myers, Jason Reynolds, Ruta Sepetys, and Marjane Satrapi—write extensively on themes pertaining to human rights. Sandra Cisneros, she of The House on Mango Street, is another excellent choice. (I love Mango Street; I also own Woman Hollering Creek, which I think is marvelous—I am a fan of vignettes and of short stories.) Kekla Magoon consistently tackles hard topics; she even has a pair of books—The Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets—about race, gender, and politics in 1968 Chicago, following the assassination of Martin Luther King and around the time of the infamous convention.

Did you know Asian-Americans have been a part of the United States for a long, long time? Stacey Lee‘s award-winning novels, including Outrun the Moon, about a Chinese-American teenager working her way up through the social strata in San Francisco at the time of the earthquake, and Under a Painted Sky, about two girls—one Chinese-American, the other African-American—who work together to survive the Oregon Trail, cover some of this history, bringing to light contributions of people many of us never thought were there at all. (A reminder: Asians—largely Chinese—worked on the railroads alongside my Irish ancestors.) The Secret of a Heart Note is coming soon; it appears to be contemporary magical realism, and, I’m glad to say, it’s already been well-reviewed, by no less than Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

Martha Brockenbrough’s The Game of Love and Death is, at first glance, perhaps an odd suggestion: it is a fantasy, a high-stakes “game” played by Love and Death, immortals who chose their players…and set them against one another. It is Seattle in the 1930s; Henry, a young white man, and Flora, a young African-American woman, are their unwitting pawns. They must choose each other, and love…or one must die. In the midst of this rather horrifying game, the reader learns a great deal, both about the place and the time and about racism, sexism, and constructions of gender (check out Henry, who is a sensitive, gentle sort of guy). I will, for once, spare you the total spoiler; I’ll just say that this book, which has won its share of awards, made me cry. A lot. It probably sounds like a horrifying premise, but, goodness, what a lovely book.

Similarly, Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers is a strange, lyrical fantasy, one delving deeply into belonging, hate, love, and bigotry. The feud between Palomas and Corbeaus seems almost mythic, a thing of legend, living and awful, feeding on the irrationality of generations, yet Lace Palmoa and Cluck Corbeau are drawn together against all odds and despite the years of hate that should simmer in their blood. They move through a world that is like and yet unlike ours, filled as it is with casual magics; but the hate and bigotry and irrationality with which they must contend is something all of us will know, all too well.

Looking for love stories? Jenny Han is a great place to start. Sara Farizan’s Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel features the coming of age of a young woman of Persian background who is interested in girls (and worried about what will happen should it get out to her classmates); Becky Albertalli’s award-winning Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, a particularly sweet romance, deals with bullying, race, and class, as well as homophobia. (And it ends happily! Promise!) Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, has come to me highly recommended by the teens for whom it was written.

The Blacksad series, graphic novels featuring a hard-boiled anthropomorphized black cat detective named Blacksad, are hard and intense and beautiful, homage to the old noir school and also a testament to the ways in which we can incorporate history and social commentary into graphic novels featuring talking, suit-clad animals. While I suggest all the Blacksad novels, starting at the beginning—because I always start that way—Arctic Nation, with its emphasis on the horrors of racism and segregation, is particularly chilling and apropos.

There are also, maybe in the vein of The Weight of Feathers, dark love stories. Libba Bray’s Diviners seriesThe Diviners, followed by Lair of Dreams, with more, eventually, to come—follows a diverse group of “diviners” as they work together against rising evil…but, since they are a diverse group, our heroes must also contend with the daily evils of sexism, racism, and homophobia, among other petty human hates. Leigh Bardugo’s shattering Six of Crows duology—Six of Crows followed by Crooked Kingdom—pits a diverse group of “criminals”—including a dyslexic—against a corrupt merchant class, grown fat and venal on the spoils of their ill-gotten gains. (I’d argue that the “crooked kingdom” of the title could very well refer more to those venal merchants who abuse their labor.)

Cat Winters’ The Steep and Thorny Way is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The heroine’s African-American father, murdered, walks the crossroads, seeking justice and his daughter’s safety; the man accused of his murder escapes, and tells his daughter, a biracial girl in a racist town, that he is innocent: the Klan is behind her father’s death. The darkening atmosphere balances with our protagonists, who must outrace time and try to hide from the KKK to find out what really happened. Even darker is Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Pérez’s award-winning novel built around a historical school bombing in Texas. A word of warning: while the protagonists are sweet, and deeply in love, this one is a tragedy. (Pérez has other books that are not quite so tragic; they all look pretty good.)

The newest Captain America on the block, Sam Wilson, must also make an appearance; he is a true Captain America of our age, like Luke Cage a heroic Black man, standing, as it were, not only for that old, trite saying of truth, justice, and the American way, but for an American way that includes liberté, égalité, and fraternité: one in which racism will surely one day fall beneath his boot—or perhaps beneath Misty Knight’s. M. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel features another bright young hero, Kamala Khan, Pakistani-American teenager by day, superhero by night. There’s the new Black Panther…and the Avengers have assembled to fight white supremacy. (I think I am going to just go ahead and order that one, actually.)

And, on this theme of superheroes who look like the country at large (check out the adventures of Super Indian while you’re at it! And, coming soon, a whole comic book about Choctaw code talkers!), don’t forget mild-mannered Hank Chu, just trying to do his thing in China Town, LA…while being a superhero at night. Gene Luen Yang has told his story in The Shadow Hero, and it is definitely worth a read. Hank is heroic and an angsty teenager…and he must contend with racism and even class issues as he navigates both his day-time life and his superhero world, into which his mother, who has a thing for superheroes, has thrust him. (Well, also an old deal his father made—but you’ll have to read it to find that part out.)

Shadow Hero is really important to me for a couple of reasons. The first is super simple and not deeply emotional: I liked it. The second is deeper, harder to explain, and deeply emotional. The building of my childhood was quite diverse; if it was majority-anything, it was majority-Asian—but there the majorities tended to fall away, as there were people from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Mongolia, Indonesia, the Philippines. I didn’t realize, because I was a clueless kid, that there was anything unusual about this; it was something I accepted, just like I accepted the decades-long cold war between my grandmother and her next-door neighbor. I was pretty old—I think I was in high school—before I ran into anti-Asian slurs for the first time. I was, in short, pretty clueless about what Yang describes in his brilliant, moving graphic novel American-Born Chinese. In truth, in case you’re wondering, I still feel badly that I was so clueless about what my best friends must have been living. Never again, guys.

For, la, it is a tapestry. Scene 6, Bayeux Tapestry. Wikimedia Commons.

There are so many more books than what I have listed here; so many authors, to be discovered, read, and cherished. As a Hyde Parker, my America doesn’t look like this country of which I’ve heard too many, lately, speak; I would argue that what makes us great—if, indeed, we are great—are all the threads that make up the tapestry that is us. Tapestries are amazing things, you know: textile art of the highest order, in which every single yarn is chosen with care, and every single piece tells its own story. At a glance, unless one knows something about fiber arts, one probably won’t even notice all the variances that make up a great tapestry. But up close, on careful inspection, one might begin to see.

Fiber art: Peruvian Chimu Mantle, possibly c. 1000-15th century. Wikipedia.

I’ve never cared for the “melting pot” analogy; everything melted together is ugly. But, fashioned as a sort of tapestry, well, our differences make us stunning. And so I present this incomplete list of books which delve into, and celebrate, so many of the threads that make up our American tapestry.

Happy Endings for Teens and Older

Everything sucks; perhaps you only want to read super-happy stuff set in our super-diverse and beautiful world. Maybe some of these will fit the bill.

 Additional Resources

1 For more information on bullying, see any or all of the following studies:

Cornbread 4 Eva: Graffiti, Part II

In honor of less-than-stellar days, here is some stellar street art.

graffiti: cornbread 4 eva, with a crown.
Cornbread 4 Eva on Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

I’m going to assume the above is cornbread for ever, rather than cornbread for my middle name, although clearly one can never be sure—perhaps Eva really likes cornbread! This is one of my all-time favorite whacko pieces of graffiti; I got the image fairly early in my tenure in Chambana, though it may still be on the building. I’d like to think that it was some performer in a moment of high hilarity (or perhaps excess alcohol!), providing us all with sufficient entertainment to make it through another round of exhaustion and overwork. Cornbread 4 eva!

Kilroy was here!
Kilroy was here! Somehere in Urbana.

Kilroy’s here! I think I’ve seen him all over, but I’m pretty sure this iteration of our national trickster lives somewhere in downtown Urbana, just as delightfully tricksey as ever he was.

an ink eye, UIUC campus
The eye is watching. UIUC campus.

The eye is close kin to IT’S CHALK, which was not written in chalk, and which I presented in Part I. I occasionally wonder if it’s the same person—I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s the same not-chalk—but this person probably was more concerned with surveillance (maybe? I’m really not sure?), while CHALKer was just goofin’ around.

white swirly design on a sign post
swirly things on a signpost! UIUC

The signposts in Chambana—probably in every college town, everywhere, if Hyde Park is any indication—are a canvas for local street artists, taggers, and drunk people. Some of what gets tagged isn’t really worth remembering, but some, like this random design, really is.

stenciled bear with one round eye and one star eye on a no parking sign
Stencil Bear and No Parking

Like signposts, No Parking signs are great for tagging. This one is, I’m pretty sure, a stencil (look at the edges), decorating a NO PARKING sign. I love this kind of decoration. Facilities probably doesn’t.

smileyface on the back of a sign in the UIUC area
🙂 on the back of a sign in Urbana

🙂 Check the back of a sign the next time you’re in a college town—it might have a stencil, or a sticker, or a political slogan (there are a lot of those)…or it might be smiling at you!

Person made out of pins on a cork board.
Pin person on a pin board in a hallway

The pin person isn’t quite street art, and it isn’t graffiti, but it is hallway art, which, I think, must be close kin to the transitory nature of so much street art. Pin guy lived, for a while, on one of our corkboards in the Foreign Language Building, the fabulously ugly building which was my home away from home for the four years I spent in Urbana. Little things like PinPerson really made FLB home, the sort of place where a (dis)placed student could feel safe. Everyone decorated FLB, from posters to bumperstickers to PinPeople. There may forever be new generations of students living in its unhallowed halls, but that, at least, will remain the same.

TOY written on WORKERS sign.
Watch out for toy workers! Urbana, Illinois

Is this art? Probably not really? But I don’t care! It’s amazing! TOY WORKERS injected a whole lot of humor into my summer the year it appeared.

Butterflies on a piller between science buildings, Urbana
Between the science buildings.

Sometime while I wasn’t around—which wouldn’t, in truth, have been difficult—someone stenciled the pillars between two science buildings with butterflies. Lots and lots and lots of butterflies. I’m not, of course, entirely sure what they meant to do with them, but I loved them then, and I love them now. It’s a startling and joyous thing to stumble across, while rushing to work and to class and then home again, jiggity-jog.

TEMPO written on a signpost in Hyde Park, University of Chicago campus
TEMPO, Hyde Park

I feel like TEMPO is profoundly Hyde Park graffiti, although I suppose it could just as easily have been found on a building near Krannert. But here’s (down) tempo for you, on the back of a sign.

Detail of the (pre-2015) Red Herring sign shows an eggplant bassist, Urbana, Illinois
Detail of the (pre-2015) Red Herring sign, Urbana, Illinois.

This isn’t quite what we usually consider street art—it’s a business sign, the one formerly attached to the Red Herring in Urbana—but it really is street art, too: it’s a part of the urban art scene, for the time that it is there. Alas, it’s been painted over now; I don’t like the new sign half as much as I like this eggplant bassist.

Red Herring sign with leaves, vegetables, and eggplant bassist, Urbana, IL. Pre-2015.
The Red Herring sign, pre-2015. Urbana, Illinois.

For reference, here’s the full sign. It was a gem, I tell you, and I mourn that it is gone.

And that’s it for Part II—though there will definitely be more. 🙂




On Being an Unfixable Dyslexic Nerd

I’ll tell you a not-exactly-secret secret: I’m dyslexic. I’ve been dyslexic all my life: my neurons do not, as it were, fire quite like yours. (Or maybe you are dyslexic, too, and then our neurons have something in common.) When I was younger I never thought I’d publicly admit to being dyslexic—and then, my last year in grad school, I actually presented on it. I will tell you an actual secret now: I was so afraid I was shaking when I did so; I thought I would collapse midway through, thought I’d do more than uptalk and say “um.” I’ll always wonder if I damaged my chances in the extraordinarily competitive world of libraries by acknowledging what I am—and yet I am glad I did.

I’m neither broken nor Baroque, though I surely do like Early Modern lit! From link.

Here’s a truth: dyslexia is part of my identity, like having dark hair or freckles or a taste for Wisconsin cheese or heavily muscled football player’s legs. It’s not always a source of happiness—I mean, it rarely is—but then, I’m not always thrilled about my legs, either, even if they do mean I can walk or ski for miles. As a kid I memorized a lot—you would, perhaps, not believe quite how much—and I teamed up with friends, and I made it. Not always easily, not always prettily—a teacher once told my mother, in front of me, that I was developmentally delayed (definitely not the word she used)—but I made it. And then I learned to read on Shakespeare, and took off running. But don’t think I wasn’t compensating, because I was. We all learn to do it. But—and this is important—dyslexia isn’t something to be changed, or taken away, or reversed. I am not broken, and therefore cannot be fixed.

A nicer reaction to realizing that yet another random person thinks you’re broken.

Recently, in a task related to my job, I happened to be scanning the card catalog for books pertaining to dyslexia, hoping to find fiction in which the dyslexic was treated as a normal person and not as, say, a magical (learning) disabled entity, which drives me nuts. So imagine my frustration when I stumbled across a book promising to “reverse” dyslexia. (I refuse to link to the book; it’s called Reversing Dyslexia: Improving Learning and Behavior Without Drugs.) We dyslexics already struggle with our self-esteem and are prone to anxiety1; the last thing we need is to hear that we suck, and are broken, and somehow “fixable”—maybe, if we spend the money/follow the plan/drink the snake oil.

Into the Woods. Gif from Giphy.

As a child, struggling to read and to do what was expected of me, I didn’t need to hear that another person thought I was broken. I needed to see myself reflected back at me—another reason why #WeNeedDiverseBooks, folks—and I needed people to believe in me, even when that was hard. I needed to know some of the things I’ve since learned, from researching dyslexia. As an adult, I’ve found out that lots of other dyslexics have trouble separating the conversational wheat from the chaff in a crowded room,2 and that many of us struggle with self-esteem, concealment, and anxiety.3 Hell, we apparently don’t even hear words right all the time, which makes it hard to connect letters with sounds and influences our common (in)ability to syllabify.4

And so, because in library school I was angry and alienated to find little or no mention of other people like me, I started researching, as it were, myself. You are not alone, the research whispers to me. I don’t always understand what the hell it’s saying to me—I often stick, particularly with the neurology texts, to introductions, conclusions, and discussions, which are sometimes understandable to a layperson with a good background in science—but I know that I’m not wrong, or broken; it’s just the way my brain happens to be made. It drives home the incredible preciousness of my ability to read: each word is like a treasure pulled from the dark, and, when I began to lose my reading comprehension at the end of my first Master’s, as I forced myself through sometimes as much as a thousand pages in a day, I was about as afraid as I have ever been. Words are, you see, rather my life’s work; I was reminded, forcefully, that sometimes, I need to make accommodations for myself.

I am often rather bad at accommodating myself, though I am fairly good at offering discreet accommodation to others. I am super-duper good at compensating, though! I definitely got skills! (I’m not sure this is something of which to be proud, but it has become part of who I am.) It’s probably part of why I listen quite as hard as I do, why I watch as carefully as I always have. Maybe it has something to do with my tendency towards careful sourcing and research—after all, when words have been a struggle (and when one sometimes mixes them up even in one’s speech), one must take extra care with one’s choices. And, as an inveterate reader ever since Much Ado About Nothing dragged me into literacy, I have sought out others like myself—rarely, alas, with any kind of success.

The first time I ran into a recognizable dyslexic in my reading, it was in Connie Brockway‘s As You Desirea historic romance novel set in Egypt. The six-pack-abbed, profiteering/archaeologist/white-steed-ridin’ hunk of manhood hero was, quite recognizably (at least for me), a dyslexic. Brockway identified him as such in her author’s note at the end, acknowledging that his ability to read hieroglyphics might have been wild but she was stickin’ with it. (I don’t know: we all have our things, so why not have a dyslexic who could read hieroglyphs?) I have, quite literally, zilch in common with Harry Braxton, our man on the white horse, but for a common neurological difference.

It was an amazing moment, to find someone else, out there, in print–someone who (aside from his romantic perfections) wasn’t actually a magical disabled person, at all. He was just a dude with elastic morals on a white horse. The next guy I found was, once again, in a romance novel—this time the hero of Tessa Dare‘s second Castles Ever After book, Say Yes to the MarquessSpoiler alert: Cleo totally doesn’t say yes to the marquess; she marries his dyslexic prizefighting brother, instead. (In case you’re wondering: the prizefighting seemed totally reasonable to me; we all compensate in our own ways, and I know my father was famed—not in a particularly good way—for hitting first, and hitting hard—and he was nowhere near as large as the fictional Rafe Brandon.)

I think my favorite fictional dyslexic, as of now, is Wylan Van Eck, one of the ensemble cast of Leigh Bardugo‘s amazing Six of Crows duology. The thing is, while Wylan doesn’t usually seem to have problems understanding people in crowded situations–although I should probably re-read it; he actually might—I know him, so very, very well. Unlike me Wylan’s family is wildly unsupportive—his father, upstanding soul that he is, wants Wylan dead—and it takes the morally elastic Kaz Brekker to recognize Wylan’s genius. (Brekker himself has a disability, one which, from what I have gathered, rather mirrors Bardugo’s own—although that hasn’t stopped some folks from saying that she “doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” which is, I guess, a good time to point out that disabilities, like everything else, are individual.) Wylan is, you see, really, really smart. He’s also deeply ashamed of his inability to read, and his self-esteem is definitely messed up. He compensates, and hides, and tries not to get backed into situations wherein he can’t help but reveal his difference. And, boy, do I get that. I can read—and read well—but I, too, try to hide, whenever possible. It’s so much easier, so much less frightening.

Flagrantly untrue, but a nice sentiment nonetheless.

Evil Willow, up there, has monumental self-confidence. I don’t. I do, however, have a bunch of degrees, and various academic honors. I’m a damn good researcher, even if sometimes it takes me a little to figure out spelling. (I have lots of tricks for that, no worries.) It’s still upsetting to see things assuring me that I’m broken but can be “fixed”—and, in truth, I don’t even want to think about what it’s like for a kid who’s already struggling with being different. I’d so love to see us reach a day where being different isn’t seen as wrong, or bad, or a problem to be fixed. For now, I’ll keep on trying to do my part to get there. We can only ever go forward—and, for me, that’s probably a really good thing.

Works Cited

1 This is cited in multiple studies, including the following:

  • Alexander-Passe, N. (2006). How dyslexic teenagers cope: An investigation of self-esteem, coping, and depression. Dyslexia, 12(4), 256-275. DOI: 10.1002/dys.18
  • Habib, L., Berget, G., Sandnes, F.E., Sanderson, N., Kahn, P., Fagernes, S., & Olcay, A. (2012). Dyslexic students in higher education and virtual learning environments: An exploratory study. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 28, 574-584. DOI:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2012.00486.x
  • Heiman, T. (2008). Females with learning disabilities taking on-line courses: Perceptions of the learning environment, coping and well-being. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 21(1), 4-14. Available open-access from ERIC.
  • Ingesson, S.G. (2007). Growing up with dyslexia: Interviews with teenagers and young adults. School Psychology International, 28(5), 574-591. DOI: 10.1177/0143034307085659
  • Nalavany, B.A., Carawan, L.W., & Sauber, S. (2015). Adults with dyslexia, an invisible disability: The mediational role of concealment on perceived family support and self-esteem. British Journal of Social Work, 45, 568-586. DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bct152

Sometimes, I wonder if this is behind some of my own occasionally debilitating anxiety.
2 Chandrasaekaran, B., Hornickel, J., Skoe, E., Nicol, T., & Kraus, N. (2009). Content-dependent encoding in the human auditory brainstem relates to hearing speech in noise: Implications for developmental dyslexia. Neuron, 64(3), 311-319. Retrieved from
3 See note1 for this.
4 Blau, V., Reithler, J., van Atteveldt, N., Seitz, J., Gerretsen, P., Goebel, R., & Blomert, L. (2010). Deviant processing of letters and speech sounds as proximate cause of reading failure: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of dyslexic children. Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 133, 868-879. DOI: 10.1093/brain/awp308.

Further Reading

Accessible Options: Putting Learning Disabilities into Library School” (aka my presentation)

“Accessible Options” slides

Dyslexic Teens in the Library: Trends and Best Practices” (me again)

The Geek’s Guide to Disability” from The Bias.

Pinterest board where I occasionally pin research about dyslexia.

The Significance of Semantics: Person-First Language: Why it Matters,” by Lydia Brown.

Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity

Don’t Look: Banned Book Week 2016, Challenges to Diverse Materials, and #WeNeedDiverseBooks


Image from ALA.

Every year at the end of September, we come to Banned Books Week. It’s an important thing for us librarians; it’s an important thing for us Americans–we need to remember that yes it does happen here too–and it can sometimes be a fun thing, as we gleefully read books that somebody, somewhere, wants taken off the shelves because they’re tricksey hobbitses or something.


Image from ALA.

Book banning, and intellectual freedom, are, in a way, tricksey hobbitses–they’re incredibly complex, and, as I learned from the brilliant Emily Knox, defending freedom of speech can sometimes leave one feeling rather icky. It’s not a liberal/progressive value, we were told; it’s a libertarian one. And it’s one of our profession’s core values, right along with privacy and social justice. The books we are called to defend aren’t always comfortable creatures. Sometimes they’re meh and sometimes they’re stunning: Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, for instance, has been banned all over the place, ever since it was first published.


From ALA.

Absolutely True Diary is also my entrée into why this particular Banned Books Week is extra important, even as the world seems to be burning around us. As noted in the graphic above, books with diverse content–generally pertaining to race, ethnicity, or gender/sexuality/LGBTQ+ issues–are challenged and banned at much higher rates than, say, books about straight white people. (Interestingly, immigration also factors into challenges, possibly because books about immigrant experiences often–although definitely not always–deal with diversity too.)


Those dirty, dirty books. From ALA.

So, this Banned Books Week, I’d argue we should do a bit more than reading banned and challenged books: we should challenge ourselves to read diverse books, too. We live in an increasingly diverse country, one in which–for the first time since the conquest, amirite?–our kids are majority-minority. In short, we desperately need books wherein our heroes (and our antiheroes, too) look like us. We need books with heroes with disabilities; we need books with people of color.

From ALA.

And, while we are starting to get more, the stats are still pretty abysmal. How can we help? Well, one very simple way is to read what we’ve got now–buy it, check it out from the library, suggest it, recommend it, pin it to Pinterest, tack it onto Goodreads, blog about it, whatever your preferred method may be: the more we read these books, the more publishers will publish.

Publishing is, after all, a business.

Children’s Books

The ALA maintains a list of frequently banned and challenged children’s books here. (I am kinda sad that people challenge books about kids’ bodies, honestly. And I don’t, personally, suggest Tintin or Sambo for anything other than studies of racism.) Among the challenged stands Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop. (The challenger wanted money or something?–which is still deeply confusing. All righty then.) And, of course, back in 2010, Texas banned Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?–because they got the children’s author Bill Martin, Jr. and the Marxist theorist Bill Martin, a professor at DePaul, confused. (This is why fact-checking is essential, yo.)

There are a lot of really amazing resources for those interested in reading diverse books. The single best source for information–since it links to all the other sources, really–is #WeNeedDiverseBooks, where one can find information on pretty much all the diverse book awards out there, along with tons of reading lists. The CCBC’s Multicultural Literature page is another incredible resource.

Teen/Young Adult Books

I feel like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian deserves a special award just for getting banned and challenged on such a routine basis–it’s been on the most-challenged list (in the top ten!) five times since its publication in…2010. (Seriously.) Sherman Alexie keeps getting banned, for reasons that I, as a confirmed pinko, tend to find bizarre. If YA books like Diary aren’t really your thing, you can still contribute to Shitload of Royalties Week chez Alexie, by reading any of his other works. They’re all amazing. (Confirmation here: E, who only reads graphic novels, has read every single book by Alexie, excepting only his new picture book, Thunder Boy, Jr., because he “doesn’t read picture books.”) Have you the desire to read poems about basketball? (I ❤ basketball, by the bye.) He’s got you covered! He’s also got poems about men’s bathrooms! As far as I know, none of those have been challenged, which is kind of odd. But to each their own kryptonite, I guess.

Now, despite its glorious place up at the top of banned and challenged books in the past six years, Diary is definitely not the only frequently challenged YA book; the ALA maintains a list of them here, for your reading pleasure. It’s also not the only amazing diverse young adult book out there. #WeNeedDiverseBooks and the CCBC are, again, really incredible resources here; the CCBC also provides a list of “30 Multicultural Books Every Teen Should Know.” (They’re definitely worth checking out…and, of course, Diary is right there, up at the top of the list!)

Comix and Graphic Novels (of all ages)

So, I wasn’t sure whether to make graphic novels their own category–after all, they often get shelved according to generalized age range, from munchkins to young adult to adult-people. And then I thought, la, what a dumb cunundrum on my part–they are frequently challenged due to their very nature, so of course they should be included as their own thing. If you’re wondering why anyone would ban graphic novels, the ever-amazing Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, or CBLDF, has an amazing set of history and resources available here, as well as a nice brochure available as a pdf here. (Did you know, for instance, about the golden day of comics, before the Code?) The CBLDF maintains a list of banned and challenged comics–they’re definitely worth checking out! Comics and graphic novels also seem to deal a lot in diversity: from Alison Bechdel (you may have heard of her: she’s the one behind the Bechdel Test) to Dong Hwa Kim, from Marjane Satrapi to Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, from Keiji Nakazawa to Gilbert Hernandez, graphic novelists have this way of delving into diversity, showing it through images as well as words. And boy do they get banned and challenged, a lot.

CBLDF I read banned comics!
And you can too! From CBLDF.

Did you know that we also have diverse superheroes? I’m not talking about aliens, either; see Cindy Moon, aka Silk; see Sam Wilson, Falcon and also Captain America (and, a mi modo de ver, a really amazing Captain America, a superhero for this age and this time); see Miles Morales, aka Spider-Man; Kamala Khan, also known as Ms. MarvelVictor Mancha of the Runaways (which is, by the way, just overall an awesome series); the Green Turtle, aka (in Gene Luen Yang’s amazing Shadow Hero, which you should definitely read) super-nerdy Chinese American Hank Chu.

Adult-People Books, Multiage Books, and Naughty Naughty Classics

Obviously, anyone, from kids to adult people, can read basically any book, as long as they are able to do so. (I, after all, read Titus Andronicus when I was twelve years old. It scared the hell out of me and I didn’t sleep all night. I also haven’t read the damn thing since. Screw you Titus, you suck.) But, lest you think that adult-people books and classics get off easy: they really don’t, hence we are always challenging books by Toni Morrison. We’ve challenged Shakespeare and we really like to challenge The Great Gatsby. Your classics are filthy and you should be ashamed! (Which, to me, says quick go read them allllll!) They are, of course, especially likely to be banned if they cover anything remotely diverse, at all. (I will confess to disappointment: I’ve read quite a number of banned classics and generally don’t find them half so salacious as one might think.)

From ALA.

Most of my diverse-book-finding resources are, alas, for youth literature. However! #WeNeedDiverseBooks is, as always, an excellent place to start. It’s worth trolling the ALA’s lists of frequently challenged and banned classics, since holy cow are a lot of them pertaining to diversity (Toni Morrison? Maya Angelou?). Many of the awards to which WNDB links include books for adults, and, of course, kids’ books are often pretty much amazing reading anyway. This list of frequently challenged authors of color dates way back to the 1990s, but it can be a good place to start.

Now, to Round Off

Now, to finish this off, I have an odd confession: I have pretty much never run into dyslexics like me, in anything. In fact, I first ran into a recognizable dyslexic person when I started reading romance novels, and romance novels remain the place where I have found most of my own kind. Spoiler alert: most of them are guys, and they’re mostly historical (back in the day when they called it word blindness, or just what a dumb kid!, or something)–but they’re still there.

It’s kind of amazing to find people like me, even if they are studmuffin guys with sixpack abs, but it’s also a total mess. As much as those romance authors who have written dyslexics have my eternal gratitude (and are on auto-order, basically), there should be more. We are not so uncommon, we whose neurons aren’t quite right, that we should be represented so seldom, should see ourselves only rarely. I’m like, almost 100% positive that Wylan Van Eck of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology is dyslexic, and I almost screamed when I put those pieces together, I was so excited to “meet” him.

This isn’t enough, this start, but it is amazing, all the same–and, by reading books and recommending books, we can play a part in bringing more diversity to our literature. Let’s celebrate our First Amendment right to read, and give it a shot while we’re at it.

For anyone interested in more information on book banning and challenging in the twenty-first century United States:

#WeNeedDiverseBooks, Where the Hell to Find Them, and Political and Advocacy Issues Surrounding Them

From Chicago Public Library’s Facebook page.

Progenitor of Towers: William Le Baron Jenney and the Skyscraper

The skyline Jenney made possible: Chicago Skyline at Sunrise, by Daniel Schwen. 18 April 2009

Chicago is a city of (architectural) firsts, a city where architecture is a fount of civic pride, where it is, indeed, a spectator sport.1 We’ve got the first of the tall(est) skyscrapers designed by a woman, Jeanne Gang’s spectacular, undulating Aqua;2 we’ll soon have the second, in Gang’s building-to-come, Vista Tower.3 (I can’t even tell you how excited I am. The tallest building conceived and designed by a woman, right here in Chicago!) Before we could get to the tallest building in the world designed by a woman (a title which will, no doubt, constantly shift in the years to come, as more women climb higher in the field), somebody had to invent the skyscraper.

We don’t have Vista yet, so here’s Aqua! Photo by George Showman. From Wikimedia Commons; originally posted to Flickr.

A lot of pieces had to come together for that invention. First of all, we needed to accidentally burn a city down, because there is, quite literally, nothing like it for inspiring all sorts of architectural brilliance (and contortions). Further, we had to burn it down so we realized that it would burn down, and we could have an architect learn how to build fire-proof buildings, which gets ever more important the higher up they go.4 We had to have an economic crash, of course–what would America be without those?–that would drive people to “look to Chicago as their hope,” since we had burned ourselves down and were busily rising from our own ashes–and then we had to have housing for those folks who came to join us, and rebuild with us.We absolutely, positively had to have elevators, because who in the world wants to climb eight or ten or twelve or ninety flights of stairs? It’s more than just this, however: elevators are, in fact, one of the four essential skyscraper criteria:6

  1. Height (this varies, sometimes a lot, by source–we’ll just go with really tall)7
  2. Metal skeleton frame
  3. Vertical transit (aka elevators)
  4. Fireproof.

And, voilà. If it’s missing any one of these, it isn’t actually a skyscraper.

The Chicago Tribune, 11 October 1871. Wikimedia Commons.

Okay, so we’ve got our criteria. We’ve burned down a city, leaving thousands of folks homeless (and destitute), and hundreds dead. We’re industrious, because that is kind of our thing, and so we’re already busily rebuilding–the hell with a fire, time to raise a second city, better than the first! And we’ve got tons of people coming our way, since we’re rebuilding and we must have jobs. This is clearly great, but we’ve gotta put people somewhere, hence extra apartment buildings. We’re building up, since we kinda need space–though it should be noted that we are immensely lucky: our lots are bigger by far than New York City’s, giving our skyline an entirely different vibe, and enabling all our atmospheric alleys.

Jenney, severely cropped. Wikimedia Commons.

The hero of this particular story–the first guy to build the first real skyscraper, the progenitor, as it were, of Gang’s Aqua and her Vista–is one William Le Baron Jenney, from back in the day when one had a two-word middle name just cuz. Jenney was kind of our hero (or at least one of them–we all adored Goldberg for standing up to nasty old Meis van der Rohe, and Wight for coming up with fireproofing, and a hundred others), back in architecture history. He paved the way, making it possible for us to go up, and up, and up again.

Garfield Park, 2013. By Wikipedian peterson.jon. Wikimedia Commons.

Jenney’s a pretty cool guy, actually. He wasn’t just the progenitor of skyscrapers, though one may think that is quite enough for the average mortal to take as an epitaph; instead, he was also a landscape architect, one who learned his trade at school (École Centrale  des Arts et Manufacutres, today known as the École Central de Paris) and honed it in the bloody, brutal battlefields of the American Civil War. He apparently thought our good Chicago prairie sucked (so does my mother; obviously I beg to disagree), but nonetheless created the original designs for the West Parks.9 (Unfortunately, the designs weren’t completely followed–there are always budget crises in Chicago.10) Jenney didn’t design in a vacuum: he appealed to, and got advice from, Fredrick Law Olmsted, the greatest contemporary (at the time) American  landscape architect.11

The Home Insurance Building, sometime after 1884. Photo by the Chicago Architectural Photography Company. Wikimedia Commons.

But, as nice as Central Park (aka Garfield Park, because we are NOT New York, just fyi) is, there’s a reason Jenney is the skyscraper guy. It’s a bittersweet title: we’ve torn down so many of his buildings, destroying our legacy faster even than it goes up. Jenney’s first real skyscraper (well, okay, it wasn’t very tall by today’s standards–merely a highrise, according to Emporis) was the Home Insurance Building, which once stood “at the northeast corner of LaSalle and Adams” and was not only the first building to meet all our criteria but was, indeed, the first to be called a skyscraper, anywhere.12 It has, as my notes remind me, a metal skeleton; a terracotta exoskeleton, making it fireproof; (at the time) fabulous height, rising 10 and soon after 12 stories; and vertical transit–all coming together to form the world’s first skyscraper. Nearly everything, from the elevators to the metal skeleton, was new technology. It was a brave new building for a city rising from its own ashes…and we tore it down in 1931.

Leiter I Building, 1963. (Demolished 1972.) Photo from the Historic American Buildings Survey, by Cervin Robinson. Wikimedia Commons.

Obviously I have strong feelings about historic preservation. However, as exciting as the Home Insurance Building was, it fell between historic cracks, with elements of load-bearing walls as well as an iron skeleton. Indeed, he would build skyscrapers later that would fall more truly into the iron-skeletoned buildings of the future, helping to forge what we all know today as the Chicago School of Architecture. (It’s the best and only school of architecture, clearly.)

Leiter II Building, by Zol87Wikimedia Commons.

The Second Leiter Building marks what Gerald Larson calls “the beginning of the true high point of Jenney’s practice,” an era in which Jenney, fully at the helm of his architecture firm, was both constructing a lot of buildings and innovating with each one.13 The Chicago School, in which form always follows function, was born, and reaching higher with each day. One simple example of Jenney’s evolution as an architect lies in the buildings above, Leiters I and II. Leiter I is almost a skyscraper…but not quite. It had, amazingly, wooden floors, and, as my notes tell me, was “only half fireproofed,” and thus “only three and a half parts skyscraper.”14 While you can’t visit the wood-floored Leiter I, Leiter II is still there, a part of Robert Morris College. It’s all the way fireproof, state of the art nineteenth-century technology which influences us to this day. (I resent the absence of Leiter I, but that is another issue, for another day.)

Ludington Building, 2007. Photo by TonyTheTiger, cropped by Beyond My KenWikimedia Commons.

A number of Jenney’s surviving buildings are now, perhaps appropriately, home to colleges and universities, many of them fundamentally arts-focused. (I have no idea what a guy who is sometimes considered more engineer than architect would think of this, but I guess I don’t particularly care.) The Ludington Building, above, is now one of a multitude of buildings which comprise Columbia College Chicago. Unlike so many of Jenney’s Chicago buildings, the Ludington has had pretty good luck in surviving, perhaps because the original family owned it until the ’60s. Columbia College is, rightfully, very proud of the building. I could point out a lot of things I like about it, and a lot of revolutionary things–it’s all terracotta wrapped! it’s beautiful! look at the atmospheric fire escapes! look at those amazing Chicago School windows!–but I feel like it can rather well speak for itself.

39 South LaSalle (aka New York Life Insurance Buliding–he had a thing for insurance I guess). photo by TonyTheTiger, cropped by Beyond My Ken, and housed on Wikimedia Commons.

The building above is another tenacious survivor. The New York Life Insurance Building was, at the time of its construction, super-duper techy and new-fangled, the first of its kind entirely “supported by an internal skeleton of metal” in place of those thick load-bearing walls of the past. It, like so many others, has come in danger of the wrecking ball, but, for now, it’s safe: following a well-reviewed renovation, bringing out the inherent beauty of the structure itself, it is now the Gray Hotel. You, too, can go for a drink in an old Jenney building, and look at the structure while you do. (If you have the moolah you can also go for a stay in the hotel.)

The Manhattan Building, on the corner. 2006 photo by JeremyAWikimedia Commons.

Both City of the Century and The Great Builders point to the building in the photo above, the Manhattan, at the corner of Congress and Dearborn, as Jenney’s definitive crowning glory, the moment all the pieces he’d been putting into place came resoundingly together.15 I will confess that the evidently revolutionary Manhattan Building has been a part of the backdrop of my life for as long as I can remember–there used to be instrument shops in one of the buildings next to it, and it’s quite near the Harold Washington Library. Like many of the old Chicago School buildings, it holds its age elegantly, and continues to serve its public, a gracious, light-filled old highrise that once was a skyscraper.

Manhattan Building. 2010 photo by J. CrockerWikimedia Commons.

Now, some folks dispute Jenney’s honorable stance as the father of the (American) skyscraper. They offer his glory to other people, even other cities.16 Sullivan, the ornamentation half of Adler & Sullivan, claimed that Jenney wasn’t an architect at all, but rather an engineer,17 which has always seemed to me a singularly unpleasant–and indeed flagrantly inaccurate–assessment of Jenney’s skill. (Donald Miller, in City of the Century, argues that Jenney was “one of the outstanding innovators in the history of building technology,” a man who believed beauty flowed through the structure itself–which seems to me an excellent judgement of Jenney’s importance to modern architecture.) Maybe Sullivan was jealous? He was not, after all, half the engineer that either Jenney or his partner Dankmar Adler were. The guy was indeed an engineer, as many a good architect is; he was also an architect. One can, after all, be both.

19 South LaSalle. 2012 photo by TonyTheTigerWikimedia Commons.

But Jenney was more than simply a brilliant engineer and architect, or even a founding father of the Chicago School of Architecture. Instead, he mentored the great architects of Chicago, including Daniel Burnham, the future Holabird & Roche, and the evidently ungrateful Louis Sullivan.18 He partook of the culture of Chicago, from high culture to pop culture and encouraged others to do the same,19 a decision which, I do not doubt, better enabled him–and the architects of the Chicago School–to design for their city’s unique needs. As Miller20 tells us, none other than the great Daniel Burnham laid credit for those great feats of fireproofed engineering and art at Jenney’s feet. Jenney’s mentorship of the great Chicago School architects makes him well and truly the progenitor of towers, for they went on to build the great skyscrapers that would enable ever taller, grander skyscrapers.

Without William Le Baron Jenney and the men he mentored, our skyline would be a whole lot different. Who knows? Without him, we might never have reached Aqua, or Vista. And so, today, on the anniversary of Jenney’s birth, let us celebrate his mastery by enjoying our skyline–and by working towards preservation of our historic architecture, our great gift to the world.

Horticultural Building

Jenney’s long-gone Horticultural Building, at the World’s Columbia Exposition. Photo by William Henry Jackson. Image from the Field Museum’s archival collection. Housed on Flickr.

1 Who says this? Well, lots of people say it! Blair Kamin, our Pulitzer-winning architecture critic, is the one who comes first to mindCraine’s Chicago Business says it; and so does The Unofficial Guide to Chicago. It is, in short, a part of the fabric of our communal civic soul.
2 When it was built, Aqua was the tallest skyscraper designed by a woman. It is discussed in The Guardian and The New Yorker, among others.
3 Vista Tower is currently in the construction phase. It is exciting in a hundred and one ways, about which I will write later; in the meantime, the following articles are excellent sources of information about the project (and how exciting it is):

It’s also worth noting that 1 World Trade Center’s technical director is a woman.

4 That architect was a guy named Peter Bonnett Wight, about whom we learned lots in “Origins of Commercial and Civic Architecture” (Spring 2009) and “Origins of Modern Architecture” (Fall 2008), both at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, both taught by the excellent Tim Wittman. The Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago have Wight’s archive, for those interested.
5 This sounds wild, but it 100% happened.
6 This list is drawn from my notes from “Origins of Modern Architecture” and “Origins of Commercial and Civic Architecture.”
7 So, there is a surprisingly non-standardized definition of this whole height thing out there, which is why I’ve gone with “really tall,” which, obviously, is essentially meaningless. I have several written down, but they aren’t really all that tall; I’d say they fit early skyscraper definitions, but not modern ones. Emporis, which is apparently an architectural data mining firm, says a skyscraper must be “at least 100 meters,” so if you want a number, go with that.
8 According to my notes from “Origins of Modern Architecture” on 26 November 2008, the average Manhattan lot is only 20×80, while in Chicago it’s 25×125. (My professor said the Dutch didn’t know how to handle space, but the Brits and the Germans, who were settling Chicago, did. This may even have some truth to it.) This not only facilitates our skyline and our alleys but, thanks to said alleys, offers light from the back as well as the front.
9 Reuben M. Rainey, “William Le Baron Jenney and Chicago’s West Parks: From Prairies to Pleasure-Grounds,” 58-60.
10 The Chicago Park District, The City in a Garden: A Photographic History of Chicago’s Parks: West Side Park System: 1869-1900.
11 Rainey, “William Le Baron Jenney,” 62-65.
12 See this excerpt from Verbivore’s Feast.
13 Gerald R. Larson, “William Le Baron Jenney,” 138-140.
14 “Origins of Commercial and Civic Architecture,” Tim Wittman, 23 March 2009.
15 Larson, 138-139; Miller, 335.
16 In City of the Century, Donald Miller argues that the glory probably does belong, in large part, with Jenney, who synthesized and mentored the skyscraper into being (341-347). Larson isn’t so sure (136-138). I’m going with Miller and with my architecture history notes (Tim Wittman, 2008-09); this may be largely chauvinistic pride in my city, but I’m sticking with it.
17 Miller 336; Weingardt, 61.
18 Miller, 336, 342-346; Pacyga, 132-133.
19 Miller, 336.
20 Miller, 344.

Bibliography and More Reading

Haden, Erik. “William Le Baron Jenney.” Article available via the Wayback Machine.

Larson, Gerald R. “William Le Baron Jenney: Developed Chicago’s Distrinctive Skyscrapers, 1832-1907.” In The Great Builders, ed. Kenneth Powell. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

Leiter I Building, from Historic American Buildings Survey.

Miller, Donald L. City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. 1996. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Pacyga, Dominic A. Chicago: A Biography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Plan of Chicago: A Regional Legacy. Available as a pdf.

Powell, Kenneth, editor. The Great Builders. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

Reuben M. Rainey, “William Le Baron Jenney and Chicago’s West Parks: From Prairies to Pleasure Grounds.” In Midwest Landscape Architecture, ed. William H. Tishler, 57-79. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Tischler, William H., editor. Midwest Landscape Architecture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Weingardt, Richard G. “William Le Baron Jenney and Tung-Yen Lin.” Leadership and Management in Engineering 3(1) (2003): 61-63. pdf.

Showing History: or, [Yes, There Really Were] Records Before the Spanish Came

Scribes at work: “Codex-Style Vessel with Two Scenes of Pawahtun Instructing Scribes; c. A.D. 550–950; Possibly Mexico or Guatemala, Maya culture, Late Classic period (A.D. 600–900).” Image by FA2010, 2009. Wikimedia Commons.

We peoples of letters have a knack for believe that we, and only we, are capable of creating literature, of composing epics, of recording our histories. We are the greatest at convincing ourselves that our way–only our way!–is The Way to remember stuff, and so we wander around in public telling our best bros that there were no records then because they didn’t record stuff back in the day, don’t’cha know, that had to wait for the Spaniards, and then somebody hears us and tell us we’re wrong and should just boil in our wrongness while we’re at it. (In case it isn’t clear, I was the latter, recently.)

What do we do when we hear wrongness? We fight, just as Captain America says. From Giphy.

But the thing is, there are so many ways to remember, and memory itself–whether individual or collective–is such a complicated, multifaceted thing. And, finally, just because we can’t read it doesn’t mean those who came before us did not leave written records behind. In many cases, they actually did. This is, indeed, quite flagrantly true through pre-contact Latin America, where scribes and artists were busily recording the past and plenty of folks were actually literate. It is us who cannot read what’s been left behind, not them who did not record it.

The great Aztec Piedra del Sol. Photo by Anagoria, 2013. Wikimedia Commons.

My MA advisor, who happens to be a genius, started out many a class in colonial Spanish-American literature with the piece above, the great, glorious Aztec Piedra del Sol, or Sun Calendar. This, she would say, emphatically (and in Spanish), this is literature! (It should be pointed out that really old literature–the sort of stuff I adore–is a fascinating mix of literature, art, history, and anthropology/sociology, anyway.) Moreover, the Piedra del Sol is just one of many such records, living memories carved in stone for the world to see, here and forever, amen. Gordon Brotherston, in “America and the Colonizer Question: Two Formative Statements from Early Mexico,” writes of a system of writing–tlacuilolli–intricately tied, after the destruction of treasure troves of books, to the stone calendars on which we see it today, and of American scientific and cyclical knowledge far surpassing that of the invading Europeans.1 Imagine: one comes planning to be a god in a strange land, and one discovers that actually one’s cherished technology is pretty backwards, and one’s native land is kind of grubby and poorly planned, compared to these great cities of the Americas. Awkward, no?2


For your convenient heart enemy-heart-storing, self-promoting needs: Aztec Stone of Tizoc. Photo by Dennis Jarvis, 2007. Flickr.

Similarly, Camilla Townsend, in the journal Ethnohistory, writes that the Nahuat-speakers “of central Mexico left for posterity a deeper trove of written records than any other indigenous group in the Americas”3–a statement which might be somewhat hyperbolic, indeed (many indigenous people had an extensive literary output), but which nonetheless makes a strong case for una gente letrada–a literate people–long before the coming of the Spaniards and their westernized alphabet. The giant Stone of Tizoc, pictured above, is a dual-purpose monument: it could store the hearts of one’s enemies (or sacrificial victims), and it served as a giant monument to Tizoc, the guy who commissioned it. Unfortunately for good ol’ Tizoc, he wasn’t the world’s greatest military mind, and was only on the throne for a short time. (Poor dude was only the Lord of Tenochtitlán for like five years, which was, I think, unprecedented.) Regardless of his prowess (or lack thereof), Tizoc left us another brilliant piece of Mesoamerican, pre-contact literary output, if we can but read what he’s had written. Should we then deny the Aztec their literature, their records, their histories, simply because we can’t read? Would that not be like the child-me, illiterate, insisting that my favorite writers hadn’t actually put down words at all?

Illustration of the “One Flower” Ceremony from the great Florentine Codex. Wikimedia Commons.

Now, so far I have covered the Mexica people, also known (today) as the Aztec. There’s a reason for this: the folks I overheard were making fun of Aztec records, and Aztec gods. (Now, I don’t know about you, but I make a point not to make fun of gods who want that much blood in tribute. Besides, they are not my gods and thus I have no right to mock.) And, the thing is, the Aztec Empire did leave behind records–records which they continued to expand following the coming of the Spaniards, when they salvaged Spanish writing systems to tell their own stories, as much their way as possible. But they were not, by a long shot, the only literature people of what became (and no longer is) Spanish America.

“Panel 3 from Cancuen, Guatemala, representing king T’ah ‘ak’ Cha’an.” Photo by Authenticmaya~commonswiki, 2005. Wikimedia Commons.

I learned rather the hard way–that is, by reading popular stuff and listening to people in large groups–that a lot of people seem to think the Maya Civilization disappeared, sinking into nothingness long before the arrival of the Spaniards. Buena gente, I am here to tell you that this is flagrant and offensive nonsense. Just because Teotihuacán fell does not mean that the Maya, too, disappeared into the jungle. In fact, the Maya are still here today. The Maya left us something more than simply vast and advanced cities and magnificent sculptures and living languages and people, however: they left us written records. Lots of written records.

Six sheets of the Mayan Dresden Codex, c. 1200. Wikimedia Commons.

The Maya were, by and large, a literate people. Matthew Restall, placing them among “the most literate native societies,” writes that literacy levels among the Maya and the European conqustadores were actually fairly similar, as most were “semiliterate,” while some–likely nobility and, of course, scribes–were “fully literate,” and others “fully illiterate.”4 In short, the Maya, as a cultured people, were largely able to read and write–at least a little. And, as evidenced by the (small) fragment of the 13th-century Dresden Codex, above, they were quite able to keep their own written records. I would, myself, argue that if we cannot trust documents left us by the Maya, then we certainly cannot trust those of the conquistadores, who included bros like Francisco Pizarro, the illiterate son of a pig farmer. (I don’t know why this stuck with me quite so much–I think I actually learned it in my first Latin American history class, way back when in like 2006 or 2007, but there you go. It’s the little things, apparently.)

Stucco frieze from Placeres, Campeche. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, 2008. Wikimedia Commons.

The Maya evidently placed great importance upon scribes–no doubt they knew, just as well as anyone else, that history is written by the victors, but that the vanquished, as long as they can write, will tell their own stories differently. In his article “Broken Fingers: Classic Maya Scribe Capture and Policy Consolidation,” Kevin Johnston argues that Maya rulers made a concentrated effort to break captured scribes’ hands, the tools of their trade–they were, he posits, dangerous to a victorious king’s ability to twist historical narrative to suit his needs, and to celebrate his victories.Smashing a scribe’s hands seems quite horrific, yet in truth, throughout history, across continents, victorious lords have done their best to silence the pens of the opposition. Evidently the Maya agreed that the pen could be mightier than the blade, and took pains to ensure that their versions of history would be the ones to survive.

Stele 51 from Calakmul. Photo by Thelmadatter, 2008. Wikimedia Commons.

Much of the Maya records that survive today are, much like those of the great kings of Asyrria and Babylon, stelae, set in stone for posterity. We would no doubt have more books–codices or otherwise–were it not for, as Brotherston reminds us, the wholesale burning of “books in New Spain and quipus in Peru”6–wanton destruction of a peoples’ history and knowledge, on a far grander scale than the broken fingers of vanquished scribes. Yet the Maya–and the people we call Inca, as well as the Mexica (or Aztec)–continued to keep their records, their own way. Part of this is simple: it’s kind of hard to burn stone monuments, although the Spaniards definitely tried when they pulled down Tenochtitlán, using its monumental stones to build Mexico City. But indigenous literacies carried on in other ways, too. In fact, Judith Maxwell argues that the highland Maya preserved their language and pictorial alphabet through such mediums as textile art–and, thus, the very clothing they wore.7 The Spaniards may have come, may have imposed their systems and their ways upon the people in the Americas–but yet those old ways were, and are, preserved, still a living part of Mayan culture today.

Paris Codex. Wikimedia Commons.

I have barely touched upon the surface of literacies and of record-keeping in precontact Latin America, here–and I have focused largely, if not exclusively, on the Aztec and the Maya, though they were hardly the only people to have maintained their own records before the violent coming of Europeans. Had those Europeans cared at all about the histories of the places they were determined to commandeer, or the people they were trying to vanquish (always with the help of indigenous allies–divide and conquer is a time-honored, and honed, technique), we’d have even more records. The Olmec were leaving written records in 900 BCE, if not earlier.

Sheet from the Codex Mendoza. Wikimedia Commons.

Nor did the Aztec or the Maya stop recording their own histories merely because another empire rolled in on tides of blood. Instead, despite the book-burnings (a timely issue, as we approach Banned Book Week!), scribes kept right on scribing, using whatever alphabets were most helpful at the time. The age of the great Aztec codices was only beginning. The Quechua nobleman Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala would pen his mighty letter Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno, written partially in Spanish and partially in Quechua, and send it off to the king (it never got there, but it did end up in Denmark! And they helpfully put it all online). And, later, el Inca Garcilaso de la Vega would write his own chronicle, Comentarios Reales de los Incas, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t have a single picture. (At any rate, all I can remember are the words, of which there are definitely plenty.)

An “Aymara weaver,” depicted by Guamán Poma de Ayala. Wikimedia Commons.

Records of the before-the-conquest abound. Records of the before-and-the-after also abound, both in words and in images, and, as José Rabasa reminds us, we must work to remember the importance of “visual communication of iconic script”8–after all, memories, and records, are transmitted in many ways, and our Latin alphabet and Islamic numerals are hardly the only ways to do so. It is to our communal shame that we people of alphabet-letters have long held ourselves as superior, often going so far as to consider other ways and methods of record-keeping as markers of barbarism.9 (I’d like to believe the whole civilización y barbarie thing went out with Sarmiento, but that is definitely not the case.)

First page of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, c. 15th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Writing–using both Latinized and pictorial alphabets–became, following the Conquest, a space of resistance, a place to claim one’s heritage and one’s culture, and to transmit one’s own histories to the future, in spite of the colonizers’ attempts to curtail such activities. Brotherston points out that though we more often think of the Martís and the Bilbaos (he recommends also thinking of the Silkos), yet “colonizing Europe was challenged intellectually in America” from the very beginnings of the conquest.10 Similarly, throughout “Thinking Europe in Indian Categories” Rabasa writes of resistance to dominance through written and pictorial records.11

Doña Marina/La Malinche and Hernán Cortés lead the way in this page from the Codex AzcatitlanWikimedia Commons.

From stelae to temples, from sculptures to codices, the Maya and Aztec have left us a plethora of records. People were recording their histories a long time before Spain stumbled across the Americas, and they kept right on recording it after the Spanish arrived in their world. (For it was their world, not Spain’s.) If we don’t know how to read it, that’s on us,12 not them.

Aztec warriors depicted in the Florentine Codex. Wikimedia Commons.

1 Brotherston, 24-26.
2 The great Peruvian theorist Aníbal Quijano argues that this is precisely why the (largely, but not entirely) European conquistadores invented the concept of race.
3 Townsend, 625.
4 Restall, 37.
5 Johnston, 375-379.
6 Brotherston, 25.
7 Maxwell, 553, 556-557.
8 Rabasa, 46.
9 Restall, 92; Rabasa, 46, 51.
10 Brotherston, 42.
11 Rabasa, 43-76.
12 I am very glad to report that work is ongoing on fully deciphering Nahuatl texts, as discussed by Alfonso Lacadena in this 2008 article (pdf).

Bibliographies/Suggested Reading

Ayala, Guamán Poma de. Nueva crónica y buen gobierno, available thanks to the  Royal Library in Denmark.

Bleichmar, Daniela. “History in Pictures: Translating the Codex Mendoza.” Art History 38:4 (2015), 682-701. DOI:10.1111/1467-8365.12175

Columbus, de las Casas, and the Undiscoverable Land.

Florentine Codex, available here.

For a Few More Days: Art from the Viceroyalty of Peru

Johnston, Kevin J. “Broken Fingers: Classic Maya Scribe Capture and Policy Consolidation.” Antiquity 75 (2000), 373-381. DOI: 10.1017/S0003598X00061020.

Lacadena, Alfonso. “Regional Scribal Traditions: Methodological Implications for Decipherment of Nahuatl Writing.” The Pari Journal 8:4 (2008): 1-22. PDF.

León-Portilla, Miguel, ed., & Miguel León-Portilla y Ángel María Garibay K., traductores. Visión de los vencidos: Relaciones indígenas de la conquista. México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2008.

Léon-Portilla, Miguel, ed.; Miguel Léon-Portilla y Ángel María Garibay K., traductores; Lysander Kemp, translator. The Broken Spears. (note: I have never read the English translation, your mileage may vary but it’s very much worth a shot.)

Maxwell, Judith M. “Change in Literacy and Literature in Highland Guatemala, Precontact to Present.” Ethnohistory 62:3 (2015), 553-572. DOI:10.1215/00141801-2890234.

Moraña, Mabel, Enrique Dussel, and Carlos A. Jáuregui, eds. Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2008.

Quijano, Aníbal. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Social Classification.” Coloniality at Large, edited by Mabel Moraña, Enrique Dissel, and Carlos A. Jáuregui, 2008, 181-224.

Rabasa, José. “Thinking Europe in Indian Categories, or ‘Tell Me the Story of How I Conquered You.'” Coloniality at Large, edited by Mabel Moraña, Enrique Dissel, and Carlos A. Jáuregui, 2008, 43-76.

Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. London: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Townsend, Camilla. “Glimpsing Native American Historiography: The Cellular Principal in Sixteenth-Century Nahautl Annals.” Ethnohistory 56:4 (2009), 625-650. DOI 10.1215/00141801-2009-024

The sacred calendar from the Codex Borbonicus, post-conquest Aztec. Wikimedia Commons.

Hyde Park, in Black and White and Grit

On this anniversary of the day France and Daguerre gave away the technology for the Daguerrotype, I have gone back into my undergrad years to my final project. I worked with a used Canon Rebel EOS from the one and only Central Camera, on Wabash under the (atmospheric) tracks. I  loved it; I love it now: I love film work rather passionately. At this point, however, I have neither access to, nor space to create my own, darkroom; I’m hopeful that I will eventually be able to save up for a digital SLR, but even should I splurge on monthly Photoshop fees (and let’s face it: I probably would), it simply won’t be the same. There is an impossible beauty, really, in knowing that one’s shots are so limited, and that one must think, carefully, before setting the aperture and the shutter speed. It is about so much more than angling in and pushing a button.

In some ways, this is probably an exercise in nostalgia: I grew up in Hyde Park, a few buildings away from Stagg Field, two city blocks away from the emergency rooms. It wasn’t a perfect place, by a long shot, but it was an amazing space to be a kid. In many ways, it’s also a love song to a vanishing neighborhood. My own neighborhood is gone now, torn down to make way for new science buildings: there are no greystones, no 1920s apartment buildings, no kids racing down the block to round up the crew and look in office windows. It feels, to me, like a spectral trip down a ghost-town’s lanes, and, hardest of all, precious few of the students prowling what used to be a neighborhood have any idea that it was ever something else.

So, these are film photographs, scanned; there are a few development errors. I pushed my camera as hard as I could here, going for a rough-edged look inspired by Robert Frank’s The Americansit being better to push aperture and shutter speed than to accidentally boil the film. (Someone did that to me once; it was kind of awful but I ended up loving the look.) But, enough with words: let the images speak for themselves, as I had originally intended.

Entering Obama’s neighborhood.
South Drexel: What they left behind.


Kent Chemical Laboratory
57th Street Friends Meeting Peace Pole


Booth School of Business
Inside, across, and through
International House flyer, basement, Ida Noyes Hall.
Women’s bathroom, Mandel Hall.
Bulletin board, Quadrangles.
Cloisters, Divinity School.
Rockefeller Memorial Chapel: Rose window, outside.
Rockefeller Chapel
Rockefeller Chapel
Rockefeller Chapel: Rose window and pipe organ.


Glories of Graffiti (part the first)

This summer has been an intense one for me, filled with changes and with new prospects as well as unrelenting streams of (often bad) news, spiced by a record-smashing, barrier-breaking Olympics (with some unbelievably sexist coverage of female athletes, because of course). It’s been, perhaps, a little much sometimes–and so I’ve delved back into my treasure trove of graffiti , and done a shoddy job of curating some of my favorites.

Mostly they’re bright. Or funny. Or vulgar. Or all of the above. And, occasionally, it’s actually rather sweet.

Words, Words, Words

EGAD! in Pittsburgh.

This is a pretty terrible photo, and, alas, I don’t have PhotoShop, so it will remain lousy for a bit. Nonetheless, it is EGAD!, from a mailbox on a hill in a lovely Pittsburgh neighborhood. It is about as simple as one can possibly get, and I love it so much. There’s something really hilarious about writing EGAD! as one’s tag, I think–especially with such a marvelous typeface. You do you, tagger of EGAD!s.

A dumpster, Urbana. 2015.

I have no idea if the “GO…LIKE NOW” dumpster still lives behind the Foreign Language Building and the Smith Memorial Auditorium in Urbana, on the University of Illinois campus; it did, however, live there pretty much the entire time that I did. (I last saw it when last I was in town, in August of 2015.) It’s a giant, rusty, and generally full dumpster: nothing special there. But the graffiti, much of which appears to have been stenciled (“zen” is definitely freehand, “rest” might be as well), took time and care and makes it unique. It’s very much a part of my grad school memories: and here is the dumpster I walked past every day, y’all!

Outside Illini Union, Champaign, Illinois. 2015.

It’s chalk, man. Except it definitely wasn’t written with chalk, which makes it even funnier. (I guess I don’t ask for much, but I always found it hilarious.)

if it is to be women's bathroom graffitiWP_20150601_14_42_35_Pro
Women’s bathroom, Foreign Language Building, Urbana, Illinois.

This is pretty much quintessential women’s bathroom graffiti. Maybe it says something good about us, that our graffiti is so often, uh, positive? (I mean, this is super hackneyed and corny, but still.) Several stalls also bear long communal love letters to unknown girls who’ve written about the tragedies of their lives, ranging from desperate loneliness to academic issues. (It’s incredible, what folks write, usually in sharpie, on the walls of a toilet stall.) The responses are almost always sweet, and kind; some are religious, most are not, but almost all are attempting to buck up that unknown girl, and give her a reason to stick around a while. I guess I’ll choose to see that as something good about us.


Colors and Flowers and Faces

Above. On Mathews in Urbana, near the old Natural History building.
Below. On Mathews in Urbana, near the old Natural History building.

I don’t even know what this is, but these faces! How can anyone not be delighted to see them? I am ever so grateful to whatever anonymous street artist decided to make Mathews a whole lot happier with their art.

On the “dead mall,” Urbana, Illinois. July 2015.

I have no idea what the above is. A piece of toast with a face? A contemporary Lascaux? Whatever it is, it’s a pretty great splash of color on the back of a mall whose future is, now, uncertain.

Lighthouse in Waukegan Harbor. Waukegan, Illinois.

The blast of aqua and turquoise here–seen on Christmas Day, 2015, because obviously this is the time to walk out into Lake Michigan to see a lighthouse–is only a tiny piece of the graffiti lining the walkway and limning the lighthouse itself. The graffiti is, as befits Waukegan (where, according to the U.S. Census, 54.2 per cent of people speak a language other than English at home), bi- or tri-lingual, largely Spanish, English, and Spanglish. This piece probably says something, but I haven’t a clue; I just like the colors.

Near Illini Union, Urbana, Illinois. Summer 2015.

I guess the flowers above are graffiti. I don’t really know. In an oasis of concrete and construction they stand out, delicate and beautiful and believable: a small splash of beauty in the midst of chaos.

Urbana, Illinois (I think).

I think this guy hangs at Krannert Center, although I don’t remember for sure. I still wonder if “WF” is someone’s initials or if it’s a semi-polite version of the semi-polite WTF acronym. It’s on a campus, so I figure it could be pretty much anything.

Carved into Café Tables (in Urbana)

Café, Urbana, Illinois

think the above platitude lives–or maybe lived–carved into a table at the Espresso Royale at Goodwin and Oregon, just across the street from the magnificent Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. It’s

Café. Urbana, Illinois

Likely also at Espresso

Espresso Royale, Goodwin and Oregon, Urbana

This one is definitely a matter of opinion (me, I loved them all)–but it’s also definitely hilarious.

Café, Urbana, Illinois

Terribly sad robot here is terribly sad, alas. 😦 I think it’s also from ’12…although that may have been put there to throw us all for a loop. This one is also likely from the same table as ESPRESSO TRUMPS PARADISO, above…but, since I’m not positive, I’ll leave it sans location.

Café, Urbana

Same table, same location. This coffee shop is right across the street from the performing arts center, and right in the midst of a large science sector. The graffiti reflects, as it were, both cultures. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I felt so at home there.

Café, Urbana, Illinois

I love this one so much. I wonder who carved the first bit into the table: did they mean it? (I mean, I assume they weren’t being sarcastic?) Did they hope to spread the good word by way of graffiti on a café table in a science quad? And who was the second person? I fancy they were a scientist, or an engineer, but they may have been an actor, or a musician, or a computer scientist, or a mathematician. (It is also pretty reminiscent of the good old vulgar graffiti of Pompeii, discussed by PompeianaOrbilatthe Telegraph,  Mental Floss, and The Heavy, among other places.) We’ve always been gleefully vulgar in our illicit writing (and etching and drawing), apparently.

Freight Trains: Or, Coming Eventually

My area is heavily frequented by freight trains, hauling their cargo to and from and through Chicago, itself dotted with depots and piers: husky, broad-shouldered brawler of a city that it is, heavy freight trains fit right in. The neighborhood in which I grew up, as well as the suburb in which I currently live, are both fortunate enough to have overpasses, so any train-watching we do is entirely voluntary. However, most of the ‘hoods around us, from South Shore to Thornton, South Holland to Chatham, aren’t as fortunate. And, since I frequent those neighborhoods (and towns) as well, I do a lot of involuntary train-watching, too. Literally the only high point of involuntary freight train watching? It’s the graffiti, helpfully added by unknown street artists to brighten our gray freight-train filled days.

And so, one of these days, when I’ve collected enough, there will be a post of transit-related graffiti, and it will likely center on trains.

Cats! or, International Cat Day, 2016

It’s International Cat Day! Which is, in my book, a very important sort of day. It’s also a pretty great excuse for something a bit lighter than average current events: a celebration of the cat, in (public domain) art and in gif. It’s also a pretty great time to point out that cats are, in the words of this headline, the “unsung heroes of mental health” care. Here’s to cats!

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1887 oil on canvas, Julie Manet with CatWikimedia Commons.

Julie Manet looks like a pretty serious kid–she probably was, given her family’s occasionally convoluted histories and ill health–but she’s also got a good buddy there, in her friendly Cat. Julie’s probably idealized, and perhaps Cat is as well–but as a lifelong cat lady, I’d know that cat’s body language anywhere. It’s purring right now, through layers of oil on canvas.


Mary Cassatt’s 1908 Sara Holding a CatWikimedia Commons.

I’m pretty sure the cat above is actually a kitten: it has that unformed, unfinished, slightly mad look of nearly every kitten I’ve ever known, looking in its way as much a baby as Sara herself. It also looks pretty interested in something just over there, but it isn’t quite sure it wants to spring yet. Sara holds it pretty well, after all.

Plate #101 from Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views from EdoWikimedia Commons.

Cat at window: it doesn’t matter where cat is looking, or what the landscape is like, or even if it’s an indoor/outdoor cat–every cat hangs out and looks out the window at the world full of (edible, right?) creatures. (It’s also worth noting that Japanese prints are a wealth of amazing, and loving, cat depictions; unfortunately, I couldn’t find that many in readily accessible public domain format, and, given the fragility and instability of prints as a medium, they are rarely on display at museums.)

Su Hanchen’s Children Playing on a Winter Day, from Wikimedia Commons.

The hanging scroll above–that of two little people playing with their little cat–is from the 12th Century; it dates to the Song Dynasty, and Wikimedia Commons suggests it may originally have belonged to the Royal Family. Whomever commissioned it, however, the artist caught both the kids and their kitten well, and they’ve come through the centuries as lively little creatures, intent on their game.

John White Alexander’s The Green Dress, c. late 19th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Whomever the lady in the green dress is, she’s clearly taking time out from her busy social whirl to hang out with her cat, who is chasing dust motes and smushing its face up against her. When she heads back out she’ll be covered in black hair, but, somehow, I doubt she cares: the purring and the affection will have more than made up for it, and, going by her dress, she likely has maids to brush cat hair off anyway. (Unless it’s on all the furniture, too.)


Chat Noir

Steinlen’s Tournée du Chat Noir de Rodolphe Salis, 1896 poster. Flickr image by Paul James.

Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, unlike most of the artists featured here, was perhaps an early graphic designer; the commanding cat of Rudolphe Salis’ Chat Noir is an excellent piece of advertising, one which has long outlived the space for which it was designed. And how could it not? That cat is magnificent: a cat’s cat, here to lord it over us all.

There are really too many amazing medieval cats from which to choose: they are, basically, the best, as evidenced by this tragically small sampling of marginal and otherwise medieval cats. (Marginal, in this case, means marginalia, not unimportant. They are indeed on the margins of manuscripts, but that’s about their only connection to “marginal.”) They even walked all over their peoples’ work, just like they do now. Also just like cat people now, cat people then were indulgent and owned by their beasts, as evidenced by Pangur Bán, whose human was a ninth-century Irish monk. (For even more amazing cats from Medieval manuscripts, check out the cats on the amazing and fabulous Discarding Images tumblr. (Definitely check out this monkey hugging a cat, in both medieval and contemporary versions.)

From Buzzfeed.

Medieval cats are a pretty great transition from Serious Art Cats to gif cats. Like medieval marginalia cats, gif cats are a mix of absurd, hilarious, and catlike: the cat above, busy killing the paper emerging from that dastardly printer, is definitely catlike. (It’s also a pretty good reaction gif.)

also from some Buzzfeed article.

Happy International Cat Day!

Into the Woods, at Midnight Sharp

I recently watched Disney’s adaption of Stephen Sondheim’s rather glorious Into the Woods, and–much to my surprise!–it was actually quite good, and only butchered a little, not a lot! And the Disneyfication wasn’t anywhere near as awful as it could have been, even though way too many of the great sexytimes got taken away, which was sad! And not quite as many people died, which I guess wasn’t sad! Also the deaths were different! Unlike in theatres they weren’t onstage (like, the Baker’s Wife didn’t even die onscreen, for pete’s sake), and they weren’t quite as brutal, usually (looking at you, Jack’s Mother).

gif originally from this article, which you should read because it’s genius.

I am not usually a musical person. Whatever it is that allows me to happily throw aside all disbelief and hurl myself headlong into opera, and even operetta, doesn’t really seem to be in place for (most) musicals. Instead of saying what a glorious aria! I tend to say why the hell is this moron singing? Oh my god people will see them and hear them, I am so embarrassed!–which is clearly not the necessary thought process for someone watching a musical. So, you know, musicals are kind of dicey, even though operettas aren’t, which is kind of absurd since operettas and musicals are pretty similar. But, hey, we’ve all got our thang.

look, y’all, nobody has #feelings like Prince Charming and Other Prince. From link.

However! my anti-musical thing doesn’t generally carry over to live theatre, because I f*cking love live theatre, guys. I will accept almost anything, just so long as it is live, on stage, in front of me. Ariel in triplicate? I am so there. Knife-fights between hunky dudes right in front of me? Oh my god give me MOAR. Overwrought Jacobean revenge tragedies?1 Count me in! (Although, I confess: I laughed so hard at the overwrought ending, as people dropped like bedamned flies and somebody got blinded, that I cried. Which is not my usual reaction to tragedy, at all.) But, in essence, if I see it live, I’ll buy almost anything. Alllllmost. Because there’s nothing like a good stage actor to suspend all disbelief.

This appears to be the original Broadway cast, and it’s pretty amazing, and you should take a gander before some intelligent person pulls it for copyright violations.

Sondheim’s original Into the Woods, then, got lucky: it was one of the last productions I saw, in April of 2015, at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, which was and is and shall remain one of my favorite places, and one of–maybe the only–consistent bright spot in my grad school years. The production was great; I remember the mics as being spotty–too sharp, too shrill, not quite perfect–but everything else was, in a word, marvelous. (Some day the young actors and singers of UIUC will go forth and be known, and I will have known their work first, and it will be fab.)

So, I came to Disney’s take on Into the Woods deeply wary, but also, perhaps, more receptive, since I’d already gone for it live, hook line and sinker. Sondheim’s version is, of course, pretty damn dark. Which is great! Sometimes a really, really dark musical is a good thing, even if most of us think of musicals as, perhaps, lighter fare. It’s also a really great take on an incredibly dark medium: that of the traditional (non-Disneyfied) fairy tale. Our fairy tales are dark and dangerous worlds, filled with blood and violence and sex; sometimes they offer social critiques, sometimes they just encourage women to, as it were, Stay on that Path, Young Lady!2 But they really aren’t the light and frothy confections that animated movies full of singing birds and dancing mice have tried to sell us. They’re as dark as we are, and sometimes darker.

More of Sondheim’s take on his upbeat little musical about a bunch of people dying.

So, yeah, Into the Woods is super upbeat! Never mind that 1) Rapunzel has PTSD and probably postpartum depression and DIES along with the twins; 2) the Steward bludgeons Jack’s Mother to death; 3) the Evil Stepsisters, Florinda and Lucinda, are blinded by Cinderella’s birds (this is totally part of the fairy tale, by the way); 4) the stepsisters get bits of their feet chopped off, because “And when you’re his wife / you’ll have such a life, / You’ll never need to walk!” (also totally part of the folk tradition, btw); 5) the Baker’s Wife sorta kinda cheats!; 6) 😥 the Baker’s Wife DIES!!; 7) the Giants all die (which leads to some incredible reckoning); 8) the Royal Family starves to death; 9) the Princes (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere!”), continuing on as losers, hook up with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, because #feelings! or something. So, yeppers, it’s a light and frothy treat, indeed!

To be fair, Sondheim’s eminently quotable quote is actually in response to a question about potential Disneyfication of Into the Woods, which means that there are a whole lot of layers to that upbeat little musical. And there is a bit of Disneyfication: no twins (how could you, Disney?!?), no bludgeoning, fewer loose ends at the end; more off-screen deaths; a maybe-possibly happy ending; no Snow White or Sleeping Beauty (although the door is definitely left open, considering what a giant sleaze Prince Charming is).

From link

And that will be my opening to how the Disney version actually got a lot right: Chris Pine as Prince Charming is amazing. Billy Magnussen as Other Prince (no, really) is amazing. The sibling rivalry of egocentric asshole brothers is incredible, and pretty much perfectly executed in “Agony,” wherein they crash around in a waterfall, as one does, trying to one-up each other. The NYTimes even ran a pretty terrific interview–titled, fabulously, “One Day Your Prince Will Come (Whining)”–with Pine and Magnussen, about both the scene and their methods for approaching Charming and Other Prince. The self-absorption and posing of the brothers Egomaniac is pretty much amazing.

from link.

Basically, everything–or almost everything–in Into the Woods should be erotic…and, surprisingly, a hell of a lot is erotic, despite the bowdlerizations. The Baker’s Wife (Emily Blount) remains a deeply complex character–a woman who is, despite her name (Baker’s Wife?), in Kathryn Funkhouser‘s words, definitely a protagonist. Hell, she even has her “moment” with the Prince, in the woods, in Act II. Meryl Streep isn’t Bernadette Peters, which is kind of a duh moment; however, I found her performance strong and believable and kind of modern, which was pretty cool. (Also some rad special effects there, special effects dudes.) Rapunzel doesn’t have twins (!!!), and she hies herself off with Other Prince at the end–but I suppose that someone might as well get a Maybe Possibly Not Horrible Ending, so why not? (Let’s face it: Other Prince is not exactly a gem either, although it’s hard to say if he’s as bad as Charming or just trying to one-up him–which is, honestly, a pretty brilliant interpretation of him.)

just a moment in the woods, amirite? from link.

I loved that Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and Red (Lilla Crawford) were both believable kids–and that they were played by kids. (They were played by young-looking college kids at Krannert–which might be better, given the darkness of the source material, but hey, it’s a film.) I thought the set was pretty great. Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella is moving and loopy and sweet…and, when she jilts Prince Charming (but not sincere), she is MAGIC. Take THAT, sucker! Rapunzel’s changed fate gives MacKenzie Mauzy a chance to definitively flounce away from her tower, which is kinda awesome, actually–the hell with Other Prince, she’s gonna be fine. (And she’ll never ever have long hair again, I bet.) James Corden’s Baker is as bumbling and emotional as he should be: even with the limits of a film (it’s less immediate, usually), he is vulnerable and often sweet, and Baker and Baker’s Wife are, despite their bickering, a team–as they must be.

Yo, I am tough now. I run my own life now. From Tumblr.

In truth, I only really disliked Johnny Depp’s Wolf–but that, I think, ties back more to Tonto and to current events than anything. (I wouldn’t have minded seeing Pine or Magnussen double his role; it could, I think, have been grand, and goodness knows there’s precedent. But whatever, I guess I’m a live theatre girl at heart.)

Definitely most pressing question. Giants are normal, talking to birds isn’t. From link.

In the end, however, this is less a review of Into the Woods than a celebration–both of the bowdlerized version and of the original. (Jane Hu’s review–and discussion–of the Disney version goes into how she feels it stays true, or doesn’t.) I’m still a little surprised by how much I love the Sondheim musical: its darkness, I suppose, calls to me; I’ve never enjoyed imaginary utopias, because there’s always darkness, somewhere. (Just look at The Handmaid’s Tale, where utopia goes decisively to hell.) I like the complexities, moral and other, of old fairy and folk tales, which seem to me to delve so much deeper into our human condition than their Disneyfied counterparts. And, most of all, I love live theatre, seeing hearts laid bare in front of me, IRL. And so, as much as I think this film of Into the Woods is grand–and I do, I really, truly do–I’d jump at the chance to see it performed live again, because live theatre, though wrought by we mere mortals, is purest magic.

Whether or not you’re okay with Disneyfied Sondheim, this is a pretty great bit of acting/singing/ranting/whatever here, yo.

For those interested in casting calls and vocal ranges (aka for my fellow weirdos), here’s information from The Bayswater PlayersChalkboard Theatre, and Theatre Puget Sound. I actually think Rob Marshall did a pretty good job.

For those who, like me, like to read interviews and articles, here are a few:

1 Believe it or not, I totally recommend going to see ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore–if you have a chance and a strong constitution! Which I typically do not have–all it takes is a good superhero movie to have me bawling–but Krannert’s production totally worked for me, in all its bizarre and frequently overwrought glory. (Also it started with a fight between hot bros on stage, which I was 100% down for.) It occasionally gets produced elsewhere, though possibly with less nudity 😥 and the NYT reviews a production here.

2 And the darkness is, believe me, incredibly interesting. Some good scholars are bringing it back; see this Guardian review for a new translation with blood, guts, and sex included, and, for a really brief overview (I recommend going deeper, naturally), see Wikipedia.

Farewelling the Ravens of Henrietta

In late April, as the bees woke from their winter’s sleep around Chicago, and spring flowers bloomed, Maggie Stiefvater‘s The Raven King was published, bringing the Raven Cycle, in all its heartbreak and glory, to its conclusion. We’d known from the beginning–from the first pages of The Raven Boys, first book of the cycle–that Blue would kiss her true love, and he would die. We knew shortly thereafter that her true love would be the inestimable Gansey, that Raveniest of Raven boys, and that Gansey would die. Anticipating The Raven King became almost a painful thing, made more difficult the longer the wait stretched: we could not know, we addicts, what would happen, but we knew Gansey would die, of Blue’s kiss. I think I read the last page first, when finally my copy arrived, promptly on April 26.

Waiting for The Raven King.

The first book of the Raven Cycle was published a little less than a month into my second year in grad school, coming out September 18 of 2012, in the midst of an ugly contract negotiation and my own desperate quest to 1) turn people out for bargaining (we have power together, after all, and precious little when we stand divided) and 2) to get my exam reading in, all while taking courses and teaching a heavy courseload. I would take my exams–in Colonial Spanish American literature (essentially the beginning of coloniality through the wars of independence), in Medieval Spanish literature, and in Spanish American literature, 1898-present–in the spring of ’13.

It was, all around, a terrible year,1 brightened now and again by a new book or a concert at the performing arts venue down the street from my apartment. Maybe it was in part due to my own stress that I fell so in love with the Raven Cycle‘s crew; I’m not going to psychoanalyze myself here, since I never took pysch and my area of literary theory is actually postcolonial.2 I’ve also been a Stiefvater reader for some time; I was, as it were, quite ready for The Raven Boys.

The Raven Cycle has, despite its issues (see note 2), a lot going for it. There are, to name just a few of its attractions, richly developed characters, believable magic (it is totally possible), strong worldbuilding, and terrific cars. Henrietta itself, lay line and all, becomes a character in the Cycle. The cars are characters; the land is a character; the dead walk with the living, and the living truly do live.

Blue and Co. haven’t learned this yet, but they will. <insert evil laughter here>

There is Blue Sargent, whose father is only fully revealed for what he is, good and bad and cowardly, in The Raven King: Blue, whom Stiefvater allows to have insecurities and vulnerabilities in concert with her strength: fiery Blue, Gansey’s true love. Blue is catalyst and glue, all while being a smartass kid on the cusp of adulthood. She’s an imperfect teenager, and while that isn’t always popular, I quite appreciate it. (Let’s face it: we humans are a messy lot, good and terrible, heroic and petty, all rolled into our awkward human bodies.)

There is angry Ronan, the truth of whose sexuality unfurls slowly, until he could never be anything but gay,3 and until I was as afraid of what would happen to him and to Adam as I was of Gansey’s looming death. I loved Ronan from the beginning; I was ever so glad that, in its ending, Raven King gave him–and Adam–a chance at happiness in the future, in which the scars of their uniquely ugly pasts could, perhaps, fade.  I wasn’t sure whether to rejoice for Noah as he slid from the world of the living or to mourn him. (I’m still not, really.) And there is fragile Adam, broken and remade, strong as the land around him. I didn’t like him as much, when he was lusting after Blue, as I came to like him: but then, I didn’t know him as well then, either.

And Gansey? I have a strange relationship with him. He’s a difficult guy to like, in many ways–his family’s politics are opposed to mine; they are rich, and have always been so, while money has a way of running through the generations like sand in an hourglass in my family, sliding out that hole in the bottom that, apparently, no one ever thought to plug. But, like Gansey, I come of old stock, and I too learned to say that I was very well, thank you, even when I wasn’t. There is a quote from The Dream Thieves that, strange as it may be, means so much to me I’ve permanently left a bookmark to guard the spot. It comes after Ronan texts Gansey with the news that he’s total Gansey’s Pig; nonetheless, when asked, Gansey says everything is fine, because:

There were no circumstances under which he would’ve answered that question in any other way. Possibly if he’d discovered a family member had died. Possibly if one of his limbs had been separated from his body.


∼Maggie Stiefvater, The Dream Thieves, 292-293

For there, you see, is a tiny story of my life: no matter what has happened in one’s life, one smiles in public, and does not let on. It simply isn’t done. And so I have worked through extreme pain, through health crises, through debilitating panic attacks, through deaths, with a smile that was sometimes a grimace, for it is what one does. I think that was when I really began to love Gansey as a character–we had nothing in common, really, yet we had that.

The Raven Cycle was, for me, never really about Glyndŵr.4 It was a quest in which the questing was probably more important than the arriving (which Thoreau would probably appreciate, since he thought that wisdom was in part “find[ing] the journey’s end in every step of the road“). I love that our leading folk5–Ronan and Adam, Gansey and Blue, Chang (despite appearing only in books three and four), and even Noah, the dead boy–are teenagers who will (with the exception, of course, of poor Noah) grow into young adults who will go through that amazing phase in which they know All The Things while simultaneously knowing, just like Jon Snow, nothing at all. It was appropriate, somehow, for the Cycle to end with a death and a resurrection. In truth I’d rather it had stopped there, with the resurrection, and the nameless hope it entailed.

For our heroes go onward, ceaselessly borne, one hopes, into the future, wherein someday they shall grow up, and realize they know nothing, and become the humans they were meant to be, and drive the Pig once more down the lay lines of Henrietta.

For my fellow review readers:

1 But! The joke was on me! It totally got even worse the next two years.
2 There are actually any number of ways in which I could analyze the Cycle using postcolonial theory, of course; like all favorites it is problematic, in places such as its depictions of race and whiteness (see this Tumblr post for some discussion of representation and whiteness among characters), in its carrying of a white Welsh king to a land long inhabited by a group of people who are then never mentioned (which is an amazing example of coloniality in narrative, really). But that is, right now, another post, for another time.
3 Other folks have written about Ronan and having a gay central character in a massively popular young adult series; they include thisthis, and this (I really like this, possibly because there are Many Words and I am drawn to Many Words); Stiefvater also addresses, here, why Ronan never officially “comes out.”
4 You think I could leave this opportunity to add more info? Haha suckers! He has a character page on the Raven Boys wikia; a BBC site; and a super messy Wikipedia page, among other things.
5 Our supporting characters were, generally, quite good as well–though they got a little wonky at times.

And Here’s to You, Librarian of Congress: Dr. Carla Hayden, Shatterer of Glass Ceilings

Dr. Carla Hayden, the new Librarian of Congress! Image from Wikimedia Commons. Originally from this blog. As a US Government image, it is in the public domain. (A little copyright info seems appropriate on a blog about a librarian, yo.)

This week, in the midst of seas of bad news, my profession got good news: Carla Hayden, long the director of the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, alumna of my alma mater as well as of the University of Chicago,1 was finally approved as the new Librarian of Congress. In one fell swoop she’s broken two glass ceilings: Dr. Hayden will be the first woman and the first person of African-American descent to become the Librarian of Congress. She’s also an actual, real librarian with (two!) real degrees in library and information science. She is going to rock this position, guys.

Dr. Hayden’s appointment is actually good news for everyone, not just for those in the Profession. She’s well-known for her commitment to, in the Washington Post’s words, “equal access to library resources,” and has spearheaded numerous (and successful!) digital initiatives while the CEO of Enoch Pratt. She is widely supported in the profession: District Dispatch points out that  “Every state and major national library association in America strongly back her confirmation,” which is a pretty big deal. Further, Dr. Hayden was one of Fortune‘s World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. Among other accomplisments, the magazine hailed her for keeping libraries open during protests in Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death in custody in 2015. Other institutions closed; the library, helmed by Dr. Hayden, kept its doors open for its community.

As a librarian, I am wildly proud and happy that Dr. Hayden will be leading the Library of Congress for the next ten years. I believe that she will bring it, forcefully if necessary, into the twenty-first century, and will help it become the leader we need and deserve in the tech and digital sectors, places where it has been rather lagging. She is in every way a trailblazer: Dr. Hayden is the first Librarian of Congress in many years to actually be a librarian (which is, yes, hugely important); she’s also the first woman, the first African-American, and indeed the first person of color. And, of course, she’s one hell of a librarian, someone to lead our national library into the future with grace and with vision.

Gif originally from link.

1 Confession: I’m also stoked that Dr. Hayden got her degrees in Chicago, at universities to which I have personal connections.

Come the Three Icemen of May

We are, here in the Chicago area, in the heart of the three May Icemen. After a bitter day we’ve a frost alert–the tomatoes will die tonight, if they’ve been put out without protection. (They might die even with black plastic, but they’ve a slightly better chance with it than without.) They’ve always been part of my life, the Three May Icemen–I am, after all, a Midwesterner born and bred–but, until today, I’d never actually realized that they were more than an expression that I’d heard from my parents, and my grandparents (both sets) and my relations from Wisconsin.

The Three May Icemen are, evidently, saints of long ago, whose feast days bounce in a line, from May 11th through May 13th, or 15th. According to Chicago’s own Tom Skilling, the saintly ice dudes are generally MamertusPancras (yeah, like that super-cool train station in London), and Servatius, although Boniface sometimes joins their number, as does Sophia, whose feast day sometimes heralds the planting season. Regardless of which dudes join in the fun, however, the days are more or less the same: roughly May 11th through the 13th, though the 14th and 15th (Saint Sophia’s day) can join in as well. Thus, we are this year quite in the midst of our Icemen–both metaphorically, as Sophia’s day will roll round in less than an hour, and literally, as we’re awaiting that ostensibly late-season frost.

If you don’t like the weather in Wisconsin, my grandma used to say, wait five minutes, and it’ll be something different–a saying which, of course, I’ve also heard here in Illinois. (According to the renowned pollster Five Thirty Eight, which has of course looked into this important factoid, Chicago isn’t even in the top ten unpredictable weather cities, which is probably just as well. Thank you Lake Michigan!) But I don’t think I’d categorize our cold May days as unpredictable, exactly: after all, they’ve been guiding the planting season in western Europe since auld lange syne, came over to the U.S. fairly early, and continued to guide plenty of hands here.

Certainly it’s been a part of my family lore. Never plant before the three May Icemen have come and gone, they’ve all of them said: keep your tomatoes safe. And certainly I’ve reminded folks that spring is always a violent season, prone to wild weather swings; I’ve even referenced the Three May Icemen, though I thought that they were nothing more than three particularly cold days, after which one trundled out to the garden and got the tomatoes in. But the three Icemen are come, this year, which means spring is well and truly here, almost to the tipping into summer: and once they’ve gone, it’ll be time to plant.

Three Things that Cinco de Mayo Is Not

1901 poster at the Biblioteca Nacional de México. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I bought a car yesterday, which meant that I didn’t give much thought to the date (other than, of course, to write it repeatedly, in an increasingly childish hand); it also meant that I avoided most of the obligatory social media posts about drinking José Cuervo or Corona or tequila or Patrón or whatever and stuffing one’s face with, presumably, Chipotle. (Chipotle is excellent, but it really isn’t Mexican cuisine.) However, despite spending a fair bit of time with the car, and then obsessing over Beyoncé’s Lemonade (quick, go read Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” right now!), I started running into the old round of go-drink-tequila-it’s-Cinco-de-Mayo posts–and, because I am a purist, I am here, with a list of three things that Cinco de Mayo really, truly is not, and one thing that it is.

Cinco de Mayo Is…

…the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla

19th century painting of the Battle de Puebla. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Really, it’s the first Battle of Puebla: the one fought on May 5 of 1862, between a very superior sort of French force, one under Napoleon’s command, and the vastly outnumbered Mexican army at Puebla, under Ignacio Zaragoza. (Napoleon wanted to colonize Mexico, too–Europe simply wasn’t big enough for him.) Even though Puebla would fall to the French the next year, even though the Austrian Maximilian and his Belgian wife Charlotte would briefly “rule” Mexico (no, really, it’s called the Second Mexican Empire, and it was all thanks to the French and their colonial project), the 1862 battle is a pretty big deal. It’s also kind of awkward, thanks to one of the leaders of the defense of Puebla: one Porfirio Díaz, future dictator.

Life’s messy.

 Cinco de Mayo Is Not…

…about Spain, at all

It’s about the French, which I already mentioned, above. It’s also about how, during Benito Juarez’s first presidency, Mexico defaulted on its bills, which is, I think, a timely situation to discuss now, as countries are defaulting once more. (Go forth and read about Juarez, if you don’t know about him already; he was a fascinating figure, and a very important part of Mexican history.) Its celebratory status here in the U.S. apparently got kicked off during our Civil War, by Mexican-Americans from California.

…a particularly big deal in Mexico

So, it’s kind of a big deal, in some places: it’s celebrated in Puebla, which makes sense, since that’s where the battle happened in the first place. Kids get the day off school throughout Mexico, which is no doubt a great joy to all of them, and a moderate annoyance to many of their parents–maybe a bit like Polaski Day here in Chicago. It pretty much got going here in the U.S., and has, embarrassingly, since turned into one of what Time in 2011 called the “Top Ten Drunkest Holidays.” As a historical purist teetotaler, I would encourage one and all to learn about the French in Mexico rather than binge-drinking. One can hope, right?

…Mexican Independence Day, or Mexican Fourth of July, or Anything Remotely Similar

Hidalgo’s standard of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Image by Marcuse from Wikimedia Commons.

Guys, Mexican Independence Day is September 16, because that’s the day that the small-town priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla gave the Grito de Dolores, in 1810, in the town of Dolores. That had a lot to do with Spain, but it also had a lot to do with class, and race, and religion, and even the concept of “buen gobierno,” which has been a battle cry raised by many an insurgent group throughout Latin American history. As my notes from Rebels, Smugglers, & Pirates in Latin America remind me, Hidaglo wasn’t the world’s greatest strategist (good government in the name of the King! is kind of a crappy strategy for a revolution, a mi modo de ver), and everybody was basically fighting their own wars–but the Grito de Dolores definitely kicked off the Mexican Revolution, and the men who would come after Hidalgo–including José María Morelos, who was a good strategist–would lead the charge onwards. They are, every one, worth knowing, and worth reading up about–so, to celebrate the actual Mexican Independence Day in September, maybe pick up a history of Mexico, or a biography of Benito Juarez, or Morelos, or Guerrero, or even Iturbide.

So, happy Battle of Puebla Day (a day late)! Now, in lieu of ending this quite the way I want, I’ll direct you over here, to Octavio Paz writing about Los Hijos de la Chingada.

¡Qué viva México!

The Brightest Heaven of Invention: Hailing the Bard of Avon’s 400th Anniversary

Maybe Shakespeare? The Cobbe portrait, image from Wikimedia Commons

The men of Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s Sea of Lentils are frequently cold; the Englishmen are ruthlessly mercantile, capitalists of the first water, striding through worlds new to them and making of the lands and their people new markets and new buyers and new money–enough new money to build empires and to stand–and prevail–against the might of the Spanish Armada. They were a pragmatic set of folks, those Englishmen whose blood now infuses my veins, and likely not prone to flights of fancy or grand gestures of beauty;  Michael Guasco, in his article “‘Free from the Tyrannous Spanyard?’ Englishmen and Africans in Spain’s Atlantic World,” comments that “English seamen were pragmatic entrepreneurs.”1 It is certainly the vision of England and its folk that sings out through the pages of Sea of Lentils: pragmatic, practical, often cold: we grim, determined folk, who grit our teeth and get done what must be done. But, at the same time as Benítez-Rojo’s hard-headed capitalists were beating back the Spanish (while doing business with them, of course), a young actor from Stratford-Upon-Avon, possessor of a golden imagination, was taking up a quill. That young man was one William Shakespeare, and his oeuvre continues to speak to us today.

Also maybe Shakespeare, older: the Chandos Portrait. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It’s hard for me to say, even now, just how much Shakespeare and his works mean to me. I am dyslexic; reading came slow and painfully hard, each word a misshapen thing to be committed to memory so I might, if I were lucky, know it when I saw it again. Then, as now, I had a good memory–for stories, plotlines, action, words that came together to form a living thing. In ’95, I think, or maybe it was ’96, PBS ran Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 vision of Shakespeare’s great Much Ado About Nothing. I watched, and it was magic, words of fire writ larger than life on our small tv. I had to read it–I had to know it, intimately, as well as it’s possible to know anything.

There was no one to read it to me, and so I, mostly illiterate, able to read and write my name (I did have a good memory, after all), took to the shelves, and got down our vast and unused Complete Works. I like to say that I learned to read on Much Ado, though perhaps it were more accurate to say that I learned to read on the index, pushing myself through words bigger and grander and stranger than any I’d seen before. Within three years, I’d read the Complete Works (Titus gave me nightmares; MacBeth was glorious, but, I knew, historically inaccurate). Even now, when people tell me Shakespeare is hard to understand, I’m startled: I’ve always found him, well, ultimately relateable, a man of his time who has somehow managed to become timeless.

Now, because he was my first literary love, it is to Shakespeare’s plays that I return in times of stress or strife: even if I feel broken, I know that there’s a play for it, somewhere, a word that might turn my day and give me the courage I need for another charge at the windmills of capitalism. (I know I just mixed my authorial metaphors and I don’t even care!)

I love Shakespeare in “traditional” productions (I celebrated today by watching Henry V, from the BBC’s Hollow Crown, and crying my eyes out), and I love Shakespeare in contemporary ones. He’s one of those rare jewels whose works are, I think, pretty much perfect whenever and wherever and however2 they’re set–as long as they’re acted well and lovingly, they’re fabulous. The first Shakespeare I saw live was Midsummer Night’s Dream, at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin: Hippolyta was a flawless ice queen businesswoman; Demetrius was an L.L. Bean wearing, lantern-toting yuppie dork, and Puck was, for the duration, the sole aim and desire of, I think, everyone attracted to dudes. Live theatre can make gods of mortals, and, in Puck’s case, it did.

I’d hoped, this 400th anniversary, to be able to partake of the events. At least there will be free ones, come summer: Grant Park Symphony Orchestra will perform Shakespeare in the Park this summer, concerts of Shakespeare’s words set to music. I plan to go. And, in the meantime, I’d like to believe that someone out there will take this 400th anniversary and use it to get to know the snarky, funny, probing words of an actor from Stratford who died so long ago and whose words remain so alive, and so current.

1 Guasco, 3.
2 They’ve been performed, well and lovingly, at the Jungle at Calais and at a refugee camp in Jordan, among other places.

A Votar: Last-Minute Information

Image thanks to ACLU.

In the United States and not sure where to vote? Google has a really good tool for you.

Running into…issues at the polling place? (Intimidation or otherwise.) You have recourse. You can contact the lawyer-run Election Protection hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE. The ACLU’s information on voter intimindation—including handy-dandy downloadable guides—can be found here.

¿Se encuentra problemas cuando se va a votar? Se puede llamar 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA. Para más información sobre sus derechos, se puede leer «Conoce tus derechos: Intimidación al votante», escrito por el ACLU.

Finally, in many states (most? all?), if you are in line when the polls close, you are still able to vote—just don’t leave that line. Ballotpedia has more information; International Business Times also has poll close times.