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. ūüėõ

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‚ÄĒyou guessed it‚ÄĒa 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‚ÄĒa 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‚ÄĒthe very place where my grandmother long did cataloging‚ÄĒhas 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‚ÄĒmaybe even most‚ÄĒof 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‚ÄĒthink 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‚ÄĒjust 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‚ÄĒyet 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‚ÄĒthose I know best include Matt de la Pe√Īa, Margarita Engle, Jacqueline Woodson, Sherman Alexie, Sharon Creech, Randa Abdel-Fattah, Sharon Flake, Walter Dean Myers, Jason Reynolds, Ruta Sepetys, and Marjane Satrapi‚ÄĒwrite 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‚ÄĒI am a fan of vignettes and of short stories.) Kekla Magoon consistently tackles hard topics; she even has a pair of books‚ÄĒThe Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets‚ÄĒabout 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‚ÄĒone Chinese-American, the other African-American‚ÄĒwho 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‚ÄĒlargely Chinese‚ÄĒworked 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‚ÄĒbecause I always start that way‚ÄĒArctic 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 series‚ÄĒThe Diviners, followed by¬†Lair of Dreams, with more, eventually, to come‚ÄĒfollows 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‚ÄĒSix of Crows followed by¬†Crooked Kingdom‚ÄĒpits a diverse group of “criminals”‚ÄĒincluding a dyslexic‚ÄĒagainst 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 P√©rez’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. (P√©rez 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 libert√©, √©galit√©, and fraternit√©: one in which racism will surely one day fall beneath his boot‚ÄĒor 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‚ÄĒbut 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‚ÄĒbut 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‚ÄĒI think I was in high school‚ÄĒbefore 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‚ÄĒif, indeed, we are great‚ÄĒare 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:

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‚ÄĒincluding handy-dandy downloadable guides‚ÄĒcan be found here.

¬ŅSe encuentra problemas cuando se va a votar? Se puede llamar 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA. Para m√°s informaci√≥n sobre sus derechos, se puede leer ¬ęConoce tus derechos: Intimidaci√≥n al votante¬Ľ, 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‚ÄĒjust don’t leave that line. Ballotpedia has more information; International Business Times also has poll close times.

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‚ÄĒperhaps 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‚ÄĒI mean, I’m pretty sure it’s the same not-chalk‚ÄĒbut 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‚ÄĒprobably in every college town, everywhere, if Hyde Park is any indication‚ÄĒare 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
ūüôā on the back of a sign in Urbana

ūüôā Check the back of a sign the next time you’re in a college town‚ÄĒit 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‚ÄĒwhich wouldn’t, in truth, have been difficult‚ÄĒsomeone 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‚ÄĒit’s a business sign, the one formerly attached to the Red Herring in Urbana‚ÄĒbut 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‚ÄĒthough there will definitely be more. ūüôā

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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‚ÄĒand 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‚ÄĒand 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‚ÄĒI mean, it¬†rarely is‚ÄĒbut 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‚ÄĒyou would, perhaps, not believe quite how much‚ÄĒand I teamed up with friends, and I made it. Not always easily, not always prettily‚ÄĒa teacher once told my mother, in front of me, that I was developmentally delayed (definitely not the word she used)‚ÄĒbut 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‚ÄĒand this is important‚ÄĒdyslexia 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”‚ÄĒmaybe, 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‚ÄĒanother reason why #WeNeedDiverseBooks, folks‚ÄĒand 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‚ÄĒI 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‚ÄĒbut 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‚ÄĒafter 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‚ÄĒrarely, 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 Desire,¬†a 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‚ÄĒthis time the hero of¬†Tessa Dare‘s second¬†Castles Ever After¬†book,¬†Say Yes to the Marquess.¬†Spoiler 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‚ÄĒnot in a particularly good way‚ÄĒfor hitting first, and hitting hard‚ÄĒand 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‚ÄĒI know him, so very, very well. Unlike me Wylan’s family is wildly unsupportive‚ÄĒhis father, upstanding soul that he is, wants Wylan dead‚ÄĒand 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‚ÄĒalthough 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‚ÄĒand read¬†well‚ÄĒbut 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”‚ÄĒand, 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‚ÄĒand, 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 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2009.10.006
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.

A 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

who-challenges-books-2016

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.

stand-up-_facebook1-2016

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.

9-of-the-top-10

From ALA.

Absolutely True Diary is also my entr√©e 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.)

2016-infographic-why-books-are-banned

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. Marvel;¬†Victor 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.5¬†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, voil√†. 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.8¬†

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 (√Čcole Centrale ¬†des Arts et Manufacutres, today known as the √Čcole 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 Zol87. Wikimedia 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 Ken. Wikimedia 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 JeremyA. Wikimedia 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. Crocker. Wikimedia 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 TonyTheTiger. Wikimedia 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 mind;¬†Craine’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.

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