Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

16 DECEMBER, 2014

Margaret Mead on Myth vs. Deception and What to Tell Kids about Santa Claus

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How to instill an appreciation of the difference between “fact” and “poetic truth,” in kids and grownups alike.

Few things rattle the fine line between the benign magic of mythology and the deliberate delusion of a lie more than the question of how, what, and whether to tell kids about Santa Claus. Half a century ago, Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) — the world’s most influential cultural anthropologist and one of history’s greatest academic celebrities — addressed this delicate subject with great elegance, extending beyond the jolly Christmas character and into larger questions of distinguishing between myth and deception.

From the wonderful out-of-print volume Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (public library) — the same compendium of Mead’s answers to audience questions from her long career as a public speaker and lecturer, which also gave us her remarkably timely thoughts on racism and law enforcement and equality in parenting — comes an answer to a question she was asked in December of 1964: “Were your children brought up to believe in Santa Claus? If so, what did you tell them when they discovered he didn’t exist?”

Mead’s response, which calls to mind Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, is a masterwork of celebrating rational, critical thinking without sacrificing magic to reason:

Belief in Santa Claus becomes a problem mainly when parents simultaneously feel they are telling their children a lie and insist on the literal belief in a jolly little man in a red suit who keeps tabs on them all year, reads their letters and comes down the chimney after landing his sleigh on the roof. Parents who enjoy Santa Claus — who feel that it is more fun talk about what Santa Claus will bring than what Daddy will buy you for Christmas and who speak of Santa Claus in a voice that tells no lie but instead conveys to children something about Christmas itself — can give children a sense of continuity as they discover the sense in which Santa is and is not “real.”

With her great gift for nuance, Mead adds:

Disillusionment about the existence of a mythical and wholly implausible Santa Claus has come to be a synonym for many kinds of disillusionment with what parents have told children about birth and death and sex and the glory of their ancestors. Instead, learning about Santa Claus can help give children a sense of the difference between a “fact” — something you can take a picture of or make a tape recording of, something all those present can agree exists — and poetic truth, in which man’s feelings about the universe or his fellow men is expressed in a symbol.

Recalling her own experience both as a child and as a parent, Mead offers an inclusive alternative to the narrow Santa Claus myth, inviting parents to use the commercial Western holiday as an opportunity to introduce kids to different folkloric traditions and value systems:

One thing my parents did — and I did for my own child — was to tell stories about the different kinds of Santa Claus figures known in different countries. The story I especially loved was the Russian legend of the little grandmother, the babushka, at whose home the Wise Men stopped on their journey. They invited her to come with them, but she had no gift fit for the Christ child and she stayed behind to prepare it. Later she set out after the Wise Men but she never caught up with them, and so even today she wanders around the world, and each Christmas she stops to leave gifts for sleeping children.

But Mead’s most important, most poetic point affirms the idea that children stories shouldn’t protect kids from the dark:

Children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know, when they hear about Kris Kringle and Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas and the little babushka, that this is a truth of a different kind.

Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views is, sadly, long out of print — but it’s an immeasurable trove of Mead’s wisdom well worth the used-book hunt. Complement it with Mead’s beautiful love letters to her soulmate and the story of how she discovered the meaning of life in a dream.

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16 DECEMBER, 2014

Pecan Pie Baby: A Sweet Children’s Book Celebrating Diversity, Single-Motherhood, and the Vitalizing Gift of Community

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A tender consolation for the disorienting journey of becoming a big sibling.

Half a century ago, Margaret Mead memorably asserted that exposing young children to people who differ from them is essential for teaching them to like or dislike others on the basis of personal character rather than because they belong to a category of people — in other words, for immunizing them against the poison of bigotry. And yet today, only 31 percent of children’s books feature female protagonists (even Jane Austen once told her niece that, in literature, “one does not care for girls until they are grown up”) and a gobsmacking 0.3 percent include characters of color.

How refreshing, then, to come upon Pecan Pie Baby (public library) by writer Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by the always excellent Sophie Blackall — the story of a little girl named Gia and her journey of coming to terms with the disorienting fact that she will soon be a big sister.

The story, told through Gia’s perspective, begins after she has found out that a baby is on the way — how parents tell kids about where babies come from is something Blackall addresses in another illustrated gem, one of the year’s best children’s books — and is already fed up with “talk about the ding-dang baby.” Mama tries to warm her up to this alien newcomer by telling Gia that the baby is constantly craving pecan pie — one of Gia’s own favorite things. But even that peeves little Gia, who scoffs that the baby “is just being a copycat.”

At school, all of her classmates want to know about the baby — “You want a boy or a girl?” — and even come up with a jumping game called “Mama’s Having a Baby.”

When her friend Micaela comes over for one of their regular sleepovers, Gia worries about what will happen to Micaela’s guest bed once the baby arrives.

Man! I was thinking, That ding-dang baby’s going to try to take the place of my sleepover friend.

Even her aunties, when they come over for their weekly Sweet Tea and Toast Party, are “baby-crazy.”

One Saturday, the delivery man brings a giant box and Gia’s uncles set out to put together the baby’s crib as she sits dejected in the corner.

One night, Grandma took us out to a fancy restaurant. She kept fussing over Mama…

“Are you getting enough rest?” Grandma asked. “You know I can take Gia. The baby needs you now.”

I wanted to say, I need Mama now.

Then Mama reached over and rubbed my back. “Me and the baby need Gia with us.”

And even though I didn’t like it when Mama talked about the ding-dang baby, her hand felt nice on my back and I was glad that she needed me.

Even so, Gia continues to reminisce wistfully about the days when she had Mama all to herself.

Now, that baby was going to change everything!

Eventually, at the Thanksgiving dinner table — for aren’t the holidays when family affairs always reach their breaking points? — Gia loses her temper and lets all her vexation loose, screaming at the top of her lungs: “I am so sick of that DING-DANG BABY!”

She is sent to her room, where she sits on her bed with “that teary, choky feeling.”

Even though there were a whole lot of people in my house, I felt real, real, real alone.

When Mama comes upstairs later, they have an assuring talk over a slice of pecan pie. While Gia still fears the loss of “the good old days,” she finds comfort in knowing that she and and she alone will have the privilege to tell “the ding-dang baby” about all those memories.

But perhaps the most emboldening part of the story is the one left unsaid, only subtly implied — Gia’s mom is a single mother, a woman at once independent and with strong ties to her community. There is no father figure anywhere in sight — not even in Gia’s imaginings, suggesting that she doesn’t even have a reference point for fatherhood. Instead, it is Gia’s “uncles” who assemble the baby’s crib, and her “aunties” who come over for the weekly Tea and Toast party, and a diverse mix of family friends who sit around the Thanksgiving table, and Grandma who takes Gia and Mama out to a fancy dinner. They all come in as a collective co-parent — a touching testament to the vitalizing power of community, so very important in our turbulent times and our age of self-inflicted exile into individualism.

Pecan Pie Baby is sweet and wonderful in its entirety, a delightful duet of words and pictures. Complement it with Andrea Beaty’s Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau, the story of a little girl who comes from a very different social stratum but confronts a similar journey of overcoming lonesomeness, then revisit Blackall’s The Baby Tree, one of the year’s best children’s books.

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In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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16 DECEMBER, 2014

Jane Austen’s Advice on Writing, in Letters to Her Teenage Niece

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Epistles on the fine art of “speeding truth into the world.”

Despite being one of the most important writers our civilization ever produced, on whose labors humanity continues to feed, Jane Austen (December 16, 1775–July 18, 1817) left hardly any record of her opinions and theories on the craft she so masterfully wielded in practice. But a close reading of Jane Austen’s Letters (public library) reveals, here and there, little glimpses of the beloved author’s stylistic convictions — a fine, if modest, addition to this ongoing archive of notable wisdom on writing.

In one 1808 letter to her sister Cassandra, 33-year-old Austen admires a short piece by the English cricketer William Deedes, a friend of Cassandra’s — a glimpse of what she believes makes a good writer:

He has certainly great merit as a writer; he does ample justice to his subject, and without being diffuse is clear and correct… He certainly has a very pleasing way of winding up a whole, and speeding truth into the world.

In another letter from February of 1813, Austen recounts an atypically disappointing work by the English novelist, diarist, and playwright Frances “Fanny” Burney — whose writing Austen generally enjoyed and admired, and whose 1782 novel Cecilia heavily influenced the final pages of Pride and Prejudice — and offers a critique of its shortcomings:

The work is rather too light and bright and sparkling: it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story… something that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style.

But her most explicit counsel on writing comes from a series of letters to her teenage niece, Anna. In August of 1814, 17-year-old Anna asked Austen for feedback on the novel she was writing, under the working title Which Is the Heroine — a title Austen liked “very well” and anticipated to “grow to like it very much in time.” Upon receiving the initial manuscript, Austen writes:

My dear Anna,—I am very much obliged to you for sending your MS. It has entertained me extremely; indeed all of us. I read it aloud to your grandmamma and Aunt Cass, and we were all very much pleased. The spirit does not droop at all.

Austen proceeds to comment on each of Anna’s characters and offers the first of a series of concretely rooted, generally extensible criticisms:

I do not like a lover speaking in the 3rd person; it is too much like the part of Lord Overtley, and I think it not natural.

In the same letter, Austen offers a warm disclaimer to her criticism — “If you think differently, however, you need not mind me.” — but a month later, having immersed herself in the book more thoroughly, she takes off the auntly hat and dons the writerly one. She readies Anna for some tough love:

Anna,—We have been very much amused by your three books, but I have a good many criticisms to make, more than you will like.

After complimenting a number of the girl’s characters and offering her take on the ideal length of a novel — roughly six times Anna’s first section of the novel, or a total of 288 pages — Austen makes a case against the abuses of clichéd phrases:

I have only taken the liberty of expunging one phrase of his which would not be allowable,—”Bless my heart!” It is too familiar and inelegant.

Though herself a master of detail, Austen cautions against overly precious particularities:

You describe a sweet place, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand and left.

She encourages the girl to focus on the relationships between the characters against a well-crafted backdrop of place:

You are now collecting your people delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life. Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on, and I hope you will do a great deal more, and make full use of them while they are so very favorably arranged.

Toward the end of the letter, Austen makes a remark at first blush amusing in the context of today’s thriving young-adult genre, then rather sad coming from a woman revolutionizing literature from within the patriarchy, and finally reluctantly sage given the general fate of female characters in canon of literature:

You are but now coming to the heart and beauty of your story. Until the heroine grows up the fun must be imperfect… One does not care for girls until they are grown up.

Although one never sees Anna’s letters to Austen — Cassandra had many of her sister’s letters destroyed after her death — it seems like the shaky confidence of the aspiring writer was rattled rather vigorously, for her aunt sent the following assurance a few months later:

My dear Anna,—I have been very far from finding your book an evil, I assure you. I read it immediately and with great pleasure.

Anna never finished her novel. But when Austen died less than three years later, the young woman inherited her aunt’s unfinished manuscript of Sanditon and later became the first writer to attempt completing it. In 1869, she collaborated with her half-brother, James Edward Austen-Leigh, on A Memoir of Jane Austen — the first major biography of their famous aunt and the primary one for decades after its publication, eclipsed only by Jan Fergus’s 1991 biography Jane Austen: A Literary Life.

Couple Jane Austen’s Letters with this year’s finest biographies, memoirs, and history books.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.