The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and R. Gregory Christie (illust.). CarolRhoda, 2015.
Dr. V’s take:
The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore tells the fascinating story of Lewis Michaux’s bookstore of the Harlem Renaissance: the National Memorial African Bookstore. Written by Michaux’s great-niece, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, the book continually zooms in and out from the personal to the political, showing the impact of the death of Malcolm X on black America more broadly by telling us of its impact on Michaux and his son. Paired with R. Gregory Christie’s gorgeous illustrations, and closing with an affirmation of the power of literacy, reading, and access, this book wins all the things.
Yet I can’t urge you to run out and check it out for your children immediately, because, frankly, it sucks to read to a little kid. Each page has multiple dense paragraphs that are fatiguing to read aloud, with long winding sentences that are perfectly lovely yet unlikely to hold the attention of a wee one. Meanwhile, the prose is pitch-perfect for older kids (and, heck, adults), but the picture-book format is likely to throw off a ten-year-old who considers themselves to have outgrown the genre.
This is an issue of that pertains to the difference between the book and the text, and the material signifiers that unconsciously shape what we read (and read to people).
Excuse me for a moment….
[digs in the back]
[retrieves Professor Hat]
Okay, now I’m ready.
As a really smart mentor of mine always says, the text is not the book.
The book is strictly material. It’s covers, paper, and glue. It has to be shipped and shelved; it has to be distributed; its materials have to be bought and then sold at a profit. There are a million decisions that go into making the book: what shape should it be? Should it be paper or a board book? Which of the 427,865 (approximately) kinds of paper should we use? How much does each cost, and would we make that money back? What about typeface—-if we make the font smaller, can we get away with one or two fewer pages per book, which will then equate to at least thousands of pages saved, or, if we’re lucky, a million?
The text is what the book means to you, the person who bought the book. It’s what the the words say, and whether they speak to you. It’s telling a good story. It’s what it teaches, or chooses not to teach. It’s what writers agonize over creating. But text isn’t only the hippy-dippy feelings-y stuff: it’s also what editors are paid to standardize; what has to fit into certain shapes and formats in order to see the light of day; what gets copyrighted and/or trademarked (which we’ll talk about later).
When it comes to children’s books, we can see how books and text work together (or against each other) even more clearly than books for adults. The differences among books for adults, though numerous and proliferating enough that I could spend thousands of words detailing them, are far more subtle than those among books for children in terms of their construction, size, shape, etc.
Cool. So now you know that. Who gives a shit?
Well, maybe you, maybe not. What might prompt someone to be interested in considering the books they read their kids as both material objects and immaterial catalysts for bonding would be any of the following: (1) you might know what you do and don’t like, but do you know why? Maybe you’re curious? No? Well, (2) knowledgeable consumers are discriminating consumers. The more you know about how books are made and who makes them, the better you’re able to tell at a glance what’s not going to be your thing, so you don’t have that moment where you’re in the middle of reading a new library selection to your child and OOPS HONEY JUST NOTICED THIS IS LITERALLY PROPAGANDA LEMME JUST CLOSE THAT HOW ABOUT WE WATCH TV INSTEAD. Not a thing that happens to you? Ok, so (3) knowing how books are selected, and why/how they get published has a way of bumping one off of autopilot: you don’t have to read certain stuff because it won an award, or because it’s on a particular shelf at the library, or by a particular author. You don’t! Because you know that for a book to actually make it on your shelf it had to go through a winding process fraught with potential pitfalls, and that good stories are far more numerous than books. And if none of that does it for you, it’s possible that (4) you’re just weird and a nerd (guilty).
But in the case of The Book Itch, we also have (5), wherein we’re not really sure what to do with a work whose text is in a format we’re not trained to recognize as “for” us. The text of The Book Itch is interesting, moving, and masterfully concise. But its book—-those beautiful pictures, the 8 x 11 size, its distribution by a publisher of educational books for children—-leads us to presume a very specific audience for it.
Why don’t adults read stories with beautiful pictures? Why is it that, once we turn 10 or 12 or so, we feel that our books should be more like 5 x 8 inches, instead of letter or legal size?
The answer is: because we’ve spent the last hundreds+ years being trained about what a book looks like, and how to use things like cover size, construction, and color to distinguish genres from each other.
Unfortunately, that means a book like The Book Itch, whose book tells us it’s a read-aloud for little kids but whose text is much more for early readers on up, won’t get the audience it deserves.
It might be worth unlearning—-or at least becoming aware of—-some of this training, no? If only to resist the ways it limits us.