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Childhood, Stories, and Politics

by Vera B. Williams

williams_scooterOne of my childhood pleasures was riding on my father’s shoulders to see and be part of the great crowds gathered for the May 1st international workers’ celebration that was socialist in origin and long preceded our Labor Day. I also took part in the traditional May Day ritual at my school, winding up the rust and gold streamers of the maypole out on a big grassy field in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx.

Those two celebrations were not separate to me. From both of them my spirit drew nourishment. I loved any event that reassured me of community and the way it made me happy. Our lives were hard in that Depression time. I needed to keep at bay the dreariness and hopelessness that children so fear.

In the leftist “religion” in which I was raised there was an explanation for that ever-threatening dreariness. It was clear to my parents that dispiritedness came from low pay, no jobs, bad bosses, crummy housing, not enough milk and vegetables… BUT also no fun. It sapped the spirit to live without art, music, theater, travel, dance, nature, books. And the remedy was clear to them, too — some kind of socialist redistribution of wealth and power.

My father was a daunting explicator of Marxism. But his big words were exciting, too, and his use of poetry and story made the new world we were struggling for sound so thrilling. Meanwhile, my mother was actually making it happen with her tireless agitation for day nurseries, summer camps, free dentists, art classes, concerts…

It is from this organic mix of beliefs, joys, activities, sallies into the adult world of strikes and protests and the songs, poetry, and community that went with it that the politics of my books come. At least so it seems, though best to always leave a little space for the mysteriousness of our creative sources!

My political views have certainly grown and changed from those of my parents and the socialism and communism (so betrayed by its own protagonists and its own lies) of my childhood. Still, I am very grateful for the ways in which politics was natural and saving to me as a child and for the value, excitement, and specialness it gave to my young life. For one, I became, along with choice friends, an ardent inventor of utopias. I was eager to reorganize and run the world. Fortunately, no one gave me that precious ball to play with. But eventually I came to have dominion over the blank worlds of thirty-two…forty-eight…and more pages.

I began to create my books just at a period when children’s books were becoming somewhat more open and more accurate about the range of family life in America, about color and class and ethnicity, about what girl characters could do and be.

Believing that a big part of a satisfying life is to be in the melee of what is going on in one’s time and place, I wanted the words, characters, images, colors, and the very conception and design of my books to capture the liveliness and richness of the changes going on around me.

At the same time that I was writing and illustrating, I was also taking part in feminist actions and in protests against this country’s wasteful pouring of our resources into military might. After all, creating a nonviolent world in books will not suffice to bring down the military budget any more than stories and images of blacks and whites living well together will end exclusionist real estate practices. Yet we long to, and we must share our imagining of such exhilarating possibilities in all the ways we know.

In my book Scooter the elderly Mrs. Greiner is about to tell a story to her protégé Elana Rose Rosen. Elana asks her what it’s about, and Mrs. Greiner tells her that it is actually from the wonderful world of real life, her own childhood. And then she says, “And don’t ask me this time if it has a moral…because you should know by now Mrs. Greiner wouldn’t waste her breath if it didn’t.”

By moral, Mrs. Greiner certainly doesn’t mean politically correct (though that’s a danger for old world-changers like her). She certainly does mean something about being brave and creative in the forever remaking of this world.

But really, more than anything, she  means that it is of solemn import to tell stories that involve us in the energies, talents, and great-heartedness of children and other not-so-powerful people. And to Mrs. Greiner, all matters of solemn import are political.

From the November/December 2001 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Politics & Religion.

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