Prove Something Happened

Reading Sara Ryan’s Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned is like finding poetics, a philosophy, a mini-manifesto.

It’s fitting, too, that the work is described as “hybrid”—as it mixes lineated poetry with prose endnotes that read as a mix of research notes and essay. She blends childhood memories of visiting museums, layering the remembered visions of taxidermied groups of animals with visiting taxidermy shows, excerpts from how-to manuals and articles about the meaning of skins and mounting, with a poetic voice that is quiet (fragments and small i’s) and loud (calling attention to the sheen and color of faux-blood and bright eyes). Altogether, this micro-chap from Porkbelly Press is an examination of the ways we preserve both ourselves and the animals we regularly pretend not to be.

A particularly strong poem is “Bad Hunter,” set at the Taxidermy World Championships in Missouri. The speaker describes women who “flock around like smart pink birds” and “men wearing leaves” who “chew on toothpicks.” The poem continues to contrast these genders: men and women, boys and girls. Judges walk through, taking the measure of all the animals there: “this is how wet the nose should be, this is how / cocked the hoof.” The final lines showcase the juvenile of the species— “a girl dusts paint flecks off her road-kill / beaver. a boy licks a pearl of blood from his thumb.” How color-rich and sensual these details. The reader’s understanding of the poem is only deepened by its accompanying endnote, which describes the gendered divisions in the field—hunting is masculine and so women in taxidermy “encounter sexism and gender stereotyping.” However, the footnote informs us women’s numbers are increasing: “young, academically driven, and largely female.” The endnote concludes with lines that could be back in the poem: “Women in polo shirts. In poodle skirts. In camouflage. Combing dead birds as if they were still chirping.”

Another poem with the (literal) cold-belly moments, the juxtaposition of the sensual and the unsettling, is “Prehistory.” In it, the speaker is discouraged from being an archeologist, but tells how she “identified the difference between / a shoulder blade and a pelvis in middle / school science. I dug into a fetal pig’s / cold belly while a boy pulled my hair.” I am there with her, in the poem, the black lab tables, the chemical smell, the pairing up (of lab partners). At the end of the poem she promises her mother she wouldn’t “dig up bones / for a living” but explains “I only meant the bones / that didn’t belong to me.” The poems are peppered with small moments of memory (a childhood visit to the Field Museum, the middle-school science lab, sitting across the table from “wily foxes on two legs”) that explain the adult intent in looking beneath the seams, sifting through sawdust and glass eyes to discover what the illusion is for— “are we mourners? Are we searching for sweetness?”

The poems are peppered with small moments of memory … that explain the adult intent in looking beneath the seams, sifting through sawdust and glass eyes to discover what the illusion is for.

I admit it: I’m a sucker for skins, the animals they once were, and the strange things we do to them. I’ve begun my own collection of weird vintage accessories that I wear, often unsettling people I meet. I have the requisite foxes-biting-their-tails stole, complete with claws and glass eyes; a baby alligator purse with the whole small body intact; a skating muff with loose fox tails that waft in a breeze. I keep a small cache of porcupine quills, some blue jay feathers in a box, a raven hairpiece I should probably only wear for costume. As Ryan writes in “Beast Fables,” “we are all animals here” —the speaker goes on to invoke even the tiger mascot on a volleyball jersey as part of this menagerie: “the animal in all / our skins.”

The poem continues “this is a lesson in fake dead / and real dead. in learning / all the lies.” And here the poem breaks away to an endnote (and this reader along with it), a discussion of an art exhibit with photographs of taxidermied polar bears, accompanied by the bears’ biographies. From an article (cited in the footnote and included in the chap’s bibliography) by Rachel Poliquin, she includes the quotation, “. . . the bears become mysterious and ambiguous objects.” The endnotes are poems in themselves, a treasure trove of ideas to linger over—I found myself reading them as prose poems. They revisit key ideas: when does the animal cease to be animal? (Especially when we invest so much time and effort in re-creating it as if it were still living?) How does the process of turning the animal into a taxidermied object change our relationship and understanding of it? What does this process of “othering” look like? How does it function?

When does the animal cease to be animal? (Especially when we invest so much time and effort in re-creating it as if it were still living?)

There are small quotes here and there that read to me as a statement of poetics, encapsulated:

“a sharp knife is important—always is.” (from the poem “The Specimen Dealer”)

“Through making things, people make themselves. Without things, we could neither be ourselves nor know ourselves . . . Without things being things, we are just as much human as we are animal” (from endnote 12, paraphrasing Patchett’s “Animal as Object: Taxidermy and the Charting of Afterlives”)

“The various reasons and purposes of preserving animals are ‘underneath and between,’ meaning that they are liminal and surface-level reasons, that cover or make glossy the visceral aspects of human desire . . . to prove something happened” (from endnote 13, referencing Rachel Poliquin)

There is a poem about the literal making of a taxidermied animal, “Of Men & Birds” that takes the reader through the process: “thrust your hook into his pelvis / and suspend him in midair (the better to work with the body) . . . be gentle with his neck (remember he was once other than object) . . . fill him up (a list of suitable materials follows) . . . when you take him home / notice his body (be filled with wonder) . . . you have never seen such a bird, / not even in your dreams.” The poem goes on to ensure that in its instructions for constructing this thing that is both object and subject, both animal and not animal, it shows its once alive-ness, while also showing the care given to the illusion. “he should have a few stitches / at his back, but not too many. / for obvious reasons. // you wouldn’t want him / to look a fool.”

Here, too, I don’t think the poet is talking about taxidermy, or not only. I find this a useful instruction for making a poem or thinking about how a poem could—or should—be made. Work with both hands; disjoint bones carefully; what wings! such feet! he is some good genius! But be sure a few stitches, a few seams (not too many) show, because it shouldn’t be too perfect an approximation of life either, there should be some intimation of a made thing, a thing touched by human hands, a thing that is not fully a recreation. Like taxidermy, a poem is “a dilemma of realism.”

There should be some intimation of a made thing, a thing touched by human hands, a thing that is not fully a recreation. Like taxidermy, a poem is “a dilemma of realism.”

The final poem is entitled “Extinct” and even more than the others in the collection makes use of fragments, half-starts, and dismembered sentences. This is heightened further by its form on the page, two columns that can be read in columns, or across, or both in sequence. The subtle shifts in the poem—depending on how one reads it (columns or across), and then how/whether/if one doubles back to the other reading occasions a contrast between things that survive: “fossilized sequoia” and “gold of an oil slick”—that final of final moments “eating the sun” and the already disappearing human who would witness these things: “the bone museum” that we’ve peopled with artifacts we collect and reconstruct for our comfort. I love the stop and start of this form, the way it sounds like an incantation of strangeness, the disjointing of images, pauses like unguents.

I highly recommend picking up this strong-voiced micro-chap that engages with all sorts of bodies and making and uncovers various ways of understanding what any of this means—asking far more questions than it provides answers for. The cover art by Rachel Allen is beautiful and perfectly paired; what a gorgeous specimen of a book. Together, the images of fur and feather and claw—and the hands that make use of them—give new life to the beasts of the woods, whether seen in their natural habitat or behind museum glass.

Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned by Sara Ryan - available from Porkbelly Press
Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned by Sara Ryan – available from Porkbelly Press

top photo by Guillaume Bourdages on Unsplash

Shadowshaper, Art, and Reclamation

Shadowshaper, Art, and Reclamation

As a poet and lover of music, fiction, and other creative media, I’ve always considered art to be magical.

There is something fantastic about how a poem or a song goes from the creator to another person and makes them connect to things. In Daniel José Older’s urban fantasy Shadowshaper, Sierra Santiago uses art to reclaim her magical heritage and strengthen her community.

Set in Brooklyn, New York, Sierra Santiago is an Afro-Latina teenager who just wants to enjoy her summer vacation with her friends. When she notices a neighborhood mural fading and the expression of the subject growing sad and angry, she is urged to finish her own mural by Manny, a friend of her grandfather Lazáro. Then, a walking corpse of a neighborhood man crashes a summer party and Sierra is thrust into the magical world of the shadowshapers. In order to protect her loved ones, Sierra must uncover the shadowshapers’ connection to her family and become a shadowshaper herself.

As an urban fantasy book, the real world manages to feel just as wonderful as the magical world. This is mainly due to the wonderful cast of characters that make up the people in Sierra’s life and the personal backgrounds that they come from. Two of my personal favorite characters were Tee and Izzy, lesbian girlfriends that were funny and loyal. Other favorites included Sierra’s Uncle Neville and Sierra’s intelligent, fashion opposite friend Bennie.

Besides their personalities, each character has a way of speaking that feels magical. One bit of dialogue that caught my attention features a back-and-forth between a group of domino-playing older gentlemen that were friends of Sierra’s grandpa Lazáro. In chapter six, Sierra pays them a visit and hears the following:

“Trouble at school, Sierra?” asked Mr. Jean-Louise. “Public school is a cesspool of poisonous bile.”

Manny threw his hands up, “¡Cállate, viejo!The child needs her education. Don’t ruin it for her just because you dropped out of kindergarten.”

Since the characters have strong ties to each other and their neighborhood, having the magical world of shadowshaping just underneath it makes them even more memorable. Shadowshaping involves giving spirits of departed loved ones and ancestors a physical form by fusing them with art. For Sierra and the other shadowshapers she encounters, the art is mainly visual, but shadowshaping can also be done through other creative means such as storytelling. The purpose of shadowshaping is to remember those who have come before and recently passed, preserving the past and present for the future generations.

In the real world, we already use art to remember and pass on the memories, traditions, and cultures of departed loved ones. Murals painted around cities become memorials and certain songs are sung, listened to, and written in tribute. However, Shadowshaper takes these things a step further by using the magic of shadowshaping to fight back against forces that try to eradicate an entire heritage. Protagonist Sierra Santiago must learn not only about shadowshaping, but also to stand up for the neighborhood and the culture that makes her who she is.

At the same time that the shadowshapers are being eradicated, Sierra’s multi-cultural neighborhood is experiencing gentrification. Places that Sierra and her friends used to go to are being transformed into establishments for white, middle class consumers. When the book opens, Sierra is in the middle of painting a mural on a building known as The Tower, a large-scale incomplete building that looms over the junklot where Manny and his friends play dominos. It is later revealed that Manny has a connection to the shadowshapers and that Sierra painting the mural was his way of trying to protect the neighborhood and the remaining shadowshapers.

Not only is Sierra fighting a battle within her own neighborhood, but she is also fighting an internal battle as well. Although she is confident in herself, there are times that she doesn’t feel she is enough of an Afro-Latina girl. Tía Rosa, her aunt, makes comments that contain anti-blackness and colorism (i.e. discrimination based on how light or dark one’s skin tone is). She says that Sierra’s friend Robbie is too dark and that Sierra’s hair is too nappy. In addition, Sierra also deals with sexual harassment while walking around her neighborhood, being shamed by her mom for her interest in shadowshaping, and sexism as a female shadowshaper.

Given all that Sierra experiences in her daily life, her heroic journey is deeply compelling. Sierra uses her artistic talent and shadowshaping to protect her neighborhood and reclaim a magical heritage she learns to appreciate through her family and friends. As a poet, I can’t help but admire Sierra Santiago and see part of myself in her. With paintbrush and chalk, Sierra Santiago shows that an artist can be a hero, a creative making something from shadows in order to express herself and preserve and protect what is important.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Maybe Love Is a Many-Legged Thing

We have a variety of many-legged bug, some variety of arthropod. They like our brick house, our cement-floor basement, the clay soil, our proximity to the lake shore.

No matter how many times I hear the entomologist on public radio assure me these particular bugs are harmless, only unsightly, I want to kill them all. I put out glue traps, chase and flatten their long bodies, their multijointed legs. They skitter across me as I sleep. Even on the hottest nights, I must have a sheet fully covering me—just in case. There has been midnight panic: thrashing limbs, a tangle of sheets, cursing of the centipedes to wake an entire block. A few weeks ago I woke to the flurry of feet on my cheek; slapped and threw the thing against the wall. In the morning, I found its carcass: poor Gregor, the curled husk was at least an inch long.

The world is full of signs and wonders, portents. Tara Betts’s poem “A Season of No” has a spider wake her. The speaker is asleep on the floor, and the arthropod flutters her forearm, waking her. But this visitor is welcome. It calls her back to herself, breaks a spell. It is maybe a descendent of Anansi, an answer to the femme fatale spider woman, rebuke to a Dwight Yoakam lyric. The spider helps the speaker Break the Habit.

In “Ink on the Sheets,” the speaker worries about forgetting to cap a pen, explains, “after the divorce you get rid of all the bedding / you shared.”

Folklore, more specifically fairy tale, has girls and women sacrificing much for love—their legs, their voices. They show devotion by cutting off their hands and wandering the world. As Betts chronicles the story of love, she touches on these themes. In “Ink on the Sheets,” the speaker worries about forgetting to cap a pen, explains, “after the divorce you get rid of all the bedding / you shared.” After the divorce—or maybe even before—“they felt like trying to sleep / on a hardened pea.” In stories about the creative woman, the intellectual woman, the investigative woman, a common theme emerges: at some point, to keep him, the girl/woman is offered a choice. She must sacrifice some integral part of herself. When the spider jolts you awake, you were on the floor, cast out of the marital bed, a pen loose in your hand, blank pages in front of you.

Betts’s poetry urges the reader to be awake to the world, to break the habit of inattention. In her poem “Acupuncture,” she writes, “after the last needle was drawn, I knew / people could be footnotes, or pain,” juxtaposing the body’s resilience with its permeability. By the end of the collection, she returns to spider stories: the Greek weaving goddesses, the Druids who believe a spider portends a creative project calling to be finished.

“Another Clearing of the Land: Epitaph for Hadiyah Pendleton” contains the story of Hadiyah, a fifteen-year-old girl shot in Chicago in 2013; it also contains the story of the two young men charged with her death: “One in school, & two not, & all / Black South Side teens / with nothing in common but a pained echo / for a future.” As I’ve been rereading this poem against the backdrop of fluctuating numbers of “victims,” of “deaths,” I’ve recalled how in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, some counts of victims/deaths would be smaller, two smaller—both the twenty-year-old shooter disappearing, but also his mother. Betts’s poem addresses the world that goes on:

What I hate, what I

will forever hate, is how she fades with every

day from numbness, from

an empathy undone, not bound to anyone,

the swift, ruthless slap casual

as someone swiping a bus pass,

for this is what

Death wanted:

The poem imagines Hadiyah an “unopened bulb / that insisted on being much bigger,” but also those who shot her, mistaking her and the group she stood with for a rival gang, as “boys behind guns tamped / their lives heavily to prune // the years cut down.”

Betts’s poetry urges the reader to be awake to the world, to break the habit of inattention.

If the beloved asks the poet to give up her voice, he also asks her not to chronicle the world as it is, the world as it must be known, the world inhabited and filtered through the poet’s permeable skin. Break the habit of disconnecting context—the story of fast-fading names—from the world that moves too quickly to the next news, the new breaking report, the report of the too-soon-forgotten particulars that make the skin of the world we inhabit.

This previous fall semester, we had the distinct pleasure of Tara Betts visiting to read, meeting with students, and breaking bread. After the reading, driving back to the hotel, she told me how she crafts her collections—how she crafts her readings. She thinks about how each poem can reach someone differently; the poet uses her spinnerets, sending out a dragline, beginning to build. She read her poem “A Lesson from the Terrordome,” and I knew a friend who would love the idea of Chuck D introducing Huey Newton, uncovered through a library’s microfiche, that archaic magic. After the reading, another friend flipped through the book, stumbling upon “The Futility of Bras,” her face breaking into a wide smile. From the lectern, Betts explained the story of one of her spiders, the front-porch sitter she named “Craig,” lofting her eyebrow at the audience, waiting to see who would get the allusion.

Break the habit of disconnecting context—the story of fast-fading names—from the world that moves too quickly to the next news, the new breaking report, the report of the too-soon-forgotten particulars that make the skin of the world we inhabit.

And I am drawn back to the spider poems, their myth-making, their insistence on claiming the end of the book that is both end and beginning of a story. And I think I should be less brutal to my own house centipedes that call me to attention when I enter a darkened room.

To love, Betts’s poetry suggests, means to embrace the change and difficulty after the blared radio parking lot dance has ended. It means to welcome the portent of the spider, to watch the many-legged things in their short lifespans of weaving and egg sack and disappearance and desiccation. It means to offer a friend in pain a couch, your cat. It means to inhabit the pain of the body and make a textual music of it, the words lifting off the page. The spider wakes us, greets us, frightens and intrigues us, calls us to myth and history, “an inevitable / signature that flesh forces / us to write.”

Read Break the Habit
Read Break the Habit

top photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

A Tinderbox Is a Thing Readily Ignited

I met Molly Sutton Kiefer in April of 2014. We were both reading at the Reader’s Loft bookstore in Green Bay, Wisconsin – a friend had recommended this place to me as a wonderful independent bookstore, with cats.

April in northern Wisconsin is changeable: outside, the graying skies promised late evening sleet, but inside (with much thanks to Molly, a former local who rallied her friends and family) the store was packed with poetry listeners, the cats wefted around our feet as we read, and we warmed ourselves in the glow of old-fashioned desk lamps and the peculiar glow of peculiar-looking lines. After the reading, Molly told me about her new project, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, which she hoped would be a place for hybrid work — poems that didn’t quite fit with traditional notions of poetry. She’d noticed the shapes of my poems on the page and asked me to send her some work — it was the first time a stranger had solicited my work.

After the reading, Molly told me about her new project, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, which she hoped would be a place for hybrid work — poems that didn’t quite fit with traditional notions of poetry.

Since then, Tinderbox has been publishing poetry, reviews, and essays that speak to these hybrid forms, and speak to poets like me who often find our strange poems don’t easily fit with the aesthetics of more conventional journals. More recently, the Tinderboxers have added another endeavor: Tinderbox Editions, a small press for poetry and literary prose. Both the journal and the press are located in Red Wing, Minnesota, and have become a part of the lively literary scene of the land of one thousand lakes. Milkweed, Graywolf, and Coffee House Press are well-known publishers in the Twin Cities, and Tinderbox augments this literary landscape in a number of ways.

Located about an hour outside of the cities, Red Wing is also home to Red Dragonfly Press and hosts a summer celebration of the arts at the Anderson Center. Last July, Molly curated the readings of several poets, including Heid Erdrich, Katherine Rauk, and Athena Kildegaard — in my correspondence with Molly, she shared this “lovely tidbit”: Molly met Chris Burawa (the director of the Anderson Center) through the preschool their children attend; she gives his homemade carrot cake a rave review. This year’s Summer Celebration of the Arts was held July 8, featuring poetry and fiction readings with Leslie Adrienne Miller, Mona Power, and Danit Brown. Tinderbox has recently joined the space at the Red Wing Incubator, sharing creative energies as they overlook Barn Bluff.

Both the journal and the press are located in Red Wing, Minnesota, and have become a part of the lively literary scene of the land of one thousand lakes.

After the reading in Green Bay that night, it did indeed sleet. Highway 41 was closed — the thin covering of ice was completely invisible, and created some of the more treacherous driving I’d seen. The frontage roads were no better, so I crossed to the east and wefted my own way through country lanes and the edges of suburbs. I’m a bit of Luddite, so had no GPS or cell phone, but I kept Lake Winnebago to the left of me and tracked steadily south. The side roads were rutted and pocked, covered in places with branched shade. The slicked sheen found less purchase. I made my slow way home in the wavered light of the moon.

In a certain light, I willfully misread the title of Katherine Rauk’s poetry collection Buried Choirs. There’s a choir in my head that repeats those lines from Sonnet 73: “Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” There were no birds that night home from Green Bay, but the boughs did shake against the cold, and the sound of “bare ruined choirs” is buried in the back of the throat: a perfect swallowing.

The sound of “bare ruined choirs” is buried in the back of the throat: a perfect swallowing.

The speaker’s voice in Rauk’s book rings with sounds and punning. The forms range from little rectangles of justified prose to spare couplets of simple language. The poems themselves oscillate from teacher-poems (invoking and mocking the mistakes of email, the ridiculousness of self-assessment, the mechanics errors of rough drafts) to intimations of loss to poems littered with imagery of childhood, often inverted to the strange and unsettling.

The birds are there too. In “The Price,” the speaker laments she “will never learn what love is / eating out of your hand.” The verb “think” and its variations build up, so the poem becomes a puzzle: the speaker thinking of the beloved not thinking of her, as she thinks of things — things like Thursdays, or “doorframes / stacked one up against / another’s emptiness.” The poem itself becomes this image of doorframes, spaces piled over spaces, with “some / kind of wind blowing through.” Rauk’s poems are often like this: a piling up of simple images, in simple language that becomes too complex to sort through simply. These deceptive poems require re-reading; the reader searches for the “I,” the source of the poem to hold onto and grasp.

Rauk’s poems are often like this: a piling up of simple images, in simple language that becomes too complex to sort through simply.

There are also strange moments of humor paired with cleanly expressed loss, as in the poem titled “Instructions On How To Open A Gift That May Or May Not Be A Sausage.” The poem begins by referring to the mustard seed, and the Sermon on the Mount, which in Rauk’s poem becomes the “Sermon on the Meat.” But soon the poem points out that “the mustard plant is actually a weed, a subversive gift that is difficult to ungive.” And immediately after, the next sentence tells us: “Like the gift of love, which once opened cannot be returned to its original package, no matter what your ex-husband says.” From there, the prose poem returns to a pun or two, but we’ve been reminded that this is no joke — this is humor to save us from pain. Only a little funny, more than a little forced.

It is near the end of the second section that the collection reaches its apogee, its fullest emotional resonance, in the two poems “Summer Romance” and “Determination.” The first reminds us, “No less / beautiful for not being / true is the story / we tell ourselves / over and over / again about death.” The second reminds us of summer storms in prairie towns: “Sometimes we are given / lightning. Sometimes / the quiet heat / of a padlocked barn.” Both of these poems speak to the way we interpret images, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Both of these poems set up the third section of the book, which provides some resolution for the speaker, for us, and for this group of slow-burn poems with their central image of seeds – the Buried Choirs of the title.

Tinderbox Poetry Review and Tinderbox Editions continues to publish exciting work through the journal and the press. Of their work, Molly writes:

I’ve realized that I have a strong interest in promoting literary works that I felt were difficult, challenging, compelling, and ignited a spark inside me as a reader. Tinderbox wants to be a home for voices who need to be heard, whose works have an urgency in this world, and we also want to do what we do out of a sense of literary citizenship, which means that, for instance, [Kelly Hansen Maher’s book] Tremolo launched at Stillwater Prison, where Kelly taught, and we’ve given workshops in communities that might not have otherwise had this access.

She also promises exciting books in the works and the near future, including more poetry, an anthology of lyric essays, a poetic novel, and more. I highly recommend checking out the journal – free and accessible online – or buying a subscription to Tinderbox Editions.

Investigate Tinderbox Editions
Investigate Tinderbox Editions
Read Buried Choirs
Read Buried Choirs

top photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash

War Rooms

It is probably inevitable The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, a new book about a large family living in New York City, is about real estate.*

Karina Yan Glaser’s charming middle-grade contemporary opens about a week before Christmas when the Vanderbeekers learn that they are about to be kicked out of their beloved Harlem brownstone apartment. The Vanderbeekers are a biracial family—Asian and white—composed of two harried parents, a trio of eccentric pets, and five children. The eldest are twelve-year old twin girls—thoughtful violinist Isa and impulsive engineer Jessie—followed by nine-year-old basketball playing Oliver, shy six-year-old Hyacinth, maker of crafts, and four-year-old Laney.

The Vanderbeekers have deep roots on 141st Street. Père Vanderbeeker has always lived on the block, and the children have solidified the clan’s presence.

The Vanderbeekers’ home—a humble red brownstone with a weathervane that spun on windy days—sat in the exact middle of the street. The brownstone stood out not because of its architecture, but because of the constant hum of activity that burst out of it. Among the many people that visited the Vanderbeeker household there was quite a bit of disagreement about what it was like, but general agreement about what it was NOT:

Calm

Tidy

Boring

Predictable

The Vanderbeeker household is, in its way, a hub of community life. While the parents scramble to pack up and find housing, the children devise several strategems to convince their reclusive landlord, whom they call “the Biederman,” to allow them to stay. Each ploy, each scheme, makes use of a Vanderbeeker’s particular talent and character; it showcases their place in the world, but also provides a snapshot of life in their larger community.

I loved it. I was happy to find a realistic, warm book about a close-knit biracial clan living in a multiethnic New York City. I was delighted that the Vanderbeekers could reflect something of my daughter’s experiences growing up in Manhattan. And, well, I found the novel tremendously comforting. For the next few weeks, I started looking for children’s books about big families who live in rambling houses.

I was happy to find a realistic, warm book about a close-knit biracial clan living in a multiethnic New York City. I was delighted that the Vanderbeekers could reflect something of my daughter’s experiences growing up in Manhattan. And, well, I found the novel tremendously comforting.

The stories I wanted to read had a few things in common: The families in these novels were almost always made up of one responsible sister—usually the eldest—an artistic sibling, a scientific one, and a young sibling who didn’t understand everything that was going on but arrived at simple solutions for ongoing family problems. The books were all written in the third person, with each section closely following one child as they pursued their talents and were allowed to ramble about making music or constructing elaborate structures unheeded and unsupervised by adults.

I did not grow up in a knock-down house. I didn’t run wild. I never called secret meetings with my sisters and brothers to figure out how to manage my clueless parents or our problems. The feelings these books evoke could almost be mistaken for nostalgia—until I remind myself that I didn’t grow up this way at all.

I read the Vanderbeekers, I read Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks, I read Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays and The Four-Story Mistake, about the Melendy family. I just started Eleanor Estes’s The Moffats, and of course, I have on hand Sydney Taylor’s portrait of a turn-of-the-century New York Jewish household in All-of-a-Kind Family.

As I went through—go through—these books, I have tried to think about why they are so familiar and comforting. I did not grow up in a knock-down house. I didn’t run wild. I never called secret meetings with my sisters and brothers to figure out how to manage my clueless parents or our problems. The feelings these books evoke could almost be mistaken for nostalgia—until I remind myself that I didn’t grow up this way at all.

There is a magical quality to the spaces that the children in these books inhabit. The Vanderbeeker children, for instance, creep out of their windows to meet on the brownstone’s roof:

The tiles made the rooftop welcoming and soundproof. Nevertheless the kids knew to tread in the same manner they did when visiting one another’s bedrooms late at night without waking their parents. They were certain the Biederman could not hear them, because he would definitely have said something about it. And not in a nice way, either.

Jessie Vanderbeeker has also equipped the roof with a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that allows the children to pour water down through a series of seesaws, wind chimes, and spokes, to create a soft melody. It’s a nice touch, both beautiful and whimsical, and it reinforces the feeling of an old-fashioned kind of childhood.

One reason I find the Vanderbeekers and the Penderwicks and Melendys so compelling is because these books also show the ways that children have power in their environment.

When I try to pinpoint what I find reassuring about this book—all of these books—I consider that it is this image of the siblings meeting secretly in the spaces that they’ve created. Even if the kids struggle to find a place in the larger world, there is at least assurance of a place within a family—where the crushing fights get resolved, where adolescence shakes up certain assumptions but one’s birth order and the love of one’s brothers and sisters stays more or less constant. The structure of family is ballast.

And that is further reinforced by the physical spaces of the kids’ covert meetings. One reason I find the Vanderbeekers and the Penderwicks and Melendys so compelling is because these books also show the ways that children have power in their environment. The four Penderwick sisters can, after all, help their friend James, who wants to go to a prestigious music school. The Vanderbeekers can lure their reclusive landlord back into the community. The Melendys even discover a secret room in their attic, in the children’s space.

“Look how it goes: up to here, and then across to there, and then down again. And look, there’s a kind of a bulge on that side. Like a hinge!”

“Like a hinge,” repeated Rush, light dawning. “Creepers, Ran! Do you suppose it could be a door?”

In dream interpretation, they say that discovering a hidden room in one’s home is a sign of untapped potential—it’s the subconscious’s signal there is more to find within oneself. In The Four-Story Mistake, that extra room is real; the Melendy kids keep news of the room from their father and their housekeeper, Cuffy. It is a place they can hide and plan fierce campaigns. Similar spots—in crawlspaces, in enormous garden urns, in attics and in trees—and covert meetings exist in the books I’ve been reading. From these locations, the siblings effect change, and their grown-ups have no idea that these childhood war rooms exist.

When people talk about having things go back to the way they were, I think sometimes they have in mind the portraits of family life found in these books. And yes, there is a charm in reading about “simpler times,” in kids playing in treehouses and adopting strange dogs from the street—charming, that is, for certain classes of white, straight, cis people.

But for me, I think that the appeal of these books lies in the fact that the children are allowed to be powerful, and where the books themselves serve as a childhood space; the pages are the secret room.

When people talk about having things go back to the way they were, I think sometimes they have in mind the portraits of family life found in these books. … But for me, I think that the appeal of these books lies in the fact that the children are allowed to be powerful, and where the books themselves serve as a childhood space; the pages are the secret room.

Because despite outward appearances, the larger setting of these novels isn’t all sweetness and charm. The Moffats, by Eleanor Estes, published in 1941, is essentially about the Great Depression and its effects on a widow’s children. Enright’s The Saturdays was published in 1939, and that book contains uneasy mentions of Hitler and strife in Europe. By The Four-Story Mistake (1941), Enright’s Melendys have moved to the country and are actively raising money for war bonds. So much for nostalgia.

I can’t think it a coincidence that both Estes and Enright first published these kinds of stories during these fraught years. And I find it interesting that The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, about a mixed-race family—a family whose existence could be considered political—who are not many steps from homelessness and economic ruin—is being released now. They are sunny books, but their optimism is tempered. They are hopeful books, but there are good reasons why these characters need hope. When there is a larger world of dark, adult issues, these novels remind readers that there are still problems that can be solved by the youngest, smallest, most overlooked people.

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* I received an ARC of The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street via Netgalley.

top photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash