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Maria Salvadore

Reading Rockets' children's literature expert, Maria Salvadore, brings you into her world as she explores the best ways to use kids' books both inside — and outside — of the classroom.

Humor run amok

December 5, 2014

To quote Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players…” Some players take their role too far. They feel that comments must be witty or entertaining, frequently at the expense of others.

This certainly happened at the 2014 National Book Awards (NBA). Host Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) thought he was being entertaining when remarking on Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin), the Young People’s Literature NBA winner.

What did these comments demonstrate about both the commenter and the subject of them? Handler was trying to amuse and entertain with his seemingly flip remarks, unfortunately diminishing the importance of the National Book Awards and Woodson’s brilliant work. On the other hand, Woodson’s response ("The Pain of the Watermelon Joke") is measured and thoughtful, and provides insight into the author, her background, and why she writes:

“[My] mission is what’s been passed down to me — to write stories that have been historically absent in this country’s body of literature, to create mirrors for the people who so rarely see themselves inside contemporary fiction, and windows for those who think we are no more than the stereotypes they’re so afraid of. To give young people — and all people — a sense of this country’s brilliant and brutal history, so that no one ever thinks they can walk onto a stage one evening and laugh at another’s too often painful past.”

Many people see those who appear different from themselves — different language, different appearance, different class, or even different residence — as “the other.” And we pass that notion of “otherness” on to our children.

In all of her books, Woodson provides not only mirrors, but windows, too — and maybe, just maybe, as Rudine Sims Bishop once suggested, books can present “a sliding glass door” allowing readers to move back and forth, recognizing that “the other” is really us.

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"The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I [haven't] read." — Abraham Lincoln