Monday, June 22, 2015

The Preacher's Daughter Who Posed the Questions

Lois Lenski's Regional Series: This is How Our Children Live

In my previous post dedicated to author and librarian Julia L. Sauer, I discussed some of the aspects of the initiatives on the part of librarians and teachers in the decades leading up to World War II to generate more quality realistic fiction for children, what Ms. Sauer referred to as "right-now"stories.  

In her article, "Making the World Safe for The Janey Larkins", which appeared in the January 5, 1941 edition of Library Journal, Sauer focuses on the great need to build a sympathetic understanding of the lives and problems of all of the country's different groups through the production of well-written stories that question current living conditions, the impact of economic forces on households and individuals, and describe, without judgement or moralizing, the day-to-day workings of their everyday lives.  Such books, claims Sauer, can lay a foundation in young readers, giving them tools to reexamine and combat existing prejudices.

I have no way of knowing if author-illustrator Lois Lenski ever read this article, but she most assuredly answered its call. In her sixteen book American Regional Series, beginning with Bayou Suzette in 1943 and concluding with Deer Valley Girl in 1968, Lenski told the stories of American children and their families who lived in the lesser well known regions of the country.  But the series didn't just focus on where they lived; it focused on how they lived. In a marked departure from the bulk of then current children's literature, the children and families in Lenski's books were not members of the comfortable middle to upper class.  Lenski's children and their families were sharecroppers in Arkansas (Cotton in My Sack), coal miners in West Virginia (Coal Camp Girl), migrant workers along the East Coast (Judy's Journey), and American-born Chinese in San Francisco's Chinatown (San Francisco Boy).  

And forget the King's English, Lenski took pains to record, to the best of her ability, the regional dialects that were the language of her children and their families. Lenski lived with the people she wrote about, studied and sketched them, ate meals in their homes and visited with them the places where they worked and played. She didn't just listen and record, she also worked, picking cotton, traveling down into the coal mine, and more. 

Lenski had a considerable body of work under her belt before embarking on her Regional series.  Starting out as an illustrator for other author's stories, Lenski writes in her autobiography, Journey Into Childhood: The Autobiography of Lois Lenski (1972), that she found it hard to be sympathetic to a story written by another person. Eventually, with the help of editor Helen D. Fish, she wrote and illustrated her first book, Skipping Village (1927), based on her childhood in Anna, Ohio.

Many more books were to follow. Lenski continued to illustrate the works of others, including the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace, but her focus was increasingly on authoring her own books. These books included the a series of painstakingly researched historical books for older readers,  the "Davey" books for the pre-school set and the "Mr. Small" books for the beginner readers. She also collaborated on a series of songbooks with Clyde Robert Bulla, and wrote several collections of poetry.

All of Lenski's Regional books contain a Foreward by the author that includes details of her research for the particular book, and in Strawberry Girl, the book that won the 1946 Newbery Medal, a statement of her goal in creating the series.  

          In this series of regional books for American children, I am trying to present vivid, 
          sympathetic pictures of the real life of different kinds of Americans, against authentic 
          backgrounds of diverse localities.  We need to know our country better; to now and 
          understand people different from ourselves; so that we can say: "This then is the way
          these people lived.  Because I understand it, I admire and love them." Is not this a
          rich heritage for our American children?

Yes, it is.

Book #21:  Blue Ridge Billy (1946), written and illustrated by Lois Lenski. 203 pages. Includes a 
                 Glossary of Mountain Terms and Phrases and original and traditional song lyrics.

Young Billy Honeycutt lives with his family in a cabin with a small family farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, just over the border from Tennessee.  Billy's the oldest, and with his father gone off taking logs down the mountain with the other men, a great deal of responsibility for running the farm falls on his shoulders. 

It's a hardscrabble life, but a full one, and people get by the best they can. Billy's friend Sarey Sue lives with her Granny Trivett in a cabin up from the Honeycutts, and the two make their living collecting yarbs and selling them to the general storekeeper, who in turn sells them to the big drug companies.  Uncle Pozy weaves and sells baskets. Others make their living selling illegal liquor, moonshine, and woe to anyone who stumbles upon their business. 

Billy's got an artistic streak in him, he loves music and he loves to ramble the woods near sunset, but he can fight with the best of them, or the worst of them in the case of the Burl Moseley and the Buckwheat Holler boys.

But it's that artistic streak that causes Billy conflict with his father, Rudolph Honeycutt.  He views Billy's obsession with music as foolishness and a waste of time. Billy's mother is more sympathetic, since her people were very musical. Her brother, Billy's uncle, is an expert fiddler.  Unfortunately, none of his Uncle's children express any interest in playing.  Billy himself wants a banjo, the one he's seen hanging in the general store, so he asks Uncle Posey to teach him how to make baskets, so he can sell them and raise money for its purchase. When his father learns of the plan, he loses his temper, and uses the money that Billy earned to buy a new hunting dog.

Billy is devastated by his father's actions, and starts to avoid anything to do with music. He's also begun to suspect that his father is a bootlegger, because he's seen him near the location of a still. As it turns out, his father's not a bootlegger at all, in fact, the reason that Rudy's been absent so much over the past few months was because he was keeping an eye on the bootleggers himself, and working to get them out of the area. Learning this, Billy begins to understand the reason behind his father's recent behavior. Best of all, Uncle Posey has had a heart-to-heart with Rudy about Billy's musical ambitions, causing Rudy to see the light, and to such a degree that Rudy buys Billy a brand new fiddle, and grants him permission to take lessons from his uncle. The story concludes with Billy, now known as Blue Ridge Billy, playing his fiddle at the square dance to the enjoyment of everyone, including his father.

You want realistic, this is realistic.

My first thought after reading Blue Ridge Billy was how was it possible that I never read this book as a kid? Seriously, I would have devoured it in a day and then gone out and gotten ever single book in the series from the library. It's fantastic, it's wonderful, it's real.

Lenski packs an enormous amount of detail in this book, and, as is the case with all expert storytellers, makes those details flow seamlessly with the story. Details on the landscape, the folk crafts and medicines, the traditional ballads and instruments, it's all there. But it's the characters that grab you, Billy and Sarey Sue, Granny Trivett and Uncle Posey. By the time you reach the end of the book, you feel like you know them, and what's more, that you want to know them better.

Blue Ridge Billy at Amazon

I pulled as many of the Regional books as I could from surrounding libraries after reading Blue Ridge Billy, eight in all. That left me with seven more to track down, six more now that I purchased Bayou Suzette from the Friends of the Jefferson Library in Metairie, Louisiana. (I have a weakness for all things Cajun). None of the libraries had the whole series, and that is wrong, it is just so wrong. Lenski does what she set out to do, and we should be reaping the benefits of all her hard work dedicated to helping us understand who we were, who we are, and how we all got here.

Lenski gave us a foundation.  It's time we started constructing a first floor.

This is what I propose, and I know that there's a great deal of blue sky in this initial proposal, but hear me out.

Lois Lenski spent almost twenty-five years writing her American Regional series, along with its younger version, the Roundabout America series (more on that in a later post).  That's a lot of work from one individual.

My proposal is to create an updated version of the American Regional series, each volume to be written by a different author, all volumes to be completed within a defined two year period.  Upon completion, all the volumes are to be released for publication on the same day.

The books would be aimed at readers 9-12 years old.  No book should exceed 200 pages, 160 pages would be the preferred length. The protagonist in each book is a boy or girl between 9-12 years old.  For each of the country's different regions, you would have the following family constructs.

                    A single parent household with two or more children, female or male parent.

                    A two parent household with two of more children, the parents being male and
                    female, female and female, and male and male.

                    A household headed by a relative other than a parent, could be a relative 
                    or non-relative.

                    A group home with unrelated children living together.

                    A child or children in a foster and/or adoptive home.

                    A homeless family. 

The next step is to include religion and race with each type of family.  Now you have your base.

Next, gather up the nation's best storytellers. They don't have to be children's authors, just masters at their craft. Here's a list of potential participants, feel free to add your own:

Sherman Alexie
Margaret Maron
Stephen King
Kathi Applet
Jack Gantos
Gene Luen Yang
Pam Munoz Ryan
Julius Lester
Chris Crutcher
Sharon M. Draper
Grace Lin

Finally, the first book for all of the children and their families, by all of the authors, will have this common plot, and ONLY this plot.

The family breadwinner/breadwinners loses/lose their job.

What happens now?

Read. Reflect. Discuss.

Lois Lenski (1893 - 1974) was born in Springfield, Ohio, the daughter of a Lutheran minister and the fourth of five children. After obtaining her teaching degree, she moved to NYC to study at the Art Students League, working part time as a commercial artist to meet her tuition.  After saving her money, she traveled to London for further study and illustrated several books while there. Upon her return to the United States in 1921, she married muralist Arthur Covey, one of her instructors at the Art Students League, a widower with two children. The family eventually made their home in Connecticut. In her forties Lenski experienced failing health, and as a result spent her winters in Florida, moving there permanently after her husband's death in 1960. She died in 1974 at the age of 80.

Lois Lenski  Covey Foundation library grants.

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