Leda Schubert — author, teacher, expert on children and literature — has a blog (I’m working on a friend’s Mac and so am fumbling at giving you the url here) in which she raises an important question: why is it that all picture books on Rosa Parks begin with the story that she was tired — as in physically tired– and that was the spur of the moment reason why she refused to move to the back of the bus. Quoting from Parks’s own autobiography, Leda shows that Rosa was tired — but as in fed up at the treatment of African-Americans. In fact both Rosa and her husband were long time civil rights activists, and Rosa had gone to the Highlander Folk Center to be trained in nonviolent civil disobedience. Leda’s point is not to make a minor correction in a familiar story, but to shift from the image of Rosa as a random individual who by chance happened to change history, to a conscious actor, a person who, as part as a thoughtful and carefully planned movement set out to make change.
The larger point here is one we’ve discussed here — the idea that we need to bring history to picture book age kids by making it immediate and personal (anyone can identify with a person who is tired and just doesn’t feel like obeying a stupid rule). We tell anecdotes about individuals as if those actors did not function in a context. Of course it sometimes makes sense to simplify in that way. But Leda’s point is that, at least in Rosa’s case, that is what we have always done.
Today’s cause seems to be the environment. We constantly urge kids to act– from recycling to studying the rain forest. We are treating them as so many picture books Rosas — as if any one of then who gets tired of the abuse of the planet could one day change the world. We don’t give them a sense that our very effort to engage them with ecology is itself a movement, a broader effort in which people deliberately and consciously act together. That is an interesting question — how do you give young children a sense of what a cause is, what a movement is, how people can act together to make change? I don’t have the answer, but Leda is right in asking the question.