Culture Bean seems to be in a bit of a slump these days, but posts like this remind me why I like to read/watch/experience and then think and write about it. In the interest of not letting Culture Bean go to seed (bad pun!), I want to share this insightful, beautiful post about one of my favorite authors and best-remembered childhood treasures. See my comment at the end of the post for my brief perspective on James and the Giant Peach.
We thought about Earth Day a lot today as we walked and hiked. To commemorate this special day, I’d like to share two previous posts and link to a New Yorker article that I found particularly meaningful. I’ll re-post one in its entirety and link to the other two at the bottom.
When we’re back in the rhythm of our everyday lives, I’m sure I’ll have more to say but for today, here goes:
When Culture Sprout was four years old, I volunteered to bring an Earth Day activity to her classroom. As with most child-related things I do, this prompted a trip to the library and the bookstore in search of something to read to the children. After thumbing through about a dozen books, I settled on one that I thought would appeal to boys and girls, and would ignite discussion and action. I had no idea that I was discovering an author and a character who would change the way my daughter thinks about the world. Nor did I know that we would spend the next three springs eagerly awaiting the release of the next book in what has grown to be a series.
The eponymous character in Michael Recycle is a “green-caped crusader,” a young boy who flies around the world teaching people how to better protect the earth from trash, pollution, and over-production. Patterson’s language makes for a rollicking read-aloud and Michael’s optimism and can-do attitude appeal to pre-school and elementary school children.
In Michael Recycle, Michael teaches a town the three cardinal rules of recycling: reduce, reuse, and recycle. While he at first fights environmental evils solo, in subsequent books he meets other earth-saving heroes and/or convinces little villains to join him. In Michael Recycle meets Litterbug Doug he tackles the eponymous litterer, forever winning his heart and loyalty. Michael Recycle Saves Christmas introduces Solar Lola and teaches us about solar power, making gifts out of “trash,” and the dangers of materialism. And new this spring, Michael Recycle and the Tree Top Cops shows us how we can all become earth activists, this time in the service of saving the Redwood Forest.
What I love about Patterson’s books is that their lessons and strong environmental views are not hammered into the reader. Rather they are couched within charming rhymes and accompanied by Alexandra Colombo’s lush illustrations. The first book ends with ten ideas of how the reader can help (or help their parents) protect the earth, inviting each child to become an environmental superhero. We can all be superheroes, Patterson seems to say, if we focus on the evils we can help conquer.
Culture Sprout is nearly 8 years old and she reads voraciously on her own, but she’s still ready to curl up with her favorite picture book heroes or listen to her favorite authors. Michael Recycle ranks top among those. She recently had the opportunity to ask Ellie Patterson what’s next for Michael Recycle and was tickled to learn that he will tackle pirate fishing. Culture Sprout is really concerned with the health of our oceans and she’s delighted that Patterson shares her passion!
Some more Earth Day favorites:
Fancy Nancy: Every Day is Earth Day (Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser, 2010): Not much needs to be said about Fancy Nancy. She’s a favorite in pre-schools everywhere. O’Connor has followed up the original glittery Frenchified books with a line of I Can Read volumes, of which Every Day is Earth Day is my personal favorite. I love Fancy Nancy for her vocabulary—O’Connor isn’t afraid to introduce little kids to big words (and French words). I also love her for giving me, in this book, two of my favorite mantras: “Less than a mile, bike in style,” and “Please take note. Always bring a tote.”
Culture Sprout weighs in with this favorite for more autonomous readers:
Ivy & Bean: What’s the Big Idea? (Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, 2011). The seventh book in this utterly charming series about best friends who “never meant to like each other,” What’s the Big Idea? taught Culture Bean about global warming. Ivy and Bean’s science assignment is to find a way to combat global warming. After a series of hysterical mishaps, they decide that little girls can’t solve global warming on their own—they need to get grown ups to care about the earth. At the end of the book, Barrows has included a brief primer to explain global warming and several ideas about how we, including little girls, can help.
In our house, every day is Earth Day. We had planned to plant flowers and go on a butterfly walk today, but the rain has doused our plans. Instead, Culture Bean is writing about the earth (look for her words later today on our family bog, Charlotte’s Journey Home). Yesterday, she made art about water at the Peabody Essex Museum. Tonight we’ll curl up with our current Earthy read: Mark Kurlansky’s World Without Fish. It’s not a happy book, but it is beautifully and lovingly written and it is teaching us a lot .And starting tomorrow, Culture Sprout’s school will celebrate Earth Week for five days. I’m looking forward to the ideas and provocations she’ll bring home.
What are you reading or doing for Earth Day? Please add a comment and help me build my Every Day is Earth Day reading list and activity idea list. Ideas for all ages are encouraged!
- 5 Smart Ways To Celebrate Earth Day (news.health.com)
- My interview with Ellie Patterson
- When the Earth Moved: What Happened to the Environmental Movement by N. Lehman for The New Yorker
Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, and all the Warner Brothers characters played a large role in my childhood television consumption. I watched them with my brother, or later snuggled under a blanket by myself. Elmer Fudd, Tweetie Bird, and Porky Pig dripped into our vernacular–”I’m hunting wabbits,” “I thought I taw a puddy tat. I did. I did see a puddy tat.” “That’s all folks.”
Not until years later did I learn that the most of ”Saturday morning cartoons” we watched were, in fact, theatrical shorts originally produced to pair with feature films and to be shown in movie theaters. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were produced from 1930 to 1969, the earliest ones capitalizing on film’s exciting, new sound technology. While the animation is limited (at least by today’s standards), the sound design of these shorts is quite impressive. Just three short years after Al Jolson uttered the first synchronized speech and sang on screen, Bugs and friends were singing and dancing in perfect harmony and synchronization.
A recent trip with Culture Sprout to Chicago’s Symphony Hall for “Warner Brother’s Presents Bugs Bunny at the Symphony“ taught me so much more. A thoroughly entertaining concert by the Warner Brother’s Symphony Orchestra, conducted by George Daugherty, ”Bugs Bunny at the Symphony” consists of dozens of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts, some screened alone, others screened with live accompaniment. In between , Mr. Daugherty talked about the history and music of the films.
Here’s what I found most fascinating:
- As the names imply, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies had music at their core. With Warner Bros. vast music library to draw on, the films included swing, jazz, and the popular music of their day as well. Daugherty noted that many viewers experienced classical music and opera for the first time while watching these films. Certainly I did. From Rossini to Liszt, from Brahms to Strauss to Tchaikovsky, Bugs and friends covered them all.
- It was a sound editor for these animated shorts who perfected the “click track,” a kind of audio-metronome that allows the orchestra to synchronize its performance to the film in the sound studio.
- I think my favorite tidbit–and movie–was about “What’s Opera Doc?” (1957), which parodies Wagner’s Ring Cycle (all of them) and two other Wagnerian operas, all in 6 minutes or so. In it Elmer Fudd chases Bugs around, Fudd trying to “Kill the Wabbit.” Bugs distracts him as an alluring Brunhilda. It’s the standard Elmer Fudd-Bugs Bunny conflict, with the expected interruptions and resolution. Culture Sprout laughed at the shenanigans; I laughed at the collapsing of I don’t know how many hours of heavy, tragic opera into 6 hilarious minutes.
For as many times as we see Bugs Bunny in drag, we also see him in a chorus line, conducting an orchestra, and reenacting our favorite musicals and hit songs. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies largely followed a format similar to the American musical movie genre; they simply pared it down to the essentials of conflict and song, sped it up, and made us laugh.
It’s been a long time since I saw Tweetie Bird trick the Puddy Tat or Road Runner torture Wile E. Coyote. As a film scholar and mother, I see them differently now. I suppose you could look at the role reversal in these duos as teaching children about using your wits to outsmart a bully. Or, just about sight gags. It was instructive to hear the audience laugh each time Puddy Tat’s gum bubble was burst by Tweetie Bird. Even though we knew it was coming, we laughed.
Of course, watching as a mother, in a city currently notorious for its annual murder count, I couldn’t help but think about the violence in these shorts. Violence creates the joke and in the end Wile E. Coyote and Puddy Tat live to entertain us another day. Culture Sprout did not recognize what she saw as violent–I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I am positive that these musical marvels have not taught her that violence is a reasonable way to deal with conflict.
Culture Sprout did sit on the edge of her seat for two hours and was visibly disappointed at intermission, until she realized that the show wasn’t over yet. In one two-hour period, she met my favorite childhood cartoon characters and experienced more classical music and opera than I could have wittingly introduced her to. And she loved it. Mr. Daugherty, with his evident and infectious love of music and movies, introduced her to concepts of silent cinema (okay, she already knew about that), cadence, click tracks, the fourth wall, and the joy of listening. He made sure she recognizes the names Chuck Jones and Kurt Stalling. And his two principal violinists showed her that women can lead a symphony orchestra.
There’s a lot of fodder for cultural discussion in these films–like Bugs Bunny’s cross-dressing, Porky Pig’s romantic failures, the above-mentioned reversals of natural prey/predator laws, parody as an art form, racism, just to mention a few. That scholarship abounds, I assure you, and it is quite interesting. But, for a glorious two hours, we got to think about the music, the form, and the function–rather than the sub or meta texts.
If you have the chance to experience “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony,” run, don’t walk, to the box office. You’ll have no regrets.
As for me, I am still waiting for Wile E. Coyote to finally get that smug little bird.
Is there a bear more beloved than Winnie the Pooh or a boy more disarming than Christopher Robin? Timeless children’s literature, A.A. Milne’s poems and stories about Pooh, Christopher Robin, and their friends endure today because they speak to the child in all of us. The cadence of the rhymes are melodious enough to calm a fussy child and the cheekiness keeps the most skeptical parent engaged. They have inspired popular films and popular music. And they continue to inspire children to read.
Like many fairy tales, Milne’s stories have been adapted for the screen, mostly by Disney. Disney’s versions are likeable, but they change the tone of the characters in order to popularize or commodify Pooh and friends. In turning Pooh, Eeyore, Christopher Robin, Tigger, and the rest into Disney film characters, the studio eliminated a lot of the nuance, the cheekiness, and the cultural complexity. If you haven’t read the original poetry, I’ve linked below to an online, illustrated version of Now We Are Six. Pooh isn’t in this book, except that
“he thought it was a different book; and he hopes you won’t mind, but he walked through it one day, looking for his friend Piglet, and sat down on some of the pages by mistake.”
In honor Milne’s birthday (1882-1956), I’d like to share a favorite poem from Now We Are Six. My mom read ”Sneezles” and “King John’s Christmas” to me so often that we could both recite them by heart. The books, my mother’s childhood treasures, are now on Culture Sprout’s shelf and are among my most beloved belongings. She’s a particular fan of “Binker,” a poem about Christopher Robin’s imaginary friend. Binker is a lot like Purple Bubba, who lurks invisibly about our house.
For a famous story about Culture Sprout’s first experience with this poem, scroll down to the caption on the second image.
They bundled him
They gave him what goes
With a cold in the nose,
And some more for a cold
In the head.
They examined his chest
For a rash,
and the rest
Of his body for swellings and lumps.
They sent for some doctors
To tell them what ought
To be done.
All sorts of conditions
Of famous physicians
Came hurrying round
At a run.
They all made a note
Of the state of his throat,
They asked if he suffered from thirst;
They asked if the sneezles
Came after the wheezles,
Or if the first sneezle
They said, “If you teazle
May easily grow.
But humour or pleazle
Will certainly go.”
They expounded the reazles
The manner of measles
They said, “If he freezles
In draughts and in breezles,
May even ensue.”
Got up in the morning,
The sneezles had vanished away.
And the look in his eye
Seemed to say to the sky,
“Now, how to amuse them today?”
(From Now We Are Six)
I recently read two non-fiction books, one right after the other, something I don’t often do. One was a memoir and the other a biography of sorts. I was struck by the similarity of the stories–poor girl goes through hardship, finds a way out, struggles, and eventually makes good (or is on her way to do so). On the other hand, the stories were also very different: One takes place in California, the other in Uganda. One involves abandonment, heartbreak, drugs, and a broken foster care system. The other showcases the challenges of abject poverty, and the possibilities of international philanthropy and local involvement. On balance, these books might appeal to very different audiences. My observations of similarities may result from having read the books back to back and not from any real sameness. Who knows? In either case, both are worthwhile, though troubling reads.
A Piece of Cake: A Memoir by Cupcake Brown (Crown Publishers, 2006).
This book grabbed me in the first pages. Cupcake Brown is a year older than I am. She grew up on the streets of Los Angeles and San Diego. I grew up in the middle class comfort of Livingston, NJ. During my privileged childhood, her experiences were for me the stuff of ABC After School Specials.
Cupcake Brown (her real name, deriving from her mother’s craving for cupcakes during pregnancy) recounts waking up in January 1976 to find her mother dead. Cupcake was twelve. The death of her mother sets off a cycle of unbelievable events, including the discovery that her daddy was not her biological father. The latter comes forward to claim her and her brother in order to get the Social Security benefits. He immediately deposits them with a foster mother who is abusive, negligent, and reprehensible.
In many ways, the story is predictable–we’ve seen it in novels and films for years–the system fails Cupcake horribly. She suffers sexual and physical abuse and starvation in her foster home. She loses touch with the man she knows as her daddy. She runs away and spirals into a life of prostitution, gang involvement, crime, and drug abuse. You know how the story ends. You must. She’s written a book, so things must have turned around for her. But how?
Sheer tenacity, I think, coupled with a memory of the parental love she enjoyed for twelve years. She ran away from her foster home so many times that the foster mother eventually took her time calling the authorities. She found that she could live on the streets using her one resource, her body. So she did. When her gang-banging got her shot and she’s told she’ll never walk again, she determined to leave the gang life and start over. Through all of her false starts, Cupcake demonstrates a stubborn will to survive. Despite the abuse, she seems to never lose her inner strength and self-confidence. It isn’t until a drug-abusing boyfriend challenges her to learn to talk “like whites” and get a job to finance her drug habit that she realizes she is determined, gifted, and worth more than the life she’s been leading.
I was at once compelled and perplexed by this book. Cupcake details a life spent in the haze of alcohol and drugs. And yet, she can recall exactly what she drank on particular occasions and exactly what inappropriate outfit she wore (while drunk) to a job interview. These details seem implausible if the story is true. Just as I was about to toss the book because this seemed so unreal, Cupcake decides to clean up her act. While the 12-step program may seem familiar, Brown’s description of her relationship with her sponsor and other recovering addicts paints a powerful picture of how personal relationships fuel the support system. I felt that I was reaping the benefits of the good counsel and tough love she received.
Today, Cupcake Brown is a successful attorney and New York Times-bestselling author. Without denying the power of her story and prose, I believe that much of her success has to do with our human compulsion to read stories of people whose lives make ours look easy. Or, to watch a train crash. This is the story of which television movies are made, writ large and real and with a happy ending.
The Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers (Scribner, 2012). Tim Crother’s book tells the story of Phiona Mutesi, a girl who lives in abject poverty in Katwe, the poorest slum in Kampala, Uganda. She is also the reigning Ugandan chess champion. Crother’s traces Mutesi’s family history through two generations, outlining how the cycle of poverty is nearly unbreakable in Kampala. Her chess mentor is not a well-meaning foreigner, but another child of Uganda, Robert Katende, whose own story of survival through Uganda’s civil war makes up a good chapter of this book (and probably merits its own book).
Katende, like Cupcake Brown, is determined to leave his impoverished past behind. He eventually becomes an employee of Sports Outreach, originally assigned to help slum children through soccer-based missionary work. It is an arduous task. Katende realizes that soccer will only take them so far, but that the skills they might acquire through chess would be important life-skills. Mutesi follows her brother to chess club one day and is discovered to have raw talent.
Katende coaches Mutesi to “play like a girl.” He notices her aggressive, survivalist approach to knocking other player’s pieces of quickly and teaches her slow down, use her wits, and strategize. Working with Sports Outreach and the Ugandan Chess Association, he gets his hardscrabble team to a tournament. They surprise everyone by besting the well-educated upper class children. Mutesi, particularly, wins nearly every match she plays, learning quickly that she doesn’t like losing and absorbing lessons as she goes. She ends up in Russia playing international chess leaders. And winning. This leads to more tournaments, newspaper articles, international travel. And, perhaps a Disney film.
What it doesn’t lead to is major life change. Mutesi stays in posh hotels and eats well at tournaments. Then she and her teammates go home to their shacks, devoid of electricity, subject to terrible sewage-laden floods, and help their parents scrounge for food each day. Crother’s book will help Mutesi continue her education (Katende’s students all go to school now and, by all accounts, are good students). But, whether chess will lead her out of Katwe is hard to know.
Crother’s quotes Mutesi at length from the journals she keeps while she travels and her letters to her mom. Her candor, and Katende’s, conveys a restrained enthusiasm. She recognizes that little has changed, but that she continues to have amazing opportunities. (She was in Brooklyn last week.)
Mutesi does not succeed in a vacuum. Like Brown, she is encircled by a support system, from her mother and siblings, to her coach and teammates, to the Ugandan and international chess federations. Sports Outreach International and other philanthropists have made all of this possible.
We don’t know how Mutesi’s story will end. She could end up with a soaring career and break the cycle of poverty. Or she could end up like Fernando Ramos da Silva, a Brazilian street kid whose starring role in the film Pixote (Hector Babenco, Brazil, 1981) made him a symbol of hope, and then may have led to his early demise. I’m hopeful that her support system will embrace her and help her make the transition from chess phenomenon to whatever it is she wants to be.
These books remind us of our relative privilege. Mutesi doesn’t know how to spell her own name until she gets a passport. Brown has her familial stability ripped away from her and is plummeted down a rabbit hole from which the only means of escape is determination. Each struggle to find food to eat and clothes to wear. Certainly, they make it easy to count our own blessings, even the blessing of being able to read. Neither is an easy read. But both women’s stories reward your investment of time.
- From slum life to Disney film: Ugandan teen chess star ‘the ultimate underdog’ (cnn.com)
- Tim Crothers Tells The Story of Phiona Mutesi’s Road To Success in New Novel (booksnreview.com)
- A Child Of The Slums Becomes A ‘Queen’ Of Chess (npr.org)
- Cupcake Brown’s Official Website
- From Torment to Triumph: Cupcake Brown on CBS
Culture Bean began as an experiment as 2012 was born. I wanted a place to write and think about culture–particularly screen culture and word culture. Given that my teaching gig had ended, I was hoping to find others with whom to converse online about topics that sparked my imagination. I got off to a fast start, but then slowed down when we moved cross-country and I took a pretty fulltime job.
My hat is off to Brandon Isaacson, a former student and my top commenter. Thanks for taking the ride.
With any luck, I’ll get 2013 off to a big start and keep going. I’ve been collecting a lot of cultural experiences; now I just need to make time to write about them.
Here’s my 2012 annual report, with help from and thanks to the WordPress “Helper Monkeys.”
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,300 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 4 years to get that many views.