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Echo, Nina’s Take

EchoAfter our earlier discussion of ECHO, I’m sure there were some audible groans when Jonathan and I revealed our shortlist.  Much of the previous discussion was around the story structure and manipulation of the reader.  I think we all recognize “manipulation” as something inherent to novel writing, it’s just that many readers prefer not to clearly see the hand in it.  So, I will reiterate something I said about audience, and ask you all to consider a fairly young readership, even ages 8-10, for this book.  Like THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX, in which familiar folklore conventions and a theme as basic as “light overcomes dark” seem overindulged and grossly obvious to me as an adult reader,  I have to admit they work spot-on for a young readership.  Here, too, I think the bookend fairytale-like story, the “psych” cliffhangers and easy resolutions, the repeated imagery and metaphors (to which an adult reader might say “uh, yes, I got this the first time”) work exactly as deliberated, making this work wonderfully as an epic introduction to WW2, and overarching metaphor for music as empathy.  Can I imagine this done with a little more subtlety? Sure. But I do think the payoff of the final scene, for the intended reader, is amazing, and distinguished.

There were a couple of things I was looking for on this re-reading, besides the manipulation issue, in response to other comments.  Misti commented that she recalled passages in which conversations stuck out for passing information along to the reader.   This does generally rile me, and I noted it glaringly on p.85 (“Let’s not disparage and instrument that goes back to the ancient Chinese sheng.”).  Later, it came up starting on p.216 when Frankie asks Mike to “tell me the story again” about their family, but I thought it worked here, allowing Ryan to develop background character for the two boys.  They are probably more instances of this, but I sense I simply went with Ryan’s tone and didn’t notice.  I do feel like her tone always reminds us we are listening to someone tell us a story. I don’t feel this prose to be as “real-you-are-there” as, say, Stead’s or Schlitz’s.  But I feel it works within the story she’s set out to tell.

The other thing I was looking for was the issue of “appropriation without credit” of the blues music in the middle section, as Alys noted.  When she brought this up, I realized it hadn’t occurred to me in my first reading, though I’d noted the underplaying of Mr. and Mrs. Potter as African-American, since discrimination was a clear theme in this book.  So on my re-read, I looked for passages about African-Americans and about the blues playing in general, and here’s what I noticed.

In the first main section, Friderich’s sister condemns the music of the harmonica: p.86 “I mean Negro music. Jazz. It’s considered degenerate.”  This is only a passing comment, but it leads importantly to their father’s response, which is in effect Ryan’s entire premise for the novel, which I’d missed as such on first read since it comes so early:

“Music does not have a race or a disposition! …Every instrument has a voice that contributes. Music is a universal language. A universal religion of sorts. Certainly it’s my religion. Music surpasses all distinctions between people.” (p.86)

In the middle section, Mr. and Mrs. Potter are the presumably African-American groundskeeper and housekeeper in Philadelphia.   I say “presumably” because it’s never noted explicitly, though Mike notes their skin and hair color:  “A dark-skinned man” p.259 and p.260 “Her brown skin was the same color as her sleeked-back hair.”  I had noted this, on first reading.  It feels a little out of character for Mike not to label them by race, as I imagine most White boys his age and time would, but I imagine Ryan was deliberately asking readers to look past race, as she does through the novel.

Mike hears the blues for the first time on p.292-3:

“Mr. Potter could make the harmonica sound like a train on a track, a baby crying, or rain falling in the wind. …The sound seemed to transport him [Mike] to another place and time. Someplace ancient and earthy. The beat started and stopped, questioned and answered.”

Mr. Potter tells him it’s “Called the blues. …Ever heard someone say they’re feeling blue? Means sad or they got the melancholies about life. So blues music is about all the trials and tribulations people got in their hearts from living.  It’s about what folks want but don’t have. Blues is a song begging for its life. …the songs are full of something else too, …No matter how much you don’t have, there’s always so much more of life to be had. So, no matter how much sadness is in a song, there’s equal ‘mount of maybe-things’ll-get-better-someday-soon.”

“Can you make any song the blues?” asked Mike.

“Not always.  But you can make most sound blues-y….Means you can give ‘most any song the flavor of the blues.”

Here, I noticed that again Ryan deliberately leaves out any mention of blues’ connection to emancipated African-American communities, from which everything Mr. Potter attributes to the genre originates. Again, I have to assume this is based in Ryan’s thesis to make music a “universal language” that “surpasses all distinctions between people.”

On p.338, it is Mrs. Sturbridge who suggests that Mike uses the blues in his arrangement, though this goes without notice or comment; and on p.347 he plays it in his audition:  “The second verse was the blues version… It wasn’t hard for Mike to drop into the music and testify to the journey he’d been on.” 

This was the passage that made me finally cringe, as “testifying to a journey,” through blues, has a very obvious reference to the middle passage and subsequent journey from slavery to emancipation.  To not note this, but use it, strikes me as appropriation without credit, and something likely lost on many readers of the age I’ve pictured for this book.

There were just a couple of other places where I noticed Ryan repeating what I noted in the passages above.  When Ivy’s is on the school bus for the first time, she (somewhat implausibly) doesn’t notice the division by skin color until the very end:   “Ivy finally noticed that all the students on the bus and milling in front of the school looked the same: brown-eyed, dark-haired, and olive-skinned, like her.” p.446-7.  Why call out skin, eye, hair attributes, rather than the racial ones?  Especially since she notes that this was, specifically, racial profiling: on p.471 she points out that the Filipino kids go to the main school. Surely she would be familiar with being racially profiled?  I assume, once again, Ryan’s intention that made Mike look past race, but here, it is even harder to swallow.

Finally, in the wrap up scene, on p. 556  Friederich conducts Porgy & Bess, identifying with its message. This is a small note, but worth pointing out for its consistency.  Gershwin’s opera is still highly acclaimed and hotly debated for the questions it raises about appropriation of African-American’s story and music, and Gershwin is perhaps the best example of a genius musician, popular to the dominant culture, who owes it to Ragtime and the blues.  I note, simply, the lack of note.

When I add this all up…it doesn’t sit great.  I see, I believe, what Ryan is trying to do with her story, using music to push against discrimination, being very deliberate in how she makes her characters see each other, in order to ask readers to look past race.  She pulls off so much that works well in this regard, especially in Ivy’s chapter.   In fact, I could possibly buy the argument that the awkwardness of the scene on the bus that I noted serves a purpose in drawing young readers’ attention to race as an arbitrary social convention based in maintaining power. I also appreciate what Ryan does do with Mr. and Mrs. Potter as characters…very little, it’s true, but their life outside of their jobs is noted, which is a rarity in many children’s books in which African-American housekeeper/groundkeepers are side-characters.  (They get to retire! Whew.) Yet, in establishing her consistent tone that drives home her theme so well…the skirting of the African-American contribution to the music that plays a significant part in the story ultimately seems to smart, rather than contribute. “Music does not have a race or disposition!” asserted Friederich’s father in defense of “Negro music.” Was he actually defending it?

How much does this flaw tip this book for me? I’m not sure yet.  I’d like to discuss it, and sit with it.  This is a book whose award-worthiness has so far stood up to it’s flaws, and which I’ve appreciated as much for that as for anything else.

I should point that I am still reading (and quoting) from an ARC, and don’t note any author’s notes beyond the acknowledgments.   I also want to note that I wrote the Horn Book review for ECHO, at which point I’d clearly picked up on none of this.   I point this out because I think it’s an example of how our readings of books can develop more the more we re-read and discuss, and how an award-discussion of a book can go beyond the reading of individual reviewers.

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Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I haven’t done my second read on this book yet and probably won’t be able to fully comment until I do, but you’ve given us a lot of food for thought.

    1. The only criticism that seems like a reach is this part right here–

    ECHO: “The second verse was the blues version… It wasn’t hard for Mike to drop into the music and testify to the journey he’d been on.”

    NINA: “This was the passage that made me finally cringe, as “testifying to a journey,” through blues, has a very obvious reference to the middle passage and subsequent journey from slavery to emancipation. To not note this, but use it, strikes me as appropriation without credit, and something likely lost on many readers of the age I’ve pictured for this book.”

    I’m having a hard time seeing how you read that line from ECHO and come up with a “very obvious reference to the middle passage and subsequent journey from slavery to emancipation” especially since the line you are quoting references Mike’s own journey. Having a hard time making this colossal leap with you, Nina.

    2. I’m also not quite sure what to make of this whole cultural appropriation angle. For the sake of comparison, RHYTHM RIDE–our other shortlisted book about music–spends only several paragraphs discussing R&B. Here’s one of them:

    “As R&B’s popularity started to spread, it was kids who first realized that the concept behind race music made no sense. Rhythm doesn’t have a color–it just has a beat. And the blues, well, everybody gets the blues.”

    It seems to me that Pinkney has also chosen to highlight the universal appeal of R&B while giving short shrift to the history of the musical genre and the characteristics that make it uniquely African American; she also alludes to how easily it is for culture to spread and disseminate. If we’re going to talk about cultural appropriation, I’d argue that Ryan has appropriated the fairy tale, specifically those in the style of the Brothers Grimm. There are no notes in the finished version about music, history, or whatever. I’m leaning toward this being a non-issue for me, but I’m still listening.

    3. I’m still thinking about describing vs. labeling when it comes to racial and ethnic identity of various secondary characters. Maybe I’ll listen to what others have to say in order to form my own thoughts . . .

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      I realize that the “testifying to a journey,” line is about Mike’s own journey. The leap I made didn’t feel colossal to me. The blues come out of African American spirituals, which testify to a different journey. I understand that Mike made his own journey, and it was important for him to tell it, and even to borrow from what was offered him to do so. But the fact that there is no recognition of where he was borrowing from feels like an omission like Don Brown’s in DROWNED CITY. I realized you’ve not made that leap with me either.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Admittedly, “colossal” is an overstatement. And just to clarify, I actually do see the omission in the Don Brown; my contention on that thread was that I don’t know that moving a single sentence from the jacket flap to the main narrative remedies the situation. Does it?

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Well, as you mention in another reply, I’m less interested in trying to rewrite any of these books, then just look at what was written, what it gets across and how. Need to look at DROWNED CITY again b/c I didn’t see the illustrations conveying the msg the way you do. Will look again. So interesting the exercise of parsing what the illustrations do to evaluate what the text doesn’t, in order to decide whether it matters…..

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Nina, in relation to DROWNED CITY, I think I’m at the point where I would need to solicit feedback from a wide range of Newbery readers to see how the book works with their understandings, abilities, and appreciations. I think that probably more than anything else could sway me one way or another.

  2. Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan, I’ll just add that I’m appreciating your comparison to RHYTHM RIDE, and while I hadn’t looked there for comparison, I did realize that borrowing / sharing / paying homage is a huge part of musical tradition, and a very muddy line where that crosses to appropriation. I did keep this is mind while reading… I just think Ryan could have done a better job with this element.

  3. Eric Carpenter says:

    Nina, I’m curious to know where a discussion of cultural appropriation might fall within the Newbery criteria. How would a real committee member go about discussing cultural appropriation (for this book, or any other) within the confines of a criteria based discussion? Thanks!

    • I’d say that would fall under both the Presentation of Info (including accuracy, organization and clarity) and Appropriateness of Style, Eric.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Actually, I think the most relevant criteria would be presentation for a child audience, one that respects children’s abilities, understandings, and appreciations. It’s not that you can’t argue them under Sam’s suggestions, but I think they are weaker. Would you describe DROWNED CITY or ECHO as inaccurate? Hmmm. While people have convincingly argued that both authors could have made subtle, but important changes, I think it skirts very close to “Critiquing the book you wanted, rather than the one the author wrote.”

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I continue to mull over the description of skin, eye, and hair color–a seeming racelessness, if you will. I’ve seen that understated approach work in contemporary fiction (some of Jacqueline Woodson’s books come to mind), but it doesn’t quite feel the same in a historical novel, does it? I do note that in your first example that it’s not Mike who comments on racial and ethnic differences, and in Ivy’s example, it didn’t jump out at me because she is not describing “other” kids, but rather those like her. Still thinking about this, and hoping other people will weigh in on some of Nina’s questions and concerns.

  5. Safranit Molly says:

    Jonathan and all,
    I have been reading the threads and mulling these thoughts. Honestly, I have been feeling a bit intimidated about speaking up. Many of the conversations around children’s literature this fall have been about white privilege and the role it plays in literary criticism. As a white woman I feel almost like whatever I have to say will be wrong in these conversations and so I have just not said anything. However I really love Echo. My students love Echo. The teachers in my school who join me on this Newbery journey every year love Echo. I know that the Newbery Medal is not a popularity contest and that a book’s popularity does not mean it is without flaws. That said, I feel like there is a climate of hyper-criticism around matters of race this year. I think Ryan’s descriptions of characters (that some are calling race-less) are an attempt (largely successful in my view) to portray people as people. I think it is the hope and the vision of what we want the world to be. I think Mr. and Mrs. Potter read as African Americans, whether that is overtly stated or not. I think there is a beautiful musical connection between Mike and Mr. Potter. That Mr. Potter’s musical genre is blues is fitting of his character. That Mike finds resonance in Mr. Potter’s music and that he takes that musical style and makes it his own during the harmonica contest is a lovely portrayal of the bond between two friends through music. I don’t find it appropriation at all.
    Regarding the scene where Ivy finds out she will attend the “Americanization” school, I find this to be a crushing, heart-breaking scene. In this scene we witness the teaching of racism. Ivy did not have the idea that she was different, or in any way less American than Susan before this moment. I don’t think Ryan needs to tell us that Ivy is Mexican. We don’t need the racial label to feel the unfairness of the situation. By not labeling it I think readers are more able to empathize with Ivy.
    Though the characters in Echo may be described in a race-less way, I would argue that this whole book is about race. It is also about the way music can transcend racial divisions. Thank you Nina, for capturing the thesis of the whole book when you quoted: “Music does not have a race or a disposition! …Every instrument has a voice that contributes. Music is a universal language. A universal religion of sorts. Certainly it’s my religion. Music surpasses all distinctions between people.” (p.86) I think this quote captures the mission of the book. I appreciate that Ryan weaves many threads of race together with music. I don’t think we need overt explanations or labels for this to be a book about race. I think subtlety is one of the strengths of this distinguished book.

    • Extremely well-said!! Bravo!

    • Frances O'Roark Dowell says:

      I just want to say how much I appreciate Safranit Molly’s comment, especially since she felt unsure about speaking up and still spoke up. While I admire Nina’s recent project of privileging a critical hermeneutic of race, a mode of interpretation I think is important and necessary, there are times—and this post on Echo is one—when I feel it interferes with a robust discussion of the book at hand.

      In this case, Nina’s understanding of the journey trope in blues music shows what I perceive as a lack of familiarity with 20th century blues popularized by such performers as Son House, Robert Johnson, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, singer/songwriters who certainly sang about journeys, but of a different sort than we find in spirituals such as “Steal Away” and “Go Down, Moses.” Certainly blues music has deep roots in Black spirituals of the 19th century (how could it not?), but to say that testifying to a journey through blues music has a very obvious reference to the middle passage and subsequent journey from slavery to emancipation is a serious stretch.

      Let’s take a brief look at Robert Johnson’s journey song, “Riverside Journey Blues”:

      Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gonna take my rider by my side
      Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gonna take my rider by my side
      We can still barrelhouse, baby, on the riverside

      I’m fairly sure Johnson isn’t referencing the middle passage here. In fact, I think he’s testifying to something quite different. Emancipation of the body? Sure, if that’s what you want to call it, but I’d argue Johnson doesn’t have Moses or the river Jordan in mind on his way down to the river. His rider is a woman, and I leave it to your imagination what it means to barrelhouse.

      Now, I could go on giving examples of lyrics in a similar vein, and I will if you beg me to, but while I’m hard-pressed to think of journey songs in the blues mode that lyrically mirror “Swing Home, Sweet Chariot,” say, or “Wade in the Water,” I know a whole bunch about catching a train to get away from that evil woman/man and feeling like you’re fixing to die.

      I would argue that what Mike’s doing in Echo is building on a tradition passed down to him from Mr. Potter, what we might call the vertical transmission of folk art. What Eric Clapton does when he sings “Crossroads” is cultural appropriation. Two very different things.

      So given that the very premise of Nina’s criticism in this regard is faulty, how then do we enter into a discussion of Echo based on it? I’d say we’re better served by comments such as Safranit Molly’s, which I appreciate and hope there will be more of.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Safranit, thank you for sharing. This is intended to be an exchange, and it is so hard online to know when people are silent because they are intimidated, or just because they are not there. In either case I don’t know who they are until they speak up. I hope you’ll encourage more people to share (and in fact you already have). Thank you, and please continue to.

      I also think the book is *about* race (among other things) while presenting people *without it*…and I think your phrasing that Ryan is trying to “portray people as people” is apt, and a good handle to view the book in the way intended. I still see the hints of appropriation that you do not, but I am trying to see the book as intended, as well as the one that I see, and reconcile them. It’s a shifting and changing view.

      Frances, I am NO expert on the blues, so I welcome your expansion on this…my reference to the middle passage and emancipation was my stab at what I understand about the blues (pretty basic), and what I hear in the particular words “testifying” and “journey.” I left out the the whole sex part because I figured that wasn’t on Mike’s mind. Am I not correct in assuming though that the African-American experience of emancipation from slavery (whether physical or spiritual) underlies many of the sexual metaphors in the blues? (I’m really asking.) I can see this as a “vertical transmission of folk art” …but I don’t think there’s always a clear line between that and appropriation…and there is a history of white appropriation of African American music, or, at least, of a muddy transmission. If we take this, as Safranit proposes, as a portrayal of “people as people” without race, it becomes easier to accept, and I can certainly do that, as a white reader. I’m not sure if the same goes for African-American readers. And I’m not sure yet how much it matters.

      I understand that this seems like “hyper-criticism” to many…but I don’t see why it needs to “interfere” with a “robust discussion” any more than any other line of inquiry. It is, in fact, a robust discussion. Our own comfort around discussing it is the only thing standing in the way. I was responding to a question/concern someone else brought up about this book, and I think it’s important to value these questions and explore them all. We do it with questions of accuracy, or consistency or voice, whether or not race is at play. With both this and DROWNED CITY, I feel like I have to point out, other commenters brought these issues to light, and I’ve tried to model one way of examining them. This is the nature of book discussion.

      Everyone: please do not let this discussion shut you down (and please don’t try to shut it down). I appreciate the food for thought about my take on the “appropriation”: that’s the point of putting it up there. I need to sit with it, as I know others are. And meanwhile, i hope that anyone who wants to discuss any aspect of this book will. Did others note more than I did about “info-mercials” in the text? Someone have something to add to Safranit and Frances?

    • Frances and Safranit, you read my mind.

      In my opinion, Echo is an elegant love letter to humanity, elevating the virtues of compassion and empathy. It is brilliantly constructed (if a bit manipulative, as others have mentioned here) , and features beautifully rendered characters.

      My students love, love, love this book (a shock since many middle schoolers often want nothing to do with any book over 200 pages – unless it’s the new Rick Riordan book). That they read this hefty tome and sing its praises is a testament to the book’s power. Black readers, Indian readers, Asian readers, white readers – they have all, uniformly, responded warmly to this book.

      And it is that fact – that children and teenagers respond positively to this book (or *any* book for that matter) – that matters to me more than anything else.

    • I couldn’t agree more! Very well said indeed!

    • Thanks for your contribution, I understand your feelings, and hesitation over posting, but feel you spoke really well. Thanks for speaking up. I loved Echo too, as did my students.

  6. Frances O'Roark Dowell says:

    Nina asks, “Am I not correct in assuming though that the African-American experience of emancipation from slavery (whether physical or spiritual) underlies many of the sexual metaphors in the blues? (I’m really asking.)”

    I’m not an expert, either, so I can’t say with any confidence if that’s a fair reading or not. I mean, in a way, sure, of course. But I’d be wary of stretching the analogy too thin. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sexual metaphors are just metaphors for sex.

    More from Nina:

    “If we take this, as Safranit proposes, as a portrayal of “people as people” without race, it becomes easier to accept, and I can certainly do that, as a white reader. I’m not sure if the same goes for African-American readers. And I’m not sure yet how much it matters. I understand that this seems like “hyper-criticism” to many…but I don’t see why it needs to “interfere” with a “robust discussion” any more than any other line of inquiry. It is, in fact, a robust discussion.”

    This has been the season for hyper-criticism, it would seem. Now when you focused on a tiny passage in THE HIRED GIRL, you engendered a lively discussion about character development, author intent, reader response, historical accuracy, and so on. It was great (and proof that the readers of this blog lean toward being cordial and conciliatory rather than unkind and divisive). Your focus was narrow, and yet it produced an expansive, and yes, robust response.

    However, the hyper-criticism on display in this post feels reductive to me. You’re troubled by what you consider to be uncredited cultural appropriation, yet you admit it’s a tough call, cultural waters being muddy and musical roots being difficult to untangle. It’s a flaw, but you’re not sure if it tips the scales. As far as I can tell, you haven’t made your argument, you admit that it’s a hard argument to make, and yet somehow it’s the crux of your discernment process about the book as a whole. This is what I don’t understand.

    Do I think it was wrong of you to bring it up? Not at all—you’re showing us your thought process, which I always find interesting, even when I don’t share your conclusions. Do I think your focus on this issue has impeded the conversation? I really do. ECHO is a rich, ambitious, finely written book, though not one without its flaws or critics. So why isn’t the discussion about the reasons you and Jonathan chose to put it on your shortlist in spite of the many criticisms aired in the earlier discussion? Why aren’t you all arguing with the critics, showing them what’s what? I think ECHO deserves a fair shake, and I don’t think you’ve given it one with this post.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Frances, I hear you, and others have expressed that I’m being hyper-critical and narrow, so it is not just you. However: I beg you to re-read what I’ve said before you label it narrow. I am talking about the whole book, and I started this post by taking on the critics in defense of ECHO. Then, because I parsed an issue someone else brought up, I did use a lot of linear inches for it, but I think you’ll find I’m trying to present a balanced assessment. The comment linear inches also seem to overwhelm, but that seems to be a lot of me having to defend having said anything at all in the first place. I’m trying to ask us to look at things that often get dismissed, and I’m getting dismissed. It’s taking up airspace, but that’s where we are.

      You say “As far as I can tell, you haven’t made your argument, you admit that it’s a hard argument to make, and yet somehow it’s the crux of your discernment process about the book as a whole. This is what I don’t understand.” Understand that I feel the same on the other side; I’m listening to be persuaded that my argument is faulty, but haven’t fully been persuaded. I wouldn’t put this at the crux of my assessment of this book as a whole. That’s what I mean when I say “How much does this flaw tip this book for me? I’m not sure yet.” Have I *really* not given this book a fair shake? I can’t help but feel that you’re reacting to the parts of my argument that frustrate you, and not fully listening to the rest. (Again, not just you, just you here.)

      Thank you for letting me beg your patience on this.

  7. Safranit Molly says:

    I would like to clarify that my unease about contributing on these threads of race in books originates in my own insecurity and self-doubt as a white reader, not in the tone of the discourse on this blog. I love Heavy Medal and esteem the regular contributors greatly. I think it is important for us to have a forum for these conversations and I appreciate that so many of you raise my awareness of elements of our books that I may overlook. I also think it’s important for us to step back and consider the works as a whole after we put passages and pieces under a the microscope. When I step back and consider Echo, I still find it distinguished. The question that still lingers in my mind, though, is whether the fairy tale framing device is necessary. I happen to like it; it worked for me. I enjoyed the bit of magic and fantasy woven into the historical fiction. Some of the teachers who participate in my Newbery Club did find it to be an unnecessary aspect of the book. I am interested to hear from others here on that question.

    (By the way, you can call me Molly. Safranit is Hebrew for librarian; I teach at a Jewish Day School. Since I am not Jewish myself, Safranit may be an example of “appropriation,” but if it is, it is one that my community and I cherish.)

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Molly, thanks, for each of these clarifications and considerations. My take on the fairytale is that without that intro, she couldn’t have pulled off the cliffhangers and final scene. They hang on the reader’s expectation of a fairytale ending. And I think she so nicely delivers a fairytale that has an ambiguous reality to it… Readers can choose to believe it was real or a dream to the extent they choose.

  8. Thank you for circling back to this book. I’m a big fan of Echo. I chose it as a Great Read for this year’s NCBLA campaign. Joe, I’m thrilled to hear that your kids love it!
    I’d like to weigh in on your musical question, Nina, and add one of my own about appropriation in general.

    I know a little bit about the blues, a lot about Irish music, and I recently did a boatload of research on American Vaudeville. I really liked the interaction between Mike and Mr. Potter because there’s a very long intertwining of Black and Irish musical traditions. There was a substantial Irish presence in the Caribbean dating back to the 1600s. Irish and African American communities have long occupied adjacent rungs on the bottom of the social and economic ladder (sometimes peacefully and sometimes in bitter conflict). The musical traditions of both communities have developed side by side. There’s a lovely example of this in the climactic scene of Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Madman of Piney Woods. If you listen to Reggae and traditional Irish and Scottish Hornpipes you’ll see what I mean. There is much musical overlap in African-American blues and Irish ballads. Take a look at tap and step dance. Both are distinct art forms and yet you can see similarities, and why wouldn’t you? Those dance forms grew up on neighboring street corners in the dodgy end of town.

    Knowing this it seemed perfectly natural that an Irish American boy who loved music would find much in common with an African American musician who also works as a groundskeeper and would feel free to learn and grow as a musician from the music they shared. These two have a shared musical heritage that goes back four and a half centuries. Scholars may view the issue differently, but I’ve never met a musician who sees the mutual influence as one tradition stealing from another tradition because they are less powerful. The art of music overall is strengthened when thoughtful people develop their musical ideas. Interesting in it’s overlap with our Hired Girl conversation, there is also an influence from the Jewish musical tradition on both Irish and African American music. All of these performers worked together in the vaudeville circuit over many years. Listen to some klezmer music and you’ll see what I mean. For that matter listen to traditional Roma violin, watch some flamenco. Who is influencing who? Irish music is quite popular in Japan at the moment and the best Irish flute player I know is a Japanese-Irish-German man who brings a training in classical Buddhist flute to his work on the penny whistle. Nobody is crying appropriation. He’s brilliant and both musical traditions are strengthened by his combining of musical elements.

    Which brings me to my question which I’d like to consider apart from any particular book. And if you want to spin this off into a conversation after the Newbery deliberations that’s fine. I don’t want to distract from a conversation about Echo, which is a wonderful and rich book, worthy of conversation outside this one issue.

    Why do book critics look at mutual artistic influence as a negative? I’m not talking about plagiarism. That’s clearly wrong, but why should any artist avoid the influence of other artists? Even the most cursory study of music, dance, painting, architecture, poetry, or theater shows abundant examples of one artist being influenced by others. Every art school actively encourages it’s students to study in depth works of a variety of cultures and races. Why should novels be any different?

    • michael grant says:

      All of Christianity is cultural appropriation. It’s a book (the Torah) re-purposed as a prelude to the New Testament. The oppressed (Jews) had their culture appropriated by the dominant culture, (Rome essentially). The appropriation led to still greater oppression of Jews, since when it comes to killing Jews, no one holds a candle to Christians.

      The other day I was driving (big, old white dude, in a Mercedes with a 20 dollar cigar in my mouth, just so you have the full obnoxious visual) and singing along with the Melodians on By The Rivers Of Babylon. And I asked myself whether this was cultural appropriation. After all, I’m not Jamaican, and I am not oppressed, indeed I am one of the presumptive oppressors, part of the dominant culture.

      For those not familiar with the song, the lyrics:

      By the rivers of Babylon
      Where he sat down
      And there he wept
      When he remembered Zion

      Oh, the wicked carried us away in captivity
      Required from us a song
      How can we sing King Alpha’s song
      In a strange land?

      Oh, the wicked carried us away in captivity
      Required from us a song
      How can we sing King Alpha’s song
      In a strange land?

      It’s obviously a song about slavery, sung by black musicians in Jamaica. But while the song is meant to evoke slavery, it is clearly based not on black slavery, but on the oppressed Jews captive in Babylon. Jews did not worship King Alpha, (Haile Selassie) they worshipped Jehovah.

      Cultural appropriation? By Jamaicans of Jewish experiences? Or is it a musician drawing a connection between the experience of his people, and the experience of my people, the Hebrews? Isn’t it actually just great that 2,600 years after the Jews entered the Babylonian Captivity, a terrific song can bring that to life?

      (Just to round out the fun, the lyrics have been rewritten by Boney M., a German-produced group, to remove the Rastafarian references and be more Christian.)

      It is certainly tacky to dress up as Sexy Pocahontas on Halloween, but broadening that out into some doctrine of cultural appropriation, won’t work. The idea of cultural appropriation rests on applying a narrow lens in terms of history, and it flies in the face of the fact that the appropriated culture is often the only thing that survives of that culture, and it flies in the face of the free exchange of ideas which is necessary for any culture to thrive. It is an ill-considered, artificial, contradictory bit of pop philosophy.

      Consider: had the Nazis succeeded in destroying every Torah on earth, what would have survived is the culturally appropriated Christian bible, and thus, the Torah.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Thanks Roseanne. It’s absolutely true that sharing among art forms is encouraged, and positive. I don’t think that book critics “look at mutual artistic influence as a negative.” It can be a mixed bag, and I was trying to examine the mix here. Do you think this gets examined negatively among book critics in general?

      I’m feeling that within the consistency of tone Ryan set here, her approach is sound. It doesn’t change, to me, that some readers will note there is a passing along of a specifically African-American musical sensibility, to a white boy, without any note of it being African-American…and that feels…weird. But I’m being convinced it may be a small enough ripple.

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