Monday, August 1, 2011

The body wiggly, or why Clementine matters

It's not quite feasible to post in-depth about all the speakers and sessions at the Simmons Summer Institute (though if you'd like to hear or talk more about any of them, feel free to leave a comment). I think it's clear how much I appreciated all aspects of the conference. But I want to focus a bit more on one presentation that stood out to me (unsurprisingly, given my own reading and writing interests): Sara Pennypacker's.

Sara put a new spin on the now-familiar phrase "writing for children." That for, she pointed out, doesn't just mean that kids are the intended audience. It can also mean writing for them because they, to varying extents, can't write for themselves. I've realized in recent years that giving everyone a voice and a chance to see him- or herself reflected is one of my overriding values, and Sara echoed that value. There are lots of kids (with or without ADD or ADHD) who are more interested in what's happening in their heads than in what their teachers are saying, and I suspect it's helpful to see a character - a widely beloved character, at that - who has the same problem but is not dumb, lazy, or bad. Sara also pointed out a reason she thinks so many people compare Clementine to Ramona: both exist in "functional" families and school systems. Kids in other situations need their stories told, of course, but so do kids with lives like Clementine's and Ramona's. Sometimes they have not so good of a week, and their stories are worth telling.

It's considered a truism in this field that girls will read about boys, but boys won't read about girls, so I had to ask: "Was there any pressure to make Clementine a boy?" Surprisingly and cheeringly, Sara said that there wasn't. She pointed out that Clementine herself is as gender-neutral as she can be; she hates it when Margaret gets into makeup, but also finds some traditional "boy" activities too gross or messy. She's good at art, but also at math. Sara even mentioned a theory that creative people are often less gendered. I don't know whether that's true in every case (and would need really good definitions of both "creative" and "gendered" to even begin really analyzing it), but I can see why the tendency might exist. Maybe creativity allows people to consider roles for themselves beyond polarized ideas of male and female. The good news is that, at least in my experience, parents of boys are creative enough to imagine their sons enjoying Clementine.

This post came out a lot more serious-sounding than I expected, but maybe that's apt. Funny little books about wiggly little girls have serious value, after all. It's worth paying attention.

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