Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why stories buzz in people's ears

It's been a big month for endings in children's literature. Illustrator Leo Dillon and author Ellen Levine both passed away on May 26. I don't know if they knew each other, but I suspect they would have gotten along.

Leo and his wife/collaborator Diane were probably best known for their 1976 Caldecott-winning Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears. According to Leo's obituary in Publishers Weekly, Diane once told a group of students, "We are interracial and we decided early in our career that we wanted to represent all races and to show people that were rarely seen in children’s books at that time." I clearly remember seeing and hearing Why Mosquitoes in kindergarten in the late 1980s. A lengthy picture book needs enticing illustrations to maintain the attention of a young audience, especially an audience unfamiliar with its setting. Well, what five-year-old could look away from the nearly glowing animals the Dillons created? I was engrossed, and the cause-and-effect story about why lying is a bad idea and why mosquitoes... well, you get the idea... made enough sense to me that I remember the encounter decades later.

What I remember most about my first encounter with Ellen Levine's work is a title: I Hate English! I was seven or eight by this point, and decidedly did not hate English. It seemed strange that someone could feel this way, and even stranger that adults would allow this sentiment to be proclaimed on the cover of a book for kids, a book that was being displayed in my school. I read the immigration story curiously, and learned for the first time that some languages have characters for each word rather than letters that make sounds. Imagine trying to read English when you'd never heard of an alphabet!

Years later, at a Simmons Summer Institute, I was impressed at the passion with which Ellen spoke about her controversial In Trouble, and now, I sit here impressed with both these figures' work. They fulfilled the Dillons' goal of introducing many of us to new people and concepts, and I hope their stories will keep buzzing in our ears.

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